By Paul Boyer - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - USA

Building Versus Sailing

Within the community of boat builders I notice a tendency to label members as either “builders” or “sailors.” It is said that builders are happiest in the their shops and don’t mind taking months, years (or decades) to finish their projects. They like to make boats that turn heads and inspire envy. They garnish their creations with shiny hardwood baubles and sand their hulls to a satin-smooth finish. It is rumored that they rarely sail.

Sailors, on the other hand, have no patience with builders. Why waste time with fiddly bits that don’t improve the boat’s performance? The whole point of building is to go sailing, they say. Their boats can be rough, humble and occasionally even eccentric, but they are well used and well loved—up to the moment they are dumped in the back and replaced by the next build.

Builders respond that they building for the ages. Time is only wasted when it is spent working with inferior materials. For some, it’s okume, teak and brass or nothing. To use anything less is to be disrespectful of both boats and their skills. In contrast, sailors say, “Hey, whatever floats your boat.” Exterior plywood works just as well as the fancy stuff (at least for a while), and when it checks and bubbles they just chip away the rot, smear in some epoxy, and head back out for another trip around the lake.

Like all attempts to divide the world into two types of people, this “builder/sailor” dichotomy is overly simplistic. While there are always people who fit the stereotypes (and I see them posting comments on the various forums), most folks are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They are building because they like to build things, but they are building boats because they like to be on the water.

At least, that’s how it is for me. I have a foot in both camps—one leg in the water, one in the shop. But it’s not easy maintaining this balance. I want to build a nice boat--but I get antsy when the sun is shining and the wind is up. And after spending all summer building I am starting to feel like an impatient sailor—especially now that it is autumn and I am forced to admit that it will take me at least a full year to finish my boat.

This was not my plan. I assumed that I would be done by now. I even thought that I could be ready to sail by August when I would celebrate my 45th birthday. Launching my boat would be fitting way to thumb my nose at midlife angst. But by late summer my Pocket Cruiser was still a skeleton. I picked up the pace when I realized that time was running short and I recently attached the sides and assembled the cabin, but there’s a great deal of work left—from cockpit seating to hatches, trim, rudder and sails.

Now the leaves are falling in Pennsylvania and I am already retreating to my rocking chair in front of the wood stove. My boat sits unfinished in a cold garage and I’m left to contemplate the wisdom of my decisions.

For the first time, I wonder if I should have selected a smaller, less complex boat. Now that I have spend a few months hanging around builders (both online and in person), I see that there are many simple boats that require less time and materials, but still allow me to wander the protected waters of the Chesapeake.

I spend a great deal of time examining the work of designer Jim Michalak, a Duckworks favorite. And from this publication, I have also seen how much can be done in an open hulled boat. Like any unimaginative landlubber, I am enamored of cozy cabins and assumed they were necessary for overnight cruises. How else would I stay dry on rainy days and protected during my nightly anchorage? Only later did I learn about hearty souls who simply pitch a tarp over their hulls for the night and can stay dry (more or less) when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

That’s one of the problems faced by novice builders and sailors: We make our most critical decisions when we have the least knowledge. We pick plans when we don’t know beans about sailing and can’t make informed decisions about our needs. And in the first moments of enthusiasm, it’s easy to bite off more than we can chew. We fall victim to the “just in case” rationalization (as in: “I need to build a bigger boat just in case I want to take my extended family to Bora Bora”). But then time passes, the novelty of boat building disappears—and we’re still many months away from the water.

But then the weather warms slightly and I rouse myself from my chair and spend a few hours in the garage. Once I regain the momentum of working, I realize why I chose this boat and why, despite all my frustrations, I still spend nearly every free moment cutting and sanding. The work gives me pleasure and I am irrationally proud of the boat that is emerging under my clumsy hands.

While it is still a simple plywood boat, I believe it has graceful lines and a pleasingly traditional feel. It’s a boat I will be proud to sail and—after waiting all these years—isn’t it worth waiting just a few months more to get the boat I want? That kind of pep talk helps. But I also see a practical solution to the problem.

Why not have the best of both worlds? That’s what I realized when my 16-year-old son announced that he had the bug and wanted to build his own boat. A young man of large ambition, he first lobbied for a sailboat considerable more complex than mine. After some negotiation I agreed to finance the project if he agreed to settle for a small project. Sensing an opportunity, I talked him into Michalak’s Piccup Squared, an 11-foot sailboat appropriate for a novice woodworker and inexperienced sailor.

When the plans arrived, I marveled at the Piccup Square’s simplicity and economy. My boat requires fourteen sheets of plywood; the Piccup Squared needs only four sheets of quarter inch boards. I spent the better part of a month working on the Pocket Cruiser’s bilge board boxes; the Piccup Squared relies on less complex leeboards. The Pocket Cruiser will probably cost more than $2,000; my son and I bought all the materials needed to build the hull at Lowe’s for less than $100. It occurred to me that had I started with the Piccup Squared, I would have learned the essential skills of boat building, finished in time to practice my sailing skills, and still have time (and money) to begin my Pocket Cruiser and work on it at my leisure.

These are the lessons of hindsight, but for now I plan to keep working as long as the weather allows—although I tell my son that I might start building his boat if he doesn’t hurry up and get started. I am a builder—but come spring, I plan to sail.


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