Finishing the seats and wondering why I’m doing this

May 5, 2010

Over a long lunch hour, I finished attaching the stringers for the cockpit seats. After dinner, I ran back out to the garage and epoxied the previously cut seat backs into place. So a project begun in mid winter is finally finished. Total time: about three hours.

Stringers for the seat back.

By the end of the day, seat backs were epoxied in place.

As the photos illustrate, the seat backs create watertight compartments that, I suppose, are useful if (when?) the boat capsizes. Two large bubbles of air should help keep the hull afloat, right? But I also wondered about the wisdom of creating inaccessible spaces. What if the cavity isn’t watertight? How will I know if water is seeping in and rotting the wood? On this issue, the boat’s designer is silent so I decided to seal the seams as carefully as possible and assume everything will turn out fine.

But that’s the least of my worries right now. In fact, I walked away from the boat feeling a bit stressed and vaguely depressed. While I can see the finish line, there is still a great deal of work ahead of me and even with constant effort I now worry about completing the boat before autumn. It’s not hard to list the remaining tasks (motor mount, hatch, fiberglass, mast, sails, paint…) but it might take a week or two to complete each step, which means the finishing touches won’t be applied until mid or late summer, at the very earliest. That’s too close for comfort. Even a few delays can mean another year without sailing. And that’s unacceptable.

In an ideal world, I would be able to take off a week or two and work on the boat full time. A procession of eight hour days would allow me to have the boat ready for fiberglassing before Memorial Day, I am guessing. But I am also backed up with office work and, frankly, the house needs attention (I still need to plant the rest of the vegetable garden and large portions of the yard need to be weeded). And what about my wife and kids? Don’t they deserve attention? So I have to proceed as I have for the past year: an hour here, a few hours there—and always with the sense that I shouldn’t be playing with the boat when there is more urgent work to be done someplace else. Am I the only one who thinks this way?

And here's the whole thing. Hmm, the garage is looking a little messy...


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!

First Lessons In Fiberglassing

April 19, 2010

From the moment I resolved to build a plywood sailboat, I dreaded the day when I would need to fiberglass the hull. I knew nothing—absolutely nothing–about the process, but I assumed that it would be hard and stressful. I would have paid money to avoid the whole problem.

The rudder, partially fiberglassed.

I’m not the only one. Over the past year, I have read many pleas on various boat building forums from guys who are eager to build a boat, but hesitate when they learn that fiberglassing is required. Is it really necessary? They ask. Can’t I just skip this step?

Eavesdropping on the conversations of experienced builders didn’t help much. They talked knowingly about “plywood saturation,” “faring compound,” and the superiority of epoxy resin over polyester, among a dozen obscure steps and specialized products. For a while I doubted my ability to ever crack the code.

But slowly, as I followed online discussions, read the most popular books about “instant” boat building, and hunted down instructional videos, the clouds slowly parted. I began to understand both the how’s and why’s of fiberglassing. And here’s what I learned in a nutshell: Fiberglassing is nothing more than covering the boat with a layer of fiberglass cloth and several coats of epoxy—the same two part epoxy I use to assemble the boat. This process encapsulates the wood, providing another layer of protection.

Well, that’s not so hard, I think. But I also learn from my readings that the process of applying epoxy over the cloth is fraught with many small hazards. The epoxy needs to saturate the cloth, for example, but not be applied too thickly and it’s important to work fast. If the builder works too slowly or tries to cover too much territory at one time the epoxy can begin to harden before it is evenly spread over the cloth. My anxieties returned when I read message from a guy who was trying to give away a partially completed boat after he botched (or felt that he botched) a fiberglassing job.

It should be noted that not all builders fiberglass the entire hull. Dynamite Payson’s popular books on “instant” boatbuilding tell builders to simply “tape” the seams, which means that narrow fiberglass tape is epoxied over the edges alone. The same approach is followed by designer Jim Michalak. Both men believe it makes sense to fiberglass a boat’s bottom for extra protection, but this is offered as an optional step in most cases. The rest of the boat is simply protected by paint.

This minimalist approach is appealing and, were I building a Payson or Michalak boat, I would unhesitantly follow their instructions. However, it is also widely agreed that exterior grade plywood will almost certainly start to check if not fiberglassed. Michalak uses exterior grade for all his boats, so I don’t know how he reconciles this problem; maybe “checking” is not a horrible thing. But many other builders argue that unless expensive marine-grade hardwood is used a plywood boat simply must be encapsulated with fabric and several layers of epoxy to prevent checking and forestall rot.

The Stevenson’s usually follow the most expedient route, but not this time. For whatever reason, the Pocket Cruiser’s instructions call for glassing the whole exterior of the boat with one layer of fiberglass and two coats of epoxy. The accompanying video shows designer Pete Stevenson covering the underside of the boat, then flipping it over and doing the topside and cockpit. It looks like he did the whole thing in a single day. But my hull wasn’t ready for the full treatment and, besides, it was still winter and the garage was too cold for epoxy, which prefers temperatures above 50 degrees to cure.

But it occurred to me that I could pass the time and gain some skills by fiberglassing my recently completed rudder and hatch cover. But pieces could be easily replaced if I made a mistake. Also, I could complete the work in my cellar, which was considerably warmer than the garage.

I reread all I could find about the actual process of fiberglassing and learned that there are several different ways to get the job done. Glen-L, a well established company that sells boat plans and boat building supplies, tells builders to first cover the wood with a coat of epoxy. After it dries, the fiberglass is laid on top and coated with a second layer of epoxy. On top of that are added two more layers. Their instructions advise builders to apply each coat as thinly as possible and sand between coats.

In contrast, Jim Michalak, in his book, Boatbuilding For Beginners (and Beyond), recommends spreading a thick coat of epoxy, then laying the fiberglass over top before the it dries. Once the initial layer hardens, a second thick coat goes on top. After sanding the rough spots, you’re all done.

But I decide to follow the recommendations of West System, a well respected epoxy manufacturer. Their strategy, described in a short online video, is to first lay the fabric on the bare wood and then pour a small amount of epoxy on top, which is then spread around with a flexible rubber spatula. Once dried, two or more coats are added, with light sanding between each step.

I’m sure experienced builders have strong opinions about each strategy, but I decided that West System’s approach made sense. It is also close to what the Stevenson’s recommend in their instructions. Plus, I was inclined to trust the recommendations of an epoxy manufacturer and I appreciated their clear presentation.

So taking a deep breathe I cut off a strip of fabric with my wife’s fabric scissors, making sure that was large enough to drape over the rudder’s edges. The three-ounce fabric looked a bit like fine cheesecloth and cut as easily as thin cotton fabric. I laid the cloth over the board, mixed a batch of epoxy and poured a small amount in the middle. With a rubber-like paddle (sold for just such a purpose), I started spreading the epoxy around and pushing it into the weaving. As I worked, the white fabric turned pale and then became nearly transparent, a sign that it was fully saturated. The work was easy and the fabric stayed in place. So far so good.

My trouble began at the edges. Using a small bristle brush I was able to stick the fabric to the sides, but the epoxy kept dripping and the corners didn’t want to stay down. I could tell that the work was flawed, but the full extent of my inexperience wasn’t revealed until the next day when I examined a rudder trimmed with hardened drips and multiple air pockets. It looked like a mess. I cut away excess fabric with my pocket knife, which helped tidy it up, and then smoothed everything down with my belt sander. Such a wonderful tool; it can remove a multitude of sins.

I flipped the rudder over and repeated the process, trying hard to keep everything drip-free. Again, the top was easy and the results flawless, but I had the same problems on sides. I wondered if bumpy and lumpy edges are to be expected. Or maybe it’s the cold weather, I mused. Since it takes hours for the epoxy to kick, it has more time to run. Once again, I felt like I did when I first started building the boat—plowing ahead but never certain that I was doing it right.

My confidence was somewhat restored as I applied additional coats. After the second layer, the fiberglass was almost completely invisible and the rudder took on a deep, glossy sheen. By the third coat, it looked nearly impregnable. I decided that while my work wasn’t perfect, it was certainly adequate.

I had just enough time to finish the hatch before the weather turned cold, and I’m glad I did. I was able sit through the winter storms knowing that, when spring finally arrived, I would be able to pick up where I left off and have one less thing to worry about.

Staying Warm

December 18, 2009

Earlier this fall I promised myself (and declared to the world) that would keep working through the winter, no matter what. But my resolve is being tested. It’s easy to make promises on a sunny day in the 60’s (just like it’s easy to start a diet on a full stomach), but it’s hard to follow through when the sidewalk is covered with ice and daytime temperatures hover in the 30’s.

So I am taking the easy path by skipping ahead and working on the boat’s rudder, which I can build in an unheated but slightly warmer woodshop adjacent to the garage. In the interest of comfort and holiday conviviality, I even brought my lumber inside and marked lines by a warm fire. Our cat assisted.

Donning a warm coat, hat and gloves, I dashed outside to cut the pieces with my jigsaw. After a fast sanding job, the pieces are now ready to epoxy. I’m just waiting for a slightly warmer day to get the job done. If I get antsy, I might even spread newspaper on the dining room table, and glue the parts inside. My wife would love that.

The Case for Small, Homemade Boats

December 11, 2009

In America’s “bigger is better” culture, there is always the temptation to purchase more than we need. Our houses have nearly doubled in size over the past twenty years even as families grow smaller and, until the recent rise in gas prices, cars were growing faster than body builders on steroids. Everything is supersized on the general assumption that good things are even better when they are larger.

Just the right size.

In a consumer culture, the central question is not “What do I need?” but “What can I afford?” Pressure is constantly felt to take the next step up in quality, size or “value”. It’s a tension we feel whenever we go to McDonalds (for twenty cents more I can get the large fries), the car dealership (leather seats would be nice…) or the Caldwell Banker agent (won’t my friends be impressed with the cathedral ceilings!). A dozen times a day we are given an opportunity to feel special and pursue the elusive goal of social status simply by spending more and trading up.

The danger, of course, is that we will become overextended. Debt mounts, bills come due, and the cost of fixing and maintaining our possessions sap time and more money. Twice the house means twice the amount of air to heat and cool—and twice the space to furnish. Large yards sound nice, but they must be landscaped and mowed, which means that the modest lawn mower must be replaced with a “lawn tractor.”

It’s consumerism run amuck and, Great Depressions notwithstanding, we seem powerless against its dynamic force.

Boats are no exception. Indeed, boating seems especially prone to this kind of pressure. In the status and style conscious world of sailing, there is always a boat that is a little bit bigger, a little bit nicer, a little bit sleeker. A 22-foot sailboat looks cramped next to a 24-foot boat. But wait! Both look like subsidized housing compared to the 40-foot sloop that just filled the berth next door.

For years, I resisted the lure of sailing precisely because I didn’t want to play these games and get sucked into the status-seeking culture of the “yachting class.” In a world where the world’s richest men compete to own the world’s largest yachts and corporate executives treat sailboats as fashion accessories, it is a game I would lose.

In the end, everyone loses. When possessions are simply expressions of our status we inevitably feel the restive pull of “more.” The internal compass the tells us that we have enough, that allows us to find satisfaction in what we have, is disrupted and we find ourselves heading off toward a receding horizon, forever in search of material happiness.

But there is another way. We can reject the disorientation of the consumer culture simply by taking control of the means of production (to quote Marx out of context). In other words, we can opt out of consumerism by choosing to make our own possessions.

Building, I believe, is not simply a slightly longer and harder way to get stuff (as some people assume). Instead, people who make things have a fundamentally different relationship with their possessions. Builders are not consumers. Instead, they are creators. Value is not expressed in the dollars spent, but in the labor given, the problems solved, and the ideas generated. Physical work—not cash or credit—brings the object to life. Pride of ownership comes from completing the task and bears little or no relationship the dollars spent. A quilt made from scraps can have greater value than a cashmere sweater; a plywood boat can inspire more pride than a teak-trimmed sloop.

Of course, I must purchase raw materials—plywood and glue, screws and bolts, among countless purchases large and small. But when I look at my boat, I don’t see the money spent (about $1,300 so far). Instead I only see time and effort—the hours spent learning to loft curves, to glue stringers, to mix epoxy, to solve countless small problems in my own way.

The result is a more reasoned and reflective relationship with possessions. When I build something useful, I’m not thinking about what is most fashionable or about how I can get the most for the money; instead I am thinking about what I actually need and what best reflects my personal tastes and values. And from this, comes a greater, more authentic sense of worth.

And the dividends continue after the boat is finished. A fifteen-foot boat fits easily in my garage, can be towed behind the family van, and (I’m told) is easily launched. In addition, maintenance costs are minimal; a boat that is simply built is also easily fixed. While large boats required countless ongoing fees—docking, hauling, repairing—I have all the space, supplies and experience needed to keep the boat in the water. I’m fully qualified to oversee maintenance since I’m the guy who built it in the first place. Nothing is a mystery; nothing is beyond my skills.

It might be too much to say that a boat is an expression of simplicity. After all, even a small boat requires time and money. The easiest way to save expenses is to not have a boat. But in a society that is always pushing us to buy our entertainment and purchase beyond our means, it is not too much to argue that amateur boatbuilding is an act of rebellion and the decision to make the most of a small boat is a statement of values.

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.