A Boatshed of One’s Own

June 27, 2009

I don’t have any experience building boats and very little experience sailing, but I do have one thing that many builders lack: an enormous workshop. Our house is tiny; the original portion was built in the late 1700’s and even with small additions in the 1920’s and 1970’s, it barely reaches one thousand square feet. But what our house lacks in living space, it more than makes up in outbuildings; we have several, the largest of which is a 1,225 square foot detached garage—what we grandly call the Carriage House.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

When we bought the house, I added some shelves for storage, but most the floor space is empty. I considered the structure a bit of an albatross. It was a convenient dumping ground for boxes and objects that didn’t fit in our house. The children, who used it as an oversized playhouse, kept it in a state of chaos. In exasperation, I threatened to tear it down.

But when I decided to build a boat, the garage finally had a purpose. It was as if it had been waiting all these years for me to make up my mind and lay the keel. I had all the room I needed, and plenty of space to spare. Indeed, I calculated that I could build a boat twice as long. I could even build two boats simultaneously, if I so desired.

Not everyone is so lucky. For many, boat building ambitions are constrained by available workspace. Many builders first take the measurements of their garages, then decide what they can build. Still, I am intrigued by the determination of builders to work with what they have. I occasionally read about kayaks being built in walk-up apartments and Dynamite Payson’s book on Instant Boat Building includes a photo of a rowboat being eased out of a second story window in New York City. In Rascal, A delightful child’s memoir about a turn of the century boyhood in Minnesota, author Sterling North recalled building a canoe in his living room under the gaze of a pet raccoon and a very tolerant father.

Of course, boats can also be built outside. Captain Slocum built the Spray in the open air, as did Henry Pigeon when he claimed a short stretch of Los Angeles beach for the year-long construction of the Islander. Even today, boats are built from Haiti to Indonesia a few feet away from the water.

But it’s no longer possible to stake a claim on beachfront property (just try!) and in the east coast of the United States the weather rarely cooperates—it’s either too wet or too cold for at least half the year. Where there is good weather, there is rarely navigable water. It occurs to me that the high desert of New Mexico would be an ideal place for an open-air boatyard. But launching would be a challenge.

As a result, many people begin their boat building endeavors by first constructing a shelter. The easiest path, I suppose, is to purchase a ready-made Quonset hut-style carport. They’re not very pretty (in my opinion), but they don’t keep you waiting. Others put their carpentry and architectural skills to work and build permanent boatsheds. Fellow builder Tom Hoffman tells me that he’s planning to build another Stevenson design called the Vacationer, but for the moment he’s focusing on the construction of a 1,296 square foot poll barn—what Tom calls his “Dream Shop/Garage/Boat Shop.”

He’s making good progress, but the danger is that construction projects can overwhelm available time, money and emotional energy. The ultimate cautionary tale, I think, comes from architect Witold Rybczynski. In his 1989 book, The Most Beautiful House in the World, Rybczynski recounts his efforts to design a functional and attractive boatshed where he could build a dory ketch. A small living space was also planned so that Rybczynski and his wife could use the shed as a weekend home. He purchased land near his Montreal home and poured a foundation of suitable size.

So far, so good. But the rest of the book recounts the multi-year odyssey to design the perfect workshop-house, one that reflected his evolving philosophy of architecture. At first, he sketched a modest, highly functional workspace with a few rooms on the side. Later, it turned into a modernist structure with sharp angles, a cement block workshop and corrugated metal walls. Worrying that these designs were out of place amid the farms of rural Quebec, he softened the lines and drew inspiration from surrounding barns and farmhouses. He also decided to increase the living space but, since the footing was already poured, he stole space from the workshop—which became too small for a twenty-two foot dory. He decided to build a smaller catboat instead.

To make a long story short, the house grew larger, the workshop smaller. Eventually, it disappeared. The initial burst of boat building enthusiasm dissipated and all the creative energy shifted to the house. “My house had begun with the dream of a boat,” he concluded. “The dream had run aground—I was now rooted in place.” When finally built, his simple country home was christened “The Boathouse,” but it never did—and probably never will–see a boat within its walls.

These are not my dilemmas, but as the months pass, my garage seems to grow smaller. While the hull itself takes up one corner of the garage, nearly an equal amount of free space is needed to cut plywood panels and manipulate ungainly stringers. Of course, a workbench is nearly essential, and there must be space to maneuver around the assembled parts. I am suddenly grateful for every square foot.

Still, part of me misses the challenge of working in a less commodious structure. I like the idea of planing a board under the shade of tree when the weather is good, and there is a romance to assembling the parts in an oversized tent, the light dappling the canvas walls. It would be like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but with a boat instead of a hut. This rough-and-ready approach is more in keeping with the humble nature of my boat and my outrageous fantasies of middle-aged escape.

On the other hand, the garage offers a convenient escape from what has been a very wet spring, and provides an ever-present excuse to work on the boat instead of completing less enticing household projects. When I wake up on Saturday morning to the sound of rain, I smile. It means I don’t have to mow the lawn or weed the garden. But the garage is dry and the boat is waiting.