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.
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.