Merrell Watercraft

Private Postings

Micro Page

Bill Sampson's
Book Reviews

Chebacco News's
Nautical and Marine
Resource List

Craig O'Donnell's
Cheap Pages


Slogging to Windward
by Chuck Merrell
Feedback can always be emailed to: 

October 2001


Part One - Introduction
(Part Two)

Existentialism is a 20th Century philosophy that views the individual as being alone in an indifferent and even hostile universe. In that context, the existentialist would define life as the organism's ability to struggle against its environment--a paramecium beating its flagellum. Can't struggle? End of the road.

In this case, the organism under examination is the amateur boatbuilder as related to the question: Why do we build boats when it's easier and cheaper in many ways to just go out and buy one? Most amateur boatbuilders irritated wives have no doubt asked that question more than once, I suspect, and probably will again a million times during the next millennium. Of course, when asked (usually right in the middle of applying epoxy) the answer given is to mumble something about "saving money" which is a reply no wife in her right mind dare debate, (though probably inaccurate) followed by: "Here, can you stay and hold these two pieces of wood together for a while? Donít move." (Itís a good ploy for clearing the shop area of said semi-irate interrogator).

The real answer though (once we figure out a boat type thingy which floats is a better solution than swimming for crossing the waters) is: self-sufficiency. Sure, one can just go out and buy a boat, if one is available and for sale, but knowing how to build a watercraft from basic materials could possibly get you out of a shipwreck situation when the island boat store doesn't exist. Not such a far out concept--that answer certainly worked for Captain Joshua Slocum.

Knowledge, like how to build a boat, really is adding another skill to the mental library; an arrow in the quiver to shoot at the hostile universe--self-sufficiency = security and the search for security seems to be a major component of life occupying most of our time. It's a prudent effort, which separates the squirrels from the grasshoppers. It's akin to the idea of saving money when it'd be so much more fun to trot out and spend it.

So we rationalize why we do what we do. We rationalize everything and have one to cover just about every desire. In fact, rationalizing must be more important than sex, because it's seemingly impossible to go for even a couple hours without having one. My favorite is: "I'll just be hungry later, so I might as well eat now!"

Anyway, we finish the canoe or whatever, try it out, it works and we feel better for a minute than we did when we succeeded in making fire at Boy Scout camp by using friction. Then two things happen . . . 

"New boat syndrome" starts tweaking the edges of the mind. When acknowledged, thoughts turn into the search for a new, improved boat thingy. (Rationalization: "I need to use these expensive tools to build something else.") Once a boat plan is identified and the mental conjuring begins, the average guy hopelessly smitten by "the bug", starts thinking about modifying the plan to suit his needs and desires. Then the giant killer thought rides in roughshod: " . . . wish I could design my own . . . and, (rationalization) besides knowing how to design my own boat would give me more information and add another layer of self-sufficiency, which would enable me to struggle against the environment better, etc. etc.Ē (Oh, by the way, insert divorce scenario right about here).

So, if you're still with me, we've traveled the road from Existentialism to learning defensive boat design. The purpose of this column (and the ones to follow) will be to give a few tips to help you get on that merry-go-round.

Before I bow out for this month, let me talk a bit about designers, sailors, boatbuilders and cookbooks.

The two factions most interested in boat design are sailors and designers, with the boatbuilder group thrown into the mix as a wild card. These three form a rather strange triumvirate because in general sailors often think they know more than designers. Boatbuilders sometimes donít much like either of the other two except as they provide employment (or an enjoyable hobby). Designers seem to think they know more about the field than the other two, and probably most of the other ďso calledĒ designers in the world as well.

Probably closer to the truth is: Sailors usually donít know a lot about design because theyíre busy being the end userósort of like most car drivers donít know much about automotive engineering. However, (often to their detriment) their erroneous conviction that they do know design increases with the amount of time spent out there on the Briny Deep (or behind the wheel). The designers on the other hand often donít have as much experience as the end user because most of their time is spent indoors creating boats, which is why so many boats are fundamentally identical in design philosophy, if not in appearance. The name of the game is: ďdesign the same boat and but make it look different and more appealing than last years modelĒ. Fashion Design is the analogy that comes to mind. And of course, professional boatbuilders are a bit like seamstresses; they just want to do the work and get paid and hopefully have weekends off. 

Once in a great while, you have a well balanced individual who understands all three disciplines and those guys are the best. Reuel Parker, of the more modern school, is such a man. The type of boats he prefers and the dictates of the region in which he sails, designs and builds boats are his only limitations, if he has any. Olin Stevens is probably the grand daddy of those from that mold. He is a good sailor, a great designer and fully knows how the things are put together.

Designing a boat from a technical standpoint really isnít all that difficult, once you learn the system and sequence of the operation. On the other hand, doing a great design takes talent and hard work. The technical part of boat design, while dealing with numbers and engineering drawings and all that kind of scary stuff is pretty much a cookbook proposition which can be learned and you donít necessarily need to be numbers nerd to get the job done.

There are many tools out there both free and reasonably priced to make amateur boat design easy when done using the computer you have right in front of you. Iíll discuss those and their use in the next column. However, while youíre waiting, hereís a list of books you can pick up either new or if out of print, used, or from the library which will start you cooking and also help you struggle against that hostile universe.

Designing Small Craft by John Teale (1976), David McKay Company, Publisher. This is a good introduction to the process, and probably available in libraries or used bookstores or on the Internet.
Designing Power & Sail by Arthur Edmunds (1998) Bristol Fashion Publications, Publisher. Mr. Edmunds is a very competent designer and has been for 30 years. This book is well worth having and will give you an excellent grounding both in the process and the technicals involved.

Principles of Yacht Design by Lars Larsson and Rolf E. Eliasson (1994) International Marine, Publisher. Here we have an excellent text with numerous examples, BUT itís also pretty rough going because of its highly technical nature. Very detailed.

Skeneís Elements of Yacht Design (Revised) by Francis S. Kinney (1973) Dodd, Mead, Publisher. For a long time this has been the basic text most think of when the subject of design comes up. Iíve never been much of a fan of this Kinney version even though I use it constantly. There is lots of good information here, but itís poorly organized and in some cases dated. The book is hard to find used, but you should buy it if you find one. Otherwise, the library is the main source.

Elements of Yacht Design by Norman L. Skene. Now reprinted and available, this valuable text of 1948 edition was the sixth and the latest until this reprint, the first having been published in 1904. In his new introduction, maritime historian Maynard Bray says that it employs the same engineering principles and mathematics as are used today, the writing is succinct, and it a classic only available occasionally through rare-book dealers. Skene (1878-1932) was a foremost American yacht designer of his day. Recently reissued in paperback, is worth having and priced right.

Iíve scanned the first chapter from my 1938 copy and you can read it at this web page and order the reprint from that page from if you like. 
Let me also take this opportunity to wish you a happy new year and hope itís better than 2001 had been for all of us!

(Go on to Part Two)