What I Did On My Summer Vacation

August 19, 2009

Despite my grumblings and self-recriminations, I am making some progress during these hot mid-summer days. An hour here and two hours there added up and I suddenly realized that I am, in fact, ready to attach the side boards—which will complete the hull and mark another important milestone.

First, however, I decided to circle the boat with my camera a take a few photos of the interior before it is hidden behind the side panels. I want to remember why the boat is taking so long to finish and I also decided, with some humility, that future Pocket Cruiser builders would like to see how I solved some of the boat’s small, but nettlesome design problems.

These close-ups aren’t especially inspiring, I admit, which is why most builders like to post artfully composed photos that emphasize the grace and beauty of their craft. I liked looking at these pretty pictures before I started my boat, but right now I am more interested in the blood and guts of boat building. Whenever I hit a snag, I find myself combing the Internet (usually without success) looking for close-ups that help me see how other people constructed their bilge board boxes, attached the transom to the keel, or secured their mastbox—among the dozen or more technical dilemmas that I have encountered over the past few months.

So for posterity and the edification of those who will build the next batch of Stevenen boats, here are a few images, enhanced with commentary and cautionary tales:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 3

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 7

Let’s start at the bow of the boat. Figure 1 shows the front, from the forward bulkhead to the tip of the stem. Once the sides are attached, the many hours of interior work will be almost fully hidden, so before we seal the vault, so the speak, take note of the mastbox, which is attached to

Figure 8

Figure 8

the inside edge of the bulkhead. Figure 2 shows how it is secured with plywood collars at both the top and the bottom. Stringers fill the remaining space.

The mastbox is sized to hold a 4 x 4 inch inch post (which is, of course, actually 3 ½ x 3 ½ inches). To assure an easy fit the box is about an 1/8 inch larger. To my inexperienced mind, this means that water will seep into the box, sit there and, since there is no draining mechanism, rot the wood. There is much discussion among Pocket Cruiser builders about this problem.

One faction advocates drilling small weep holes so that any accumulated water can drain away. Another group promotes encapsulating the inside of the box in epoxy. These are not mutually exclusive strategies, but for the moment, I followed the latter path and took the extra time needed to paint three coats of epoxy on all interior sides, including the boat bottom. For even more protection, I used epoxy when adhering the top and bottom collars. The rest of the boat will turn to oatmeal long before the mastbox will. Figure 3 shows the opening of the mastbox and the liberal use of epoxy.

Moving on to figure 4, please note the ten-inch eyebolt protruding through the stem. The bolt slides through a six-inch hole cut with an auger and secured on the inside of the hull. I fretted about drilling such a long hole, but old-fashioned augers allow for wonderfully precise drilling. The more serious concern was filling the hole after the eyebolt was inserted. I don’t like having a hole in the boat so close to the waterline and I spent a fair amount of time worrying that water would seep in, promote rot and make a puddle in the forward bulkhead. My simple solution was to line the inside of the hole with epoxy (using a small dowel to smear it around), then coat the bolt with as much thickened epoxy as it would hold and shove it in. Finally, I pushed in more thickened epoxy once the bolt was inserted and secured. I don’t know how well it will work, but it was the best I could do.

From here, let’s move toward the middle of the boat and pause at the bildge board boxes (figure 5). As I discussed in detail in an earlier post, I modified the size of the box slightly, making it both narrower and not quite a wide as the plans indicated. Also, I placed the box closer to the bottom edge of the boat. If I built and placed the box according to plans it would not fit underneath the deck. Pete Stevenson told me that I was the first to have this problem, but I suspect it’s more common than he knows. I know of at least two other builders who modified their boxes for one reason or another.

I made one other modification to the bilge board boxes: Based on the recommendation of builder Tom Christensen I angled the top of the box so that it would follow the upward curve of the bow. This allowed for a better fit and helped the deck maintain a graceful sweep from stem to stern.

The boxes were also encapsulated in epoxy and, as added precaution, secured to the boat bottom and deck with epoxy. Following the directions, I had little difficulty cutting out the slots in the top and bottom (see figure 6). Finally, I added two small partitions that attached to the sides of the boxes. They may or may not be necessary structurally, but they are part of the plans.

The tour is nearly complete, but I want to also show a close-up of the transom (figure 7), showing how the outside of the boat’s rear panel sits flush with the end of the keel and the keel’s capboard. The plans are bit vague on this point, but I looks like a flush surface is needed with attached the rudder mount later on, so it’s worth point out.

Finally, figure 8 offers the obligatory “pretty boat” view that shows how all the parts come together and remind me that I am making some progress after all.

I don’t pretend that I solved every problem or made the best decisions when I encountered a problem. But I am always grateful when other builders share their experiences and insights, even if I eventually blaze my own trail.


Getting Ready to Glue the Deck and Bulkheads

June 15, 2009

Dry fitting the completed parts was fun—and easy. A few minutes work gave me a rough approximation of a boat and something to look at for a few days. But it’s not enough to have the pieces “sort of” fit; before gluing the boat together I need to have all the parts really fit—not an inch too long or a quarter inch too short but right on the money—everywhere, at every point. This meant that I had a long day’s work ahead of me, doing things that, for the most part, were not discussed in the plans. I was putting together a fourteen foot jigsaw puzzle and I was on my own.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meet the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meets the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

The first order of business was trimming an inch off the stem. I noticed at the dry fitting stage that the deck rose too sharply at the bow. A rakish upward swoosh is nice, but my deck was practically pointing straight up. I double checked my measurements and knew I had lofted correctly. But I also know what looks right, so with a sudden burst of complete confidence I hacked the stem down to size. Once accomplished, I knew I did the right thing.

Of course, it took me half the morning to make the decision and get the measurements just right.

But that was just the first step. I also needed to mark the precise location of the cabin and forward bulkheads. Each is positioned at its own eccentric angle—the cabin leans forward at 71 degrees; the forward bulkhead at 92 degrees. How did the Stevenson’s decide on such odd numbers? I wonder as I set my angle marker and nudged the cabin bulkhead forward a few more degrees. I suspect they just built the boat, then took the measurements. My task is to faithfully recreate their gut feelings.

But it’s not that easy. Because the deck follows a curve, any change in the angle of the bulkhead affects its position along the outside edge of the boat. Tilting the forward bulkhead to the proscribed 92 degrees pushes the top of the bulkhead toward the boat’s interior and produces a quarter inch gap between the bulkhead and what will soon be the boat’s sides.

Well, that won’t do, so I have no choice but to cut a deeper notch in the bulkhead and move it forward half an inch. This also means the mast will sit a tiny bit closer to the bow, but I decide not to worry about that.

And so it goes. All afternoon I circle the boat, measuring, eying and, occasionally, cutting and planing an inch here, a sixteenth of an inch there. I spend six hours doing this and by dinnertime I’m exhausted.

By the end of the day, my visible work is a few notches and a few pencil lines, but it looks like the pieces line up and everything is square and ship shape. I’m now ready to take the next big step—one of the biggest so far—and glue the parts together. But that will have to wait for another day.

Deck Boards, Bulkheads and Daydreams

June 6, 2009

During a few stolen hours midweek, I finally cut the Pocket Cruiser’s transom and both the forward and cabin bulkheads. The transom serves as the back of the boat’s hull while the bulkheads define and divide the cabin space. These three panels also support the previously cut deck boards, so I took the opportunity to dry fit all the pieces together, on the excuse that I wanted to check the accuracy of my measurements, but really because I’m eager to see what the boat will look like.

When I first cut the bottom boards, I marveled at the Pocket Cruiser’s small size, but I also predicted that it would look larger in three dimensions. With all the pieces gingerly settled into place, and with a hefty dose of imagination, I am finally able to visualize its final size.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, your're not looking hard enough.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, you're not looking hard enough.

As I expected, it does seem more substantial. However, it’s still a small boat and the first thing I notice is that the cockpit is even smaller than I expected. To my eye, there will be room for four friendly sailors, but no more. On the other hand, the cabin looks somewhat larger than I anticipated. It’s not a stateroom, to be sure, and with a 33-inch ceiling, I won’t be doing any cartwheels, but there is plenty of room for supplies and sleeping. Squinting hard, I can see myself tucked in at night, rereading Joshua Slocum by the light of small lantern, a cup of tea cradled in my hands…

I shake myself from my reverie. It’s exciting to see the boat taking shape, and equally gratifying that the pieces seem to fit. But there’s a long way between where I am and the fantasy of settling down for the night in a protected inlet.

Still, these daydreams help me stay motivated. On good days, building is engaging in its own right, but I find that when enthusiasm wanes it helps to play make believe and imagine the journeys to come. Indeed, a rich fantasy life is, I believe, an important and underappreciated part of the building process. When people say it took “300 hours” or “500 hours” to build their craft, I firmly believe they should include all the hours they spent staring at their boat, their hands inactive, but their mind buzzing with images of clouds, waves, and salty air.

Helping me stay motivated are pictures of completed Pocket Cruisers and stories of their sailing adventures, both large and small. I often find myself on the Internet looking for images and narratives that fuel my imagination. I read every post that describes sailing adventure. I was especially delighted to find an account by a young couple that spent a year building a Pocket Cruiser and then completed a five-day honeymoon trip down the Mississippi. The builders were clearly experienced and added dozens of small modifications—from hardwood trim to a diminutive galley–that makes my own craft look especially humble. Their well-designed web site includes helpful images of the boat under construction, as well as many thrilling shots of it under sail. I had hit the inspiration jackpot.

The only thing missing was the opportunity to talk directly with other sailors. Pictures are nice and online discussions are helpful, but I was ready for a real conversation with a real person in real time.

I was therefore especially pleased when another Pocket Cruiser builder offered to stop by and bring some photos of his boat. Like many twenty-first century relationships, this one began online. On a forum developed for Stevenson builders and sailors, I mentioned my plan to sail the Chesapeake and then asked if there was anyone else in my part of Pennsylvania with a similar interest. If phrased as a personal ad, it would have read “NBB (novice boat builder) seeks same for a conversation about plywood, glue, gussets and other nautical subjects that bore my family.”

David quickly replied, explained that he, too, was working his own Pocket Cruiser and offered to drop by after work. I warned him that I would have a hundred questions, but that didn’t put him off.

Working methodically when time allows during the warmer months, he is now into his third year of construction and is several steps ahead of me in the instructions. His deck is already attached, the mast box is finished, and the bilgeboard boxes are assembled. As the senior builder, he arrived with a thick folder filled with articles and emails by other builders and a computer full of pictures—many of his boat, some of boats built by others living in the mid Atlantic region.

He spread his treasure trove of information across the dining room table and we settled down to a very satisfactory conversation. Hilary joined in for a while, but as the conversation turned to a detailed discussion of epoxy she quietly wandered off. My oldest son also stopped by, but disappeared as we speculated on the best approach to mast design. I barely noticed. For the first time I was having a conversation about boat building that lasted more than ten minutes.

Finally, we went out to my garage so I could show David my progress. Walking in, he said, “Well, that looks familiar,” and I realized what it must be like to see your boat in someone else’s garage. It’s not your work, yet you know it well—every curve, every cut, every stringer and drop of glue. I had a sudden image of hundreds—maybe thousands–of identical craft around the world, each tended and fussed over by men and women with similar dreams. For a moment I felt that we were part of a larger community of dreamers. I’m not much of a “joiner” but it felt nice.

Only it wasn’t precisely like his boat. All builders modify and adapt according to their needs, skills, and imagination, so as we circled my boat, pointing and poking, David explained how his cabin is higher than mine and observed that my transom is more angled than his. Several months ago, when I made my first cuts, I would have worried about these variations, assuming that I had made a mistake. But by now I have seen enough pictures and heard enough stories from other builders to know that there is more than one solution to any problem. So I tried to sound confident as I talked about a small dilemma I faced with the stem (it looks too tall) and my solution (I think I’ll cut off an inch or two). To my relief, David had confronted the same problem and had reached the same conclusion. We are both novice builders, but it was very nice to hear validation for decisions that I normally have to make alone and worry about in silence.

It was getting late and David finally admitted that he had to head home. He, too, plans to sail the upper edges of the Chesapeake, so I hope to see him again. In the meantime, I go back out to the garage, on the pretext of turning out the lights and shutting the door, but instead I stand and the boat’s bow and let my mind wander. I’m not looking at a pile of precariously assembled boards, but at the finished boat, anchored in a sheltered bay. As the sun sets, a warm light glows from the portholes. I’m inside, listening to the water lap at the sides…

How much time passes before I finally turn out the light and walk back to the house? I have no idea, but I notice that a mug of coffee, hot when I walked out, is now cold in my hands.