Details, details…

May 29, 2010

The tenor of my work has shifted in recent weeks. Now that the overall structure of the boat is complete, I am moving on to small details that make the boat more functional and, I hope, more attractive.  The work is fiddly, but with each new piece, the boat looks less like a plywood box and more like a proud member of the maritime tradition.

What I was told to build. A simple plywood hatch is easy to build and would get the job done...

...I thought paneled doors would look nicer. Were they worth two weeks of work?

It occurs to me that this is where builders start expressing their own personalities–and also start going their separate ways. Up to this point, we are all more or less following the plans—measuring offsets, cutting stringers and working through the same mathematical problems. One pocket cruiser looks more or less like any other. But once the hull and cabin are in place, we can do what we want.

Inevitably, different priorities emerge.

Some builders have a single-minded determination to get into the water. They don’t sweat the details and don’t worry about adding anything unnecessary to their boats. They can practically feel the spray in their faces and do only what is necessary to wrap up their work so that they can test their mettle in the open water.

On the other extreme are those who seem to relish the opportunity to linger over the finishing touches. They want the hulls to shine and the brass to gleam. They look for new and novel places to install brightwork. They want to enter the water in style and are willing to wait weeks, months—maybe even years—for their day in the sun.

So, where do I stand in this continuum? A year ago, I thought I was a member of the hurry-up crowd. I wanted to build with care, but not waste time. My mantra was, Stick to the plans! But now that I am near the finish line, I find myself repeatedly detoured by small changes and improvements that keep me in the garage and delay the boat’s christening.

The most recent culprit is the hatchway door. In the plans, the Stevenson’s (who are unapologetically committed to fast and simple construction) direct builders to simply cut out a single panel from a quarter inch sheet of plywood. To secure the hatch, the panel is simply lifted in place. To gain access to the cabin, the panel is lifted away.

From the beginning, however, I found this to be an inelegant and inefficient solution. Where, I wondered, would the six square foot panel be stored? Beyond this logistical problem, a large plywood panel is simply a cumbersome and unattractive addition to the boat.

So I determined early on that I would, instead, build hinged doors. For the sake of simplicity, they, too, could be built out of plywood and that was, in fact, my original plan. But when it came time to construct my hatchway, I decided that I wanted to add a bit more style—nothing fancy, but something a little bit salty. So I decided to make paneled doors instead, and—just for fun—use some leftover cherry for the frame. I wasn’t looking for anything unnecessarily ornate—my tastes run toward Shaker and Craftsman styles—but a gently curving archway of sun-darkened cherry wood seemed just right. Varnished, it would look quite fetching against the otherwise painted hull.

But this suddenly turned a minor step into a moderately complex piece of cabinetwork. I was in familiar territory since my previous experience in woodworking (such as it is) is in furniture making. But I also prefer hand tools, so much of the work was accomplished with hand planes and a homemade bow saw. It’s how I like to work, and I’m not complaining, but it takes time and after a week at my workbench, I started wondering if I had made the right decision. If I had simply followed the plans, the hatch could have been banged together with a jigsaw and screws in an hour or two. Perhaps I could have moved on to more consequential steps like fiberglassing the hull.

Slowly, however, the doors came together and, while they are a bit rough and not yet sanded, I find them pleasing and I am glad that I took time to do something just slightly beyond what was necessary. Sailing is, in the end, an aesthetic experience, and it seems right and proper that our boats reflect our own tastes. If they didn’t, why bother building in the first place?

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Finishing the seats and wondering why I’m doing this

May 5, 2010

Over a long lunch hour, I finished attaching the stringers for the cockpit seats. After dinner, I ran back out to the garage and epoxied the previously cut seat backs into place. So a project begun in mid winter is finally finished. Total time: about three hours.

Stringers for the seat back.

By the end of the day, seat backs were epoxied in place.

As the photos illustrate, the seat backs create watertight compartments that, I suppose, are useful if (when?) the boat capsizes. Two large bubbles of air should help keep the hull afloat, right? But I also wondered about the wisdom of creating inaccessible spaces. What if the cavity isn’t watertight? How will I know if water is seeping in and rotting the wood? On this issue, the boat’s designer is silent so I decided to seal the seams as carefully as possible and assume everything will turn out fine.

But that’s the least of my worries right now. In fact, I walked away from the boat feeling a bit stressed and vaguely depressed. While I can see the finish line, there is still a great deal of work ahead of me and even with constant effort I now worry about completing the boat before autumn. It’s not hard to list the remaining tasks (motor mount, hatch, fiberglass, mast, sails, paint…) but it might take a week or two to complete each step, which means the finishing touches won’t be applied until mid or late summer, at the very earliest. That’s too close for comfort. Even a few delays can mean another year without sailing. And that’s unacceptable.

In an ideal world, I would be able to take off a week or two and work on the boat full time. A procession of eight hour days would allow me to have the boat ready for fiberglassing before Memorial Day, I am guessing. But I am also backed up with office work and, frankly, the house needs attention (I still need to plant the rest of the vegetable garden and large portions of the yard need to be weeded). And what about my wife and kids? Don’t they deserve attention? So I have to proceed as I have for the past year: an hour here, a few hours there—and always with the sense that I shouldn’t be playing with the boat when there is more urgent work to be done someplace else. Am I the only one who thinks this way?

And here's the whole thing. Hmm, the garage is looking a little messy...


Lots of water–but still no boat

May 3, 2010

It’s spring, the weather is warm and the skies are blue. Why no progress on the boat?

Mexican beach scene. The water was inviting, but what would happen to my little boat?

Well, I have an excuse. I just returned from a six week trip to Mexico. After a year of planning and several years of saving, we rented a small apartment in Xalapa, a mountain city not far from the Gulf Coast. It’s one of the perks of self employment; wherever there is Internet, I can have my office. Distance and national boundaries are irrelevant in an era of email, Google and Skype. So once our travel fund grew large enough we headed south.

We had a wonderful time and the weeks passed too quickly.

But I was missing out on some prime boat building weather. After a horribly cold and snowy winter, it was irritating to learn that Pennsylvania started enjoying unseasonably warm weather within days of our departure. I didn’t regret our trip, but I couldn’t help think about all the progress I could be making back home. And a small dose of guilt emerged as friends and relations starting asking if I had stopped building the boat altogether.

To reassure myself that I still cared about sailing, I spent free hours looking at boat building Web sites and assorted blogs.  And what I saw reminded me that wind, water, and sails could still make my heart beat faster.

Most inspiring was an account of a young family’s three month trip through the Caribbean in a simple plywood boat designed by Jim Michalak. While we were in Xalapa—which is a lovely city despite the rain–Garth Battista, his wife and their two young children were dropping anchor in one pristine, uninhabited bay after another and posting gorgeous photos of sun-drenched beaches, coral reefs and transparent water. Their boat, a 32-foot Cormorant, is twice the size of my Pocket Cruiser, but no more complex in its construction (as far as I can tell), which led to many quiet promises that my next boat will be large enough to take me to the Caribbean.

But for all my building and all my reading, sailing remains a remarkably theoretical activity. I dream of venturing to distant ports, yet I have almost no experience with blue water sailing. I was reminded of the disparity between fantasy and reality as we completed our Mexican sojourn by touring the Gulf Coast north of Veracruz. This part of Mexico is remarkably undeveloped and entirely lacking the kind of tourist infrastructure found in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. Most of the time, we were the only foreigners at the small hotels we visited—which suited us just fine–and at one particularly isolated hotel, we were literally the only guests. This left me with lots to time to wander empty beaches and contemplate the sea.

And what I often found myself thinking was: My God, those are big waves! Buffeted by strong winds even on sunny days, I thought for the first time about the tremendous power of the sea. Waves rolled ashore with relentless force and when we wandered into the water I could feel the current pulling me northward. It was perfect of body surfing, but what would it do to a tiny Pocket Cruiser? My flat bottomed boat would capsize before getting past the surf, I speculated, and even if it wasn’t swamped, the powerful winds would surely knock it down if given half a chance. I knew my boat was small, but for the first time I truly appreciated just how small it really is. It represents many hours of labor, but the ocean doesn’t give an A for effort.

Pensively, I would walk back to the hotel.

Of course, my Pocket Cruiser isn’t designed for the open ocean and my goal remains an inland cruise down the more protected portions of the Chesapeake Bay. But I came home slightly humbled by the seriousness of my undertaking. Building is a lark, but sailing is no joke.

But the question remains: When will I finish my boat? Well, we returned home earlier this week and the first order of business was mowing and weeding (suburbia survival tip number one: Americans would rather live next to Osama Bin Laden than a neighbor with long grass). With those tasks completed, I am finally able to think about the boat and today I made a symbolic start to the boat building season by cutting a few stringers for the cockpit seating. An hour’s worth of work doesn’t make up for a month’s absence (or deserve specific discussion here), but I hope that it will be the start of a productive few week’s of work. Stay tuned!