Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fossil Fuel for Pleasure

Well, there it is, damn it, riding on a slightly customized aluminum motor bracket to starboard, one more protuberance on an already-crowded pointy stern. Did the world really need yet another piston engine? Did I?

As outlined in previous posts, my decision to buy this 3.5 horsepower Tohastu was long and guilt-ridden. In the end, I felt that this boat is just too big to handle expeditiously and safely without the power. But I could not have guessed how much pleasure would ensue from strapping on this appendage.

As I mentioned, the first trip with a gas auxiliary was on a long, narrow reservoir, the South Saskatchewan River upstream from Gardiner Dam, to be exact. True to the forecast, the weather held very hot and still for the entire trip of four days, with just a few puffs of sailing wind at the very end. As it turned out, we motored about 150 kilometres, and had a surprisingly pleasant time doing it. Without the motor, we would have had to abort altogether.

Thanks to fossil fuel, we slow-powered our way through an area of wilderness seldom appreciated, where the river cuts through an otherwise almost desert-like region of southern prairie, home to prickly pear cactus, pronghorn and deer, cottonwood and bur oak. With the sail stowed, we motored along under hull speed — maybe five knots. Every ninety minutes or so, the motor would begin to flag somewhat, indicating it was time to refuel its integral fuel tank, less than one liter capacity.

Twice I spilled a small rainbow of fuel upon the water and I am still mad at myself for it. If you must run a gas outboard, I think it is your solemn duty to figure a way to refuel it without spills. Unfortunately, the people who profit by the industry do not make it easy. The motors are designed not to catch over fills, and the people who make jerricans don't make good filler necks. Since that first outing I have found a no-spill spout for the jerrican I have, but it is far from perfect and takes some skill to use without over-filling.

There are many motor boats that use Lake Diefenbaker, as it is called. But few slow down enough to enjoy the real nature of it. While motoring along at roughly one-third throttle — there is no more speed to gain from more power — I came up with some rationalizations for having a motor. The fuel use, compared to that which I use driving to the water with the boat following along on its trailer, is insignificant. I have made countless purely human powered wilderness trips over the years, but can think of not a single one that was begun without a car trip to the trail or canoe launch. Even underway, our nature trips rely on the whole gamut of military-industrial wonders: Goretex, LEDs, GPSs, ripstop nylon, heavy-metal batteries, satellite-produced maps, Lexan, Vibram, butane.

Yes, it is a slippery slope, and I will always feel circumspect about the motor. Yet that first trip on Lake Diefenbaker got me thinking about Neoma's capabilities as a river boat. I thought of the small Redwing power cruiser designed by Karl Stambaugh. Recently, I did solo trip to Lac La Ronge and was royally becalmed for nearly three days, getting just enough wind for one good sail. So I ran the motor a good deal. It runs quietly, sips fuel. It is not the End of Days.

One very real threat with the motor while traveling solo is falling overboard and watching it power your floating home over the horizon as you immerse yourself in hypothermia research. The little kill-switch cord that you are supposed to clip on yourself is too short to be practical with the motor hanging so far outboard — so you have to add a piece of line to end of it and remember to wear it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Trolling for Peace

Though I had my doubts about using a trolling motor on Neoma, I followed the advice of Birdwatcher builder and modifier, Aeneas Precht (whose wonderful boat is no longer available to view online). Aeneas said any cheap electric would work on this easily-moved boat, so I picked up a 36 pound-thrust model from a well known manufacture and did a few trips. You can just see mine on the stern in the picture.

I would hate to disagree with Aeneas about anything — he's a smart fellow — and the electric kicker does work wonderfully well within certain limits. I think those limits are reasonable to him. For me, they started to chafe after a season.

Electric motors are close to perfect. Unto themselves, they are cheap. I bought a surplus deep-cycle battery to run the motor, but even a new one of those does not cost too much. Such batteries are very heavy, nearly as heavy as a gas motor, but this boat can handle a lot of gear weight. E-motors are extremely long-shaft by design, and you can dial them to just the right depth. Mine clamped sideways on the canoe stern and was ready to use.

The real beauty is the silence. The boat moves along and yet would not disturb a loon. Electrics run emissions-free in the field, and battery charging can be likewise if you employ solar or wind options.

That brings us to the limitations. Recharging during a cruise is impractical. Good photoavolaic panels are expensive, and anyway you can't bolt enough of them on a sailboat to power her cruising. A windmill might give you the wattage, but these are extremely expensive, and there is no room on a boat of this size to mount one.

If you use the motor very sparingly, just for a few minutes a day to get into and out of anchorages, then one battery charge can support a cruise of a few days. Contrary to the misleading advertising of trolling motor companies, you cannot move a boat around for many hours a day and not damage your battery through over-discharge.

In windy conditions — and I'm not talking gales, just fresh breezes —you run into the same handling problems you get with oars. Birdwatcher's high-sided design can be a real liability in crosswinds, so you have to be sharp on the tiller to stay in control. And if there is much headwind at all, it can be very difficult to move against it.

Despite its limits, the electric is so reliable, so simple and, above all, so peaceful to use that I have made many cruises with mine.

Then the day came when Mark and I chose to make a cruise on a long, narrow reservoir. The forecast was for days of high-pressure weather and likely calms. We'd have to keep a schedule and cover distance in order to meet our  ferry vehicle driver. And when you get all-business like that, you start to covet a real motor. I slunk down to the shop and bought 3.5 horsepower Tohatsu, wondering if was going to propel me to hell.

Motors and Moral Purity

Earlier I have stated that Birdwatchers make demoralizing boats to row. This is no great discovery of mine, just an affirmation of the accepted wisdom about this boat. Jim Michalak, the early adopter of this design, has plenty to say about this aspect on his fantastic website. Phil Bolger himself accepted this verdict to the point that he drew the Birdwatcher II to accommodate a motor.


During the La Ronge cruise that I described in the last post, I intentionally skipped over the first part of trip, which was a long row to open water. There is an excellent marina on the lake that we wanted to use, but it sits at the head of an extremely narrow bay several kilometres long. As usual, it was glassy when we launched and I got out the oars. 


This was the first time I was obliged to row for an extended run. Just getting the oar ports opened up and threading the blades through is far more fuss than using oars over a gunwale. You need to find something to sit on, slide it into place. Visibility forward is poor when you swivel around for a peek between strokes. Even in the perfect calm of the narrow bay, I found the boat would not track at all well. I spent much energy in corrective strokes. My long carbon fiber oars, borrowed from a recreational rowing boat I own, were wasted on this boat without a sliding seat; shorter, wooden oars would be just as good, which is to say not very good either, just cheaper. 


Having used the oars previously over shorter distances I already knew that the boat was all but uncontrollable in any kind of cross wind. You sit so far astern that it is impossible to get sufficient leverage from the oars to combat the windage of the high-sided sharpie. Bolger had written that, in any kind of wind, you would simply sail. For maneuvering around docks, getting into and out of the shallow anchorages that make this boat such a delightful cruiser, some improvement over Bolger's oar arrangement had to be made. 


I tried placing inexpensive oar-locks at several locations around the boat's perimeter and experimenting with rowing while standing. It worked moderately well except that you need really long oars to reach the water from such a high boat. My nine-footers were too short. To cope with wind, the only way to dock was to drift down upon your landing, back rowing to control your speed. You have to have a nimble person on the bow, ready to jump onto the dock, to fend off the boat and yet not lose her. You only get one chance. In crowded areas, around expensive plastic boats, it would be hair-raising. 


Anyway, back to the long bay. I rowed about two-thirds of it, maybe six kilomtres or four miles, before giving up. I was very sweaty, which I did not mind. I did mind that the boat was a such a dog to row. It wandered. There was no carry between strokes. The sun was setting and we had to make camp within hailing distance of the launch. It was a pleasant spot, and Mark, my usual crew, was good company. But while we drank our wine and chatted, I had motors in the back of my mind. 


Among many criteria, I had chosen this design because it accommodated no engine. Given the exciting yet troubled times we live in, the beautiful places I have to sail and the reasons I go there — peace and quiet — going motorless had a lot of appeal to me. Moral purity? Yeah, maybe. At least in this one aspect, why not be a purist? Except that it did not work in practice. 


Upon returning from that trip, I promptly went out and bought what I thought was a still-noble compromise: an electric trolling motor. I'll write about that in the next post.





Neoma reaches adulthood

My Phil Bolger-designed Birdwatcher, christened Neoma, made her last cruise of her first sailing season near the end of September on Lac La Ronge in north-central Saskatchewan, a vast, wild but moderately accessible lake that has become her de facto home waters. To recap, I had veered from Phil Bolger's drawings in a few small details:

• no over-head Lexan panels or "skylights" for me
• my oar ports were store-bought port lights, the oars and locks borrowed from a rowing shell
• I had put the sail rig and off-centre centreboard to port instead of to starboard, to favour right-handed crew
• my steering linkage was made of #50 roller chain, sprockets, flange bearings and and shafting, all inexpensive, common items from an industrial hardware supply

All those modifications worked beautifully well for me.

When it came to the sailrig, I had made bigger changes, and trouble-shooting my cat-ketch, spritsail rig was the task of this late-season voyage.

After finally getting the boat to open water (see my next post on oars, motors and moral purity), Mark and I made sail. With the mizzen now smaller, with about 20 square feet trimmed from its trailing edge, we hoped the helm would balance better. I had re-cut and resown the ill-fitting jib, and we hoped this would now do its job without bellying out into a terrible shape, and pulling Neoma's bow to leeward.

The wind was snapping hard, big whitecaps were rolling down from the northwest, and the little boat absolutely tore away on a beam reach. The weather helm was much reduced, but still significant. But we had more sail up than was really prudent. We turned a little downwind after rounding a point, and the boat was surfing like a dinghy. We were clipping eight knots at times. We sailed this way for an hour or so, covering a lot of lake and fighting to keep up navigation-wise. Just in time for lunch we got under the lee of a small island and dropped the rig in a glassy bay in front of an empty island cabin.

For the afternoon, we decided to set main and jib only — no mizzen. The boat was tamed right down, the amount of helm was just right and the sailing was very relaxing. It started to drizzle. The beauty of Bolger's design is that you never have to have your upper body out in the elements, yet you don't feel stuck "indoors" either. Tucked under the superstructure, but with the breeze moving through the boat, the effect is like sitting on an open-air verandah.

We noodled around the lake for the next three days, and the boat worked perfectly, without fuss or bother. The morning we were going to turn back west for the marina, the wind had veered halfway round the compass, so we had a following breeze to take us in. It was more than a breeze, really. It felt like half a gale, and we had to cross the very open south bay of the lake. The waves were steep-fronted whitecaps and had built to about five feet from trough to peak — about as big as they get on this lake. As we left the shore behind us, and no land visible ahead, I hoped everything would hang together. It was a long way to drift even right-side up. I tried not to think about broaching and being upside down.

In fact, the boat showed no tendencies that way, and we had a wonderful crossing. We just rode the swells and took pleasure in the boat. Everything worked. There seemed to be no terrible strain, or even a moderate one. The last cruise of the season was going to be over all too soon. I have to say I felt a bit of pride at that moment. I had built a boat, had designed and built her sail rig, and it was carrying us capably through the Canadian wilderness. I thought of all the adventures to come. Neoma had grown up.


Monday, April 12, 2010

The End of the Beginning



Her first real cruise had shaken loose many fresh problems with my modified Birdwatcher, but I was by now patient and philosophical about my temperamental plywood yacht called Neoma. You may remember that I compared launching a boat you have built to getting married or bungee jumping. After the excitement of the big plunge, you realize this is just the start of a long, up and down relationship, and it may take years to figure out all her capricious ways — if you ever do. You will dangle upside-down at the end of your tether for a long time, so best have fun with it. Well, I am mixing my metaphors . . .

Again in the back yard dry dock, dealing with excessive weather helm was the first order of business. Previous trimming of the mizzen and welding the steering gear to reduce play had not been quite enough remedy. By using a jib, and therefore getting more sail area forward of the centreboard, I hoped to not only balance the helm better but make Neoma more close-winded. The jib trials on Reindeer Lake had not been satisfactory because my hand-me-down jib was too big for the fore-triangle space and bellied out to leeward. I recut and re-edged the sail and placed a new padeye farther forward where the tack would be fastened. I also put in a taller mast — an easy job when your masts are just grown sticks with their bark peeled away — to accommodate a more upright jib. The foresail would now set properly.

Then it was time to address the chine log that had popped loose. The cause was simply that I had not carried the sheathing fabric up and over the chine logs, and moisture was getting between them and the hull side panels. I had chosen not to put fabric on the side panels on the advice of some authority I can no longer remember. The logic was that, while fabric and epoxy are tough and abrasion resistant and therefore vital for the bottom, they do not make your wood "waterproof" and their cost and weight is wasted on the sides. However, I regret not "glassing" the entire hull. The extra strength and puncture resistance you get on quarter-inch panels is reassuring, and it makes a better base for paint. Epoxy may not be waterproof, but it is much more so than paint. After a long spell afloat, the "dutchmen" in my marine plywood panels swell and telegraph their positions quite plainly. One of these days I will get around to glassing the whole sides. As it was, I ran a three-inch piece of polyester tape over the chine logs and sealed their tops with a larger fillet of epoxy.

A problem with the rudder had presented itself on Reindeer Lake. As designed, the blade hangs straight down; however, the blade ought to be parallel to the angle of the stem, or it will impart heavy forces on the helm. You are, in effect, sailing with a partially raised board. Phil Bolger addresses this problem in the addenda to his Birdwatcher I plans, advising that you have a preventer line, or downhaul or what you may call it, to pull the blade the last few degrees forward. This has to be fed through the rudder head over a couple of sheaves.

At last, I got around to installing my electrical system, a grand term for my humble set-up. I installed two running lights each side and a white on the stern, two interior LEDs plus a 12-volt bus to accept three cigarette-lighter type accessories. One of these would be my VHF radio, though in the waters I sail nobody uses a marine radio much. I have never uttered a word to anyone on mine to this day.

As for the supply side of the system, I had a small photovoltaic panel, the kind you can fold up and carry in a knapsack. This fed sun power to a rather pricey controller-charger, which managed my battery, a massive 12V deep cycle thing I got from a surplus outlet. In the near future, I wanted to try an electric trolling motor. I will wade into the topic of motors — gas, electric and human powered — a couple of posts hence.

Finally, I reinforced the simple tiller by screwing some long, rather decorative brass straps on either side. I hoped that the weather helm would be at last tamed on the next voyage, but meantime, I did not want the tiller to break.

Next time, we are back on the water, this time on a magnificent lake called Lac La Ronge.





Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Real Maiden Voyage





The Neoma is pictured on her first real voyage. She is royally becalmed on Reindeer Lake, a state in which she drifted for much of this inaugural trip. Eventually, a new sailboat must go to meet the wild wind on her own terms. Flat calms were a prospect that I never bothered to envision while building. Somehow I always imagined my boat heeling to the rail, and Reindeer Lake being vast and remote, I always pictured a grey froth of forbidding whitecaps. The surprising calms of this maiden voyage were indeed punctuated by some very strong winds, and so I had chance to get to know the Birdwatcher design — and my own sail design — at both ends of the spectrum. 

The moment Mark and I launched (see picture on the last entry), the lake went dead calm. After getting afloat and away from the dock, we hoisted main and mizzen and then waited on a tiny, glassy bay. We made coffee, then lunch, then tea and were still just a few metres off shore. In fact, realizing I had forgotten something in the truck, we rowed to the dock, all sails standing, and I went up the hill for the item. Back aboard, more time passed until, in the late afternoon, just enough breeze came over our stern to push us out of that slender bay and into the lake proper. 

At this point, a squally line of thunderheads became visible to the north — the forbidding face of Reindeer Lake I had expected — and they were marching down to meet us with us with disconcerting speed. The force of the gust front was startling, instantly knocking us on our beam ends, a variety of unstowed items going a-clatter in the bilges. We were suddenly flying, the windows were bending down to the racing water, and the tiller needed two hands to control.

Looking back, we were spooked by that rush of the wind, the first hard blow to hit Neoma's crinkly new sails. The gusts were a handful and the boat still unfamiliar. If you are going to capsize a boat, it is when you are getting to know each other. The ice had only gone off about ten days earlier, and I had no desire to test the Birdwatcher seaworthiness formula just then. I declared we would run into the lee of a point and reduce sail before continuing on the widening lake. 

Recall that Neoma's workboat sail rig is "reeefed" by striking one mast altogether, and moving the remaining one to a third, intermediary mast step. Simple as this sounds, it is a lot of work repositioning six spars, re-roving the various lines, lashing down the unused part of the rig. It is a system from a prior century, an era inured to hard labour. We were still getting to know the ropes, and the snapping wind dogged our efforts. As an added challenge, we had an audience. Several aluminum skiffs had come racing across the water from the Denesuline village of Southend, bearing curious locals to see what new foolery had arrived from the city. We must have looked a circus sight amid all that flogging canvas. Teenagers laughed, and a rather handsome couple with after-dinner coffee mugs in hand looked at us with a mix of incredulity and concern. 

"Going up the lake?" said the woman. "Be careful."

No sooner did we have everything shipshape and hauled in the main, than the wind died again. It would not revive that day, which was already evening. We ghosted briefly on the remainder of the squall and nosed into a snug bay for the night, just a few miles from the boat launch.

Somewhat exhausted by the 600 kilometre drive, the capricious wind and the long day, we made camp aboard. And in this role, the Neoma performed beautifully. By moving our Rubbermaid totes full of gear into the ends of the boat, and stacking them, enough space was made available for two men to sleep, one ahead of the middle bulkhead, one abaft. The dodger unrolled and snapped into place easily, and the boat became a rain-proof, mosquito-proof floating tent. 

Earlier I have opined that the Birdwatcher is an unrowable craft for one person, and therefore that there is no point in installing oar ports as shown on the drawings. However, my store-bought opening ports serve other purposes that may make them worthwhile. Thanks to their little bug screens, you can open the ports for ventilation in camping mode. In their protected position under the gunwales, no rain will come through even in a storm. The person sleeping aft can also raise up just slightly and get a view of the weather at night. A window is nearly always welcome, and I would not want to be without my little ports.

The morning was bright and we had a nice beam wind to ride northward. We had given ourselves eight to ten days to reach as far north into Reindeer's 250 kilometre (150 mile) length as possible. We planned to sail away from the sun until our time was half gone, then turn around. The lake is so labyrinthine and island-studded that the return route would seem wholly unfamiliar. Realistically, I hoped to make it to the halfway point of Kinoosao, one of only three small villages on the whole lake. 

The nice breeze carried us through the island maze for a couple of pleasant hours before the sky clouded and the wind veered around to head us. At one point where it funneled through a narrows, we tacked several times to shoot the gap, and it seemed we might be blown against the rock walls of the shoreline there. I knew in theory that the Neoma would not be as close-winded as the dinghies I was used to, but the reality was depressing. The boat seemed to require about 140 degrees. Not only that, but the light hull lost so much momentum in coming about, that progress to windward was further compromised. We barely made that gap against the wind. 

Turning east, we then took off on a mad run, the rising wind carrying us down to another narrows, this one with a submerged rock showing on the chart in mid-channel. While Mark stood and scanned in the whitecaps for this sunker, I wrestled the helm and tried to bring the left shore close to port. The tiller bent like a sapling, and the boat wanted to broach. My sail trimming had not tamed the weather helm. The rudder seemed ready to stall, and once again we slipped through a narrow rock chute barely under control. 

Fearful of the boat's handling qualities, I started to point us closer to shores. However, this only halted our progress. It was either wrestle the tiller in big winds, or wallow in the lees. Eventually we got on a nice beam reach and made some progress, ending the day in one of the perfectly sheltered bays that are easy to find on northern lakes. Easy to find, but hard to get across the last few metres of glassy water in winds too light sail, too much to row. This would become a tedious end-of-day pattern in the early voyages.

The morning was again bright and fair and so was our mood. Mark had slept ashore and me aboard, each to our preference, and the coffee was excellent. We were slowly getting to know the boat, and we had an ace up our sleeve. I had been given a jib sail from an Enterprise and planned to try it on Neoma. Not much more than a handkerchief it was, but Phil Bolger has written in many places that a small jib can do wonders for a rig not so much by increasing area, but by shaping the airflow over the main. We would see. 

Sadly, however, the maiden voyage was about to come to a swift end. Leaning over the starboard bow to get some water from the the lake, I noticed a gap opening between the chine log and the hull side panel. Water had clearly reached the wood somehow, and the swelling was pulling the epoxied structure open. The gap was small, perhaps an eighth of an inch at most, but it was in a vital location — the hull itself. I was mortified. It is one thing to have to tinker with an experimental rig. But for the hull itself to start coming apart on the first voyage was embarrassing. 

I showed Mark, who just shrugged and left it to me to decide our course. I was the builder, after all. I had plenty of tools, spares and even epoxy aboard to do repairs. But whatever had caused the problem could appear anywhere along the chine log, and epoxy takes time to cure. There was no real chance of a tow on this lake, and only one road to its shores. Continuing further was needlessly risky.

It took two days sailing — much of it becalmed but punctuated by some tiller-wrestling in the occasional blows — to get back to the launch point. The last evening, we sailed in heavy rain, lured by favourable winds but struggling to navigate in the low light. Finally, we then slept at anchor in an exposed location, it being too dark to find a better one. The boat charged around her anchor, keeping our vestibular systems charging all night too. In the light airs, we had time to mess with the jib and found the foremast was not high enough to set it properly, so that was inconclusive. One truth was incontrovertible: Neoma was not close-winded in her current configuration, unable to get much closer than 60 degrees to the wind. 

While all this may sound like a litany of woes, it did not feel that way. We enjoyed each other's company, the eagles and trout fishing, the Labrador tea. Reindeer Lake is a stunning, pure wilderness that we got to sample, and will return to again. The final image will give a taste of paradise. Meanwhile, I had plenty of data to take back to my shop. 





Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Leeboards overboard! Departure imminent.


(Apologies for the long interval, and thanks to all for the interest. I have been out of the country for several weeks and just too busy to get at this. So let's get back to it . . . )

In the interval between Neoma's first sea trial and the departure for her first big voyage, I was very busy. As I mentioned, my sailing buddy Mark Nicholson and I were determined to take the boat out on Reindeer Lake, a very remote place where gear that works can be a matter of life and death. It was slightly silly to use this big lake for the shakedown run. But we have a lot of bush experience between us and the boat was big enough at 24 feet to keep us safe so long as it merely floated. We would carry survival suits, emergency locator beacons, and take all our usual safety precautions. The significant risk was not to life and limb, but to pride. My worst fear was that Neoma would have to be abandoned 100 kilometers up the lake due to some catastrophic failure.

Tackling the problems that arose during sea trials, I first attempted to deal with the wicked weather helm. This I achieved by slicing the aft 20 square feet or so from the mizzen and re-sewing the leech. The photo atop the previous post shows the sail plan after that modification, its total area now about 180 square feet. As I mentioned, the boat also seemed to have lee helm in light airs, but I ignored this issue for the time being.

I still maintain that one of the key weaknesses in the Birdwatcher design is the steering linkage required because of the pointy stern. Moving parts are prone to failure. The chain drive I had come up with was very solid without being heavy, but the small amount of slop in it robbed you of a vital few degrees of tiller swing. There was none to spare in this slender boat. I dialed most of this out by having a friend weld my steering shaft and its sprocket into one piece. The downside was that it made for a bigger piece to repair or replace someday. I decided it was strong enough never to fail, at least not before the tiller or rudder fittings themselves broke.

The biggest decision by far — and the most heartbreaking — was to abandon my leeboards and to install a centreboard case as per the plans. The leeboards themselves seemed to work beautifully under testing, but I had as yet invented no means of quickly raising and lowering them. With the time and energy I had, I saw no way of inventing a good system before leaving. In desperation for a clever solution, I asked Aeneas Precht to come over. His own Birdwatcher is a marvelous, custom version that I have mentioned earlier, and Aeneas is a very inventive and experienced builder. It was he who gently suggested I just go with the tried and true centreboard. He said I would have it installed in no time, and could go sailing. The next winter, I could finish the leeboards and someday remove the centreboard again.

I took his advice. I did not believe the centreboard would be so easy as he imagined, but I was at my humble best as a builder by that point, and indeed had it installed in three days. I hated to see my big sprawling space inside the boat cut up the board, and I am still determined to get rid of it someday. The case installed, it was back to the boat launch with Mark to test it — where Neoma promptly began to sink! Clearly there was a big gap hiding somewhere in the epoxy under the centreboard case. Two days later, the boat floated nearly dry, except that the centreboard bearing cover leaked. Two days later . . . well, you get the idea.

Eventually, we got the rig up, the board down and the whole works just sailed, as a sailboat is supposed to do. I still was not delighted with the lee helm that showed itself on that calm day. As for weather helm, we'd have to wait for the winds of Reindeer Lake to know if my mizzen trimming had solved the problem.

Meanwhile, the arrangement of the sailing lines was not perfect in the details. There are many ways to run sailing lines around a boat, but tradition assumes she is sailed from an open cockpit. With Neoma, you are in effect trying to pull your ropes from indoors. Or, to put it another way, the lines are being fed to you down in the bilges through a skylight over your head. I think it will become tedious if I attempt to describe the line-stringing problems further in writing. I will try to use pictures in future posts that show how I worked out these issues in time. By the launch on that first trip, we were still jury rigging a lot of things.

I was still experimenting with oar locks and rowing arrangements, which would soon reveal itself to be mostly a waste of time. This boat is un-rowable by one person, except in an absolute dead calm. So I won't waste more virtual ink on the subject here.

There were camping considerations too. We could always find snug shores on a boreal lake and use a tent on the ground for sleeping. But I wanted to be able to sleep aboard and had sewed a dodger to cover the centre slot. It was held down by snaps, had tiny hatches over the mast steps to facilitate sailing under cover in the rain, and two more hatches like tent doors in bow and stern in which to access the anchors etc. I just thought it up and did it, a design that has proven rather elegant in use. If you make enough stuff, once in awhile you do something right in a single stroke. For the rest, patience is a virtue.

My electrical system, meanwhile, was non-existent. This did not matter on a 250-kilometer-long lake whereon the only vessels were a scant handful of aluminum fishing skiffs that had no running lights either. Navigating that rocky maze of a lake was a day-time-only affair.

Somehow, we made it to the dock on Reindeer Lake sometime around the June solstice. The Neoma is pictured just after the launch, all ready for her maiden voyage. You can see how the oars are stowed under the gunwales to save space on the top deck, which is taken up by two sails, and six spars. On board you can make out one of those swimming noodles, which Mark brought along as a kind of joke. That's him in the bow. In fact, Mark is about the most important asset I had in building. You really need a patient friend like him to help you work out the details of a big project like this. The Birdwatcher is too big to tackle without help. Thanks, Mark.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Launch 1.1


After her maiden launch in the fall 2006 — but without having truly sailed — I hauled Neoma back to the city and did no building during much of the fall and winter. I'd had my fill of it for awhile, and was busy writing a book. Inevitably, the crocuses of spring returned, and so did my appetite for the madness that is amateur boatbuilding. During the cold months, my good friend and fellow sailor Mark Nicholson and I had discussed possible voyages in my as-yet-untested Birdwatcher, and had settled on taking her up Reindeer Lake, an enormous, remote, island-strewn waterway in northern Saskatchewan. A departure date in June was agreed upon. And thus I found myself under serious pressure to get a working vessel under sail.

Sometime in early May, just days after the ice went out on our nearby cottaging lake, Mark and I took Neoma out for her re-launching. I had made a few little changes and one big: new leeboards. The revised versions were shaped like beagle ears, or fan-shaped in the Dutch style, the way Phil Bolger shows them on many of his designs. In Boats with an Open Mind, he writes of the necessity of shaping boards this way, asserts that slender, high-aspect ratio leeboards are apt to stall. Since my old, slender boards had to be replaced in any case because they were too heavy, I took this route.

Spring conditions were just as cold as the fall had been, but I had Mark's invaluable assistance to get the boat rigged again, his weight as live ballast, his skill as a sailor, and his sheer encouragement to at last try my Birdwatcher under sail. In readying the new leeboards for sail this time around, I simply slung them from rope pennants in the Bolger fashion, attached to my cargo track version of a "toe rail." I did not bother rigging any way of hoisting them, not wanting to waste time unless I knew they worked — After two days' preparations, we were ready to sail, and the lake offered just enough wind for experimenting. We pushed off, hauled in main and mizzen sheets and at last — some 12 years after the idea to build a boat had bit me — I was finally under sail in a boat truly my own.

It was both wonderful and weird. Though not as responsive as the dinghies I was used to, the 24-foot Birdwatcher is remarkably lively — but still a much bigger boat than I had skippered before. It was lovely to feel her motion as she heeled with the tiny gusts and accelerated, and her helm was immediately responsive. I will never forget the first music of the ripples playing along her hull, readily audible because you are down inside the boat as you sail, one of the unsung delights of the Birdwatcher cabin concept. With no centreboard case installed, the space inside the boat was wonderful. She felt like a great yacht inside.

The leeboards worked without fuss or apparent strain. They just dug in and did their job, out of sight and mind. I peered over the lee rail expecting to see a board flexing like an archery bow, but there was no visible tension. Though no preventer line was in place to keep the boards from being pulled aft, they stayed put so long as they were working. The windward board, however, would trail aft and plane over the surface, leaving a wake and indicating that a quick, reliable hoisting system was vital. But as providers of lateral resistance, they worked fine.

There were negatives that became apparent. The breeze waxed and waned and, under the heavier airs, the weather helm seemed far too great. Mark dialed this out simply by moving the leeboards aft. However, once the breeze died back the Neoma moved into a lee helm condition — very unsettling it is having to sit to leeward with the tiller in your belly. She was not at all close-winded by my dinghy standards and the slop in the steering linkage seemed to make it worse. She lost way considerably in coming about, though you have to expect that in such a light boat, and was simply helpless in light air.

The cat-ketch, spritsail rig I had designed did its job, like the leeboards, without fuss or strain. However, it seemed an impossible lot of work hoisting it all up, getting its six spars strung into place. The peak sprits were, as I have mentioned previously, very heavy.

In an article I wrote about these early days with Neoma for a Canadian travel magazine, I described being somewhat bitterly disappointed with her overall performance that day. I think Mark found my demoralized reaction surprising. In fact, I was probably feeling the strain of the long build more than anything, and the pressure to have things all ship-shape by the time we were to venture into the far north. I was looking for perfection.

Looking back, I suspect Neoma did pretty well for herself that day. In retrospect — and for the first time — I should pat myself on the pack for a few things. The boat was light, strong and stood up to her rig beautifully even though empty. The centre-of-effort for my rig was nearly four feet lower than Phil Bolger's sail plans. The sails set and drew perfectly. Their rigging was bomb-proof and repairable in the field just as I had designed them. The sight-lines were not compromised by foregoing windows on the top deck. The leeboards still needed hoisting mechanisms, but worked otherwise. With practice, two sailors could cope with the rig just fine, and in due time I would be able to single-hand without difficulty. From all reports, Phil Bolger's larger rigs on Birdwatcher's are impossibly unwieldy, and his small rig is too small for light air. The movable mast steps and partners, the cheap cargo track attachment system, offered perfect flexibility for future experimentation.

And, as I will describe in subsequent posts, there were simple solutions to most of her problems. Without appreciating it, I was already making good progress through the sea trial phase.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Launch 1.0


You would think building a boat is like getting married or bungee jumping — the kind of enterprise that culminates in a Big Day, the Bold Leap. The first launch of my own Birdwatcher was extremely low-key. Quite alone, I hauled the Neoma (as she was now called and how I will refer to her from now on) up to the lake. She slid from the trailer into the water with no fanfare. I was satisfied to see she floated level athwartships and just proud of her designed waterlines as an empty, un-rigged boat ought to do. Actually, there were two bystanders. My high-school shop teacher and his wife, who I had not seen in years, happened to be just coming ashore. My old teacher had nothing complimentary nor congratulatory to say, but then he never had in high school either. His wife, however, remarked: "What a beautiful boat!" She uttered these words unbidden, before she knew I had built the thing, so that was good enough for me.

The launch was not a party for a number of reasons. As I mentioned in the last post, it took place in fall, late September, 2006 to be exact. That is damn near winter at my latitude, and the sailing season was over. The lake where we have a cabin, where Neoma would begin her sea trials, was deserted. It was a grey Monday morning, and everyone I knew was sensibly employed 200 kilometres south in the city. The building phase was not finished enough to celebrate anyway. The experimental rig, the pieces of which were stowed in the boat, had to be put up and fitted out, her tangle of lines riven through fittings yet to be installed. Her experimental leeboards, her oar locks, her anchors, had similarly to be rigged. Oh, and the running lights . . . if there was time. I knew this would take a lot of fiddly work, and I had given myself three full days to get her sailing. This process would yield the data needed to tweak the details over a final building winter back in the shop.

As was so often the case building my BW, I was almost right.

In her helpless state, Neoma's first voyage was under tow, behind our aluminum skiff. She charged wildly from side to side, the same way she would do at anchor, the first of a hundred problems to address. I strung together an assortment of objects — oars, a bailing can, an empty tool box — to form a kind of sea anchor roped to her stern. This tamed her enough to get her home.

My neighbour has a front lawn behind her beach, and I borrowed this clean turf for a shipyard. Starting with the rig, I staked the sails out flat on the ground, then lay the masts and spars into position. I measured the amount of bury the masts would have when stepped in the boat and marked this with bands of bright tape. Without any further measuring, I could then position the various padeyes, drill holes in the spar-ends and tie on the blocks through which the snotters are led. (I won't get into a full discussion of rigging a spritsail here. See Pete Culler on Wooden Boats.)

It was not tricky, but it was slow work drilling and screwing down so many fittings, trimming and whipping so much line. I had bought a metric tonne of new hardware and had to choose what would be used, what returned. Even by my September, Canadian standards it was very cold. I was wearing shorts to facilitate wading out to the Neoma as needed. Incipient hypothermia dulls an already-slow brain. That one measurement I mentioned . . . for the amount of mast bury? Well, I made an error and thus had to relocate most of my handiwork by two inches.

(Observant readers will have noticed that I mix metric and Imperial units of measure. This is a peculiarity of Canadian life. Officially, we switched to metric in 1970-something, but our close ties to American and English culture keep both systems in play. It's kinda fun, once you get used to it.)

The leeboards were a harder problem. I had made them far too heavy with lead ballast, uncomfortable to even lift. You need only enough lead to keep the business end of the board immersed; therefore, the board as a whole should just float when tossed overboard. It's a good thing I kept a safety line rigged, because my boards went to the bottom with brutal force. I hung these on temporary, prototype fittings made of caster swivels and with little davit-like arms to hoist them. If the concept worked, I would refine the fitting arrangements in the shop. But the boards were so heavy that I began to fear setting sail with them strapped on a boat that was otherwise very light afloat.



Neoma charged to-and-fro when moored from a bow line, just as she had under tow. Not only that, but she pounded noisily, as I had been told sharpies do. Only a very drunk sailor could hope to sleep aboard such a ship. I solved this by tying her off to a cleat on the bow quarter. She held instantly steady and went quiet. The price is that the strain on the anchor is higher, turned more broadside to wind. With a boat so shoal draft, finding a really snug, wind-protected anchorage should not be a problem, and so the higher anchor load is only marginal.

My three long days of work went by fast, the wind blew icily, punctuated by spits of cold rain. Around noon on the last day I had rigged everything as well as I could. It calmed but was still windy enough to move a boat. The breeze was onshore so that, if all hell broke lose I could douse the rig, drift in, and walk home. Even the sun shone now and then. It was about time to sail.

It might seem surprising that I did not, in the end, go sailing that fall. Looking back, I wonder why sober second thoughts won out, for I was absolutely busting to embark. It was the monstrously heavy leeboards that still bothered me. The otherwise lively little boat felt unnatural with them strapped on, wallowing under their weight. I decided to try a capsize test. Standing on the top deck, I looped a line as high as I could reach up the mast, then climbed down and waded into the shallows with it. I started heaving and pulled Neoma onto her beam ends. I could not decide if the force required was a healthy amount. What worried me, though, was that one leeboard now hung straight off the beam as such boards are meant to do. Dangling straight down into the water, its great weight now had no righting potential as a keel or ballasted centreboard would have. Rather, it served to pin the boat on her side.

I was not afraid of drowning. No, like a real man, I was afraid of looking like a fool. There seemed a possibility of sinking my boat on her maiden voyage. I had no supplemental floatation to offset the over-abundance of lead in the leeboards. My submerged windows seeped a little. Not much, but enough to make a long drift to shore nerve-wracking. The lake, while neither remote nor large, was devoid of boat traffic. I was cold and tired and, frankly, a little fed-up. The previous three 12-hour days working in the cold and wet had been preceded by weeks of backyard preparations. Come what may, I would need another whole day's labour just to get my boat back to the city.

I gave up. It was heart-breaking to de-rig everything and retreat. I dragged my ridiculous leeboards ashore and left them to face the coming winter exposed to the elements. They would never see action, though their lead would be harvested for the next set of boards. I would have to await another spring to experience the Birdwatcher under sail.

Boatbuilding, spare time and inpsiration



From the outset I intended to keep this discussion specific to the Birdwatcher and not stray into general building advice. I am not a professional builder, and not even much of an amateur, so have nothing to add to the craft. And yet it is sometimes true that fellow amateurs can provide perspectives that you can't buy from a pro; we are in a position to state the obvious, to anticipate the dumb questions because we have asked them ourselves. And, unlike the professional builder, the amateur must find a way to stay motivated through what will be a long process. If a professional takes three months' full-time work to build a boat in a dedicated shop, how long will it take an amateur using spare time, unfamiliar tools, working in an improvised space? Would you multiply time by a factor of five? Ten? Twenty? Will you give up before you get there?

So let me digress this time into the topic of amateurism and how long a Birdwatcher might take to build.

The time to complete any boat depends on the complexity of the project and the skill of the builder. As first-timers, we may be in no position to gauge either one. Free time, however is easier to figure. If you are already employed full-time, have a family and so on, then let's say you can get completely free one full weekday night and one weekend day each seven days. That does not sound like much, perhaps. But it is about 45 hours a month. To put it another way, you are squeezing five weeks' work into four. Maybe you can sustain more than this for awhile. Maybe you will devote some holiday time to building. But your realistic average over the long haul may be something equivalent to a full-time week per month. (This is actual building time, exclusive of the time you may spend reading, looking up solutions to problems, etc.) So on the basis of free time alone, you have to multiply the professional's completion time by a factor of four.

Again, skill is harder to quantify. Personally, I would increase my multiplication factor to 8 or 10 to account for my lack of skill and the fact that I was significantly diverting from the plans. Your skill factor may be more favourable — god bless you. But if you are like me, a boat that would take a pro three months might take two or three years.

That is exactly how long I spent on my Birdwatcher. It is true that I often worked more than the nominal 11 hours a week estimated above. But other times life intervened and I did no building at all. It all seemed to progress with frustrating slowness. In retrospect, I would have been a happier builder if I had had a more realistic notion of my free time from the beginning.

After getting that good start New Year's day, 2005 (described in an earlier post) and feeling like my boat would be afloat within weeks, by May I realized the devil was in the details. Humbled, I called a construction halt so as to enjoy summer with friends and family. Returning to building in earnest that fall, I thought for sure I would be ready for the next spring, but that was not to be either. By this point, my boat was on a trailer in my backyard, so I could work on it with smaller bits of free time and kept plugging away through the summer.

By fall, I was ready to launch. The season being all but over, this was many symbolic. And I knew the boat was not truly finished anyway. For an experimental boat, the first launch is by no means the end of building. Getting it on the water and doing some sea trials would give me the data I needed to do further tweaking.

Before taking you to the launch day in the next post, I will briefly enumerate the biggest time sponges I found in building. Getting to and from the shop consumed 30 minutes per building session, which really adds up. If you are lucky enough to have a shop on your own property, you benefit greatly. Supply trips also took a lot of time. Shopping no doubt becomes a major part of every building job. Once you realize that, you can find efficiencies. But I did not realize it soon enough. I consistently erred on the side of buying too little and too few — whether it was lumber, sanding discs, screws or heater fuel.

Pacing around trying to figure out how to do something took oceans of time, especially when diverging from the plans. I hasten to add that this problem-solving was usually the most pleasant aspect of boatbuilding. This is boatbuilding, after all. Still, you do run into brick walls sometimes and fun turns to frustration. The trick is to keep plugging ahead on something else when you reach an impasse. I was constantly amazed how the solution to a problem would present itself if I just ignored it while doing something else. Just tidying the work-space was better than making no progress.

A 24-foot boat, even a simple one like the Birdwatcher, is a significant "backyard" project. I flirted with the idea of giving up a couple of times, but not too seriously. I knew it would get done eventually. But failing to honestly assess your free time when you start building a boat could lead you to false expectations, an unfinished boat, and a sense of having failed. Be realistic from the start, be patient and philosophical, and you will be happy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sail Design and Building, Version I






In no time, I had the basic hull done and ready to flip over onto its trailer, where it would ride until launch day. A crew of friends came down to help me with the roll-over, and It seemed like the end was almost in sight. Then things slowed way, way down.


Maybe a lot of first-time boat builders discover that the sail rig of a boat takes a long time to put together. It was worse, because I was designing mine from scratch and sewing the sails. Moreover, I wanted an adjustable system of steps and partners, three of each as I will explain. And as I was to learn, when you modify any small element of boat's design, it can have ramifications from end to end. It gave me a deep appreciation for Phil Bolger's work to be an amateur at it.


So, if I think so highly of Phil's art, why mess with it? As I mentioned before, experimentation was my goal before I even chose a design. But I have to admit I was not fond of either of Birdwatcher's designed rigs on paper. Phil Bolger told me of a fellow not far from me who had built a Birdwatcher, Aeneas Precht. His boat is gorgeous, radically customized and built of Airex. (If anyone has a link to the pictures of it that used to be online, please send.) Anyway, Aeneas told me the Bolger solent rig was very unwieldy to handle, did not set as well as he liked. As for the smaller leg o'mutton rig, it was by all accounts too little canvas for the light airs you experience lake sailing. 


Historically, most sharpies had two sprit sails in a cat-ketch configuration. "Reefing" was done by taking down one of the masts and moving the remaining one to a middle position. It seemed like a good starting point. And for me it was a way of exploring a bit of history.


I set about drawing the rig and went through many iterations. I looked at the sharpies in Reuel Parker's Sharpie Book, looked at the many boats in the books of Howard Chapelle, of Francis Herreshoff. I eventually settled on four-sided sprit sails with sprit booms. Bolger describes many advantages to this rig in his hard-to-find 103 Small Boat Rigs — short spars, low stress, good windward ability for a low-tech rig. To balance the sails properly, I simply positioned their combined centre of effort in the same position Phil Bolger had placed his centre of effort. If my centre of effort was off, I had the movable mast steps to provide some adjustment leeway.


The sail rig you see in the title photo of this blog, and the picture above, is pretty close to that first design. 


For the masts I used grown trees about four inches in diameter at the base, fire-killed spruce from a burn up north. The trees were die-straight, branchless and barkless yet still standing three years after the fire. They say air drying makes for strong lumber. These were strong enough to stand on without breaking. To prepare them, I just pared them a little with a draw knife, then oiled them. Their natural irregularities are all but invisible, and the time saving over built up masts was enormous. As for hollow masts, there is not much weight savings on spars at this small size. I also used trees for the peak sprits, though these are a bit too heavy and I will make some lighter spars when I can. I love the low-technology. When I sail in remote areas, I bring an axe, saw, draw knife and hand drill, comfortable in the knowledge that I could replace an entire mast in not much time just by going into the bush and taking a tree.

I mentioned adjustable mast-steps and partners, and having three sets of each to accommodate having either one or both sails in play. For the partners, I just made mine out of wood. To make their position adjustable, I have them sliding on a kind of wooden rail attached to the coaming. The mast step also slides on a rail. The partners are wide open on one side, and the masts are held in place by 2-inch cargo straps. The straps attach to a cheap, galvanized kind of cargo tie-down track.

All this is easier to see in a picture, looking down:



And here is a shot with the rig stowed, where you can see the mast partners more clearly:



The cargo strap and track idea was intended to be temporary, to aid in the experimentation phase. But it is immensely strong, dirt cheap and very easy to use. The wide straps and partners do no damage to the mast. The track serves as a kind of toe rail, and it is very handy to be able to attach a ring at any position along its length — for jib sheet blocks, dock lines, etc. I can't imagine doing without it now.

The sails themselves I ordered ready-to-sew from a good American company called Sailrite. They deliver computer-cut panels that only need to be stitched up. I had some slight experience sewing heavy fabrics, so decided to tackle this job. Many people just hire a sail loft to build them sails, having no taste for sewing. (If that describes you, then you can either skip to the next post, or just read on and find out how the other half lives.) 

Sail-shaping is an art; mere sail-sewing is not too difficult, but information on doing it is hard to find. The testimonials I read on the otherwise excellent Sailrite website all seemed to be from people who had sewn a lot before, and they didn't address the realities of struggling with a home sewing machine. I want to stick to Birdwatchwer-specific information on this blog, but I will digress into some how-to in this case.

From a skills standpoint, the techniques you use on a sail are very straightforward, much more rudimentary than making clothes. Even if you have never touched a sewing machine before, you will manage fine if you get someone to show you the basics of a simple stitch, and then practice some runs on scrap pieces. 

The ideal sailmaking equipment is a walking-foot, commercial sewing machine surrounded by 200 square feet of table or more, and maybe an apprentice you can order about. But you can manage with humbler arrangements. We had an old Singer, but it didn't do zig zag, which you need. So I took some of my scrap sail cloth and went to a repair guy who also sold machines. I told him my purpose and asked him to find me the sturdiest home machine possible. He said almost any heavy older machine with a sharp needle will pierce many layers of heavy material. The trick is finding one that will keep tension on the thread. He sold me a 1960s Kenmore that weighs as much as a small anvil. He wanted $40 for it, but — since it came with good advice about dealing with heavy fabric, a demo using my scrap, and a story about his sister that was both funny and sad — I made him take $60. My guru showed me how to wind the thread around the thread tensioner twice, and really tighten down the bobbin screw. You will certainly have to feed the slippery polyester sail cloth by hand because the feed dogs of a typical machine cannot get a grip — but that isn't hard after a small bit of practice. 

A portable machine can be set on any flat surface, and working on the floor would seem sensible. But then you are in the wrong position to use the little go-pedal, and it just kills the lower back. To work sitting up, you will need to jury-rig a collection of tables to hold your sail as it grows. An arrangement similar to the infeed and outfeed tables you see around table saws is what you want. Once you are set up to work, you can complete the machine sewing on a fairly large sail in a day. There is usually some handwork to finish the sail, and you often need spur grommets in the corners. Setting spur grommets requires a special tool. I just take my finished sails to a tarpaulin place and have them set grommets for me. I have now made, repaired or altered quite a number of sails, each time wishing I had the right equipment and work space. Somehow, the pleasures outweigh the troubles for me, but only just. 



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tinkering with the best-laid plans





My intent to experiment with the Birdwatcher design had to do mostly with the sail rig, which I will deal with in its own post. As for the boat itself, I did not plan to deviate from the drawings, and didn't much. The Birdwatcher is a great boat as is. But once you get into the dust and screws of a project, you start to think about how things could be tweaked differently. Here and there, I found a few ways to construct the Birdwatcher more simply, and more strongly.

As I mentioned last time, the basic hull comes together very quickly. You position the frames on a strongback, plumb and square them up, scarf together the side panels and hang them on the frames and screw them into the stem and stern pieces, and before you know it you've got something boatish.

You can build Birdwatcher with the chine logs inside, outside, or none at all, relying on epoxy alone. I chose outside logs because it seemed a good idea to have some lumber where the boat was likely to take a hit. When a sharpie heels over to sail, the chine becomes a keel. I read somewhere that exterior chine logs also gave you a toehold to climb back aboard if you go for a swim, planned or otherwise. In practice they do, though it takes a lot of upper body strength to climb up even in ideal conditions. Re-boarding would be nearly impossible without the external logs.

I had already decided to at least give leeboards a try, so I did not build a centreboard right away. I determined, however, that if and when I did put in a centreboard, it would go on the port side, not to starboard as Phil Bolger showed it on his drawing. I never got a chance to ask Phil his rationale. Mine was this: the mast is stepped on the same side as the centreboard. You hoist it onto your shoulder and walk it upright. I figured it would be better for a right-handed person to have the mast on the left shoulder, so when you get it into position, you have your good mitt available to toggle the mast partner lock closed. In practice this is true.

The use of polycarbonate (Lexan and other brand names) for the extensive windows was problematic.
The material itself if brutally strong, much more so than plywood of the same thickness. You can hit it with a framing hammer and it won't break. But it is difficult to affix to a wooden structure because its thermal expansion rate is large. Bob Larkin has done some great work on this and posted useful information on his Birdwatcher II website -- which I did not see until much later. I just drilled oversize holes, almost a quarter inch. They require some sort of washer, and I used faucet stem washers from the plumbing aisle. They work and are cheap, but crack after a season. I need to find something better. The fasteners, about one every 10 inches, hold the polycarbonate against weather stripping. In practice, the assembly is not entirely tight and will seep if you heel the boat right over so the windows submerge. I am not quite comfortable with the strength of the windows still.

The plans call for polycarbonate on aft sections of the top deck as well as the sides. This overhead window is for keeping an eye on sail trim. I chose to use plywood down the whole top deck for a number of reasons. First, sitting in my unfinished boat, I realized that the sails would be easily viewable on one tack without a window, and on the other tack just by leaning forward and having a peek. Besides, this is a cruiser, not a racer. In a ten-hour day, you won't want to watch the trim that closely, believe me. And once you know the boat, you can feel out-of-trim in the seat of your pants. The plans specify plastic on the angled part of the top deck too, but these areas are so tiny that the windows add little to the view. Second, using all wood on the top would increase the strength enormously. Third, there seemed no good way to make the top very watertight where plastic met plastic. Fourth, the top is where you lash the rig at night, where you cook and fillet fish and sometimes stand. It takes a beating. Finally, it seemed the helmsman would be happier without the sun beating on his head. All these things have proved true in actual practice.

The last consideration for the polycarbonate: how dark should it be? The stuff is very expensive, so you don't want to buy it twice. Some people have used it clear, or just barely tinted. Aesthetically, I much prefer the darker look, about as dark as a pair of sunglasses. It makes the boat look all of a piece. In practical terms, it affords more privacy. A strong tint hides the blemishes that polycarbonate gets as soon as you start using it. You might worry that the dark stuff will impede the view, be a disadvantage in low light. On the contrary, we just don't realize how terribly bright it is outside, especially over water. It is very relaxing sailing behind strongly tinted windows. In fact, they don't seem strongly tinted at all, but just right.

Two other small changes. I did not build the integral wooden anchor chock on the bow as shown on the plans. It just looked too complicated, would take a lot of upkeep, and metal anchor rollers are cheap and easy to buy. I built both the stem and stern as Phil Bolger specifies on so many other boats -- but not this one -- with a true stem or stern piece inside the hull panels, and false ones screwed to them outside. The drawn ones were more complex in order to be more economical of lumber.

As for the Birdwatcher's oar ports, I bought ready-made ones from a chandlery, which seemed the easiest route to leak-proof assembly near the waterline, plus I could see through them. These opening ports would turn out to be useless for their stated purpose -- this boat is just too big to row effectively. I had read as much before building but, as a competitive rower, I felt like I would be capable. In practice, rowing this boat is demoralizingly difficult, especially from the position Phil Bolger specified. You are so far aft that the boat is uncontrollable in any kind of cross wind. Even in a flat calm, the boat tracks very poorly. I think two rowers standing fore and aft could handle the boat in some wind, but that would mean four long oars and locks, which take up a lot of room in a small boat and add up in cost. I will return to this topic later, but want to introduce it now in case anyone who reads this is about to install oar ports. At least hold off awhile, because the whole subject of auxiliary power in this boat has been the subject of major re-thinking by Phil Bolger himself -- he drew Birdwatcher II to address this issue. And that, too, will be addressed in a later post.

My ports may be useless for rowing, but they are invaluable for ventilation at night. You can have them wide open in a pounding rain and not a drop comes aboard. You can wake from sleep, prop up on one elbow and get a quick look out to check your anchor is holding, or what the overnight weather may be doing.

Finally, I built some handsome little cupboards for stowing small items and installed these at the middle frame position, at the widest part of the hull. Fortunately I made them removable, because they were useless. I failed to consider that the middle frame is also the deepest part of the boat and thus where the bilge water gathers. If you have cabinetry there, rainwater or spilled tea runs right underneath and can't be sponged up. They also take up a cozy space right next to the helmsman where someone could snuggle in,  thus diminishing the romantic capabilities of this boat. Maybe the idea of sailing with your arm around someone has no appeal for you. But have a thought for the future generations who will inherit your boat!


No, I think this boat is too small for furniture. I have found it much more practical to load the boat with Rubbermaid tote containers. These can be wedged into place for sailing amidships for sailing, then re-positioned for camping afloat. If you camp ashore, these boxes are essentially rain-proof and damp-proof.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

The practical cold-weather shop










It was January 1, 2005 when I started building my Bolger Birdwatcher. While my wife and teenage children slumbered away the New Year's revelries of the night before, I went out to my shop and started laying out the pieces for the four frames that run down the hull like spinal disks. I had the radio playing while I worked, and reports came over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation network in the aftermath of The Indian Ocean Earthquake of Boxing Day, 2004. The death toll mounted with every news break -- 4,000 became 40,000,  became 90,000. The number would climb to 230,000 souls eventually. The spicy smell of the mahogany boards being cut filled the shop and reminded me of journeys I'd made in the tropics. I thought how absurdly lucky I was to be building a boat in a safe, warm room at my northerly latitude while families, villages were being destroyed somewhere over the horizon. 


My backyard shop was not big enough in which to build the whole boat. The plan was to start with the smaller bits -- frames, rudder & tiller, centreboard assembly, etc. -- while I looked for space to rent. This is a standard procedure for building an airplane, and I would recommend it to anyone. You get your feet wet at minimal cost in materials and time, make progress and build confidence a step at time. When the fiddly bits are needed, they are ready to install. However, it may well be that you don't like boat building after all, or that your free time is not what you hoped. You can always sell or donate small, finished pieces to the next builder and feel good about it. But a half-done hull is usually doomed to rot. 


Via classifieds, I found a large two-car garage to rent not too far away. I spent (ie. wasted) a lot of hours going to and from that shop, and nothing would have sped up my building more than having a place to work a few feet from my house. But I didn't. The rented place had smoothly operating, powered overhead doors, enough electrical outlets, and an even concrete floor. It had been used for car repairs, so I spent a day cleaning it up and taking a load of old parts to the metal recycler. One of the orphaned items was a large green upholstered chair, which some builders call a weeping chair or thinking chair. I got to know mine well, on both counts.


The shop was nearly 28 feet deep inside, which seemed ample for a 24 foot boat. However, it was just barely enough. I had not considered that curved assemblies, like gunwales, are longer than the actual boat they adorn. I was lucky that all the parts for the Birdwatcher could be laid out straight within the walls I had rented.


The shop was unheated but well insulated, important when you live at 53 degrees north latitude and the winter temperature can dip to -40 C, and is typically -20 C most nights (ie. below zero Farenheit). Indeed, I would say my most pertinent advice for building relates to coping with cold temperatures, something that the literature of boat building does not address. A cold shop in Maine or the Pacific Northwest would be warm by my Canadian prairie standards. 


I bought an inexpensive ($150) kerosene heater with blower and large fuel tank, and plugged it into a thermostat unit I put into a surface-mount electrical box and hung from a nail. The rig could heat that large shop to a comfortable working temperature in under 15 minutes, but it fouled the air badly. Because the shop was so well insulated, I found that I could run the shop up to temperature and a little beyond, then open one or both doors briefly to freshen the air. I also kept three 500 watt halogen work lights running. I needed the light, and their waste heat kept the kero heater from cycling on too often. But when it was bitter cold outside, it got harder to balance warmth and fresh air.


If I did it over again, I would buy a heat-exchanger type construction heater, and temporarily rig up a proper vent to the exterior using an entry door opening if I could not cut a hole in the wall. It would cost about five times the price of a portable heater, but you could sell it afterward. Buying jugs of kero was a hassle; it was expensive and local shops ran out. Well, there are many routes to good shop heat. Regardless, I think you need to be able to achieve 15 C (60 F) easily, whether you are working under tree in Florida, or in your Helly Hansen woolies and Sorel boots in my neck of the woods.


Boat-building typically requires the glueing up of very long pieces -- gunwales, chine logs, and planks. I found that a narrow, temporary shelf built along a wall was a great place to scarf together long items. You could clamp or screw work into position, and things would stay out of the way of other jobs while the glue set up. Set-up generally requires room temperatures for 24 hours. Rather than keep the entire shop heated for that long, I found that glue joints could be kept warm by aiming a 500-watt work light up at the shelf from below, and trapping the heat with a stack of insulation batts over the workpiece. You have to be very careful of fire risk with powerful lights -- especially, don't use extension cords for this technique. By careful positioning and some tests with a household thermometer under my "glueing blanket," I could keep glue joints at room temperature overnight even if the rest of the shop was colder than charity. 


That about does it for the description of my shop set up, seen in the picture. The hull of a boat comes together quickly, and by the end of January I thought I would be ready to launch come spring.










Trial by design




During the decade between receiving plans for the Birdwatcher and the New Year's day, 2005 when I actually started building, I was not entirely idle. I gathered a library of boat-building books and read them many nights after my kids had gone to sleep. Amassing the skills to boat-build is something we all do in a different way, starting from different points, and I won't belabour that here. But the long gestation period meant I had plenty of time to scrutinize the Birdwatcher plans for failings, flaws, shortcomings, and maybe find something else to build. To make it a contest, I actually bought plans for a different boat, a more conventional design called Mist from Karl Stambaugh. The Birdwatcher would survive this long ordeal.

My criteria: I wanted a boat that could sail shallow and take the beach, could be trailered readily, was safe and seaworthy. The mission was to sail the many big lakes accessible to us here in Canada. Canoes are at their worst in big open water. Kayaks are somewhat cramped and none of my friends have one. A sailboat was the thing, if it be the right shape. All these are fairly standard criteria for lake sailors. Since a lot of our lakes here are quite remote, I also wanted my boat to be low-tech, repairable in the field as much as possible, especially the rig.

Apart from the mission requirements, I also wanted a boat as a platform for experimentation. Living where I do, I had never seen a boat with a four-sided sail except in pictures. I wanted to play with different rigs, leeboards. This seemed to demand an open boat, so that masts could be positioned fore-and-aft to suit. I had crazy ideas, like a pedal-powered jet-drive auxiliary. I wanted a boat that could be shipped overseas in a container, because I had this fantasy of sailing Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Phil Bolger's Birdwatcher met all these criteria. It was as shoal-draft as a freighter canoe, light and trailerable and so on. As for experimentation, that open slot running the whole length of the boat just invited creativity. You could place the masts anywhere, and partner them anywhere along the coaming with ease. The boat was open, and yet its top structure gave it most of the qualities of a cabin type. Leeboards, if it came to that, seemed like they could be hung easily from the flat-top deck. The auxiliary power -- oars -- did not frighten me, for I was a competitive rower.

My reservations about the Birdwatcher were mostly aesthetic. It is unusual looking, and that's a fact. I have an aversion to looking like a fool, though that has not stopped me looking like one many a time. I did not want my homemade boat to look like one too much. I gazed at Karl Stambaugh's Mist longingly, like Archie upon Veronica. I knew it was a solid design, would work well in all the traditional ways, would turn heads with its beauty. But there would be no fooling around with mast placement on a such a traditional design, no leeboards. Birdwatcher was unusual, yes, but not absurd. It had a alien beauty, but beauty anyhow. I was obsessed with junk rigs at the time and decided she would look great under one. Above all, she was an experimental type herself, which seemed an invitation to break rules. 

In the end, I did what Phil Bolger would do and let form follow function.  I started gathering material to build a Birdwatcher.