Make Life Better With a Sailboat-in-a-Closet




About: If you read blogs, come vist mine: www.tristramshandy21st. where right now I am posting chapters of my humorous and philosophical nonfiction, "In Search of Tim Severin" among other things.

[SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION: If you like this kind of writing style, feel free to visit my blog, Tristram Shandy in the 21st Century,  If you do NOT like my style, do NOT visit the blog! I want no harm to come to you!  NOTE May 2011 -- I have been a little lazy at that blog: my apologies -- it had something to do with living life rather than writing about it :-) ; but I will be getting back to it.  --wt]

Life sucks sometimes, and you have many choices, among them drinking, television, and taking long walks at night among decayed buildings. But you know better; me too. How about spending drinking money on wood, television time on building a sailboat in a bedroom, and keeping the long walks amoung decaying buildings as a useful reminder of Mortality and the Clock?

After losing everything in a divorce except some books and some tools, and having to keep my small sailboat two hours drive away, I decided to make life better actively. You can do it too, and probably better, because I know you have more skills than I do. First, two preliminary steps:

Step A -- Create a project that is somewhat unusual. Coffee tables, bookcases, etc., will not work when life sucks. Imagination and promise of adventure are stronger cures for almost anything.

Step B (see second photo of toolbox/bench if I edited this step properly)-- Build a bench-toolbox of dimensions ~12 inches x 12 inches x 4 feet (standard lumber). The door to access tools is on the side so that you do not disturb your ass if you are sitting on the bench or the workpieces if you are working them on the bench. This is your world, this compact box will hold all the tools needed to build almost anything except the Space Shuttle. Any larger tools are merely conveniences, not really needed for your project-without-workshop. (most used tools were electric drill, electric jigsaw, hand plane (jackplane), wood chisel, wood file, Japanese crosscut saw , hammer, tapemeasure, compass-scribe, sandpaper, screwdrivers, and vacuum are working in your living space after all!).

Add a side vise and a hold-down vise -- both are the pure poetry of the third and fourth hands. Humanity has always desired more hands. The Japanese use their feet as hands when woodworking. The Eskimo (Inuit, Nunamiut) use their teeth. I use the hold-down vise and side vise. Write a poem about them; they will be great friends:

Steel hands on soft wood,
incorporating contradictions as they should--
how can the hard-harsh fail to dent
the soft-smooth low-friction meant
for ...

OK, I have no time for good poetry now, but you get the idea. The bench is endlessly useful for people working without proper workshops. I built most of my sailing outrigger canoe (proa) in a spare bedroom of an apartment, and parts of it in my living room, and many pieces of that on this bench, where I could listen to music, eat, and meditate over the project.

If I had a one-bedroom apartment, I could have done the project in there no problem (sleep on floor on futon, roll mattress aside, cover with dust-sheet!). The wheels hardly seen at left bottom of the toolbox/bench let me drag it around after I tilted it up by the handle (they contact the floor only when the box is tilted). Lay a cheap carpet under it to protect your landlord's property.

Get a low stool to sit on while at work. The one pictured here was once used to sit near the bathtub as I bathed my infant children. I suggest that you too have a small, useful stool, filled with beautiful memories and ready to be filled with more. But you *can* sit on it, too.

Step 1: Build Your Boat in Two Pieces

The two pieces (in this case, 7 feet long each) will let you get the boat in and out of the apartment and store it in the corner or in a large closet or corner of a room. The project started briefly in the basement of my first apartment, and I can attest I carried the proto-hulls out and up through twisty apartment stairs. Each piece was very heavy (80 pounds each at end of project) because I designed foolishly, but I am a weak 48 year old English professor, and if I can do it, you can do it.

The hulls will bolt together at their flat "transom/bulkheads" to create a 14 foot skinny outrigger canoe hull. The outrigger float seen to the left was a crazy attempt (ceased at the moment of completion, sort of like mediocre sex) at a somewhat native concept of a neutral buoyancy ama (float) but not a good idea for a solo sailor on a small boat (scaling a design up or down changes the physics of its behavior -- or rather...well, everybody seems to know physics on this site, so you know what I mean).

You see rub-strips on the bottom of the hulls. I adzed off the bow rub strips later because they were way overdone and the planling is very thick anyway, but you do need to protect the edges of plywood from being exposed. I now recommend thin-but-tough rub-strips built up with layers of fiberglass or even gobs of chopped fibgerglas plopped on in epoxy and later faired. Using graphite-epoxy from waterline down is also better than painting, I think (slippery tough coating but still has UV protection from the graphite).

The two hull pieces stand up on their flat ends and look like the wondrous towering architecture of fantasy. Sit 15 feet away, drink the relaxing beverage of your choice, and let the mind go where it will.

I used marine plywood nailed to heavy lumber with bronze ringnails sealed with polysulfide rubber-goo. You can do it better than this (read books on plywood boat building) and thereby make the hulls lighter. A skin-on-frame design may also be good (coated ballistic nylon skin is very tough), or strip build if you have the patience (I didn't). Or buid flatter parts with plywood, and the rounded botton with strip-technique, perhaps best of all, and faster/cheaper than all-strip-building.

Important note -- I had no plans -- the boat went from brain-to-wood with a few scrap-paper sketches in between. You must do this too; the Cure will not work, otherwise.

Step 2: Assemble the Painted Hull, and Admire, Then Forgive Yourself

Observant but polite readers will have noted silently that the assembled boat is odd and ugly in some ways. Though the waterflow-lines are fair curves up to a little above the waterline (~8 inches), thereafter the hull rises to become seemingly two long-thin triangles joined at their bases, insulting to the gods of hydrodynamics and boat designers. However, when shoving the disassembled hulls into small truck, small SUV, or small stationwagon, the hulls, when reversed, nest very closely together because mathematics prove that reversed triangles, er, nest together.

True -- occasional waves sweep the sheer line of the hull and create vortexes (=bad) as they flow by, reducing hull efficiency. Think of it as a bow to the universe in humility -- the only perfect things are subatomic particles and some crystals that grew under great conditions. All else is flawed. You have plenty of problems, so don't worry about this one so much. You will have a boat that works.

On the other hand, you, dear reader, could do better. The space-savings are not too great with the triangle form (unless you have a compact stationwagon....?). You can create fair curves over the entire hull and have a better looking boat than mine. To do so, do this: build the boat in one piece if you have the room, install the central bulkheads with a tiny gap between (just engough for a saw blade), drill the bolt holes, then saw the hull in two between the bulkheads. This is a trusted method, and other authors discuss it.

Note the heavy canvas spread on floor to protect the landlord's hardwood floors. Landlords look for reasons to keep your security deposit. Don't give her/him reasons! The money you get back can go toward your next boat.

Step 3: Build Ama (float) Poorly So That You Can Get to the Water Soon!

In step three you have noticed that the project has taken too long. Perhaps like me you have worked furiously during some weeks, and then gone for weeks with hardly doing a thing. Two years have gone by since you started, you are in your second apartment, the divorce lawyer has invented new ways to take your money, and you have engaged a child therapist because the ex-spouse is messing with your children's minds (an insidious crime now popuilar enough to be given a name -- "parental alienation syndrome" -- and would deserve a future 'instructable of diagnosis and defense' if this excellent web site were also devoted to solving social issues as well as engineering issues) .... and Death has visited. Life still sucks but could be way worse because Death only leaned into my doorway, then paused to think about what to do with me.

I like the way Tristram Shandy postponed Death (in both the book and the film of that name); when Death visited me in the form of a stroke (TIA) I was not given any warning. I couldn't say, "I haven't finished my boat yet; I have a novel in progress, you could come back later if you want." I couldn't speak at all in the paralysis, or I could, but it sounded like Klingon, I'm told. So I thought very, very loudly, 'OK, here's one: the tax year is ending, and I owe the federal government a lot of money.' Death nodded and said telepathically, 'Later, then.' Death speeded the ambulance to a hospital that had recently adopted TPA therapy (get a list of hospitals that do, and always go there), and here I am typing this. Science, I love you!

So at year 2, fill in your own specific issues, and then admit that you really want to get into the water NOW. The ama (float) remains. Amas ought to be graceful, but build a pointy box, which is easy, try the boat, and start building a better ama later. Here's the junk ama in process; it held my weight when I sat on it in the water, which can be useful. I filled it with pink-foam blocks in case it was swamped (decking over would take too much time for a junk ama).

Step 4: Pack Up!

You have no trailer because your dory is sitting on it at mom's house in New Hampshire. Also, the same landlord who is snooping around because he (or she) thinks you are building a boat on her (or his or their) hardwood floors also won't let you (or me) keep a trailer anywhere. Tow trucks cruise the lots seeking wheeled things parked in spaces that don't belong there (the cars, I mean; avoid vague pronoun reference).

Life is compartmentalized, especially in New England where somebody (perhaps the same 17 people) owns everything. Each square yard is the province of a landlord, an owner, the State, and I include chipmunks and birds. That's why we have voices: the first sounds produced by living critters meant, "Hey- that-mine!" -- rather like all spaces on which lawns grow in English towns. If you walk on English town lawns, people come out of guard shacks and yell at you. That's how they keep unemployment down.

What to do? Design a boat that stores in your own square-yard of space, be it your closet, room or vehicle with the rear seats folded down.

Since this photo, I bought a Ford Focus and am now in deep trouble for boat transport, but a break-in-two boat at least allows you to buy the cheapest, smallest utility trailer, and, in fact, some models fold up, and yes indeed, can also be stowed in an apartment! There's nearly always a solution if you relax and think about it. If you built a light boat, you can get it on the roof, but I think you will find that a trailer is slightly less bother if you can store, especially if you can store the boat on it. This reduces set up time, which can be critical if you have only an afternoon to sail. Trailers are not always the problem; it is one's attitude toward trailers that it is sometimes the problem.

Step 5: Unload

The basic boat in 2002 looked like this (first day at the water). I only paddled it the first day to get a sense of its dynamics, having never been on an outrigger before. But I was too absurdly happy to make any useful observations other than that I was happy in a boat I had designed and built myself. On later days I added sprit rig, then standing lug rig, and finally a shunting Polynesian crabclaw rig.

Today is Father's Day 2002 (though it could have been Mother's Day in your own life); perhaps your ex-spouse thoughtfully took kids out of town today. You wanted to bring them with you -- you will not accomplish many things in life if you have an imagination to imagine those things. So, stay focused on two triumphant hours today during which you paddle your first boat.

For as long as you use this boat, interested strangers will come over and ask you many questions. Most are truly curious and admiring -- they will make you feel better. A very few are condescending bordering on insulting (they usually are men with beards, baseball caps, and powerboats towed by Hummers or near equivalent). These combined events will instruct you about statistics.

Step 6: Improve the Design

The boat is yours, and you are free to drill new holes, saw things off -- anything! Gods feel this way when they create worlds and then alter the course of history. Improvements are always possible and easily doable, which is the joy of designing your own wooden boat. My engineering philosophy is to design while I build, so that the boat will never really be done, though it will reach plateaus of done-ness. Note to undergraduates: if you want to become a commercial engineer, use a different philosophy.

I lightened the boat by sawing the top two inches off, cutting out solid wood not necessary for strength, and etc. Then I added decks and other stuff (leeboard, hatches, bigger sail rig, and a heavier ama that added weight back. Oh well).

Here you see the required weight-reduction phase done over the winter starting year 2 of boat use (three years since project started). You perhaps have purchased a tiny but useful house after the third year of the life-crisis, and it has a garage and basement, and you can build even an alternative energy power core and not worry about landlords any more. Life doesn't suck all the time, you start to think. And if Death awaits, It has not come today.

Step 7: Sail the Next Version on a Local Lake

This was actually version 2.1. Version 2 almost killed me but see that story by googling "My Bloody First Day with the Crabclaw" on the Proafile Magazine. Version 2.2 uses a modified Polynesian style rig but the mast stays fixed rather than tilts on each shunt (Harmen Hielkemma's design: read books and web sites about all this, no time here today and not important for The Cure); that way, when the boat capsizes, the mast stays there and slows down the ama that wants to turn a complete arc and hit you on the head. On a good day the boat will even float a minute with the float in the air, held at 90 degrees by the wooden spars in the water; excellent! You see the detached leeboard (also is a windwardboard) (central hull attachment, swings fore and aft for steering and trim and shunting adjustments), and please note the more graceful looking ama (float). The sail is "brailed up" for securing at shore, but is also a wonderful thing when 20-25 mph winds threaten your afternoon in choppy sea, and you need to calm down a little.

Step 8: Go to Sea

Enough with small lakes. Life should not be a lake, although I understand that many people will disagree with me; no insult was intended. But go to sea (here New Haven, Connecticut, coming in), return to the fluid whose chemical composition bears striking similarity to your own.

When you push off with miles of open water in front of you, you may feel, as I did, that you have pushed off into a new world. This could be space itself, for you are detached from continental geology. I was scared the first time, even though I worked one summer as a mate aboard a charter fishing boat, and have in general been on many boats, have scuba-dived, etc.

A large powerboat does not contain The Cure. It has to be all wind, water, and wits. Be a little vulnerable -- small sailboats are good at making you feel that way. Be a little scared sometimes and admit it; that helps you be reasonable, helps you measure things; that's part of life. Life is good sometimes. --WT



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    110 Discussions


    3 months ago

    My Dad and I are going to try and make a tacking outrigger out of xps foam and fiberglass next week. I loved the comment "if you want to become a commercial engineer use a different philosophy". That was part of why I decided I would never be an engineer (it took me two tries and three years to figure it out though).


    7 years ago on Step 8

    I want to thank you for both our article and your "Bloody First Day" writing. I got Gary Dierking's book, and your writing has convinced me to go #1 with his simplest design, use a tacking rig at first, go out on a not too windy day, and take a competent friend with me till I learn the boat. The tendency is to want the hottest boat first. Experience and and my limited wisdom tell me to go with what will be the most likely to give me fun and let me learn how to sail a new kind of boat!
    You are an entertaining author. Obviously you chose the right profession. I would imagine you inspire and entertain your students.

    4 replies

    Hi Wade,
    I did indeed go with the Wa'apa design and finished the hulls but haven't gotten the boat in the water. While I'm "semi retired" I seem to have more going on than ever. I am an artist metalsmith and just finished an intense teaching and am pooped! But i am going for wood to make my mast and leeboard and rudder Monday and then my boat is done! At 67 I haven't really sailed since I was about 24, and I sailed a small homemade boat across Lake Superior and had a great adventure and near death experience! I hope your life is going well!


    That's great! And I am glad that retirement is stimulating -- too many people have nothing when they retire, clearly not your problem. I hope you enjoy the canoe; it is a solid design.

    Wade Tarzia

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    (sorry for late reply, didn't see your comment) A scene continually witnessed at boat ramps.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Wow. this is like straight out of Gilligans Island. The Professor would be so proud!!!! I actually really mean that as a compliment so i hope your not insulted.
    i think you could sleep easy knowing that should you ever find yourself on a deserted island that you could get yourself back to civilization.

    NICE JOB!!!!!!!

    1 reply
    Wade Tarziadimtick

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    (sorry for late reply, didn't see your comment) I was always thinking that Tom Hanks could have done a better job on his escape raft (in that movie whose name I forget).


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I felt the same way as you when I built my pumpkinseed kyak ! So I put it on the Instructable site. It is so light and easy to transport too. The original design was meant to fold flat, but I opted for rigid internal ribs. I screwed them in place. Saves time and is much safer on the lake. I had it collapse and sink one time! So I fixed that problem. I also added insulating foam, sprayed into the bow and stern section from 1 can of spray foam. I quick and inexpensive way to avoid the Titanic syndrome. Love your story for each step. I can relate, I have had a similar experience. But now found the right woman who is an Angel and has saved me from many vices that could have put me in a very small place for a very long time! Canoeing, woodworking, Leathercrafting, knifemaking, Organic Gardening, a 19 year old daughter (college sophomore) and running this Ranch (home) and much more, keep me active, healthy and happy. Keep up the good work. I'm rooting for you! Seek Peace. Triumphman.

    1 reply
    Wade Tarziatriumphman

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    (sorry for late reply, didn't see your comment) I have since heard several other stories like ours, the most recent from a student, a former soldier, looking for a purpose, and he visited a fellow soldier at his Amish home (the guy was on his outside-Amish-pilgrimage) and witnessed the hand-crafts of the Amish family he stayed with for a while. So he found a craft -- bow making from scratch, all materials gotten from the woods -- that worked for him.

    My father as a depression-era starving Italian with his cousin built boats from boards discarded by the factories. I must have been thinking of them when I started that project. (sorry for late reply, didn't see your comment)


    5 years ago on Introduction

    The best piece I ever read here.
    I liked your style, and the side comments on life, boats, and everything. Or, perhaps I felt that I have met a man of my age, and I knew what you are talking about, a rock in the sea, treating wounds with wisdom and humor, and riding above them and the waves of troubles.

    1 reply
    Wade TarziaMastros

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you!

    And I want to tack on an apology to the others I did not respond to for the last 3 years -- I thought Instructables mailed me about all comments made, which I try to respond to, but for some reason I never saw notices about these comments in my e-mail and have not logged in a lot to check.

    hey man, digging the idea, but whats the weight of it? im thinking about biking cross country (with my own little bicycle camper, when its complete), and this would make a great addition to my "bag 'o' tricks".

    1 reply

    Hi -- That boat was very crude (it had a plank for a keel and used douglas fir plywood, and etc.) and way heavy for what it was. I would never build one that way again, if I could help it.

    If you truly want to tow a small boat on a bicycle, I would make the boat into the trailer itself to save weight. It would be the form of a kayak, perhaps. Length must be thought about. The shortest boat is lightest of course, but short boats are less stable and less efficient than longer. Usually minimum length for paddle/row boats is 14 feet if the users plan to go any distance at a useful speed vs calories, but of course there are shorter boats for various purposes that work out OK. (see more below).

    You could put your stuff in it, sleep in it (maybe) and tow it -- without the added weight of a trailer frame. The axle for the wheels would go through the bottom of the boat but be encapsulated so the hull could never leak once the axle and wheels were removed for water. This mode would offer the lightest weight for the most versatility.

    I would build this contraption out of carbon fiber or carbon and kevlar if you have the money -- strongest and lightest structure possible for something to be towed by bike. If money is an issue, then good marine plywood (good maRINE PLYWOOD wood is light and strong, such as okuome), strengthened here and there with fiberglass cloth and epoxy, or carbon in selected areas. This is of course a design challenge (exciting!) and you would need to read up on kyak building methods.

    There is a man famous in the small adventure-boating world, Matt Layden, who specializes in small innovative sail boats and kayaks. In one around-Florida sailing/paddling event he used a tiny 9 foot sailboat (you have to travel almost 1200 miles, sailing the coast, paddling rivers, and at one spot getting your boat over 40 miles of roads on your own) -- you should check out his designs. His boat "Elusion" is a paddle/sailboat with a small cabin he could sleep inside. It is 9 feet long and about 3.5 feet wide. He could bolt wheels to the sides to tow it over the roads for that 40 miles. He also used an 8 foot pram "Sandflea" he could sleep inside. You should research such boats and methods of light construction (many books and internet sources are out there). Good luck with you adventure!


    8 years ago on Step 8

    An excellent read - I find your path to dealing with life-lessons far more valuable than how to build a two-piece triangular boat. It's been a few years, I hope the Cure has continued!

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    Glad u found fun in the sailboat. Iv been trying to find a way to learn to sail for a bit. We apparently look at the same ocean as im a ct-er too.

    1 reply