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A season with Nil Desperandum

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Nil Desperandum in Penn Cove, August 2012

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

Ghosting along in 3 kt wind.

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

The "big" Bavaria

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 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.


Patty in the brightened and softened cabin

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

The Torqeedo 801L

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

Patty's office desk

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.

Launch day arrives

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

We launched Nil Desperandum at Oak Harbor Marina on Whidbey Island on August 5, 2011.

Three years ago I quoted Sam Devlin, N.D.’s designer, in The Year of the Boat : “For us as men, I think this is the closest we can come to giving birth. This is as creative as we can possibly be.” This might sound like a stretch, but when you’ve been through it—and this is my second child-boat—you get it.

The finish line is a hurricane of emotions: fear, anxiety, exhilaration, exhaustion. One of my friends, who also completed a sailboat earlier this year, reports despondent feelings that track precisely the symptoms of post-partum depression.

I won’t dwell on the intangibles of emotion here; they’re still too fresh and raw to sort out (and as I said above, I’m frazzled). So, just the facts:

Nil Desperandum required 3,500 hours of labor spread over two years and 10 months. In conversations with Devlin, we’ve estimated this is double, maybe slightly more, the time it would take a professional boatbuilder. I bloated the time not only through amateur muddling and mistakes, but also by doing a few fancy things not specified in the plans, such as curving the cabin sides and building a lattice-work mahogany cockpit sole.

Total cost including materials, paint, hardware, motor, and sails came to just over $20,000. This was a substantial cost overrun; I originally estimated $17,000.

There are a couple of ways to look at the cost. One is that it’s prima facie proof of insanity. A brand-new production sailboat of similar size, such as a Com-Pac Sun Cat or Catalina 22, costs about the same and would have few amateur-induced issues to sort out.

However, a comparable wooden boat, professionally custom-built, would cost $45,000 or more. So the non-insane way to look at it is that I paid $20,000 in tuition for an intensive three-year course in boatbuilding and character development, and got a free boat at the end.

As this end approached over the last few months, several people have asked: what was the hardest part? Unquestionably, the rigging, which consumed full-time work for the past two weeks.

Honestly, I would have liked nothing better than to have towed the boat to a professional rigger and said, “Call me when it’s done.” I heard frightening predictions of a $5,000 tab, so I determined I had to try it myself. I was not one bit confident. This is essentially an early 20th-century gaff rig, substantially more complicated than modern Bermuda (triangular-sail) rigs. I was pretty sure no other person born amid the rattlesnakes and dust devils of El Paso had ever rigged a gaffer. It might not be possible.

Devlin’s plans don’t show much rigging detail, so I bought a couple of books, which didn’t help much. I then started wandering boat docks in Seattle and Port Townsend, camera and notebook in hand, studying

Another small boat's arrangement of lines

boats of similar size and disposition. No two were rigged alike, and it gradually dawned that there was no single right way to do everything—I just had to improvise things that worked.

A fortifying moment came in Port Townsend when I happened across my friend Chelcie Liu, a sailor and retired physics professor. “The good news,” Chelcie said, “is that on a boat like yours, the physical loads are so small that almost anything you do will work.”

Another friend here in the neighborhood, Ian Montgomerie, also sports the useful qualifications of sailor and aeronautical engineer. I called him over for consultations several times, and he helped wonderfully with recommendations and clear, patient explanations.

Not terrifically helpful was a visit to a small, family-owned rigging supply business. I originally thought I’d buy all the bits and pieces from them because I figured they’d be generous with their advice. Instead they shuffled me out with a pile of catalogs and said, exact quote, “You’ll figure it out.” The choices were bewildering, and I didn’t. Eventually I made another expedition to Seattle’s sprawling chandlery, Fisheries Supply, where I’ve generally gotten pretty good advice from assorted salespeople. This visit turned out to be extraordinary. Roger Atkins, a veteran sailor part-timing in the sail department, spent a couple of hours going through every step of the rigging with me, helping me choose the right blocks and shackles and other assorted bits.

Memo to retail businesses: It’s all about customer service. Seems obvious, but apparently it isn’t.

I rigged Nil Desperandum a couple of times in the driveway—with more help from generous neighbors—and a week ago towed her to the boat ramp in a scenic bay 10 miles up the island for the first sea trial. Two more hours rigging in the parking lot, then a sober assessment of the shallow-angle launch ramp—and a launch-abort. Several boat-savvy friends were on hand, and we all agreed that the ramp just wasn’t suited for a boat of N.D.’s size and our meager launching experience.

We put it off a week and launched with the Travelift at the marina—painless and as close to foolproof as any boat launch can be.

Patty and I spent another couple of hours rigging her in her slip, then ventured out for a brief, one-hour trial run. The skies were an unphotogenic gray, but the light 5- to 7- knot breeze was perfect for this first, timid test. Though there are obviously lots of rigging and sail-tuning issues to sort through, N.D. behaved perfectly and managed 4.4 knots on a reach in the modest wind. (Hull speed, according to my calcs, should be 5.1 knots—theoretically this boat’s maximum.)

She’s wonderfully responsive to infinitesimal sail tweaks, sensitive to crew weight shuffling, tacks obediently for such a light boat (1,900 pounds) and seems remarkably comfortable.

I can see that I made the tiller too low, the jib’s roller furling doesn’t yet work without help, and there are swarms of other rigging details that need improving. And my forward deck hatch leaks. And on and on. But basically, she works. She floats, sails, and frankly, looks extravagantly sharp and proud amid the blobs of anonymous white plastic in the marina.

Nil Desperandum with her slipmate, a Catalina 22. No offense, please.

Of course we always think our own babies are special. Probably wrong, likely just kidding ourselves. But it’s the only way to rationalize all the agony, the cost, the fear.

Books usually have an “acknowledgements” page at the back thanking everyone who helped the author, so why not a boat likewise? Building a boat is way harder than writing a book.

All these friends gave generously of hands-on help, advice, or much-needed encouragement in the trenches of near-despair:

Neighbors Reid Harris and Sherry Morris, Brian and Kathy Kansky, Ken and Suzanne Leisher, Ian and Deb Montgomery, Sharon Shoemaker, and Bruce and Sandi Willett.

Friends Joel Bergen, Joe Clyde, Rick Fagan, Peter Gron, Rick and Nancy Lamb, Mike Murray, Dennis Ryerson, Brian Smith, Ed Viladevall, and Les Wallach. Stepfather-in-law Rick Sansing, a retired mechanic, assisted with the especially tricky affair of installing the deck beam and patiently kept assuring me that he, too, used to lay down screwdrivers and not remember where.

Boat designer/builder Sam Devlin, sailmaker Sean Rankins, several employees at Fisheries Supply, and a little sail hardware manufacturer in Ohio, Racelite Hardware, which custom-fabricated a gooseneck for me at a very reasonable $40. I had simply e-mailed to ask if their standard gooseneck (the swivel fitting that attaches the boom to the mast) would be robust enough for Nil Desperandum. Probably not, they replied, but we’ll make you a bigger one. (There’s customer service.)

And finally, to Patty. who not once complained about the frighteningly mounting costs, or ever wavered in her conviction that I could build this thing. And did not bring her wetsuit when we sailed out of Oak Harbor.




Closing in on splashdown

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Work on Nil Desperandum, never actually casual, has over the last three months ratcheted to a new level of intensity. We’re prepping for a July launch—hopefully—and sailing to Port Townsend in September for the annual Wooden Boat Festival.

Since the last post here, N.D. has gained a cabin roof, electrical system, and a constellation of details such as deck cleats and handrails. One of my monster anxieties, the sliding hatch in the roof, has been dispatched. I’d been worrying about it for two years.

But the anxiety bin is not vacant. Next up: heaving 1,900 pounds of boat somehow onto its trailer (purchased used last week). Then: rigging. Which I know as much about as I do Bulgarian grammar.

Helps to have friends

About forty-five years ago I learned a little about electricity en route to a college major in electrical engineering. The major never materialized—I ducked out once I heard math was involved—but surprisingly, I remembered enough to design N.D.’s basic electrical system. Ed Viladevall, a Seattle sailing friend who actually did earn an EE degree, checked my design, mostly approved it, then spent a Saturday working with me on the actual installation. Success!—no fire, no explosion.

Bilge with batteries

The system is as simple as possible: two 12-volt deep-cycle marine batteries shoot 24 volts to the Torqeedo outboard motor, and 12 volts to the bilge pump and depth sounder. An onboard charger rejuices the batteries from shore power. That’s it. Lights and marine radio, for now, are on their own internal batteries. Eventually I may add cabin lights, a battery condition monitor, and solar recharging.

I’ve learned a bunch of lessons from building Nil Desperandum that are infusing the other corners of my life, and one of them is to not feel so reluctant to ask for help.


One hell of a doghouse

Cabin interior

N.D.’s cabin is about the size of a luxury condo for a large dog: 6 feet wide, 9 feet long, 45 inches from sole to roof. Not even spoiled dogs demand a barrel-vaulted ceiling and sliding sunroof, however, so the complexity of construction far exceeded anything in the doghouse architecture catalog.

I started by laminating ¼-inch-thick strips of mahogany into the arches that would frame the roof. The laminating process itself is easy, but predicting the arches’ eventual curve is educated guesswork. Depending on the number of laminations, the strength of the wood, and the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn (kidding, I think), the finished piece will spring back anywhere from 10 to 40 percent when it’s released from the glue-up form.

I expected to have to make these arches twice, but got lucky: the first attempt came within 1/16 inch of perfect—close enough to quietly fill in the gaps with secret shims and epoxy.

After trial-bending and trimming two lams of quarter-inch plywood over the arches, I drafted two more helpful friends, neighbors Reid Harris and Sherry Morris, to assist in gluing and screwing down the cabin top. I didn’t have any full sheets of $100-a-pop marine plywood left, so I pieced the top together out of lap-joined scraps, like a wooden quilt.

Near the end of a project like this, you start to feel like you’ve got to inject some token of financial sanity into it, and this was mine. The seams are slightly evident through the paint, but let’s introduce them as evidence of sanity and not crummy workmanship.

For the hatch, I combed Seattle’s most lavish hardware store and found an aluminum channel I could adapt for the slide. I cut—with trepidation—a big rectangular hole in the roof, then fabricated a new, curving hatch to overlap it by a couple of inches for rain protection. This time I guessed wrong on the lamination curve and had to make a second edition. I won’t rehash the details of all the sliding pieces, and gluing some of them in backwards; suffice it to say that it took eight days to get it all working.

Sliding hatch open

Hatch closed

God and fun

“God is in the details,” architect Mies van der Rohe remarked, and I’ve come to agree. While the design of the boat is Sam Devlin’s, the details are mine. They’re fun to design and execute, and easy enough to do well that perhaps they’ll draw attention away from some of the more obviously amateur aspects of N.D.’s construction.

I spent an hour test-drawing patterns for deck cleats, then glued up a sandwich of oak-mahogany-oak and cut out the cleats with the bandsaw. Intuition then told me they were a little too flimsy—too thin at the ends—and the dominant white oak slightly clashed with the reddish mahogany and okoume of the cabin.

So I made some new blanks

Aft deck cleat

as a reversed mahogany-oak-mahogany laminate, fattened up the pattern, and cut out new cleats. Decidedly better! The cost was negligible—the wood for both versions came out of the scrap bin—and the satisfaction is well worth the extra hours of work.

On most boats, the cabintop handrails are straight. But since my cabin sides curve, I decided the handrails needed to curl with them for a more harmonious effect. Ergo, another laminating project, another close-enough guess. They look good and feel plenty strong, which they need to be to resist a lurching body trying not to be thrown off a bobbing boat. My only nagging doubt is whether I’ve done something dumb in attaching them with both epoxy and many #10 screws. If for any reason I ever need to remove them, well, they’re not removable. Don’t know if a professional would have done it this way.

Handrails and portlights

But spending time with details like these is the joy of being an amateur boatbuilder. A professional couldn’t justify the extra hours needed to laminate and curve the handrails, not unless his clients were cost-no-object billionaires. (And billionaires, last I checked, aren’t commissioning measly 19-foot yachts.)

For me, it’s a simple investment in satisfaction—a luxury we too seldom find in our structured working lives, where someone else is dictating how and where we invest our time, and our care.


Progress on many fronts

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

The boat blog has awakened from a long winter’s snooze—oh, let’s be honest, a coma. But its author has had his hands full with teaching, working on a new book, and of course Nil Desperandum.

There’s progress to report on

Port toerail on foredeck

many fronts. The deck is painted, toerails in place, the homemade portlights and deadlights completed, bowsprit installed, and most of the annoying finish details in the cabin have either been taken care of or dispatched to the “hell with ‘em” list.

One of my great worries has been checked off: The spars are completed.

Sails are on order, and a bright idea to save $500 with a homemade jib furler reluctantly abandoned. One of my boatbuilding friends, Joel Bergen, looks at things with an engineer’s eye and pointed out that these relatively delicate homemade furlers only work if one doesn’t demand too much of them. My Devlin Winter Wren II depends on four shrouds and a forestay to hold up the mast, so the furler has to transfer the tension of the forestay to the bowsprit. You can’t take a chance with any less-than-robust link in this system.

Preposterously, I’m close to $15,000 in costs for materials and parts to date. Major expenses still remaining include the rigging, electricals, and trailer.

However, I’ve been saving by

Wiley ports from cabin interior

making a lot of components myself. In the last blog I detailed building the wood-and-acrylic portlights, which would have cost some $250 each if I had bought bronze or stainless steel commercial units. (Okay, less expensive aluminum and plastic counterparts exist, which in connection with wooden boats should be held in the same regard as wharf rats.)

For the deck, I bought a $5 jar of silica sand, masked off the areas that needed a nonskid walking surface, sprinkled the sand into wet paint, then after it dried rolled on a couple more coats of paint. I can’t predict how it will hold up in use, but at least for now it looks remarkably good and seems effective. Overall, the deck now wears six coats of Interlux Hatteras off-white.

The spars do not at first look like a bargain. I bought three 19-foot 2x4s of Sitka spruce from Edensaw Woods in Port Townsend, which came to a breathtaking $500. Sitka grows only in a narrow swath within 10 miles of the Northwest coast and is in worldwide demand for guitar tops and piano soundboards. But Sitka’s high strength-to-weight ratio makes it the absolute best wood for masts, and $500 is a fraction of what custom-fabricated aluminum (wharf rats) mast and boom would have cost.

I started by trimming the boards to rough size, including a bit of tapering, with the table saw. Because weight is so critical in the mast, I routed out a one-inch channel in the center of each of the two mast boards before gluing them together. This  subtracted two pounds, maybe not worth the trouble.

Now I had a great 4×4 stick tapering roughly to a 3×3, which did not yet resemble a mast.

The next step was to turn its square section into an octagon. A power planer would have done it quickly, but there’s no other tool that scares me as much. I took out the lovely Lie-Nielsen jack plane Patty gave me for Christmas and did it the hard way, by hand. Then I planed each of those eight corners to make it a hexadecagon. And then I massaged it into a more-or-less circular section with power and hand sanding.

This was the toughest physical work I’ve done since 2003, when I hiked the  Arizona Trail for a magazine story and had to lug my companion photographer’s gear a vertical mile out of the Grand Canyon because the bastard was a smoker and discovered he couldn’t breathe at 7,000 feet. (Surprise!) The planing took three days, and every fiber of my body, except maybe my eyelashes, ached.

Yet, the hand plane was a joy to use.

Lie-Nielsen No. 5 jack plane

Eighteen-foot-long shavings emerged from it, automatically curled themselves into Sitka Slinkys, and feathered to the floor. I could feel the mast’s correct shape emerging under my fingers, no need for a fancy laser sight. I would not want to try to building a boat entirely with hand tools—I’m a pragmatist, not a masochist—but using this plane here seemed to help my hands develop an intelligence they have not had before. Such work restores connections between human and nature that we’ve been in danger of losing. And finally, it’s a pleasure to use a tool that’s better than I am, rather than the inverse.

The next step drew a small crowd of neighbors, who could barely believe their eyes. Chris Cunningham, a skilled boatbuilder and editor of Sea Kayaker magazine, kindly loaned me a giant lathe that he’d built with a junkyard motor, old nylon wheels from a skate, and assorted bits of scrap wood and hardware. I clamped one end of the contraption to the firm foundation of my table saw and the other to my workbench nineteen feet away, and spun the mast in between.

OSHA would have had a cow, but Chris’s contraption worked very well. The forty-pound mast twirled at about 200 rpm while I rasped away at it with power sander and then sheets of sandpaper held by hand. It never became a perfect circle—it retains a slight oval shape, which is fine for a mast—but it emerged from the lathe smooth and ready for the varnish shop.

I wish I could report that the varnishing had gone as smoothly, but it didn’t. It never does. Varnishing is a sorcerer’s art, and the inevitable runs, drips, and sags are in full anarchy mode on a long, curving surface. It’s now six coats deep, and the best I can say is that it’s done.

So what’s left? The electrical wiring (which an engineer friend has graciously volunteered to oversee), the cabin top and its terrifying sliding hatch, and a constellation of nagging details in the cockpit and cabin. Then we put it on a trailer (more friendly engineers needed) and move it outside for the rigging, which I don’t know much about.

But as I related, often painfully, in The Year of the Boat, I knew how to do absolutely none of this stuff when I began building my first boat five years ago. Far From Perfect and Nil Desperandum have been a sweeping education in a whole array of manual skills as well as a postgraduate degree in patience, perseverance, resilience, adaptability, and accountability.

Nil Desperandum is registered for the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend September 9-11, which means she needs to be in the water by early August for sea trials and the inevitable issues that will need fixing or rethinking. It’s an intimidating deadline. And it already feels like a pivot point of life.

Scintillating details

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

About this time last year I floated a new boatbuilding term, chingadero, whose etymology is naughty enough that I did not detail it in that blog, but its current meaning, in my boat shop, is “small, extremely annoying boat part.” Chingaderos are pedestrian pieces like braces under the cockpit seats that require little craft, give no great pleasure, and consume a bunch of time.

I haven’t finished the chingadero phase of Nil Desperandum—one never does—but I am in a concurrent new one, and the pieces I’m making now need a word. I propose scintilla. Originally Latin for “spark” or “glittering speck,” these are small, gratifying boat parts. Scintillas are even more trouble than chingaderos, but they are, or can be, interesting and beautiful. Unlike chingaderos, they’re prominent details and have much to do with shaping the boat’s character.

The most troublesome scintillas lately have been the mahogany bezels surrounding the cabin trunk portlights. A fine craftsman could whip one out in 20 minutes, but I averaged four hours for each one: making templates, bandsawing the pieces, throwing away many botched ones, sawing more, fitting and gluing, and then refining and cleaning up with bits of sandpaper.

This is one of the jobs that requires some adjustment of the vision of the boat. As my Canadian friend Peter Gron acutely observed, you begin building a boat with a vision of perfection in your mind. As you proceed, that vision becomes progressively compromised by the reality of your abilities, whatever level they are. We have to negotiate some kind of a peace with that compromise, or the dream shatters and we’re left with its demoralizing ruins.

As I worked on the bezels I realized there was no way they were going to look perfect. I had to make each one in four pieces so there would necessarily be visible joints, despite the miracle of filler epoxy. My oval openings were not machine-perfect to start with, and slight variations also appeared in the width of the bezels and the angles of their (hopefully) rain-shedding bevels.

After a lot of fiddling and sanding—the risk arose that I might sand the damn things into oblivion—the best grade I could give myself in honest appraisal was “not too bad.”  They look handmade, by an earnest but modestly skilled amateur craftsman. And I decided that indeed, that wasn’t too bad. Why should my scintillas pretend to be anything other than what they are? They’re an honest reflection of their builder’s skills and values, and that is enough.

Is this a rationalization of imperfection? Maybe. But it’s what I’ve done to make my peace, and I feel not too bad about it.

Wiley port in open position

Wiley port closed (no gasket yet)

The jury’s still out on the interior work on the ports. I long ago ruled out bronze or stainless portlights—too expensive ($250 each) and too heavy (12 pounds each). Aluminum and plastic parts on a wooden boat should be regarded with the same distaste as wharf rats. So for ventilation I’ve made a version of what are sometimes known as Wiley ports, which use wooden spring wedges to lock the clear panes

Spring wedge

in the closed position. For obvious reasons they’re not recommended for serious offshore cruising (although the highly regarded Cherubini yachts use them). Nil Desperandum, however, plans to stick to Puget Sound and run for cover when the wind rises upwards of 20 knots. I’m still uncertain about their intrusion into already-tight cabin space. Despite the considerable effort I’ve spent making them, I still might abandon them and figure out some other plan for cabin ventilation.

Incidentally, sharp-eyed enthusiasts of Sam Devlin’s designs will notice that my Winter Wren has two ports per side, like Sam’s larger (22’ 8”) Arctic Tern, instead of the specified single. I arrived at this after making several plywood mockups to try various window configurations, and even sent photos out for an e-vote among sailing and boatbuilding friends. The two-port array won 8-3, and I concurred.

One other configuration I mocked up used rectangular ports, which would have considerably simplified the construction. However, it radically changed the character of the boat. Not necessarily worse, but different. And I decided that Sam’s artistry should be honored. It just felt like the right thing to do, and worth the effort.

Compared with these cabin scintillas, making the bowsprit was easy. It’s a lamination of two pieces of mahogany sandwiching fir, and the corners were coved with a router. I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to visually integrate the little cradles that hold the ‘sprit in place where they merge into the sheer. Sam’s plans don’t go into this level of detail. My neighbor Sharon happened to be walking by with her dog Rufus, and I asked her in for a consultation. She’s not a boat person, but she is an artist, and she immediately saw the solution that had eluded me. It took 30 seconds with pencil and bandsaw to execute, and it worked beautifully. Thanks, Sharon.

Like a child, raising a boat is best done with the collective talents of a village.

The rest of the year looks to be taken up with more painstaking work on the cabin interior and deck—scintillas and chingaderos without end. The only way to keep going is to keep going. As with any big, complicated, overwhelming job, momentum is critical. Sometimes it’s all you have.

The philosophical tiller

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

On a sailboat, every line and form and should be informed by nature. Its beauty should grow naturally out of its harmony with physical forces—the flow of air and water around it, the management of tension and compression and shear. There is no place for self-indulgent bling; leave that to the powerboat kids.

How, then, do I explain my tiller?

A simple, broomstick-straight tiller, a 20-minute manufacturing job with table saw and sandpaper, would do the job. Sam Devlin’s plans depict a little more swoop; in profile his tiller shows a gentle bend downward so the stick will fall more easily to hand.

But I spent two hours fooling with a flexible batten on a plywood form, trying to find a just-right S-curve for my tiller. Then three or four more hours laminating five alternating strips of khaya mahogany and vertical-grain fir to bend in that same graceful S.  With no guarantee of success.

Although laminating a bend with thin wood strips isn’t difficult, there’s always an element of chance since you can’t predict exactly how much the shape will spring back when you release it from the form. And I’d already observed when messing with the batten that the difference between a beautiful shape and a silly one was very small—literally a matter of millimeters.

Happily, my guesswork turned out all right. The tiller looks lovely, at least to my eyes.

But is it gratuitous decoration, contrary to my deep-seated belief about how a boat’s form should simply follow function?

I recall some years ago when Parade magazine splashed a red Corvette across the cover on its annual new-car issue. Its stunning and outrageous curves smoked with flamboyance and sensuality. I showed it to a friend who is a Presbyterian minister and asked, half-joking, “Is this a sin?” He replied, without a second’s contemplation, “Yes!”

It’s a long stretch to equate a curving sailboat tiller to a Corvette, but in a way, both address the fundamental human instinct to be around, and to possess, beauty. And both are beautiful in something of the same way, which is that they resonate with the forms of nature—long, graceful, liquid curves, like the S-bends of a river or the curl of a cat’s tail. These are “natural” forms for us; we’re surrounded by them everywhere in nature. The straight lines and right angles of architecture and file cabinets are the stuff of artificial environments. They may have to be that way for efficiency’s sake—who needs a swoopy file cabinet?—but what this means is that we need to fill part of our environment with forms that answer our intuitive need for pleasure.

Since human intuition is a legitimate part of nature, then a curving tiller is a “natural” form. And maybe a Corvette, too. The trick, I think, is in discerning when ego, the impulse to show off, forms the nuclear core of that intuition. There enters the sin.

The past month’s work has been a variety of projects small and large. I made the tiller, the rudder, the rudder cheek blocks (which will cradle the tiller), installed the bow eye (which terrifyingly required boring two absolutely parallel 4-inch-deep holes through the stem with a hand-held drill), and built a vent hatch for the forward deck.

The vent hatch has been, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch, and continues to be. It’s surprisingly hard to home-build a hinged hatch that will open smoothly but close tightly against rain and splashing waves. Even the clear acrylic window in it has been a pain because I decided I needed to apply a UV-resistant film. To date I have thrown away one acetone-scarred window, three poor-fitting frame pieces, and half a dozen attempts at applying the film.

I’m nearing completion, but it’s still going to be highly imperfect. Would it have been better just to buy a factory-made aluminum hatch? Functionally, yes. Aesthetically, maybe. But somehow I’ve acquired an intuitive dislike for aluminum and plastic pieces on a wooden boat.

And rational or not, that intuition asks to be honored.

+ + +

September’s annual Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend was delightful, as always. I would be posting a nice selection of photos if it weren’t for the fact that my new camera is now residing in 15 feet of water at the marina.

That doofus drop was redeemed when for the first time we saw a Devlin Winter Wren, the same design as Nil Desperandum, in the flesh. Owner Tim Lemon had rescued her from dereliction after a former owner had left her uncovered for years, rotting in the Northwest’s relentless nag of precipitation. He has professional skills, and he did beautiful work, respectful of the designer’s intentions.

And on the festival’s final day, Tim invited us to sail with him. Happily, the Winter Wren proved to be a delightful boat, sweet and forgiving but confident. She moved cheerfully in a wisp of a breeze, maybe three knots, and didn’t seem to mind the weight of four adults aboard. For a 19-foot boat she has outsized capabilities.

The next morning at home, I was in the boat shop at 4 a.m., back to work on Nil Desperandum. No kidding.

“Finished” is not “perfect”

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Nil Desperandum’s cockpit is finished! (At least in the sense that Creation was finished upon the successful emergence of the coelacanth.)


The seats, lazarette lid, and deck bridge are implanted and have a couple of coats of epoxy on them for waterproofing. They’ll be varnished, of course, but I’ll wait until it’s time to varnish all the other exterior brightwork.

The seats, like the lattice cockpit sole, are more complicated than necessary. I cut out and test-fitted a 1/4” plywood base for each side, then laminated planks of vertical-grain fir separated by mahogany strips to the top side.

Under each seat is an open storage bin Storage binfor miscellaneous daysailing debris such as water bottles, binocs, camera, docklines, etc. The clear plastic screw-down deck plate provides topside access to a locker under the bridge deck. It’s amazing how many “big” production boats (25- to 30-footers) don’t have easily accessed compartments, so all this stuff slides around the cockpit with no easily accessible home.

Also under each seat is a watertight—hopefully—flotation chamber of about 1.6 cubic feet. There is now 13.8 cubic feet of air or foam flotation scattered about the hull, enough to float 200 pounds more ballast than N.D. will carry. Puget Sound is deep and cold; it’ll feel good to sail a boat that will keep its head above water no matter what terrible thing happens.

Since the last report I’ve also built the deck supports P1000107that cantilever from the sheer clamp. They need to be strong since the narrow side decks have to support the weight of a crew member walking forward to retrieve an anchor or untangle a halyard.

I think I can cautiously report that Nil Desperandum is as over-engineered as Far From Perfect was under. (See The Year of the Boat, chapters 9, 10, 11—well, really, all of them.) Our neighbor Ian, a Boeing engineer and experienced sailor, dropped by the other day and offered approving compliments. On the earlier boat at about this stage, a different Boeing engineer was darkly issuing misgivings.

I’m not an engineer, of course, and most of what I’m doing is intuitive. But experience does solidify intuition. It’s not difficult to visualize where tension,  compression, and shear loads are going, and in a wooden boat, building in more structure basically means just building in more wood.

In a design like this—Sam Devlin’s Winter Wren II—practically every piece becomes an integral part of the structure. The cockpit seats, for example, actually stiffen the hull and help distribute the transom rudder loads. The disadvantage is that all these components are locked in forever. If I ever decide I don’t like the seats, the only way to liberate them will be a Sawzall.

So how “finished” is the cockpit? If I were inclined to perfectionism—a monster I wrestled with in The Year of the Boat—I can see a good 50 hours of detail work left to do in the cockpit: P1000088paint touch-up, improving the scraggly marine adhesive sealant line where the seats meet the hull, and much more. I could even drill out and replace the bungs (left) where I didn’t exactly succeed at aligning the wood grain.

I probably won’t do most of this. I’ve come to believe that craftsmanship is not a pure objective reality, but a relativist quantity that ought to take into account the function of the object that’s being created. If someone wants to build a sailboat intended for museum exhibition, I won’t argue with that objective—but it’s not my objective.

I just want to go sailing. Next summer.


Want to see a completed Winter Wren? A Polish builder, Mateusz Masior, has completed one, and photos are posted on Devlin’s builder page. It’s a beautiful boat.

Sole Music

Monday, June 7th, 2010

More evidence that boatbuilding is a mirror  of life:

Think of all the things you’ve done where midway through the appalling process you sputtered, “If I’d realized how much trouble this was going to be, I never would have started it.” And then when you’re done, all the frustration and doubt evaporates, and now you’re thrilled that you had the initiative and courage.

For Nil Desperandum’s cockpit sole (floor), Sam Devlin specified a simple ½-inch plywood sheet with a drainage hole so water could run into the bilge (and then get pumped out, either electrically or with a hand pump). Probably because he’s a builder as well as a designer, Devlin has a fine instinct for making things no more difficult than they need to be.

A completed Devlin Winter Wren

A completed Devlin Winter Wren

I’ve seen some classic wooden boats, though, with lattice-like hardwood soles, and the rich visual texture they add to the cockpit—which is where the crew of this small boat will spend 90 percent of our sailing time—is wonderful. How hard can it be? It’s just crisscrossed sticks.

Looking back, it’s still difficult to understand where the time went. The fancy sole sucked up about 60 hours over the last five weeks.

A lot of it went into the 270 notches I had to cut (bandsaw, chisel) in the frames and crosspieces that 1 chiselingmade up the lattice. More hours in filling the small gaps that resulted from small imprecisions. Several more in sanding. Many more in epoxy-sealing and varnishing (five coats). A couple more in implanting three hidden braces underneath—when I stood on the sole in the test fitting, I felt a slight springiness,

Dry-fitting the pieces

Dry-fitting the pieces

which I worried could eventually lead to breakiness.

And finally when I had it all ready to go, it seemed like the floor was too high, so I spent another couple of hours moving the mounting brackets down an inch.

If I value my labor at $25 an hour, and factor in $50 for wood and finishing materials, I now have a $1,550 cockpit sole. This is beyond ridiculous.

3 all the pieces

All the pieces ...

5 finished sole

But in the illogical calculus of emotion, the result seems worth it. It’s a handsome and distinctive

Opening for bilge pump hose

Opening for bilge pump hose

sole, and an amateur-built boat needs a few fetching details like this to draw attention away from the galaxy of other issues that didn’t work out so well. Like life itself: a stellar deed here and there will rightly be remembered apart from a long run of pale mediocrity.

A couple of technical notes:

Teak is typical for lattice-type cockpit soles, but I didn’t have any on hand, and I’m trying to avoid introducing too many kinds of wood, so I used the same khaya mahogany that went into the cabin sole and companionway trim. It’s  beautiful wood: heavy, strong, a rich chocolate-with-a-whisper-of-red when varnished.

And on varnish, I agree with my Canadian friend Peter Gron, who’s almost completed his Devlin Arctic Tern (a 23’ sloop that looks like a big brother to the Winter Wren. ((Peter’s blog) is here.) Both of us have eschewed high-gloss varnish in

The sole in place

The sole in place

favor of a matte or rubbed-effect finish. I’m using Epiphanes Woodfinish Matte on all Nil Desperandum’s brightwork, outside and in, and I’m happy. It makes an amateur’s effort look professional, whereas high-gloss varnish amplifies and broadcasts every minuscule imperfection.

The cockpit is now almost complete. June’s work will be to build the seats and finish out the lazarette astern of the cockpit. Still looking at a prospective launch of summer ‘11—unless I get sucked into more bottomless pits like the cockpit sole.

Nil Desperandum to date

Nil Desperandum to date

Blood on the waves

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Building a boat is not an endless surge of pleasure and excitement. It’s more like a surf—crests of elation followed by troughs of tedium. And sometimes a rogue wave of terror.

I experienced one of those winterwrenrogues on an up-till-then calm Saturday in April. I had taken the blade guard off the table saw to cut a rabbet—a shallow L-shaped recess on a board’s edge—and had a momentary flicker of impatience. Or complacency, or  carelessness. My memory of the exact instant of contact is a little imprecise. But I reached for the board just before the blade stopped turning, and my grab was also imprecise.

Each of four teeth took a bite of thumb. There was much blood and pain. I declined the ER option because last time Patty visited for a broken finger, the bill was $2,000 and she didn’t even see an actual physician, just an assistant. And our health insurance is pretty sketchy. Gamely, nurse Patty cleaned the wounds and bandaged me up.

Three weeks later the thumb is more or less intact and healing, and I have a profoundly renovated respect for the tools in my boat shop—all of them, from quarter-inch chisel to two-horsepower table saw. The principle to remember: It takes only one second of wandering attention to ruin a five-year-long perfect safety record—and potentially lose an important body part.

Progress on Nil Desperandum over the last six weeks has been slow, much of it consisting of epoxy sealing and painting bilge parts and fabricating cockpit chingaderos yet to be installed. This qualifies as one of those troughs of tedium.

To break it up, I started making the cockpit sole. The simple way would have been a removable plywood floor with drainage holes into the bilge. But I’m trying to create a few fine details on the boat to draw attention away from the overall amateur ambiance, and I figured that a classic lattice-type sole would be interesting.

It took three hours to make and trim a cardboard template to fit the trapezoid-shaped cockpit bottom perfectly. Then two more three-hour afternoon sessions to cut out and fit the four frame pieces for the lattice. The wood is hard khaya mahogany, which should be plenty strong enough to support a couple of people standing on it. It resists easy shaping, though.

The big problem: How to cut dados into the frame pieces to receive the ends of the lattice? The router would make a nice, clean channel but would leave a radius at the end of the channel, forcing me to try to carve each of the lattice bar ends into a matching round. Didn’t sound fun. There would be almost 50 such joints.

So I’m doing it pretty much as Chiseling dadosa boatbuilder would have a couple of centuries back: mallet, chisel, and file, fitting each piece individually into its handmade groove. It’s slow work, and it asks for patience and an alarming degree of precision. All of these are contrary to my nature, so this is valuable discipline. Boatbuilding as character-building.

I honestly didn’t know whether I could build one of these fancy soles before I started, but more than halfway through, I’m now cautiously optimistic. It’s looking pretty decent. (There will be a lot of final trimming and sanding when I finally glue it all together; for now, all the pieces are just dry-fitted and numbered for reference.) Of course the whole affair will be epoxy-sealed for waterproofing and then finished with a mottled varnish.

It’s hard to think of anything in cockpit solethe normal course of a life that offers as many different character challenges as building a boat. Courage, ego, judgement, moral responsibility, patience, grappling with the perfectionist demon—all these forces come into play in some way or another. The most important one: when one of those waves smacks you, come up and keep going.

Character and the companionway

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

April 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about craftsmanship—what it is, how we cultivate it, how we appraise it.

In the past month several people have complimented me on my “fine craftsmanship” on Nil Desperandum, and as usual, they made me squirm. As I wrote in The Year of the Boat, I’ve always felt that accepting an undeserved compliment is a moral lapse, like pocketing the benefit of a waiter’s mistake on a restaurant check. Still, I’ve finally trained myself not to swat away the compliment, insulting the bearer. I murmur a polite “thanks,” and try to change the subject.

Imperfect and fitful as it still is, though, my craftsmanship is getting better—even I can see that. And it’s not steadier hands at the bandsaw. It’s cultivation of the mental component of craft—thinking through a problem before plunging into it.

Ever since I started the winterwrenWinter Wren, I’d been planning to build the cabin 1” to 1½” higher than Sam Devlin‘s plans, just to scrape out a little more sitting headroom than Sam’s miserly 42 inches. I had made the forward cabin bulkhead taller when I installed it months ago, figuring I could shave it later if necessary.

When it came time for the aft bulkhead this month, though, I had to make a final decision. So I mocked up a cardboard cabin on the port side and studied it for a couple of days—inside and out, aesthetically and practically.

With cabin mockup

And in the end, I decided Sam’s design was right. Even one extra inch of cabin unbalanced the boat’s profile. It looked cartoonish, like a cow drawn with an oversized head. Sam’s sailboats are remarkably beautiful and based on traditional lines and proportions—you can barely believe they’re plywood. My proposed modification was a crime against nature.

So I sawed off the offending Sawing cabin1½” from the cabin front piece and made the aft bulkhead exactly to plan. And sitting bolt upright on a cushion in the mockup, I still had ½” of headroom. Good enough; I’m expecting no more growth spurts.

I then made several mockups of the companionway, studying different widths, shapes, and locations. What I finally decided on was a substantial departure from plan. My doorway is skinnier and offset to the port side, so a person stepping into the cabin won’t have to straddle the daggerboard. And I like the bold stroke of asymmetry—it creates a dynamic visual tension against the pure balance of the rest of the boat.


Uncharacteristically, I plopped onto my shop stool and for a good, long time contemplated making the drop boards and the tracks for them to slide in.

My lifelong nature is to plunge directly into a problem, acting on instinct/impulse. It looks like decisiveness, but really is just impatience, and it leads to good craftsmanship only occasionally, by accident. First impulse was to make the tracks with a router. I’m not very good with it, and this would be a character-building exercise. But it would also be a mahogany-wasting exercise. After considerable thought, I came up with an easier way: use the table saw to make the tracks out of two L-shaped pieces, to be glued to the edges of the companionway.

Now the only crafty skill Frame piece w sawwould be taking care to set the table saw for precise cuts. Not difficult; just requires patience.

It took me about three hours to make all six framing pieces for the companionway, but at the end they all fit almost perfectly and I had to make only one of them twice. With  minor touch-up sanding the boards slid smoothly into place.

Although I’m decidedly no Calvinist, I suppose I’ve always assumed that some souls are born predestined to be good craftsmen and others klutzes, and by lifelong

evidence I Detail of c'way trackwas one of the latter. But what I’m finally learning is that there’s more to craftsmanship than coordination, and that an innate deficit in eye-hand skill can be compensated elsewhere. A great part of craftsmanship is patience, and that can be learned. Another part is in what we can simply call “opening up”—contemplating the nature of the material, the job to be done, and the resources available to do it.

There’s great value in building a boat, and it’s not simply the big floaty thing you enjoy at the end. There are character-building lessons at every turn, and they all have application in the wider sphere of life.