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.