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What got me started

By micahsimmons - Posted on 29 January 2012

About a year ago, my girlfriend gave me a book entitled Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman (Penguin Books, 2001).  It was written about a boat yard on Martha's Vineyard that builds plank on frame wooden boats using traditional methods and materials.  That book completely captured my imagination.  It's not a how-to, but is mainly about the romance and beauty of wooden boats and the builders' reasons for choosing to build a type of boat that has long been almost completely replaced by fiberglass, aluminum, and modern manufacturing. 

I only made it through about half of the book, up to the point where the builders stop construction on a sailing yacht after their customer ran out of money for the project.  By then, I was already sold on why you would want a wooden boat, and wanted to know how to go about building one.  I picked a book from Amazon that looked promising, Greg Roessel's Building Small Boats (Wooden Boat Publications, 1998) and spent the next year reading it.  During the same time, I also read John Gardner's Building Classic Small Craft  (McGraw Hill, 1997), and decided that the first boat I wanted to try to build was his fourteen foot semi dory. 

riverI live near the Susquehanna River, and spend most of every summer on Lake Frederick, which is backed up at the southern tip of Three Mile Island by the Red Hill Dam and the York Haven Dam, and some friends and I have a cabin on Shelly Island.  I have two other boats, a sixteen foot Sea Nymph and an eighteen foot Starcraft which are fast, fun, and practical.  They're easy to maintain, they have a shallow enough draft to navigate a river that is often two feet deep and studded with boulders, and make for a fast, dry ride out to the island.  They're wonderful boats, and I love them.  I still want a wooden boat.  More than that, I want to learn to sail.  My friend Josh says that he can see a beginner's sailing trip on the river ending stranded on the dam waiting for rescue, and he may be right. In fact, he most likely is.  I'm sure there's more than one reason that that part of the river is dominated by runabouts, jon boats, and pontoons. It's a risk I can't wait to take, so this winter, I'm going to try to build Gardner's semi dory. 

The reason that I took a year to read Building Small Boats is the chapter on lofting.  I have an awful lot of trouble with numbers, and the first reading of that chapter was all new vocabulary mixed with a whole bunch of numbers.  I spent a lot of time reading one paragraph three times, and then flipping to Gardner's plans, unable to see how one related to the other.  (I kept both books in the bathroom, which gave me a time frame that more or less corresponded to the most I could digest in one sitting.) I think that boat plans are similar to sheet music; they're a specialized notation that puts a great deal  of information in a small format, and beginning the lofting process feels like sight reading a song I've never heard on an instrument that I passed one semester on in freshman year about fifteen years ago.  It's not a performance I would invite people to. 

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