As I type this, my fingertips feel a little strange. Perhaps
it's the paint crusted in my whorls, or the "defatting"
of my skin from solvent used to spot at dabs and drips on my hands.
Certainly, if I were inclined to use lotion, it would be recommended.
To be honest, I have been using an epoxy primer that requires
a thinner so foul that you can hear the brain cells dying - with
an audible snap - in your head with every breath. I took the work
outside, and I noticed two things: my olfactory receptors quickly
became saturated and immune to the sharp sting of vapor, and I
became ravenously hungry. I've used this particular product before,
years ago, when I restored a San Francisco Pelican sailboat. A
weatherly little sloop, it was built like a proper tub and carried
a junk-like lug sail. I had the bottom repaired with copious epoxy
and this particular primer was the only product appropriate as
a go-between for the resin and the paint I chose. Every time I
smell that solvent, I am transported to an inverted hull under
a tarp, behind the fence.
I have been building a boat, a ridiculous little boat. Lacking
the shop space for my stored power tools, I have been using Lisa's
grandmother's basement, twenty minutes away. Lisa's late grandfather
built thirty-three fiberglass sailing dinghies in that basement,
and the power tools he used have made my project easier. Even
so, the space is cramped, and I mutter to his spirit when I repeatedly
wrestle the table and band saws out of my way.
This is not the first boat I've built. My first boat was a "stitch
and glue" affair that I had worked out myself in high school.
Designed to be cut from a single sheet of plywood, wired together,
the seams fiberglassed. I dubbed it the Banana Boat, for its squarish
approximation of a certain tropical fruit. I had a working knowledge
of how S&G boats went together. Dad brought home the plywood
and fiberglass materials from work.
My friend, Eric, and I risked amputation cutting out the three
pieces with a circular saw on the garage floor, and we dutifully
assembled the hull with galvanized wire and a cross brace carved
from a two by four. After mixing up the resin and hardener in
a coffee can, we lay the fiberglass tape along the inside and
outside of the joints and painted the polyester resin on the tape.
After waiting a glacially slow day for the resin to "kick",
we toted the Banana Boat down Willow road to the Bay.
The boat was a jaunty craft, about seven feet long, like a miniature
cod-fishing dory. In the interest of expediency there was no trim,
no paint. Ragged edges formed the gunwales, the only concession
to comfort, the graceful arc carved into the cross-piece / backrest.
I figured it would be best propelled by a kayak paddle like the
Rushton canoes, but all we had was a cheap plastic two-piece oar
that Eric carried in his hand. I hoisted the tiny craft onto a
shoulder and we marched up the street.
The saltwater closest to my house was over and down a hill, a
full mile away. On the walk to the Bay, I imagined my naval architecture
career beginning with the record-breaking sales of plans and kits
for the soon-to-be-famous Banana Boat. Every cruiser would want
one. Birdwatchers, fishermen would appreciate the economy and
safety of my brainchild. It might be written up in Popular Mechanics
or Cruising World. After I had made enough money from my clever,
elegant design, I would bequeath the boat into the public domain
and Boy Scouts and inner-city children would build fleets. Of
course, my trademark color would be yellow.
Once down by the Bay, we minced our way along the train tracks,
looking for a suitable launch site. The rock and rubble of the
railroad grade cut across a broad inlet, trapping a small backbay,
washed by tides which ebbed and flowed under a short trestle where
we occasionally netted crab . At the north end of the backbay,
an aromatic black beach beckoned, but the occasion called for
a mud-free launching. Balancing on a large rock out from the shore,
I lowered one end - the stern- of the Banana Boat into the water,
and slid the craft into the glassy swell.
The first indication of a poorly conceived and executed plan
was the water seeping through pinholes in the fiberglass tape.
I had watched, incredulous, as green water pooled in my boat,
and it slowly rolled over. Dismissing the technical shortcomings
of my boatbuilding, flush with faith that the design was sound
(yet loathe to get wet), I performed an experiment. With the Banana
Boat perched on a convenient flat rock, we hefted a large stone
- maybe a hundred and fifty pounds - precisely positioning it
in the middle of the boat.
Like a cheese on a grater, delicate curls of fir veneer testified
to the destructive power of our methodology, as I levered the
boat back into the brine. Holding the bow for a long moment, seeking
the elusive balance that I hoped existed, the Banana Boat struggled
in my hand like a frightened pony, fighting first to the left,
then the right. It's just the waves I told myself, no waves in
evidence. I released my steadying grip.
The Titanic had undoubtedly reached a point in its sinking where
stability and buoyancy vanished and the forces of fate converged
in a sucking slosh and the sea claimed the vessel. I understand
this took some time, as depicted in Hollywood dramas. Perhaps
scaling a Titanic to seven feet also scales time downward: Without
hesitation, bob, or wallow, my boat tipped on its side, the rock
sliding to the chine. Water spilled into the hull, the boat continued
its rotation, the stone settling to the bottom in an explosion
of mud. Failure. Q.E.D.
A nascent social responsibility prohibited me from abandoning
a plywood hulk on the beach, but it had briefly occurred to me
to sacrifice it upon the train tracks. During the long walk back
up the hill, my mind was occupied by a new-found understanding
of primary stability, rocker, and beam. I dragged the dangerous,
useless Banana Boat behind me, the fiberglass scratching, shredding
on the hot asphalt. Eric's house was closer than mine, and I tipped
the hull onto a burn pile in his back yard. Eric handed me an
ax, and I purged the disappointment from my soul.
I nearly gave up boatbuilding.
I was fortunate to attend a high school that offered, among
other things, a sailing class. I took the class five times, learning
to coax beautifully varnished El Toros to windward. I found the
courage and funds to buy a home-built Jr. Moth from my Dad's coworker,
Loy. The hard-chined scow needed some restoration, a confidence-building
exercise in boat painting.
The next boat that I built was an Aleutian kayak, a baidarka,
built to my body. Inspired by George Dyson's seminal book on building
aluminum baidarkas, I carefully scaled the dimensions to fit my
six-foot-two frame. I lashed dozens of alder saplings to spruce
longitudinals, faithfully replicating methodology and materials.
Nineteen feet long, twenty-two inches wide, crazy fast, and tight
as a rubber glove, paddling it terrified me. I stripped the skin
from it and sold it to a man building a hotel in Dutch Harbor,
Alaska. I hear it hangs above the bar still, twenty years later.
I used the money from my baidarka to buy the Pelican behind the
fence, which I named Reinheitsgebot.
That boat required some varnishing, in addition to the paint.
A pleasure to sail, with the tiller lashed down, it could be steered
by shifting one's weight fore and aft.
The purchase of a San Juan 24 necessitated the construction of
a Phil Bolger design called the Elegant Punt. We needed a dinghy,
and the punt performed admirably, gracefully towing behind Solen,
shuttling three safely to shore. Sadly, it was left behind when
we moved to Vashon Island. I hope somebody saved it from crumbling
away in the weather, tilted against the house.
Once again, I am happily surrounded by boats. Cacafuego,
a San Juan 21, waits on its trailer, risking parking tickets on
the street. One of Lisa's grandfather's thirty-three rests on
saw horses in the back yard, sail and spars snug in the garage.
She rescued it from a yard sale in Queen Anne, a hilltop neighborhood
The newest boat, Fósforo, is truly an absurdity.
Six feet long, it is designed for a single adult occupant, yet
I lavished the yachtiest attention to its construction. It has
a sailing rig, and I hope my kids learn to enjoy small sailboats
as I have.
I put the finishing touch of a name on the transom last night,
and brought it home from the distant basement. The sun was low,
playing on the Olympic horizon, and, yet, I had to put it into
A dredged ship canal divides Seattle north and south, with a
tiny, overlooked boat launch in Fremont.
Geese loitered on the docks, hunkering in the breeze blasting
off the water. I slid Fósforo into the chop, stepped in,
grabbed the oars. I pushed away from the dock, drifting toward
the concrete ramp. The oarlocks slipped into place, and I rowed
away from shore, into the twilight.
Todd's blog is at http://schlemsshortreport.blogspot.com/