Summer Doldrums

July 28, 2009

On a transatlantic voyage, there come a point where a sailor travels too far to turn back, but remains a disturbingly long way from his destination. There’s no land in sight, just an endless horizon of water, day after day. Progress is being made, but it doesn’t feel real; despite the effort, everything looks about the same.

That’s what it feels like with my boat right now. I keep working, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Out of habit and a kind of stubborn determination, I spend at least a few hours in the workshop every week, but I don’t really feel that I’m moving forward. The gussets I’m cutting now seem so small and inconsequential when I contemplate all the work that remains.

A few old doubts have reemerged. Why, exactly, am I doing this? Will it really solve all my midlife problems? Never mind that: Will it even float? Some days I survey the boat with pride. On other days, I’m so critical, my eyes practically burn holes in the hull.

It doesn’t help that I turn 45 in a week.

I find myself distracted by other fantasies of adventure. My long held and barely suppressed urge to travel is surfacing again and the time once spent researching online boat building sites has been replaced by fare-shopping on Travelocity (“Hmm, I could get the whole family to Madrid for $2,500…”). We lived in Mexico for two years, but that was nearly four years ago. I’m ready to speak another language and a plane will get me overseas faster than a boat.

It occurs to me that it’s probably at this point that many boat projects slow, stop and quietly disappear—scuttled by the multiple forces of boredom, distraction and a feeling that completion is too far away.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

These ruminations were reinforced by my son’s successful launch of a cardboard boat in the stream behind our property. Built with a large packing box and several roles of duct tape, it required nothing more than a few hours of work with a friend. Of course, it only lasted a half hour before water seeped in and turned the boat to mush. But the fun to effort ratio was high—higher, I think, than it will be with my Pocket Cruiser.

Try as hard as I might, I can’t really get the hang of being young and carefree.

Shut Up and Sail

July 10, 2009

I spend a lot of time telling my wife about my boat and the joys of sailing. I paint pictures of sunny days, stiff breezes and tales of adventure. I want her to share my enthusiasm and look forward to the day when we can ply the Chesapeake.

She usually listens quietly to my ramblings. But there are limits to her patience and a couple of weeks ago she interrupted me with a tone of mild irritation. “There certainly is a long build up to this adventure,” she said.

It's not my boat, but at least we're sailing.

It's not my boat, but at least we're sailing.

HIlary admitted that sailing is fun.

HIlary admitted that sailing is fun.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You’ve been working on the boat for months—and you have a long way to go, that’s all. How long will I have to wait?”

Hilary has taken to correcting me when I say that she doesn’t like to sail. “That’s not true,” she says. “I don’t know if I like sailing or not. I’ve never been sailing.”

Actually, she had one experience on a sailboat. About twenty-five years ago she went out on the San Francisco Bay with a group of friends. The swells were bad (as they often are) and she ate too much crab dip. All she really remembers is the nausea. That’s the sum total of her sailing career. No wonder she doesn’t share my dream of sailing away.

Suddenly, it all seemed obvious. Talk won’t get me anywhere. What I needed to do was get her on the water. The only thing that will convince her is a happy sailing experience. In her own way she was saying, “Shut up and take me sailing.”

In fact, the whole family needed to go sailing. While the kids have been in canoes, kayaks and the obligatory plastic paddle boats, none had been in a boat driven by the wind. It was a silly oversight that I planned to correct.

I watched the weather reports and on the first sunny day we drove down to a nearby state park. There was a small lake and a concession that rented Sunfish by the hour. The temperature was in the mid 70’s—cool for this time of year—and occasional clouds promised gentle breezes.

Sunfish are small boats; there’s barely room for two, so I took everyone out one at a time. I was determined to project an image of calm competence, but as I stepped into the tiny cockpit it occurred to me that I hadn’t sailed in a least a decade. I hoped that boats were like bicycles and I hadn’t forgotten how to handle the sail and rudder.

Matthew, one of our twins, was the first aboard. He’s a comedian and skeptic so, of course, he was sure I would send him to Davy Jones’ locker. I ignored his taunts as I maneuvered into the middle of the lake, looking for a breeze. I turned the boat a bit upwind and tightened the sail. That’s it. Now I remember!

We scuttle across the water and near the opposite shore. Time to turn about. I tell Matthew to duck as the boom swings across. Just then the wind dies and we stall. Matthew looks at me skeptically. “Sailors have to be patient,” I declare sagely. A moment later the wind returns with unexpected force and we lurch sideways. “Everything’s fine,” I say (a little shrilly) as I jerk the tiller a bit too suddenly. But we recover in a moment and head back to the other side. I hand the sail to Matthew and let him decide where it should be for maximum effect.

Twenty minutes later we return to the landing and Matthew disembarks. He’s a natural tease, but I can tell he had a good time.

Now it’s Hilary’s turn. She gets in and faces me with a look of brave determination. We push off and immediately feel a nice, steady breeze. “I like this,” she says before we even get to the other side of the lake. She looks so cute in her shorts and life jacket, the wind blowing her hair, I lean over and kiss her–and keep kissing her until the wind shifts and we heel over unexpectedly. I recover both the boat and my dignity and start talking about the theory and practice of sailing. She listens, I feel, with genuine interest.

Exhausting my knowledge of the subject in a matter of moments, I hand her the sail. She tugs and I turn. It feels like we are working together—as we have for nearly twenty-five years—to find our way to a distant shore.

I sit there smiling with childlike pleasure, but I know the stakes are high. While I want to test my abilities as sailor, I also know that the most important task is to give the family a good time. I have one chance to convince Hilary that sailing is fun. I need to erase any thoughts of crab dip and her persistent worries about safety. That means no sudden moves, no scary turns and—please, God–no knock-downs. This keeps me cautious and I move back and forth at a leisurely pace, working over the same patch of water. I don’t trust my skills at tacking so I more or less run across the wind to avoid getting trapped at the far end of the lake.

We return safely and by the end of the afternoon, everyone has had a ride. Sophie has a way with the sails; I think she’s a natural sailor. Avery, my oldest, seems the most enthusiastic and announces on the way home that wants to build his own boat. The day is declared a great success.

My own doubts are dispelled, as well. Before getting in the boat, I privately wondered if I was setting myself up for disappointment. Sailing was fun as a kid, but what if I realized that it was no longer exciting? What if I simply found it tedious or unnecessarily frustrating? But on the way home, I simply looked forward to the next opportunity to get on the water.

However, I clearly see my limitations. After the first hour, I had recovered most of my childhood skills. But I also realized that I didn’t know all that much as a boy. A ten-year-old in a Sunfish on a tiny lake can’t do much more than go back and forth, following the wind. Instinctively, that’s all I did with the family. I don’t really know how to tack efficiently or set a course to a particular destination. When I’m on the Chesapeake, however, it won’t be enough to go in figure eights. I need to get from Point A to Point B. I still have a lot to learn.

But I decide to worry about that later. For now, it’s enough to hold the tiller, feel the sails, and kiss my wife.

Bilge Board Boxes, Epoxy Resin, and the Value of Good Friends

July 4, 2009

Ever since my plans arrived, I knew I would need to construct something called “bilge board boxes.” The diagrams were clear enough, but I couldn’t fathom their purpose. For a while, I thought they were some kind of drainage mechanism—a way to get water off the deck. They remained a mystery to me even as I drew closer to the day when they would be built and installed.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge Board Boxes.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge board boxes.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Finally, at the last possible moment, I sat down with the plans and (with the help of some online research) made the simple discovery the bilge board boxes hold two retractable bilge boards, which are just like centerboards—expect they come in pairs and are located near the sides of the hull instead of the center. When the light went on, I threw my head back and laughed at my utter stupidity. The bilge board box is simply a watertight frame that encases the board as it passes through the cabin and enters the water.

Like centerboards, bilge boards help sailboats maintain a straight course by resisting a boat’s tendency to slip sideways. Even now, I recall my early experience with a Sunfish and remember what it felt like to sail without the centerboard inserted; the boat skidded like an inexperienced skater on ice, nearly powerless against the prevailing wind. Once the centerboard was pushed down through the hull, however, it felt like a train that had been put back on its track; the boat bit into the water and could be kept on course.

But why use bilge boards and not the more common centerboard? I don’t know enough about boat design to answer this question with authority, but one reason—a very good reason, in my opinion—is that centerboards take up a great deal of space in small sailboats. They sit in the very middle of the boat and the box housing the centerboard cuts the hull in two halves. In my boat, a centerboard would dominate the already small cabin and monopolize the limited living space. In contrast, bilge boards sit unobtrusively off center. You need two boxes, one for each side, but they don’t get in the way.

So I now know what I’m building and understand why they are necessary. That’s the first hurdle. But I immediately face another dilemma. Despite what the diagrams show, it becomes clear that the boxes won’t fit in the space indicated. My careful measurements show that the boxes will sit too far inside the hull and won’t connect with the underside of the deck. This is a serious problem, since the point of the project is to have the bilge boards slide through slots in the deck and exit out the boat’s bottom.

Once again, I head for the Backyard Yacht Builders Association’s online forum. This small but lively community helped me before when I struggled with the keel and patiently answered questions about plastic resin glue and the placement of the deck. Now they offered quick reassurance that my latest problem is solvable. “Hold on, help is coming,” responded Bud Wilson, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. He said it would be acceptable to narrow the box and move it an inch or two sideways. I rechecked the measurements and replied that his ideas would solve the problem. For the third time in as many months, my fellow builders save me.

I resist the urge to give advice, but after four months of experience, let me offer this one suggestion: When selecting plans for your first boat, seriously investigate how much support you will get from experienced builders. While books and Web sites provide a general and theoretical understanding of boat building, there will come a time—perhaps many times—when you just want a real person at your side to answer a simple question about the next step in the instructions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I bought the plans from Pete Stevenson, I was also buying into a large community of Stevenson boat builders, who don’t charge a dime for their advice and don’t laugh (publicly, anyway) at my questions. I could build the boat without them, but it would be harder, lonelier, and considerably more stressful. Similar support, I assume, is available to those who build some of Phil Bolger’s more popular boats. Several other well-established designers maintain their own forums.


I am now ready to build the boxes, but I’m not out of the woods yet. One more problem remains. The inside of the box will sit in the water and, I decide, needs to be carefully waterproofed since it will be inaccessible after it is constructed. The Stevenson’s take a casual approach to the problem. They suggest painting the inside of the box before gluing. But won’t paint eventually peel? On a hull, this is not a serious problem; sailors simply repaint their boats. Some do it every year, like spring cleaning. But I won’t have an opportunity to repaint the boxes. I won’t even be able to see inside the boxes. I have no expertise on this issue, but for peace of mind I want a more durable coating.

The solution, several builders tell me, is to encapsulate the box’s interior with several coatings of marine epoxy—the very substance I have been avoiding for nearly four months. I had heard that epoxy was messy, toxic, and considerable more expensive than other glues and coatings. But beyond these practical concerns was a philosophical objection. I started my boat on a lark and wanted it be an informal first effort, one that could be completed quickly and economically. When people told me to use epoxy instead of plastic resin glue, for example, I decided that they didn’t share my “get it done” philosophy. I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of using “the best” when “good enough” was, well, good enough.

But as time passes, I find my attitude shifting in small but important ways. I still view my boat as a first time effort, not an heirloom. It is not a boat for the ages and I believe that it will be replaced by a better and more sophisticated effort. But…I also find myself taking pride in my work and wanting the boat to last—if not “forever,” then at least for more than a few years. From this new vantage point, I am willing to go the extra mile when it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg or put me behind schedule. The desire to build truly impregnable bilge board boxes tips the balance and I place my first order for a gallon and a half of epoxy.

But I still had lots of questions about epoxy, and the more I read, the more confused I became. One person talked about using epoxy as an adhesive, while another used it as a gap filler (when smeared along seams it’s called a fillet). It is used when fiberglassing the hull. Sometimes the epoxy is thick; sometimes it is thin and spreadable. Does the same product do all these things?

The short answer is “yes.” Used straight out of the bottle (two bottles, actually, since epoxy comes in two parts that are mixed just before using), it is relatively thin, spreadable goo. But when builders want to use it as an adhesive or as gap filler, they add a thickener. There are many kinds of thickeners, but one of the most common and economical is “wood flour,” which is simply very fine sawdust.

I learned all this from many hours of reading and Web surfing. Additional clarification came from my online informants. But it still seemed confusing and I yearned to see epoxy in action or, at least, chat with someone who has actually used epoxy. My shipment was going to arrive any day and I didn’t want to waste a single, expensive drop.

Just then I received a well-timed invitation to the home of a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. David had stopped by my home a couple of weeks earlier and we shared a pleasant evening in my garage, poking and prodding the still loosely assembled parts. Now I would have a chance to see his boat. Not only that, the whole family was invited and dessert was promised.

David and his wife Cheryl live in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, a region of rolling hills, luxuriant fields, tidy home and manicured farms. Their house sat on a quiet country road, surrounded by knee-high corn. Ladies in cape dresses strolled by and boys scuttled up and down the road on scooters. It was very picturesque.

The house was equally tidy and tranquil. Cheryl teaches music, so we chatted in their music room about pianos and the musical tastes of Cheryl’s Amish students (hymns, of course, but Take Me Out to the Ball Game is the runaway favorite among the boys). But David and I were soon finding our way across the backyard to the boathouse –a neat as a pin shed, perhaps fifteen by twenty-five feet. The Pocket Cruiser just fit inside, although David had to shove his table saw to a corner and hasn’t been able to use it for three years.

I head to the boat like a fly to ointment. Forgetting all of the appropriate preliminary complements (“your making good progress;” “the boat looks great”), I immediately lean over the deck and start asking questions faster than David can respond. We are nearly at the same stage in the construction process, so I notice even the smallest variations. A more confident builder, David made several changes along the way and we discuss each in detail. It’s amazing how long two middle aged men can talk about the angle of a stringer or the wisdom of using pine boards for panel joiners. We stand over the boat like surgeons discussing a particularly difficult operation.

But epoxy is my special concern and I immediately notice that David made liberal use of the stuff. Although the boat is assembled with plastic resin glue, he used epoxy to fill gaps, attach his mast box, and encapsulate his bilge board boxes. His boxes are not yet fully assembled, so I could see inside and immediately appreciate the superiority of epoxy over paint. Two or three coats produced a thick, glasslike coating that completely isolates the plywood and pine boards from the water.

By the time I finished asking questions, the rest of the family is already sitting in the patio eating cake and ice cream. The sun is setting and the yard lights up with fireflies. Cheryl recalls feeding fireflies to small toads as a child and watching their bellies light up. Suddenly, as if on cue, a toad materializes on the patio. Cheryl puts it in a jar while the kids are instructed to catch a firefly. The toad dutifully eats the firefly and, thirty seconds later, his belly flashes like a luminescent bulb. The toad is released, happy for the snack, and we know that we have found some good friends.

We return home and the next day I start building my bilge board boxes—cutting the wood one day, painting a couple of coats of epoxy the next. The work is not hard or time consuming and I proceed with confidence since all the problems have already been solved. The final result will be two small, inconspicuous and unimpressive rectangular boxes. Passengers will not give them a second glance. But written in their construction is the help and good will of many people. Relations were formed and friendships built around these boxes. This, I think, is what the project is all about.