Why I build wooden boats
I grew up in southern California,
started surfing when I was 12 years old off the beach in Belmont
Shores. The waves there were small but a great place for a twelve
year old to get started. My mom use to help me tie my board
to her old 1953 Chevy, haul me down there every Saturday morning
and then pick me up at three in the afternoon. Belmont shores
was a beach on a sand spit that separated the Pacific Ocean
from Alimitos Bay. A number of my rich friends from school belonged
to the local sailing club. They all had new sabots or Lido 15’s.
After about eleven o’clock in the morning the wind would
come up and the surf would get blown out. I had four hours to
wait for my mom to come get me so I wondered over to the bay
side to visit with my friends who had these boats. Of course
after time I would be invited to go out sailing with one or
two of them. This is how I got introduced to sailing. As time
went on surfing became the real love of my life and although
I would still sail from time to time it was always secondary.
After a stint in the Marine Corp plus a year in
Vietnam, I had an opportunity to go up to Southeast Alaska.
My first job was working in a bakery. The owner of the bakery
and I hit it off pretty good and we became friends. John, the
owner, owned a wooden 45’ Sparks and Stephen’s sloop.
This boat was a real classic. There weren’t a whole lot
of sailors up in that area at the time and John was always looking
for crew when ever he wanted to go sailing. I soon became a
regular crew member and it was very rare when I wasn’t
on the boat when he went out. It was great sailing through the
inland water ways of Southeast Alaska. It took the place of
my quest for surf. My heart was also won over to the feel and
design of old classic boats compared to the more modern fiberglass
There is a lot of advantages to owning a Glass
boat, special when it comes to maintenance and costs. But the
feel of an old wooden boat with traditional lines is a beauty
to behold. The feel of wood underneath as you plow through heavy
sees always makes me feel a little more confidant and a bit
more like a real sailor. I got bitten by these classic’s
and it has never left me.
My surfing days came to an end when I broke my
neck bodysurfing on the Big Island of Hawaii. After a number
of years recovering I soon took back to the water. I started
by crewing on other peoples boats in local regattas. Finding
crews are difficult for these boat owners so I always became
one of the regulars. It always amazed me how difficult it was
to find a crew, you see for me I always jumped at the chance
to go sailing.
My first little sail boat was a wooden14’
Blue Jay. I found an add in the local Penny Saver for this little
beauty and they were only asking $250. She was in pretty bad
shape when I went to look at her but fell madly in love. As
the old saying goes, ones man’s junk is another man’s
treasure. I hauled her home and instantly started to work. Took
everything off her and started sanding, filling , painting.
All the spars were of mahogany, so scraped and sanded and got
them back into pristine condition. It didn’t take long
before launch day. You know this all happened some twenty five
years ago and as I took to Mission Bay in San Diego with my
little reconditioned Blue Jay, we sure got the stares as the
Hobie Cats, Prindles and all the other plastic boats that sailed
by. I must of had twenty people ask me if she was for sale.
That little Bluejay taught me a lesson early on.
Once while sailing on a windy day the shroud parted, instantly
my beautiful mahogany mast lay in the water. We gathered all
the pieces together and paddled into shore and hauled everything
home. The next day I took my busted mast over to a friends who
helped me cut away the split parts and splice in new pieces
of mahogany. After allowing the glue to dry twenty-four hours,
we shaped the ragged parts, sanded her down added a new coat
of varnish and were ready to set sail again in no more than
three days after being demasted. The cool part of the story
was in the fact that with a wooden boat I was self sufficient.
I could do my own repairs and didn’t have to rely on others.
The cost of repairing my mast was about ten dollars. Now that
was a good feeling knowing that not only could I fix anything
on my boat but the costs would be low. Fixing the mast was also
kind of fun.
My next great adventure working on classics is
when I had the opportunity to return to Vietnam in 1988. I was
working for a small development organization constructing medical
clinics in rural areas. While there I met a man named Robert.
Robert was a burley old Englishman who was exporting tropical
hardwoods. In his travels around Vietnam he found the ruins
of the 83’ Sparks and Stevens schooner “So Fong”.
The ‘So Fong’ was tied up to derelict mooring in
the backwaters of the Hai Phong Harbour. Robert inquired about
the boat and made a offer to the Vietnamese government to buy
her. She was in pretty bad shape, bow sprit split, half of it
missing, bad need of paint and caulk. After closing the deal
Robert jury rigged her and sailed her down to Saigon and tied
her up next to his base of operation and started a major refit.
I use to visit Robert regularly on my return trips
to Saigon from the bush and monitor how the refit was going.
He had at least twenty local Vietnamese wood workers working
with him getting the ol’ So Fong back into shape. Robert
and I were amazed at the talent of the Vietnamese as they worked
under the direction of Robert’s expertise. I watched them
tear the guts out of that boat, rip up the old teak deck and
slowly start to put everything back together.
My project came to a close and I had to leave
Vietnam but I soon received a phone call from Robert asking
if I could return to help him re-rig the So Fong and sail with
him to Hong Kong. As I mentioned before, I never put practicalities
before adventure and was soon back in country. the re-rigging
of the So Fong was another great lesson for me. To bring in
the new right stuff to rig the boat was way above the budget
and Robert being a great one for make due we scoured all the
back streets of Saigon to find all the necessary parts to get
back to sea. The reason for this was knowledge of traditional
methods, knowing boats and along with the elements of nature.
With the So Fong we could add this change that, move this over
here or there to make things work. this is impossible with class
boats. With a glass boat you pretty much have to stay with in
the confines of the design.
To prove this point I want to use examples of
the old and new navy. In the days of wooden ships and iron men
after a battle or a typhoon, if the ship survived, the wooden
ships had shipwrights on board and they would hole up somewhere
and make necessary repairs. For lost spars, jungles or wooded
coastal areas would provide them with material needed and it
wouldn’t be long before they were underway again. We’ve
all seen the pictures of W.W.II navy ships either towed or limping
back into ports like Pearl Harbor or San Francisco to be repaired
in huge naval yards with all the needed equipment. The point
I’m trying to make is that you don’t have to be
a marine architect or rocket scientist to keep sailing if you
have a wooden boat. Just fix it, jury rig or change it and your
on your way.
I started build boats while I was in Vietnam.
I lived on a lake, on old abandoned floating fish hatcheries.
The Vietnamese decked them over and build beautiful houses on
them. it was all quite idyllic A French guy was going to make
a vacation village out of all the floating houses and he asked
me to help him develop a sail boat that the vacationers could
use while on the lake.
Never building a boat before, I did know what
they were suppose to look like and the qualities of a good sailing
boat. I had taken great interest in these local Sampans that
were used to haul cargo and fish. I thought they had the makings
of a great sailboat by the way the fishermen paddled them with
their feet almost effortlessly.
After a short search I found the local boat builder
and commissioned him to build me a boat. The mystery was revealed
as I watched him build five of my wooden hulls. I would then
take the boat and add rigging and sail. I made a thousand mistakes
and hundreds of changes but all I had to do was just start over
again. Before long I was getting it.
I’ve now built over thirty three boats from
sixteen foot to thirty-two foot. All but one have been sailboats
with many different sailing rigs applied. I don’t mean
to sound humble but to tell you the truth, the person who is
more surprised than anybody body else about the performance
of one of my boats is me.
I was doing a boat building project in Nicaragua
for five years. Building wood boats in the tropics can be frustrating
and many told me it was a waste of time because of the teredo
worms. They are a wood eating worm that bores into the hull
of any wood boat. Yes they caused me a lot of problems. I had
a number of my boats back in for repair due to wood damage.
We had to tear off a few of the strakes and replace them. Sometime
they would get up into the center board box and that had to
be replaced. But It never took more than four or five days to
complete this work and then the boat was back in the water working
again. The sea conditions there were pretty extreme due to the
Trade winds that were fairly constant. That means in shoal areas
short choppy seas. The argument that I always had was that fiberglass
boats were much better for these tropical conditions because
of the worms. I have to admit the fiberglass does alleviate
this problem but due to the harsh conditions a fiberglass boat
usually can’t take the stress and begins to suffer structural
damage that can’t be fixed.
Why do I build wooden boats? Because wood is the
medium that gives a guy like me a chance to do something he
loves. Wood is a medium that is very forgiving plus fixable.
It not only gives one a chance but many chances. Wood is workable
and changeable, Flexible and fixable at relatively low cost.