Dabble: The Spirit of D.I.Y. Boatbuilding
The happy builder with his Woobo on launch day in his Father’s Day t-shirt
Where I grew up as a kid in the outer suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, it took two trains and an hour and half trip to get to the beach. The idea of taking up sailing never even crossed my mind. Sailing was something for kids with better postcodes than mine, it was expensive and you had to live near the water. Not that I never sailed, I can recollect hiring a small beach cat on the Swan River at least a couple of times as a teenager, I also recollect getting towed in at the end of the session because no one had explained to me how to tack.
This all changed about thirteen years ago when, as a grown up with a family of my own, we had our very own sea change and moved to Bunbury (about 2 hours south of Perth). Bunbury is the regional centre for the South-West. The South-West of our state is an internationally listed bio-diversity hotspot, home to some of the best wines and best surf breaks in Australia. It is where the Southern Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, and Bunbury itself is known as the City of Three Waters (the Indian Ocean, Koombana Bay, and the Leschenault Estuary).
It was like coming home. I grew a mop of dreadlocks and spent as much time at the beach with the kids as I could manage (I was pretty busy at the time building our strawbale house). On a Saturday afternoon from the beach in the middle of town you can see the racing dinghies head out into Koombana Bay. I think that it was about this time (11 years ago) that I started dreaming of building my own boat and going sailing. In the meantime however I had a house to finish building, a new job to come to grips with, and three kids to raise. The dreadlocks came and went, but the dream remained.
I started down a path familiar to many readers. During the evenings, and every spare minute if you asked those who I live with, I would trawl the internet for boat related material. I stumbled across Duckworks quite by accident, and was hooked. I researched boat building techniques, weighed up the relative merits of various designs and tried to decide what sort of boat would work for me. I found the most helpful resources were the build instructions that came with the many plan sets that I purchased, Jim Michalak’s newsletter, and the various boating chat groups where I regularly lurked and sometimes asked questions.
This was a long and enjoyable process, but in the meantime there were some practical obstacles to overcome. First, I had never built a boat before. Second, I had never used epoxy and quite frankly I found the whole idea both messy and confronting. Third, I did not know how to sail. Finally, I had nowhere to build a boat.
I decided I needed both experience and a venue. I started building a shed and spotted a for sale add on the local community notice board for a Mirror 11. It needed some work but presented the perfect opportunity to become familiar with epoxy and to learn how to sail. Unbeknownst to me, the Mirror sported the older style gunter-gaff rig but did not come with all the necessary spars. A triangular sail has two sticks right? So I had the mast and boom but no gaff. I figured that it was easier to find another donor boat than start learning how to build spars. In no time at all I had two fully functioning Mirrors, the project Mirror, a launching dolly and a road trailer. The Mirrors gave me the desired experience working with epoxy and learning to rig a boat. As an added bonus I was also able to give myself a crash course in sailing.
This is “Sandy” the project boat sailing on Nornalup Inlet in Walpole. She got her name because of the copious amounts of sandpaper that were used in her restoration.
Sandy, by both her virtues and her shortcomings, offered an insight into what sort of boat I should build. I had lots of plans (fast boats, stable boats, sexy boats…) but Sandy offered a practical demonstration on what worked and what didn’t. I needed a boat that was:
(1) as easy to sail as Sandy;
(2) performed at least as well as Sandy;
(3) could accommodate two full sized crew members;
(4) could reef down in windy conditions;
(5) had a pivoting style board rather than a dagger board.
Armed with this new information and a desire to keep my first build as simple and straightforward as possible I resumed my internet searches for the perfect plan, but this time round I found that I was looking at familiar designs in a whole new way.
Eventually, I settled on Jim MIchalak’s Woobo. It seemed to tick all the boxes but was not a design I would have ever considered first time around. This I think is the charm of Woobo, it is a design that grows on you slowly. It’s not love at first sight like a beautiful double ended clinker hull, it takes time to really appreciate how clever and well thought out she really is.
The plans were ordered through Duckworks and dispatched by Jim personally in double quick time. Work started immediately. I use my mobile phone to play music in the shed so I took lots of photos along the way in case they were useful to any future builders.
Having grown up with the metric system here in Australia I had to take care in reading the measurements and plotting them out on the hoop pine marine ply. I used the Payson light butt join, applying epoxy and fibre glass to both sides at once, to fix the two panels together.
I assembled the hull upside down so I could enlist the aid of gravity when installing the bilge panels. Pretty soon she was all stitched together and right way up ready for the epoxy.
I followed Jim’s plans pretty much to the letter. I deviated in that I laminated the gunwales out of three strips of meranti (2 x 15mm outside and 1 x 8mm inside). I also slimmed up the hatches on the fore and aft decks and made them fit over the hatch coamings rather than use centering sticks. My biggest departure from the plans was the upper leeboard guard which I built partly on and partly below the starboard gunwale. By this stage I was competent with epoxy and getting adventurous with my “liquid joinery”.
Hi-build primer and single pack polyurethane was applied to the hull. I went for some non-slip and a splash of colour in the cockpit. Here I am trying to determine the size of the ditty box to make for when rowing.
She was launched on the 12 October 2017. She rows and motors in an acceptable fashion. I christened her “Dabble” in honour of her shallow water capability and the fact that it was my first time dabbling in boat building.
The real test for me though was how she would sail. I got a professionally made balanced lug and finished off the spars that I had started at the beginning of the build. I was surprised on launch day by 10-12 knot winds and Dabble never faltered. She sailed well straight off the beach. She is quick if a little wet. I found that when I tired of the exhilaration of spray in the face I could retreat to lounge against the rear bulkhead for a drier ride. She is everything I expected and more, and a commendable project for the first time builder.