What’s Taking You So Long?

December 3, 2009

Over Thanksgiving, I showed photos of my boat to one of my relatives. She was not impressed. “So you haven’t gotten very far,” she said after looking at the most up-to-date pictures.

Take a good look. When the seats are installed you won't see all the time spent installing the stringers.

I maintained my composure. After all, she’s a kind and loving person. But it was a very deflating comment.

I don’t blame her. In fact, I fully understand why the average person on the street fails to appreciate all the labor involved in boat building. To a casual observer, there is nothing complicated or even impressive about a rough, unfinished plywood hull. The uninitiated can legitimately ask: “What’s taking you so long?”

The problem is that the labor is hidden. A casual observer simply sees the curved box with the crude beginnings of a cabin and cockpit. But the real work is not represented by the boat’s size or even its overall shape. It’s found in the angles that must be measured and cut, the sanding and shaping required to make watertight joints, the tedious work of gluing each piece in place. And, of course, there is all the time spent staring at the plans and rereading the instructions, trying to avoid mistakes.

Even now, nearly nine months into my project, I am still learning that 90 percent of the labor in boat building is preparatory work. I go out to the garage determined to, say, install the seats. How hard can that be? I’ll be done before lunch.

But once there, I realize that I must first install roughly 30 stringers, and each stringer must but cut to length, angled, and trimmed. I must make countless measurement to assure myself that the stringers are properly located on the hull sides, and I must mark and predrill dozens of holes for dozens of screws.

So instead of finishing the seats, I spend an entire morning cutting half of the necessary stringers. A few days later I cut the rest of the stringers. The following weekend, I glue them in place. The day after that I decide to caulk seams that will be hard to reach when the seats are installed. Hours, days and, eventually, weeks pass before the “preliminary” steps are finally finished and I am, at last, ready put the plywood seat bottoms in place.

Of course, when the seats are installed, all of my time-consuming work will be hidden from view. Out of sight means out of mind and I alone will know what was required to make a simple and unadorned plywood bench. My niece will look at the seats and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Now that I am nearing that final step, I am already looking to the next task, which is to install the seat backs, which also serve as the boat’s coaming. That should be easy, I say. How hard can that be?

I will soon find out.


Hurry Up Slowly

November 4, 2009

My newfound enthusiasm tripped me up last week. Determined to make real progress before winter, I rushed into the garage during an unseasonably warm day eager to install the cockpit seating. The result was a pile of miscut lumber and low-grade depression.

seat sides

All's well that ends well--mostly. The second set of seat side boards are now epoxied in place.

In theory, the seats are simple—vertical sides support a plywood bench held together with some stringers and glue. Adding to my confidence was the knowledge that, for the first time, I didn’t need to worry excessively about a perfect, watertight fit. With the hull completed, I’m just tinkering with the interior architecture.

But my eagerness to reach the finish line, combined with a sudden lack of timidity and caution, made me inattentive. Instead of carefully reviewing the plans and—of even greater importance at this stage—carefully measuring the actual cockpit space, I simply rushed to my plywood with a few rudimentary measurements and starting cutting away. In a matter of minutes I had both sides of the seating area ready to install and for a few moments I congratulated myself on my speed and decisiveness. I must be getting the hang of the boat building business!

Then, of course, came the disappointment of discovering that I had mismeasured the length of the cockpit floor. Once I set the boards in place it was painfully clear that both were a half-inch too short; there was a gap between the side boards and the transom wide enough to sail a tanker through. I tried to pretend that the discrepancy didn’t matter—that stringers could bridge the gap and epoxy could hide my error. But the mistake was too galling and in, the end, I am too much of a perfectionist to live with dumb miscalculations. So in a pique of self-recrimination and irritation, I redrew and recut the pieces. But by now I was grumpy and harassed, so I made a couple of new mistakes—small ones (you probably won’t see them)–but they gave rise to a new burst of Job-like lamentations along the lines of “Why me?” and “Well, that figures!” It didn’t help that all my cutting was producing a chaotic pile of wasted plywood that kept getting in my way as I worked.

I left the garage feeling that my time had been wasted and warm weather had been squandered. The next day was even warmer, however, and with some trepidation I went back out to the garage. First, I paid penance by cleaning up the scrap wood and putting away the tools. Then I went back to work—but more slowly and with no particular goal in mind. Of course, I don’t need to point out the obvious: My work was both pleasant and productive. A few hours later I had successfully epoxied the seat sides to the bottom of the hull and everything fit with satisfying precision. My small mistakes from the previous day are still there and they will mock me for years to come, but such things are good for the soul—or so I hope.

Autumn is my favorite season. I like preparing for winter by stacking firewood and cleaning up the yard. With cooler temperatures and a sense of urgency, I often work in a more purposeful way. But I needed this experience to remind myself that boats simply cannot be rushed. Everything I learned during the first weeks of work holds true today: progress depends on the incremental completion of countless small tasks. I keep looking for the moment when the fiddly work is over and I can sprint to the finish line, but it never comes. After completing one tiny task, I simply move onto another tiny task. From one day to the next, I seem to do nothing but cut a notch here and plane an angle there. But, somehow, all this tinkering has gotten me this far, and I have to remind myself that I will eventually get me to a finished boat and the water’s edge.

Autumn Resolutions

October 23, 2009

Autumn came suddenly; it was warm one day, cold the next. Leaves changed color overnight. I was caught by surprise and it left me feeling cheated. I had hoped to get so much more done this summer—in all aspects of my life, but especially with the boat. At the very least, I had hoped to finish the cabin, install the seating, and possibly even fiberglass the hull. From there I hoped to work in a smaller but warmer woodshop on fiddly bits like the rudder and mast.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Completed cabin.

Completed cabin.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Instead, I stood shivering in a large and unheated garage looking at a very forlorn looking hull wondering if I would ever get the boat in the water.

From spring to midsummer I was pleased with my progress and even nurtured the secret hope that I could be finished by fall. I held on to that fantasy into August, even when my initial enthusiasm faded and I was distracted by other household projects. Only with the arrival of morning frost did I admit the truth: Like so many other amateur boat builders, I’ll need a year (or more?) to get the job done.

My first reaction was to admit defeat and close the garage door and announce that the boat building season was over. I don’t like working in cold weather; it’s not fun running a sander when my nose is running and my hands are numb. Lack of comfort leads to sloppy work and shortcuts. Also, plastic resin glue, my glue of choice, requires temperatures above 70 degrees to dry properly.

But after feeling sorry for myself for a week or two, I changed tactics. I know from experience that I can lose interest in projects when they are neglected for too long. I didn’t want to open the garage doors in April and confront a dusty hull that I no longer wanted to finish. So I decided to view off-season boat building as a challenge and try to get as much done as possible. I was going to march on, even if I my progress was minimal.

My first strategy was to switch adhesives. While plastic resin glue needs warm weather, epoxy tolerates much lower temperatures. It takes longer to harden as the thermometer drops, but that’s more of a benefit than a disadvantage; I can work at a more leisurely pace knowing that the mixed adhesive won’t “kick” (to use some jargon) for an hour or more. And as for the problem of comfort: Well, nobody says I need to work in subzero temperatures. I admitted to myself that with warm clothes, it’s possible to work comfortably and carefully on the many winter days that rise to the 40’s and 50’s.

To prove my resolve, I took advantage of a recent warm day to attach the cabin roof, which I had cut several weeks ago but left lying on the garage floor. It now arches elegantly over the curved cabin roof beams, which I had completed in the even more distant past—early September, I think. It was my last major accomplishment and required some precision and experimentation. The first set of rafters were not sufficiently arched and needed to be redrawn and recut.

The result is a boat that finally has something close to its final shape—a finished hull and a nearly complete cabin that allows me to crawl inside and, for the first time, experience my long-held fantasy curling up in the cocoon-like space of my waterborne retreat. The cockpit still looks bare without the seats, but once they are assembled, the “plywood” phase of my project will at last be finished. Maybe I’m not such a slacker, after all.

Interestingly, the boat seems to be getting smaller, not larger, as I continue work. I assumed that it would appear more spacious as it gained volume, but the opposite appears to be happening. Instead, the completed cabin makes me realize just how small the interior space really is. I can sit up (just barely) and there is plenty of room to lie down. But it’s more like a low-slung tent than true living space. I can’t yet decide how I feel about this revelation, but I understand why some people opt for open hulled sailboats, or, alternately, look for boats that are unconventionally designed but offer much larger cabin space (such as Phil Bolger’s birdwatcher design). The simple truth is that it’s hard to provide true living space in a true pocket cruiser so I, like all boat builders and boat owners, must compromise space if we want the convenience and affordability of a small boat.

But in moments of doubt and self recrimination (I should have built a different boat), I remind myself of my guiding mantra (this is an experiment) and my ultimate goal (one successful journey down the Chesapeake). After that, new opportunities will appear, as they always do. But first things first: Keep working and get it done!