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.
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
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
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
mast and haul the whole mess back into the quickly drifting
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