Friday, December 28, 2012


There are three questions that I am asked most when I'm out and about with Solitude.
  1. Did you build that?
  2. How long did it take? 
  3. Is that the first boat you've built? --or-- How many boats have you built?
Name on my first boat, Fern
Readers of this blog know the answer to Questions 1 and 2. As for Question 3, Solitude is the fourth (and a half, if you count the cradle boat) boat I've built. Boats 2 and 3 where a Redfish cedar strip kayak and Pygmy Opsrey double kayak. My first boat was a small rowboat that I designed and built over the course of a lazy grad-school summer.
I had not set out to build a boat that summer. I had just taken a really class in Computation Fluid Dynamics, and I decided to apply my learnings from that class to write a simple 3D grid generator and inviscid solver. What a way to spend a summer...
I actually started writing the grid generator and was getting some good results. But the weather was getting nicer and nicer, and I felt an itch to be doing things outdoors. At the time, I lived about 1/2 mile from the boat launch at Magnusson Park. I thought, gosh, if I only had a small boat, something that I could transport down to the water and just float around on a nice day. I could build a boat!
In a confluence of events, earlier that year, I had been doing a lot of reading about the War of 1812, and that lead me to some books by Howard Chapelle, which lead to to Chapelle's Yacht Designing and Planning. Also, the Aero department's wood shop was under-utilized. I had the motive and the means. Time to get started.

Despite having read through Yacht Designing and Planning and a few other yacht design books, I really approached the design like an engineer. The design brief was something along these lines: A small row boat capable of carrying two people plus one medium dog, light enough for one person to carry, short enough to be build out of 8' long sheets of plywood. Don't ask how I came up with two people and a dog. Anyway, that was the mission to which the boat was point-designed.

The strongback/mold, with fairing strips

The next step was to draw up some plans. Being summertime, TA office was largely deserted, so I cleared out a large workspace amongst the desks. I didn't have a good feel for the correct dimensions for things, so, using assorted scraps of paper, cardboard, and whatever other office supplies I could scavenge, I started working on a mockup. I'd iterate between figuring out "ergonomic" assessments on the mockup, doing displacement calculations on the computer. After a couple of hours, I finally converged on something that I figured would work. I spent another day working up a lines drawing and drawings of each station.

That weekend, I went to the lumber store, and bought a bunch of materials with which to build a mold/strongback, mahogany timber for the frames and epoxy, bronze fasteners, and Gorilla glue to hold stuff together. Marine plywood for the sides came later.

Bending the gunwhales and chine into place

I figured the best thing to do was to build the boat upside-down on a mold. I'd build a keel and a traditional frame, and then sheath it in plywood. Beyond that, construction was a learning process. I hadn't really internalized any of the information I had read in any of the boat books I had read. Fancy structural element like knees, floors, keelsons, and rabbeted keels were unknown to me. For the most part, I was making it up as I went. I'd drive screws and nails in non-traditional places and if I lacked something to drive a fastener into, I'd invent whatever structure I decided was required.
I did pick up a few tricks from Brad, a fellow student who would occasionally drop by. He had built a boat with his dad many moons before, and shared some skills with me. For example. my first attempt and bending the gunwhales into place resulted in a broken gunwhale. For Round 2, Brad dropped by and gave me the idea of soaking them in water as I went to help them take the shape....a trick I'd use some time later on some of the more stubborn parts of Solitude.

Boat bones
Slowly, but surely, the boat took shape over the course of the summer. Soon the frame was complete, and to my delight it could even bee removed from the mold and not collapse on itself. Plywood sheathing came next. I cut some patterns, then cut the real things, did lots of dry fitting and final adjustments and then nailed everything down with bronze boat nails. At this point, the boat was in pretty good shape structurally, but certainly not watertight. So I mixed up some epoxy, thickened it, and proceeded to fill all of the seems with the stuff. I also added some lightweight fiberglass tape to the outsides of the seems. Looking back on it, I think I was on the verge of "inventing" stitch 'n glue!

I built my own oars too!

Sheathing the hull


Solitude III was not my first red boat!

A bunch of sanding came next. I did not coat the boat in unthickened epoxy as I would now. A the time, I didn't even know you could or would do such a thing! Instead, I applied a couple of coats of red paint and did the brightwork with a gloss furniture polyurethane (varnish, what is that????). I even painted her name, Fern, on the transom.

Bouyancy tests
At this point, I found myself in a quandary...I really wasn't sure of the best placement for the seat (or seats). What to do? Why, launch the boat and use a bunch of fellow grad students to figure it out experimentally. of course. So, that's what happened. The boat floated and the experiments worked, but things naturally erupted into mild chaos and tremendous fun, culminating in nearly losing both the both the boat and a fellow Fluids Labber out to sea.

I eventually installed the seats and hardware and finished the boat. I even used her a couple of times. She could carry quite a load, but had too little freeboard for comfort. She pulled easily and tracked horribly She was a little heavy to move around, but could be moved by one person...I'd say the difficultly in getting her to the water limited my use of her more than any other factor. 

The finished Fern

Like any wooden boat, Fern is a beautiful object, but she really isn't a good looking boat. Looking back on the design with more developed sensibilities, I would have given the design more shear, more freeboard, and moved the max half-breadth forward. Way forward. The biggest flaw in the design is that the max half-breadth is at the transom. No kidding.
Every now and then, I look and Fern's hull and contemplate its future. Sometimes I think about wrestling her onto the top of the car and using her, but generally cooler heads prevail and a more useful boat, like a kayak, gets a trip to the water instead. Sometimes, I dream about doing some major modifications to address her shortcomings. I can't get over the idea that I could add a deck, daggerboard and positive floatation, pull the rig off of a Laser, and have a pretty decent sailing dinghy. Actually, she'd probably be able to plane! But that's all a lot of work, and it changes the first boat I ever built into something other than what I designed her to be. So, for now, she sits in the garage, gathering dust.

This picture makes me want to take her out on the water again!

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