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.

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