Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amateur Steel Boatbuilding

Plywood is the material chosen by most amateur builders who want a high performance boat. However, for those who are attracted to serious cruising to faraway places, particularly to the high latitudes of the Arctic and Antarctic, the need for a boat that can be bounced off rocks and ice is of more importance than speed. For them performance means being able to sail away from whatever hard object they happen to have encountered at sea or along the shore somewhere.

A few owners of our metal boats have beached them on rocks unintentionally during hurricanes, storms or lapses in proper navigation. Every one of them survived without structural damage severe enough to have endangered them.

 I once very embarrassingly bounced the 12mm plywood hull of my Didi 38 "Black Cat" off a big rock that was being used as a turn mark for a day race in a big regatta in Cape Town. I was not paying enough attention when I should have been and we were pushed onto the rock by the crew of another boat to which we got too close. The surge sucked us against the rock, which we hit hard enough to feel like we had been holed, then we were stuck there by the surge repeatedly pulling us in. It got her photo into both national sailing magazines and the newspaper. She even starred in a video on Finish national television, showing us using the spinnaker pole to push ourselves off the rock. In my rather weak defence I have to say that we managed to extricate ourselves without starting the motor and we did do our penalty turns for hitting a mark of the course.

My ego was just slightly dented by that episode but "Black Cat" proved the strength of plywood/epoxy by not even showing a scratch from the big rock. Despite that, I would not be tempted to put her up against ice or a prolonged beating by waves against a rocky shore. If I was planning to sail to high latitudes I would undoubtedly choose a metal boat.

Professional builders have produced excellent examples of our steel designs. They are, after all, being paid for their expertise and their ability to produce a quality product. But I have also seen some really beautifully built steel boats built to my designs by amateurs, to a very high standard. People with fairly basic skills at the start of a project learn as they go, through experience and additional education where needed, ending up suitably skilled when they get to the important parts of the project. By the time that they launch their boat they have absorbed a whole host of new skills and many go on to become professional builders.

Dennis Wagner made a beautiful job of his Dix 43 Pilot.
This Dix 38 hull was built by Frank Menton and finished by Alan Reynolds.
Then there are the amateurs who do most of the work themselves but bring in the professionals for some stages of the work. This may be to do final welding of the skin plates or the electrical, or some other aspect with which the amateur does not feel comfortable of confident of producing a good enough standard. An example is Sergey Federov in St Petersburg, Russia. He did most of the work himself but brought in the professionals to do the final finishes, both inside and outside. The result is a stunning example of our Hout Bay 33 design.

Hout Bay 33 built by Sergey Federov in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Often amateur boatbuilders are bitten by the bug and become hooked on the process and the rich experiences that they get out of building, launching and sailing the boats that they create. I was bitten in the early 1970s and have never been cured. It led me into yacht design as a career. Others travel a different route and become professional boatbuilders. My friend Howdy bailey is an example. He built a ferro sailboat of about 43ft in the 1970s and developed into one of the true artists of metal boatbuilding in North America as a professional boatbuilder.

Hout Bay 33 built by Francisco Rego in Portugal
Francisco Rego built the flush deck Hout Bay 33 shown above, as a pure amateur project. He also built his own self-steering gear for her and plans to take orders to build custom self-steering gear. So, if you are interested in having Francisco build a vane self-steering unit for your boat email Dudley Dix and ask for contact information for Francisco.

Go to to see our full range of designs. We have many varied concepts from which you can choose.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

To all of our readers, we wish you a happy Christmas and a great 2013.

We thank you all for your support throught the last year and hope that we can continue to work together in the future.

This is a dangerous time of year to be on the roads, so please take it easy through the festive season.

To see our designs, please visit or on mobile.

To keep up with what we are doing, please keep following this blog or keep in touch via Facobook at .

Monday, December 24, 2012

Benefits of Building your own Boat

I have built numerous boats over the years, always as an amateur, not a professional boatbuilder. Each time I have launched my boat at a considerable monetary saving when compared with an equivalent production-built boat. My boats have generally cost me about 45% of the equivalent production boat, so a saving of about 55%. This was with my boats fully equipped for ocean sailing and the production boats being to basic sail-away level. Similar savings apply to smaller boats as well.

When I launched my 36ft boat in 1978, I was asked by a professional in the boating industry what it had cost me. I told him R23,000, which was the total of what we had carefully recorded throughout the project. He told me that I had got my figures wrong because it was impossible to build a boat of that size for less than R50,000. In the 2 years and 9 months that we took to build the boat, my wife and I had only earned $32,000 and had paid our apartment rent, food, transport etc in addition to what we had paid out for the boat. We didn't go to movies, eat at restaurants nor go on holiday but we did build a boat that was equipped for trans-ocean sailing. And it did not cost the R55K or more that a production boat would have cost.

"Tai-Neam", the 36ft boat that we built in our 20s.

Of course, amateur boatbuilding is not for everyone. Some people are all thumbs and almost guaranteed to mess up whatever project they tackle. If you are one of those people, successful amateur boatbuilding is probably not in your future. There are exceptions, or ways to turn this failure tendency around though. I failed woodwork at school because I was totally disinterested, yet I have been able to build wooden boats to a good standard.

For anyone who has reasonable woodworking skills, able to build kitchen cupboards to a reasonable standard, it is not a big step to building your own wooden boat. Whether for a small family boat for fishing on the local lake or a big boat for ocean cruising, our designs have been used successfully by first-time boatbuilders. If you work carefully and apply yourself well, you can do it. The main requirement is that you take pride in your handiwork, then you will do as good a job as you are able.

An argument often used against owner boatbuilding is that there is no saving when the cost of your own labour is added onto the material cost. That certainly applies if you are a professional boatbuilder who is building a boat for himself. For the rest, boatbuilding becomes a very productive hobby and a time for release from pressures of professional life in whatever profession you happen to be. Sure, you can make enough money spending the same number of hours at your job to pay a professional to do the work. In the process you deny yourself the satisfaction of building your own boat and the relaxation that comes from having such a great hobby. You also deny yourself the satisfaction and sense of pride that inevitable comes form creating this living thing of beauty, even if the beauty is only in your own eyes.

A big plus that comes out of building your own boat is that you know every nook and cranny of that boat; you know it intimately and can very quickly figure what has to be done when something goes wrong. You will understand all of the electrical and mechanical systems, without having to pore over manuals showing wiring diagrams, switch panel layouts, plumbing pipe runs, location of skin fittings etc and be able to remedy most problems at a moments notice. I still remember much of the structure, electrical, plumbing etc from the first big boat that I built in the 1970s.

A benefit that must not be underrated is the pride that one feels when launching and sailing this beautiful thing that you have created with your own hands. The builder moulds the character of the boat and, in the process, the boat expands the character of the builder and teaches him new skills that can be used elsewhere in life.

The boat that started it all, my 15ft catamaran.

One warning though, this bug bites hard and often results in an incurable affliction. I built the 15ft plywood catamaran shown above in the early 1970s. The bug bit me and led to a 36ft offshore yacht as my next project. That led me to start my yacht design studies and proceed to a career in boat design. So be warned, if you build your own boat you may end up doing something that you really enjoy for a living.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Governor's Cup Race

Yesterday the Governor's Cup Race between Simonstown, South Africa, and St Helena Island started in ideal sailing conditions. After a comfortable reach in a Westerly breeze off the mountains, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope before setting course North along the coast of the Cape Peninsula, then out into the South Atlantic.

Two of our boats are in the race. "Black Cat", the prototype of the Didi 38 design that I built in my Hout Bay garden, is in the racing division and well up among the leaders at time of writing.

"Black Cat" soon after the start in False Bay.
Photo Clive Dick
The other is the Dix 38 Pilot "Bryana", which is built, owned and skippered by Luke Fisher. She is in the Rally monohull division and going well. The rally division boats are able to motor for 100 miles during the race. It is not possible to know their true positions because we can't tell how much motoring each boat has done. I suspect that most have used up some of their allotted 100 miles because overnight conditions were light breezes and the rally boats are well up with the racing fleet.

"Bryana" on Vaal Dam before she was moved to the ocean.
Photo Luke Fisher
You can follow the race at Governor's Cup live tracking

Friday, December 14, 2012

Parting of the Ways on Facebook

I have had a Facebook account for a few years and have used it as both my personal account and for business, from the start. That worked fine for awhile but it has become clear that the time has come for me to give my business its own home on Facebook.

I did this a few days ago and have been adding images of my boats to the photo section as and when time allows. I have a way to go but there is already a good spread of photos now, each with a link to the relevant page on my website.

I will use this new venue to interact with our supporters, announce new posts on my blog, introduce new designs and anything else that seems relevant at any time.

Our new Dudley Dix Yacht Design Facebook page

 When you have the time, please visit and Like our new Facebook page. Visit us regularly to see what is happening.