Failure and Humiliation

August 24, 2012

The green line was my planned route. The red line is what I actually did. Read on to hear my tale of woe.

My new home of Ithaca is freshwater sailor’s paradise. Sitting on the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, there are at least three marinas within city limits. But finding my own path to the water was surprisingly difficult.

Here’s the problem: All of Ithaca’s marinas are located along a narrow, mile-long inlet—a partially manmade channel, as far as I can tell–that extends from the southern end of the lake and into the western edge of the city. It’s a bustling waterway; sailboats line docks, rented canoes and kayaks wander about with aimless enthusiasm, and a large tour boat embarks on regularly scheduled trips into the lake.  But when I started calling marinas, looking for a place to park my trailer and launch my boat, I was turned away. The inlet, I was told, was too narrow to sail and the lake was too far away to paddle. Because I didn’t have a motor, I would have to take my boat elsewhere.

I continued to make calls and eventually reached the very friendly owner of one the town’s scruffier boatyards. He listened to my dilemma and suggested that I try launching from a state-owned marina near the mouth of the lake. The park’s boat ramps were still in the inlet, he explained, but closer to open water; maybe I could sail out from there.  As for storing the boat, he had space in one of his open sided sheds and would give me a late season discount. I gratefully accepted his offer, checked this problem off my moving to do list, and continued packing up our Pennsylvania home.

We moved like Okies. My wife drove our good car with two vomiting cats, my oldest son drove the unreliable Subaru station wagon, and I followed in the U-Haul—with the sailboat hitched behind. We moved slowly and stopped often, but arrived safely.

By our second day in Ithaca I had the boat tucked away at the boatyard and for the next two or three weeks I was fully occupied by the excitement of exploring our new town. Even outings for the most prosaic reasons—groceries, gas, shower curtains—were infused with a sense of adventure. With road map in hand, we would find our way to the supermarket, the hardware store, the downtown shopping district, exclaiming like tourists in a foreign land as we explored each.

But once our furniture was arranged and our suitcases unpacked, I began to think about the boat. I knew that I should sail. Summer was nearly over and the long New York winter would soon begin; it would be wrong to let the season pass. Yet I hesitated. Publicly, I blamed my delay on work or the weather. Privately, I acknowledged that I was intimidated by my new homeport.

Sailing on Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon was like playing in the little leagues; we were all amateurs and the lake was small. But this was the big time. Lake Cayuga felt massive and many of the boats docked around town represented the “A” list of America’s nautical heritage. In Pennsylvania, I received accolades simply because I was the only wooden boat on the water, but here I competed with ocean going keelboats, restored Chris-Craft cabin cruisers, elegant cat boats, and a half dozen other vessels ready for the cover of Wood Boat magazine. I suddenly felt like a country kid coming into town with a torn suitcase and straw in my hair—hot stuff back home, but an object of derision in the big city. All of my insecurities emerged and I worried about launching my boat in front of people with years of real sailing experience.

But I couldn’t delay forever so I picked a sunny day with light winds. With my teenage twins, I picked up the boat, towed it a mile to the state marine park and surveyed the scene. Because it was also a weekday, I had hoped for an empty boat ramp and no witnesses. But to my dismay, the waterfront was a hive of activity. Several ramps were occupied with arriving or embarking powerboats as onlookers sat on the grass and park benches. My heart sank as I realized that my launching would be a public event.

Small problems cropped up right away. Not until I started raising the mast—a task I complete while the boat is still on the trailer—did I realize that a turnbuckle was missing. It probably unwound itself and fell off during the drive to New York, but it had to be replaced before I could secure the mast and get underway. While the kids waited by the boat, I drove to a nearby hardware store (making a few wrong turns down unfamiliar streets) and bought a new one. Back at the boat, it took at least half an hour to put it all together.

By now it was a hot, cloudless day. Jumping on and off the boat from the steaming parking lot exhausted me and by the time the mast was finally raised, I was covered in sweat. Already tired, I backed the trailer—somewhat inelegantly—down the ramp and, with help from my kids, quickly pushed the boat into the water. After parking the trailer, I jumped aboard and announced that we were ready to go.

That’s when the second problem became obvious. In my rush to get going, I forgot to install the rudder, which I had removed from the transom before the move. While the boat started drifting away from the dock, I threw myself into the cabin, pulled out the rudder and pounded it into place while leaning so far out of the boat I nearly tumbled into the water. Even under ideal conditions, I often struggle to attach the rudder and normally use a hammer to fit the pins into the homemade hinges. Without tools, I accomplished the task with a bare fist and adrenaline. I collapsed into the boat with a sore hand and a shaking arm.

Still, there was no time to rest; we were in open water and I needed to raise the sail. So with my son at the tiller, I stepped forward and started hauling up the halyard and gaff lines as quickly as possible. And here, inevitably, was where the third problem emerged. Working too quickly, I let lines get tangled around pulleys at the top of the mast. The sail went up, but not quite all the way; it looked sloppy and the one real features of my boat—cool gaff rigging—was marred by the mistake. But I didn’t have time to drop the sail and straighten out the lines because the final and, ultimately, most serious problem was now becoming apparent: The wind had died and we were adrift.

Before setting off, my plan—such as it was—assumed that I could sail up the channel and into the lake proper, nearly a quarter mile away. At the time, I was not worried about the amount of wind, only it’s direction. Because I needed to head north, straight into the prevailing wind, I would have to complete a series of very short tacks, crisscrossing the inlet while heading upwind, like this:

 I had never done this before, but I felt it was possible. I had read stories about sailboats much larger than mine “short tacking” their way up rivers and narrow waterways. But without wind, tacking–or any other form of controlled movement–now existed in the realm of idle speculation.

Waiting for the wind to pick up was not a solution either. Once we were on the water, I ruefully acknowledged that the inlet was probably too narrow for tacking in my boat and that I would be a hazard to navigation if I tried. With so many powerboats heading in both directions, any attempt to zig zag up the inlet while under sail would be like driving a very slow car back and forth across four lanes of Interstate traffic. As a plan, it was both impractical and dangerous.

By now, we had more or less drifted to the opposite bank. With my kids at the tiller, I grabbed a paddle with the immediate goal of avoiding the shore and the possible long term goal of paddling all the way to the lake. I don’t know why I thought this was possible; I was hot, thirsty, drenched in sweat, and a little bit sunburned. Clearly, I didn’t have the energy required to accomplish such an Olympian task. But I think I was motivated by a strong desire to get away from the boat ramp which, after all this time and effort, was still just a stone’s throw away. I imagined that a dozen eyes were watching our hapless struggle.

Digging into the water with my little paddle, the boat moved as if through glue. Time slowed and passing boats became an indistinguishable blur of movement. And this was when I hit the low point of my day—and of my sailing career to date. Amid my struggles, the captain of a passing motor boat hailed me from a short distance away and, pointing to my mast, said something that my brain could not properly process, but was definitely not a complement. In a tone of reproach, it sounded like “Your luff is loose,” or maybe, “Your halyard is hashed,” but in either case I knew what he was driving at and the note of judgment was clear enough.  Because I was beyond rational thought and coherent communication, I simply paused in my paddling and offered him a weary shrug in reply. Inexplicably, he shrugged back and roared off.

I took this as a sign from God that it was time to give up. Having achieved both failure and humiliation—the twin horsemen of my nautical nightmares—I told my kids that it we should go home. Slowing, publicly, I paddled us back to the launch we had left only a short time before. Our total journey on our very first outing was about 200 nautical feet—and we never even reached Lake Cayuga.

I pulled the boat out of the water and solemnly drove it back its storage space in the nearby boatyard. I closed the cabin hatch, locked the trailer to a post, and drove away. And there it stayed until the following spring.

A New Home Port

August 20, 2012

A nineteenth century view of Lake Cayuga. Remarkably, it still looks like this in some places.

I started building my boat because, to be honest, I was unhappy. And one cause of my unhappiness was our home. Ten years ago we bought a 200-year-old stone house in a semi-rural corner of eastern Pennsylvania, charmed by the exposed beams, pine floors and deep window wells. Smitten by the house, we were tone deaf to the culture of the surrounding community. While I lived by the rules of suburban conventionality (be quiet, be tidy, be polite), my neighbors surprised me by, for example, firing guns from their back porches after a night of heavy drinking and idling Harley motorcycles in their front yards.

Most were friendly, but none could figure us out. I worked at home and, as one neighbor summarized, “did something with computers.” We could chat about the weather, but wisely avoided religion, politics and professional sports (about which I know absolutely nothing). I was starved for intellectual companionship, but found none. To buck up my spirits, I made frequent trips to distant cities, just to sit in cafes, browse bookstores, and see people who shared a similar set of life experiences.

Because I disliked our community, I grew resentful of our house. In previous homes, I was always mister fix-it, eager to paint, patch, build and garden. But our ancient, crumbling home defeated me. I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm needed to keep up with the weeds, the peeling paint, the rotting windowsills, or the leaky roof and I resented every dollar spent on antique septic systems, faulty electrical wiring, and crumbing stucco.  Yet leaving didn’t feel like an option. Because the real estate market was dead in our blue collar community, we felt trapped.

Sailing was, in this way, more than a psychological escape. It was, to some extent, the dream of physical escape. As I worked in my garage, I felt like an inmate at Alcatraz, secretly building my raft to freedom. These dreams of serenely gliding to Bora Bora grew more vivid every time the local Harley bike club roared by– twenty, thirty, forty bikes at a time—violating every municipal noise ordinance devised in the Western world.  And I redoubled my efforts when reminded that the “grand dragon” of the local KKK lived just down the road.

And then, one day, I finished building my boat. I loaded it on a trailer, drove it to a lake, sailed around, and then…came home. A few hours had passed—I was tan and happy—but nothing fundamental had changed. A small boat on an inland lake was, quite obviously, not going to take me away from my house. And a few trips on the Chesapeake wouldn’t magically heal a leaky roof, or produce a neighbor eager to chat about art, history, or philosophy.

The boat was a kind of therapy when I needed hope and a distraction. But it was not a real solution to my problems. Obviously, the only real way to get away was to leave in a more conventional manner: Put up a for sale sign, pack boxes, rent a U-Haul truck and drive off. And two months after I finished the boat, that’s what we did. The market was still bad, but we no longer cared. Life is short and we were miserable.

I sometimes wonder what role, if any, my boat building project really had on the timing of our move. Did the effort and emotional energy devoted to building the boat delay the day of reckoning and keep us tied to Pennsylvania longer than necessary? Possibly. But I think the opposite is true. I believe that building a boat helped me imagine a richer life and articulate my values and my dreams. It could not be the means of my physical escape, but it nurtured the emotional fortitude needed to make a change that was complex and financially unwise.

On the rebound, we decided to find a town that was, to the greatest extent possible, the exact opposite of everything we experienced in rural Pennsylvania. After many exploratory trips—Asheville, North Carolina; Bisbee, Arizona; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Portland, Oregon—we settled on Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell University and a well-known outpost of progressive thought. How much cooler is Ithaca? Well, it has four bookstores within four square blocks and actually supports a multiplex art movie house.  I can go to a different café every day of the week– and agonize over which one makes the better cappuccino.

And, oh, yes, it happens to sit on the shore of Lake Cayuga, the largest of New York’s famed Finger Lakes. Only a few miles wide, but 38 miles long, it is filled with dozens of sailboats, both large and small, on breezy summer days. Officially, the lake was not a factor in our decision-making, but, unofficially, I was consulting charts even before we found a house to rent.

And that’s when I discovered that the lake is also connected to the famed Erie Canal, which meant—get this!–that I could embark from my home and sail, unimpeded, all the way to the Great Lakes or the Atlantic and destinations beyond. My mind reeled at the possibilities:  Montreal, New Orleans, and Bimini were all there for the taking, requiring only a right turn or left turn once I reached the top of my lake. My dream of sailing away was rekindled and burned bright.

The move was hard and stressful. Our Pennsylvania house didn’t sell and when it finally did, nine months after we left, it went for a firesale price. But we never regretted the decision to leave, or our choice of destinations. For the first six months, I walked around town with a goofy “pinch-me” smile and drank up the artsy-bookish culture like a man who had nearly died of thirst. I marveled that people related to my work as writer and we found ourselves in the disorienting position of not being the most liberal people in the county. My kids liked their new school and my wife started making connections that would lead to rewarding employment.

All was right with the world—except for one thing: I had not yet sailed my boat. And accomplishing this goal turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult and, initially, humiliating task.

Sailing and the Meaning of Life

August 17, 2012

ImageHi, I’m back. And I have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll start off with some philosophy:

Launching my boat marked was a major accomplishment and proved—to myself and others—that I had the competence and sheer stubborn determination to see a project through.

However, building was only the first step.  As I have said time and again, the dream of building a sailboat was, at its heart, driven by the fantasy of escape.  The animating force was a desire to glide away–silently, competently, self-sufficiently–from my problems and find a life of happiness and contentment. It was a very powerful goal and it kept me motivated for three long years while I cut wood, glued boards, sanded epoxy, and puzzled over an endless procession of technical problems.

Of course, I would come back home after completing my adventure; I never wanted to run away from my family. But a cathartic dream of escape fueled all of my labors.

However, once the boat was completed and, especially, once it was sailed, I was forced to examine this fantasy and, over the past year, I came to the inevitable conclusion that my boat is just too small. I don’t mean that it’s physically too small; I’m not talking about its ability to withstand a journey or survive wind and waves.  Instead, I am talking about the ability of the boat to hold all my dreams and to solve all of my problems. Against this expectation, my boat—any boat—is not up to the task. Sailing away, while exciting to think about, could not offer the solutions to problems that triggered the whole enterprise.

But—and here’s a very important point—I decided that this is ok. As I roamed around Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon, searching for wind, trimming the sails, cracking jokes with my teenage kids, anchoring, and plotting a course for home at the end of the day—I decided that the happiness I felt for those few hours was enough. More than enough, really. Although tame and brief, these excursions offered me the kind of contentment that I thought would only come through a grand and dramatic gesture.

In fact, I began to articulate a philosophy of life around the joy I felt during these hours.  Happiness is not a goal to be won, I mused, but an activity to be experienced. It is not found in a distant and, probably, nonexistent port, but in all that I have done so far: dreaming, planning, building and—now—sailing on nearby lakes. These are the experiences to that make hours pass like minutes and help me feel better about the world in general.

Of course, I have not solved all my problems. I’m still Paul, with all of my demons. But I’m no longer looking for a grand escape from my life.  A meaningful, centered life can simply be a procession of meaningful experiences. It’s true that many of these experiences are fleeting, but they are all, collectively, the heart and soul of our equally fleeting lives. And while I make no claims to a universal truth, I agree with Camus, who writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

This is all good news in my opinion. Although I have yet to sail away from my homeport, I have already achieved my goals. I “sailed away” every time I spent a day in the garage building my boat and I continue to sail away every time I steal a few hours from my day for a spin around the lake.  In many ways, I overestimated the importance of reaching the summit, but underestimated the satisfaction of pushing my rock.

But what about my grand plan to sail to  distant places? It’s alive and well, but for different reasons.   I now view it as the next challenge, not as a dramatic conclusion to this little boat building drama. Increasingly, I see sailing away  as the ongoing procession of adventures that will occur as build my skills as a sailor and explore new places. It is not one journey, but many.

Launching and learning to sail around a midsized lake turned out to be the first goal. Building confidence at the tiller turned out to be the first challenge. But now I am ready to move on and, as it turns out, new opportunities are emerging. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next entry.

New sailing video posted

June 27, 2011

With help from Matthew, my video-savvy son, I am posting our second sailing video on YouTube. It features more and more extensive shots of the boat and its performance on Lake Nockamixon this past week.

Life After Building

June 27, 2011

Sailing is all about waiting for the right weather.

In theory, the transition from builder to sailor is straightforward: I start building; I finish building; I go sailing. But I am realizing that the building never really ends: A day of sailing leads to a few days of tinkering and improving. For every hour under sail, I spend a couple of hours back in the garage.

That’s what happened after my first sail, anyway.  Immediately after returning from our inaugural sail, I made a long list of necessary fixes and needed improvements. Over the next two weeks, I focused on the most urgent upgrades.

Sturdier chains and no "quick links" strengthened my bowsprit.

First, I removed all of the “quick links” I used to connect the bowsprit chains to eyebolts on the hull. They were recommended by my boat’s designer, but during our first sail, one broke outright and two others started to pull apart. Clearly, they were not up to the strain. I bought larger chain and connected it directly to the eyebolts on the keel and chainplate straps on the hull (simply by prying open the turnbuckle eyebolts, inserting a chain link, and then squeezing the eyebolt shut).

Next, I tackled the most serious problem we faced the first time out. In mid-lake, while sailing under a stiff wind, the turnbuckle holding my starboard stay unwound itself and the stay flew away from the hull. This was a potential catastrophe; it’s common for masts to break when stays fail. Fortunately, were able to drop the sail in time and reattach the turnbuckle.

Back home, I considered buying larger turnbuckles, but those intended for boats were remarkably expensive ($40 each from one boat supply company). So I decided to simply lengthen the stays slightly so that I could turn the screw more fully into the turnbuckle. I hoped that this would prevent unwinding or, at least, give me time to see it happening.

Finally, I made several changes and improvements to my lines. Most significantly, I removed the plastic hoops used to hold the mainsail to the mast. They were bulky, cut into my mast, and didn’t fit over the hinges at my tabernacle. After extensive research I chose to instead lace the sail to the mast using a “forth and back” pattern that, I read, minimized binding. This link shows how it works.

Once finished, I was ready for my second sail, but the weather was not cooperating. Day after day, the national weather service predicted thunderstorms. Meanwhile, these overcast days were weirdly still. I never used to think about wind, but now I anxiously stared at treetops, looking for the taletale shimmer of leaves. But even the flimsiest branches were as lifeless as a painting. Was this normal? It struck me as unnatural.

Finally, the threat of storms diminished and light winds were predicted. More importantly, it was also my son’s eighteenth birthday and, coincidentally, the first day of his two day sailing course at the Lake Nockamixon Sailing School. Do you remember my oldest son? He’s the one who started building a small sailboat about a year ago. Since then, his interest in sailing has turned into an obsession that now exceeds my own. Young people have the wonderful opportunity to live life more intensely than older people.

His plan is to take a “gap year” between high school and college, buy a used cruising sailboat, sail down the Intracoastal and, possibly, to the Bahamas. He will do this with a friend and finance the whole adventure with their combined savings. Does this sound risky and financially irresponsible? Maybe so, but if not now, then when? When I’m not worrying for his safety, I’m jealous—and filled with self recrimination that I didn’t do this sort of thing when I was younger.

To win our blessing (and a small financial contribution), we asked him to complete a variety of skill-building experiences. One was to complete a formal sailing class. That’s what brought him to the Nockamixon Sailing School and their ASA certified “basic keelboat sailing course.” So on the appointed day, we drove to the lake with our Pocket Cruiser in tow. Avery would board the school’s 24-foot Catalina with four other students, while I would continue my program of self study and sail our boat with the assistance of  my two other children.

The view from the cockpit.

It was a perfect day. By the time we arrived, the sky was a scenic mix of blue and billowing clouds, while the lake surface was pleasantly rippled by light winds. I left Avery with Captain Tom and the other students, a friendly group of young men, most in their 20’s and early 30’s. Back at our boat, we quickly raised the mast (avoiding the tangles and confusion of our initial launch) and, with growing confidence, backed the boat into the water.

While our first launching was marked by an embarrassing drift into a stone jetty, we now managed to raise the sail and get underway with a measure of grace. We sailed upwind, tacking repeatedly from shore to shore as we slowly made progress down the long, narrow lake. Winds were light, but the sails rarely went slack. Both Sophie and Matthew took turns at the tiller and proved to be natural sailors.

Matthew relaxing.

Sophie sailing

Not worrying about imminant disaster, we were able to enjoy each other’s company and exchange pleasantries with passing boats. I started to realize that several sailors were going out of their way to sail next to us so they could offer complements and ask questions. “What kind of boat is that?” they would inevitably shout across the water. My answers became practiced. “Nice boat,” they would conclude as they waved and sailed away. Without question, we were the slowest sailboat on the water, but we were also the prettiest.

After a couple of hours, the sailing school’s boat came into view and I caught of glimpse of Avery at the helm. He looked confident. We waved enthusiastically, and he gave a curt wave back before leaving us in his wake. I didn’t mind. He was 18 and living his own life.

So far, all of my fixes and improvements were working. My chains were holding and my stays were staying. I was especially proud of my “forth and back” lacing. The main sail rose easily up the mast, held tightly and had a salty, uncluttered look. But we had one new challenge ahead of us: anchoring. During our first sail, I realized that sailing is constant work and that it’s not possible to, say, enjoy a picnic lunch while holding the tiller in one hand and the mainsheet in the other, so I decided that I needed an anchor so we could find a quit cove and pass an idle hour with good food and a book.

My "Chinese" anchor. It worked--but not for the right reasons.

Small anchors are cheap, but I’m cheaper still, so I decided to build one. I found plans for two online. One was a simple “fill a milk jug with cement” affair. I happened to have both a milk jug and a bag of cement, so I made one of those. But the other anchor really captured my imagination. It was based on a traditional Chinese design and looked like a giant fishhook. Most of it is made from wood, but the actual “hook” is simply a length of metal pipe. In theory, the anchor drops, metal part first, into the lake bottom, where it catches and holds. I was intrigued by this simple technology and happened to have an old pipe and most of the needed hardware. An hour of work got the job done and I took both aboard the boat. If one didn’t work, I planned to use the other.

We located a promising anchorage about 50 feet from shore. With Matthew at the tiller, I went forward, lowered the sail and dropped my “Chinese anchor” into the water. It went down about ten feet before the line went slack. I played out the rope (which is called “rode” when it’s attached to an anchor for some reason). I could tell that it was dragging and not really catching. But then, after letting out most of my line, it went taut. I yanked, and it didn’t move. Success! We brought out our sandwiches, opened sodas (for the kids) and coconut water (for me).

After lunch it was time to get underway. Matthew went back to the tiller and I started yanking at the anchor. The boat moved forward as I raised the line until we were right over the anchor and the line went straight down. I pulled; nothing happened. I pulled harder; nothing happened. I wrapped the line around my hand and heaved with all my might. Slowly, the line came out the water. Finally, I saw something at the surface: it wasn’t my anchor; it was a giant…something–a large latticed structure covered in grasses and slime. I couldn’t even tell if it was metal or wood. In the middle of it all was my anchor, its hook caught in the three-inch thick latticework. My children were appalled. “Is it a dead guy?” Matthew asked. I gingerly slipped off the anchor and the structure slowly sank out of view.

So I know my anchor works—when it gets hooked on lake bottom debris. Under normal conditions, I am less confident.

We had been on the water for nearly three hours; we still had three hours before Avery’s class ended. We put on more sunscreen and continued our tacks upwind, accepting more complements, gaining occasional sightings of the sailing school boat. To get away from the sun, the kids rested in the cabin. Eventually, we decided to turn back toward the marina, explore the upper reaches of the lake before returning home.

Me relaxing. Sailing is easy when you have a good crew.

It was during the final hour of sailing that we encountered our only difficulties. The main problem was that I blundered into a boat race. In the distance I had noticed a knot of sailboats, but not until I was amid the group did I realize that they were following the same circular course and being observed by judges on a pontoon boat. This was all new to me and my understanding dawned slowly. Nobody seemed to care that we crashing their race and we were not the only non-racers in this part of the lake, but I felt like a dope and tried to stay out of their way by heading over to the far western shore. However, returning to the marina required tacking back upwind, which was hard to do when I had to stay out of the middle of the lake.

To add to our confusion, the wind picked up and started shifting directions unpredictably. One of the racing boats capsized and had trouble righting itself, which was sobering to watch.  After nearly five hours of perfect sailing, we were caught in a maelstrom of gusting, unpredictable winds and racing, capsizing sailboats.

Six hours later we return safely to harbor.

Before long, the winds eased and the race ended. Relieved, we plotted our course back to the boat launch. By the time we had the boat on the trailer and all our equipment back in the car, Avery came sauntering up. He looked sunburned but happy. A wonderful time was had by all.

Launching: The Full Report

June 8, 2011

I’m trying to find the right way to tell the story of our launching. I feel it calls for solemn toasts and inspiring words, something on the order of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” After all, this was the culmination of two years of hard work and about twenty-five years of dreaming. It’s not enough to say, “Well, it was fun.”

Yet, with a few days’ reflection, what I most remember was the simple thrill of seeing the boat float and actually move forward under sail. Sitting at the tiller, feeling the tug of the water on the rudder, hearing the rustle of sails above, watching the bow point to a distant shore, and knowing that every bit was built by my hands, was deeply, almost indescribably satisfying.  The four hours passed so quickly, we all (my crew and I) swore it felt like an hour at most. It was, we all agreed, very, very fun.

It’s amazing how quickly old worries and preoccupations disappeared. Once in the water, I no longer worried about leaking or sinking. And I completely forgot to worry about my choice of glues or the durability of my hardware store paint. When the boat slid off the trailer and bobbed in the water, these fears evaporated. Instead, I found myself simply reveling in the experience of being on my boat, working the lines and bringing the craft to life.

“Bringing the craft to life:” Yes, that statement helps capture the experience of sailing my boat. While it’s possible to admire the boat’s lines and color scheme when it is sitting in a garage, it feels essentially lifeless and graceless when sitting under florescent lights and covered in a thin film of dust. But on the water and under sail, the boat gleamed and the sails breathed. The joy was seeing it come alive.

Our first hurdle was to fix tangled halyard lines. My son is helping me consult the instructions.

Still working on the lines. There's nearly 300 feet of rope on this boat!

Finally fixed. it took us over half an hour to get the boat ready for launching. Unfortunately, we don't have any still photos of the launching or sailing. Check out the Youtube video (the link is in my previous "Launched!" post).

We chose a day with a careful eye on the weather. A pleasant day was promised—sunny and in the 70s. Wind was my only concern; it was blowing around 15 miles and hour and gusting to over 20, according to radio. That’s not tornado weather by any means and, for most sailors, it represents nearly ideal conditions. But for my launch, I wished for something more benign. I didn’t want to tax my boat or my crew on our inaugural sail. But I wasn’t going to wait for a less windy day; even worse would be a day without any wind. Launching on a still lake would be anticlimactic, to say the least.

We chose to launch at Lake Nockamixon, a rather large body of water in eastern Pennsylvania. It allows motorboats, but seems most popular with sailors. Nearly all of the boats in its 600-berth state park marina are either sailboats or innocuous pontoon boats. In preparation, I had carefully plotted the route to the marina (I was almost as worried about trailering the boat as I was about launching it) and even zoomed in on the boat launch with Google Earth so I could mentally rehearse strategies for backing the trailer into the water. I didn’t want to look like a hapless first timer, jackknifing my trailer and dumping the boat sideways.

My old Subaru cooperated by not breaking down or balking at the weight and we arrived early afternoon. I proudly drove past the sign “trailers only beyond this point” and slid into the parking area, where several other sailboats were being prepared for launching. Their owners seemed skilled and purposeful.

Affecting what I hoped was an equally confident manner, I directed my wife and two teenage boys and began to raise the mast and attach the stays. Decorum was lost, however, when we realized that our halyard lines were hopelessly tangled. The sail came back down and we spent several minutes trying to remember if the line went through the double pulley and then through the single pulley—or the reverse. I actually brought along my boat building instructions and (to my quiet shame) surreptitiously consulted the rigging chart to set it right. My wife threatened to say loudly, “Do you need the instructions, honey?” Trying to be nonchalant, we untangled the mess.

Now it was show time. There were four areas to launch boats; three were occupied. The only available spot was downwind and near a jetty. I sensed trouble, but plowed ahead. I drove the car down to the launch and backed up to the water. The night before I read about backing a trailer in a great little book called The Complete Sailor. The trick, my book said, is to place my hand on the bottom of the wheel and move it in the direction that I wanted the trailer to go. This helps novices avoid the tendency to point the car in the wrong direction. With this helpful guide, I avoided excessive embarrassment. Pretty soon, the trailer was going underwater and the stern was getting wet.

With much help and advice from my family, the boat was unhitched and pushed into the water. I was just about to shout for joy when, suddenly, I saw the starboard stay go slack. A moment of confusion was immediately followed by intimations of disaster until my oldest son realized that the culprit was a “quick link” holding one of the bowsprit chains to a turnbuckle. The strain of moving the boat had pulled the relatively weak coupling apart. The bowsprit loosened, releasing tension in the stays.

The problem was small, but the implications were serious. If I couldn’t reattach the chain to the hull, I couldn’t sail. Fortunately, I had the foresight (or lack of confidence in my building skills) to bring my toolbox. In fact, before leaving home I told my wife that I had packed enough tools to build a house. So with the help of a Vice-Grip, hammer, and countersink (don’t make me explain this combination of tools) I was eventually able to squeeze my chain directly into a turnbuckle. I was relieved, but humbled. The boat was floating, but I had to overcome a mechanical problem even before I had set foot on deck.

Next came the hard part—getting aboard, raising the sail and getting away from the dock. Here’s what happened: I decided to raise the jib but not the mainsail before getting underway. We all got aboard and started drifting away from the dock. I went forward to raise the main sail, but before I made much progress, we were close to the rocky jetty. I shifted strategies and grabbed a paddle, but it was too little, too late. At the last minute I jumped overboard and, standing in water up to my waist, pushed the boat away from the shore. Did I mention that it was a pleasant day and the jetty was crowded with sightseers? “Well, he needs to get his boat away from the rocks,” I heard one older lady explain to a wide-eyed grandchild.

Safely away from land, I was finally able to raise the mast. Immediately, the wind grabbed hold and we shot out to the middle of the lake. My oldest son was at the tiller, grinning like the Cheshire Cat; this, he felt, was what sailing was all about. My wife was not so sure. She had fantasies of dangling her arm in the water while reading a book, not holding on for dear life.

In truth, I was a bit nervous, too. There was so much that I didn’t know about this boat. How far can it heal? How fast can it go? It’s not a large boat, but it’s much larger than a Sunfish. And I simply didn’t know what to expect from a flat bottomed craft. We waffled upwind as I fought competing urges to race ahead and ease off for safety.

Still, this was, perhaps, the best part of the afternoon. We were making good progress and I always felt more comfortable going upwind. We tacked a couple of times and nobody received a concussion. How much time passed? My son guessed fifteen minutes; my watch said an hour. I looked back and realized that the marina was a surprisingly far away. We decided to turn down wind and head back.

As I have written in before, I grew up sailing a small boat on a small lake. As a child, I didn’t have any formal training as a sailor. I felt competent, but I had no awareness of sailing terms or concepts. Sometimes I needed to let out the sail; sometimes I found it better to keep it close to my side. I understood that the boom would swing from one side to the other when I turned. But I had no concept of “close hauled” or “broad reach” sailing. I know that it was sometimes hard to make reliable turns, but I didn’t know why.

In hindsight, I realize that, as a boy, I tended to take the easy route and muddle through the hard parts of sailing. This meant that I looked for opportunities to sail across the wind (reaching) or slightly upwind (close hauled, I think it’s called), which gave me the most sense of control and the easiest tacks. But I struggled with downwind sailing. Only later did I learn from my books that downwind sailing really is harder. It’s harder to judge winds, make turns, and avoid jibing—a sudden and unintended swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other.

So as we turned and headed downwind toward the marina, my Achilles heal was once again revealed. Gusts, shifting winds, and a disoriented captain meant that we bobbed and weaved about, catching wind one moment, stalling the next, and making quick turns to avoid jibes when they threatened. “Where’s the wind?” I kept asking my family. Three hands would point in three slightly different directions.

Inelegantly, we made our way back down the lake, but just as I felt that we were finding our sea legs, we faced our next major challenge. Sitting at the tiller, I saw the starboard stay fly away from the hull and hang limp in the air. I looked at the mast saw it bending about 10 degrees to the left, straining against the two hinges holding it to the tabernacle. Without the support provided by the vital length of wire, the mast would almost certainly break.

I handed the tiller to my son and clamored forward to lower the sail. My first thought was to reduce tension on the mast and, if necessary, sail home with the jib alone. But once I had the sail down and could inspect the stay I realized that nothing was broken; the turnbuckle simply unscrewed itself (how could that happen? I kept thinking). But this gave me hope. If we could straighten the sail, I might be able to screw the turnbucke back in place.

Our plan was simple. I told my son to turn the boat to further reduce tension on the starboard side and to have my other son push the mast with all his might. I grabbed the stay and turnbuckle, willing them to come together. “Almost there!” I yelled. “Try again!” After a minute of frantic and frustrated effort, I gained just enough slack to bring the two parts back together. We were saved.

Exhausted and almost giddy, I decided that we should take a break. We kept the mainsail down while I crawled into the cabin (for the first time while under sail) to lie down and eat one of my wife’s homemade empanadas. I felt a great rush of happiness and affection for our boat, despite the glitches. “I love my boat!” I enthused, my mouth full of food. By the time I finished my dinner and came out of the cabin, the winds had died and we were drifting toward shore. More frantic work ensued as we raised the sail and pointed the boat back out toward open water.

Emboldened by our ability to overcome nearly every possible catastrophe, we sailed past the marina before deciding to head back upwind and toward home. For me, this was my opportunity redeem myself. After a disastrous departure, I was determined to return with skill and grace.

Over the course of the afternoon, I watched sailboats depart and return. Nearly all did so under power. But we didn’t have an outboard. We had to sail in–and I had one chance to get it right. We sailed perpendicular to the marina and I started to turn in, but I realized that we weren’t lined up correctly. We would almost certainly get pushed too far downwind. I turned away and headed back upwind. My family groaned. They wanted the boat to work like a car. But, I explained, boats don’t work that way. You need to work with the wind. Sometimes you have to go away from the place you want to go. My wife had another idea. “I want you to get a motor.”

A couple of days later, fellow boat builder David Heineman dropped by with this giant hand decorated celebratory cookie. Boat builders are very nice people.

So feeling the pressure on all fronts, I bided my time before turning back toward the launch. “We’ll head for the one the middle,” I said, pointing my boat at the center dock. We were moving fast, but I could tell that we were slipping downwind—leeway, I believe it’s called. I adjusted the tiller and pointed the boat about 15 degrees upwind. “Look!” I said to my family. “Can you see how we need to go sideways in order to sail straight toward the dock?” Yes, they could all see it. Pretty cool.

Closer…closer. Please, god, don’t blow it. And at the last possible second, I straightened the tiller and we slid with perfect precision alongside the dock. I jumped out and looked around. Nobody was watching.


June 5, 2011

With clear skies and a steady breeze, I decided to seize an opportunity and take the boat for a test ride. There is much to say about this momentous event, but I decided to first post a short video, which captures the excitement, confusion, and sheer silliness of our inaugural four-hour sail.

If you are impatient for news, it’s enough to say that the boat floated, sailed, and was all I hoped it would be. Take a quick look at this video while I work on my written report.


On the trailer and out of the garage

June 2, 2011

It’s late and I’m tired, but it was a productive day. I’ll fill in the details later, but here are the highlights:

I bought the trailer a few days ago and spent a couple of days making necessary modifications. I needed to fabricate a slot to support the Pocket Cruiser’s distinctive keel, elevate the bunkers, and move the axels a foot forward in order to lower the tongue weight. (I learned a great deal about trailers this week. The salesman explained that most trailers are built for power boats, which carry their weight in the back. In contrast, sailboats carry most of their weight in the front. To balance the weight more evenly, it is generally necessary to move the wheels forward.)

Getting the boat on the trailer was a nerve wracking task, although it was, in the end, relatively easy. With help from my kids, I was able to lever the front end onto the trailer, elevate the back on five gallon buckets, and winch it forward. What a relief it was to see it safely settled on the trailer!

A couple of days later, after completing most of the rigging, I hitched the boat to the car and pulled it out of the garage. This was a moment’s work, but it felt momentous. After all, this was the first time the boat had left the garage. My kids’ first response: “That’s a small boat.” And they were right. Outside, the boat seemed to shrink. “It will look even smaller on the Chesapeake Bay,” I predicted.

Once outside, I was able to raise the mast and attach the stays—wire rope used to support the mast. Once in place, I raised the sail to the top for the first time and guess what? It worked. By golly, the gaff rose with only minimal effort and took the full sail along for the ride. A puff of wind started yanking at the sail and I quickly dropped it back down, but I felt satisfied. Aside from some tinkering and final lashing, I’m just about ready to sail.

I learned the hard way to not make predictions, but my plan is to take the boat to the water in the coming week. More work remains (the jib isn’t finished), but it’s ready for a quick test run. At last, I’ll finally learn if this thing will actually float.

Cheers to my daughter, who documented the whole process with her camera.

Rigging—at last

May 27, 2011

Rigging is the final and, for me, one of the most confusing steps in the boat building process. Each day I go to the garage and make a little bit of progress, but it’s hard going. There are dozens of bolts, pulley, turnbuckles and chains–and yards and yards of nylon line. I feel like I am both the spider and the fly—catching myself in a web of my own making.

Just a small sample of the hardware used to rig the boat. Note the pulleys, turnbuckles, clips and role of wire rope.

For an experienced sailor, the work might be easy. But for me, every step is a voyage of discovery. “Oh, so that’s how I raise the sail,” I exclaim as I examine the various pulleys and lines that link the gaff to the mainmast. “Well, that makes sense,” I think as I study how the mast is secured with wire rope and clamps. I am learning to sail simply by learning how my boat is rigged.

Along the way, I had a small revelation. Rigging is really the most important part of the boat. Without a thoughtfully rigged boat, you don’t really have a workable craft. Are you laughing at this obvious insight? Go ahead, but look at it from my perspective: I have spent two years building the hull and cabin, worrying every day about its shape and whether or not it would float or sink. In terms of time and materials, the hull felt like the main act. Of course, the sail and mast were exciting additions—they made a sailboat sail—but I didn’t appreciate their complexity and importance. Until recently, I viewed them as oversized curtains.

But as I begin assembling the pieces—attaching the boom, hanging the sails, sliding the gaff over the mast—I realize that everything above the cabin is part of complex,  interconnected machine. Every piece has a functional purpose, and each piece must relate to all other pieces in a harmonious way. A sailboat with poorly designed or incorrectly built rigging would be like a car with an untrustworthy engine. It doesn’t matter how cool you look if you break down or can’t maintain control.

I also realize that my inexperience with building and sailing means that I am probably making countless small mistakes that will certainly cause countless small frustrations when I finally drop the boat in the water and raise the sails. Already, I can tell that I don’t like my tabernacle and that my mast hoops are too small. But I am reassured by comments from fellow boat builders who tell me that rigging is not a one time effort, but an ongoing project—tinkering and refining is simply part of the process. My goal for the moment is to assemble something that is workable, not flawless.

Steel bars, quick links, turnbuckles, and chain attach the bowsprit to the hull.

The fully attached bowsprit.

I began with the bowsprit, which looked fairly straightforward and self contained. As you might recall, I cut the actual bowsprit a couple of months ago from a piece of 2×3, but   not until week or so ago did I finally attach it to the boat with chains. In theory, this was a simple project but, like everything else, it took much longer than expected. To attach the three lengths of chain, I needed an impressive assort of hardware, including eyebolts, steel bars, quick links, and turnbuckles. Until recently I had never heard of a “quick link” and had never used a turnbuckle, but by the time I had made my third trip to the hardware store, I was fully acquainted with the turnbuckle/quick link/eyebolt aisle. Remarkably, my local Ace Hardware affiliate had everything I needed. I complemented the salesman on his store’s attention to the needs of boat builders, but he didn’t get the joke.

It seemed like a lot of work for a small addition to the boat, but as work progressed, I came appreciate the importance of the bowsprit. For a long time, I considered it a decorative addition and the chains mere jewelry, but I began to realize that strong chains are needed to secure the bowsprit so it can support both the jib (the small forward sail) and the forestay (wire rope used to securely hold the mainmast upright). Again, the point was reinforced: Every part serves a purpose.

Various double and single pulleys are attached to the top of the mast.

Next, I turned to the mast. Here I had an opportunity to hang several double and single pulleys that will, in time, help me hoist and drop the mainsail. I had never used pulley before and I was thrilled that I finally had a use for this elegant and ancient technology.

In the coming days, I will run the lines through the pulleys and finish lashing the sail to the boom and gaff. With the stays attached to mainsail, I look forward to the next and possibly final milestone in the building process: raising the sail. I can’t think of anything to do after that. It must be nearly time to hit the water.

Sailmaking for the impatient sailor

May 18, 2011

Sailmaking is one of the great and ancient mariner arts. It conjures images of crusty old sailors sitting on barrels surround by yards of cotton canvas and pipe smoke as miles of thread are worked through fabric.

Unfortunately, my approach to sailmaking is considerably less romantic.

The completed sail. My son is keeping it from flying away in the wind while I stand on the roof of my workshop to take this photo.

First a little background. My research over the past two years suggested three possible routes to the acquisition of sails for my Pocket Cruiser. First, I could purchase ready-made sails for about $600. So many Stevenson boats are built that several companies (including the boat’s designer) offer sails that are just right for my boat. That’s the fastest and most expensive route. I just place my order and wait by the mailbox.

Secondly, I could buy some Dacron sailcloth and sew my own sails. It sounds intimidating, but it is doable. Boat designer Jim Michalak has a detailed discussion of  sailmaking in his novice-friendly book Boatbuilding for Beginners and Beyond. For anyone who knows how to use a sewing machine (and I do), this is a worthy option. The downside is that even inexpensive sailcloth costs real money and I assume that a serious time commitment is involved.

Finally, there is the quick and cheap option. A growing number of backyard boat builders get  on the water without delay by cutting a workable set of sails out of large plastic tarps—the kind used to cover outdoor furniture in winter or protect a woodpile from rain. They come in surprisingly large sizes and advocates say they are nearly as durable as Dacron—at least for a while. Instead of thread to sew their sails, these guys use guy materials—duck tape for the seams and grommets for the lashing. In an afternoon, I learned, it’s possible to turn a very large sheet of polytarp into a fully finished sail.

Polytarp sails are not perfect. While reasonably sturdy, they don’t last nearly as long as real sails, I am told. Pete Stevenson, my boat’s designer, admitted that they are generally good for a “season or two.” He and others recommend against their use on long voyages. This leaves me wondering how they will fail. Do they degrade and rip? Do the grommets pull out? My suspicion is that the duck-taped seams will peel and shred. But in either case, the consensus is that they are a functional but short term solution.

On the other hand, they are cheap–and that tipped the balance. I purchased a large 16’ x 19’ polytarp from an online supplier for about  $70 last fall (sailmakers are not limited to green or blue tarps found in home centers; I chose a plain white material). For taping the edges, a single small role of duck tape is enough. The grommet kit is also economical.

The actual work is really just a matter of drawing several long lines and cutting out a very large triangle-ish shape. But the work is not without its small challenges. First is the problem of workspace. I discovered that I do not have a flat surface anywhere on my property that is 16 feet wide and 19 feet long. My garage is large, but all available floor space is now occupied by my boats. Outside, my bumpy, sloping yard was entirely unhelpful. My driveway is gravel, and not suitable for careful measurement and cutting.

In hindsight, it would have made sense to cut my sail two years ago when I could roll the tarp out on my not-yet-cluttered garage floor. That’s actually Jim Michalak’s recommendation. Sails take up about as much space as the boat, he argues, so use your floor space to make the sail when you still have the space available. It’s sound advice, although I don’t know if I would have followed his recommendation even if I had read his book two years ago. I was too eager to start cutting wood.

My imperfect solution was to roll out part of the tarp in the garage, draw a couple of lines, and then roll out the other side and draw the rest. It took a long time and made me worry about inaccurate measurements, especially since there are no right angles. The bottom edge of the sail (the part tied to the boom) is 83 degrees to the side tied to the mast, for example. This required measurements with a laughably small and primitive protractor. Even a small twist in the fabric would send the lines off course. To double check my work, I took the tarp outside and opened the whole thing  on the driveway.  I fixed a couple of wobbly lines and then set to work with my pocket knife.

Two edges were wrapped in duck tape: the bottom edge, which will be tied to the boom, and the angled top edge, which will be lashed to the gaff. Making grommets was the most time consuming work, and a new experience for me. I was entertained (at least for the first few grommets) by the task to punching out holes with simple metal die, inserting two parts of the grommet and then tapping them together with a mallet and specially made metal punch. After about a dozen holes, the novelty wore off and I was ready to be done.  The result can be seen in the photo.

I also need to make the jib, but that’s a smaller and simpler project. Now that I know how to process works, I can get that ready in an  hour or two. On to the next step.