Ready to Paint

July 29, 2010

For the novice, boat building is a series of small, stressful decisions. Most are made at the very beginning: What kind of wood should I use? What is the best glue? In my case, these questions led to hours of research, which resulted in even greater confusion since there is no one “right” answer. Some say plastic resin glue is just fine. Others insist that it’s foolhardy to use anything but epoxy. The debate is endless:

“Plastic resin!”


“Exterior grade plywood!”

“Okoume, you fool!”

My lovely painting assistant hard a work.

The opinions are shouted back and forth, ringing inside my head. Eventually, I make my choice and try to move forward—but there really isn’t any peace to be had since I can’t immediately know whether or not I made the right choice. Sure, the glue works in the garage, but what really matters is what happens in the water—and that won’t be revealed for months or even years. I glued my keel sixteen months ago; that’s a long time to wonder about the strength of plastic resin glue. To remain sane, I just try to put the doubts aside.

But there is always something new to worry about and the latest conundrum concerns paint. When painting my house, I only worry about color choices; when I want to freshen up my living room, I look at some chips and then pick from the available stock of latex paints at the home center. But when it comes to boat building, color schemes are the least of my worries. My secret fear is that my paint will dissolve on contact with water. I need something that not only looks spiffy, but will also hold up in the Chesapeake Bay.

The safest route is to buy marine paint. But these are very (often very, very) expensive and I summarily rejected this option. Instead, I am attracted to builders and designers who insist that a good quality exterior house paint is just fine. It’s the choice of Dynamite Payson, Jim Mikalack, and—not surprising—Pete Stevenson, my boat’s designer.

I should have been happy with this trilateral endorsement, but I wanted more information, so I went online trying to find answers to a long list of more specific questions, including:

1. Do I need to use a primer?
2. If so, what is the best brand?
3. Is oil based paint better than latex?
4. Is one brand better than another?
5. How many coats is enough?

To each question there were a dozen opinions, most contradictory. Many builders use primer and there are many references to a common brand called Kilz II. But others argue that it’s unnecessary to prime over epoxy. I’m torn, but I then come across information from West System, the epoxy manufacturer. They tested several “over the counter” primers and declared that one brand, Zinsser 1-2-3, has especially good adhesion and durability. Since I was also worried about adhesion of the paint on my epoxied hull, this information tipped the balance and I bought a gallon for about $15. One problem solved.

But the question about oil or latex paint was equally troubling. Both have their champions. Latex is user friendly and dries quickly. Oil based paints are easier to remove and more flexible. There is a third faction that swears by Rustoleum. I go back and forth but finally decide to use oil-based porch and floor paint from my local Ace Hardware, mostly because I had recently used it on my front porch and was impressed with its durability.

While the boat was still upside down, I recruited a couple of willing helpers—my oldest son and my daughter—to help paint two coats of the fast-drying primer, followed by two coats of paint on the keel and bottom. The work was easy and wonderfully stress-free after so many days of ‘glassing and sanding.

As an experiment, I also put small dabs of paint directly on the unprimed hull sides, deliberately choosing spots that were sanded and unsanded. I wanted to test the adhesion of paint on various surfaces. Over the next week, I scratched and picked at the paint as it continued to dry and I decided that the portion painted over sanded epoxy did, in fact, stick slightly (but only slightly) better than paint on unsanded epoxy. I also decided that the paint held well without primer and, in fact, it might even have better adhesion without the primer. My methods were not very scientific, but I decided, based on my findings, to stop using primer and simply slap the paint over the sanded hull and cabin. Again, that’s what the Stevenson’s recommend.

In this and other small ways I am starting to view this boat as one big experiment. Over the past year, I have actually used three different glues and now it seems that I will experiment with several different methods of painting. Later on, I even plan to leave a few small areas of the cockpit unfiberglassed just to see how quickly and badly plywood will check when it is protected with nothing more than paint. It’s all part of a increasingly philosophical approach to this project, one that is built on the conviction that this boat is only the first of many boats to come and that I will succeed no matter what happens simply because, once it is finished, I will have finally learned how to build a boat.


Lots of water–but still no boat

May 3, 2010

It’s spring, the weather is warm and the skies are blue. Why no progress on the boat?

Mexican beach scene. The water was inviting, but what would happen to my little boat?

Well, I have an excuse. I just returned from a six week trip to Mexico. After a year of planning and several years of saving, we rented a small apartment in Xalapa, a mountain city not far from the Gulf Coast. It’s one of the perks of self employment; wherever there is Internet, I can have my office. Distance and national boundaries are irrelevant in an era of email, Google and Skype. So once our travel fund grew large enough we headed south.

We had a wonderful time and the weeks passed too quickly.

But I was missing out on some prime boat building weather. After a horribly cold and snowy winter, it was irritating to learn that Pennsylvania started enjoying unseasonably warm weather within days of our departure. I didn’t regret our trip, but I couldn’t help think about all the progress I could be making back home. And a small dose of guilt emerged as friends and relations starting asking if I had stopped building the boat altogether.

To reassure myself that I still cared about sailing, I spent free hours looking at boat building Web sites and assorted blogs.  And what I saw reminded me that wind, water, and sails could still make my heart beat faster.

Most inspiring was an account of a young family’s three month trip through the Caribbean in a simple plywood boat designed by Jim Michalak. While we were in Xalapa—which is a lovely city despite the rain–Garth Battista, his wife and their two young children were dropping anchor in one pristine, uninhabited bay after another and posting gorgeous photos of sun-drenched beaches, coral reefs and transparent water. Their boat, a 32-foot Cormorant, is twice the size of my Pocket Cruiser, but no more complex in its construction (as far as I can tell), which led to many quiet promises that my next boat will be large enough to take me to the Caribbean.

But for all my building and all my reading, sailing remains a remarkably theoretical activity. I dream of venturing to distant ports, yet I have almost no experience with blue water sailing. I was reminded of the disparity between fantasy and reality as we completed our Mexican sojourn by touring the Gulf Coast north of Veracruz. This part of Mexico is remarkably undeveloped and entirely lacking the kind of tourist infrastructure found in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. Most of the time, we were the only foreigners at the small hotels we visited—which suited us just fine–and at one particularly isolated hotel, we were literally the only guests. This left me with lots to time to wander empty beaches and contemplate the sea.

And what I often found myself thinking was: My God, those are big waves! Buffeted by strong winds even on sunny days, I thought for the first time about the tremendous power of the sea. Waves rolled ashore with relentless force and when we wandered into the water I could feel the current pulling me northward. It was perfect of body surfing, but what would it do to a tiny Pocket Cruiser? My flat bottomed boat would capsize before getting past the surf, I speculated, and even if it wasn’t swamped, the powerful winds would surely knock it down if given half a chance. I knew my boat was small, but for the first time I truly appreciated just how small it really is. It represents many hours of labor, but the ocean doesn’t give an A for effort.

Pensively, I would walk back to the hotel.

Of course, my Pocket Cruiser isn’t designed for the open ocean and my goal remains an inland cruise down the more protected portions of the Chesapeake Bay. But I came home slightly humbled by the seriousness of my undertaking. Building is a lark, but sailing is no joke.

But the question remains: When will I finish my boat? Well, we returned home earlier this week and the first order of business was mowing and weeding (suburbia survival tip number one: Americans would rather live next to Osama Bin Laden than a neighbor with long grass). With those tasks completed, I am finally able to think about the boat and today I made a symbolic start to the boat building season by cutting a few stringers for the cockpit seating. An hour’s worth of work doesn’t make up for a month’s absence (or deserve specific discussion here), but I hope that it will be the start of a productive few week’s of work. Stay tuned!

Little Boat, Big River

January 7, 2010

When I’m finished with the Intracoastal Waterway, I just might wander down the Mississippi. By happy coincidence, today’s online edition of the New York Times published an account of a father and son kayak trip down a portion of the Mississippi River, starting just below St. Louis. They traveled for about 150 miles and camped most nights along the banks of the river. The online story includes a slide show and links to various parks and maps.

Destinations: The Intracoastal Waterway

January 7, 2010

My latest column in Duckworks, the online boat building magazine looks at the pros and cons of sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway. Here’s how it begins:

A few weeks ago, while sitting in the nearly completed cockpit of my Stevenson Pocket Cruiser and swiveling my newly cut tiller, I was struck by the sudden realization that I can see the finish line. It’s still far away, but it’s real and for the first time I know I will make it. With the hull and cabin completed I am now building the rudder, hatch, and other details that make the boat look even more like a boat. A great deal of work remains, of course, but the list is not impossibly long. As my “to do” list shrinks, my confidence grows.

“What do you know,” I said out loud, genuinely amazed. “I’m going sailing.”

It’s time to seriously research my long planned cruise. As I mentioned last month, my interest in boat building was inspired by fantasies of adventures in the South Seas. But I reigned in this unrealistic dream and I settled for a small boat and a vague idea of exploring protected waters closer to home. However, my preoccupation with building kept me from investigating my options. But as my boat takes shape, it’s time to plan my itinerary.

As a resident of southeastern Pennsylvania, the logical place to start is the Chesapeake Bay, and that will almost certainly be my “home port.” Truthfully, the Bay’s countless inlets and islands could occupy me for years. But why stop there? For inland sailors, the Chesapeake is only one part of an interconnected network of canals, bays, lakes and rivers that encircle the eastern half of North America. Collectively they form a 6,000 mile ribbon of water known as the Great Loop. The idea of dropping my boat in the water and ending up in, say, the Everglades or the Great Lakes is almost irresistible.

But it’s also true that I probably won’t undertake the whole trip—at least not for a while. So with a small boat and limited time (let’s say a month or two), what portions of the Loop are most worth exploring?

I began by investigating the most famous (and probably most traveled) part of this inland passage—the Intracoastal Waterway. Following a series of canals and bays, it provides a nautical Interstate 95 linking New York to Florida.

You can read the rest on Duckworks. Do you have any first hand experience with the ICW or other portions of the Great Loop? If so, let me know. I’d love to feature some guest columns from experienced sailors.

Is Smaller Better?

September 21, 2009

After watching me work on my boat for the past six month, Avery, my oldest son, announced that he had the bug and wanted to build his own boat. “Great!” I replied. “What do you have in mind?” I immediately conjured images of him working on a simple plywood canoe or a build-in-a-weekend rowboat.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

But he had other ideas. Opening his computer, he showed me plans for a 23-foot racing yacht from a South African designer. Its sleek lines, ballasted keel, and well-appointed cabin had caught his eye and I could tell that he was imagining the thrill of cutting through the waves in such a stately craft. Because he is sixteen, I also knew that the admiring glances of pretty girls were probably involved in the fantasy.

It was a nice boat, but I couldn’t help notice that it required advanced woodworking skills and tens of thousands of dollars to build. Avery, who is enormously talented in many ways, is still a novice woodworker. He is also incapable of saving a dime. In other words, the chasm between fantasy and reality was wide and deep.

“Very pretty,” I said cautiously. “It looks a little ambitious. Maybe you should consider something less complicated. Why don’t you start with a smaller boat so you can learn the basics?”

“What do you have in mind?” he said skeptically. The recommendations of parents are never to be trusted.

I enthusiastically opened my computer and pulled up plans sold by Jim Michalak, who specializes in simple, but seaworthy, plywood sailboats. Many of his plans are inspired by the work of the late Phil Bolger, who pioneered the techniques of “instant” boat building. I’ve had my eye on Michalak for a while and, had I learned of him earlier, I might have selected one of his small cruisers for my first boat.

For Avery, I clicked on an eleven-foot daysailer called the Piccup Squared. Designed for simplicity, it has a flat bottom, exterior chines (meaning that stringers are on the outside of the hull), and a square bow. I admit that it is boxy, but it’s a reasonable choice for an inexperienced builder working on a budget. I also found it charming and cute. Part of me wished that I were building it.

But Avery was appalled. Compared to his South African racer, it was squat and dull. It was like telling a kid who pined for a Ferrari that he could have a used Ford Astro.

At an impasse, we dropped the subject and several days passed. But within a week, Avery was back. He had clearly spent time mulling over the conundrum of financing his dream boat and reluctantly came to the conclusion that he didn’t have enough money to buy more than two brass screws. In light of this regrettable but temporary lack of funds he would consent to building the Piccup Squared. But he wanted it known that this was simply a warm-up exercise, a way to limber up and be ready for his real project in a year or two. And, by the way, would I pay for the wood?

Fine, I said, entering into the negotiation. I’ll buy the wood, as long as it’s considered the family boat—not your private craft. I’m the financier; you’re the builder. Agreed, said Avery.

So I ordered the plans, which promptly arrived and upon inspecting the bill of materials, I learned something important about boat building: Small, simple boats are surprisingly cheap to build. My fifteen-foot pocket Cruiser requires fourteen sheets of plywood in a variety of sizes. And that’s just for starters. There are also many board feet of pine planking and lots of hardware, not to mention gallons of expensive epoxy. I’m not focusing on cost, but I predict that whole thing will add up to $2,500 by the time its in the water.

In contrast, the Piccup Squared, which is only four feet shorter, requires just four sheets of quarter inch plywood. That, plus a few pieces of pine and some glue, is enough to complete the hull. In the spirit of adventure and economy, we also decided to experiment with less expensive materials. I have been reading about builders who use luan—a plywood underlayment that just happens to use waterproof glue. It’s dirt cheap; on sale at Lowe’s we paid less than $9 per sheet. I also wanted to try Titebond III glue, which looks and acts like regular carpenter’s glue but is also considered waterproof. A gallon costs a modest $25.

So with a simple boat and an eye toward economy, we found everything we needed to get started at the big box lumberyard for about $70. More expenses will come—the seams will need epoxy and fiberglass tape; there’s also hardware and sails. But I predict that the whole thing will cost no more than $250, which is ten percent the amount I expect to pay for my Pocket Cruiser.

And what about time? We have yet to start cutting, but experienced builders like to point out that building time also grows or shrinks exponentially. Time requirements can double simply by adding a few feet to a boat’s length. Likewise, trimming off a few feet can take weeks, months, or years off a project’s calendar. It’s not like house building, where contractors can take advantage of the economy of scale. In the labor-intensive world of boat building, every inch requires hours of work and complexity grows with size. So with a slightly more experienced eye, I see a project that can be in the water long before my boat, if Avery starts this fall and sets aside a few hours a week.

We have yet to start this new project, but there are many lessons here for me. While I usually congratulate myself for picking a simple first time project (and, in the world of boat design, the Stevenson Pocket Cruiser is a small and simple boat), there are still ways to get on the water faster. And after a few outings in rented Sunfish and other daysailers this summer, I also suspect that the thrill of sailing an eleven-foot boat is no less than the thrill of sailing a fifteen-foot craft.

So even if Avery, following the fickleness of the teenage mind, decides that he doesn’t want to build his boat, I have a feeling that it will be built nonetheless.

Sailing Lessons

September 9, 2009

In my fantasy life as a sailor, the weather is always perfect—sunny and warm (but not hot), with a steady breeze blowing from exactly the right direction. In every scenario, my boat is tugged forward with an energetic breeze—thrilling, but never alarming.

Sometimes, I force myself to admit that sailors will encounter rough weather. I remind myself that high winds and rough seas are dangerous for my small, unballasted boat. My unquenchable thirst for sailing literature—with its tales of storms and high seas– helps me stay humble and cautious.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

But what never intrudes into my daydreams (and rarely shows up in the classic tales of sailing adventure) is the tedious reality of less than perfect weather—days marred by rain, cold and, especially, the absence of wind. Yet these are the forces of nature that have bedeviled me all summer. I am starting to realize that the number of truly perfect sailing days—the kind that inhabit my dreams—can be counted on a single hand over the course of a year.

I had a great start with my first outing in a Sunfish in early summer. The day was perfect in every way. But then the mid Atlantic seaboard settled into unseasonably cool weather and, worse, an unending procession of storms.

In July, David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, suggested that we split the cost of a sailing lesson offered by a boat rental concession at a nearby state park. We picked a convenient evening when we were both free.

The long range forecast looked good. But as the day approached, the promise of sun turned to a day filled with clouds and, on the morning of our lesson, I woke to overcast skies and a light drizzle. By late afternoon, steady rain was falling and we reluctantly canceled.

Determined to get our lesson, we rescheduled and, this time, the day was clear and warm. We met, as agreed, at the dock right after work. Our boat was a 14 foot American day sailer—a simple, stable and nearly indestructible fiberglass boat similar in length to our Pocket Cruisers. Our instructor was a very personable fellow named Matt who was young enough to be my son, but exuded an air of self confidence that came from a lifetime on the water. We readily followed his instructions.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

I was eager to get the most out of our hour-long lesson. While sailing the Sunfish, I realized that I tended to follow the path of least resistance and didn’t try to set a course that required any real skill. I hoped to learn more about sailing upwind. Also, I had never used a jib before and, since my Pocket Cruiser has a jib, I wanted to understand its role.

But by six p.m. when we were all in the boat, the light wind died and we more or less drifted into the middle of the small lake. We went through the motions of sailing—David and I took turn holding the rudder and we all practiced unfurling and furling the jib (which was fun, even without a wind), but it was really all for show. By the end of the hour, Matt was using a canoe paddle to get up back to shore. I had a good time, and learned a few things, but drove home wanting a bit more. (A short video clip taken by David captures our cheerful sense of resignation.)

So I started watching the weather and—a month later—found both a sunny day and a free afternoon. This time the whole family came along and I rented the American for an hour’s sail. But—and I swear this is true—the very moment I handed over my credit card to the boat concession attendant, the wind died and the ripples on the lake disappeared. It was so calm it made the previous sailing experience look like a gale.

But I had an enthusiastic family and my twins fought for turns to paddle the boat. Hilary, still skeptical of sailing, announced that this was her favorite outing so far. Becalmed, she merely stretched out on the seat and dragged her fingers in the water. The only one fighting resentment was me; I pointed the boat toward ripples that disappeared the minute we reached them and, in a small fit of frustration, started flapping the rudder, just as I did when I boy, in a futile attempt to make some forward motion.

I eventually gave up and joined the kids in a rousing rendition of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Matthew took the rudder and steered us back to dock while Sophie paddled and Hilary worked on her tan. It was a fine afternoon, even if it wasn’t part of the original fantasy.

Summer Doldrums

July 28, 2009

On a transatlantic voyage, there come a point where a sailor travels too far to turn back, but remains a disturbingly long way from his destination. There’s no land in sight, just an endless horizon of water, day after day. Progress is being made, but it doesn’t feel real; despite the effort, everything looks about the same.

That’s what it feels like with my boat right now. I keep working, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Out of habit and a kind of stubborn determination, I spend at least a few hours in the workshop every week, but I don’t really feel that I’m moving forward. The gussets I’m cutting now seem so small and inconsequential when I contemplate all the work that remains.

A few old doubts have reemerged. Why, exactly, am I doing this? Will it really solve all my midlife problems? Never mind that: Will it even float? Some days I survey the boat with pride. On other days, I’m so critical, my eyes practically burn holes in the hull.

It doesn’t help that I turn 45 in a week.

I find myself distracted by other fantasies of adventure. My long held and barely suppressed urge to travel is surfacing again and the time once spent researching online boat building sites has been replaced by fare-shopping on Travelocity (“Hmm, I could get the whole family to Madrid for $2,500…”). We lived in Mexico for two years, but that was nearly four years ago. I’m ready to speak another language and a plane will get me overseas faster than a boat.

It occurs to me that it’s probably at this point that many boat projects slow, stop and quietly disappear—scuttled by the multiple forces of boredom, distraction and a feeling that completion is too far away.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

These ruminations were reinforced by my son’s successful launch of a cardboard boat in the stream behind our property. Built with a large packing box and several roles of duct tape, it required nothing more than a few hours of work with a friend. Of course, it only lasted a half hour before water seeped in and turned the boat to mush. But the fun to effort ratio was high—higher, I think, than it will be with my Pocket Cruiser.

Try as hard as I might, I can’t really get the hang of being young and carefree.