Sunday, February 7, 2010

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.

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