Lil'Jon Sails!
by Rick Cunningham

When my boat building odyssey began over a year ago, all I wanted to do was to be able to say I’d built a boat myself. It had to float, at least resemble a boat, and preferably not leak much or fall apart after one use. Steve Lewis’ LilJons looked to be something I could manage, so off I went, not knowing a thing other than what I’d read. Sailing was the farthest thing from my mind. I don’t know anyone who sails, and all those ropes and thing-a-ma-bobs with those weird 17th Century English names were beyond me and were nothing I wanted to mess with anyway. Nope, just let me paddle and row around and maybe catch a bream once in a while.

Well, something happened and I never saw it coming.

My LilJon ended up being an odd bird, with plumb sides and the same rocker on each end. Rows great for a quasi-barge, and is a very stable fishing platform. Over this past summer I kept reading and spending all hours of the day and night digging through as many books and websites as I could find. The results of all that were the building of a Cheap Canoe, and a few months later, a Michalak Vamp. The canoe is fun, and Vamp has shown me what a rowboat is really supposed to do. But for some reason I still don’t understand, the bug to sail worked its way into my brain and I found myself going back and forth between Payson’s and Michalak’s writings on teaching yourself to sail-- making notes and drawing my own diagrams and trying to figure it out.

After a few weeks of Teal, Nymph, Elegant Punt, Mixer, Piccup, Mayfly, and several other designs keeping me awake at night, I finally had to face reality-- that I had built 3 boats in less than a year. In the process I had graciously been allowed to slide on a host of honey-dos, and my wife Karen had watched with good humor while I filled the backyard with boats. No way I could build another boat (not right now at least), but this whole sailing idea was about to drive me nuts. Hmmm…. That LilJon could sail if I figured out a way to make and attach all the stuff…

September brought rotator cuff surgery and the time off work and the drugs were a potent combination. Karen came home one afternoon that week and found me out in the driveway pounding grommets into a sail cut from Polysail Dave’s website, a 47 ½ sq ft spirit sail. Hammering only 4 days after surgery was a bad move, but by George I had a sail.

A few weeks later a kick-up rudder straight out of Michalak’s book was finished, using leftover epoxy from Vamp and some #9 shot from a bag I’d bought in 1985.

Since this was an experiment anyway I decided to go the cheap route and use a 10’ piece of chainlink toprail for the mast and ½” EMT conduit for the spirit boom. Seemed a bit heavy, but I figured it would work. A leeboard copied from Bolger’s Junebug was cut out and contoured, so all that was left was how to make a removable mast partner.

A clamp-on arrangement seemed to make sense, so a handy 1X4 was pressed into service with a closet rod socket screwed down for a mast step.

“Payson Eyes” seemed to be a good idea, so the rudder was attached using eyebolts and ¼” aluminum rod stock. Didn’t look too bad all rigged up out in the driveway, and none of the neighbors commented on this sail…boat…tarp… thing… that had landed on their block.

The day finally came for “sea” trials, and Wayne Farris (who’s just about finished with his Toto now) came by and helped me load the LilJon into my Ranger, while he loaded the Cheap Canoe into his truck so he could try his hand at a double paddle. Beautiful day, but not even enough wind to blow leaves around. My son Ian sculled around with the rudder for a while and had to row back to the landing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks-- Chilly November day, wind from the NW at 20-30 mph. Foolish maybe, but Oak Mountain State Park has two small lakes and I have PFDs, so off we go for Round 2. The wind seemed quite a bit more tame at the lake than it had at home, so we bit the bullet and rigged her up. The leeboard was clamped on as before, with 2 big C clamps as soon as I got into water deep enough to drop it down.

Sailing across the wind (which was a broad reach, the books say) was going well, and the boat moved surprisingly fast. Rudder seemed to work the way it was supposed to, time to run a bit and see what it could do, and then see if I could remember how to tack my way back to the landing. Running downwind was great fun-- I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually sailing something that was all just plywood and tarp, and…” CRACK!!!

My genius-idea clamp-on mast partner had split nearly in two, and mast, boom, and sail were all lying over in the water. So I tried my best to roll the sail back up around the
mast and haul the whole mess back into the quickly drifting boat.

Ian had been following along the shore with a camera and didn’t know what had happened-- one moment there was a sail, next moment no sail. Rowing back to the landing against that wind took a while, but closet rod and plywood prevailed where toprail and tarp had failed.

Oh well, it was a fun 15 minutes! Can’t wait to get back out there once I figure out a better way to hang onto a mast.

So, have I sailed now? Yep. Do I know all those nautical terms and dozens of knots? You’re kiddin’, right? There are probably a dozen ways to do this better than I did, but it worked. As soon as it’s warm enough, build something. Want to teach yourself to sail but don’t have a sailboat? There’s more than one way to skin a cat, my friend.