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Slogging to Windward
by Chuck Merrell
Feedback can always be emailed to:
sloggingtowindward@hotmail.com 

March 2002

WANT TO BUILD A BOAT?
WHY NOT DESIGN IT TOO?

Part Two - Introduction
(read Part One)

More than thirty years ago I was going strong as a blood n' guts racing sailor. As a natural progression of my involvement, around the same time I began to get curious about the in's and out's of boat design. I wasn't really so much interested in the process of the job itself and certainly it wasn't my intent to learn how DO designs. I was more interested in learning what I needed to know to analyze, judge and mentally catalog all the boats and designs already existing, or at least the ones interesting to me. After I got into the study, one idea that did rear its head in confirmation was: With all the thousands of designs already in existence, what the world didn't need was yet another small craft boat architect. Truthfully, I haven't changed my mind all that much right up to the present time. 

What I have come strongly to believe, though, is that as far as making the decision to become a yacht designer, the best in the business didn't so much choose to design boats as boat designing chose them--they had little conscious input in the matter. There was no divide the legal pad into two columns and do a pro's and con's list for consideration when their vocational decision was made (as most rational humans do when choosing a life's work). If that's true, and I think it is, then designing boats, while hard work, isn't really a job; it's a calling, a monkish mission, and the only consideration for the individual so engaged IS drawing boats and getting them built and that's that! Groceries come second.

So, in light of the above why would I write a column advising boat aficionados to design and build their own?

The answer to that is not to become a pro per se, but, if you're really interested, to become educated both in the process, the details, the history of design, what's possible and desirable, methods of construction and finally being able to understand, when studying a design, what the pro had in mind. In doing all that, you'll almost BECOME a boat designer; I say "almost" because if a pro you are to be, the decision will be out of your hands and mysteriously made for you--if not, you'll at least understand the subject as a well informed fellow traveler. It's what I originally was after, and how I now pretty much define myself, so I guess my effort was a success.

Within the last few days, I've received a couple e-mail messages of interest to this subject, both gratifying in their own way. 

Message number one was from a "walk before you can crawl" type, who wrote asking me for clarification on one of my boats at boatdesign.com. The boat in question was "Clodhopper", which is in fact not really original with me, but a hard-chined version of Phil Bolger's "Lady Slipper". I was asked by a friend who liked Phil's design (and knowing that Phil probably would never get around to it) to convert the idea into a format that he could build from flat panels. The original was designed for standard factory fiberglass construction. Peter Duff built several of the boats on spec because he thought it would be a good idea, but the concept (see Bolger's book "Different Boats" for the details) and the boat itself never took off, or became very popular. Peter probably lost a little money on that one, but the fact remains that Phil's and Peter's idea of the boat and the thinking behind it was good and valid. In fact, I personally always thought, the concept was much better suited to a boat meant for amateur builders.

Anyway, I explained that Clodhopper/Lady Slipper was pretty much of a "form follows function" (formfunk) design, and not for everybody, certainly not a yacht tender. What the boat was designed to do was emulate the feel of a larger keel boat, to help the wife and the kids learn how to sail the bigger family yacht better--to be a confidence builder, and when sailed properly, sail like a witch, giving up as little performance as possible.

Did you ever have some ask the name of your first kid? And when you told them, the questioner looked at you intently for a minute then shaking his head, says, " . . . no . . . that's not right.".

Well that's about what happened when the guy wrote back decrying the idea of "formfunk" and stressing that the best boats are a "compromise" (like I never heard that before!) and then proceeded to tell me all the things that could be done in the redesign to make the boat better and more compromise friendly; things like centerboards, dagger boards, removable lea boards and what have you to make the boat flexible, sort of like; if your grandmother were a bicycle, you could ride her to the store, that kind of compromise, that kind of thought.

Nevertheless, I must commend his interest and tenacity in writing a couple pages of his design philosophy, even if the effort is a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. He's the guy who should undertake independent design study, and all itís aspects, the subject of this column, and then he can run with the best of joggers.

The other message was from a first time builder, Dale Austin, who started building a copy of my Apple Pie design, an Atkin boat reworked for stitch ní glue (see December 2000 column) and has started a web page to document his progress. He is building the boat as designed (it only took him two hours to layout, cut and stitch together) except for one change which I totally approve of (look at the stern sheet support) and which is more in keeping with the idea of stitch and glue construction and will provide a place for a floatation compartment too--intelligent innovation and compromise! By the looks of his start, I'm sure he's going to do a great job, so check back once in awhile to see how Dale is coming and for a good stitching tip, check out how he's tied it all together.  Click here for the page.

Dale, a cabinetmaker, is very tool savvy, and has a bigger future project in mind, his own copy of Egret.

Bottom line, here we have two enthusiasts. The first guy needs a bit more formal study into the real business of design and less time in the lonely pursuit of reinventing the already invented, and the second has obviously been doing a lot of study and his good progress and approach shows it! 

Next column I'll get more specific and discuss: THE BOAT DESIGN SYSTEM.