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.

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