Finding the Boat of My Dreams, Part II

March 27, 2009
The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

In the world of pocket cruisers, a designer named Phil Bolger figures prominently. Over his long and prolific career, he has designed all kinds of boats, including large and traditional craft. But he is probably best known for his small and aggressively unconventional plywood sailboats. Critics say they are ugly; with high flat sides and large, visually top-heavy cabins, they are the opposite of the curvy and aerodynamic boats over which most sailors swoon. His many supporters argue that his willingness to break the rules lets him design innovative and practical boats.

A typical Bolger design is a twenty-three foot cruiser he calls the “Birdwatcher,” which features a glass cabin extending from stem to stern—imagine a low greenhouse stretching over the entire deck. This lets the sailor and crew head out in all weather—including rain and cold—without inconvenience and enjoy panoramic views even when inside. The imagined owner is a nature lover who plies inland lakes and deltas. It’s an exciting concept, but visually strange. Bolger admits in his candid writing style that “the class has been slow to catch on, partly because of the principle is alien.” It doesn’t help that the boat’s auxiliary power is a set of oars, not the conventional outboard motor.

But the most widely built Bolger boat is called the Micro, and this is where I started to focus my interest. First designed for a retired clergyman for sailing on Tampa Bay it was, Bolger wrote, “one of my best efforts, and a fleet of the boat has been built from New Zealand to Finland.” Typical of his plywood designs, it has vertical sides and squat appearance. But it also has many attractive features. Its simple design means relatively simple construction and, while it is just over fifteen feet long, it has a relatively spacious cabin–nothing fancy, but certainly enough room for some supplies and a couple of sleeping bags. Out of the water, it looks like an overgrown bathtub, but in the water and under sail, it has a certain amount of style, even with its boxy hull and blunt bow.

Plans for the boat are sold through Common Sense Boats. I bookmarked the site and placed the Micro as the top contender.

Competing for my attention, however, were several boats designed by Peter and Mike Stevenson. The most widely built design is called the Weekender, which first appeared in a 1981 edition of Popular Science. Plans are now sold online by the Stevenson’s, along with several other boats similar to the Weekender, including a longer version called the Vacationer and a wider version called the Pocket Cruiser. Construction methods are much like the Micro—plywood and screws produce a watertight box with sails. But aesthetically, Stevenson designs are more traditional in appearance. Although it is about the same length as the Micro, the Weekender is low, narrow, sleek and obviously inspired, as the Stevenson’s write, by “the golden age of sail.” It has an elegant bowsprit and even makes use of a very salty looking wheel, instead of the usual tiller.

I thought the Weekender was prettier than the Micro—most people do. But I had my doubts. The Weekender sacrifices cabin space for looks and while the designers say it can sleep two, they acknowledge that space is tight. And for some reason I fretted about ballast; the Micro is ballasted, which helps it bounce back if knocked over. The Weekender is unballasted. Is flat bottom is relatively stable (according to the designer) but some saw the lack of lead weight in its keel to be a worrisome flaw.

My heart said Weekender, but by head said Micro. What to do? I decided to consult an expert.

Across the country I have an uncle, a retired mathematics professor and university administrator. He’s a talented builder and a skilled mechanic. He designed and built a beautiful house in the desert, working, as is his style, with infinite care and patience. He’s also a life-long sailor who for many years owned and lovingly maintained his own sailboat. His skills and knowledge are wide and deep; he can sail by the stars, rebuild an engine, and stay calm in a storm. He once sailed to Hawaii and made numerous trips down the California coast. He’s also the kindest man I know. I would believe whatever he told me.

I decide that I would let him make the decision. The Micro was the leading contender and, I felt, the more sensible choice. I wrote him a letter, outlining my plans and sent him a link to a Web site with photos and information about the Bolger design. I reminded him that I need a simple boat, but something that would safely take me around the Chesapeake Bay. Would the Micro satisfy my needs?

His response was not encouraging. “I have some reservations,” he began. He elaborated thusly:

“I don’t like the location of the sails. The main sail is too far forward. Stepping the mast, and raising, lowering and reefing the sail would not be convenient with the mast that far forward. Working on the bow is never pleasant, especially if the boat is rolling. And I see no mention of life lines. And the mizzen mast is too far back. It seems to me that tending that sail would be quite awkward because the sail is sticking out behind the boat.”

Ok, I couldn’t understand at least half of what he said, but it sounded serious. I went back to the Micro’s plans and, with a slightly more sophisticated eye, could see his concern about the sails. How do you get to the mast, anyway?

Worse still, my sensible uncle questioned my entire plan. As fair warning to all future boat builders, this is what he said:

“You say that you want to build a boat and if that is your primary goal, then I guess you’ll have to build a boat. But if your primary goal is sailing, then I do not recommend that you build a boat. I recommend that you buy a good used fiberglass boat that meets your needs. The lines of a home-made wood boat are never as sweet as those of a fiberglass boat either in appearance or for moving through the water.

“Building a boat is a big job. After the hull is built, you have to paint or polyurethane it. You have to install running and anchor lights and the other safety equipment required by law. You have to buy sails, which I noticed cost $1300.00 plus shipping for the Micro. You have to buy halyards and sheets as well as pulleys, cleats, and other hardware. You need to buy anchors and anchor rodes. You need to buy the ballast. You need to buy an outboard motor and fuel can. You need to buy some kind of a stove to prepare meals and you need to have fresh water on board. These are just the obvious things. I could probably come up with more if I thought about it. And then, after your boat is finished, you need to buy a trailer.”

These observations are not easily ignored. He was telling me that boat building is harder and more expensive than I thought. Worse still, he believed I would end up with an inferior craft.

I spend the next day or two rethinking everything. Why engage in the exercise of building the boat when, for a few thousand dollars (or less), I could be on the water long before I finished building the keel? That’s what normal sailors do. But even as I considered this more sensible path, I could almost feel my enthusiasm drain away. I didn’t want to take the path or least resistance or try to bond with a large piece of fiberglass. Ridiculous as it seemed, I still wanted to build a boat.

I wrote back to my uncle, thanking him for his sage advice. I then added, somewhat meekly: “I have to say that I was looking forward to the challenge of building a boat. I’ve had this romantic idea in my head for decades. It might be a midlife crisis, but I suddenly realized that I should get started or simply let go of the fantasy.

“Based on the many, many boat building forums on the web, I understand that even “simple” boats are time-consuming and relatively expensive to build. I am trying to pick the smallest and simplest boat possible (while keeping in mind the goal of sailing down part of the Chesapeake Bay). I am willing to think creatively about this adventure and I am open to suggestions for other kinds of boats.”

And then I sent him information about the Weekender. I didn’t expect a warm endorsement of the design, but it was all I had.

Within hours, he replied. “There is no doubt in my mind that you can build a boat. Your reasons for doing so make complete sense to me and you have a realistic understanding of what is involved. So I think you should go for it! The sooner the better.”

It got better: “I like the Weekender better than the Micro. It has a much more sensible rig. And $500 for sails versus $1300 is a significant consideration. If you think it is too small, you can go for the Vacationer or the Pocket Cruiser.” I greatly appreciated his gentle endorsement of my eccentricity—and a thumbs up on the boat I liked best. On impulse, I decided to build the Pocket Cruiser, which is a bit chubbier than the Weekender, but provides more cabin space. With that, I was ready to start building.

The next day I called Pete Stevenson and ordered the plans.