Never Say Never

Mixing hardener into smelly fiberglass in the sun during Ganymede’s construction.

Some years ago, when nearing the completion of our home-finished boat, I testified in a magazine article that once I was done building Ganymede I never wanted to build a boat again.  I think I may have meant it, too.  The itch of grinding fiberglass, the sticky, stinky, messy process of laying it up, the wearisome work of fairing and finishing: for three years I had overdosed on it, working mostly by myself under the murderous California sun.  By the time the boat launched I was ready for a serious break.

The girls became little acrobats, always clambering in the rigging and finding new ways to defy death.



Happily, I got my break, and an abundant reward for my labors in an unforgettable voyage with my small family that ultimately took us to twelve different countries and spanned 39 degrees of latitude.  But I have to confess that even early on in our travels I started making mental notes.  How could this or that have been improved, or better designed, or better built?  There’s nothing like the crucible of hard use to both expose the dross and cause the gold to shine, and though there were plenty of issues to address, and some refining still to do before Ganymede is as perfect as I could wish, enough of gold showed through to make every sweat-streaked, itchy afternoon of her construction worth the while.

Sweaty, sweltering tropical nights.

The fact remains, though, that however much you may do with a 31-foot boat, there are simply some things that cannot be done with it, no matter how cleverly it is redesigned.  One of those things is cramming five people in it with any degree of comfort for long stretches of time.  We managed if for five  years before the children were too big, and a good portion of that time was spent in shocking discomfort, especially on tropical nights when the rain kept our hatches shut.  I repeat: even the most well-arranged small boat is still a small boat, with a finite amount of room to use.

The solution is obvious: the family that outgrows a smaller boat must build a bigger one.  Long before our voyages on Ganymede were over, while we were still happily living that particular dream, a new dream began to take shape.  It took the shape of a bigger boat, one with two bathrooms, cabins with doors that would shut, awash in natural light and ventilation.

Full-size profile view of the schooner done in sidewalk chalk.

We made sketches on graph paper—notebook sized at first, then table-sized sheets with half-inch squares, to get the design worked out just right.  We stood here and there with yardsticks and tape measures to see how much room was needed for this or that.  Finally, with the perfect length worked out (50 feet), we drew full-sized top and side views on the courtyard with sidewalk chalk.  As Danielle and the girls walked around making marks with chalk, I lay here and there inside the side-view to see how the proportions worked out.  Would a beam this close to the companionway be a head-bumper?  Would a settee just here have enough headroom under the deck?

Half-model of the 50-foot schooner taking shape.

There were still details to work out when we began the next step of design: a half model.  Leaving aside the romantical-ness of carving it out of cedar or sandalwood or whatever is traditional (I haven’t bothered to find out), I carved it out of a stack of ½” MDF boards.  Pretty easy to carve, no grain to get in the way, and each thickness of board represents a foot.  It was a pretty long process, whittling, sanding, checking for fairness with light and shadow, then whittling and sanding some more.

Another view of the half model, almost finished shaping!

It’s finished at last, with an even coat of primer and the waterline firmly scribed.  In olden days, I suppose I would have lofted the frames off of the half model, but this being the twenty-first century, we plan to have the model 3D scanned and turned into a CAD file.  Danielle, who has been studiously learning a CAD program called “Rhino”—the local favorite among boat builders—will be able to tweak it all nice and fair, since I have no illusions about the perfection of my model.  Then we can fill in the deck, rig, and interior, do the calculations for displacement and trim, which a plug-in to the program purports to be able to calculate, and presto! Yacht design for modern times.

It’s a lot of heavy work building even a small sailboat. Here’s one of Ganymede’s side decks going up.

Whether we get to proceed to the next step—having the stations printed full-scale on Mylar for lofting, or having them simply cut out of plywood by a CNC router, is really the edge of the precipice.  It’s relatively easy and cheap to design a boat—it’s another thing entirely to build it.  Just like when we built Ganymede, a lot of circumstances would have to come together: affordable building space, time for building, a sufficient budget, and most of all, the will both to begin and to see it through.  And truly, that last requirement is the hardest.  Knowing that one has to become a de facto hermit, choosing fairing rather than fun, grinding instead of grilling; knowing that success or failure depends on whether every ounce of spare energy and time was spent on the project rather than on all the things you suddenly want very much to do instead, is sobering—especially the second time around.

Antigone was a big helper as I installed the rudder gudgeons on Ganymede.
Inspired by all our drawing, Antigone has begun designing a 19-foot cutter of her own.

On the flipside, my family has grown, and while before I had “helpers” whose efforts, however sweet, didn’t actually advance the project, they can now read a tape measure, hold things still, and above all, sand.  Even better, they are eager to get to sea again, and nothing would give them greater joy than to see a fifty-foot schooner taking shape in the yard.  Just how eager they were I didn’t know until recently, when I asked Antigone, the oldest, why she didn’t spend her allowance every couple of weeks like her sisters do.  “Oh,” she said with that little shrug that she has. “I’m saving it so we can build a schooner.”  I’m not often rendered speechless, but this did it.  I wanted to urge her to not vainly save her pocket  money for an unrealistic dream, but what could I say? She’s seen it all happen once; nothing could be more natural than to expect to see it happen again.  With a little luck, a little saving, and a lot of will, she just might.

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