Have you built a sailboat or known anyone who has?
July 30, 2020 3:45 PM   Subscribe

My fictional character wants to build a sailboat. What's the biggest/best boat he could make in about a year, assuming he's got carpentry skills and has about 30 hours a week to devote to it (and assuming everything goes well)? I'm picturing a boat that he could do some real ocean sailing in.
posted by swheatie to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this starting from scratch or rehabbing an old boat? Is this person building a wooden boat or a fiberglass boat? Or metal?
posted by unreasonable at 3:49 PM on July 30

Starting from scratch, I think. Wooden, I think. But since I'm making it up, it could be otherwise.
posted by swheatie at 3:58 PM on July 30

Don't know if this helps, but I was reminded of some boat building plans for various boats I came across some time ago, here: http://www.stevproj.com/BoatProjIntro.html. There's an article here which describes one of the boats, and implies the build took about 3.5 years (but does not say how many hours per week were dedicated to its construction). Having built a project or two of some complexity (not a boat though) I will say these things always take longer than you think they ought to, especially if it's your first time at a particular type of project, and a considerable amount of that time seems to be spend not building, but figuring out how things should be done, how things are going to fit together, what will and won't work, turning things over in your mind trying to avoid costly mistakes before committing them, locating parts or tools or materials, learning new skills, etc.
posted by smcameron at 4:12 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest a Spray, modeled after the 36'9" boat that Captain Joshua Slocum was given, rehabbed, and sailed solo around the world, the first person recorded to have accomplished that feat, the account of which can be read in the marvelous book, "Sailing Alone Around the World." (gutenberg)

However, Spray started as a decrepit hull stored on land and rotting, and took Capt. Slocum 2 years to renovate. Could you build her from scratch faster? Probably so if it was a smaller length. As you can see from this old Spray Newsletter, people build Sprays in a wide variety of lengths, and this page offers to sell plans for lengths as short as 22'. However, 30-40 feet is the typical target range for ocean-going, I'm given to understand. As long as it's fiction, though, perhaps it's not so unrealistic that your character build a Spray in the time given.

One interesting thing about Spray is her reputation for hands-off sailing; she holds her course on long stretches of ocean, and I'm talking days-long stretches. It strikes one in Slocum's book, and you'll see the claim repeated in the many accounts of Spray owners in that newsletter.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:22 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

There are a ton of plans and resources out there for small boat builders, so I’d start by looking through those to get an idea of the possibilities. This article is a nice overview that goes into some of the options. One passage stands out for me:

An inexperienced builder probably will not end up with a boat whose functional details are as well executed as those of a production boat that has undergone years of design refinement. It’s also no way to save money. A used fiberglass boat in decent condition can be found for a third to half the cost of parts and materials for a comparable home-built boat. For example, the 21ft gaff-rigged cutter I’m currently building will end up costing between $33,000 and $35,000, fully outfitted—several thousand dollars more than the new prices of a couple of popular fiberglass boats near the same size. And yes, since it’s wood, it will demand more maintenance.

Building your own boat is as much about the process as the end result based on everything I’ve ever read by anyone who has done it. You will always be able to get more boat for less money by buying something secondhand. And an oceangoing vessel is going to be a much more complex and time-consuming project than a dinghy or a daysailer.

That said, I think a year is a reasonable timeframe, especially if the character has some experience in building smaller boats, and is using a simpler construction technique (stitch and glue or fiberglass over plywood vs a bent wood frame and lapstrake construction). I skimmed a couple sail boat plans and didn’t see construction times listed, but if they are I would expect them to be very optimistic estimates.

One thing most boatbuilders do have in common is that they are enthusiastic and happy to talk about their hobbies. I imagine you could get a ton of information by asking around a boat building forum.
posted by Jawn at 4:40 PM on July 30

I don't know the answer, but I imagine that the folks at the Mystic Seaport Museum might be able to help you out. In normal times, they run adult-education classes on boat-building (among other maritime industries).
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:48 PM on July 30

Well, here are some hopefully helpful facts, in no particular order.

While there's a kinship between carpentry and boatbuilding, the skillsets are pretty different. So make that boatbuilding skills he's got.

An ocean-going ("blue-water") boat that's built entirely of wood will take the longest to complete of the three general types that unreasonable mentioned, because a framework of ribs must be built before the planks are laid. Fiberglas and metal boats of that size can do without ribs.

If he sends away for plans, it will be much faster, but boatbuilding plans aren't like building blueprints, they're more like a drawing of the general idea and some suggestions about how to implement it. Even with the most detailed plans, one of the first steps might be "lofting," which means scaling up the paper plans to life-size. Doing that by hand is not only extremely time-consuming in itself, it's very susceptible to costly and time-consuming errors, especially for a first-time builder.

Switching from facts to opinion/educated guess, I'd say that it's extremely unlikely that even a skilled builder would venture that he could build, say, a 30' boat from plan and from scratch in that short of a time period. There are just too many mission-critical tasks that can't be rushed. I'd guess three years at a minimum.

I have not built a sailboat, but I have built a wooden (ribless, possible at that size) rowboat. I can tell you that even something that size, with a plan, has a lot of gotchas where you have to bend the plan. Sometimes it can take days to decide which way to bend it. Also, less pertinent, but I live on a blue-water sailboat that has a fiberglas hull, deck, and cabintop, with the rest being mostly wood inside and out.
posted by bricoleur at 4:54 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]

The Sampson Boat Co YouTube channel is 3 years into rebuilding a 1910's sailing yacht. Not exactly what you're looking for but it provides a lot details and terminology.
posted by JackBurden at 5:10 PM on July 30

The classic book Cruising in Seraffyn basically is this situation IRL. About 27 feet, but very basic and very very seaworthy.
posted by sammyo at 6:28 PM on July 30

Both Sampson Boat Company, with Leo, a genuine professional boat builder with an astonishingly-well-equipped workshop and skilled volunteers, and Acorn-to-Arabella, another youtube boat build of a simpler boat of slightly smaller scale, are two+ years of full-time+ work into their boats and at least two years away from sailing, I'd say. I'd also guess Leo is at least $150,000 into his boat, and the Acorn guys are at least $50,000 into theirs. Leo bought the boat for $1, and has a space to work on it in which would six figures to equip. I think the Tally-Ho and the Arabella are both about 40' long, but not certain.

I'd guess a skilled amateur boat builder, with lots of money and 30 hours a week of time, could possibly make a small boat out of glass or other laminated construction. It wouldn't be fancy, and it probably wouldn't be big-ocean worthy.

If your goal is to have him sail away across oceans or whatever, a more plausible route would be to have him buy a glass boat needing some work and refurbish it, but even then it couldn't be an absolute wreck. Another plausible route might be to purchase someone's abandoned project, but it would have to be close to done.
posted by maxwelton at 8:17 PM on July 30

Decades back I've seen a small (18') fibreglass sailing dinghy that an intrepid sailor had converted to ocean-going by basically covering up the open cockpit using fibreglass (with a watertight hatch, obviously). He had been out on the Atlantic and had crossed the Caribbean Sea, so it clearly was capable of that. No idea how much time the conversion had taken, but I estimate that it, plus the other adaptations, could be done in a month or two of working 30hr/week.

There's also a wooden kit sailing boat in the 21'-36' class, built using strip planking, which is the easiest way to build a hull without having to use jigs. My father and I have looked into buying a 27' one back when, and with us both having day jobs figured it could still be done in about a year. Someone working from the plans and having the appropriate skills and workshop space could likely have one ready for trials in eight to nine months, and finished in another two or three.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:36 AM on July 31

Your builder has a time budget of around 1000 hours. That's enough time to build a boat of about 20 feet or so. Realistically, in any time frame since 1980, he would be building in plywood, probably covered with fiberglass. He could save time and build a bigger boat if he started with a kit of precut pieces. Any boat bigger than that is going to require a helper since the plywood panels get too big for one man unless he is very ingenious.

If he insisted on traditional construction, he could spend that much time on a much smaller boat. Also, sailboats require ballast which often lead. It's not always necessary to melt and pour a couple hundred pounds of lead, but it's a challenge for the novice.

You want to think about what sort of boat it is:racer, cruiser, daysailer. If sailing the boat is part of the action, we would need to know about that to make suitable recommendations.

The mother lode of amateur boatbuilding info in the US Is Duckworks.com. They have reports on projects and the plans section has examples of lots of different kinds of boats. See also https://www.duckworksmagazine.com/.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:54 AM on July 31

Thanks, everyone for all the great info! Lots of good ideas here.
posted by swheatie at 8:20 AM on July 31

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