By Chuck Merrell - email@example.com
The Mystery of the Christmas Dinghy is solved!
NOTE: DOWNLOAD A FREE COPY OF THE DESIGN!
There are certain questions that that seem to pop up now and
then and just scream out for an answer - questions like: Is
Diet Coke a good substitute for orange juice at breakfast? Will
Barbara Streisand ever get a nose job? Why does every garage
sale seem to have a plywood pram dinghy of indeterminate origin
in it, and more to the point what happened to the yacht the
pram was supposed to tend? Did that get sold at the last garage
sale or what?
REWIND to Marin County California on a Saturday morning in
the fall of 1970 something:
Having not much better to do, I find myself following a series of small "Garage
Sale!" signs down a private road near Stinson Beach. When I get to the end of the
trail, Im at a beautiful house with a "Dynamite (Marin County Real Estate Rat
talk) view" of the ocean. And, sure enough, heres the owner trying to get rid
of some of his unwanted consumer items probably to make room for future unwanted consumer
Long story short, I check out the table full of faux Tiffany lamps, old boom-boxes,
pre-dawn of history K2 skis and finding nothing I cant live without, am about to go
when at the back of the garage under a pile of newspapers, I see a little blue boat. I ask
him about it. And he says, "Oh that-thats not much good. My dad built it back
in Depression times for something to do because he didnt have enough money to go to
the movies, I guess. He probably got the wood for nothing and for some reason weve
kept it, but its been in the way and Ive been thinking about just dumping it.
I dont care much about boats, and neither does the wife. Besides, if you look,
youll see that it leaks because the boards across the bottom dont come
together in a couple places. Typical of something the old man woulda built; a boat that
I look a little closer and see a nicely shaped, small, flat-bottomed boat that has been
built with a modicum of loving care. It was put together in the old fashioned way-all out
of solid wood with lots of knees and cleats and inwales and outwales on the gunwales. The
pièce de résistance was the bottom which was cross-planked with ¾ " thick boards.
To me, the wood looked a lot like piss-oak robbed from forklift pallets. By now, I've got
the newspapers stacked to one side and experimentally try to lift it and find that
although only about seven feet long, it weighs about two ounces less than a pachyderm.
Anyway, thinking that maybe I can use gumpucky of some kind to plug up the leaks and
have something to play with, I offer the guy twenty bucks. Well, twenty bucks in 1972 was
like fifty today, so about ten nanoseconds later it was in the bed of my pickup and I was
on the way to my slip at Sausalito.
Risking a hernia, I dock carted it down the ramp and put the boat right side up on the
end of my finger-pier. I figured that if left there for a while the coming rains might
swell up the planks and fill up the boat (obviating the need for gumpucky) and at least
then I could try it out to see what it was like.
It turned out to be a busy fall and I didn't get back to the marina until Christmas
day. Seems that I was always waking up alone those days, and Christmas wasn't any
exception because my wife (I was married then) was on one of her usual "visit her
family in England over the holidays and buy everything in sight" trips.
As I lay there waking up, it occurred to me that maybe I should go down to the marina
and check to see if I still had a boat or boats, being particularly interested to see what
was going on with the little dinghy.
When I got to Sausalito, a Christmas ghost town that day, and parked and looked out at
the marina I could see that my boat "Pennywhistle" (Peterson Quarter-tonner) and
the dinghy appeared to be as I left them. As I stood there I heard a sound behind me and
turned around to see my ninety something friend, Ralph Flowers, riding up on his bicycle.
Yes, I said ninety something on a bicycle, and specifically, more like about 93 and
still working part time for Herb at Sausalito Yacht Sales. A couple times a month in the
summer hed sail his Bear Boat out to the Gate, round Angel Island, through Raccoon
Straits and back to the marina. Sometimes hed go alone, sometimes with one of his
old cronies. Occasionally hed come along with me for a sail on Penny and tell me
stories about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, or the time in 92 when he and his
father, a trading schooner skipper, had sailed to Tahiti and back to San Francisco in
record time, and (according to Ralph) the record still stood.
Ralphs voice was sort of an aged, parchment-brittle whisper. He talked fast, like
he was running out of time and sometimes said things twice and often put more vowels in a
word than there were supposed to be. So on this Christmas day it was: "Merry
Chu-uck, whatcha gonna do with that nice little bo-oat, fulla water there on your
"Ah, full of water is it? Great thats just what I wanted to happen-swell the
planks and all that. Well, Ralph Im gonna siphon the water out and try a little row
and see if its worth while."
Ralph (who was also a boatbuilder for part of his life) said, "Yes, yes, nice
boat, nice boat. Looks like she has some sort of pedigree, but built too heavy. I can see
that, a shame that, a real shame. Whoever built her shoulda made it lighter, much lighter,
you know what I mean, you know?"
By now, Ive got a pair of five-foot oars out of the car and were standing
on the dock and Im using the dock hose to siphon the water out of the dinghy. When
its drained, I tie on a painter and push it over the side into the water. It floats.
I jump in, set the oars and row away, which now that I think, that was probably an act of
faith because who knows what the condition of the fasteners holding on the bottom planks
Amazingly, the dinghy rows beautifully and because of the weight and the extra pounds
its soaked up in water, it carries its way like an Ingrid - as Ralph would
say, "A pleasure, a pleasure."
So when I get back to the dock he asks, "Whatre you gonna do with that
bo-oat? You dont need it--dont need it all. Why doncha sell it to me, I gotta
buyer for it. Hell take it right off our hands all right. How much do you want for
I think for a minute and say, "Really youre right Ralph. Itll just rot
if it sits here on the dock. I dont know I paid twenty bucks, so I guess you can
have her for that."
"Nope, nope, charge me thirty. Thatll do it and Ill sell it to him for
forty. Yeah, forty, hell pay. Then well all make some beer money."
I ask, "Wholl you sell the boat to?"
He points to a brown and white Tahiti Ketch moored outside the breakwater. "That
Tahiti boat there. He needs a tender boat thatll fit on deck and one to go back and
forth in so hell stop borrowing my dinghy all the time, day in day out, day in day
out, you know, huh? Banged it up last week he did, damn it!"
So, that was what happened to the little dinghy, but before I gave it up, I took off
all the dimensions, did a quick sketch of the boat, thinking that maybe Id draw the
design and build a better one if I ever needed a tender. For sure Id make it a lot
lighter. Amazingly, for some reason that note and sketch survived all these years in my
"miscellaneous stuff" notebook.
Ive lost track of where Pennywhistle wound up, and who knows if the little dinghy
is still in one piece or even exists? Ralph, sweet man that he was, of course has been
gone to Fiddlers Green for a long time, a long time now doncha know? Almost lost to
memory the whole incident was, and for years I hadnt thought of the little boat or
that Christmas day more than a quarter of a century past.
FAST FORWARD to last week:
So Im talking on the phone with Bill McKibben, plywood boat builder
extraordinaire and long-time close friend who lives in Victoria. He called up to see
if I received a packet of boat pictures he sent me. (Im going to do a McKibben page
on the net showing pictures of all the plywood boats hes built over the last thirty
years.) Then he talks about the next boat thatll probably come out of his shop in
the spring. He pauses mid-sentence and says, "You know, I need a new dinghy. Strictly
a tender that rows well, and thatll carry its oars inside. I dont want one of
those sometime row boat, sometime motorboat, sometime sailboat with a dagger or
centerboard, but a little seven-foot thingy thing thats real light and cheap and
will carry a decent sized payload, which usually would be defined as me and Beth and a
grand-kid and the beer."
The little Christmas dinghy pops into my mind and before conversation moves to other
things, I say, "I got an idea that would be just perfect. Been thinking about drawing
the boat for years, more or less copying a little boat I bought at a Garage Sale back in
mid-last century. Ill quick like a bunny draw up a set of lines and email em
I run a set of lines from my notes and name the design Apple Pie (for as easy as) and
send it out. Later, he gets back to me and says he likes it and to go ahead.
(Click on image to go to a larger picture)
I also sent a copy of the lines to Bill Samson in Dundee. He likes it, has been
thinking of building a boat to replace his June bug, which hes using as a tender.
His June Bug is wearing out and falling apart and wont last another season, but the
little boat is too small. He asks if I can stretch Apple Pie to 9 Feet? No problem. I do
that. He likes the stretched version, which I name Peach Pie (for no good reason other
than at the time I was probably hungry).
Now I have two dinghy designs to detail and I finish Apple Pie first, complete with
instructions, dimensions and material list. At this point, the idea strikes me that a
complete downloadable set of plans of Apple Pie would be a nice Christmas gift for readers
of my column at Duckworks.
However, Im curious as to where or who designed the original boat. Ive
never seen a dinghy like this. I ask Bill Samson who has a pretty good library of boat
designs. He says it looks like a boat that Atkin designed named Schatze, but Schatze was
almost eight feet long. Bill sends me a scan and sure enough the two boats look very
close, except in size.
Now, I REALLY want to know. So yesterday I went down to the Seattle Library and
searched their marvelous archive of boat plans (arranged by size) going back a hundred
years and sure enough there it was. The boat that I drew Apple Pie after was called
Rinky-Dink and designed over 65 years ago for MotorBoating and Sailing Magazine by William
Atkin for his monthly column. So, yeah, I guess the boat does have a pedigree all right.
I didnt at any time start out to copy Rinky-Dink. First, I didnt know about
the design until yesterday, but even if I had, knowing that it performed as well as it
did, I probably would have drawn it up for stitch and glue assembly anyway. The reason I
say that is because I feel that it would be a shame for the design to be generally
unavailable in its year 2000 incarnation. Besides, other than being the same shape and
roughly the same dimensions, Apple Pie is a whole new design, and a definite improvement
over the old one (in my opinion).
Thinking about it a little more, maybe it would be "a good thing" as Martha
Stewart says, to prudently search out and redesign and up-grade in this same way, some of
the older but really good boat designs of the past. I doubt if Howard Chapelle would
agree, but hed have a hard time arguing that the resultant boats circa 2000
technology werent a lot better, nicer to use, lighter, longer lasting, more durable,
safer and easier to build-which is what Apple Pie offers as a relative of Rinky-Dink.
So, Apple Pie will be my Christmas Gift to you. You can get your own copy of all the
drawings and assembly instructions bundled up in a zip file by clicking on the link below,
which takes you to a page at boatdesign.com. There you click on another link to download.
To those of you who do build Apple Pie, Id greatly appreciate it if youd take
a picture or two during building and using and send it my way for inclusion on the web
Enjoy building Apple Pie, and Happy Holidays to you and yours!
for free plans