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By Paul Boyer - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - USA



Pride in Our Builds

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 that?”

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 process.

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 boat.

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For photos and regular updates, please visit Paul’s blog at:

http://buildaboat.wordpress.com/

Sanding Photo Credit Avery Boyer

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For photos and regular updates, please visit Paul’s blog at http://buildaboat.wordpress.com/

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