By Pat Johnson - Pensacola, Florida - USA

In days gone by boats were built & used to make a living and were designed and constructed for function rather than pleasure. Speed, size & construction materials/methods were determined solely by businesslike “return on investment” and ease of construction rather than emotional desire. A simple dory was built by fishermen with three hand sawn planks, a simple tombstone shaped transom and some chalking because they could do it with little or no training and be out fishing and making a living. The dory would have been much harder to row if it was 40ft long and had a comfortable cabin aboard so it was built only as big as it needed to be and the comfort of the crew was not considered a necessity.

In modern times boats began to be used more & more for pleasure and today boats less than 30 feet in length are nearly all built as pleasure/sport craft as opposed to working boats. Along with that change the design, speed and size of our watercraft has become a function of desire instead of need. Most boats today are manufactured and marketed towards more & more profit for the manufacturer and they are being marketed to pleasure seekers rather than commercial fishermen. The marketing on TV’s fishing and sporting channels has been very effective. Most boaters today are willing to part with huge sums of money to attain the boats & motors being pushed by the manufacturers. Keeping up with the Jones’ has gotten harder and harder to do.

Over the years I have had quite a few boats and they varied from sail & paddle powered to outboards & diesels. The boats ranged from large boats that had to remain in the water all the time to boats I could fold up and carry like a backpack. I’m not trying to say I am an expert at anything, but I have experienced a pretty good variety of watercraft and have noticed a lot of variations in the boats I have owned or used. I’ve also experienced the variations in COST to own those boats.

The one thing that stands out in my mind is that there seems to be an overwhelming desire for more “speed & size” among most boat owners. I’m not knocking it because I’ve been there, done that, and enjoyed every minute of it. It’s almost a natural progression from small boats to larger ones. However, I have learned that the costs associated with the need for speed & size is more than just dollars & cents. Paying for and maintaining a boat can cost time on the water as well as dollars from the wallet. While a certain amount of size & speed is needed, there is a point of diminishing return where the additional speed & size falls quickly compared to the pleasure received. In fact it can actually detract from the pleasure if taken too far.

What bothers me, is that today the retailers generally determine what boats we will buy. If you go to a boat show today you’d have to look long & hard for a boat larger than a dinghy that didn’t cost as much or more than a car. In fact, you are pretty much left to buying something used or made of rubber/plastic if you want to buy something for less than a couple thousand dollars. Of course the dealers will gladly finance a new boat that costs more than a car but getting a loan for a used boat is much harder. With today’s cost of living most boaters can ill afford the boats they are buying.

I started my boating experience in a canoe and enjoyed it so much I went on to fabricate a method of attaching two of them together to make a kind of pontoon like multihull powered by a 1.5hp Sear Gamefisher outboard. From there I progressed to a true pontoon boat that had enough room to camp on. I truly enjoyed that boat but it had a 35hp engine and regularly used 10gallons of gas per day of cruising at 10mph. That 10 gallons of gas a day sounds pretty cheap even with today’s prices compared to the average boat on the water.

After changing boats & engines a few times I decided the sailboat approach might provide some relief for my wallet. I bought a day sailor but quickly traded up several times to one with all the amenities. My larger sailboat was capable of circumnavigation but I had rarely made a trip more than a few hundred miles. It took only a few minutes drive to the marina and less than that to start the diesel and head for the bay but it still required a 3 to 4 hour trip to make it seem worthwhile to go. The slip rent was less than $200 a month but there was a lot of maintenance that had to be done. I sure felt salty as others watched me sail by but I didn’t get the chance to be salty nearly as often as I’d hoped.

Most of my days now are spent building small craft and spending time on the water in them. I’ve sold all the larger boats I had because I found myself spending more & more time on the smaller boats I was building. I spent some time analyzing just why I was spending the time on the smaller boats rather than the larger ones and have detailed my thoughts on the matter.

At first, I figured I was just trying out the new small boats I was building and that necessitated spending time aboard them. But that didn’t explain why I continued to use them so much after they were complete and I had done the sea trials on them. In the end it turned out to be the ease & convenience that drew me to them.  I could build specific-use boats that would perfectly suit my purposes at a fraction of the cost of buying something that wouldn’t be exactly what I wanted but would barely accommodate my needs. As it turns out my boating experience is a lot more satisfying now than it has ever been.

Hour for hour I get more pleasure from my small boats than I ever did with the larger, faster boats. I get to spend a lot more time thinking and evaluating my boat and its performance because I’m closer to the water and my actions have an immediate impact on my boat’s performance. Turning a key and giving it the gas from a seat fifteen feet above the water doesn’t necessarily make you a very good seaman.  It takes me minutes to launch and retrieve and that helps me get more time on the water. Since I build my boats and do the maintenance on them I build them “good” and “simple” just like they did in the old days! I’ve learned a lot more about the weather and tide conditions because they have a dramatic impact on my kind of boating. I also know what to do to stay safe on my boats even if they do sometimes seem too small to afford any margin of safety at all.

Many of the bigger boats at anchor smile as they watch me having fun from their cockpits and I am proud to provide them with something to watch & smile at. Many of them are at anchor because the fuel to propel them further than their anchorage is beyond what they can justify spending. Consequently, the range of my small boats often duplicates many of the larger boats in my area. At the end of the day we’ve all been boating and none of us has much more than sunburn to show for it. However, my wallet feels a little better than most, and I’ve had a barrel of fun to remember. My advice to everyone is to ignore the hype and peer-pressure to buy fast and/or big and use the smallest boat that fits your needs and that you can afford. Better yet, build it yourself. Then you will really enjoy it and be proud of it.


About the author…. Pat Johnson builds boats as a hobby and has built 25 plus boats to date. All of the boats are less than 16ft and about half are power and the others are sail or row boats. Pat enjoys helping others get started building boats and offers to show people how it’s done if asked. Pat lives in Pensacola Florida and often sails in Pensacola Bay and surrounding rivers and lakes. Pat’s most common advise to people thinking about building a boat is to start small and start now!


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