The Birth of Bubbles
by Maurice O'Brien, Auckland, NZ

Why build a boat? A question asked by many friends and family since I started this project, and I’m sure asked of many other amateur builders over the years. In my case, I was offered an old 7’6” John Henry with a P class rig that had been used by it’s former owner to teach his children to sail. It was so cheap I thought “Why not? I’d like to teach my kids to sail too”.

My first attempt was an abject failure. The rig was so low, I couldn’t duck under the boom when tacking, and when my kids saw Dad floundering there was no way they would go anywhere near “that thing”. So it lay outside for several years until a camping holiday by a beach inspired me to try again. This time, I took the precaution of reefing the sail and lifting the boom up to give more clearance – what a transformation! Great fun had by all etc., etc. until the wind got up a bit…

I let a friend have a go and gybing at speed caused a spectacular capsize. At that point I discovered several things:

  1. The boat had no buoyancy, so couldn’t be baled once righted…
  2. Towing a boat full of water to the shore against a strong current with a kayak is character-building
  3. Tipping an old boat full of water on the sand strains rotten joints
  4. Sailing an old boat with strained joints in a stiff breeze causes strained seams to part…

Once back home, further observations were made:

  1. Everyone had a great time and would love to do it again in a seaworthy boat
  2. The old boat could be sheathed in fibreglass, but was probably too small by a couple of feet
  3. The second-hand boats for sale at the time were too expensive or no better than what I had, and suitable new sailing dinghies pretty rare and very expensive for what you get.
So the decision was made to build. My plan was that I needed a boat big enough for me plus a couple of others; small enough for children to sail single-handed; flexible enough to allow sailing and fishing and thus see if the family had any nautical aspirations (in which case a bigger boat would be the next project); and cheap enough so that if no-one had any real interest then the expenditure and subsequent potential loss was minimal. A fairly standard set of requirements for a first family boat.

Now, although I am an engineer, my woodworking skills are minimal and my boat building skills nil. Extensive research showed many designs were available that were almost perfect, and I came close to ordering plans for a John Welsford Truant. However, my wife had a friend who was married to David Payne (, a naval architect in Sydney, and fate intervened in that we were due to stay with them for a week. Did he have a suitable design – Yes. Would he tweak the design to suit my requirements – Of course. And so began the construction of a 3.0m glass on ply dinghy.

I had been warned that this project would take 9 months to 1 year to complete – in the end I did it in 5 months, and would have done it in 3 but for effectively being away from home for 8 of the 20 weeks. It wasn’t that I was a previously undiscovered boat building champion, just that when I start a project I tend to be results-driven. I made a point of trying to do something every day, no matter how small, so had the bulk of the work done in 3 months. The last 2 months was just fibreglassing and painting, as these were jobs not suited to 5 minutes here, half an hour there.

Stage 1 - Initial construction – hull off mould stations and turned over.

Stage 2 - Painting almost complete, just spills to clean up

Stage 3 – Out of the workshop and fully rigged. Just add water….

I learned a huge amount building this boat, and hope these may be of use to others:

  • Trust your designer – they tend to know what they are doing
  • Trust yourself – if something looks right, it probably is, subject to the above. After all, you are the one who is going to use the boat.
  • Don’t skimp on materials. Yes, it’s true that construction ply uses the same internal glue as marine ply and is much cheaper, but marine ply has a nicer finish and looks better. Similarly, I stuck to the timbers specified by David Payne which proved lighter and easier to use than the ubiquitous pine recommended elsewhere.
  • To paraphrase John Welsford, there wasn’t a single structural mistake I made that couldn’t be fixed with a bit more timber and/or glue. Although I know where all the mistakes are, to casual observers it just looks great.
  • Take time finishing. I rushed the fibreglassing a bit and expected to just sand back any imperfections. Although after sanding it looked perfect, when I painted the hull I was horrified with the poor finish – every single blemish I couldn’t see before was now very obvious. In the end I just left it, as I expect my first season will result in a few scratches that will be worse than the paint blemishes. Once the scratches reach some as yet undefined critical mass, I plan to sand it back and repaint and will deal with the underlying finish at that time.
The Big Launch!

Sunday 25th July was set for the momentous occasion. All the family and friends gathered duly at Long Bay for the ceremony, Bubbles was sprayed with bubbles, so to speak, toasted, and then launched with her builder and her namesake.

So how does it sail? At this stage, I don’t really know. The only thing missing from this idyllic picture was wind. A very light breeze was present for the launch, and we managed to head out slowly, tack around and return, but this wind died to almost nothing. There was enough to give all the small children a brief excursion, but the adults waited for the breeze to hopefully lift after lunch – alas, the wind died completely.

I can report it looks great, doesn’t leak, moves easily in light airs at least, and is stable enough to stand up in – one solo voyager tried standing and sculling the rudder to make progress, and managed it without turning turtle.

I can also report that Bubbles generated interest and pleasure from many not otherwise obliged to express encouragement. A number of people strolling on the beach stopped to examine her carefully, and one lady was even kind enough to come over to ask who had built her. On my identification, she shook my hand and congratulated me on my achievement in creating such a beautiful boat! Quite made my day….

The next step:

I can’t wait to take her out again in more robust wind conditions, but also I can’t stop dreaming about building another, this time a trailer sailer. I quite like some of the bigger designs of David Payne, who designed Bubbles, but also like the idea of the Norwalk Island Sharpie. And then there’s the neighbour with the strip planked yacht gathering cobwebs in his driveway that is just begging to be restored, and the Hartley TS21 in the paper going cheap…