The Birth of Bubbles
by Maurice O'Brien,
Why build a boat? A question asked by many friends
and family since I started this project, and I’m sure
asked of many other amateur builders over the years. In my case,
I was offered an old 7’6” John Henry with a P class
rig that had been used by it’s former owner to teach his
children to sail. It was so cheap I thought “Why not?
I’d like to teach my kids to sail too”.
My first attempt was an abject failure. The rig
was so low, I couldn’t duck under the boom when tacking,
and when my kids saw Dad floundering there was no way they would
go anywhere near “that thing”. So it lay outside
for several years until a camping holiday by a beach inspired
me to try again. This time, I took the precaution of reefing
the sail and lifting the boom up to give more clearance –
what a transformation! Great fun had by all etc., etc. until
the wind got up a bit…
I let a friend have a go and gybing at speed caused
a spectacular capsize. At that point I discovered several things:
The boat had no buoyancy, so couldn’t
be baled once righted…
Towing a boat full of water to the shore
against a strong current with a kayak is character-building
Tipping an old boat full of water on
the sand strains rotten joints
Sailing an old boat with strained joints
in a stiff breeze causes strained seams to part…
Once back home, further observations were made:
Everyone had a great time and would love
to do it again in a seaworthy boat
The old boat could be sheathed in fibreglass,
but was probably too small by a couple of feet
The second-hand boats for sale at the
time were too expensive or no better than what I had, and
suitable new sailing dinghies pretty rare and very expensive
for what you get.
So the decision was made to build. My plan was
that I needed a boat big enough for me plus a couple of others;
small enough for children to sail single-handed; flexible enough
to allow sailing and fishing and thus see if the family had any
nautical aspirations (in which case a bigger boat would be the
next project); and cheap enough so that if no-one had any real
interest then the expenditure and subsequent potential loss was
minimal. A fairly standard set of requirements for a first family
Now, although I am an engineer, my woodworking skills are minimal
and my boat building skills nil. Extensive research showed many
designs were available that were almost perfect, and I came
close to ordering plans for a John Welsford Truant. However,
my wife had a friend who was married to David Payne (www.payneyachts.com),
a naval architect in Sydney, and fate intervened in that we
were due to stay with them for a week. Did he have a suitable
design – Yes. Would he tweak the design to suit my requirements
– Of course. And so began the construction of a 3.0m glass
on ply dinghy.
I had been warned that this project would take 9 months to
1 year to complete – in the end I did it in 5 months,
and would have done it in 3 but for effectively being away from
home for 8 of the 20 weeks. It wasn’t that I was a previously
undiscovered boat building champion, just that when I start
a project I tend to be results-driven. I made a point of trying
to do something every day, no matter how small, so had the bulk
of the work done in 3 months. The last 2 months was just fibreglassing
and painting, as these were jobs not suited to 5 minutes here,
half an hour there.
Stage 1 - Initial construction – hull
off mould stations and turned over.
Stage 2 - Painting almost complete, just spills
to clean up
Stage 3 – Out of the workshop and fully
rigged. Just add water….
I learned a huge amount building this boat,
and hope these may be of use to others:
Trust your designer – they tend
to know what they are doing
Trust yourself – if something looks
right, it probably is, subject to the above. After all, you
are the one who is going to use the boat.
Don’t skimp on materials. Yes,
it’s true that construction ply uses the same internal
glue as marine ply and is much cheaper, but marine ply has
a nicer finish and looks better. Similarly, I stuck to the
timbers specified by David Payne which proved lighter and
easier to use than the ubiquitous pine recommended elsewhere.
To paraphrase John
Welsford, there wasn’t a single structural
mistake I made that couldn’t be fixed with a bit more
timber and/or glue. Although I know where all the mistakes
are, to casual observers it just looks great.
Take time finishing. I rushed the fibreglassing
a bit and expected to just sand back any imperfections. Although
after sanding it looked perfect, when I painted the hull I
was horrified with the poor finish – every single blemish
I couldn’t see before was now very obvious. In the end
I just left it, as I expect my first season will result in
a few scratches that will be worse than the paint blemishes.
Once the scratches reach some as yet undefined critical mass,
I plan to sand it back and repaint and will deal with the
underlying finish at that time.
The Big Launch!
Sunday 25th July was set for the momentous occasion. All the
family and friends gathered duly at Long Bay for the ceremony,
Bubbles was sprayed with bubbles, so to speak, toasted, and
then launched with her builder and her namesake.
So how does it sail? At this stage, I don’t
really know. The only thing missing from this idyllic picture
was wind. A very light breeze was present for the launch, and
we managed to head out slowly, tack around and return, but this
wind died to almost nothing. There was enough to give all the
small children a brief excursion, but the adults waited for
the breeze to hopefully lift after lunch – alas, the wind
I can report it looks great, doesn’t leak, moves easily
in light airs at least, and is stable enough to stand up in
– one solo voyager tried standing and sculling the rudder
to make progress, and managed it without turning turtle.
I can also report that Bubbles generated interest and pleasure
from many not otherwise obliged to express encouragement. A
number of people strolling on the beach stopped to examine her
carefully, and one lady was even kind enough to come over to
ask who had built her. On my identification, she shook my hand
and congratulated me on my achievement in creating such a beautiful
boat! Quite made my day….
The next step:
I can’t wait to take her out again in more robust wind
conditions, but also I can’t stop dreaming about building
another, this time a trailer sailer. I quite like some of the
bigger designs of David Payne, who designed Bubbles, but also
like the idea of the Norwalk Island Sharpie. And then there’s
the neighbour with the strip planked yacht gathering cobwebs
in his driveway that is just begging to be restored, and the
Hartley TS21 in the paper going cheap…