Building a "Swifty 12" from Shell Boats
by Steve Miller 

Length: 12" 
Beam: 5'3" 
Mast Height: 16' 
Rig: Sprit rig with curved boom (leg o' mutton)

Shell Boats: 

During the summer of 2000 I spent a week camping at a large lake in the Oregon Cascade Mountains. Over that week I saw several small sailboats on the lake. The guys in those sailboats were having a lot more fun than I was sitting on the beach reading and soaking up the sun! By the time the week was over I had decided to get a small daysailer.

image001.jpg (30183 bytes) It did not take too long for me to realize that the boat I really wanted was not available to purchase so I began to look at boat plans on the internet. I narrowed my search to the more classic style of sailboat. My boat would need to be a sailboat first and useable with oars if the wind died. I did not want a motor. I have owned several small fishing boats so I knew that a boat in the 12' - 14' range was my target size range. A 12' boat on a trailer would fit in my garage.

I also wanted a boat I could sit "in" not "on". The 5'3" beam on the Swifty 12 caught my eye as well as the classic lines. It would not be too tender and would hold my 6'1" frame. I did worry a bit that the wide beam might affect how the boat would row but that fear was groundless. It is no rowing shell but it does row easily with the rockered bottom. Some days I'll just go for a row and hope the wind comes up.

image002.jpg (21800 bytes) I liked Fred Shell's approach to boats, design and construction. You can read about it at the Shell Boats Website but I encourage you to order his video if you are thinking about building a Shell Boat. He runs through the construction of most of his designs so you can really see how they go together, the size and how they look. He also has videos for specific models if you are building from plans.

Fred Shell says his boats' "roots go back to the early American skiffs, Dutch vlets and the Norwegian holmsbupram of centuries ago. The boats are designed by first building a prototype - by eye, as the Norwegians have built the holmsbupram for centuries. No detailed plans, offsets or molds are used. The prototype is meticulously hand crafted and temporarily assembled without glue. If anything doesn't look right it is taken apart and redone". Once Fred is satisfied with the design the plans and patterns are based on the prototype.

image002a.jpg (20513 bytes) My choice of a Shell Boat to meet my desire for a classic looking sailboat was confirmed one day last summer while launching my boat, when another sailor asked "is that an old boat or a new boat made to look old?" 

Shell boats offers finished boats, plans and kits. After I decided to build the Swifty 12 I chose to go for the kit. Even though I live in Portland Oregon where marine plywood, supplies and epoxy are stocked at local stores I liked the odds of my success with the kit. I had built a small Folbot kayak years ago but had a firm case of nerves about starting this boat from scratch. I also picked the kit since I live in an old house with a small one car garage. I have only hand tools and no big woodshop.

image003.jpg (20982 bytes) Of course now that I have built the Swifty 12 I am looking for the next boat to build and will most likely do it from plans. I feel that building the kit, after watching Fred's video many times and talking to him on the phone more than once, is a lot like taking a boat building class. Fred was very generous to me with his time on the phone and clearly enjoys what he does.

Most of his boats are glued lapstrake construction built on a jig right-side up. Simple clean lines, with a nice shear. I don't think you can find a better value in a boat kit since these kits come with the spruce mast and boom and a nice Dacron sail in your choice of color(s) - even tanbark for a small extra fee.

The materials are all first rate. The fasteners are bronze or stainless. All solid wood is spruce (the deck support beams may be pine or spruce). The plywood is British marine grade, very nice 7 ply 3/8" for most of the hull and seat tops complete with the grade stamp. The shear planks are 5 ply 1/4" as are the coaming pieces and deck surface pieces. 

image008.jpg (20266 bytes) While you don't need any power tools to build this kit I would highly recommend a good random orbital sander (I like the Porter Cable), a good cordless drill/screwdriver with two batteries, and a shop vac to hook up to the sander. A good block plane (Stanley) will come in handy at several points during the construction too.

Be sure to read the instructions over (and over) and watch the video section on the boat you order before starting. The video helped clear up some of the building steps for me since the instructions were pretty basic. The thing that helped me the most during this project was taking the time to plan ahead. Even though the instructions and video laid out the process for me I found that sitting down with a note pad and a cup of coffee to plan out the sequence of the next operation really helped my building (and learning) process. By running it through in my head first I was better able to see potential trouble or maybe even an easier way to do something.

If you have not worked with epoxy then by all means check out the info on the various websites such as System 3 (what I used) and West System. Both brands offer really great books on using their stuff. I also read Sam Devlin's book.

I practiced with epoxy coating and gluing with scraps of wood and plywood while I was waiting for my kit to arrive. It was worth the time. I fit an old cooler with a thermostat hooked to a 25 watt light bulb to keep my epoxy warm enough to pump. The pumps make measuring quick and accurate. 

I did several extra steps that added time and cost to building my Swifty 12 that went beyond the kit instructions. These include multiple coats of epoxy (3 or more) to seal all surfaces, fiberglassing the interior stem joint, fiberglassing the mast step to the bottom, brass half oval on keel / rub strip and adding small knees under the side decks. None of these steps are required and probably make no difference at all to the boat. Part of building a boat is to make it the way you want to. In any case the knees look great and they gave me a reason to use my new bevel gauge. I used Interlux 2-part epoxy primer and Interlux Brightsides Polyurethane to paint the boat rather than cheaper paint and have been very happy with it.

image013.jpg (23723 bytes) The spruce mast is a clever two piece design. The hinge design worked flawlessly sailing last season and lets you store the mast in the boat.

I launched my boat on 5/27/01 after 6 months and 150 hours. My extra steps added considerable time to the building process. Fred says as designed a novice should be able to build a Swifty 12 in about 60 hours. I have at least 60 hours in epoxy coating, sanding and finishing! I now joke about the "zen of sanding". 

I named her "Surprise". Sailing her was my first real experience in a small sailboat. I sailed Surprise over 60 hours last year and did not capsize though I came close a couple of times early on. The wide beam also means that you can climb in over the side and not dump the boat. I did some practice drills and was delighted with how easy it was to get back into the boat. This let me sail her harder knowing I could actually get back aboard! She goes to windward very nicely - in fact amazingly close and is not tender at all with the 5'3" beam. Sails upright and takes a lot of wind to get her heeled over. She gets up on a plane in about 10 knots of wind.

image015.jpg (54416 bytes) It took me a while to work out the main sheet rigging - likely due to my inexperience in small sailboats. The stock method worked fine but I wanted more help holding on to the sheet in stronger winds. I ended up adding a rope traveler across the stern tied between the two aft cleats. I hung a small block from the end of the boom then ran the main sheet from another block (with a becket) that is connected to the rope traveler. The main sheet now runs from the becket at the traveler up through the block at the end of the boom and back down through the block at the traveler then to my hand. I can wrap it a turn or two around the tiller to "one hand" the boat but am still able to let go for gusts. By using carabiners I am able to rig/unrig the main sheet in seconds. The double block system gives me the leverage I felt I needed going down wind with the big main sail (65 sf).

The boat just tears along on a reach. The keel helps her track straight and the big barn door style rudder means beaching is simply a matter of pulling up the daggerboard.

image017.jpg (79309 bytes) There are no reef points on the single large main sail but the latest Wooden Boat Magazine (#165)does have an article on a way to reef a sprit rig. Fred says "just pull out the boom, roll up the sail on the mast (no stays) and sail it loose footed." Simple, practical and elegant - like Fred's boats. (I secure the mast to the deck with a short line tied to a strap eye which would also serve to prevent the sail from unwinding like a window shade if reefed this way.)

I am now firmly a wooden boat fan. Building and sailing my Swifty 12 has been pure enjoyment. Last summer I was back at the lake and this time I was the guy with a sailboat! 

If you want to see my Swifty 12 construction in more detail please visit my website at: 

You can also email me. I love to talk about my boat.


Steve Miller
Portland, OR


Close up photos by Stephen Cridland, Photographer - Portland, OR