By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

The Least Boat: Part One

To Part Two

Since I've moved into this new apartment - which has room to build a boat - I've been thinking of a statement by a designer, who said, 'A boat that performs well won't be simple to build. The boat that's simple to build won't perform as well.'

A boat is wood bent: wood stretched on one side, compressed on the other. Curving wood makes waterflow easier but the building more difficult. It is greatly rewarding, and usually the fellow who sticks it out to completion loves what he has.

He also now knows he can do this, which means he walks from the garage to the house with a strut like John Wayne. He gets respect at the lake, since every guy look at the other boats, no matter what he says. Talk is tall, when you’ve done it yourself.
‘You built that?’
‘Yeah, just a little weekend chore,’ he said even though it took six months.
‘Wow, I could never do that.’
‘Nothing to it, just use your hands and some tools,’ he said, not mentioning the glue. that filled the cracks.
‘How’d you learn all that, I mean all those lines and planks and stuff?’
‘Duckworks, that’s all it takes,’ he said, shoving his skiff into the water, and sailing off.

The Herreshoff Haven 12 1/2 above is beautiful, it sails like a dream, but it takes great skill to build it to the plans. Herreshoff drew plans for his magnificent craftsmen, who spent their life honing their skills. We don't always have such time, and I don't have that skill. The first boat I built had more patch cheek pieces than panels.

However, boats which are easy to build have don't have such curves. Not a curving, arching, gathering turn in which every plank is fastened to the other planks along their sides, but simple boats have planks that join at their ends so they can be fastened simply and solidly. Still, to move over or through water, the wood has to have a curve somewhere, either the bottom or the sides. Designers often think of length, which suggests the building style from four sides, such as the Bolger Tortoise to three-sided dingys, to two-sided boats such as a dory, here on the right.

Probably the easiest boat to build is the four-cornered pram. A perfect example is the sampan, a word meaning, 'three panels.' Here you can see the three panels, with the bottom rising to form a bow and a stern. Nothing could be simpler, although a sampan is tipsy. You wouldn't want to take your honey dancing in a sampan, especially the jitterbug. At least not in deep water.

The four-cornered pram has many versions, including the classic Atkin Rinky Dink, and its many imitators. My favorite among the plywood versions of the squared pram is the Merrill Watercraft Apple Pie. It's 7 feet by 3 1/2 feet, with a beautifully curved bottom and flared sides.

Unfortunately, Apple Pie is not simple to build. There are 15 pieces, four different corner angles, three kinds of wood, seats, rub rails, corner elbows, a skeg, seat supports, gunwales, oars, and two transoms. The constantly changing flare must be done right, ot it looks odd and doesn't work. All of this makes for a grand little craft, but plenty parts to make with several techniques necessary. A gem, but not a simple boat.

As the Duckmeisters know, the PD racer is just such a square boat with a curved bottom. Since it is larger than Apple Pie, it moves well on a lake. I think it's the ideal lake boat, and the ideal first boat to build, especially if you have young pirates around. By the way, the PD racer has a great advantage, since it is 4 feet wide. You can put a mast just about anywhere; off to one side, down the middle, off to one side well forward or astern. There's room for a cabin, too. But it's still a four-cornered boat, which means eight angles.

Would going from four corners to three simplify things? Rowboats have three corners. My favorite has always been the Bolger Pointy Skiff. It was the first boat I built, the one my daughters loved the most.

With the first Pointy, I did the bow by hand and eye--a saw, sandpaper and dust in the eyes. It took some time and sanding to get the 65 degrees to look right. I never had any trouble with it leaking, but this style of bow either looks just right or it resembles a beach ball. The foredeck is essential for the look and performance of the bow entrance. You can ruin the alignment of the topsides with a bow piece that's off angle. It's the one issue of the wrap-around-a-midframe (WAAM) style of assembling skiffs and sharpies.

I love this little skiff, as my daughters did years ago. The bow does handle chop, as pram bows do not. But it takes about 30 pieces to assemble. And the pointed bow, being a corner of about 65 degrees is a weaker corner than the stern corners. Designer and builders have known of this weakness for hundreds of years. Big wooden ships of the 18th and 19th centuries developed special bow construction techniques to overcome this.

The four-cornered Bolger Tortoise looks simple but it takes 21 pieces.. why? In short boats, chines, rub rails and gunwales are all necessary. If 1/4 inch plywood is used, corner elbows and stifeners have to be put in, also. The lower chine is in three pieces due to the wide bend in a short boat. And if you want to sail it, then the number of pieces goes up like the interest rate on a credit card.

That really brings us back to our quotation. While Pointy is three cornered, a four-cornered pram like Elegant Punt would actually have less to assemble, and the PD racer would be simpler still. Fewer parts with less defined corners and reinforcement pieces. Is there a four-cornered boat without the complications and a sharp bow against waves?

Compromises have been designed to utilize the strong corners of a pram, with a better bow. The first one I saw was by Eric Sponberg, the Halfling. It was, and still is my favorite small boat. The lines on the plans are so faint I can't scan it, so I'll have to approximate the lines here.

Halfling is meant to be cut in half, with a v-bow, a flat bottom, and squared stern corners. The first time I took it to the lake, it rowed so effortlessly I laughed out loud. It's the best boat I've ever had in light air, and the bow handles the lake chop here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area just fine. The plans are only $20, and Eric is responsive to questions about Halfling. He has sold hundreds of plans.

Jim Michalak has the same idea in a design called Tween. It's the same size, although not originally designed to be cut in two. He also has an 11 foot Twixt, with the same bow.

But let's go a step further. What about a three-cornered boat without all the parts, a squared stern and pointed bow which is not weak, due to its' angle?

Fortunately Ken Simpson has worked all this out. And since he specializes in two and three part boats to fit into car trunks, SUVs, and pickups, his designs can be built simple, in one piece, or in two pieces with more parts. His new design, Duet, is for tape and glue. I don't have the plans in front of me, but I'd say it could be build uncut with the bow, stern, two sections per side, two rub rails, one bow frame, and one midframe. The seats are removable, and the deck takes two pieces and a support frame. The stern does lift out of the water, just right. The flare is constant, simplifying the angles. Like this, Duet weights less than 75 pounds.

It was meant as a two-part boat. The deck has uses. It strengthens the sides and it provides a step when you're stepping into the boat from a dock above. Duet is about 9 1/2 feet long overall, so the curve of the forward topsides is not as hard as it looks.

You would think a two-cornered boat might be simpler still, but it has its problems. To bend chines all the way back to a point astern takes at least 10 feet of length, unless you go to the trouble of steaming or wetting them. The Bolger Teal is probably the best-known double-ender, at 12 feet. However, to get the length for the chines Teal requires takes two scarfs, two bulkheads and two deck pieces. If there is such a thing as the ideal combination sailboat and rowboat, surely it is Teal but this boat is not for me.

One thing I never liked about Teal is the name. It's so ordinary, I think if I were building her, I'd come up with some wild and crazy name, like, say, Cosmic Plunderer, or something.

Anything but Teal.

Still, I’d like to be able to carry a boat on my car to the lake, without a trailer.

So can we put all this together? Can we come up with the least boat with the fewest pieces, while retaining the some sort of performance in an 8 footer? The best single way to eliminate reinforcement pieces such as chines, stiffeners, rub rails, and gunwales is to use heavier wood. So I'll begin with 3/8 inch plywood for the sides and 3/8 inch plywood for the bottom. This adds weight, but it carries much easier than a flimsy boat made from 1/4 inch plywood.

So far so good. A little bow rise forward from Michalak, a fairly straight after run from Bolger, solid wood bow and stern from Ken. Now comes the decision time. I'd rather not stitch and glue. To me that's trying to get around wood's limitations; what I want to do is take advantage of its' strengths. Imagine this domestic scene over the cost of a boat---

'Honey look at all this plywood,' he said. She had her hands on her hips. 'So you spent all our money on a boat!' 'Oh no, dear. I was driving to Home Depot, so I gave this homeless guy a lift to the plywood section. The Chamber of Commerce was so impressed with my unselfishness, they bought all this wood for me. Can you believe that? It's wonderful... all this wood, free.'

Now that’s trying to get around the issue. But compare that with this--

'Honey, look at all this plywood I bought for you. I'll be doing all these projects around the house. Come to think of it, this plywood looks just like you, curvy and light and smooth.'

So I'm committed to the shape of wood. I've been thinking about the wonderful curves of fast boats, what is their essential characteristic? It seems to be that the planks of a rounded hull curve along their own sides, with bend in each panel, as well. What if I took a frame of a curved hull, at one waterline to the next, and then enlarged that plank only?

On the right is a frame from the Herreshoff H-29, from one waterline up to the next , and then straight up. If I make the first waterline wide enough for a bottom panel, and then use the original flare as bilge panels, I might have an interesting boat. So that I stay within the limitations of a 7/8 x 1 1/8 chine, I've made the panels curve gradually, above. Chines go on first, then the panels, working upside down with a midframe between transoms.

The bottom panel uses all of an 8 foot sheet of plywood, so the topside and bilge panels have to be scarfed close to the bow where the bend is slight.

You'll notice the stern transom is nearly the same width as the bow transom. This is close to what is called a symmetrical hull. I only know of one designer who likes symmetrical hulls, George Beuhler. What made me consider a symmetrical hull was a visit to the lake. I saw four molded canoes go out together on a late afternoon excursion, three with two paddlers, one with a solo guy. I watched the water flow under and on by those canoes.

I saw how the force of the paddle applied the greatest friction and water movement where the paddle entered the water, at the paddler's reach, not at the bow. Evidently water resistance gradually builds up to be greatest at the paddler's actions, not at the bow or stern. This made me realize, a narrow stern might be all right.

For the rocker, we have heard of the Bolger statement that if the underneath curve of the boat matches the around curve of the sides, the pressure of the water is even, all around. So, after bending the chines to see how much curve they will allow, I know how much I can bend the chines around the midframe and how much rocker I need. The sheer will be straight for now, just to keep this simple. The flare is the same, stem to stern. As you can see, the greatest width and the greatest depth is the perfect midpoint of the boat's length. Symmetrical everywhere.

Now to summarize. What I've described above is the least boat for my purposes. I like to row around the lakes here in Dallas, with a boat which can reach into the shallow creeps and inlets of the lakes. I made this boat 8 feet on her bottom so I could camp out. After establishing the bottom I curved the sides as smoothly as I could for the best waterflow. Consequently the bottom is the main feature and the main limitation of this style.

This would be an attempt at beginning with a flat bottom, then adding good enough waterflow sides without complicating the building process or adding too many pieces.

Part Two next month...



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