New sailing video posted

June 27, 2011

With help from Matthew, my video-savvy son, I am posting our second sailing video on YouTube. It features more and more extensive shots of the boat and its performance on Lake Nockamixon this past week.



June 5, 2011

With clear skies and a steady breeze, I decided to seize an opportunity and take the boat for a test ride. There is much to say about this momentous event, but I decided to first post a short video, which captures the excitement, confusion, and sheer silliness of our inaugural four-hour sail.

If you are impatient for news, it’s enough to say that the boat floated, sailed, and was all I hoped it would be. Take a quick look at this video while I work on my written report.


Rigging—at last

May 27, 2011

Rigging is the final and, for me, one of the most confusing steps in the boat building process. Each day I go to the garage and make a little bit of progress, but it’s hard going. There are dozens of bolts, pulley, turnbuckles and chains–and yards and yards of nylon line. I feel like I am both the spider and the fly—catching myself in a web of my own making.

Just a small sample of the hardware used to rig the boat. Note the pulleys, turnbuckles, clips and role of wire rope.

For an experienced sailor, the work might be easy. But for me, every step is a voyage of discovery. “Oh, so that’s how I raise the sail,” I exclaim as I examine the various pulleys and lines that link the gaff to the mainmast. “Well, that makes sense,” I think as I study how the mast is secured with wire rope and clamps. I am learning to sail simply by learning how my boat is rigged.

Along the way, I had a small revelation. Rigging is really the most important part of the boat. Without a thoughtfully rigged boat, you don’t really have a workable craft. Are you laughing at this obvious insight? Go ahead, but look at it from my perspective: I have spent two years building the hull and cabin, worrying every day about its shape and whether or not it would float or sink. In terms of time and materials, the hull felt like the main act. Of course, the sail and mast were exciting additions—they made a sailboat sail—but I didn’t appreciate their complexity and importance. Until recently, I viewed them as oversized curtains.

But as I begin assembling the pieces—attaching the boom, hanging the sails, sliding the gaff over the mast—I realize that everything above the cabin is part of complex,  interconnected machine. Every piece has a functional purpose, and each piece must relate to all other pieces in a harmonious way. A sailboat with poorly designed or incorrectly built rigging would be like a car with an untrustworthy engine. It doesn’t matter how cool you look if you break down or can’t maintain control.

I also realize that my inexperience with building and sailing means that I am probably making countless small mistakes that will certainly cause countless small frustrations when I finally drop the boat in the water and raise the sails. Already, I can tell that I don’t like my tabernacle and that my mast hoops are too small. But I am reassured by comments from fellow boat builders who tell me that rigging is not a one time effort, but an ongoing project—tinkering and refining is simply part of the process. My goal for the moment is to assemble something that is workable, not flawless.

Steel bars, quick links, turnbuckles, and chain attach the bowsprit to the hull.

The fully attached bowsprit.

I began with the bowsprit, which looked fairly straightforward and self contained. As you might recall, I cut the actual bowsprit a couple of months ago from a piece of 2×3, but   not until week or so ago did I finally attach it to the boat with chains. In theory, this was a simple project but, like everything else, it took much longer than expected. To attach the three lengths of chain, I needed an impressive assort of hardware, including eyebolts, steel bars, quick links, and turnbuckles. Until recently I had never heard of a “quick link” and had never used a turnbuckle, but by the time I had made my third trip to the hardware store, I was fully acquainted with the turnbuckle/quick link/eyebolt aisle. Remarkably, my local Ace Hardware affiliate had everything I needed. I complemented the salesman on his store’s attention to the needs of boat builders, but he didn’t get the joke.

It seemed like a lot of work for a small addition to the boat, but as work progressed, I came appreciate the importance of the bowsprit. For a long time, I considered it a decorative addition and the chains mere jewelry, but I began to realize that strong chains are needed to secure the bowsprit so it can support both the jib (the small forward sail) and the forestay (wire rope used to securely hold the mainmast upright). Again, the point was reinforced: Every part serves a purpose.

Various double and single pulleys are attached to the top of the mast.

Next, I turned to the mast. Here I had an opportunity to hang several double and single pulleys that will, in time, help me hoist and drop the mainsail. I had never used pulley before and I was thrilled that I finally had a use for this elegant and ancient technology.

In the coming days, I will run the lines through the pulleys and finish lashing the sail to the boom and gaff. With the stays attached to mainsail, I look forward to the next and possibly final milestone in the building process: raising the sail. I can’t think of anything to do after that. It must be nearly time to hit the water.

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.

Sailing along with Captain Slocum

February 12, 2011

Spring can wait.

The mid Atlantic is still locked in winter. A parade of snow and ice storms keep me inside and close to our wood stove. What’s a boat builder to do?

Open a book, of course. And my top pick for vicarious nautical adventuring is Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Joshua Slocum, The Hard Way Round (Knoff, 2010). After reading the New York Times’ positive review a few months ago, I put his book on my Christmas wish list and was delighted when the handsome hardback appeared under our tree.

Like many (most?) part-time sailors, I had read Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum’s account of his 1895 solo trip around the world in his 37-foot sailboat, Spray. If you have not read this book, stop reading this post and immediately buy, borrow, or download (for free from Project Gutenberg) a copy of this classic narrative. Slocum’s skill as a sailor was matched by his skill as a writer and his book ranks as not only one of the best sea yarns ever published, but as one of the best non-fiction books of the modern era. He recounts with lyrical understatement the sublime beauty of tropical sunsets and fair winds, as well as the perils of twenty-foot waves, Arabian pirates, and thieving natives.

But if you already know the outlines of Slocum’s adventure, I then recommend Wolff’s biography. Here we find the back story to Slocum’s remarkable journey, discover something of his character and, especially, come to appreciate the various professional and personal tragedies that drove Slocum to the Spray, his vagabond life, and, ultimately, his mysterious disappearance at sea.

Slocum said little of his own motivations for undertaking his adventure. In a few pithy paragraphs he sketches his early life by talking about his determination to become a sailor and how he entered his profession “over the bows.” He also made it clear that he rose to the rank of master and enjoyed some success in his posts. He also hinted at a life of derring-do; when a ship under his command sank in Brazil he mentions, in the most off-hand way possible, that he chose to sail home with his family in a homemade “canoe.”

A canoe? From Brazil? With his family? Surely there’s more to the story, I said to myself when I first encountered this passage. And there is.

Slocum did begin is life at sea as a boy, probably to escape an unhappy life at his Nova Scotia home, Wolff recounts. And his ambition and talents allowed him to distinguish himself from the general the mass of surly, disputatious and drunken sailors. At first, his life was charmed. He met Virginia, his wife-to-be, in Australia. They fell in love, married and immediately set sail together, feeling complete in each other’s company. Children were born. He owned and commanded several ships, including a magnificent clipper; their staterooms were filled with books, pianos and fine furniture.

In these years, Slocum was master of the sea and master of his fate. He was capable of overcoming every obstacle. Even genuine tragedies–especially the death of three children—seemed not to affect his confident outlook on life. (For a devastating account of one child’s death, we must rely on a heartfelt letter written by Virginia). And so his life proceeded on its happy course for roughly a decade.

But then his luck changed. Over a short span of years, his wife, who was always in frail health, dies in South America. He is taken to court for mistreatment of a mutinous sailor, and his ship sinks off the Brazilian coast (commencing a multi-year battle with the Brazilian government for compensation), among other setbacks. Wolff places the reader’s sympathies with Slocum where possible, but we begin to see worrisome fault lines in his character. His battle with the Brazilian and American bureaucrats becomes obsessive; the charges of mistreatment are fended off, but reveal an explosive temper; he remarries, but emotional bonds are weak.

In this context, his return home from Brazil in a “canoe” (it actually was a 35-foot sailboat built from salvaged wood), might have been the work of an obstinate and increasingly angry man who wanted to thumb his nose at a world he could no longer control. Instead of booking passage aboard a steamer (the American consul was willing to pay for their return trip), he built a sailing canoe with his oldest son and made the journey himself. They returned to America safely and Slocum declared it a great success, but his long suffering second wife vowed to never set sail again.

Once home, he faced even larger storms. The age of sail had ended; the great clippers were left to rot and their skilled masters were forced to retire or adapt. Slocum found himself nearly destitute, his reputation sullied, and his profession evaporating. At a low point, he found employment as a shipyard carpenter while his wife worked as a gown fitter.

For those of us who first encountered Slocum through his books, it is easy to see his solo voyage aboard Spray as his crowning achievement, the culmination of his sailing career. But when placed in the full context of his life and work, his voyage could be viewed as a means of escape or a desperate final act of a man who found himself irrelevant. Consider: There was nothing to keep him home; no worthy employment presented itself. He was restless. In such a state of mind, it was easy enough to point a small boat to the open ocean. As all compulsive travelers know, forward movement can mask a life that is otherwise adrift.

Of course he had plans. Slocum always had plans. He had literary ambitions and hoped to serialize an account of his adventure. As it turned out, interest in his writing was limited, but he did enjoy success as a public speaker and refilled his pocketbook at each port of call by presenting illustrated talks about his journey. A born salesman, he would also charge for tours of his boat and, in Australia, even earned money exhibiting a shark. He was a global celebrity and crowds gathered in anticipation of his arrival. He was far from the stateroom of a clipper ship, but it certainly beat working in a boatyard.

But at journey’s end, he found himself back home, not much better off than he was before he left. While other nations cheered Slocum, Americans seemed indifferent. Some doubted his tale; others simply didn’t care. He continued to give illustrated talks, which were well received. He even earned enough from exhibiting his boat at the Buffalo World’s Fair to buy a small farm. But true wealth and happiness seemed to elude him. He proclaimed his intention to settle down and grow crops, but barely had enough interest in the idea to lift a hoe. He bickered with his relatives and ignored his children.

Inevitably, he returned to his boat and, Wolff reports, more or less lived aboard Spray for the rest of his life. He sailed south in winter, drifted north in summer, visited old friends and welcomed visitors, but even sympathetic commentators noted his dissipated state. He talked like a man of breeding and sophistication, but looked like a ragged tramp—dirty, unshaven, his shirt and pants indifferently buttoned. He broke a man’s jaw in Nassau and was briefly jailed after a twelve-year-old girl visited his boat in New Jersey but went home deeply shaken. Not rape, all agreed, but something scary happened. Slocum, contrite, offered no defense.

Like the picture of Dorian Gray, Spray seemed to mirror Slocum’s state of mind; it was filthy, visitors reported, and poorly maintained. Some wondered how it even stayed afloat. His disappearance in 1908 while enroute to Venezuela was not a dramatic final scene, but something closer to a slow fade to black.

And yet: What a life Slocum lived, and what amazing things he accomplished! Wolff, a prolific writer, tackles the man’s life and work with easy confidence, lingering over the intriguing details, but never getting bogged down in nautical trivia or the dull preoccupations of Slocum devotees (What did the Spray really look like? Did the boat really steer itself? And how did he die?). At just over 200 pages, The Hard Way Round moves at a brisk pace and is very much written for those of us who love Slocum’s book, and want to know just a little bit more. We learn to share Wolff’s deep respect for he man’s talents, both nautical and literary.

Unintentionally, it is also something of a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that journeys are undertaken for many reasons, not all of them noble. And journeys, once completed, do not solve the problems and worries we tried to leave behind. As Wolff notes, a circumnavigation is all about returning to the place we began. All this is obvious enough, but Slocum’s life suggests that it’s a truth we must all learn anew. Glory, grieving, ennui and madness can look much the same when we are far from land, in a little boat, all alone.

Cleaning up after the party

January 7, 2011

Do you know how you feel after eating a large meal when the sight of food—the very thought of food—becomes repellant?

That’s how I started feeling about boat building in November.

Let’s review 2010. Between March and October I spent nearly every free minute working on my Pocket Cruiser. In the process, I ignored important household repairs, watched weeds take over my garden, and—as the crowning touch–developed a serious and worrisome allergic reaction to marine epoxy. I coughed for weeks like a smoker with emphysema. Half of my wardrobe was spattered with glue or paint.

When autumn arrived and I realized that my boat would not be ready to launch before cold weather hit, I suddenly shifted tactics and in less than a month built a plywood canoe, just so that I could say that I had finished something. Working against the clock, I painted the hull in near freezing temperatures and raced to a nearby lake with a couple of crudely built paddles, hours ahead of a cold snap. I paddled around the lake a maniac, barely noticing how spritely the canoe handled.

The canoe hit the water in late October. It was a beautiful day and my twins had a great time trying not to capsize. It moved gracefully and didn't have a single leak, but I was so frazzled that I hardly paused to celebrate.

I am at last posting some pictures of the canoe on its launch day. The day was beautiful and the kids had a good time, but I was exhausted and the event felt like just another item to check off my to do list. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the lake at the time.

I had worked all summer like a man possessed, and not in a good way. The boat had become more than a hobby. It was no longer my mid-life therapy. And amid the frustrations and self imposed deadlines my enthusiasm waned and my original motivations seemed, at best, distant and unclear. Why did I every think it would be fun to sail down the Chesapeake? Why did I think it was important to fulfill this particular fantasy? Standing in a garage that looked like a woodworker’s war zone—wood scraps, debris, and disorganized boxes filled every corner—I really wanted it all to just go away. I closed the door on the garage and ignored my blog.

And so December passed and the new year arrived.

A Christmas snowstorm provided cover for my ennui. I couldn’t work on the boat even if I wanted to. But a few days ago temperatures climbed into the high 40’s. I wandered outside to refill the bird feeders and started sweeping out our basement. That made me feel better about life, so the next day, I decided to confront some of the chaos in the garage. Not all of it; just one corner. A few hours later I had cleared out piles of old lumber and other junk, sorting it all into neat “donate” and “throw away” piles.

At first I ignored the boat. But as I swept the floor and created new vistas of open space, I finally paused to inspect the Pocket Cruiser. It still seemed dusty and forlorn; an unfinished homemade boat in a dirty garage can, under gloomy florescent lights on a grey winter day, look too much like a crudely assembled plywood box. But as my cleaning progressed, my mood improved, especially after the clouds parted and, for a few minutes, rays of sunlight streamed through the open doorway. For the first time in months, I walked around the boat and thought about what it would take to finish by spring. A bit of my old enthusiasm returned.

So maybe I’ll finish the boat after all and maybe I’ll get around to buying a trailer and—who knows—I might even fulfill my original plan and sail down the Chesapeake. I’m hopeful. But in the meantime, I still need to finish cleaning the garage.

In which I don’t buy a trailer, start building a canoe, attend a boat festival without my Pocket Cruiser and still go home happy

October 18, 2010

Every fall, Annapolis, Maryland is inundated with an ocean of boats and hopeful sailors during the world’s largest boat show. There are actually two shows; one for sailboats and another, held a week later, for powerboats. As a former resident of the Chesapeake Bay region I know these events to be orgies of nautical consumerism. There are lots of pretty boats, but I have no interest in attending either event.


Boats were everywhere. They ranged from the elegant to the eccentric.


But on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, in a small inlet on the edge of the Eastern Shore, there is a much smaller, quieter and convivial gathering wooden boats. In its 23rd year, the Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival is a low-key celebration of wooden boats, most built by their owners. It’s held in early October on the grounds of the scenic Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in an equally scenic Eastern Shore town of St. Michaels.

For more than a year, I had planned to finish by Pocket Cruiser in time to attend the event with my shiny new boat. I envisioned a dramatic entry into the museum’s pier, sails full, cabin stocked with provisions, under the admiring gaze of my fellow builders. I was fully confident that the festival would be one stop on my triumphant Chesapeake tour—and the culmination of my eighteen-month building adventure.

But to my surprise and dismay, October arrived without a finished boat. After making fast progress for much of the summer, work nearly ground to a halt by early fall. I’m irritatingly close to completion; all that remains are sails, rigging, and hardware. But I’m temporarily defeated by—of all things—an old car and my unsuccessful search for a trailer.

More than I year ago, I installed a tow bar on our family minivan in preparation for pulling my boat to the water. Meanwhile, an acquaintance had promised to sell a sturdy trailer for a very good price. “Pick it up anytime!” he said more than a year ago. I felt that everything was in place.

But when I was finally ready to put the boat on the trailer, the offer was rescinded. A frantic search ensued for a comparable trailer in the classifieds and Craigslist, but without success. I briefly considered buying a kit trailer, but learned that registering and titling a home assembled trailer in my state was both expensive and bureaucratically complex, erasing any financial advantage. Finally, I resigned myself to buying a new trailer—they seem to run around $700—from a local marine store owned by an unpleasantly abrasive man with a yard full of jet skis and power boats.

But just as I was about to make the purchase, my trusted auto mechanic put our minivan on a deathwatch. The transmission is about to go, he announced, with all the gravity of a surgeon describing an inoperable tumor. He’s a wonderfully honest Pennsylvania Dutch man with old school manners—a kind of Marcus Welby of auto repair who exudes utter integrity and inspires complete trust. I humbly wondered if I could still tow a small boat (“only 500 pounds,” I reminded him), but he nearly shook his finger at me. “Absolutely not,” he said. In fact, he’s only letting me drive the car locally. “If you break down on the highway, you’re sunk,” he said. “People aren’t honest anymore. Not like us; we need each other.”

The words resonated as I drove away: “We need each other.” What a wonderful sentence. People should say things like that to each other more often.

But his diagnosis magnified my problems. Now I didn’t have a way to tow a trailer, even if I had a trailer, which I don’t. Our other car–an ancient Subaru that I love dearly but trust not at all—didn’t come with the required tow bar and it would cost about $400 to get the Subaru fully equipped. Along with the $700 for a trailer and another $100 for registration and titling, the cost required to get my boat to the water reached an unpleasantly high figure of $1,200 or more.

Could I justify this expense at a time when I should be looking to buy a new car? And did I mention that the gods of self employed writers have been withholding their favors recently?

I immediately decided that I just had to keep my priorities straight. The boat could wait; it had to wait. And once I made that mature decision, I immediately went through the five stages of grief.

But within a matter of minutes, after I had worked through the list, I decided to not accept my fate. Impulsively, I decided that if I couldn’t afford to get the Pocket Cruiser in the water during the waning days of fall, I would build something that could. In other words, I would build another boat.

The requirements were simple. It had to be easily built, very inexpensive, and capable of being car-topped. The easy answer to these requirements was a plywood canoe. Many hours of idle Web surfing over the past two years had acquainted me with multiple plans for super-simple canoes and kayaks quickly assembled from one or, more typically, two sheets of quarter inch plywood. After a few minutes of research I settled on the widely built “six hour canoe,” which is described in a small, affordably priced book by the same name.


A couple of canoes. The "six hour" canoe is on the left. It's like my canoe, only better. A lot better.


All of these events took place over the past month, but I was reluctant to reveal my detour until I had nearly finished the canoe. I didn’t want to look like a flake who filled his garage with unfinished boats. But I’m an obstinate (if irrational) man and I worked on the canoe nearly every day. I quickly learned that the canoe’s name is a gross misnomer; as a moderately experienced builder, I can say with confidence that it is not possible to really build this canoe in six hours. I’m now ready to sand the hull and apply the paint, but it took about eighteen hours of work to get here. That’s not a lot of time, of course, especially when compared to my “simple” pocket cruiser. But it’s not—and cannot be—a real weekend project. Too much time is required to let glue set and epoxy harden.

But the only real disappointment to emerge from the delayed completion of my Pocket Cruiser and my unexpected shift to a canoe was that I could not make my triumphant entry at the small craft festival in St. Michaels. Two boats—both close to completion—sat side by side, but on the appointed day, I had to drive down to the Eastern Shore, pay my museum admission fee, and enter through the main gate, just like the other boatless, wannabe sailors.


The Pocket Ship, a pocket cruiser designed by Chesapeake Light Craft.



Another pretty boat.


But disappointment faded as I entered the pearly gates of wooden boat heaven. Dozen of boat filled the waterfront, nearly all homemade and each one shinier than the next. In the water, canoes, kayaks, day sailers, and one or two pocket cruisers (but no Pocket Cruisers) zipped back and forth, nearly colliding and, occasionally capsizing. I was joined by my oldest son—the one slowly building his own small sailboat—and together we started our explorations along the Avenue of Canoes (or so it seemed) where steam bending is de rigueur and every builder had mastered the arcane art of rattan seat-making.

Strolling along, I noticed a familiar looking plywood canoe. Where had I seen it before? I mused, as I ambled past. Was it featured in a magazine or did I see it on a builder’s forum? But then I looked again and realized that it was, in fact, a six hour canoe—but not like the one I’m building. Constructed of okume with fancy gunwales and—yes—the obligatory rattan seat, it was the Deluxe version of my humble canoe. Stopping to inspect the craft and take some pictures, I struck up a conversation with Al, its experienced builder, who is affiliated with the Chesapeake Wooden Boat School—more of an amateur builder’s cooperative, from what I can tell—affiliated with the Havre de Grace (Maryland) Maritime Museum.

It occurred to me that this was my first face-to-face conversation with an experienced boat builder. After nearly two years of on-line correspondence through boat building forums, I was, at last, actually conversing with a real honest-to-goodness builder who really knew what he was talking about. And I learned two things right off the bat. First, I discovered that I had been mispronouncing okume for more than eighteen months. I called it something close to “Oh-koom”, but I noticed that Al pronounced it “Oh-koo-may.” It’s the kind of mistake made by a person who learns his craft from books.

I also noticed that you learn a lot more when you can talk to a real person in real time. How many times had I pushed my literary skills to the limit, trying to explain in writing a problem I was having with the placement of my bilge board boxes or the application of fiberglass? Countless times I just wanted to drag my fellow builders out of cyberspace and into my garage where I could say, “See? This thing here doesn’t fit. What should I do?” Now, at last, I could point, ask questions, and get instant answers. There’s no real substitute for face-to-face conversation.

And—here’s the third thing I noticed—it’s a lot more fun to talk with real people. Until now, I never really felt part of the boat building “community” and part of me wondered what my fellow builders were really like. Aside from this one shared interest, were they people to whom I could relate, or were they people I would avoid at a party? To my great pleasure, I discovered that they are unfailingly nice people—engaging, articulate, and fully socially appropriate. They might think I’m strange, but I felt right at home.

The afternoon passed quickly. We watched boats come and go, including a small pocket cruiser called a Pocket Ship that is nearly identical in size to my boat, but considerably more sophisticated in design (although, I should add, not as pretty). We also toured the Chesapeake Maritime Museum, which features old Chesapeake workboats–sturdy, functional craft well suited to the Bay’s shallow waters.

The museum also builds boats on commission and provides classes and apprenticeships for aspiring builders, including an innovative “apprentice for a day” program that requires nothing more than $35 and a free afternoon. The current project is a nearly completed skiff. We eavesdropped on a conversation between one of the instructors and a few visitors and learned, among other things, that this traditional craft—assembled from expensive oak and cedar—is glued together with Titebond III, not epoxy. This piqued my interest since I have followed the ongoing debate over the durability of this relatively new waterproof glue. Many people assert on the forums I read that Titebond III—found in any home center–is fine for boats that aren’t intended to last, but cannot be trusted for long term durability. But the museum’s instructor told me that they have used it for over five years and have never had a failure when used in conjunction with brass screws and framing.

By 5 p.m. the museum was closing and boats were being put away. My son and I returned to our car and drove—not sailed—back our home, but I didn’t really mind. I’ll be back next year with my Pocket Cruiser, the canoe or, maybe, both.