Mustering Courage

by Christoph Harlan - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - USA

Last summer – with a tear in my eye – I sold my CLC Passagemaker Dinghy C-Lute.

I loved that boat and those who had watched me build it and sail it were in disbelief:  “What did you do that for?” – “Are you now only paddling your kayaks anymore?”

(Note: After C-Lute I had built three kayaks, the most recent one being a Nick Schade designed Cedar-strip Petrel which I paddle frequently.)

Well – NO! The reason I decided to part with C-Lute was my determination to build a new sailboat.  With three wooden kayaks and one wooden sailboat (plus a modern racing dinghy) I really could not justify yet another sailboat without first creating a “sailboat vacuum” to make space for a new build.

So, instead of another “winter building project” I allotted time in those snowy months to researching what my next sailboat build might be. I knew that I wanted something heftier and bigger so long as I could still fit the construction process into my garage. It was not going to be a S&G (stitch & glue) boat like C-Lute because I hoped to try a different building method – and expand my horizons.

My criteria: I wanted a versatile boat, one that could be used for single-handed day-sailing, for our local learn-to-sail program (where I volunteer as a certified instructor), for camping cruising the Chesapeake, for an exciting romp in blustery conditions and for an easy transition to row when the winds die: essentially an open sail and oar boat with plenty of canvas to move on a wisp of air yet easy to reef or  dowse and a pleasure to row.  There are many boats by well-known designers which fit in this category. Space constraints eliminated many attractive options such as the wonderful Iain Oughtred designed double-enders like the Ness Yawl, Caledonia Yawl and Sooty Tern… all in the 19′ range. 14 – 15 feet were probably going to be the maximum hull length over all.

After reading a number of boat building books (including Iain Oughtred’s “Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual”) I resolved to build a clinker boat (better known in US parlance as glued-lapstrake). The question was:  which design to choose. Countless building blogs and boat building sources (such as the Woodenboat Forum) were consulted as I clawed myself to a decision.  In truth, I was actually hoping to be found by a design rather than the other way around.

In the days before modern materials, clinker construction would have been beyond my reach. Nowadays lapstrake boats can be fabricated using modern materials (such as epoxy, fiber glass and marine plywood) to build a very traditional-looking hull at a fraction of the cost and time – not to mention without the requisite skills of an experienced ship-wright. Even so, to me, a glued lapstrake build represented a daunting step-up. What I needed was a design that got me so excited as to allow me to toss out all fears and just go for it.

Enter a fortuitous article in the Wooden Boat Magazine (2015 Small Boat Edition) by Geoff Kerr (Two Daughter’s Boatworks) about a boat called Ilur designed by French Naval Architect Francois Vivier that seriously piqued my interest. As it turned out, the builder of the reviewed Ilur (John Hartmann) had an extensive and extremely informative thread on the Wooden Boat Forum where I could read blow-by-blow what was involved in building an Ilur.

I downloaded a study plan from Duckworks and came to grips with the realization that, yes this was indeed going to be A LOT MORE involved than any of my previous building projects BUT even so, this innovative design of a plywood kit was conceived so ingeniously that it would take a novice builder a lot less time than some of the other designs I had been looking at.  Obviously, I looked at the other Vivier boat designs as well. In the end, Ilur seemed to best fit mon goût in terms of size, versatility, practical application, “provenance” and salty appearance.

The next step was to order the actual plans from Vivier. He sent them promptly and I was extremely impressed with the extraordinary detail and clarity of the drawings.

I must mention one other critical resource that helped me muster my courage to do this build, namely the Off Center Harbor video series, with Geoff Kerr on building a glued lapstrake Caledonia Yawl. Geoff and the Off Center Harbor team did a fabulous job in creating this series.

In this lapstrake building video course, Geoff Kerr recommends to prospective boat builders that they build themselves a “Manning Bench” (or two) the construction of which is described in a book called The Workbench Book (The Taunton Press).

After waiting for the ordered book for over six months (presumably out of print), it finally arrived and I was able to construct one of these modular workbenches. The two components (1′ hi and 2′ hi respectively) can be used separately or clamped together as a single 3′ hi bench.  In combination with my other workbench, I’ll be able to create a long platform for the building of spars.

As I learned more I became once again apprehensive about embarking on the build and concluded that I should first acquire some experience in working with hard wood. This was clearly a needed skill and it required tools I had never owned or used before. Even the best tools are useless if you don’t have the skill and experience to use them properly.

Just at that time I had to travel to Germany after my mother passed away. Essentially, this set back any considerations of commencing the project (or preparatory exercises) by many months. Furthermore a major software upgrade project at work was going to require all of my undivided attention for six months or more. While these two matters caused a significant delay, it afforded me time to ponder my plans and consider my angle of attack – from afar.

Staying in my parents’ house in Germany, I took note of a unique wooden armchair, a number of which had been built for my grandfather according to his design and specifications. My grandfather (a pioneer in Early Music) had established an instrument workshop and museum of rare historical instruments on Burg Sternberg where he offered seminars as well as workshops in construction and performance of Renaissance instruments. In the early 60’s Burg Sternberg became well-known to Early Music lovers and was recognized for the extraordinary acoustical properties of the Rittersaal.  (see my blog entry So That’s Why) This is the hall for which these chairs were intended and where I first sat on one as a little boy.

This armchair had a straight and somewhat austere form but its shape struck me almost as a throne of sorts on account of its generous width and the unique scrolled ears invoking the look of an early musical instrument . This Sternberg Stuhl (as I began to call it) was surprisingly generous and comfortable almost luxurious – a perfect listening and thinking chair. I would have loved to take it with me across the ocean but that was not exactly practical.

However, I took lots of pictures and precise measurements because an idea arose as if ordained:  I had resolved to acquire some experience with hardwood. Well here it was;  this particular design offered itself as a challenging, and to me, meaningful opportunity.

I consulted with my friend Garth Jones (who is a professional builder of exquisite custom-designed furniture as well as a boat builder) regarding the optimum wood of choice: it was determined to be Cherry.

Before trying my hand (and tools) on Cherry, I wanted to make sure though that I had not gotten confused with the (metric) dimensions. Therefore, I picked up some inexpensive construction lumber and fashioned a somewhat crude version of the chair simply to make sure that the dimensions “felt right”. They did and off I went to buy enough fine Cherry for two Sternberg chairs… just figuring out what and how much I needed without unnecessary waste was an important and new-to-me skill.

The chairs were finished off with several silky coats of Danish Oil and now have that wonderful, variegated Cherry glow which over time will darken. With the support of and guidance by Garth Jones, I learned quite a bit about working with hard wood and was subsequently “pronounced ready – for the most part” to commence Ilur.

The kit was cut and delivered in perfect condition by Hewes & Co. Ah – the anticipation was ever so sweet a thing!

…and for those who are interested of the building progress of this Ilur can check the “An Ilur in PA” thread on the WoodenBoat Forum.


  1. I am eagerly waiting for more information and details, with the greatest of anticipation! Building a fine chair is great for honing our wood working skills, teaching both patience and determination. Good preparation for a great boat build, I bet!

  2. I expect to have my Ilur completed by late April… certainly ready for the better part of the coming sailing season. As much as I’ve been already thinking about it, I am sure that it’ll take a while to fine tune and fiddle with running rigging and settings. I’ll try to put together some notes on the construction process.

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