Closing in on splashdown
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.