By Charlie Beyer, Champlain Longboats Assistant Director
I’m writing this with my feet still damp after taking our newly finished Buyce-design Adirondack Guideboat out for a spin in the harbor. I’m pretty thrilled with how it came out. I noticed immediately that the hull speed is better than I expected in such a short waterline, and the acceleration is really good – I could get to hull speed in a couple of strokes. I’m also really happy with how the oars came out, they feel just flexible enough to provide a little zip at the end of strokes, but I didn’t feel like I was wasting effort rowing with noodles. I’m really excited to show this boat off, and I’ve been reflecting back on the build both technically and philosophically. I thought I’d share a bit of that reflection here.
Going back to the beginning of the pandemic here in Vermont, I remember trying to figure out how in the world I could contribute without being able to do the physical boat building and teaching work that is a big part of my role as the Assistant Director of the Museum’s Champlain Longboats program. How do you help lead a boat building program and shop from home? Fortunately Nick Patch (Champlain Longboats Director) thought of this little unfinished boat and suggested I take it home to finish and then we could sell it to benefit future youth programs. With the Governor’s Work-From-Home order set in place on March 23, I had to quickly pack up the unfinished hull and all the materials I thought I might need to finish it. The boat shop was newly silent; our cohort of boat building students had just stopped coming as schools switched to all online classes, which was a worrying and unnerving change. Usually at this time of year the shop would be loud with the sound of riveting and students would be gearing up to give Open House Night presentations to their parents, teachers, and community. Instead it was cold (there was still snow on the ground!) and quiet in the shop as I packed up.
Once I got the boat home to Lincoln, I started assessing what it would need to reach its full potential. As we mentioned in a previous blog, this unfinished hull was from a boat building class held over 20 years ago. It was clear right off the bat that the frames had done some warping and the sheer line would need to be faired before I could finish the planking. For those who aren’t familiar, the sheer line of a boat is the visible upper edge of the hull. This guideboat is lapstrake planked, meaning that the planks overlap like clapboards on a house, so the sheer plank has two edges to worry about getting fair. While the sheer line doesn’t directly affect performance it has a huge visual impact, particularly in a boat like this which is so short for how much higher the bow and stern are than the midships. This exaggerated curve is what makes John Buyce’s design from the 1900s so enduring; it gives the rower a low and wide platform for the oars, while keeping a lot of buoyancy and volume in the ends to deal with rough water smoothly. As I got the sheerline dialed in, I eyeballed it from every direction I could; standing on my workbench and with my head on the floor to be as certain as possible that it looked good from every angle.
This process of eyeball and trim, eyeball and trim, repeat ad infinitum is a part of boat building that sucks me in. In a lot of ways it’s a pursuit of perfection, but without putting a number on the goal. Unlike other tasks where there is a set empirical goal, with this you simply work until the result is sweet to the eye. The longer I spend working in this way, the better developed my innate sense of the perfection parabola grows. Like the feeling of time slowing at the peak of a leap, I sometimes feel I manage to stop just at the apex. Other times (most times if I’m being honest), I find that I either lack the courage to take the final pass with a plane and take something down just a little more, or I doubt my sense that I’ve reached the peak and I go one step too far. But, these mistakes are always fixable, and as the sign in our boat shop says, “it’s not a mistake if you can fix it in a day.” Each mistake adds experience and informs the next decision.
When the hull was complete, I stepped back to think about how I wanted to fit it out and finish it. This is always a point of celebration and always feels deceptively close to the end of the process, even though in reality finishing the planking on an open boat generally represents about half of the total work. I had initially planned a painted finish, but when I saw the finished hull it seemed like varnish would be a feasible option. Most of the fasteners are well placed, except for one thing: in the outer stems I had filled the large screw holes with epoxy. At the time I was working from home under the governor’s “stay home” order and didn’t have a large enough plug cutter. I briefly considered drilling out the plugs and replacing them, but I didn’t think I could do a precise enough job to get all the epoxy now that I had faired the stems down to their final shape. In the end I settled on painted stems against the varnished hull, one of the details I ended up being happiest with. It’s often the case that mistakes force solutions which end up giving a piece some distinctive flare.
I did a lot of cardboard mockups at this stage of the build, trying to get a sense of the hull’s proportions and what would look good. I wanted everything to be light and to feel delicate, but have enough strength in the critical areas to make a stiff, fast boat that would stand up to years of use. Once I got the gunwale proportions dialed in, starting with the scantlings given in Kenneth and Helen Durant’s excellent The Adirondack Guide-boat but scaling down for this smaller hull, I went ahead and cut them from a slab of cherry. Working in my little shop with no stationary tools I opted to do the long rip cuts with a circular saw, and I was really pretty pleased with the results. Since the gunwales taper both narrower and thinner at the ends I had a lot of hand planing to do anyway, so the lack of accuracy from not having a table saw was really not an issue. And I was able to use the remainder of the 12’ slab (what would eventually become the oars) as a workbench since the benches in my home shop are only about 6’ long. This whole early stage of the build was a fun experiment in “what can you live without?” from making rip cuts with a Japanese pull saw, to hand planing these gunwales.
Gunwales on, I went on to making the decks, after I got the cardboard templates the way I wanted them. Again, I wanted everything as light as possible, but wanted to make sure that the thin decking wouldn’t warp or crack as its moisture levels changed. Wood is like a sponge and is incredibly responsive to changes in relative humidity. As the humidity increases, wood swells, and then shrinks back as it dries out. We generally build inside with the heat on, meaning that especially in the winter our wood starts at its smallest dimensions so we must consciously account for what it will do over the life of the boat. In this case my shop was unheated, so the wood was not as crazy dry as it might have been, but actually nearer to the dimensions it would have when the boat was in use.
Since this is a traditionally built boat, I made no effort to seal the wood off from moisture. Unlike some modern construction methods that use fiberglass and epoxy to fight the wood’s need to absorb water, I built so that this change would be expected and even beneficial. This requires more attention to the selection of the wood but it means there’s no worrying about whether every nook and cranny is totally sealed off, which would have been impossible on this boat anyway. For instance, in the cherry decks of the guideboat I wanted to be sure that all three pieces could swell and shrink independently of each other, and that their tendency to cup would increase the camber of the deck, and make it shed water better, and not go the other way, and create cracks and catch water. To help with this, I left a gap of about 3/16″ between the center strip and the edge strips so that both could change shape without pushing their neighbors out of position. This gap is covered by a carefully cut rabbet, so that even as the wood expands and contracts the decks will stay dry and tight with no visible space. On the inside, I used a homemade permeable oil finish that slows the wood’s tendency to absorb and shed moisture so that all the parts can adjust to each other. Building this way is like thinking of the boat as a symphony not just a series of parts.
Once the decks were on, the boat was essentially complete and I turned my attention to finish (hours and hours of varnishing and sanding, varnishing and sanding) which is the ideal opportunity to do some deep reflecting as you go through the repetitive tasks. Building a boat to support the boat building program I work in every day brought to light the analogies between the operations of boat building, and the teaching that we would normally be doing.
Usually at this time of year, I would be helping our high school boat builders as they finished and launched our newest pilot gig, but instead I was pursuing these tasks solo (and in a much smaller context). This opportunity made me think about how by this stage our class of builders has usually reached the “performing” stage of their group development. They have often found tasks they really enjoy to specialize in, and are getting a real sense of how much they’ve accomplished over the last semester. Missing that moment of achievement for a group of young boat builders this year was hard; even though doing this little build was incredibly rewarding in its own way. It felt good to be able to think about how each stage reflects and builds off the previous stages, just as each day with a class we have the opportunity to build on what we accomplished the day before. Teaching in the shop always feels like cheating, because there is so much concrete, touchable information to ground our lessons in. I cannot imagine teaching fractions without a tape measure and piece of planking, or talking about rigorous attention to detail without a thorny fitting job to accomplish. As I went through these steps alone I was glad to be able to look forward to a time when our students could return and was glad to be doing something that would help sustain Champlain Longboats.
This Adirondack Guideboat is now up for bids in our Champlain Longboats Silent Auction. If you’re interested, go make a bid and help us make a difference for future young boat builders.
Enjoy these photos I took from our trial run out on the lake, featuring one of the Museum’s expedition leaders, Mandy Smith.