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.

Sailmaking for the impatient sailor

May 18, 2011

Sailmaking is one of the great and ancient mariner arts. It conjures images of crusty old sailors sitting on barrels surround by yards of cotton canvas and pipe smoke as miles of thread are worked through fabric.

Unfortunately, my approach to sailmaking is considerably less romantic.

The completed sail. My son is keeping it from flying away in the wind while I stand on the roof of my workshop to take this photo.

First a little background. My research over the past two years suggested three possible routes to the acquisition of sails for my Pocket Cruiser. First, I could purchase ready-made sails for about $600. So many Stevenson boats are built that several companies (including the boat’s designer) offer sails that are just right for my boat. That’s the fastest and most expensive route. I just place my order and wait by the mailbox.

Secondly, I could buy some Dacron sailcloth and sew my own sails. It sounds intimidating, but it is doable. Boat designer Jim Michalak has a detailed discussion of  sailmaking in his novice-friendly book Boatbuilding for Beginners and Beyond. For anyone who knows how to use a sewing machine (and I do), this is a worthy option. The downside is that even inexpensive sailcloth costs real money and I assume that a serious time commitment is involved.

Finally, there is the quick and cheap option. A growing number of backyard boat builders get  on the water without delay by cutting a workable set of sails out of large plastic tarps—the kind used to cover outdoor furniture in winter or protect a woodpile from rain. They come in surprisingly large sizes and advocates say they are nearly as durable as Dacron—at least for a while. Instead of thread to sew their sails, these guys use guy materials—duck tape for the seams and grommets for the lashing. In an afternoon, I learned, it’s possible to turn a very large sheet of polytarp into a fully finished sail.

Polytarp sails are not perfect. While reasonably sturdy, they don’t last nearly as long as real sails, I am told. Pete Stevenson, my boat’s designer, admitted that they are generally good for a “season or two.” He and others recommend against their use on long voyages. This leaves me wondering how they will fail. Do they degrade and rip? Do the grommets pull out? My suspicion is that the duck-taped seams will peel and shred. But in either case, the consensus is that they are a functional but short term solution.

On the other hand, they are cheap–and that tipped the balance. I purchased a large 16’ x 19’ polytarp from an online supplier for about  $70 last fall (sailmakers are not limited to green or blue tarps found in home centers; I chose a plain white material). For taping the edges, a single small role of duck tape is enough. The grommet kit is also economical.

The actual work is really just a matter of drawing several long lines and cutting out a very large triangle-ish shape. But the work is not without its small challenges. First is the problem of workspace. I discovered that I do not have a flat surface anywhere on my property that is 16 feet wide and 19 feet long. My garage is large, but all available floor space is now occupied by my boats. Outside, my bumpy, sloping yard was entirely unhelpful. My driveway is gravel, and not suitable for careful measurement and cutting.

In hindsight, it would have made sense to cut my sail two years ago when I could roll the tarp out on my not-yet-cluttered garage floor. That’s actually Jim Michalak’s recommendation. Sails take up about as much space as the boat, he argues, so use your floor space to make the sail when you still have the space available. It’s sound advice, although I don’t know if I would have followed his recommendation even if I had read his book two years ago. I was too eager to start cutting wood.

My imperfect solution was to roll out part of the tarp in the garage, draw a couple of lines, and then roll out the other side and draw the rest. It took a long time and made me worry about inaccurate measurements, especially since there are no right angles. The bottom edge of the sail (the part tied to the boom) is 83 degrees to the side tied to the mast, for example. This required measurements with a laughably small and primitive protractor. Even a small twist in the fabric would send the lines off course. To double check my work, I took the tarp outside and opened the whole thing  on the driveway.  I fixed a couple of wobbly lines and then set to work with my pocket knife.

Two edges were wrapped in duck tape: the bottom edge, which will be tied to the boom, and the angled top edge, which will be lashed to the gaff. Making grommets was the most time consuming work, and a new experience for me. I was entertained (at least for the first few grommets) by the task to punching out holes with simple metal die, inserting two parts of the grommet and then tapping them together with a mallet and specially made metal punch. After about a dozen holes, the novelty wore off and I was ready to be done.  The result can be seen in the photo.

I also need to make the jib, but that’s a smaller and simpler project. Now that I know how to process works, I can get that ready in an  hour or two. On to the next step.

Of goosenecks and tabernacles

May 7, 2011

Until very recently I assumed goosenecks were of interest only to geese and tabernacles were the natural habitat of Mormon choirs. Now I know that they are also parts of my boat’s rigging. Both were installed a few weeks ago.

A gooseneck is an elaborate hinge that connects the boom to the mast. It allows the boom to swing sideways and also fold up and down. My boat’s designer included instructions for fabricating a sturdy gooseneck from iron rods, a short piece of pipe and some pins. But I’m impatient and also largely disinterested in metalwork, so I purchased a simple and serviceable gooseneck from Duckworks, my always reliable source for “exactly what I needed” boat building parts.

Here’s how it looks:

The tabernacle is simply the lower part of a hinged mast. It sits upright through the boats cabin and with the mast. Creating the tabernacle was much more difficult—emotionally, at least. I built my mast some months ago and devoted two full weeks to its carefully assembly. Now I had to cut it down at its knees. The bottom four feet would sit in the previously assembled mast box and become the tabernacle, while the top eleven feet would be reattached with some sturdy hinges and serve as the mast. This allows the mast to drop for transportation without having to be completely removed and disassembled.

To avoid mistakes, the rule is “measure twice, cut once.” But in this case, I think I measured a hundred times. I absolutely did not want to make a stupid mistake and cut the mast too high or too low. So only after reviewing my plans for the tenth time, did I finally take my circular and slice through the mast.

The next step was to reconnect the bottom and top portions with hinges. The designer called for two 12 inch gate hinges, one on each side of the cut. This made sense; the hinges had to securely hold the mast upright. But I had a couple of problems: The largest gate hinge I could find was ten inches long and, furthermore I also discovered that my gooseneck got in the way; I could use a hinge no longer than six inches on the inside.

A quick tour of boat building Web sites reassured me that many other builders had made similar modifications and that, in the end, the mast would be held up by the stays— which the nautical term for ropes that reach from the top of the mast to the hull below. The results strike me as functional, if not especially elegant.

Four days. Four hours.

February 27, 2011

Long time readers might notice that I am slightly obsessed with time. I frequently ask: How much can I get don in a day? How much can I do in a weekend? How long until I’m done?

Well, with a few unseasonably warm days last week, I took my obsession to a new level. How much, I wondered, can I get done in an hour?

My enthusiasm for boat building has been growing in recent weeks and I didn’t want to squander the opportunity to make some progress. But good weather came at a busy time. I couldn’t drop my other obligations and head out to the garage. So I applied my guiding motto:  “Doing something is better than doing nothing.”

This philosophy makes me a fairly efficient person. I have an ability to juggle multiple projects and I finish what I start. But it also makes me more than a little neurotic. Willing to parse my day into tiny, minute-by-minute segments, I grown antsy after a few moments of inactivity. In ten minutes, I can…make a phone call, send an email, wash some dishes, or even begin a blog post. I convince myself that I can always squeeze one more item into my to-do list. (And, yes, I do make to do lists.  They guide my days. I even catch myself adding already completed items to my lists just so I can check them off.)

So while the good weather lasted, I vowed to find some room in my day for the boat and see what could be accomplished in an hour. After four days and four hours, here’s my mid-winter progress report:


Adding about three feet to the boat's overall lenght, bowsprint is nothing more than a piece of 2x3.

The gaff is secured to the mast with a simple yoke.

In photographs, the Pocket Cruiser’s bowsprint looks very jaunty. Fully rigged, it gives the boat a classic, boaty appearance. In real life, I discovered, it’s nothing more than a short piece of 2×3 and, in its current unfinished state, I really does look like a construction site discard. It took an hour to cut because, first, I spent a long time looking for my tape measure and, second, I needed to cut the little pointy bit at the end. I trust it will look more impressive when it is sanded, varnished, painted, and attached to the hull with chains. For the moment, it’s not adding much to the overall appearance.

That was the first day.


Continuing with the rigging, I spent my second day and my second hour cutting the boom, which is the part of the rigging that can give you a concussion if it swings about unexpectedly. It too has the pointy bit at the end. It is also rounded and slightly tapered. It will be attached to the mast with a hinge fabricated from pipes, iron bars and a pin. That was an easy hour of work.


Before starting this project, I didn’t know what a “gaff rigged” sail was, but at some point I came to recognize this distinctive, old-fashioned form of rigging. Simply put, the gaff  is a pole that holds the top of the sail out and away from the mast.

Cutting the gaff was a bit more interesting and slightly more complicated than the previous day’s work, primarily because I needed to cut and assemble a yoke at one end where the gaff slides over top of the mast. The yoke is held in place by a short piece of rope, which holds a series of plastic rings cut from pvc pipe. These pipe pieces act as rollers so that the gaff can slide up and down the mast as needed. I was able to cut the gaff and wooden yokes on the third day. The pieces were assembled on the fourth day. It was a pleasantly mechanical thing to build.

So that’s it: Four hours of work over four days yielded most of the pieces needed to support my sail. The weather turned colder after that and I once again returned to the woodstove and my books, but I feel that I regained some momentum and am ready for the next warm day. All I need is an hour.

And my tape measure, wherever it is.

Two Weeks Before the Mast

September 8, 2010

For my mental health I like to take long hikes in a nearby park that surrounds a miles-long lake. Most of the park is forested with large stands of mature oaks, maples and beeches. But one small section passes through a scruffy patch of eastern red cedar. The trees are small and monotonous— ramrod straight trunks with short lateral branches covered in prickly dull green needles. They look like large toothpicks and vary only in height. I normally walk quickly past, anticipating the more attractive sights ahead.

But on my last stroll a few weeks ago I suddenly stopped in the middle of this cedar forest, turned a full circle, and said, “My god! What great masts!” Like Elmer Fudd, who could look at Buggs Bunny but see only a steaming roast rabbit, I looked at the cedars and suddenly saw nothing but a harbor full of sailboats, their tall wooden masts waving back and forth in the wind. I nearly salivated.

Nearly any one of the trees around me would be perfect. The trunks were unfailingly straight, many were the right diameter and cedar is famously rot resistant. The tiny lateral branches could be removed in minutes and a quick once over with a plane would give me a sturdy and fully traditional mast for my Pocket Cruiser. I’m a firm believer in the “take nothing but photos”  philosophy of nature appreciation but for a brief moment I had unworthy fantasies of chainsaws at midnight.

Of course I let the fantasy pass and continued my walk, but my mind continued to work on the problem of locating a mast for my boat. I needed a sturdy piece of wood, fifteen feet long and three and a half inches in diameter at the bottom, tapering to two inches at the top. My instructions told me to simply taper a long Douglas fir 4 x 4. But my local lumberyard doesn’t stock untreated 4 x 4’s longer than twelve feet, nor does it stock Douglas fir. It could be special ordered, but I balked at the price. I needed a more economical solution.

A simple solution would be to simply laminate two 2 x 4’s, but there’s a small problem: The resulting board would be too narrow. Two by fours are, of course, actually 1 ½  x 3 ½ inches. Two laminated boards add up to just three inches—a half inch too narrow. That’s not a big difference, but it bothered me. My mastbox—built over a year ago—is built for a square mast—3 ½ inches in length and width.

While mulling over the problem, my wife gave me a copy of George Buehler’s book, Backyard Boatbuilding, for my birthday. It’s a classic in the small universe of amateur boat building literature and I had hinted strongly that it would make a perfect present. Buehler builds traditional boats—plank on frame construction of heavy, ocean-worthy cruisers—but does not apologize for taking shortcuts and using inexpensive materials. His framing comes from the lumberyard and he shows builders how to make economical poured cement keels that can replace more difficult and expensive lead and iron keels. Since I have sworn off epoxy, I’m looking for ways to build traditional boats in affordable ways. His book is stuffed with inspiration and spiced with his quirky hippie -cheapskate-libertarian (I can’t decide which) philosophy of life.

On the subject of masts, Buehler prefers tree trunks. They’re cheap and, if well chosen, are straight and pre-tapered. For his 30, 40 and 50 foot cruisers, they fit the bill perfectly. But for those of us who don’t have ready and legal access to the perfect tree, he reluctantly describes construction of a laminated mast.  It’s a simple affair: Two outer layers sandwiching a single inner layer. He describes it as the  “traditional box-section mast” used by professional boat yards  that can be assembled either solid or with a hollow gap in the middle, which lightens the mast and allows wires to run up the mast for lighting.

Buehler’s beef with laminated masts is that they are not as strong as tree trunks. He recounts a formative experience with his first boat in the open ocean, “the wind rising, and a bog bank headed my way:”

“I looked up and saw that my laminated mast was coming apart. I had to climb the mast while the boat was sailing, hanging on with one hand while driving in wood screws with the other, all the while swinging in great arcs as the god-dam boat rolled and pitched.”

A single 2 x 10 provided all the lumber for my mast.

Accepting his concerns, I still felt that a carefully constructed laminated mast was a reasonable choice for a small boat that will never see the open ocean. And after thinking about the problem and reading a few postings on the Wooden Boat forum, I formulated my plan. As the sketch shows, the whole mast was built from a single sixteen foot length of 2 x 10. From this, two 3 ½  inch wide outer layers were ripped with my circular saw, along with two ½ inch strips that serve as the inner layer. The strips left a half inch gap in the middle, which means that I technically have a hollow core mast, although this was not intentional. I don’t plan to run wires and I think the weight saving is negligible. It’s just how it turned out. Assembled, the mast looks something like the second sketch.

Here's how it came together.

Holding my breath (almost literally) I mixed up a batch of thickened epoxy, coating all inner surfaces and clamped it all together. I really didn’t have enough clamps (builders never have enough clamps), so I used a couple of drywall screws in placed where the wood seemed to gap.

The next step was to taper the mast. When the epoxy hardened, I followed the cutting pattern provided in my instructions and used the circular saw to narrow the mast from 3 ½ inches at the base to 2 inches at the top. Two cuts were required for each side—which made a lot of sawdust and tested my underpowered saw and cheap blade.

And this is what it looks like in real life.

The rest was easy—and even fun. I like when I can use my traditional woodworking skills and I enjoyed the hour spent chamfering the edges with my antique jointer plane. The final step was to apply a single protective coat of clear epoxy (the last application of epoxy on my boat, I hope) and several coats of  “Last N Last” marine varnish.

The result is a very long, very heavy piece of wood. It’s not a romantic as a cedar tree trunk, but it looks pretty good. I’m one big step closer to the end.