A Boatshed of One’s Own

June 27, 2009

I don’t have any experience building boats and very little experience sailing, but I do have one thing that many builders lack: an enormous workshop. Our house is tiny; the original portion was built in the late 1700’s and even with small additions in the 1920’s and 1970’s, it barely reaches one thousand square feet. But what our house lacks in living space, it more than makes up in outbuildings; we have several, the largest of which is a 1,225 square foot detached garage—what we grandly call the Carriage House.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

When we bought the house, I added some shelves for storage, but most the floor space is empty. I considered the structure a bit of an albatross. It was a convenient dumping ground for boxes and objects that didn’t fit in our house. The children, who used it as an oversized playhouse, kept it in a state of chaos. In exasperation, I threatened to tear it down.

But when I decided to build a boat, the garage finally had a purpose. It was as if it had been waiting all these years for me to make up my mind and lay the keel. I had all the room I needed, and plenty of space to spare. Indeed, I calculated that I could build a boat twice as long. I could even build two boats simultaneously, if I so desired.

Not everyone is so lucky. For many, boat building ambitions are constrained by available workspace. Many builders first take the measurements of their garages, then decide what they can build. Still, I am intrigued by the determination of builders to work with what they have. I occasionally read about kayaks being built in walk-up apartments and Dynamite Payson’s book on Instant Boat Building includes a photo of a rowboat being eased out of a second story window in New York City. In Rascal, A delightful child’s memoir about a turn of the century boyhood in Minnesota, author Sterling North recalled building a canoe in his living room under the gaze of a pet raccoon and a very tolerant father.

Of course, boats can also be built outside. Captain Slocum built the Spray in the open air, as did Henry Pigeon when he claimed a short stretch of Los Angeles beach for the year-long construction of the Islander. Even today, boats are built from Haiti to Indonesia a few feet away from the water.

But it’s no longer possible to stake a claim on beachfront property (just try!) and in the east coast of the United States the weather rarely cooperates—it’s either too wet or too cold for at least half the year. Where there is good weather, there is rarely navigable water. It occurs to me that the high desert of New Mexico would be an ideal place for an open-air boatyard. But launching would be a challenge.

As a result, many people begin their boat building endeavors by first constructing a shelter. The easiest path, I suppose, is to purchase a ready-made Quonset hut-style carport. They’re not very pretty (in my opinion), but they don’t keep you waiting. Others put their carpentry and architectural skills to work and build permanent boatsheds. Fellow builder Tom Hoffman tells me that he’s planning to build another Stevenson design called the Vacationer, but for the moment he’s focusing on the construction of a 1,296 square foot poll barn—what Tom calls his “Dream Shop/Garage/Boat Shop.”

He’s making good progress, but the danger is that construction projects can overwhelm available time, money and emotional energy. The ultimate cautionary tale, I think, comes from architect Witold Rybczynski. In his 1989 book, The Most Beautiful House in the World, Rybczynski recounts his efforts to design a functional and attractive boatshed where he could build a dory ketch. A small living space was also planned so that Rybczynski and his wife could use the shed as a weekend home. He purchased land near his Montreal home and poured a foundation of suitable size.

So far, so good. But the rest of the book recounts the multi-year odyssey to design the perfect workshop-house, one that reflected his evolving philosophy of architecture. At first, he sketched a modest, highly functional workspace with a few rooms on the side. Later, it turned into a modernist structure with sharp angles, a cement block workshop and corrugated metal walls. Worrying that these designs were out of place amid the farms of rural Quebec, he softened the lines and drew inspiration from surrounding barns and farmhouses. He also decided to increase the living space but, since the footing was already poured, he stole space from the workshop—which became too small for a twenty-two foot dory. He decided to build a smaller catboat instead.

To make a long story short, the house grew larger, the workshop smaller. Eventually, it disappeared. The initial burst of boat building enthusiasm dissipated and all the creative energy shifted to the house. “My house had begun with the dream of a boat,” he concluded. “The dream had run aground—I was now rooted in place.” When finally built, his simple country home was christened “The Boathouse,” but it never did—and probably never will–see a boat within its walls.

These are not my dilemmas, but as the months pass, my garage seems to grow smaller. While the hull itself takes up one corner of the garage, nearly an equal amount of free space is needed to cut plywood panels and manipulate ungainly stringers. Of course, a workbench is nearly essential, and there must be space to maneuver around the assembled parts. I am suddenly grateful for every square foot.

Still, part of me misses the challenge of working in a less commodious structure. I like the idea of planing a board under the shade of tree when the weather is good, and there is a romance to assembling the parts in an oversized tent, the light dappling the canvas walls. It would be like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but with a boat instead of a hut. This rough-and-ready approach is more in keeping with the humble nature of my boat and my outrageous fantasies of middle-aged escape.

On the other hand, the garage offers a convenient escape from what has been a very wet spring, and provides an ever-present excuse to work on the boat instead of completing less enticing household projects. When I wake up on Saturday morning to the sound of rain, I smile. It means I don’t have to mow the lawn or weed the garden. But the garage is dry and the boat is waiting.

Getting Ready to Glue the Deck and Bulkheads

June 15, 2009

Dry fitting the completed parts was fun—and easy. A few minutes work gave me a rough approximation of a boat and something to look at for a few days. But it’s not enough to have the pieces “sort of” fit; before gluing the boat together I need to have all the parts really fit—not an inch too long or a quarter inch too short but right on the money—everywhere, at every point. This meant that I had a long day’s work ahead of me, doing things that, for the most part, were not discussed in the plans. I was putting together a fourteen foot jigsaw puzzle and I was on my own.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meet the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meets the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

The first order of business was trimming an inch off the stem. I noticed at the dry fitting stage that the deck rose too sharply at the bow. A rakish upward swoosh is nice, but my deck was practically pointing straight up. I double checked my measurements and knew I had lofted correctly. But I also know what looks right, so with a sudden burst of complete confidence I hacked the stem down to size. Once accomplished, I knew I did the right thing.

Of course, it took me half the morning to make the decision and get the measurements just right.

But that was just the first step. I also needed to mark the precise location of the cabin and forward bulkheads. Each is positioned at its own eccentric angle—the cabin leans forward at 71 degrees; the forward bulkhead at 92 degrees. How did the Stevenson’s decide on such odd numbers? I wonder as I set my angle marker and nudged the cabin bulkhead forward a few more degrees. I suspect they just built the boat, then took the measurements. My task is to faithfully recreate their gut feelings.

But it’s not that easy. Because the deck follows a curve, any change in the angle of the bulkhead affects its position along the outside edge of the boat. Tilting the forward bulkhead to the proscribed 92 degrees pushes the top of the bulkhead toward the boat’s interior and produces a quarter inch gap between the bulkhead and what will soon be the boat’s sides.

Well, that won’t do, so I have no choice but to cut a deeper notch in the bulkhead and move it forward half an inch. This also means the mast will sit a tiny bit closer to the bow, but I decide not to worry about that.

And so it goes. All afternoon I circle the boat, measuring, eying and, occasionally, cutting and planing an inch here, a sixteenth of an inch there. I spend six hours doing this and by dinnertime I’m exhausted.

By the end of the day, my visible work is a few notches and a few pencil lines, but it looks like the pieces line up and everything is square and ship shape. I’m now ready to take the next big step—one of the biggest so far—and glue the parts together. But that will have to wait for another day.

Deck Boards, Bulkheads and Daydreams

June 6, 2009

During a few stolen hours midweek, I finally cut the Pocket Cruiser’s transom and both the forward and cabin bulkheads. The transom serves as the back of the boat’s hull while the bulkheads define and divide the cabin space. These three panels also support the previously cut deck boards, so I took the opportunity to dry fit all the pieces together, on the excuse that I wanted to check the accuracy of my measurements, but really because I’m eager to see what the boat will look like.

When I first cut the bottom boards, I marveled at the Pocket Cruiser’s small size, but I also predicted that it would look larger in three dimensions. With all the pieces gingerly settled into place, and with a hefty dose of imagination, I am finally able to visualize its final size.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, your're not looking hard enough.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, you're not looking hard enough.

As I expected, it does seem more substantial. However, it’s still a small boat and the first thing I notice is that the cockpit is even smaller than I expected. To my eye, there will be room for four friendly sailors, but no more. On the other hand, the cabin looks somewhat larger than I anticipated. It’s not a stateroom, to be sure, and with a 33-inch ceiling, I won’t be doing any cartwheels, but there is plenty of room for supplies and sleeping. Squinting hard, I can see myself tucked in at night, rereading Joshua Slocum by the light of small lantern, a cup of tea cradled in my hands…

I shake myself from my reverie. It’s exciting to see the boat taking shape, and equally gratifying that the pieces seem to fit. But there’s a long way between where I am and the fantasy of settling down for the night in a protected inlet.

Still, these daydreams help me stay motivated. On good days, building is engaging in its own right, but I find that when enthusiasm wanes it helps to play make believe and imagine the journeys to come. Indeed, a rich fantasy life is, I believe, an important and underappreciated part of the building process. When people say it took “300 hours” or “500 hours” to build their craft, I firmly believe they should include all the hours they spent staring at their boat, their hands inactive, but their mind buzzing with images of clouds, waves, and salty air.

Helping me stay motivated are pictures of completed Pocket Cruisers and stories of their sailing adventures, both large and small. I often find myself on the Internet looking for images and narratives that fuel my imagination. I read every post that describes sailing adventure. I was especially delighted to find an account by a young couple that spent a year building a Pocket Cruiser and then completed a five-day honeymoon trip down the Mississippi. The builders were clearly experienced and added dozens of small modifications—from hardwood trim to a diminutive galley–that makes my own craft look especially humble. Their well-designed web site includes helpful images of the boat under construction, as well as many thrilling shots of it under sail. I had hit the inspiration jackpot.

The only thing missing was the opportunity to talk directly with other sailors. Pictures are nice and online discussions are helpful, but I was ready for a real conversation with a real person in real time.

I was therefore especially pleased when another Pocket Cruiser builder offered to stop by and bring some photos of his boat. Like many twenty-first century relationships, this one began online. On a forum developed for Stevenson builders and sailors, I mentioned my plan to sail the Chesapeake and then asked if there was anyone else in my part of Pennsylvania with a similar interest. If phrased as a personal ad, it would have read “NBB (novice boat builder) seeks same for a conversation about plywood, glue, gussets and other nautical subjects that bore my family.”

David quickly replied, explained that he, too, was working his own Pocket Cruiser and offered to drop by after work. I warned him that I would have a hundred questions, but that didn’t put him off.

Working methodically when time allows during the warmer months, he is now into his third year of construction and is several steps ahead of me in the instructions. His deck is already attached, the mast box is finished, and the bilgeboard boxes are assembled. As the senior builder, he arrived with a thick folder filled with articles and emails by other builders and a computer full of pictures—many of his boat, some of boats built by others living in the mid Atlantic region.

He spread his treasure trove of information across the dining room table and we settled down to a very satisfactory conversation. Hilary joined in for a while, but as the conversation turned to a detailed discussion of epoxy she quietly wandered off. My oldest son also stopped by, but disappeared as we speculated on the best approach to mast design. I barely noticed. For the first time I was having a conversation about boat building that lasted more than ten minutes.

Finally, we went out to my garage so I could show David my progress. Walking in, he said, “Well, that looks familiar,” and I realized what it must be like to see your boat in someone else’s garage. It’s not your work, yet you know it well—every curve, every cut, every stringer and drop of glue. I had a sudden image of hundreds—maybe thousands–of identical craft around the world, each tended and fussed over by men and women with similar dreams. For a moment I felt that we were part of a larger community of dreamers. I’m not much of a “joiner” but it felt nice.

Only it wasn’t precisely like his boat. All builders modify and adapt according to their needs, skills, and imagination, so as we circled my boat, pointing and poking, David explained how his cabin is higher than mine and observed that my transom is more angled than his. Several months ago, when I made my first cuts, I would have worried about these variations, assuming that I had made a mistake. But by now I have seen enough pictures and heard enough stories from other builders to know that there is more than one solution to any problem. So I tried to sound confident as I talked about a small dilemma I faced with the stem (it looks too tall) and my solution (I think I’ll cut off an inch or two). To my relief, David had confronted the same problem and had reached the same conclusion. We are both novice builders, but it was very nice to hear validation for decisions that I normally have to make alone and worry about in silence.

It was getting late and David finally admitted that he had to head home. He, too, plans to sail the upper edges of the Chesapeake, so I hope to see him again. In the meantime, I go back out to the garage, on the pretext of turning out the lights and shutting the door, but instead I stand and the boat’s bow and let my mind wander. I’m not looking at a pile of precariously assembled boards, but at the finished boat, anchored in a sheltered bay. As the sun sets, a warm light glows from the portholes. I’m inside, listening to the water lap at the sides…

How much time passes before I finally turn out the light and walk back to the house? I have no idea, but I notice that a mug of coffee, hot when I walked out, is now cold in my hands.