Musings from a craftsman boat builder.

Some Deals Were Made

     Thirty-five years ago we got a contract to build some flat bottomed skiffs. The job was to take the lines off an old boat that had been built by Cape Cod Shipbuilding in the late forties and build 3 new ones but using plywood. I had to give the Customer a price so I called a friend who had been the manager at CCS at that time. Spaulding Dunbar had to think back, he called and told me that old Charlie would come in on Monday morning and pick the stock and by the end of the week an 11'6" X 4' 2 board skiff with cross planked bottom, three thwarts, keel plank with integrated skeg would go to the paint shop. Well, I figured that if old Charlie could do it in a week with boards, we should be able to do it with plywood in three weeks. The deal was made at $400 each.

The Boy, hard at work. Plane, plane and plane some more.

      I asked my 12 year old son if he would be interested in becoming a boat builder. He said that he didn't think so because there were too many rules at the shop. "Well," I said, ”you have been trying to save up money for a new bicycle and you would get paid $150 each.”  Four hundred and fifty dollars to a 12 year old was, in those days, serious money. Another deal was made.

    The rules that he was complaining about consisted of safety concerns. He was only 18" taller than the table saw and he had to stand on a box to be able to use the band saw. We worked out a game plan. I would do all the table saw work and we would do the first one together. He would have to take notes to remember everything. Another deal was made.

    Then the customer changed the rules. He wanted six boats. He wanted 2 or 3 as soon as possible but could give a little more time for the rest. Another deal was made.

    I had some space in a new section of the shop that would become the office so that is where we set up the skiff division. Two boats could be assembled at the same time. The first three went out in short order and the others at a later date. The customer was happy, the 12 year old had $900 in the bank minus the cost of the bike so he was happy and of course I was happy because the Boy had "DONE GOOD".

    The boats were made with standard marine grade fir plywood. 1/2" bottom and 3/8" sides.( far better quality than you can get today). Stem, transom frame, thwart stringer, thwarts, chine log and gunwale Honduras mahogany. Every thing was assembled with WEST system epoxy which is just as good today as it was 35 years ago.

    Another deal, just in: the original customer has returned and ordered 2 more, slightly larger. The boy, 48, now lives in Washington state and doesn't need a new bicycle. It will be my pleasure to build two more of a great design.

So you think that you want to be a boatbuilder?

So you think that you want to be a boatbuilder?  Well, in my opinion, boatbuilding is a wonderful profession but a terrible business.  It is true that I have been able to get by financially, sort of, and in the end have ended up with a little more equity than if I had just worked for someone else.  However, the dollars per hour were never very good. Would I do it all again?

YES. but with a few changes.  I guess the reason comes down to “ The Project”   The challenge to transform thoughts and concepts and dreams into something real,The Project, has been most rewarding.

Many kids, mostly boys, have enjoyed building model boats and airplanes. Most grow out of it others become engineers and some become builders. Education is based on the need to know this or that. It is a tangled web of many paths that often interact. 

        “The Project”.  I arrived on Cape Cod in the spring of 1969 and was lucky enough to land a job at a little cabinet shop. I have always liked to work diligently. The owner of the shop was very happy to explain things and was a great teacher but after a few months he had to admit that I was like a sponge soaking up any and all information that was available. We did learn some things together.

    Cape Cod is, of course, surrounded by water and there are many little harbors and bays.  I soon realized that I needed a boat. Just how many boats I would think that I needed over the years has yet to manifest itself.  In any case I announced one Monday  morning that I had to build a boat. As luck would have it we had a copy of Howard Chappells boatbuilding book. The book had some plans and after some thought we selected a typical flat bottomed skiff. Then some problems surfaced. The design was a 12 foot design  but the lumber yard could only provide 10' plywood on short notice and since we figured that the ply would be stronger we used 5/8” thickness rather than the ¾” pine specified. We modified the shape to fit the materials just as if we knew what we were doing. Three evening sessions later we had a boat... sort of. We launched it without paint to get a water line and by the weekend the first row took place.  Well, The McLaughlin skiff was born. She floated and got me out on the water and the education and the  fun, in hindsight, it was worth it. But she was really pretty bad. After a summer of adventures, like trying to row through Woods Hole channel against the current I finally took her back to the shop and leaned her up against the back wall  figuring that was the best place to end her days. But one day a friend showed up questioning my decision. He wanted a skiff.” Well if you want her she is yours, I said but she doesn't come back here.” But, a couple of years later while driving down my driveway I noticed a strange pile of brush partly hidden by a white pine tree. There she was, come back to haunt me. After 45 years she, or what is left of her, is still sitting in the woods and I have to smile when remembering where I was then and where I have come to, now.

    The moral of the story is: If you think that you want to build a boat, by all means go ahead, but you might want to ask some questions and do some research before you just jump in.  


Many years ago I had the good luck of meeting the late Phil Bolger .I was at that time working for a company, just formed, to produce a lovely little pocket cruising sailboat. Phil was a friend of the company's owners Mait Edey and Peter Duff and was supporting their efforts. Phil mentioned that he had a 33' Cat-yawl sharpie that was for sale. I made an offer and soon traveled to Gloucester to pick up my “YACHT”. A very nice surprise awaited my arrival, for I had not actually read the printed advertisement for this boat, I was informed that 15' 6” rowing dory was part of the deal. I had some good times with Pointer, the sharpie, but the real treasure was the Gloucester Gull Dory.

My ignorance of the attributes of that little craft was soon dissipated.  It got me out to my mooring , of course, but so much more. It towed well behind Pointer on cruises and took me on sunrise meanders through Cape Cod harbors while the family was still sleeping. It took me into the blustery waters of Buzzard Bay off Scraggy Neck where I found it had some nice surfing ability. Blue fishing outside Megansett harbor was great because you didn't need a gaff for you could simply roll the rail down to the water and pull the fish over the side .After our kids became accomplished swimmers they would like to get into the dory when we were sailing along and play the game of weight shift just at the last moment to avoid a collision when surfing along with the following seas. Blah,Blah, Blah, the point is this is a terrific little boat and I'm still enjoying it after 43 years.

Speaking of points, the reason for this little ramble is that there are a lot of good rowing boats. However, it seems that they are being ignored because of the advent of the inflatable cow with outboard. These noisy, smelly creations are taking over and I suspect it is because today's yachtsmen and women just do not know what they are missing. The quiet non polluting feel of the sailing yacht is abandoned once the  boat is at anchor or back on the mooring. Another aspect of the rowing boat is the exercise.

One thing that the GULL is not well suited for is sailing. Now, if you ad sailing to the qualities mentioned above, not the cow, what a combination.  Years ago a customer wanted a small boat that fit the three criteria and we decided on a 11' 6” Herreshoff design called a Columbia Tender. This design is light enough to tow behind a medium sized sailboat, it rows very well even with a heavy load and is a delightful little daysailer.

My suggestion, in all this reminiscing, is that before you go out blindly buying a rubberdub give this old fashioned idea a try. It will take some  time and effort to make the selection but you may be just as pleased with a whole new and pleasant experience. Because these boats are fun and easy to handle, the generations to come will appreciate having the experiences as well.


With so many boats to choose from why should you choose a custom design. The Huge majority of yachts that you see on the water today have been designed around kitchens and bathrooms. People like to be comfortable out in the wild, myself included. One thing that you do not hear at the boat shows is "This boat is wonderful to sail". Relatively,there are very few sailors who have experienced the joy of a sailing vessel that has been designed to fit into the medium of wind and water. Because these vessels have been thusly designed they are comfortable underway. Sidney Herreshoff did this with "ARION" and later his brother L Fancis did it with "ROZINANTE". 

Now, there are some designs that are pretty good but ask yourself have you ever been out sailing when you could lean back with full back support. Have you ever seen the knot meter over 13 in a monohull. Now speed is not everything, of course, but multihull designer Dick Newick says that nobody has ever said to him that sailing slower is more fun than sailing faster. You can get there in half the time or go twice as far. It is nice to have a choice.