On the trailer and out of the garage

June 2, 2011

It’s late and I’m tired, but it was a productive day. I’ll fill in the details later, but here are the highlights:

I bought the trailer a few days ago and spent a couple of days making necessary modifications. I needed to fabricate a slot to support the Pocket Cruiser’s distinctive keel, elevate the bunkers, and move the axels a foot forward in order to lower the tongue weight. (I learned a great deal about trailers this week. The salesman explained that most trailers are built for power boats, which carry their weight in the back. In contrast, sailboats carry most of their weight in the front. To balance the weight more evenly, it is generally necessary to move the wheels forward.)

Getting the boat on the trailer was a nerve wracking task, although it was, in the end, relatively easy. With help from my kids, I was able to lever the front end onto the trailer, elevate the back on five gallon buckets, and winch it forward. What a relief it was to see it safely settled on the trailer!

A couple of days later, after completing most of the rigging, I hitched the boat to the car and pulled it out of the garage. This was a moment’s work, but it felt momentous. After all, this was the first time the boat had left the garage. My kids’ first response: “That’s a small boat.” And they were right. Outside, the boat seemed to shrink. “It will look even smaller on the Chesapeake Bay,” I predicted.

Once outside, I was able to raise the mast and attach the stays—wire rope used to support the mast. Once in place, I raised the sail to the top for the first time and guess what? It worked. By golly, the gaff rose with only minimal effort and took the full sail along for the ride. A puff of wind started yanking at the sail and I quickly dropped it back down, but I felt satisfied. Aside from some tinkering and final lashing, I’m just about ready to sail.

I learned the hard way to not make predictions, but my plan is to take the boat to the water in the coming week. More work remains (the jib isn’t finished), but it’s ready for a quick test run. At last, I’ll finally learn if this thing will actually float.

Cheers to my daughter, who documented the whole process with her camera.


Perfection Versus the Real World

April 17, 2011

While living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland I saw plenty of shiny new yachts. Most were kept in resort town marinas and saw, at best, occasional use by their absentee owners. They were pretty boats, to be sure: freshly varnished teak and pure white paint.

After a few arrivals and departures from a sandy beach, this is what my canoe looks like underneath.

But the boats that most captured my imagination were the old wooden workboats—the fishing and crabbing boats that were built from thick timbers by old-time craftsman who took their skills for granted. Most were scuffed, scraped, splintered, and hastily repaired. They exuded a strong odor of dead fish and dried mud on hot summer days.  But after decades of hard work, they exhibited a depth of character that no weekend yacht could emulate. Like a crumbling stone wall in an abandoned farm field, they became part of their environment. They blended harmoniously into the salt marsh landscape of the Bay precisely because they were rough hewn and hard used.

Maybe that’s why I never aspired to yacht-like perfection in my boats. I want people to know that my boat is homemade; I want it to look used. While I admire the stamina of builders who spend weeks and months faring their hulls and applying six, eight, ten coats of marine varnish (sanding between each), I was satisfied with grinding down the rough spots and slapping on a few coats of porch paint. Up close, the casual approach is obvious. There are bumps and drips just about everywhere. But I am perfectly content with the results. My boat feels “real.”

Every well used canoe needs some mud.

Still, part of me wondered if I would regret my hasty approach. Once I was on the water and my boat was exposed to the revealing glare of sunlight on water, would I wish for greater perfection? Maybe I would feel embarrassed by my humble work whenever a gleaming yacht slid passed.

But I recently had a revelation about this urge for workshop perfection. A few days ago I took my canoe—the “six hour” canoe I built last fall—to a local lake for its first outing of the season. This was only its second trip to the water and I doubt its total use by the family exceeded an hour or two hours of paddling. But by the end of the day, as I lifted it out of the water and hoisted it back onto the roof of my car, I immediately noticed that this new, barely used craft was coated in mud. Underneath, the paint had scraped off down to bare wood and fiberglass where the canoe dragged along the shoreline.

A quick once over with a hose and a touch up with a paint brush would make the canoe nearly good as new. But why fret about this “damage”? The canoe was just being used as a canoe should; the mud and scratches are badges of honor. And I’d rather enjoy my canoe than worry about every little ding. Instead, I found myself feeling smug that I didn’t waste my time sanding and painting. Why pursue a notion of perfection that cannot be sustained in the real world?

Back home, my Pocket Cruiser has yet to see the water; it has yet to see sunlight or rain. It has not yet hit a gravely beach, or hosted children with muddy feet who spill their drinks. It has not yet hit a dock—hard. But it will and, when it does, my brightwork won’t look so bright, the white paint will show dirt, the paint will scrape away and begin to bubble.

I can’t wait.

Here we go again…

April 4, 2011

As I begin my third spring as a novice boat builder, I’m starting to realize how fully my enthusiasm is shaped by the seasons. Winter is a time for second guesses and self recrimination. What, I wonder, have I gotten myself into? Who cares about boats? Midlife insanity must be the only explanation.

But as soon as the air warms and the grass starts to turn green, I find myself irresistably drawn to boat building web sites  and, as predictable as crocuses, I feel the tug of the boat itself, pulling me out to the garage and compelling me to pick up my tools. Within hours, I am once again dreaming of my long-planned trip down the Chesapeake.

Two days of sun and mild temperatures worked their magic and the result was a trip to the hardware store and a full afternoon of work. But before I begin another season of blog posts, I thought I should post a few photos showing what the boat looks like just before I get down to work. In the coming weeks, if possible, I plan to finish painting the cockpit, make the polytarp sail, install the mast, and attaching all of the many lines and pulleys that will hold it all together.

The Final Countdown

August 6, 2010

After turning the boat back over about a month ago, I set to work on a long list of small tasks. Every day or two I would check off an item and move on to the next. No single task seemed especially newsworthy. But I now realize that a great deal has changed and that—dare I say it?—the boat might be finished in as little as a month if I can keep up the current pace.

But before I start the final sprint, here is a quick overview of the progress to date, presented in no particular order of importance:

Bilge Boards Completed

One of two bilgeboards

Edge view

There are two bilge boards, which act as off-center centerboards. I had never heard of bilge boards before starting this project, but they are a very nice feature of the boat since they sit on either side of the hull and don’t break up cabin space.

My instructions told me to build the boards from ¾ inch pine or fir, but I chose instead to laminate two 3/8 inch pieces of plywood, which is the method recommended by most other builders. The laminated plywood is considerably stronger than a single pine board and less inclined to crack or break when it hits something.

I’m not an engineer so I don’t fully understand all of the technical aspects of their shape and performance, but I knew it is necessary to round the front edge of the boards and gently feather the back ends. My instructions were hazy on the details, but I found detailed instructions for the proper curvature from Jim Michalak’s book, Boat Building for Beginners and Beyond. His similarly shaped leeboards look somewhat like airplane wings and I followed his measurements. I started with my hand plane and finished up with a belt sander.

I then added a cherry cap to hold it in place on the deck and did a quick and dirty ‘glassing job. In this photo, the board is freshly glassed but not yet sanded. To finish this project, I will varnish the cherry and paint the boards.

Rubrails Fabricated and Installed

Front view. The blue painters tape is protecting the hull while I varnish the rails.

And here's a side view.

The rubrails were the next item on my list. Both are made from humble pine. I suppose cherry or oak would be more durable, but I am in a rush and don’t want to spend the money on hardwood. The instructions told me to use one inch half-round molding, but I ripped the pieces from boards in my shop and rounded the edges with my router. Both were attached with epoxy and screws, which seemed logical at the time, but I later read postings from builders who suggested using bedding compound (such as caulking) so that the rails could be more easily removed and replaced when they wear out. Apparently rubrails are meant to be replaced and are considered “consumable”. But I just followed directions and glued them down tight. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the world’s best sailor and will never hit a dock or piling.

I was going to paint the rails, but decided to varnish them instead. To protect the pine, I coated the rails with epoxy and three layers of marine varnish (I’m using a brand called Last n Last). In this picture, you can see the blue painter’s tape I’m using to keep varnish off the hull.

Portholes Assembled

One of four portholes, ready for installation.

A side view, showing the plexiglass and brass bolt.

Around this time I also assembled the boat’s four portholes. Many people buy ready made portholes, but I decided to fabricate mine from ¼ inch plywood and plexiglass, according to the Stevenson’s instructions. The oval porthole frame is protected with two coats of epoxy and three coats of varnish. I don’t know how well it will hold up over time, but new frames can be easily made later on. The plexiglass was easily cut with a fine-toothed blade on my jigsaw. The whole assembly will be held in place with four small brass bolts and made watertight with silicone caulking.

Cockpit Seats and Floor Fiberglassed

The floor and seat bottoms are fiberglassed.

I have grown wary of epoxy. Rashes and persistent respiratory problems suggest that I am developing a strong allergic reaction to the harsh chemicals (symptoms listed on the West Systems Web site describe my conditions perfectly). Fortunately, I was able to finish glassing the hull and decks before my condition worsened. But I still had to work on the cockpit. Taking a minimalist approach I decided to only ‘glass the cockpit floor and the seat bottoms, which are the most exposed and wettest parts of the cockpit. This means I am not ‘glassing the seatbacks or cabin bulkhead; they will simply be painted.

I also view this as an experiment. I repeatedly hear that exterior grade plywood will check if not fiberglassed. But I also hear about exterior grade plywood boats that have been sailing for years with nothing more than paint for protection. So I want to know how quickly and how badly plywood will check. If the answers are “not soon” and “not much” then I will take an even more casual attitude toward fiberglassing in future projects.

Sliding Hatch and Handrails Installed

I built the hatch cover nearly six months ago as a winter project, but it was time to get it installed. I added some edging around the opening in the cabin roof so that the hatch can slide back and forth like a train on a track. The edging, I assume, will also keep out water and rain.

The handrails double as a guide for the sliding hatch. I shaped them with a router and secured them to th roof with bolts.

A front view of the handrail and hatch, showing the sliding rails.

The handrails were especially fun to finish. I rough cut both from cherry some months ago, but I still needed to round the edges with a router. I also added quarter round molding (also made from my cherry) to hold the sliding hatch in place. Finally, I drilled three ¼inch holes down the top of each rail and inserted four inch stainless steel bolts, which go through the cabin roof and hold the rails in place. In this picture, the rails are temporarily bolted in place, but won’t be securely set until the cabin and sliding hatch are painted.

There are still many unchecked items on my to do list. I need to build the mast (probably within a week or two), make the sails, finish painting and…well, you get the idea. When it’s time to sail, you’ll be the first to know.