Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why do we build boats?

In the March/April 2012 issue of Wooden Boat Magazine the Editor, Matt Murphy, picks up on a discussion on the Wooden Boat Forum about whether to buy or build your own boat. This is an issue that is very close to my heart and soul. I would not go so far as to say that my life was aimless before I started to build my own boats but it certainly did change for the better from that first boat. It was the spark that took me into a string of builds and into a career in boat design.

I have responded to Wooden Boat with a letter to the editor, which I hope will be published in an upcoming issue. In the meantime, I have permission from Wooden Boat to publish it here on my blog. It makes this post a bit long, so I apologise. Please bear with me, I hope that you will read what I had to say.

Dear Matt,

Today I read your editorial "To Build or to Buy" in the March/April 2012 issue of Wooden Boat. Thank you for highlighting this issue. I know that I have a vested interest in the good health of amateur boatbuilding. I make my living primarily by designing boats that are intended more for amateur builders than their professional counterparts. With that "full disclosure" out of the way, I would like to comment as the amateur boatbuilder inside me that has always provided my main driving force.

I have built, with my own hands, almost every boat that I have ever owned. This started as a young child with tin canoes, sealed with pitch and paddled with the end pieces from wooden peach boxes. I have received such pleasure from creating all of those beautiful things myself, from "sticks and glue" bought from the hardware store, an enjoyment that is hard to put into words. There is a satisfaction that comes out of it that will never be understood by those who have not built a boat themselves. There is intense joy that is felt when that boat first floats and on the first sail, when all of it finally comes together and the dream is fulfilled.

There is a common saying that we have all heard many times. "The best days for a boat owner are the day that he buys it and the day that he sells it". I can see that it may be true for a boat that is bought. I cannot see it being true when you have created that boat with your own energy, with much sweat and and blood spilled in the process. I have felt sadness when parting ways with all of my boats but life has to move on.

I have built many small boats and three big ones (34-38ft). Most of this was building by myself with some help from friends or family when needed. I have a head-full of memories that will never leave me. I remember clearly exactly what led up to me losing my concentration and running my thumb through a spindle router when shaping a small part for my 38ft boat. That loss of control cost me much pain and loss of work but I will never forget the lesson learned.

I remember how difficult it was to lift my 34ft boat and slide it sidewards in my back garden, to remove it from its position on top of the mast with a spreader base through the bottom of the hull. It came to be there because nature is much more powerful than I am and had sent a Cape Town gale to pick the boat up bodily and dump it on top of my very new mast.

I remember how I cried when the person who had bought my 36ft boat from me destroyed her. I remember seeing hundreds of pieces of boat scattered among the boulders. To others they were just pieces of wood; I knew every piece of wood, exactly where I had built it into the boat. I felt that a big piece of me was destroyed along with that boat.

When you build a boat you have an affinity to it that cannot be easily described. You shape the character of that boat in the process and your own character grows along with it. I am currently rebuilding a classic British sports car that was given to me as a wreck. My neighbours, who have never created much with their own hands, have asked me if I knew how big a task I was taking on with this car. I reply that it is no big deal, any big project is a succession of small projects and I will get there, all in good time. This project is small compared with building a big boat but people who have not done such projects cannot comprehend it. Restoring a car or a boat that somebody else created long ago gives much satisfaction but it cannot compare with shaping a multitude of bits of wood into a new boat, creating an entirely new entity that would never have existed but for you and your passion, energy and endurance.

With my amateur boatbuilding hat replaced by my yacht designer's hat, I must comment also on a related issue. I received an email a few weeks ago from someone who had apparently considered building one of my designs but decided against it. He said that the $400 price of my plans added too much to the overall cost of building a boat when he could buy an ageing used boat of the same size for $1000. Frankly, anyone who has that mindset should rather buy than build because he will never appreciate the effort that goes into producing a good set of drawings nor what is involved in building a boat. That particular drawing set comprises more than 20 large paper drawings and two strips of costly 36" wide Mylar full-size patterns. They show very clear detailing that was drawn in a CAD program and are printed on expensive roll-media architectural plotters. They took many hundreds of hours to prepare to a standard that can be understood by people who are not trained as boatbuilders, architects or engineers. The price also includes full access to me to ask questions if needed from start to finish of the project.

I don't understand how all of that cannot be worth $400. Maybe it is all part of the mindset that has destroyed manufacturing in USA and sent it all off to China to be made by others at both lower price and quality, turning Americans into buyers instead of creators. Get up out of your computer chair and create something. It doesn't have to be a boat, just create something for yourself instead of buying it. You will be surprised what enjoyment and sense of achievement you will get out of it.

Dudley Dix

Virginia Beach, VA


  1. Brilliant letter, Dudley. It certainly puts it all into context especially for me building my own boat as well and gives me renewed enthusiasm. If only people would realise that creating something yourself is far better than just buying off the shelf. Regards, Andrew from Scarborough Cape Town (I have ordered my birds mouth mast from Roy done to your drawings)

    1. Thanks Andrew. People who build their own boats also tend to use their boats more, possibly due the greater joy that they get out of them.

      I am envious of your location. Scarborough is one of my favourite surf spots, particularly the point. I have a photo of the break on the back cover of my book, taken the last time that I surfed there.

    2. It's a good place to live and build a boat. I purchased your e-book last month. Makes for very interesting reading. Well done.