Tuesday, May 13, 2014

To earn her keep...

Since I am "building" all of these imaginary boats to fill the imaginary cove behind my imaginary waterfront home, I think it's high time to add an honest and true work boat to the fleet.

This posting features Gracie III by Capt. R.D. "Pete" Culler. She was originally designed for use as a yard tug at The Concordia Company, Padanaram, MA. Tough service day in and day out necessitates a heavily built boat. Capt. Pete wrote some great commentary on the development of her design. I first saw her study plans in "Skiffs and Schooners," a collection of designs, commentaries, and previously published articles by the designer. She also appears in "Pete Culler On Wooden Boats," and "Pete Culler's Boats." Her plans are available from Mystic Seaport Museum, which now houses all of his design work.

There might be enough data to build her as published in Skiffs and Schooners, but I'd recommend getting the plans. There's a lot going on in this little girl. The captions for the construction photos refer to "the 12' 6" towboat Gracie III." These are typos. She is 15' and change overall. Perhaps they refer to waterline length, but I'm not sure why they would do that for a workboat. It's not like she needs a more favorable PHRF rating...

At any rate, she's a simple and stout boat. Built to take a pounding, turn on a dime, and go where you send her. A tug of any size is basically a box with enough volume to float a large engine and enough depth to sink a big, slow-turning prop. The art comes in making one as sightly and useful as this, especially in such a tidy package.

I don't think there's a better way to build her than exactly as designed: a MASSIVE solid backbone, sawn frames with substantial gusseting, and traditional planking of solid wood. Planking below the chine is shown "Chesapeake style," that is laid on an angle from the centerline out to the chine. This results in short pieces up in the forefoot that follow the substantial twist there. Much easier than trying to persuade thick stock to take that shape. Above the chine she is planked in the traditional carvel manner, except around that beautiful stern where she is "staved" vertically. The stern isn't just for looks; hard corners at the transom will hook a tow line and flip a boat in a heart beat.

That big towing bitt braced with massive knees is situated exactly over her pivot point. I like the monkey-stick steering, too. (Note that of the actual boats in my possession, Strider has [is getting] wheel steering, Dark Secret has a Norwegian push/pull tiller, and the Thistle has a traditional tiller. That would make four steering methods for four boats)

There are precious few designs out there on which I wouldn't tweak a little something here, or make a little change there. Gracie III should be built exactly as drawn. The only modification I would consider is the "table" around the tow bitt. I'd extend it forward a couple of inches so it can be bored to hold up a tiki-hut style umbrella. What better way to enjoy a calm cay on the river? Some shade, some diesel fumes, a book, and a wee taste of the amber...

I'd put up more photos, but If you like what you see, you should get the book(s). They are worth owning.

Edit 5/14/14:

While going through some old paperwork I found the beginnings of a proposal I wrote 6 or 8 years ago (maybe more). When I start dreaming, I don't do it half-assed.

The intent was to develop and implement a program for at-risk students from a few different area school districts to build Gracie III as designed, but with a hydrogen fuel cell drive line. A west coast company that builds fuel cells for fork trucks and other industrial applications was willing to make available an appropriately sized "stack" (15-18 kw?) and engineering support to help make it happen. An automotive supercharger to deliver the required air charge, a heat exchanger (their fork trucks are liquid to air, ours would be liquid to liquid), a small network of sensors, a motor, and some other giblets would be needed. The only support they could not offer was their proprietary computer code for the sensor/control/user interface systems. We would have been on our own for that. Projected range was about 6 hours run time on a tank of the size that you'd see in a welding shop. The weight of the stack, motor, battery bank, tank, and the rest of the guts is closely comparable to the diesel drive line, roughly 800 lbs. in either case.

What a great project it could be - Aside from getting to build a wicked salty little tub, the real coup would be the development of a scalable and reliable marine propulsion system using this existing technology. If successful, the potential revenue from that system could make the program a long-term self-funding operation. Traditional woodworking, electrical/mechanical engineering, cutting-edge technology, code writing, high-level troubleshooting/problem solving - what more could an under-achieving student want? Optimally, participation in the program would count as a full year of high school.

The project itself is not the expensive part. The boat and drive line parts are "only" about $35-45k. Curriculum development, work/classroom space, salaries for at least two, if not three instructors, administration, liability insurance, shop tools, computers, and all of the other stuff that never even made the list started adding up to a truly daunting number. I was eventually discouraged by nay-sayers, not the quietest of whom was myself...

Shoulda, coulda, woulda...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cartopper - The Joy of Simpicity

This time around, we'll look at a classic design that's geared toward a much more manageable set of guidelines.

Cartopper by the late, great Phil Bolger.

I picked this design for a specific reason. I am happy to say that Wise Marine has teamed up with St. John's Prep, Danvers, MA to offer a summer boat building course. After much deliberation, this was our choice. The selection process was fairly involved. We had a few specifics that needed to be addressed:

1. Sensible balance between aesthetics and simplicity - It must come together without over-taxing un/semi-skilled amateur builders, yet it must be pretty enough to be worth the effort.

2. Looks like a boat quickly - With a limited amount of shop/class time available, lofting (full size drawing of the dimensions and shape of the boat and all of its parts) is out of the question. The sooner it starts looking like a boat, the sooner the goal is in sight, thus minimizing the risk of participants "losing steam" early in the process.

3. Easy to own - Not everybody has or wants a garage, a trailer, and all of the other accoutrements that usually come with boat ownership. Cartopper can travel on roof racks and store just about anywhere.

4. Proven design - Thousands of them have been built all over the world.

These were the main talking points. There were others, but they were comparatively minor.

Here is a link for info on the design:


There are thousands of photos of Cartoppers out there. They will give a better idea of what the boat is about than anything I can post here.

Phil Bolger and "Dynamite" Payson did a great job speccing the "instant boat" approach to building this design, as well as many others. That being said, if one is willing to give up some of the "instant" in exchange for more of the "boat," then there is one relatively simple change that will make a huge difference in her final appearance. A former co-worker built one for use as a tender to his cruising sailboat. He built it without a centerboard trunk, since it was never intended to be anything other than a rowing boat. The change he made that contributed so much to her looks was to spilt the topsides and bilge panels into two planks each. Both panels were cut and assembled on the floor to the same outside dimensions as noted on the plans, but with an epoxied lap. When they were assembled, the shadow line from the lap really accentuated the hull shape and de-emphasized the "boxiness" that some people have noted on plywood boats. I had to be convinced that his boat was, in fact, a Cartopper.

We will be building our fleet exactly as drawn. No changes, no modifications, no "improvements." It's not often that I can say that. I started one years ago that will be a prototype/display for reference during the course. It is set up for the split panels as described above.

If you are in the Boston area this summer and are looking for something fun and interesting to do with your son/daughter/husband/wife/neighbor, then come to our shop and build a Cartopper.

Here is info on the course offering:


I'll be back soon with another design selection. Yes, it will probably be plywood.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The inaugural post of what will be many

This posting originally appeared in my other blog "Building Dark Secret." As that project winds down (it will never be done - it's a wooden boat. Why do they call paint and varnish "finishes," anyway - they are never finished), I am shifting my blogging efforts to a subject near and dear to my heart - an overview of classic yacht designs from the past with an eye toward their usefulness today.

I kick it off with:

"Haven," by William Atkin. Here is the link to the Atkin & Co site for the study plan with the designer's commentary: http://www.atkinboatplans.com/Cruisers/Haven.html

My In-Laws have recently retired. My father-in-law has been talking, in a very what-if kind of way, about building a boat to travel the canal system in New York state, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He has done a nice job building the fleet of boats that we currently enjoy, but this would be his biggest build. Further clarification of the "mission" is needed but I think Haven could be the perfect boat (with some alteration). She was designed during World War II for aircraft rescue service. Her dimensions are: LOA 29' 9", beam 8', draft 1' 10". Mr. Atkin intended her to have 175 hp (they measured it differently then) and an estimated speed of 35 mph. In the commentary that accompanies his design, he states that the planking is to be two layers of 1/4" plywood. It looks do-able...

As drawn, the open arrangement won't work for an extended trip, even for the most intimate of couples. A simple, rectilinear deck house could transform this easily driven hull into the perfect craft for the task at hand. Something like you'd find on a pre-Depression cruiser like Mer Na.

Clearly one couldn't travel the canal system at 35 mph. Even if you could you wouldn't get to see much along the way, and the fuel costs would put a trip that is already a fantasy squarely in the realm of ridiculous. By installing a 60-80 hp diesel you'll get "lobster boat" speed and she'll sip fuel, not guzzle it. You'd have to build her on a strict diet to keep weight down, particularly in the house. I think I'd build that from something other than teak. As pretty as it is, it's heavy and pricey. Plus, varnish sticks better to mahogany anyway. Plywood could work here, too, but I don't know whether I could go that far. The look is the look. I think bevelled-edge glass is mandatory.

The rudder shown will need re-thinking. As drawn, it looks perfect for a planing hull. At displacement/semi-displacement speeds, she'll need more area. Many of Mssrs. Atkin's power boat designs show an outboard, transom-hung, rudder. I don't think that would be out of place here. There are other advantages that come with this arrangement: simpler (cheaper) fittings, one less hull penetration, easy service without hauling, etc. Scaling off the drawing, it looks like he shows a 14 or 15" prop. I don't know whether we'll get enough out of a wheel of that size. There's another change.

I like the plumb transom, but maybe I'd curve it. I think we crossed a line some time ago - we aren't really talking about the same boat anymore. Let's just call it what it is - a "new" design that draws heavily (to the point of plagiarism?) on the the work of a master from another day. All of these changes add up. If they work well together, then we have to share the credit. If they don't, then we take all of the blame.

Even if you worked a miracle with the interior arrangement, I doubt you'd be able to cram in anything more than a head compartment, two comfortable seats (long and wide enough to nap), and some stowage. With only 4' 5" of headroom, a galley down there is out of the question. Is there enough room in that wheelhouse for a galley? Perhaps. The engine box would make things difficult.

A comment from the previous posting of this item asked "Why not an outboard?" The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. As long as it can be built into an enclosure that doesn't look like an afterthought, and that truly works to quiet things down, then the space lost in the cockpit can be more than offset by the space gained in the wheel house. One of my concerns with removing the inboard diesel from its position amidship was the corresponding movement of the center of mass. Without an engine box in the wheel house, one could build a real and functional galley along one side with a small dinette/chart table aft of the helm. The weight of the joinery, and systems will put her center right back where it belongs. At this point, I think we need to start with a fresh clean sheet of vellum and draw what we want from the get-go. Even on the strictest of weight management programs, we have at least doubled her designed displacement. Getting all of that "stuff" to float on that relatively narrow, easily driven bottom is a no-go. We can keep the roughly 4:1 length:beam ratio (which is part of her appeal to me), but we'll have much more draft. We can keep the shallow draft, but end up with more beam.

In short, if Haven (or her proposed evil fraternal twin) is the answer to the un-asked question, then the voyage will have to be structured around the above-noted limitations. Day-trips from B&B to B&B will be the key to success, comfort, and marital bliss. An occasional overnight aboard can add some adventure.

Will any of this happen? Highly unlikely. Will I be excited to help it become a reality? You bet!!!

So ends the first of what I hope to be many postings like this.