Is Smaller Better?

September 21, 2009

After watching me work on my boat for the past six month, Avery, my oldest son, announced that he had the bug and wanted to build his own boat. “Great!” I replied. “What do you have in mind?” I immediately conjured images of him working on a simple plywood canoe or a build-in-a-weekend rowboat.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

But he had other ideas. Opening his computer, he showed me plans for a 23-foot racing yacht from a South African designer. Its sleek lines, ballasted keel, and well-appointed cabin had caught his eye and I could tell that he was imagining the thrill of cutting through the waves in such a stately craft. Because he is sixteen, I also knew that the admiring glances of pretty girls were probably involved in the fantasy.

It was a nice boat, but I couldn’t help notice that it required advanced woodworking skills and tens of thousands of dollars to build. Avery, who is enormously talented in many ways, is still a novice woodworker. He is also incapable of saving a dime. In other words, the chasm between fantasy and reality was wide and deep.

“Very pretty,” I said cautiously. “It looks a little ambitious. Maybe you should consider something less complicated. Why don’t you start with a smaller boat so you can learn the basics?”

“What do you have in mind?” he said skeptically. The recommendations of parents are never to be trusted.

I enthusiastically opened my computer and pulled up plans sold by Jim Michalak, who specializes in simple, but seaworthy, plywood sailboats. Many of his plans are inspired by the work of the late Phil Bolger, who pioneered the techniques of “instant” boat building. I’ve had my eye on Michalak for a while and, had I learned of him earlier, I might have selected one of his small cruisers for my first boat.

For Avery, I clicked on an eleven-foot daysailer called the Piccup Squared. Designed for simplicity, it has a flat bottom, exterior chines (meaning that stringers are on the outside of the hull), and a square bow. I admit that it is boxy, but it’s a reasonable choice for an inexperienced builder working on a budget. I also found it charming and cute. Part of me wished that I were building it.

But Avery was appalled. Compared to his South African racer, it was squat and dull. It was like telling a kid who pined for a Ferrari that he could have a used Ford Astro.

At an impasse, we dropped the subject and several days passed. But within a week, Avery was back. He had clearly spent time mulling over the conundrum of financing his dream boat and reluctantly came to the conclusion that he didn’t have enough money to buy more than two brass screws. In light of this regrettable but temporary lack of funds he would consent to building the Piccup Squared. But he wanted it known that this was simply a warm-up exercise, a way to limber up and be ready for his real project in a year or two. And, by the way, would I pay for the wood?

Fine, I said, entering into the negotiation. I’ll buy the wood, as long as it’s considered the family boat—not your private craft. I’m the financier; you’re the builder. Agreed, said Avery.

So I ordered the plans, which promptly arrived and upon inspecting the bill of materials, I learned something important about boat building: Small, simple boats are surprisingly cheap to build. My fifteen-foot pocket Cruiser requires fourteen sheets of plywood in a variety of sizes. And that’s just for starters. There are also many board feet of pine planking and lots of hardware, not to mention gallons of expensive epoxy. I’m not focusing on cost, but I predict that whole thing will add up to $2,500 by the time its in the water.

In contrast, the Piccup Squared, which is only four feet shorter, requires just four sheets of quarter inch plywood. That, plus a few pieces of pine and some glue, is enough to complete the hull. In the spirit of adventure and economy, we also decided to experiment with less expensive materials. I have been reading about builders who use luan—a plywood underlayment that just happens to use waterproof glue. It’s dirt cheap; on sale at Lowe’s we paid less than $9 per sheet. I also wanted to try Titebond III glue, which looks and acts like regular carpenter’s glue but is also considered waterproof. A gallon costs a modest $25.

So with a simple boat and an eye toward economy, we found everything we needed to get started at the big box lumberyard for about $70. More expenses will come—the seams will need epoxy and fiberglass tape; there’s also hardware and sails. But I predict that the whole thing will cost no more than $250, which is ten percent the amount I expect to pay for my Pocket Cruiser.

And what about time? We have yet to start cutting, but experienced builders like to point out that building time also grows or shrinks exponentially. Time requirements can double simply by adding a few feet to a boat’s length. Likewise, trimming off a few feet can take weeks, months, or years off a project’s calendar. It’s not like house building, where contractors can take advantage of the economy of scale. In the labor-intensive world of boat building, every inch requires hours of work and complexity grows with size. So with a slightly more experienced eye, I see a project that can be in the water long before my boat, if Avery starts this fall and sets aside a few hours a week.

We have yet to start this new project, but there are many lessons here for me. While I usually congratulate myself for picking a simple first time project (and, in the world of boat design, the Stevenson Pocket Cruiser is a small and simple boat), there are still ways to get on the water faster. And after a few outings in rented Sunfish and other daysailers this summer, I also suspect that the thrill of sailing an eleven-foot boat is no less than the thrill of sailing a fifteen-foot craft.

So even if Avery, following the fickleness of the teenage mind, decides that he doesn’t want to build his boat, I have a feeling that it will be built nonetheless.

Sailing Lessons

September 9, 2009

In my fantasy life as a sailor, the weather is always perfect—sunny and warm (but not hot), with a steady breeze blowing from exactly the right direction. In every scenario, my boat is tugged forward with an energetic breeze—thrilling, but never alarming.

Sometimes, I force myself to admit that sailors will encounter rough weather. I remind myself that high winds and rough seas are dangerous for my small, unballasted boat. My unquenchable thirst for sailing literature—with its tales of storms and high seas– helps me stay humble and cautious.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

But what never intrudes into my daydreams (and rarely shows up in the classic tales of sailing adventure) is the tedious reality of less than perfect weather—days marred by rain, cold and, especially, the absence of wind. Yet these are the forces of nature that have bedeviled me all summer. I am starting to realize that the number of truly perfect sailing days—the kind that inhabit my dreams—can be counted on a single hand over the course of a year.

I had a great start with my first outing in a Sunfish in early summer. The day was perfect in every way. But then the mid Atlantic seaboard settled into unseasonably cool weather and, worse, an unending procession of storms.

In July, David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, suggested that we split the cost of a sailing lesson offered by a boat rental concession at a nearby state park. We picked a convenient evening when we were both free.

The long range forecast looked good. But as the day approached, the promise of sun turned to a day filled with clouds and, on the morning of our lesson, I woke to overcast skies and a light drizzle. By late afternoon, steady rain was falling and we reluctantly canceled.

Determined to get our lesson, we rescheduled and, this time, the day was clear and warm. We met, as agreed, at the dock right after work. Our boat was a 14 foot American day sailer—a simple, stable and nearly indestructible fiberglass boat similar in length to our Pocket Cruisers. Our instructor was a very personable fellow named Matt who was young enough to be my son, but exuded an air of self confidence that came from a lifetime on the water. We readily followed his instructions.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

I was eager to get the most out of our hour-long lesson. While sailing the Sunfish, I realized that I tended to follow the path of least resistance and didn’t try to set a course that required any real skill. I hoped to learn more about sailing upwind. Also, I had never used a jib before and, since my Pocket Cruiser has a jib, I wanted to understand its role.

But by six p.m. when we were all in the boat, the light wind died and we more or less drifted into the middle of the small lake. We went through the motions of sailing—David and I took turn holding the rudder and we all practiced unfurling and furling the jib (which was fun, even without a wind), but it was really all for show. By the end of the hour, Matt was using a canoe paddle to get up back to shore. I had a good time, and learned a few things, but drove home wanting a bit more. (A short video clip taken by David captures our cheerful sense of resignation.)

So I started watching the weather and—a month later—found both a sunny day and a free afternoon. This time the whole family came along and I rented the American for an hour’s sail. But—and I swear this is true—the very moment I handed over my credit card to the boat concession attendant, the wind died and the ripples on the lake disappeared. It was so calm it made the previous sailing experience look like a gale.

But I had an enthusiastic family and my twins fought for turns to paddle the boat. Hilary, still skeptical of sailing, announced that this was her favorite outing so far. Becalmed, she merely stretched out on the seat and dragged her fingers in the water. The only one fighting resentment was me; I pointed the boat toward ripples that disappeared the minute we reached them and, in a small fit of frustration, started flapping the rudder, just as I did when I boy, in a futile attempt to make some forward motion.

I eventually gave up and joined the kids in a rousing rendition of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Matthew took the rudder and steered us back to dock while Sophie paddled and Hilary worked on her tan. It was a fine afternoon, even if it wasn’t part of the original fantasy.