BUILDING on a Passion

Story by Phillip B. Lea

I was introduced to woodworking at an early age. In the Los Angeles School District, industrial arts began in grade school and was mandatory for boys in Junior High school. (Girls were obliged to take home economics!)

Moving by the power of the wind was intriguing. Sailboats seemed so quiet and so elegant in their motion. In high school, too much of my time was devoted to figuring out how to get an afternoon cruise or a weekend race in a friend’s boat. It was an easy evolution to couple interest in woodworking with passion for small boats, into boatbuilding.

My first boat was a 16-foot open dory, built as one of a pair in a friend’s garage in Thousand Oaks, California. We rowed our dories in the Oxnard and Ventura harbors, and took a few short cruises out beyond the breakwater on fine-weather days.

That first boat had to be sold, ironically, because of my enlistment and travel in the U.S. Navy. The small proceeds from the sale helped provide a bit of cash for Andrea, my wife, and my new start on life.

At Andrea’s encouragement, I recently added an open shed to the back of the garage to support boatbuilding. Heaps of obnoxious dust made a mess on our cars and storage items. And it has been a lot more pleasant to work half outside.

For the last three Septembers, Andrea and I have hosted a “messabout” here at Lake Dardanelle State Park. Our messabout brings together homemade boats and people who build them from surrounding states, including Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri.

There has been quite a variety — several traditional sailing boats, light-weight canoes and kayaks, and some low-horsepower powerboats. Last year, my friend Max from St. Louis, MO., trailered a rare 1955 highly-polished aluminum runabout with an antique Johnson outboard motor.

We bring our 14-foot sailing skiff, and my daughter’s 13-foot kayak, both of which I built.

The term “messabout” comes from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. In this children’s book, one of the characters,

Ratty, tells his friend about the pleasures of boating:
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

At last year’s messabout, the weather made a tough go of it — a heavy line of thunderstorms, wind gusts to 60 mph and a tornado came through Pope County. It was not possible for anyone to be on the lake that morning.

One of the boats was driven up onto the sand at the cove. Those that were camping in tents or on their boats ended up going home by noon on Saturday because the wind drove the rain into everything.

By Saturday afternoon though, we were able to grill out, and had some nice boating weather right up to sundown. And the following Sunday was great for those of us who stuck around. This year, I don’t know how the weather could be any worse — it absolutely has to be an improvement over last year.

This year we will have a new boat, an 18-foot open rowing/sailing boat, with a sailing rig similar to a 100-year old working boat. It won’t be as fast as a modern sailboat, but the traditional lug rig with its wooden mast has advantages.

Setup time is very fast. No standing rigging, no turnbuckles, and few running lines to mess with. There are few specialized marine parts since the rig is all wooden spars, rope and a few simple blocks (pulleys). The rig can be repaired with parts you would find at Leonard’s Hardware. Pine and plywood was hand-selected at Ridout Lumber. (Andrea is always encouraging me to buy locally.)

Home boatbuilding can take many levels. There are many simple plywood craft with straight sides and straight bottoms, such as Jon boats put together with concrete adhesive (which works quite well!).

There are those projects that are quite complex, made traditionally by plank on frame or lapstrake — like Viking long ships.

Of course the majority fall between these extremes — as do the boats that I have built. Wood, plywood and epoxy suitable for boatbuilding is relatively inexpensive, easy to work, and tools are readily available. Epoxy has greatly simplified the effort of putting together a strong and watertight hull. A person who is comfortable with car body work would be comfortable doing a lot of the epoxy work that is done on today’s new plywood boats.

The internet has made finding information about home boatbuilding easy. There are literally thousands of boat plans available, and many study drawings can be seen on-line. Many devotees have built websites describing every step of building their boat.

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