Saturday, January 9, 2010

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. 

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