Building Surprise
by Bill Paxton 

I donít know exactly when it was that I got infected. It was some time during the long winter of 1999-2000. I began to think of sailing, something I hadnít done for thirty years. (Sailing, not thinking.) The next thing I knew I was buying copies of WoodenBoat magazine and spending all my time looking at the ads for plans. I began to seriously consider building my own boat.

At this point I knew something weird was happening, although I still didnít know I had been bitten by the boatbuilding bug. I should have suspected something because the only power tool I owned was an electric drill. Oh sure, Iíd done the odd project around the house, but just the year before decided that building a canoe was beyond me. But somehow this was different.

Since we have no shortage of lakes here in Minnesota, I wanted a trailerable boat. (Never mind that I didnít have a trailer, or even a trailer hitch.) It also had to be easy to build, with good instructions and some sort of builder support program. Oh yes, it had to be beautiful, too. 

My search quickly focused on the Weekender by Stevenson Projects ( They offered a complete building manual and 3 hours of video taped instructions. (I almost wore out the tape playing it over and over to see exactly how they did some of the steps.) Equally important was the Back Yard Yacht Builders website ( The builders who populate the BYYB answered all my questions (ďIf I can only afford to buy one type of sander, what would you recommend?Ē) and saved me lots of time and money by pointing me to some great resources for both materials and info.

View over the transom

Only one thing bothered me about the Weekender. I liked the looks of the cuddy cabin, but when I thought about how I would use the boat, it didnít figure in. So I decided to build my boat without a cabin. Iíd just extend the seats forward and have a roomy daysailer. I was greatly encouraged in my decision when I was poking around the Stevenson Project website ( and ran across Bob Butlerís boat. There, right before my eyes, was the cabinless Weekender I wanted. Bob had already built it. I printed the pictures of his boat and used them as guides.

I started building on June 9, 2000. Every step of the building process was a learning experience. Practically everything I did, I did for the first time. Lofting, cutting curves in plywood with a circular saw, mixing glue, working with glass cloth and resin, it was all new to me. There were times Iíd dread taking the next step, because it was something I hadnít done before, and if I screwed it upÖWhat I learned was that the anticipation was always worse than the doing. (Bondo and resin cover a multitude of sins.) In the end, I think building small boats is more about problem solving and perseverance than woodworking.

...and from the stern

I also learned that you donít build a boat. You take one step after another, build a spar here and glue panels together there, and one day you step back, look at the whole thing and are overcome with amazement at the boat in your garage. 

Along the way, I came to appreciate the Stevensonís clever design. Itís simple, light and strong, and takes full advantage of the properties of plywood. (By the way, donít you love the way the sawdust smells?) I also like the way most of the hardware can be purchased from the local hardware store, instead of the big marine supply houses. The tabernacle, for instance, consists of two large gate hinges. Thereís something about that combination of ingenuity and anti-boat establishment thinking that resonates with me. 

From November through March, the fiberglassed hull rested on its trailer under a brown tarp next to the garage. It was nice not having to scrape the frost and the snow off of the cars each morning. But every single time I drove up the driveway, I longingly eyeballed that snow covered tarp. On April Fools Day we rolled her back into the garage, and I began finishing her.

Masking tape is removed

Launching Surprise was an experience Iíll never forget. It was June 4, 2001. I chose a weekday and small lake. Since Iíd never trailered a boat, and my sailing skills were rusty, I didnít want many onlookers. The plan worked! The lake was nearly deserted. After a small ceremony of pouring some champagne over the bowsprit and blessing the boat, we launched her. My best friend Roger went with me as my wife, Nancy, took pictures. (No sense orphaning our kids.) I raised the sails, the wind caught us, and we were off. It worked!

It took awhile to figure out that the boat sailed better if I let the jib out farther than I thought I should. With that behind us, we sailed all afternoon. We picked up Nancy and the three of us reveled in the marvel of sailing along in this beautiful, winged thing that had cocooned in our garage for seven months. We laughed and cheered, and sometimes just listened to the wind in the rigging and the water being parted by the bow. 

As the wind picked up I was surprised at how hard the main sheet tugged at my hand. At one point we made a soft landing on the lee side of an island in the middle of the lake, just to see if we could. By the end of the day nothing had broken or fallen off. Everything had worked the way it should. It was wonderful. I was hooked. 

Nancy and I and our little "Surprise"

We sailed all summer and into the autumn. Finally when the leaves were all gone from the trees, and the docks were all pulled out of the lakes, I surrendered to winter. But what a great season it had been!

Awhile back I ordered a book from Dynamite Payson, and he wrote on the inside cover, ďHappiness is building your own boat.Ē How right he was! I know now that I have been infected by the boatbuilding disease. My only hope is that no one ever finds a cure. 

Catching a Breeze