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.


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?


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...


First Lessons In Fiberglassing

April 19, 2010

From the moment I resolved to build a plywood sailboat, I dreaded the day when I would need to fiberglass the hull. I knew nothing—absolutely nothing–about the process, but I assumed that it would be hard and stressful. I would have paid money to avoid the whole problem.

The rudder, partially fiberglassed.

I’m not the only one. Over the past year, I have read many pleas on various boat building forums from guys who are eager to build a boat, but hesitate when they learn that fiberglassing is required. Is it really necessary? They ask. Can’t I just skip this step?

Eavesdropping on the conversations of experienced builders didn’t help much. They talked knowingly about “plywood saturation,” “faring compound,” and the superiority of epoxy resin over polyester, among a dozen obscure steps and specialized products. For a while I doubted my ability to ever crack the code.

But slowly, as I followed online discussions, read the most popular books about “instant” boat building, and hunted down instructional videos, the clouds slowly parted. I began to understand both the how’s and why’s of fiberglassing. And here’s what I learned in a nutshell: Fiberglassing is nothing more than covering the boat with a layer of fiberglass cloth and several coats of epoxy—the same two part epoxy I use to assemble the boat. This process encapsulates the wood, providing another layer of protection.

Well, that’s not so hard, I think. But I also learn from my readings that the process of applying epoxy over the cloth is fraught with many small hazards. The epoxy needs to saturate the cloth, for example, but not be applied too thickly and it’s important to work fast. If the builder works too slowly or tries to cover too much territory at one time the epoxy can begin to harden before it is evenly spread over the cloth. My anxieties returned when I read message from a guy who was trying to give away a partially completed boat after he botched (or felt that he botched) a fiberglassing job.

It should be noted that not all builders fiberglass the entire hull. Dynamite Payson’s popular books on “instant” boatbuilding tell builders to simply “tape” the seams, which means that narrow fiberglass tape is epoxied over the edges alone. The same approach is followed by designer Jim Michalak. Both men believe it makes sense to fiberglass a boat’s bottom for extra protection, but this is offered as an optional step in most cases. The rest of the boat is simply protected by paint.

This minimalist approach is appealing and, were I building a Payson or Michalak boat, I would unhesitantly follow their instructions. However, it is also widely agreed that exterior grade plywood will almost certainly start to check if not fiberglassed. Michalak uses exterior grade for all his boats, so I don’t know how he reconciles this problem; maybe “checking” is not a horrible thing. But many other builders argue that unless expensive marine-grade hardwood is used a plywood boat simply must be encapsulated with fabric and several layers of epoxy to prevent checking and forestall rot.

The Stevenson’s usually follow the most expedient route, but not this time. For whatever reason, the Pocket Cruiser’s instructions call for glassing the whole exterior of the boat with one layer of fiberglass and two coats of epoxy. The accompanying video shows designer Pete Stevenson covering the underside of the boat, then flipping it over and doing the topside and cockpit. It looks like he did the whole thing in a single day. But my hull wasn’t ready for the full treatment and, besides, it was still winter and the garage was too cold for epoxy, which prefers temperatures above 50 degrees to cure.

But it occurred to me that I could pass the time and gain some skills by fiberglassing my recently completed rudder and hatch cover. But pieces could be easily replaced if I made a mistake. Also, I could complete the work in my cellar, which was considerably warmer than the garage.

I reread all I could find about the actual process of fiberglassing and learned that there are several different ways to get the job done. Glen-L, a well established company that sells boat plans and boat building supplies, tells builders to first cover the wood with a coat of epoxy. After it dries, the fiberglass is laid on top and coated with a second layer of epoxy. On top of that are added two more layers. Their instructions advise builders to apply each coat as thinly as possible and sand between coats.

In contrast, Jim Michalak, in his book, Boatbuilding For Beginners (and Beyond), recommends spreading a thick coat of epoxy, then laying the fiberglass over top before the it dries. Once the initial layer hardens, a second thick coat goes on top. After sanding the rough spots, you’re all done.

But I decide to follow the recommendations of West System, a well respected epoxy manufacturer. Their strategy, described in a short online video, is to first lay the fabric on the bare wood and then pour a small amount of epoxy on top, which is then spread around with a flexible rubber spatula. Once dried, two or more coats are added, with light sanding between each step.

I’m sure experienced builders have strong opinions about each strategy, but I decided that West System’s approach made sense. It is also close to what the Stevenson’s recommend in their instructions. Plus, I was inclined to trust the recommendations of an epoxy manufacturer and I appreciated their clear presentation.

So taking a deep breathe I cut off a strip of fabric with my wife’s fabric scissors, making sure that was large enough to drape over the rudder’s edges. The three-ounce fabric looked a bit like fine cheesecloth and cut as easily as thin cotton fabric. I laid the cloth over the board, mixed a batch of epoxy and poured a small amount in the middle. With a rubber-like paddle (sold for just such a purpose), I started spreading the epoxy around and pushing it into the weaving. As I worked, the white fabric turned pale and then became nearly transparent, a sign that it was fully saturated. The work was easy and the fabric stayed in place. So far so good.

My trouble began at the edges. Using a small bristle brush I was able to stick the fabric to the sides, but the epoxy kept dripping and the corners didn’t want to stay down. I could tell that the work was flawed, but the full extent of my inexperience wasn’t revealed until the next day when I examined a rudder trimmed with hardened drips and multiple air pockets. It looked like a mess. I cut away excess fabric with my pocket knife, which helped tidy it up, and then smoothed everything down with my belt sander. Such a wonderful tool; it can remove a multitude of sins.

I flipped the rudder over and repeated the process, trying hard to keep everything drip-free. Again, the top was easy and the results flawless, but I had the same problems on sides. I wondered if bumpy and lumpy edges are to be expected. Or maybe it’s the cold weather, I mused. Since it takes hours for the epoxy to kick, it has more time to run. Once again, I felt like I did when I first started building the boat—plowing ahead but never certain that I was doing it right.

My confidence was somewhat restored as I applied additional coats. After the second layer, the fiberglass was almost completely invisible and the rudder took on a deep, glossy sheen. By the third coat, it looked nearly impregnable. I decided that while my work wasn’t perfect, it was certainly adequate.

I had just enough time to finish the hatch before the weather turned cold, and I’m glad I did. I was able sit through the winter storms knowing that, when spring finally arrived, I would be able to pick up where I left off and have one less thing to worry about.


Spring Thaw

April 17, 2010

My latest column in Duckworks, the online boatbuilding magazine, discusses my limited progress over the winter but promises a finished boat by mid summer. I also talk about my first experiments with fiberglassing. Here’s how it begins:

Now, where was I?

The (mostly) completed rudder

Two months ago I walked out of my garage, midway through the construction of the rudder and cockpit seating for my Stevenson Pocket Cruiser. I thought I would be away for a few days while a midwinter cold snap passed through. But three snow storms, four feet of snow, and endless days of grey skies ransacked my plans. I huddled in my house like a refugee.

I tried to be productive. I finally tackled a long-planned bathroom renovation and repainted the kitchen walls. But I only visited the garage when I needed to grab a tool. I offered silent apologies to my boat, which looked abandoned and forlorn in the cold air and dim florescent light.

These long breaks can be dangerous for amateur boat builders. Momentum is lost and, as attention shifts elsewhere, the sense of urgency and excitement can dissipate. Once or twice, I looked at my boat with detachment and wondered why I started building it in the first place. Was it a temporary midlife madness? And if so, what do I do now? Not for the first time, I wondered how I could get rid of an uncompleted hull.

But as February passed, the icy path to the garage melted, temperatures inched up a few degrees and the outside world looked less forbidding. Skunk cabbage—a reliable precursor of spring—poked green tips through the shallow waters of a nearby marsh and, like other warm blooded creatures, I started stirring from my den. My thoughts turned to the boat.

With a warm coat, gloves, and hat, I went back in the garage, ready to pick up where I left off, but after so many weeks of inactivity, I felt like I was staring at someone else’s project. I found the rudder in several parts, epoxied but not assembled. I know I had purchased the bolts needed to put it together, but where were they now? Before the interruption, I was also preparing to cut the cockpit seat backs—I could see some rough lines scrawled on a sheet of plywood–but they now looked as mysterious as ancient hieroglyphics. What, exactly, did I have in mind?

It all looked so daunting, but I forced myself to start work. I found the missing bolts (they were still in the bag from the hardware store) and attached the rudder blade to the stock. I had already rough-cut the tiller, so all I needed to do was sand it smooth, drill two holes and bolt it into the rudder. Two hours later, the whole assembly was finished and I slid it into place against the boat’s transom. With the addition of this simple but unmistakably “boaty” mechanism, my wooden box is now looking more like a real sailboat. More importantly, I have something to do while sitting in the cockpit; I can swing the tiller back and forth while squinting into the imaginary horizon.

You can read the rest of the column on Duckworks.


Staying Warm

December 18, 2009

Earlier this fall I promised myself (and declared to the world) that would keep working through the winter, no matter what. But my resolve is being tested. It’s easy to make promises on a sunny day in the 60’s (just like it’s easy to start a diet on a full stomach), but it’s hard to follow through when the sidewalk is covered with ice and daytime temperatures hover in the 30’s.

So I am taking the easy path by skipping ahead and working on the boat’s rudder, which I can build in an unheated but slightly warmer woodshop adjacent to the garage. In the interest of comfort and holiday conviviality, I even brought my lumber inside and marked lines by a warm fire. Our cat assisted.

Donning a warm coat, hat and gloves, I dashed outside to cut the pieces with my jigsaw. After a fast sanding job, the pieces are now ready to epoxy. I’m just waiting for a slightly warmer day to get the job done. If I get antsy, I might even spread newspaper on the dining room table, and glue the parts inside. My wife would love that.


The Case for Small, Homemade Boats

December 11, 2009

In America’s “bigger is better” culture, there is always the temptation to purchase more than we need. Our houses have nearly doubled in size over the past twenty years even as families grow smaller and, until the recent rise in gas prices, cars were growing faster than body builders on steroids. Everything is supersized on the general assumption that good things are even better when they are larger.

Just the right size.

In a consumer culture, the central question is not “What do I need?” but “What can I afford?” Pressure is constantly felt to take the next step up in quality, size or “value”. It’s a tension we feel whenever we go to McDonalds (for twenty cents more I can get the large fries), the car dealership (leather seats would be nice…) or the Caldwell Banker agent (won’t my friends be impressed with the cathedral ceilings!). A dozen times a day we are given an opportunity to feel special and pursue the elusive goal of social status simply by spending more and trading up.

The danger, of course, is that we will become overextended. Debt mounts, bills come due, and the cost of fixing and maintaining our possessions sap time and more money. Twice the house means twice the amount of air to heat and cool—and twice the space to furnish. Large yards sound nice, but they must be landscaped and mowed, which means that the modest lawn mower must be replaced with a “lawn tractor.”

It’s consumerism run amuck and, Great Depressions notwithstanding, we seem powerless against its dynamic force.

Boats are no exception. Indeed, boating seems especially prone to this kind of pressure. In the status and style conscious world of sailing, there is always a boat that is a little bit bigger, a little bit nicer, a little bit sleeker. A 22-foot sailboat looks cramped next to a 24-foot boat. But wait! Both look like subsidized housing compared to the 40-foot sloop that just filled the berth next door.

For years, I resisted the lure of sailing precisely because I didn’t want to play these games and get sucked into the status-seeking culture of the “yachting class.” In a world where the world’s richest men compete to own the world’s largest yachts and corporate executives treat sailboats as fashion accessories, it is a game I would lose.

In the end, everyone loses. When possessions are simply expressions of our status we inevitably feel the restive pull of “more.” The internal compass the tells us that we have enough, that allows us to find satisfaction in what we have, is disrupted and we find ourselves heading off toward a receding horizon, forever in search of material happiness.

But there is another way. We can reject the disorientation of the consumer culture simply by taking control of the means of production (to quote Marx out of context). In other words, we can opt out of consumerism by choosing to make our own possessions.

Building, I believe, is not simply a slightly longer and harder way to get stuff (as some people assume). Instead, people who make things have a fundamentally different relationship with their possessions. Builders are not consumers. Instead, they are creators. Value is not expressed in the dollars spent, but in the labor given, the problems solved, and the ideas generated. Physical work—not cash or credit—brings the object to life. Pride of ownership comes from completing the task and bears little or no relationship the dollars spent. A quilt made from scraps can have greater value than a cashmere sweater; a plywood boat can inspire more pride than a teak-trimmed sloop.

Of course, I must purchase raw materials—plywood and glue, screws and bolts, among countless purchases large and small. But when I look at my boat, I don’t see the money spent (about $1,300 so far). Instead I only see time and effort—the hours spent learning to loft curves, to glue stringers, to mix epoxy, to solve countless small problems in my own way.

The result is a more reasoned and reflective relationship with possessions. When I build something useful, I’m not thinking about what is most fashionable or about how I can get the most for the money; instead I am thinking about what I actually need and what best reflects my personal tastes and values. And from this, comes a greater, more authentic sense of worth.

And the dividends continue after the boat is finished. A fifteen-foot boat fits easily in my garage, can be towed behind the family van, and (I’m told) is easily launched. In addition, maintenance costs are minimal; a boat that is simply built is also easily fixed. While large boats required countless ongoing fees—docking, hauling, repairing—I have all the space, supplies and experience needed to keep the boat in the water. I’m fully qualified to oversee maintenance since I’m the guy who built it in the first place. Nothing is a mystery; nothing is beyond my skills.

It might be too much to say that a boat is an expression of simplicity. After all, even a small boat requires time and money. The easiest way to save expenses is to not have a boat. But in a society that is always pushing us to buy our entertainment and purchase beyond our means, it is not too much to argue that amateur boatbuilding is an act of rebellion and the decision to make the most of a small boat is a statement of values.


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