The Didi 26 Kosatka (Russian for ‘Orca’) was built by Ivan Vasilyev in Irkutsk, Siberia. This was Ivan’s first attempt at amateur boatbuilding, seen here racing on Lake Baikal. Image Eugene Belemov
“We are all in this together.” We have all heard that countless times recently. We are all together but separated, in a situation that we have never experienced before, with millions of people on enforced layoffs from work and education. We have little certainty of how long this is going to last; the initial round may be gone before this issue arrives in your mailbox but the experts warn of it coming back, maybe more than once, before technology gets the better of it. When it is here and the world slows to a crawl we can choose to lie all day and night on the sofa feeding our faces while binge-watching junk TV, or we can be productive.
This doesn’t only apply to our current worldwide lockdown. It works for any occasion when we have a few days or more available, at a loose end for whatever reason. That can be when you are on a short holiday, between semesters or employers, taking a gap-year or recovering from some sort of medical episode. Taken to extremes, you may need a way to fill many months, or two- or three-years’ worth of weekends.
If your job has disappeared or is at risk of not coming back then moping on the couch will not lead you into new employment. Generating income to pay the bills might be of prime importance so the short-term answer may be to make some product that is needed and falls within your skill set. You would not be the first person to find their way into a new and more fulfilling career that developed from a short-term project that awakened a passion for that activity.
If you are not looking for new employment then it will still be good for body and soul to be productive. This includes learning new skills or improving existing ones, making something better than it was before or creating something new. Boatbuilding is our main interest here and it will generally fill at least two of the above, sometimes all three. My own career move into yacht design was the direct result of building a boat. I had no thoughts of designing boats for a living; I had a lucrative professional career in the construction industry. Building that boat awakened my curiosity about boat design, which led to studying in that sphere and eventually becoming a professional in the yacht design profession.
Here is my own shut-down boatbuilding project. I won’t say what it is, I hope that you will see it in these pages later this year. Image Dudley Dix
Our particular productivity interest is related to boats and most boatbuilding projects teach new skills. Of course, the newer you are to boatbuilding the more you will learn. But even after building many boats and developing a wide range of skills there are always more techniques and methods waiting to be learned. When I was a young teen a professional boatbuilder friend of my dad’s made a new mast blank for the sailboat that I was resurrecting. My dad had swopped a music player for the hull, which was dying in a friend’s garden. The music player was the equivalent at the time (about 1962) of an iPod. It was just a little bigger and called a radiogram. To us it was high technology but couldn’t fit into a shirt pocket. It was a large wooden cabinet the size of a bedroom dressing table and contained a radio, record player, loudspeaker and storage space for dozens of 10” diameter 78rpm records.
The boat that came in exchange for the radiogram was the leaking bare hull of a Dabchick, a locally designed scow-style boardboat for teenagers. It was summer holidays from school and I was spending them at my grandparents’ house by the lake. I repaired and refinished the hull as best I could but never did succeed in sealing that leaking daggerboard casing. My dad gave me spare fairleads and blocks from his own boat and showed me how to make tangs and standing rigging. I paid for the mast blank with my allowance. It was a hollow wooden mast with integral sail track. Dad’s boatbuilder friend hand-shaped it from spruce in two halves then glued the halves together, for me to finish and rig myself. Forty years later he made birdsmouth masts for the first two boats built to my gaff-rigged Cape Cutter 19 design, which his son was building for clients to my detail drawings. The old man told me that he wished he had known about birdsmouth spar-building decades earlier because it would have saved him countless hours of labour over the years.
Boatbuilding also generally makes something better, in one way or another. Sometimes it is improvements to an existing boat by doing repairs or major reconstruction, adding years to its useful life. Sometimes it is improvements in ourselves. I know that my many boatbuilding projects improved me, turning the wimpy and timid me into a tougher character able to tackle almost anything with confidence. That process started right there in my teenage years with that Dabchick, from the initial rebuilding through to the joys, freedoms and responsibilities of having my own boat to sail alone on the lake, with nobody but myself to blame for mistakes.
A customer in Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, built a Didi 26 as a first-time boatbuilder. He built it in difficult conditions and with materials that appeared from photos to be of somewhat questionable quality. They were the best materials available to him at the time and he made good use of them. I guided him through the build whenever needed. He launched his boat and started racing with used sails until he could afford new. After awhile he was competitive against the hi-tech boats that were starting to appear on the lake. He messaged me one day and thanked me for changing his life. I responded with a question, wanting to know how I had changed his life. He said that before he built his boat he had been a miserable person, always fighting with everyone. Building his boat had changed his attitude to life and other people, as well as his relationships with them, so his life and the lives of his family and friends had all improved. I told him that I was pleased to be part of that process but had only supplied the information and knowledge to help him but he had done it all himself. Since that first boat he has had a hand in at least another five boats of my design that have been built in Irkutsk and he is soon to start another.
A current builder of a Cape Henry 21 told me recently that he found his boatbuilding to be therapeutic. My dad was once put to work by our family doctor to repair the doctor’s Flying Dutchman, while recuperating from a medical issue that needed him to relax. Many years later that same doctor was very pleased when I started building my first big boat while consulting him about the burnout stresses brought on by overwork in my previous profession.
The point is that boatbuilding has a soothing component to it. A large part of that is the sense of achievement that comes from challenging our own abilities to create good workmanship and beautiful things. When we see what we have crafted out of random materials we feel pride and are encouraged to do even better. When the day comes to launch what we have made, that static object comes alive and shows the character that we have built into it.
Pablo Besser in Santiago, Chile, is building our most popular classic trailer-sailer design, the Cape Henry 21. He is making good progress during the lock-down. Our Australian agent, Ron Jesche of Stainless Boatworks (https://stainlessboatworks.com.au/), built this design and wrote a review for a recent issue. Ron Jesche was holidaying in Chile and intended to visit Pablo Besser to see his project but the impending lock-down in Chile forced a rapid departure back to Australia. Image Pablo Besser
It has been said all too many times that the happiest days of a boatowner’s life are the two when he buys the boat and sells it. I once bought a boat, a plastic canoe when I didn’t have time to build one. I didn’t get to sell it because it was stolen before I could do that. Aside from that one, I either built or rebuilt every boat that I have owned, right from childhood. I rebuilt one and built the other six from scratch. None of those other six would have existed if I hadn’t invested the time, blood, sweat and tears into them. The tears were generally very closely related in time to a major bloodletting experience involving some tool that was either very sharp or rotated at extremely high velocity, or both. Despite those experiences I still have all of my original fingers and toes.
When you build a boat you start with basic materials in solid, sheet or liquid form. You reduce those materials to smaller pieces then assemble them into a totally different form, apply magic muti to hold it all together and to protect it, then launch it as a boat. After years of happy use the time sometimes comes to move on to a bigger, smaller or different boat. I have found it difficult to part with each of those boats and still cherish the experiences of sailing them. Those experiences, the good and the not so good, the embarrassment from doing something really dumb when racing, the thrill of winning, the companionship of weekends and holidays afloat with family and friends, the hours of peaceful solo sailing in company only of whales, dolphins, seabirds and the occasional ray, will live with me for the rest of my life. Friends who have shared those experiences have mentioned them decades later as happy times in their lives. Those happy times were a direct result of me building a boat.
When we build a boat we choose to not walk into a showroom or factory to place an order for a boat that was or will be popped out of a mould, one of a series of identical nondescript and sometimes rather soulless vessels. We choose to craft it with our own hands to be something different, a craft of which we will be proud to say “I made it”. That process naturally involves us doing everything in our own unique way, thereby building our character into the structure, detailing and finishes of the boat. In return, the build process reshapes our own character and that character reshaping continues while we sail the boat, adapting ourselves to its unique handling characteristics and needs, in conditions from serene calm through to wild and stormy. In that way the boat gives back to us and helps to build our seamanship, to repay our investment in ceating it.
During the break from our normal working and social lives, building a boat can expand the skills of other members of the family as well, while helping to ward off cabin fever and giving opportunities to spend quality time together. At the end of the process the family will have a new toy to enjoy time together on the water when happier times return.
Of considerable concern to boatbuilders during a shut-down is how to get the materials that are needed. Except when there is a total shut-down,
most suppliers will be operating, possibly with reduced staff and at a reduced capacity. They will be able to get materials to you as long as stocks are still available but it will likely take longer than normal. Transport systems are considered essential services but they will also be affected by staffing problems. Increased online shopping, in preference to buying in physical shops, adds to pressure on shipping services. Despatch from the supplier will take longer and shipping, including by mail, will take longer. If mail shipment includes aircraft then it may take a lot longer because of the massive reduction in air travel. With so few commercial aircraft flying, there is very limited capacity available to carry packages long distance. Courier delivery will not be affected in the same way because the courier companies have their own aircraft to carry shipments, so it may be worthwhile to pay the extra for courier delivery, taking days instead of weeks for smaller items.
Amateur boatbuilding is a disease without cure. But who would want to be cured of something so enjoyable? Don’t let an enforced break in your normal life keep you from your favourite escape pastime.