But What Does the Wife Think?

April 30, 2009

With the stem pointing proudly forward and the bottom boards in their proper place, my boat is finally taking a distinct boat-like shape. Suddenly, my family—which has left me to work in isolation for the past month–is taking notice of my work. Now that there’s something to look at, they actually seek me out and comment on my progress. Their response is a mixture genuine interest (the children) and vague alarm (that’s my wife).

Grounds for divorce?

Grounds for divorce?

Let’s focus on my wife. Hilary is the most wonderful, the dearest person on earth. When I announced on that fatal winter day that I was going to build a boat and sail from a yet undecided Point A to Point B, she didn’t flinch. She knew it was important to me, a long smoldering dream, and she told me I should do it. I could have kissed her, and I probably did.

But wifely concern for my happiness does not imply a personal endorsement of my work. She is the first to admit that sailing is my dream, not hers. She has no experience sailing, and doesn’t dream of physical escape, as I do—as many men do, I think. She thinks sailing is dangerous and, therefore, somewhat frightening. People go out and don’t come back. “It’s a guy thing,” she once theorized.

This puts a small hint of tension in our conversations about sailing. Knowing each other’s feelings, we tread lightly when approaching the subject, and often simply avoid it altogether. Discussions often happen indirectly, as they did a few nights ago when we were both reading in bed, as we often do.

I’m working my way through yet another sailing adventure (I can’t get enough of them), while Hilary is reading Getting Stoned With Cannibals—an odd choice for a woman who is wearing a sensible flannel nightgown and reading glasses. But it’s a very funny account of a young American family living in Fiji by the travel writer J. Maarten Troost. He’s not a sailor, but he meets a lot of sailors while living in the South Pacific (as you might expect). A surprising number are voyaging around the world as families. They arrive at Fiji’s port, drop anchor and discharge happy and self confident children who immediately befriend the local kids and play on the waterfront.

Looking longingly at their carefree, self contained lives he suggests to his wife that they buy a sailboat and embark on their own Pacific cruise.

But she cuts him short. “Not with this wife,” she announces.

Hilary reads this passage out loud, and laughs at the punch line. “Not with this wife,” she repeats.

I laugh, too. Then I pause and, against my better judgment, add, “What is it about the women?”

Hilary puts her book down and looks at me over the top of her reading glasses. “What is it about the men?” she amends.

Typical, I think, trying to deflect blame back on the innocent men. “But it’s always the women who don’t want to sail,” I reasonably observe.

“It’s always the men who do,” she counters.

“But what’s wrong with sailing?” I protest. “It’s exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s fun.”

She pauses and considers her words. We both know the conversation is moving beyond banter. “It sounds lonely.”

“But look,” I say. “It’s not lonely for the children in Fiji. They’re running around with all the other kids. They’re making lots of friends. I think it’s very social.”

“Do you think our children would start playing with other kids? They’re too shy.”

“Oh, I’m sure they would,” I say confidently.

“But that’s only for a few days. People get back on their boats and sail off.”

“Yes, but then they meet again at the next port. That’s what they do.” I’m using my confident-husband-voice here, but, frankly, I have no idea if this is true. I think it might be true. I read about sailors meeting up at different ports of call. At least I think I did. Somewhere. Once.

But then I give myself a mental slap. This conversation has gone from the silly to the ridiculous. I’m not going to sail to Fiji, certainly not in this boat, and I’m not seriously suggesting that we take the kids, who are only a handful of years away from college and independence. I’m not arguing for a round-the-world family adventure.

All I really want, I know, is for Hilary to like sailing and to join me on my small adventures. The whole conversation about “men” and “women” is really about us.

Hilary and I have a strong marriage. We are home, together, nearly twenty-four hours and day, and can’t imagine life any other way. Separation is never desired. Although I like to travel, I dread business trips because they take me away from the family. When they are absolutely necessary, I obsessively plan my itinerary so I can catch the earliest possible flight home. I don’t sleep well in hotel rooms and I worry about the family. She admits to similar unhappiness when I’m away.

So the thought of engaging in a project that might separate us, even briefly, goes against my nature. Lying in bed, I realize how much my happiness with this project—this fantasy of adventure and escape—depends on her. Indeed, my third greatest fear surrounding this whole project is that Hilary will not like to sail and balk at my various adventures. (My second greatest fear is that the boat will sink as soon as it is launched; my greatest fear is that it won’t sink until I’m in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay). We would both prefer to share in my project and, Hilary, bless her heart, is trying.

As the boat takes shape, I sense a small spark of interest. She said she would go sailing with me—she’d just take her Dramamine.

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My Boat, Now in 3D (No Glasses Required)

April 27, 2009

As the weather turns hot, I put away my travel stories and return to the garage. Temperatures rise to the high 80’s just in time to mix another batch of plastic resin glue, open another box of stainless steel screws, and attach the four bottom panels to the keel. I begin mid morning and, by the mid afternoon, I finally have a three dimensional assembly—and some growing confidence as a boat builder.

Here's how my day began: The keel and stem.

Here's how my day began: The keel and stem.

stem-with-capboard1

Next I add the capboard.

Now the bottom is inserted in the notch and attached to the keel.

Now the bottom is inserted in the notch and attached to the keel.

The process is best shown in photos. The goal, simply put, is to glue and screw a one by three “capboard” along the top edge of the keel, from stem to stern. On this, the four bottom panels are then attached—first the port side, then the starboard side. Again, liberal use of glue and screws assures a strong and watertight bond (or so I hope).

The work presented a few new challenges. Manipulating four large sheets of plywood onto the keel so that they fit together securely was a bit tricky; I spent a long time positioning the boards on the capboard and rummaging around the garage for paint cans and boxes to hold the outer edges of the panels level with the keel. Finally, I needed to cut a short notch in the stem, into which the front panels are secured. This was worrisome in anticipation, but fast and easy in practice; the plywood fit like a glove. As all woodworkers know, this is a very satisfying feeling.


Following in the Footsteps of Adventurers and Eccentrics

April 22, 2009
Harry Pidgeon's Islander. Something about this guy sounds familiar.

Harry Pidgeon's Islander. Something about this guy seems familiar.

In the annals of boat building and recreational sailing, Joshua Slocum looms large. He nearly invented the pass-time by rebuilding, from the keel up, his 36-foot boat, Spray, and sailing around the world single-handed. His tale of adventure, appropriately titled, Sailing Alone Around the World, made many of us into armchair sailors.

But for the true patron saint of amateur boat building, I nominate Harry Pidgeon, an ex-farmer and self taught builder who became the second man to sail alone around the world. He was, and remains, less famous than our beloved Captain Slocum. But Pidgeon’s story, more than Slocum’s, resonates with those of us who want to build a boat and sail the seas but don’t know the difference between a tiller and a transom. Pidgeon allowed even the most unskilled sailors and ham-handed builders to believe that adventure was theirs for the taking.

Slocum’s achievement is remarkable, but he was also an experienced sailor long before he built his boat. “The wonderful sea charmed me from the first,” he wrote. “At the age of eight I had already been afloat along with other boys on the bay, with chances greatly in favor of being drowned.” His first job was a cook on a fishing schooner—though the crew mutinied after the first meal. “The next step toward the goal of happiness found me before the mast in a full-rigged ship bound on a foreign voyage. Thus I came ‘over the bows,’ and not in through the cabin windows, to the command of a ship.” He spent the first half of his life sailing to foreign ports and learning everything there is to know about the seas.

He built Spray only when his profession changed and there was no room for tall masted sailing ships. He tried to turn his back on the ocean but, he lamented, “what was there for an old sailor to do? I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else.” Today, he would be encouraged to earn a community college degree in computer programming. But in that era, he simply decided to build his own boat and use his lifetime of experience for his own pleasure. He wasn’t trying something new; he was going home.

In contrast, Pidgeon, by his own account, grew up as a landlocked Midwesterner. “My love of the sea did not come from early association,” he wrote in Around the World Single-handed, “for I was born on a farm in Iowa and did not see salt water until I went to California, when I was eighteen years of age.” Nor can he claim a genetic predisposition. “So far as I know, none of my ancestors ever followed the sea,” he added for good measure.

His knowledge of boat building was also limited. When he set about building his boat, the Islander, he had built nothing more complex than a canvas canoe, which he sailed in Alaska, and a small flatboat, which he floated down the Mississippi. These Huckleberry Finn-esque adventures were impressive their own right (they are more than I can boast, certainly), but they do not compete with Slocum’s many years of experience at the helm of seagoing ships. By any measure, he was a novice sailor and builder.

Yet, like me, he didn’t let practical problems or rational thought get in his way. He moved to California, made money as a photographer, and started looking for a boat he could build. If he were alive today, he’d be cruising the Internet in his off hours and pestering people on forums, but in the first years of the twentieth century, he kept up with the sailing periodicals. And like today’s amateurs, he was looking for something that he could build without too much difficulty or expense. “About this time I came across the plan of a boat that seemed to be very seaworthy and, in addition, was not too large for one man to handle. Moreover, the construction of it did not seem too difficult for my limited knowledge of shipbuilding.” This sounds like me talking about my Pocket Cruiser, but Pidgeon was discussing a “V-bottom or Sea Bird boat” designed by Captain Thomas Fleming Day and yacht designers on the staff of Rudder Magazine.

Like my craft, it was designed for the amateur builder in mind. “The reason for using the V-bottom was that it was easier for the amateur builder to lay down and construct.” Furthermore, all the information he needed to build his craft was conveniently contained in a booklet titled How to Build a Cruising Yawl. How many of his boat building decedents were seduced by books and plans with equally friendly titles?

“So I decided to build my long-dreamed-of ship and go on a voyage to the isles of the sea,” he concluded, while failing to mention at this point in the narrative that he had never sailed on the open ocean. But those of us with similar dreams understand that this is only a minor barrier, one that will resolve itself, somehow, in time.

First things first. It’s time to build. Today’s builders retire to garages and carports; in the early twentieth century, Pidgeon was able to build his boat directly on the beach. “I went down to the shore of the Los Angeles Harbor, located a vacant lot, and began the actual work of construction.” Like me, he made concessions for cost and inexperience. Instead of steam bending the boat’s planks (steamed boards bend more easily and hold their shape when dry), he simply forced them around the curved hull. A professional boat builder examining his work was incredulous, but his approach worked.

Working in the open, he encountered a great many back seat boat builders. “There was a beachcomber living in a shack near by, who used to come and tell me that the keel of my boat was cut away too much forward,” Pidgeon recalled. This particular expert said he was going to build his own 50-foot boat and sail to Africa to hunt lions. But it sounded like he was too busy dissecting Pidgeon’s mistakes to make any progress of his own. I think I’ve already come across several people like this.

He knew others viewed him as eccentric. It didn’t help that another man was building his own boat nearby—in which he planned, as Pidgeon wrote, “to transport a colony of his followers to Liberia.” The boat’s size, the man explained, depended on the number of donations he received. “The donations seemed to keep coming in, for as my boat took shape, his grew into a structure two stories high, with windows alow and aloft, and a stove pipe appeared through a broken pane.”

“No doubt as my boat was rising from the heap of timbers on the sand it was often taken for another of those freaks,” he wrote, somewhat uncharitably. Maybe he knew that this man’s dream and his own differed more in quantity than quality. Sometimes, it’s best not to see ourselves reflected in others.

But here’s the remarkable thing: Pidgeon finishes his boat, gets it in the water and does, indeed, explore the “isles of the sea.” He learns the art of sailing by first wandering to nearby Catalina Island (“the island of romance,” as I recall) then sets sail for Hawaii. Well, since he’s in the neighborhood, why not go to the South Pacific? One thing leads to another and he eventually circumnavigates the globe. Then, for good measure, he does it again—all in a boat he built from plans in a magazine.

I don’t have plans to go around the world, or even far from shore. But I see myself when I read about Pidgeon’s determination to follow his dreams and trust that the right skills will arrive at the right moment. Sober consideration of pros and cons is not the stuff of backyard boat builders, especially those of us who, like Pidgeon, arrive with a head full of romantic ideas and no practical knowledge. But to the amazement and irritation of those who are inclined to critique out plans and question our sanity, we sometimes succeed anyway, or have a good time trying.


Gluing Up–And Getting a Lesson in Humility

April 19, 2009
    The full keel after gluing. Admire the attractive lines, but try to ignore the worrisome gaps in the laminated keel boards.

The full keel after gluing. Admire the attractive lines, but try to ignore the worrisome gaps in the laminated keel boards.

As the crew of the Cimba arrives in the South Seas (after an uneventful nineteen-day passage from the Galapagos Islands), the temperature in eastern Pennsylvania finally warms up. The forecast predicts two days in the low 70’s. This is the minimum temperature needed to use plastic resin glue, which means I can get back to work.

The day starts cold, so I fill time by rereading the instructions about gluing and watching the instructional DVD that came with my plans. The video shows Pete Stevenson (the boat’s designer) and associates cheerfully scooping the dry glue powder into a can and casually pouring in some water and stirring. The consistency should be like “pancake batter,” they say, as the ingredients are combined with easy insouciance. The keel parts are brushed with the glue, slapped together like a sandwich, and quickly nailed together. In the DVD, this takes about five minutes.

It looks easy. It even looks fun.

I watch the thermometer and by early afternoon the temperature has risen to the upper sixties—not quite warm enough, but everything is ready and I am unwilling to cancel my plans. A couple of degree can’t hurt, right?

I confidently scoop some of the powder into a jar and begin adding water. I’m looking for pancake batter, but suddenly I realize just how subjective this consistency really is. Bisquick batter? Buttermilk pancake batter? Or homemade oatmeal pancake batter (my personal favorite)? Each has a different consistency. One is thick and sticky; the other is thin and almost watery. I add more water, then sprinkle in some more powder, trying to find a happy medium.

The final product might be a bit thick, but it’s still thinner than woodworking glue, so I decide it’s good enough. Next, I imitate the video and dip a cheap bristle brush into the goo and begin spreading it—thinly but not too thinly—on all four parts of the keel and stem. It’s sticky, kind of sloppy, and takes longer than I expected. I keep worrying that the glue will start to dry before I am finished, so I pick up the pace and slap the brush with effort, back and forth.

Finally, all the parts are covered and I quickly flip the top half on top of the bottom half and slide the pieces together, trying to line up the edges along all fourteen feet. This, too, takes time.

The next step is to secure the pieces with screws, one every four inches along both the top and bottom edges—more than 100 screws altogether. Still worrying about the glue setting, I work like a madman. I first use a countersink to predrill the holes, moving down the board with reckless speed– zing-zing-zing, over and over again. Now I replace the countersink bit with a phillips head screw bit, grab the bag of stainless steel screws I ordered online several weeks earlier, and drive all the screws within a matter a minutes.

The stem and part of the keel showing screws.

The stem and part of the keel showing screws.

I step back, ready to admire my work and relax, but instead I immediately notice several thin gaps along the top edge of the keel where the boards did not quite come together despite the screws. They aren’t wide, but I know they shouldn’t be there. Gaps let water seep in between the laminations and then…Well, I didn’t know what would happen, exactly. But it couldn’t be good. So I quickly grab my complete supply of clamps and tighten them around the widest gaps. This helps, but I run out of clamps before I run out of gaps, so I simply have to give up.

By now it’s late afternoon and the temperature, which never really hit an honest 70 degrees, is starting to drop and despite my overwrought concerns about premature setting it’s clear that the glue won’t be fully dry for a long time. Confronting this new crisis, I quickly make a tent over the keel with sawhorses, boards and several large tarps. I position a space heater inside and turn it on. Within a few minutes, it feels nice a warm inside the makeshift shelter and I congratulate myself for being able to solve one problem.

Still, I left the garage feeling that I still did everything wrong. I should have carefully measured the glue instead of following the “pancake batter” formula. I should have taken more time painting the glue; perhaps the gaps came from an unnecessarily thick application. Finally, I probably should have been more patient and waited for a warmer day when I wouldn’t have the added worry about glue setting–or not setting, as turned out to be the case.

The next morning dawned bright and warm. I pulled away the tarps, turned off the heater and inspected my work. The glue is dry and firm, but the gaps remain. I wonder if my mistakes—whatever they might have been–will have repercussions for years to come. This thought depresses me for a while, but I spend the rest of the day giving myself a pep talk. “This is your first boat, Paul. You knew this was going to be a learning experience. And, besides, you’ll still be able to get on the water and head down the Chesapeake Bay.” This helps. I have now moved past anger and self-recrimination and have achieved acceptance.


Learning to Talk Like a Sailor

April 13, 2009

While waiting for warm weather, I pass the time reading first person accounts of seafaring adventure. I prefer the classics—tales from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century. This was an age of wooden boats and ready adventure, when sailors left port without depth finders, GPS, satellite Internet, iPhones, and God knows what else can be found on today’s yachts. They were written by men—and all were men—who knew that they were masters of a dying art.

They are marvelous stories. I had already read Joshua Slocum’s account of the first ever solo circumnavigation of the globe in Sailing Alone Around the World. Despite being pursued by pirates off Gibraltar and nearly drowned while making the passage through Tierra del Fuego, he made the whole trip sound like a relaxing lark around a pond. A retired sea captain, he is the one who once “sailed home in a canoe” after being shipwrecked in Brazil. After such adventures, I guess you learn to take storms and dangerous shoals in stride.

But since I wasn’t planning to follow his route, I next selected The Boy, Me, and the Cat, which recounts an eight month trip in 1910 from Massachusetts to Palm Beach in a twenty-four foot sailboat through the newly created Intracoastal Waterway. With self deprecating humor, the author, a retired insurance salesman, described the challenge of taking a small sailboat through a shallow, mosquito infested, and poorly marked canal with a son who liked to sleep late and a cat that would jump overboard whenever startled.

After that I headed out to the open seas again with The Saga of Cimba by Richard Maury, which recounted a journey from Nova Scotia to the South Pacific in a 35-foot schooner. The boat and its two man crew seemed to spend most of its time climbing up and dropping down waves the size of mountains. Within the first fifty pages, the author is describing how they capsized in open seas. For a few harrowing moments they sat on the roof of the cabin—the sail straight down in the water—while waiting for the heavy iron keel to flip them back over. It did—but not before hot coals dropped out to the stove, nearly started a fire, and left them chocking in a smoky, submerged cabin. Note to self: don’t sail in a hurricane.

I’m recounting the parts I understood. What I am not describing are the many pages that were entirely incomprehensible. All of these authors, out of true love of their craft or a perverse desire to confuse the uninitiated, make full and liberal use of nautical vocabulary, often to the point of writing whole paragraphs in a foreign language. Here’s Richard Maury talking about a typical moment at the helm of Cimba: “All through the day the Cimba raced before a West Indian chocolate gale, baring her red-and-black boot-topping, climbing and planing with intense effort, her sails curved and gripping the wind as the cotton raked stiff-bunted under the glowing sky.”

I form a fuzzy image of a little schooner in heavy seas, but I know that I am missing ninety percent of the nuance and might not, in fact, understand what is really happening. It reminds of my high school encounter with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I know it’s about a bunch of people on a pilgrimage, but I get lost after “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…”

My real concern is not with the literature per se, but with the practical application of this vocabulary. Will I need to know these terms and to be a “real” sailor? If so, I’m in trouble, because, let’s be honest, I’m starting out in Sailor Talk 101. If converted into, say, Spanish, my conversational skill is on par with “Hola! Como esta usted?” I am familiar with a few valuable terms—bow and stern, port and starboard, for example, which puts me ahead to some landlubbers. My experience with the Sunfish as a boy put me in contact with words like tiller, centerboard, and tack. My first days of boatbuilding gave me a working knowledge of keel and stem. But after that, I’m forced to rely on words picked up from Mutiny on the Bounty and Pirates of the Caribbean (spoken with a British or pirate accent, depending).

I have no ability to “pass” as a sailor. I once paid money to visit a replica of a sixteenth century sailing ship in Virginia, only to be publicly berated by a costumed interpreter for calling it a “boat.”Being told off by a guy in pantaloons and stockings was, possibly, a low point in my as yet unrealized sailing career.

This leaves me in a constant state of confusion, both as a reader or sailing literature, and as a boat builder. I can’t even confidently identify the various types of sailboats. I know there are “schooners,” “cat boats,” and “ketches,” among others, but I’m fuzzy on the fine points of each and not even sure what to call my boat. Apparently, it has gaff rigging and I once heard it called (critically) a “scow” by someone writing in the Wooden Boat forum, so I’ve taken to calling it a “gaff rigged scow,” which is not correct, I know, but amuses me because it sounds like a something you might hear a drunken sailor say when he’s picking a fight in bar (“Argh, she ‘taint nothin’ but a gaff rigged scow!”)

As I work through the construction process, I’ll encounter many more unfamiliar terms and will, I assume, learn the meaning of each. This ability to establish an intimate knowledge of boats by actually building a boat is one reason why it makes sense for novice sailors to build their own craft. That mysterious “thing” attached to the mast cannot be ignored when you are the builder; it’s purpose must be confronted and understood during the construction process, long before it is actually put in the water.

Still, it’s a hard row to hoe. My knowledge of sailing is limited and my familiarity with nautical terms is rudimentary, which makes me feel like an Eskimo who is suddenly expected to build a timber frame house by reading directions in Latin. At least three new skills are being developed at once. But even when I hit the water, there will be a hundred and one terms and phrases to learn about navigation, the water, and sailing in general that I doubt I will ever fully master. I suspect that it will remain a foreign language and that I’ll always feel self conscious when talking about racing before a “West Indian chocolate gale”–even if I use my best pirate voice.


I Cut the Bottom Panels and Realize Just How Small This Boat Really Is

April 10, 2009

At this point, I should assemble the keel parts with glue and screws. But I’m thwarted by cold weather. My garage is unheated and the plastic resin glue needs temperatures above 70 to dry properly. Lower temperatures may compromise the bond, which is a risk I am not willing to take. It’s early April and we have some pleasant days in the low and mid 60’s but, the thermometer refuses to go higher, and the long range forecast gives me no encouragement.

While waiting, I decide to skip ahead and cut the hull bottom. I make use of my newly acquired lofting skills to draw the long gentle curve of the boat’s port side (notice my easy use of a nautical term here). The circular saw cuts easily through the half-inch boards and the prescribed 17 degrees. To cut the starboard side (there, I did it again!), I simply lay the port pieces on top and trace. Four individual pieces are now lying on the garage floor, offering an unmistakably boat-like shape.

Bottom panels. Not likely to be mistaken as the Queen Mary.

Bottom panels. Not likely to be mistaken for the Queen Mary.

But how small it suddenly seems. In the abstract, a fourteen-foot boat seems large, especially when I pace out the dimensions on the living room floor. My, it reaches all the way from the couch to the stairs! But laying flat on the garage floor, it looks tiny. I squat near the stern, imagining that I am sitting in the cockpit. Not much legroom, I think. Next, I lie down near the bow and imagine a cabin around me. Is there really room for two? Technically, yes. Hilary and I comfortably slept in smaller tents, but  fantasies of paneled staterooms and well stocked galleys are now revealed to be as silly as they sound. This cabin is built for a sleeping bag and—maybe—a few small shelves. It will offer shelter, nothing more.

I know from experience that structures are always smaller in two dimensions. At construction sites, even MacMansions are unimpressive before walls are erected and rooms framed. So I imagine that the boat will also become larger, more imposing, and more commodious when the sides and cabin are added. But I know why it’s called a pocket cruiser.


In Which I Learn to Loft

April 6, 2009
Keel, stem and bottom parts.

Keel, stem and bottom parts.

I would like to emulate Captain Joshua Slocum, who followed the tradition of ancient boat builders when he set about rebuilding Spray before his solo journey around the world in 1899. “My ax felled a stout oak-tree near by for a keel,” he wrote in the opening pages of his narrative, “and Farmer Howard, for a small sum of money, hauled in this and enough timbers for the frame of the new vessel.” But I don’t have a woodlot, or a farmer Howard, so my ax fell to the lumberyard and, for a $35 delivery charge, several sixteen foot long 1 x 12 boards were delivered the next day. In my more humble craft, the keel is not cut from a single piece of timber, as is tradition. Instead, it is assembled from four pieces of number two pine, laminated together with screws and glue to create a single 1 ½ inch thick keel. The illustration from the Pocket Cruiser’s plans illustrates the general principal.

Still, the work seems challenging enough. Indeed, I am about to get my first true lesson in the arcane art of boat building.

In carpentry, most lines are straight and measurements are easy. Tape measures and T-squares assure complete accuracy. The only degree that matters is 90 degrees. In boat building, however, nothing—absolutely nothing—is straight or 90 degrees. Every line is curved or angled. As I examined the plans for the keel, I began to fully appreciate this fundamental difference. The boat’s spine is like a snake that just ate a mouse; it not only follows a gentle curve, but also grows wider in the middle before narrowing again at the stem. Somehow, I have to accurately draw all of these curving lines onto my pine boards.

There are two ways to do this. The easy way employed by some boat designers is to print full size plans. Builders simply trace the pattern onto the boards, like a seamstress tracing a pattern for a shirt or dress on fabric. The traditional (and harder way) employs a skill unique to boat builders called “lofting.” Unfortunately, my project takes that harder way. It sends shivers of anxiety down my spine.

Like so many arcane nautical terms, “lofting” has an aura of Old World complexity. I was familiar with the term and vaguely understood that it was a necessary first step in the boat building process. But I viewed lofting as an art, something handed down from master to apprentice, a secret held by those within the guild. I don’t know where I got this idea. Maybe it was my insecurity as a boat builder; maybe I was responding to an attitude among a certain class of boat builders who do, in fact, try to shroud their work with an aura of magic and mystery. In either case, it was an enormous psychological barrier.

But it only took a few minutes of examination to realize that lofting the Pocket Cruiser is, in fact, a simple and straightforward process. “Lofting” simply means copying a pattern onto the wood. It takes time, but it’s not hard and, I discovered, it’s possible to do with a fair amount of precision.

The first step is to draw a centerline down the length of the wood. Next, a simple grid is created by drawing a series of evenly spaced lines perpendicular to the centerline. These are called “station lines.” To copy the keel’s shape onto the board, I simply drive two nails in each station line, one above and one below the centerline. These measurements are called “offsets.” The Pocket Cruiser’s plans tell me exactly how far above and below the centerline each offset is located.

For example, the first station line requires a nail 4 inches above and 5 inches below the centerline. This means that, at that station line, the keel in 9 inches wide. At the second station line, I place a nail 3 inches above and 5 ½ inches below the station line. This simple process is repeated along 14 station lines, each spaced 12 inches apart.

Here’s the fun part. After all nails are driven, I take a long, thin piece of wood—a batten—and push it against the line of nails. Instantly, the keel’s gentle inward curve is revealed as the batten pushes against each protruding nail. I look for mistakes in my measurements, which would be indicated by a bump or divot, but it looks pretty good. So with help from Matthew, my youngest son, I take a pencil and trace both the top and bottom curves of the keel. It’s like connect the dots, and just as fun.

Following the same process, I loft the boat’s stem from a shorter piece of wood. This will project upward at the boat’s bow.

Nails mark offsets in the stem (bottom left) and the keel (top right)

Nails mark offsets in the stem (bottom left) and the keel (top right)

These two pieces produce half of the keel. To create the full 1 ½ inch thick keel, I need to cut another keel bottom and stem. Now that I have a template, I don’t need to repeat the lofting process. I simply lay the pieces on top of pine boards and trace the pattern. The only variation is that the second keel half is cut a bit shorter in the front and the stem is cut a bit longer. This allows boards to overlap, creating a surface for gluing and fastening all four pieces.

The final step is cutting. I set my circular saw blade a fraction of an inch deeper that the boards I am cutting. Next, I lay the boards on pieces of scrap 2 x4 and, working with great care, slowly follow the curving lines of the keel. It’s a new experience purposely cutting curves with a circular saw; as a carptenter, I’m usually trying to keep my cuts straight. But I discover that it’s possible to cut gentle arcs without binding the blade if I move slowly. In short order, I have all four parts of the keel laying on the garage floor.