October 15, 2012
Practically every home-garage doofus who undertakes the building of a boat writes a blog about it. For some weird reason, the blogs all end abruptly the day he launches the boat, so readers never learn how it performs and how the builder-owner grows into it. I’m no exception; I’ve neglected reporting on Nil Desperandum since her launch in August ’11. So here we go.
In a word, the boat is lovely. I accept only a sliver of the credit; it’s designer Sam Devlin who drew her lines and insured her seaworthiness and structural integrity.
You intuitively expect wooden boats to creak and groan and give the not-always -reassuring impression that they’re complex living organisms. Not this one. Even bouncing over steep waves, it feels like it was carved from a solid block of wood. The reason is that in Devlin’s form of construction, the stressed outer skin of hull and deck form a rigid unit, like an aircraft fuselage. And every interior piece, such as bulkheads and berth flat and even the cockpit seats, is structurally locked into this skin. Nothing flexes, so nothing creaks.
There is occasional music from the moving parts, the tiller and sailing rig, but this seems entirely reasonable—even pleasant.
Performance under sail is just about everything
I could have hoped for. She’s excellent in very light air, which is what we frequently have in a Puget Sound summer. Three knots of wind will move us. We achieve hull speed (5.3 knots) on a reach with 8-10 knots of breeze. I like to take in the first reef at 12 knots, probably sooner than necessary. I haven’t had to use the second reef, because we haven’t yet seen more than 15 knots. Her favorite point of sail is a beam reach. No gaff rig likes much to sail at the wind; Nil Desperandum seems to point up to about 50 degrees and then throw in the towel. Although I’ll swear that over a summer of sailing, as Patty and I have come to know the boat and the sails have broken in, she’s pointing higher.
Running with the wind, I’ve jiggered a quickie preventer line with a carabiner to attach to the boom. It takes 30 seconds to convert safely to a wing-and-wing configuration (jib to one side, mainsail to the other), and nobody has to depart the cockpit to do it—one more advantage of a small boat.
And after sailing N.D. for a season and a half, we’re more convinced than ever that a small boat gives more pleasure than a large one. Small is beautiful, less is more.
In September we chartered a 34-foot Bavaria for a week in the San Juans, and the contrast was telling. The Bavaria is obviously a better boat for living in, with standing
headroom and a complete galley and head. But Nil Desperandum is superior for sailing. It provides a feeling of connection to the marine environment, the motions of water and wind, where the big sailboat creates isolation. N.D.’s tiller gives us direct, tactile feedback about the boat’s balance and movement through the water; the Bavaria mails a vague memo to its steering wheel.
Plus, if you build a Devlin Winter Wren instead of buying a new Bavaria 32 (currently the least expensive model in the line), you’ll save $104,000.
We made several improvements to Nil Desperandum in her second season. Most significantly, Inger Rankins of Northwest Canvas in Port Townsend made us sail covers, a cockpit cover, and V-berth cushions. The cushions transformed the cabin, both aesthetically and in terms of comfort; it now feels like a tiny cottage instead of a slightly upscale doghouse. Inger’s craftsmanship is superb; sail covers on other boats at the marina look like bilge rags by comparison. (Inger doesn’t have a website; e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org) I drilled numerous new holes (yes, I plugged the old ones) to move around bits of rigging hardware, so the mainsail goes up and down and accepts adjustments with less effort than it did at first.
The big change was the financially painful conversion to a gasoline outboard motor. If you followed the building blog, you’ll remember that I built N.D. with 24-volt battery power to run an electric outboard—specifically a German-made Torqeedo, which had received good reviews in the boating press and online boaters’ forums.
To list all the Torqeedo’s failings here would take about
as long as it took Patty and me to paddle our 2,000-pound boat a mile back to the marina, which we did half a dozen times after the motor refused to run. It was repaired twice under warranty, and the third time—it’s now inoperable yet again—I told Torqeedo I didn’t want it fixed; I wanted my money back. They’ve refused, not surprisingly. I’m not relenting. We’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, don’t buy one.
The Torqeedo troubles illustrate what I think is an important personal value in building your own boat. It may be the value.
There aren’t many arguments in favor of building one’s own boat that will hold up to logic. You will not save money, for example. But the one that does is that the amateur boatbuilder who perseveres and succeeds is declaring and acquiring a measure of independence that the contemporary world has largely taken away from all of us. We’re dependent on a web of technologies and systems that we can’t understand or navigate by ourselves, everything from the dishwasher to the car to the income tax code. Each of these, and many others, requires that we hire a specialist to deal with it. I think this dependency diminishes us, and not only in the sense of draining our savings.
Of all the systems on the boat, the high-tech Torqeedo is the only one I can’t fix or improve. Rather than continuing to be dependent, I’ve bought a relatively primitive Tohatsu whose basic operation I understand, and if it won’t run, I might know enough to figure out why. That lessens my feeling of dependency, which is a good thing.
Thoreau wrote wisely in Walden, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Here in the twenty-first century, I think that argues for letting alone some of the things that make us feel helpless.
What comes after the building of a boat? My new project is to build a new houseful of furniture. It’s likely a five-year project, and I’ve completed
eight pieces to date. Here’s Patty’s new desk (just before moving it into her study). The woods are sapele (an African mahogany) and birdseye maple. There’s nothing fancy here; my approach is to let the natural beauty of the wood be the essential beauty of the piece.
There will be more improvements to Nil Desperandum over the winter, such as a mount to hold the anchor properly under the bowsprit. (At present the anchor is stashed in the cockpit locker, not a terrific convenience.) After a season and a half in the sun, all the varnish needs renewing.
And is there another boat in the offing? Of course. We need another daysailer (to heck with Thoreau). It’ll likely be the winter of ’13-’14 before I start, but I’m leaning toward Iain Oughtred’s 15-foot Whilly Tern. Beautiful and simple, and no motor needed.