Building a Lake Skiff

By Charlie Ewers - Maine - USA

Part 9: The Other 40%

In the last installment of this series, I launched my Lake Skiff for a bit of a trial run at the end of summer 2008, even though, as Chuck put it in the introductory blurb, it was “95% done with only 40% left to do." I’m not sure it was 40%, but there was quite a lot to do before I could consider the boat truly finished. When June came around again, I got to working on it.

The first job was to varnish the rubrails. Cutting and planing those out of raw ash and bending and screwing them into place was the last task of the previous season. Now I unfastened them, half their length at a time, applied 3 coats of Cetol Light to both sides, and refastened them, bedded in Sikaflex 291. Having seasoned into shape on the boat, they were very easy to deal with.

Next I needed some seats, one all the way aft for me to steer and work the motor and one (at least) for a passenger farther forward. During the trial run I’d noticed that I had to sit pretty high to see over the cabin, so my initial idea--to hang what amounted to a big canoe seat from the washboards--wouldn’t work. What I decided on was still a canoe-like seat, framed in ash and upholstered with seat belt webbing (from Sailrite), but let into notches in the coaming above the washboards rather than below, and held in place with bungees. It’s very comfortable (although somebody with shorter legs would need a footrest) and I can see where I’m going with no problem.


The passenger seat had to do double duty as a rowing station. A simple thwart would have worked, but then you’d have to step over it every time you went forward. A store-bought pedestal seat was a possibility, but the ones with backs would hinder rowing, and the ones without backs were, in my estimation, way too expensive for what you got. Then I noticed that Coleman makes custom seat pads for some of their marine coolers. A cooler would be a neat thing to have anyway, and it could be moved around to make room in the cockpit as needed. I built a base from yellow pine (scrap from the stair tread material I’d used to frame the boat --I knew those bullnosed edges would come in handy) to provide firmer footing for the cooler and allow it to fit over the keelson hump. My wife says the cooler/seat is very comfortable.


The biggest remaining job was to enclose the slot-top cabin. The doors were easy: I found some mahogany doors from an old sailboat on eBay that were just about perfectly sized. These were fastened to mahogany strips (also from eBay) with stainless hinges and the whole assembly bolted to the cabin bulkhead.

The top cover was a bigger challenge. My first attempt involved a heavy foam pool float. The one I got already had heavy-duty grommets on all four sides, and I thought it would be stiff enough without additional support if tied or bungeed down firmly. It wasn’t. Everything looked great at first, but after a day and a night in the hot garage it was pretty saggy. End of that experiment.

The next effort borrowed from the design of a tonneau cover I’d had on the back of my pickup, featuring L-shaped rails on the sides of the bed which supported tubular metal bows, which were in turn attached to the vinyl covering with velcro strips. This design had worked great on the pickup. The only problem with using it on the boat was that I’d have to learn to use a sewing machine. I did learn, and managed to do a serviceable job, I think. The old, all-metal Singer machine had no trouble handling the Sunbrella-Plus fabric (a remnant bought on--you guessed it--eBay), and our local variety store supplied industrial-strength Velcro. I relied on the adhesive backing to hold the Velcro onto the bows, but sewed it to the cover because only the middle had to be fastened--the rest wraps around the bows. Little squares of Sunbrella were cut to place over the exposed Velcro adhesive to keep it from being the best, most expensive, flypaper in the world.


The bows are metal conduit cut to length and finished off with plastic caps. The rails are more of the pine bullnose.


With grommets at the corners for bungees, the top worked fine all summer, keeping the cabin completely dry in several fierce rain storms, yet really easy to fold back when required.


Completely outfitted, here’s what the cockpit and cabin look like. The black thing on the bow deck is the rubber cup base from an official Duckworks LED running light. I got the one that’s supposed to be glued to an inflatable boat, put a screw through the middle of the cup, and bedded the whole thing in marine silicone. The light itself removes with a simple pin arrangement for safekeeping in the cabin when not needed.


The stern light, not visible here, is the same thing with a clear lens, a pole, and a screw clamp. Since the nose of the Lake Skiff is so high, and since the stern light is supposed to be higher than the one in the bow, I had to extend the pole by about a foot with a piece of aluminum tubing, but the whole thing is so light anyway, even with batteries, that it doesn’t get wobbly.

So how does it all work? Better than expected. This summer we were able to use the boat for more than just a brief trial run, and we’re quite pleased with its performance.

It fits (barely) under the highway bridge that divides one half of our river/lake system from the other, so our cruising range is effectively double that of a taller boat. But there’s still enough headroom in the cabin for a smallish person (read wife) to use the all-important porta-potty in complete privacy.

The Tohatsu 9.8 horse four-stroke is a lovely little motor, quiet enough to have a conversation at cruising speed, extremely frugal with gasoline, and more than powerful enough to do its job. Maximum speed in relatively calm water is a bit more than 10 mph, according to GPS. Adding more power pushes the nose up in the air more than it adds speed; the boat/motor combination seems most comfortable at around 7 mph or slower, which suits us just fine. I doubt that a bigger motor would make much difference except to produce a bigger wake, since my hull design is based on that of a sailing crab skiff, not a planing powerboat. As is, nearly all of the wake seems to come from the motor, not the hull, and the ride is quite dry.

What would I do differently if I could start the build over again? Not much. I’d take a little more time and care with the joints in the chines and gunwales. I’d join all of the hull panels on the flat garage floor prior to hanging them on the boat. I’d use new, cut-to-fit pieces of fiberglass for deck and cabin sheathing rather than scraps (too much sanding). And I’d probably opt for a manual-start motor to save some weight. I bought the electric-start version because it has a bigger alternator and I thought that would be better for running electrical gizmos, but as it turns out we don’t have any electrical gizmos except the running lights, which run on their own little batteries. The absence of gizmos means also the absence of wiring, fuses, switches and such, and that’s all for the better, I think. I’m also thinking about using my newly-learned sewing skills to make a custom cover for the cockpit, since the tarp I used this summer wasn’t nearly as reliable as I’d hoped. And that’s about it. We’re well pleased with our new boat and look forward to using it for a long time.


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