by Bob Means

Why I build wooden boats

I grew up in southern California, started surfing when I was 12 years old off the beach in Belmont Shores. The waves there were small but a great place for a twelve year old to get started. My mom use to help me tie my board to her old 1953 Chevy, haul me down there every Saturday morning and then pick me up at three in the afternoon. Belmont shores was a beach on a sand spit that separated the Pacific Ocean from Alimitos Bay. A number of my rich friends from school belonged to the local sailing club. They all had new sabots or Lido 15’s. After about eleven o’clock in the morning the wind would come up and the surf would get blown out. I had four hours to wait for my mom to come get me so I wondered over to the bay side to visit with my friends who had these boats. Of course after time I would be invited to go out sailing with one or two of them. This is how I got introduced to sailing. As time went on surfing became the real love of my life and although I would still sail from time to time it was always secondary.

After a stint in the Marine Corp plus a year in Vietnam, I had an opportunity to go up to Southeast Alaska. My first job was working in a bakery. The owner of the bakery and I hit it off pretty good and we became friends. John, the owner, owned a wooden 45’ Sparks and Stephen’s sloop. This boat was a real classic. There weren’t a whole lot of sailors up in that area at the time and John was always looking for crew when ever he wanted to go sailing. I soon became a regular crew member and it was very rare when I wasn’t on the boat when he went out. It was great sailing through the inland water ways of Southeast Alaska. It took the place of my quest for surf. My heart was also won over to the feel and design of old classic boats compared to the more modern fiberglass models.

There is a lot of advantages to owning a Glass boat, special when it comes to maintenance and costs. But the feel of an old wooden boat with traditional lines is a beauty to behold. The feel of wood underneath as you plow through heavy sees always makes me feel a little more confidant and a bit more like a real sailor. I got bitten by these classic’s and it has never left me.

My surfing days came to an end when I broke my neck bodysurfing on the Big Island of Hawaii. After a number of years recovering I soon took back to the water. I started by crewing on other peoples boats in local regattas. Finding crews are difficult for these boat owners so I always became one of the regulars. It always amazed me how difficult it was to find a crew, you see for me I always jumped at the chance to go sailing.

My first little sail boat was a wooden14’ Blue Jay. I found an add in the local Penny Saver for this little beauty and they were only asking $250. She was in pretty bad shape when I went to look at her but fell madly in love. As the old saying goes, ones man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I hauled her home and instantly started to work. Took everything off her and started sanding, filling , painting. All the spars were of mahogany, so scraped and sanded and got them back into pristine condition. It didn’t take long before launch day. You know this all happened some twenty five years ago and as I took to Mission Bay in San Diego with my little reconditioned Blue Jay, we sure got the stares as the Hobie Cats, Prindles and all the other plastic boats that sailed by. I must of had twenty people ask me if she was for sale.

That little Bluejay taught me a lesson early on. Once while sailing on a windy day the shroud parted, instantly my beautiful mahogany mast lay in the water. We gathered all the pieces together and paddled into shore and hauled everything home. The next day I took my busted mast over to a friends who helped me cut away the split parts and splice in new pieces of mahogany. After allowing the glue to dry twenty-four hours, we shaped the ragged parts, sanded her down added a new coat of varnish and were ready to set sail again in no more than three days after being demasted. The cool part of the story was in the fact that with a wooden boat I was self sufficient. I could do my own repairs and didn’t have to rely on others. The cost of repairing my mast was about ten dollars. Now that was a good feeling knowing that not only could I fix anything on my boat but the costs would be low. Fixing the mast was also kind of fun.

My next great adventure working on classics is when I had the opportunity to return to Vietnam in 1988. I was working for a small development organization constructing medical clinics in rural areas. While there I met a man named Robert. Robert was a burley old Englishman who was exporting tropical hardwoods. In his travels around Vietnam he found the ruins of the 83’ Sparks and Stevens schooner “So Fong”. The ‘So Fong’ was tied up to derelict mooring in the backwaters of the Hai Phong Harbour. Robert inquired about the boat and made a offer to the Vietnamese government to buy her. She was in pretty bad shape, bow sprit split, half of it missing, bad need of paint and caulk. After closing the deal Robert jury rigged her and sailed her down to Saigon and tied her up next to his base of operation and started a major refit.

I use to visit Robert regularly on my return trips to Saigon from the bush and monitor how the refit was going. He had at least twenty local Vietnamese wood workers working with him getting the ol’ So Fong back into shape. Robert and I were amazed at the talent of the Vietnamese as they worked under the direction of Robert’s expertise. I watched them tear the guts out of that boat, rip up the old teak deck and slowly start to put everything back together.

My project came to a close and I had to leave Vietnam but I soon received a phone call from Robert asking if I could return to help him re-rig the So Fong and sail with him to Hong Kong. As I mentioned before, I never put practicalities before adventure and was soon back in country. the re-rigging of the So Fong was another great lesson for me. To bring in the new right stuff to rig the boat was way above the budget and Robert being a great one for make due we scoured all the back streets of Saigon to find all the necessary parts to get back to sea. The reason for this was knowledge of traditional methods, knowing boats and along with the elements of nature. With the So Fong we could add this change that, move this over here or there to make things work. this is impossible with class boats. With a glass boat you pretty much have to stay with in the confines of the design.

To prove this point I want to use examples of the old and new navy. In the days of wooden ships and iron men after a battle or a typhoon, if the ship survived, the wooden ships had shipwrights on board and they would hole up somewhere and make necessary repairs. For lost spars, jungles or wooded coastal areas would provide them with material needed and it wouldn’t be long before they were underway again. We’ve all seen the pictures of W.W.II navy ships either towed or limping back into ports like Pearl Harbor or San Francisco to be repaired in huge naval yards with all the needed equipment. The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t have to be a marine architect or rocket scientist to keep sailing if you have a wooden boat. Just fix it, jury rig or change it and your on your way.

I started build boats while I was in Vietnam. I lived on a lake, on old abandoned floating fish hatcheries. The Vietnamese decked them over and build beautiful houses on them. it was all quite idyllic A French guy was going to make a vacation village out of all the floating houses and he asked me to help him develop a sail boat that the vacationers could use while on the lake.

Never building a boat before, I did know what they were suppose to look like and the qualities of a good sailing boat. I had taken great interest in these local Sampans that were used to haul cargo and fish. I thought they had the makings of a great sailboat by the way the fishermen paddled them with their feet almost effortlessly.

After a short search I found the local boat builder and commissioned him to build me a boat. The mystery was revealed as I watched him build five of my wooden hulls. I would then take the boat and add rigging and sail. I made a thousand mistakes and hundreds of changes but all I had to do was just start over again. Before long I was getting it.

I’ve now built over thirty three boats from sixteen foot to thirty-two foot. All but one have been sailboats with many different sailing rigs applied. I don’t mean to sound humble but to tell you the truth, the person who is more surprised than anybody body else about the performance of one of my boats is me.

I was doing a boat building project in Nicaragua for five years. Building wood boats in the tropics can be frustrating and many told me it was a waste of time because of the teredo worms. They are a wood eating worm that bores into the hull of any wood boat. Yes they caused me a lot of problems. I had a number of my boats back in for repair due to wood damage. We had to tear off a few of the strakes and replace them. Sometime they would get up into the center board box and that had to be replaced. But It never took more than four or five days to complete this work and then the boat was back in the water working again. The sea conditions there were pretty extreme due to the Trade winds that were fairly constant. That means in shoal areas short choppy seas. The argument that I always had was that fiberglass boats were much better for these tropical conditions because of the worms. I have to admit the fiberglass does alleviate this problem but due to the harsh conditions a fiberglass boat usually can’t take the stress and begins to suffer structural damage that can’t be fixed.

Why do I build wooden boats? Because wood is the medium that gives a guy like me a chance to do something he loves. Wood is a medium that is very forgiving plus fixable. It not only gives one a chance but many chances. Wood is workable and changeable, Flexible and fixable at relatively low cost.