Am I wasting my time building a boat
when I could purchase something better for less?
I started thinking about this question when a fellow boat builder
told me about an experience he had right after finishing a kayak:
“The day I put it in the water for the first time after
a three month build,” he wrote in the comment section of
my blog, “I stopped at a gas station to fill up my car.
The guy at the pump across from me looked up at the boat on my
roof and asked, "Did you build that?" I answered, "Yes"
and he replied, "What the hell made you do something like
I don’t know what he said, but I would find it a hard question
to answer. My first response would probably be something stupid
like, “Well, I guess I just like to build things,”
followed by some nervous laughter. But that wouldn’t really
answer the guy’s question or do justice to my feelings.
||So I found myself rehearsing imaginary conversations
in case I ever ended up in the same situation. I wanted to
be ready for the skeptics and be able to show, with devastating
logic, that boat building is a sane and, indeed, wonderful
way to pass the time. With a few quick rhetorical thrusts,
I not only wanted my inquisitor contrite, but begging for
a set of plans.
It might be a pointless argument. Maybe the best I can say is
that we all have our hobbies and passions, so what’s it
to you, bub? Maybe it’s better to believe that, for better
or worse, some people just don’t “get” boat
building—just like I don’t “get” NASCAR.
But the question still haunted me - not because I wanted to win
the argument, but because I wanted to better understand why my
boat is so important to me. In the end, that guy was asking a
question that I have been asking myself: Why build a boat?
To make the case, I don’t think it’s possible to apply
conventional economic arguments. Although some boat building Web
sites proclaim that building is cheaper than buying, it’s
an argument that’s hard to defend. While I’m not an
expert on this topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that a good
used boat can be purchased for less than a similarly sized homemade
boat. My cousin recently purchased a very nice Catalina 22 for
$2,300, which is roughly the amount I plan to spend on my sixteen
foot Pocket Cruiser -if I watch my pennies and don’t include
the cost of an outboard motor.
Nor can I say that I’m building a better boat. While I think
my Pocket Cruiser is handsome and will serve my needs, I don’t
expect it to perform as well as my cousin’s Catalina. Of
course it is possible for hobbyists to build high performance
sailboats, but I’m a novice builder and opted for simplicity
with my first project.
So if it’s not about the money or superior performance,
then what is it all about?
I’m still working on the problem, but I do know this much:
boat building, ultimately, is not about the boat. In some respects,
the boat is an afterthought - a bonus prize that appears at the
very end of the project. Instead, what matters most is everything
that happens before I get to the water. What matters most is the
Don’t get me wrong. I’m eager to get sailing and there
are days when I regret picking such a complicated project. On
sunny afternoons with a steady breeze, I deeply wish that I had
selected plans that require four our five sheets of plywood, not
twelve. I could be on the water by now! I tell myself.
But these are fleeting thoughts. Most of the time, I know that
my apparently sudden and rash decision to start a boat building
project late last winter reflected a deeper need in midlife to
take on a large project, solve new problems and learn new skills.
At a time when the everyday routines of work and home often feel
tedious and uninspiring, the decision to build a boat opened the
door to a completely new world. It provided me with an exciting
new challenge and a refreshingly youthful sense of adventure.
Although I have worked on my Stevenson Pocket Cruiser for only
five months, I feel that I could write a novel about all I have
learned and all the experiences I have had.
||My first timid cuts on a cold March afternoon
seem like a million years ago as I now cut and glue with confidence.
I fill my evening hours reading sailing adventures, incrementally
building my knowledge of nautical terms and sailing lore.
||I even forged a friendship with another Pocket
Cruiser builder who lives less than an hour away and, remarkably,
is at the same stage in the building process. We shared the
cost of a sailing lesson and when I reached a milestone by
attaching the sides, he stopped by to inspect my work (arriving
just in time for dinner, so we set another plate at the table).
All of these experiences are an integral part of my project
and all have enriched my life.
In contrast, the alternate path of buying a boat simply requires
a free afternoon and a willingness to expend money. This is by
far the fastest way to get a boat, to be sure, and it is perfectly
legitimate. Many nice people buy boats. But the advantage of time
and convenience must be weighed against the opportunities that
are lost. Most people only see the disadvantages of building,
but the advantages - the opportunity to grow intellectually and
develop a new set of complex skills while creating something that
is both functional and beautiful - are hidden from view. Simply
put, builders get more for their money.
I worry that in a consumer culture the simple joy of creative
work is being forgotten. We don’t all have to be boat builders,
of course. We all deserve the opportunity to feel engaged, empowered,
and ennobled by creative acts. People who value creativity - who
understand how it brings a sense of purpose and pleasure to life
- don’t question the sanity of people who choose to spend
three months or three years building a boat. They “get”
it, even if they have never been on a boat.
Nearly everything I say about boats can apply to any other creative
task - from building a house to baking bread or making your own
wine from a can of grape juice (good recipes can be found online).
Each provides a sense of adventure, a satisfying feeling of self
reliance and a small dose of social subversion. But since I am
thinking about the man at the gas station, these arguments are
directed at him, and I hope he takes them to heart. Except he
has by now pulled away and is many miles down the road, still
shaking his head at the strange man with the funny little plywood
For photos and regular updates, please visit Paul’s blog
Sanding Photo Credit Avery Boyer