Messin’ about with Phil Lea

THE COURIER / Fred Gladdis

Phillip Lea of Russellville sails his Phil Bolger designed 14-foot flatbottom skiff, christened “Shoe String” recently on Lake Dardanelle.
By Fred Gladdis
After a couple passes over a stretch of Lake Dardanelle, ... actually what we’re doing is “tacking” ... Phillip Lea is asked about how sailing affects him.
“I think I get high. I like the motion of the boat ... it’s a constant and regular stimulation and at the same time it’s quite relaxing. It’s always different, the sun is at a different angle, the clouds ....”
His boat is a Phil Bolger designed 14-foot flatbottom skiff with a 67 square foot sail rig, similar to a working boat of the 1890’s. It is simple, and easy to set up. If he’s coming home from work and sees that the conditions are right, he can be on the water in 30 minutes.
Bolger is somewhat of a genius when it comes to boat design. Think of the “Rose” in the movie, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” That wasn’t a digital model. See the Web sites for proof listed at the end of this story. The San Diego Maritime Museum is currently its owner, which has been renamed the H.M.S. Surprise.
Lea recalls being first intrigued by sailing when he was in elementary school but he didn’t get out on the water until later. “I saw how a sailboat moved through the water smoothly and quietly.”
Lea said he wished he had started realizing his interest in sailing earlier when his boys were younger.
“If I had a pair or three of these small boats, it would have kept their interest.”
But as they grew older, he realized he may have been too late to gain their attention.
“I think you have to be racing to keep kids’ interest ... something that keeps the adrenaline.”
“I find this relaxing, I find this sailing along in a small boat gets my adrenaline high enough. Some days it can be quite an adventure in a small boat when this lake really kicks up.”
A tempting question emerges: Have you ever gone over?
“I haven’t gone over in this boat, the design is quite stable, where you keep your weight in the bottom of the boat ... I learned to sail racing dinghies when I was in high school so this boat is pretty tame compared to those, and you got to be quicker on your feet to keep those upright. This one is not quite that bad. There is plenty of adventure.”
Lea kept the motor from an aluminum boat he owned which is going to be used occasionally as auxiliary power in next boat he builds. “The motor was incredibly loud .... When you think about going rowing, paddling or sailing, with no engine noise, you can take somebody with you and have a conversation.”
His next project is a 18 foot day sailer by a Jim Michalak design.
“It should go to weather well.”
Feeling lost in the language? It can be rather intimidating, but as you begin to understand the context, as you sail with an experienced boatman as Lea, it starts to click. Sailing is as infectuous and intoxing as a taste of good wine.
“I will shape my rudder and centerboard well so they will provide good lift at low speeds. In a sailboat you’re always operating at very low speeds. So it will be a good sailboat.”
“Some guys who build their first home-built boat, they don’t understand the significance of having a fine entry or tapering, shaping the surfaces on the rudder, or on the centerboard, and as such they can’t sail to windward.”
“First thing, it’s got to be a good sailboat. So I can take it anywhere. It will have higher freeboard so it won’t have water come over the sides which is important when a few whitecaps pick up. It keeps this one pretty exciting sometimes.”
Michalak’s boat plans, as well as other designers’, are available at
As a powerboat interrupts the mood, Lea responds, “See there’s no way you could have a conversation in that boat. I guess it’s fast and it’s ‘fun’.”
He carefully searched for the best wood with which to build his boat. The mast, made from a 2x12 Douglass fir plank, is light and flexible ... the sail and boom weighs less that 20 pounds.
Lea was raised in southern California where he was required to take industrial arts including a lot of woodworking classes.
His work has impressed fellow boatman Wawrzyniak:
“Phil, his work is on the upper end of quality, like that kayak he built,” said Wawrzyniak.
“That paint job is really nice. You can spend more time putting the finish on a boat than building the basic boat, some people like to do that. Phil is one of those guys. .... Phil knows how to build a boat, but a lot of people don’t want to put in the extra effort to the quality of finish that Phil’s boat has. Both of them are really nice work.
“He does a lot of sanding and smoothing, and really puts in a nice paint job. .... He put in a lot more effort in sanding and getting a smooth base for that house paint to sit on. That’s the work with painting ... it’s the prep work. Both of his boats are real high quality but you don’t have to put that kind of effort into it if you don’t want to,” he finished.”
To build a simple boat, “all you need are simple hand tools: drill, jig saw, power sander,” said Lea. “A table saw can be helpful to rip your material. All the finishes are put on with a paint brush, and you might use a spray can of varnish,” said Lea.
Lea prefers to leave the focus of the weekend’s event on the other attendees and the boats. But it wouldn’t have happened without his efforts and he is due the attention. Still he is focused on the natural environment that powers his creation.
“When the sun goes behind the clouds, it can completely kill our wind.” Although his current sailboat is rigged for oars, he prefers to use a simple canoe paddle to make way, which doesn’t seem to be a bother to him. “That’s a fairly common phenomenon, when the sun goes down, or if it gets behind the clouds, that’s when the wind dies.”A new lesson, which for many can only be taught by nature herself.
One may have to take in an afternoon of sailing to get to a point of relaxation and focus to understand the following lesson about a particular sailing rig. Take a moment right now and find your place on the lake with little distraction, with the exception of changing winds and the flight of an osprey overhead. See if you can picture this in your mind. If not, wait for a moment before bedtime, when the kids are asleep and your work shirts are ironed.
“There’s other traditional sailing rigs that are easier and cheaper to maintain than a your standard production sloop rig with an aluminum mast and stainless steel stays.
“You got to have a sail that goes up a track ... it’s more time consuming. One of the best rigs, or one of the simple rigs — it’s not as efficient or as fast as the production rig would be — is to have a balance lug sail. ... real popular in England ... or it was. It was the sail rig of choice for all the small boats and fishermen on the coast.
“The mast will be shorter for the same sail area .... so it will be easier to set up, and it will have a yard. Halyards clip to the yard, [which] goes around a pully or a simple hole drilled in the mast. And there’s a boom that comes alongside.
“It’s a four-sided sail. The edges of this sail ... you have the luff, the leach and the foot. On a four sided sail, you have a luff, a leach, a foot and a head that will go up at an angle aft. So, the yard is on the head.
“You hoist the yard, the foot is on a boom and it’s kind of hanging free, but then you tie part of the boom down to the mast and haul it down. What that does is it brings some of the sail out forward of the mast. As you haul down on it, it brings the yard up and peaks the yard up as you pull down on this. It brings that front edge of the sail, it’s not supported, it’s not tied onto anything, it’s just held there by the tension put into it.
“The back end of the yard wants to come down, but it’s tied 30-40 percent of the way back, so the yard wants to fall and the front end pulls this leading edge tight.
That’s part of its advantage, that it has that clean leading edge. It does have a mast on the backside that could hurt your airflow. You need to have your air move smoothly the sail.
“But it’s very simple because now ... it maintains its shape without any stays. The mast is short, the boom is light, the yard is light, and you can set a lot of sail area with one man. So with more sail area, you can have a bigger boat.
“And it’s a very easy sail to handle for this type of ... messin’ around.”

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