BIG ZEN

A Solar-Electric powered, micro-multihull hybrid, for the minimalist homesteader / adventurer of planet Earth.
by Claudio

To me, the water was never a place to just visit. It always represented the very last element on the planet that man hadn’t quite figured out how to divide, sub-divide and resell for a profit. That couldn’t somehow be exploited and “owned”. That one couldn’t stake a “Keep off / Private / No Trespassing / Etc…” sign in. The Final Natural Frontier, in other words.

I built my first “live-aboard” when I was a teenage lad. It was, literally, a box with a door and two windows in it. No one ever accused it of looking like a boat. But it was fiberglassed on the bottom, didn’t leak and cost me less than three weeks wages to build. And better than that, it was moored in one of those take-your-breath-away, I-can’t-believe-the-world-is-so-damn-beautiful marinas that seem to be all over the Pacific North-West. And my monthly moorage (including water and hydro!) was …get this Donald Trump…$ 15 a month!

Needless to say, the Light went ON with regards to living super simply. I was totally free and vowed to remain that way forever. No Rat Race for this boy, thank-you very much.

That was thirty years ago and I’ve been living on and off the water ever since.

After living 15 beautiful years all over Mexico (not in a boat!) we decided it was time for a change.
Seven years ago we (Deb (my wife), our two little girls and I) found ourselves in Toronto,Canada. We decided to build a Bolger-type, 24 foot by 10 foot motor boat and take it down the Eastern Seaboard, via the Cheasapeake and the Intercoastal Waterway. The plan was to reach Florida, spend a couple of years there and then ship the boat to St.Martin in the Caribbean (don’t ask me why!). We wanted to live in SM for a while, sell the boat and then return to the West Coast and put the girls back in school again.

And that’s just what happened.

The boat, a used Honda 15 H.P. AND the gas for the whole trip down to Florida came to less than $4,000 U.S. I built and paid for the boat while I was working at a full-time job. In a few months we were gone.

The cream on the cake? Sold it in St.Martin for $5000 ! The yacht broker I listed it with was so taken with it HE bought it !

Okay…It was a very cool adventure. What have I/we learnt (the hard way, as always) over the past three decades? Simply this…

  • Living simply solves 99% of what most people consider “problems”.
  • Small is not only beautiful, it’s do-able and utterly liberating. It takes a MINIMAL amount of money, know-how and time to build a safe, easy to operate, cheap to maintain and moor boat.
Building Big Zen's Ama
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Right now, I’m writing from our present day house-boat. Built it after returning from St.Martin. It’s 24 feet by 12 feet and is located on Vancouver Island, Canada.

The girls are still with us ( 16 and 18 years old now!). They have their own little cabins. Sure, they are small spaces, but the view out of their windows is to die for.

We are hooked-up to hydro, water, cable and the internet. Total monthly bill? About $ 250 U.S. We’re in an upscale area. Many houses around here would be paying more than that per month in property tax alone! Total cost to build the boat? Less than $ 7000 U.S. Average cost of a house around here? About $200,000 U.S.

Okay…So where are we at now? Well, the kids will be on their way out soon. The eldest wants to work/travel her way around Australia this fall (cool!). The youngest wants to finish school, take a hairdressing course and go and work/travel through Europe (all right!).

Deb and I can’t wait to go cruising in the Tropics again and see a whole bunch more of this Magical Planet. We’re ready for the sun and the beaches again. But we want to do it in the easiest, most stress free, ecologically harmonious way possible.

We want to be able to think of the whole planet as our cruising ground. We don’t want to feel limited in any way . In other words, if we find ourselves in the Bahamas and wake up thinking that we’d like to go and “do the Med” for a few years, we want a boat that won't cost more than a couple of grand to ship from one side of any ocean to the other.

I’ve been into the multihull (catamarans, trimarans,etc..) scene ever since Wharram, Piver and Brown were about the only names associated with that world. They were great groundbreakers. Philosophers, adventurers…hands on doers. (I really like what Wharram has been up to lately, by the way. He’s been getting more and more into “ethnic” designs. i.e. more and more simple in his already zen-like approach. Checkout his we-site at http://www.wharram.com). (We owned a big Wharram some years ago. Liked it a lot).

Unfortunately, the multi scene went the way of the boating scene in general. i.e. impossibly big, ridiculously complicated and utterly un-affordable boats. What’s worse, boats morphed into things that weren’t really usable in any fun way anymore. Ever tried exploring a swimming, snorkeling inlet in a 40 foot monohull with a 6 foot draft? Ever considered running up a coastal river (creek !) in one of those 40 foot French catama-barges? Ever tried scraping and then re-painting the bottom of one of those mothers? You need to bust out the visa just to have one hauled out of the water!

Building Big Zen's main hull
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But there ARE beacons of inspiration for us mere mortals.

Check out microcruising.com for example and see what Matt Layden has been up to in the micro world.

Have a peek in watertribe.com to get a different taste of the “new” boating scene. Simple, natural, do-able.

Finally, check out what’s been developing in the PROA world…

To me, the PROA constitutes the very leading edge of possibilities in the multihull do-it-yourself world http://www.proafile.com, http://www.wingo.com/proa/links.html and http://www.harryproa.com/

(And let’s not forget where we are! BIG MEGA KUDOS go to the Duck-Miester himself, our fearless leader, Chuck. The DUCKWORKS has really been the ONLY place that has been prostelizing real boats for real mortals for many years now. A very cool service indeed).

After reviewing all the latest trends and building techniques; and after reviewing all of our own good/bad experiences; and keeping in mind what we know we want in a boat, I decided to start sketching out our last, final, boat ever ( yeah, right !).

So BIG ZEN started to take shape.
It had to …

1) Be CHEAP, quick (no…make that REAL quick) and EASY to build.
2) Be small, un-complicated and manageable to operate.
3) Be as ecological and planet-friendly as possible.
4) Be QUIET. No noise is a BIG priority for us.
5) Be free… or almost free… to run.
6) Require the absolute minimum amount of maintainance.
7) Be light and easily shippable, towable, trailerable, moveable, stowable, etc.
8) Feel SAFE and STRONG.
9) Be SEAWORTHY enough to do some open water jaunts of 50 miles or so.
10) Feel roomy, open and airy inside. No tight nooks and crannies.
11) Be two hulls for stability, no rocking and rolling and R-O-O-M.

The following sketch is what we settled on.

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BIG ZEN is a 15 foot 5 inch long by 10 foot wide hybrid between a Catamaran and a Proa. I’ll explain as I go along.

The main hull is symmetrical, flat bottomed, draws less than 12 inches, is 4 foot wide and can be driven in both directions. Both ends are the front!

It’s pathetically easy to build! Any primate with a thumb could do it. If you can’t build the whole boat in less than a month, you need to forget this whole boat thing and take up quilting instead.

The ama, or outrigger, is full length, deep vee-ed and is 2 foot wide. It has almost the same floatation as the main hull in it! No, it wont be buried under water. And it acts as a full length keel , thus eliminating the need for daggerboards, centerboards, leeboards, etc.. Simple ,effective and even easier to build than the main hull. More on that later.

In between the two hulls is what multis are famed and worshipped for…that big, flat, wonderful deck space. You can GET OUT of the boat. Pull out a deck chair. Sit on deck. Sunbathe on deck. Shower on deck. Catch your Honey and…okay... you get the picture.

Big Zen starts coming together
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We decided to go electric on BIG ZEN. I don’t like pulling strings and things when I’m cruising and feel safer without big pieces of bed sheets flapping around in a gale. My idea of sailing is a great little dinghy or a good windsurfer. But that’s just me… and if you ARE into sailing, stand by, because BIG ZEN would be a snap to rig.

The two hulls are held together ethnic style. i.e. they are lashed together. Lashings have been used to connect the hulls of 60 footers ! It’s a beautifully simple, incredibly strong, efficient way to spread out all those concentrated stress loads that arise in rigidly fixed connectives.

Inside the main hull…

One can sit on the ample seats with lots of leg room. There is still 36 inches of sitting head-room. One can stand up in the 2 foot by 4 foot opening, which can be covered by a roll-up canvas sheet OR a wooden hatch. I prefer the canvas. Light, simple, flexible.

When the evening comes, lay down the seats and you have a bed that is 8 foot by 4 foot in size ! Sleep tight.

Big Zen in all her glory
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Under the seats there is loads of storage. ( We’re talking a 15 foot boat here !). This is where the heavier stuff goes. Batteries … 4 six volt, deep-cycle, golf-cart batteries (about 220 Amp Hours each)… per side. Also tin canned goods, water jugs etc.. Again, the heavy stuff goes there, so the weight (very good in a flat bottomed boat) stays down low and out of the ends of the boat.

The two, large forpeaks are for the lighter stuff… bedding, clothes, etc..

Cooking will be done on a one burner stove (I like propane and a small pressure cooker) on deck. Dishes will be washed on deck.

Bodily functions are taken care of in the traditional Bucket n’ Chuck’t manner. It’s simple, sanitary, foolproof. A portable Porta-Potti would be a second best. It could be “stored” top-side, on deck.

Speaking of top-side. I put some stanchions on BIG ZEN. I like the feeling of safety and you absolutely have to have a place to hang your towels anyway! And a fine place to rig up a bimini to keep that Tropical Sun off the boat.

Up on the roof, there’ll be two big solar panels. 100 watts each. They’ll do a good job of toping up the batteries. I’ve already installed a battery charger down below. I’ll give you some feedback on it soon.

Because the boat is designed to go in either direction for and aft, the rudder is easily un-hinged, carried to the other end of the main hull and dropped in place. I’m still considering other options, but for the moment, that’s the go. By the way, I’ve always been a fan of large rudders. That’s right…BIG. If you’re going to turn her…do it NOW. I used to be called Captain Crunch because of my docking (in-) abilities. No more. With a big rudder, I’m driving a sports car.

To be continued…