Easy Over

June 21, 2010

I’m ahead of schedule and feeling motivated. After spending several more hours filling and sanding the cockpit and decks, I was ready to turn the boat over by midweek. But how do you flip a 500 pound plywood box without damaging or (gulp) destroying fifteen months of work? I could easily imagine scenarios leading to crashes and disaster.

Frankly, the boat looks boring upside down.

This is a little more interesting. Plus, you can see how the cabin is off the ground.

My plan was simple: lift the boat onto its side, then gently ease it over so that it was resting bottom up. But I didn’t want to lose control of the boat at a critical moment and I didn’t want the cabin roof and cockpit coaming to bear too much weight (and possibly crack) while being turned.

The key to maintaining control of the boat was to recruit as many willing volunteers as I could find, so I dragged my wife and three children to the garage promising that the work would “only take a minute” and that it would “even be fun.” Meanwhile, my insurance policy against cracking and breaking was to cover the garage floor with lots of padding. I had heard that some builders roll their boats onto tires, so I cut down an unused tire swing from our yard and rolled it into the garage. I also dragged over a bale of peat moss and about five rolled up sleeping bags.

Lifting was easy. The whole family pitched in, but it could have been accomplished by two people, or even one fit and determined builder. In a moment the boat was resting on its side—slightly tilted, of course, but in no immediate danger of falling. While my wife and the younger kids made sure it didn’t fall back down, my oldest son and I positioned ourselves on the opposite side of the boat and nudged it toward us. We had no difficulty controlling its decent and it gently rolled onto our carefully positioned cushions.

The job was accomplished and the boat was safe.

Our final step was to lift the boat off the ground so that it wouldn’t have to rest on the cabin roof. For this, I placed two paint cans at each corner of the transom and rested the bow on a short length of 2×4 set between two larger cans. Again, lifting the boat onto these supports was easily accomplished by the family. The boat now sits off the ground and neither the cabin nor coamings are pinched.

I am now looking at parts of the boat I haven’t seen for nearly a year. It brings back memories and emotions from the first days of building. Seeing the keel–the first thing I assembled–reminds me how anxious I was about the project during the first weeks of building and how determined I was to not make mistakes. I now see how meticulously I positioned each screw and how hard I worked to fit the laminated keel pieces together without any gaps. And I recall how stressed and frustrated I felt when I found small gaps in the lamination despite my best efforts. At the time, I had little understanding in my materials and no faith that my boat would float. Make one small mistake, I believed, and the whole thing would dissolve on contact with water.

Now, of course, I take a far more philosophical view of my work. I still don’t know how well my boat will sail or how well it will hold up after a season or two. But I’ve learned a great deal and overcome many barriers, so I no longer fret about small mistakes. That’s what epoxy’s for! I say.

I have already started filling and sanding the underside and, if I can open up a free day, I should be ready to begin fiberglassing within a week. More humbling lessons await as I tackle the next and—quite possible—final big hurdle.


Putting Away the Hammer; Picking Up the Sander

June 14, 2010

Suddenly—unexpectedly—I finished the construction phase of my boat. I keep flipping through the directions, assuming that there must be another board to cut and glue but, no, it’s all done. I can put away the drill and circular saw.

Portholes cut.

Sanding and filling the cockpit. It's not fun--but it's not hard.

The official last step was to cut out the oval portholes. I don’t need to install the windows at this point, but when that time comes I will fabricate my own from some leftover Plexiglas gathering dust in my woodshop, which saves some money and feels pleasantly frugal. Other builders, I notice, opt for more expensive ready-made portholes, but these can cost $100 or more–$400 in all for a set. There is also a growing trend to use inexpensive “inspection hatches,” which are more typically used to provide access to watertight hatches. But it’s possible to also use them for portholes, even if they don’t look quite as fancy. They also cost much less—about $10 to $15 per window.

There will be more cutting later. Aside from the portholes, I still need to assemble the mast and there are two or three small decorative details that will be added at the last minute. But I don’t need to worry about any of that right now. For the moment, I am fully occupied by the long-dreaded task of filling holes with epoxy and sanding everything smooth.

It’s time consuming and, frankly, unpleasant work. The weather turned hot and muggy last week and I feel like my whole body is covered in a fuzz of sawdust after even a few minutes with the belt sander. For health reasons, I wear a respirator when sanding the epoxied surface, which is awkward and uncomfortable. It really is not possible to wax poetic about the ancient art of boat building after a half hour of this sort of work.

On the other hand, it’s not hard work. I just have to mix up a batch of epoxy, thicken it with wood flour, dab a bit in each screw hole, and smear a bit more along the seams and joints. I then smooth it down with a rubber paddle; it’s just like spreading joint compound on drywall. For the inside seams, I smooth a bead of epoxy with a popsicle stick or, in a pinch, my gloved fingers.

As my knowledge of epoxy grows, the quality and speed of my work improves. One important discovery was that I should use “slow” hardener in warm weather. Two part epoxies can be mixed with “fast,” “medium” or “slow” hardeners, which (obviously enough) regulates the speed of the hardening process. When I bought my first gallon of epoxy last year, I followed the recommendation of an online correspondent who said that “medium” hardener was a good all round choice. Which it is—as long as the temperature stays below, oh, about 75 degrees. In warmer weather, it wants to “kick” (begin the hardening process) almost immediately, which meant that I had to work at full speed every time I mixed up a batch. If I waited too long, the epoxy would generate so much heat that it would melt the plastic cups I use to mix the adhesive and quickly turn into a rock-hard mass.

In contrast, “slow” hardener allows me to work at my leisure and I’m able to fill holes with more care and in a more thoughtful way. If you are building a boat in the summer, the right hardener makes all the difference.

Everyone hates sanding and there are many jokes about the drudgery of the work. I think one builder even named his craft “50 Grit,” reflecting his feeling that all he did was sand. But I find that the work goes quickly. Since the wood will be covered by fiberglass, I don’t need to sand the wood a mirror-smooth surface, which means that I only need to grind down the rough spots. While epoxy is hard, it quickly yields to a sander and I can cover a great deal of territory quickly. By the end of the weekend, I had filled and sanded the entire cockpit, which is probably the hardest part to finish. I was even able to move on to the cabin roof.

I learned not to make predictions, but at this rate, I should be ready to turn the boat over (which is another source of anxiety) within a week so that I can sand the underside and, from there, begin the fiberglassing process.


Horsepower or Human Power?

June 7, 2010

I checked a large item off my “to do” list today by finishing my boat’s transom and motor mount. Over the past several weeks I incrementally built up the transom with multiple layers of pine boards and plywood—four layers in all—capable of supporting an outboard motor in a U-shaped cutout. A removable insert was also constructed, which fits like a glove and is very satisfying to slide in and take out.

The completed transom, showing the cutout with the insert removed.

The transom, as seen from the inside. The insert is now in place. If I don't use an outboard, the boat will look like this most of the time.

A sideview of the insert, showing all of the various layers used to build up the transom.

I completed this step feeling conflicted. The truth is, I don’t like outboards. In my very limited experience, outboards are large machines that fill space and, as a general rule, refuse to start. On the rare occasion when they do cooperate, the result is a great deal of noise and nasty smells.

But you have to have an outboard! people say. How will you get out of harbors? What happens when the wind dies? And they might be right. I don’t have enough experience to argue otherwise. My sailing experience is limited to Sunfish. But then again…Lots of sailboats, large and small, managed to get out of harbors and reach their destinations for millennia without power, so why do we think they are absolutely essential? Are they necessary, or simply convenient?

Again, I don’t yet know the answer, but I have noticed a tendency in modern culture to forget what we can do without gasoline. To often, we accept the belief that technology that is available is technology that must be used.

Twenty-five years ago a large branch broke off a tree in our front yard. We were newlyweds in a small California bungalow and my toolbox was small. As city dwellers, we had no need for a chainsaw. So I started cutting up the limb with my handsaw. A man walking down the street stopped to watch me work, then said, not in a friendly way, “Man, you are using entirely the wrong tool for the job!” and walked on.

But why was it the wrong tool? I mused. It’s not morally wrong to use a handsaw. I wasn’t breaking any municipal laws. It was just a slower way of cutting wood. And why is that wrong? A more compelling case could be made that a noisy and potentially lethal chainsaw is the less responsible tool. I, on the other hand, was enjoying a sunny day and getting real exercise.

A year or two later, I was cutting the grass. Our yard was small so it made sense, to me, to use an old-fashioned reel mower. It was the neighborhood novelty; everyone else had the most muscular self-propelled mowers their postage stamp-sized lots could justify. One day a small boy stopped, pointed at the mower, and asked, “Where’s the motor?” “I’m the motor!” I replied with a grin, hoping the youngster would say something like, “Gee, that’s really cool, mister! Can I try it out? ” But he stared at me blankly and eventually wandered off

One more story: For six years I completed most of my errands by driving ten miles round trip to our nearest town. For all those years, I wondered about running my errands on my bicycle instead. And for all those years, people gave me strange looks when I presented my idea. Why would you bicycle? was the immediate reaction. Aside from competitive cyclists in spandex and a handful of guys who look like they had one too many DWI convictions, no one rides a bike in my part of the country. We have roads; you have a car. Why are you talking about bikes?

But one day I put on my helmet, pumped up the tires on my bike and headed out. It felt liberating to zip down the country lanes under my own power, without ever having to fill up at a gas station. So now I make the trip several times a week, weather permitting, whenever I need to pick up some books at the library, go to the bank, or swim laps at the YMCA. It takes three times longer to reach my destinations but in an odd way  my sense of distance shrank. Five miles doesn’t seem so far on a bike. My town now feels closer.

So in this contrarian frame of mind, I started looking at alternatives to outboard motors. If my goal is to have auxiliary power in tight spots or when I want to rush back to port, maybe a small battery-powered trawling motor would do the trick, I thought. And while I’m at it, why not add some solar panels so I can recharge my battery and travel carbon-free? It was an intriguing idea, but I know very little about solar power and I quickly got lost in the unfamiliar language of deep cycle batteries and inverters. For the moment, I am defeated by this particular kind of technology.

So I next took a few steps farther down the technology ladder and wondered about simply rowing my boat. Again, lots of small sailboats are capable of being rowed and one of my favorite boat designers—Phil Bolger—purposefully incorporated rowing capability into some of his most innovative sailboats, including the Birdwatcher. He admitted that few builders were willing to embrace this form of propulsion, but it could be done.

Digging deeper, I decided that sculling might be the most appropriate method of human locomotion for my boat. The sailor stands at the stern, swinging a single long oar with a sweeping motion, somewhat like a Venetian gondolier. I was thrilled to discover a simple device that attaches the oar to the transom and allows even inexperienced scullers to wag the oar back and forth in the most efficient manner. (See the Duckworks catalog for short video of the “Scullmatix” in action)

As all this was going on in my mind, I continued to work on the motor mount, which seemed prudent because, in the end, I might want an outboard. Even contrarians need to make compromises and concede defeat from time to time. For now, I am filled with theories and philosophical convictions. But the wind and waves may have other opinions and, in the end, I’ll defer to their judgment.


Carpe Diem

June 1, 2010

I stopped by my local home center today to buy yet another package of 50 grit sandpaper for the belt sander. While contemplating the selection, a helpful employee asked me how I was doing (“fine”) and if I needed any help (“No, thanks”). But then he caught me off guard with his third question. “So, what are you working on today?”

I don’t generally reveal to strangers that I am building a boat. It seems a bit eccentric to talk about rudders and coamings when everyone around me is thinking about gutter spouts, leaky faucets, and weedy lawns. I worry that I might look like the alien in District 9, explaining how I’m going to return to the mother ship in my homemade craft.

This was the dream. It's taking me a long time to get there, but I'm finally on my way.

But, as I say, he caught me off guard, so with only a small hesitation in my voice I told him that I was building a sailboat.

Instead of recoiling in fear, he smiled broadly and got a wistful look. “Really? he said with genuine interest. “I’d like to build a boat but…” And here he inserted a couple of predictable reasons why such a thing would be impossible.

The conversation ended abruptly when a lady walked up wanting his advice on wood filler. But I ambled away thinking about how I’m not so crazy after all. The only thing that separates me from millions of other people is that I am actually building my boat. I’m doing something that many people (well, guys, mostly) want to do—but don’t ever do.

I don’t feel particularly brave or adventurous. I chide myself for not being a risk taker and my wife tells me that I dress too conservatively. But for some reason, I broke through the usual barriers (internal and external) that blocked me for thirty years from starting this particular project. And now, at last, I’m having a blast. I may complain in this blog about how long it takes to build a boat and how frustrating it is to solve small problems, but the truth is that I’m having a great time and I don’t regret my decision to undertake the project. It’s time consuming, but not very hard.

So why, I wonder, do so many people sit on the sidelines and not follow their own dreams? Why do so many boats exist only in the imaginations of armchair sailors? Why are so many African safaris only completed in front of television sets? Why does a whole life pass without at least trying what, in our hearts, we most want to do?

Yes, yes, there are many good and fully legitimate excuses for inaction. Like most people, I’m not rich, I have to work, I have a mortgage, I have kids. But I’m not convinced that these are the real reasons. Forces of inertia, conventionality, and fear might be the largest hurdles, even if they only exist in our minds. It’s hard to go against the current. It takes real bravery to be even slightly different from the people around us.

But when we do break away from our day-to-day lives, we often find that the fears are unwarranted and the rewards are real. Like a muscle, bravery grows with practice and gives us the strength to try new things.

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In some ways, my boat building adventure actually began when my wife and I took our three small children to Mexico for a couple of years. Before leaving, people told us that it was dangerous and that our children would be warped. We went anyway, and found that the naysayers were wrong. The children were happy and we felt completely safe.

And once there, we also found fellow expatriates who were living amazingly adventurous lives. Some had been traveling for years—Fiji to New Zealand; Ecuador to Africa. A few also had children (who appeared happy and well adjusted). Suddenly, we were the conventional and boring people because all we did was drive to Mexico and rent a small house. But by entering this particular world of globetrotting expats, our sense of possibility widened further. We talk boldly of completing even bigger and better adventures. The world grew larger, the barriers smaller.

One day I fell into conversation with an American retiree who was wintering in Mexico. Back home, he had a sailboat, which he sailed around Florida and the Caribbean. I admitted to him my life-long fantasy of building my own boat and undertaking a similar adventure, but explained that this was now impossible because I had three small kids. I expected the man to give me a nod of agreement, but instead of commiserating, he starting telling me all about the liveaboard kids he saw in Caribbean ports, and painted pictures of children swinging happily from the rigging and playing games along the shore. Then he started telling me about the kind of boat I should get.

This had never happened before. Back in the States, people either stared blankly when I talked about my dreams or readily agreed that it wasn’t a realistic plan. Here, in the mountains of Mexico, I found a guy who treated my dream as both reasonable and doable. Finally, I saw that the only person keeping me off the water was myself. That very day, I Googled “boat building” and discovered the Glen-L catalog and several other popular boating Web sites.

We returned home a year later and it took a few more years to build up the commitment and courage to buy my plans for the Pocket Cruiser, which I discuss in some of my earliest postings. This boat isn’t big enough for a family cruise to the Caribbean, but, for now, I don’t mind. It’s enough to start with a tiny act of rebellion. Step by step, I gain courage, find people who will support my ideas, and learn the necessary skills. This takes me to my next challenge, and then the next.

This is one thing I have learned about life: Small acts of bravery lead to larger acts of bravery. If I can build a boat, what else can I do? Maybe I really can sail it down the Chesapeake. Maybe I can go the Bahamas. Maybe I don’t need a house in suburbia. Maybe—who knows?—I can live a very different life. By taking a small sideways step and trying something new, we enter whole new worlds. Incrementally, we can become the people we want to be.

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We all have our challenges and our own rebellions. Maybe, for you, boat building is not brave or rebellious. But in my world, it is. I grew up in a family that prized intellectual achievement. The talents of artists and craftsmen, while praised, were not part of my family’s DNA. So I stayed on the established path and even entered my father’s line of work (education policy). For many years, I thought it was my calling because I was successful. I methodically accumulated all the trapping of middle class respectability.

Yet I never felt the kind of passion my father had for his work, nor did I feel at ease in my suburban life. My father believed he was changing the world; I didn’t. My father liked to come home from a long day in the office and mow the lawn; I hate mowing the lawn. So why did I work in education? Why did I have a lawn? It finally dawned on me that I was unhappy because I was trying to live my father’s life, not my own. I did not have this revelation until after my father’s death. Only in hindsight could I see how completely (in a fully loving and well intentioned way) he had orchestrated my life, and how easily I had followed along, assuming I would have his passion and his zest for life simply by doing what he did.

In the mid 1980s, Robin Williams starred in a popular movie called The Dead Poets Society. In the movie Williams, who plays an unconventional yet inspiring teacher (the only kind of teacher ever portrayed in Hollywood movies), admonishes his students with the phrase, “Carpe diem!”—Seize the day! My father loved this phrase. It expressed his belief in taking action, a commitment to making a difference in the world. “Carpe diem!” He was ejaculate at the dinner table when talking about a plan to make schools better.

In contrast, I found the phrase confusing and somewhat irritating. “What does it mean to ‘seize the day?’” I asked my father. Does it mean that I should work twice as hard at my job?—That I should stay in the office till dark and not come home until the kids are in bed? Or does it mean that I call in sick and take the kids to the park because it’s more important to smell the roses? Or does it mean that I quit my job, abandon the family, travel to India and work with Mother Theresa? It’s an empty, pointless exhortation, I said, when you don’t know what you want, or want more than one thing. My father thought this was a novel idea. He never felt uncertain or conflicted.

I tell this story because I feel, at last—at the age of 45–that I am seizing the day. I don’t yet know where it will all end since ultimate goal of my life is not to build this little boat or even to spend a week on the Chesapeake. But I feel I am heading in the right direction because I feel whole and happy when I work on the boat and when I think about the opportunities it will create in the future. From these small steps, I am gaining the skills and, even more importantly, the courage to finally be the person I want to be. I am hoping to one day say “carpe diem” and know what it means.