The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

by Peter Vanderwaart
Guest Columnist

Designing a Boat

A recent post to the John Welsford Builder's Forum:

I have huge respect for the work of John Welsford, Jim Michalk, Philip Bolger ... well the list goes on. But I do wonder if by simply building one of their designs we are not missing half the fun.

There are many aspects to this business of boats. One may find that one is attracted to sailing and just wants a boat for that purpose. How one gets it is secondary. Or one may love to build things, and the real end is the building. Sailing while fun is not as much fun as building. Same story with designing. For me building some one else's design ls like dating their wife. I can't really get serious about it because even if it is likely to be much better than anything I would do it is not really mine....

...I recently fell in love with a boat. Normally I find Wooden Boat a bit too yachty for my taste, which is really much more Bolgeresque. Nontheless sometimes a design is just too seductive to ignore. The April 2005 issue of WB has an article on a Crownshield Dark Harbor 12.5 LWL that has been stretched to 15 LWL and is called a Flanagan Dark Harbor 15. (See page 50) The boat is an elegant greyhound of a daysailer....

....well, design something derivative, easier to build and a whole lot less expensive. I keep saying to myself, "Don't even think about it." But myself keeps saying back, "It sure would be fun." I never have been able to ignore that argument even though it always gets me in trouble. So, "What the hell, I can at least fool with a design...."

Peter responded:

As moderator of the boatdesign Yahoo group (over 30,000 posts and climbing!), I've heard this sort of thing before. My reaction(s) as

1) Evidence suggests that it is not too difficult to design a boat that will sail more or less competently. It is a big help if the designer has the right kind of intuition, but a straight by-the-numbers approach will work. This assumes a 'normal'boat and a standard approach to construction.

2) Almost all boats, even by professional designers, are derived from some previous vessel. Frankly, there are already vessels of just about every immaginable size and shape, so it can hardly help being similar to something.

3) Boats have a lot of interrelated parts. Simple example: a fin keel has to be in the right place for both weight/flotation reasons and sail balance reasons. Most boats have many other interrelations in structures, etc. that are not at all obvious. This is especially true of traditional boats that have been refined through decades of minor changes.

4) To get the above right, and have the boat be actually beautiful, is very difficult.

Now, to the specific case: The Dark Harbor is indeed a beautiful boat. It is a type which is not very popular with amateur builders because it is heavy and complicated. (The garage workshop is better suited to shoal-draft boats with inboard ballast.) This means that there are not too many plans meant for amateurs of this type. But there are some, depending on how loose a definition of "this type" you will tolerate.

A restored Atlantic would be a spectacular daysailor

The biggest category are the boats derived from the Herreshoff 12 1/2 and similar Herreshoff boats. Look at the Joel White designs offered by the WoodenBoat bookstore for example. White also designed some other wonderful and beautiful daysailers. Another example is Phil Bolger's plywood copy of the 12 1/2. I don't think I've seen a picture of a finished boat, but I've seen a picture of a model, and it looks pretty good.

Another route is restoration. I'm not sure where you live, but in many places there is a supply of beautiful boats waiting for a new life. We had an example of a 6-meter, IIRC, here in Stamford. Many of these boats would be bigger than you have in mind, but some smaller one-designs such as the Celebrity would be very beautiful restored to high gloss. As would a fully restored Atlantic.