Only For Nutters – Part 7


The cold months of the year are always a problem. Epoxy has to be coaxed from the can and is often too thick to mix or penetrate glass and wood. The heaters have to go on, damp is a constant enemy and generally working in low temperatures is a pain.

I had decided that as soon as the weather turned cold I would concentrate on smaller items, so I could work in a separate insulated part of the workshop (just foam and bubble wrap curtains, but it makes a difference!). The winter of 2006/07 hardly had any frosts (the gales were a different matter), in complete contrast to the freezing conditions of the previous year that lingered right into April.

The rudders were the items of choice. I had already purchased the tubular stainless steel stocks and had them machined to fit the tiller arms. This is an example of where my plans simply gave no detail whatsoever, even though the top of the rudder stocks is a critical design issue. It has to be possible for them to slide out of their bearings for servicing, but they must be held onto the thrust washer with a bombproof fastening so they don’t just disappear into the deep blue yonder at an inconvenient moment! Advice from an engineer resulted in the illustrated solution using a conical taper (a square taper is better but very difficult and expensive to manufacture) and a keyway. The enormous nut holding the block on gives me confidence!

Although these stocks are hollow, they are still heavy, about 20kg each. This is because the loads on a rudder can be huge. The designer did suggest using carbon fibre to save weight, but did not come up with any specifications, so I have stuck with the stainless. Rudders do seem to be in the news just lately, with some spectacular failures on monohulls of alloy and glass stocks. I decided that if the stocks were to be carbon they would have to be much bigger diameter, and this would not fit the kick-up cassettes. Alloy was out of the question, not just because it would be unlikely to be tough enough. It is also low on the galvanic scale, so would be the first thing to corrode!

The lower part of the stock is roughed up with a grinder and then wrapped with about 3mm of glass compressed with heat-shrink tape. Onto this the composite rudder stations are glued and glassed. I used some scrap 3mm epoxy/glass sheet (left over from vacuum bagging a panel) as leading and trailing edges. By cutting the slots for them very carefully I could use them to help line the rudders up just so. It took me right back to building balsa aeroplanes as a child!

Once this assembly had been glued together, the whole thing was filled with pour-in foam. I used PU foam, but would not use it again as it came out very variable in texture and not very stable. There is an epoxy foam product (PB 250) made by Sicomin and distributed by MCMC of Bristol which sounds like it would be better, and I shall use that for the daggerboards.

The bottom section of the rudder is sacrificial, so was made of Corecell sheets and sanded to shape. Glassing the rudders involved draping the wetted-out layers of biaxial over and making sure they connected at the trailing edge. This is where the solid glass inserts came into their own. My only suggested improvement on what we did would be to colour the edge of the inserts with a marker pen so it would be easy to see when sanding back later.

The rudder stocks fit into kick-up cassettes on this design, so the bearings (of Vesconite – highly recommended, easily machined, and available in all sorts of sizes at reasonable price) were slid onto the stock and epoxied to a section of thin-walled glass tube that I had fabricated around a plastic plumbing pipe. This in turn was glued into the cassette so the whole assembly could turn easily. I attached alloy tube at the top for the hinge that would allow the cassette to swing up. The bearings for this, which need to separate into 2 halves, are made by laying up glass over some graphite-filled epoxy on a small mould.

I spent some time wondering about the method of holding the cassettes down and lifting them clear of the water when on a mooring. Again, precious little guidance from the plans. An enquiry on the multihull forum yielded the answer that no complex lifting mechanism was required as the rudder assembly would lift under its own buoyancy. It would just need to have something like a chock to hold it up in the resting position. Holding down is a different matter, and I have opted for a 2:1 purchase with a turning block at deck level to bring the hold-down rope up to the cockpit. There is a Clamcleat available with an adjustable automatic release, so the rope will be held in this. If the rudder strikes something hard it should let go and allow the rudder to flip up out of harm’s way. Of course I do not want it to release during normal sailing, and the Clamcleat is quite small, so this is one of the things that will have to be tested during sea trials. If it does release under too little load I could increase the purchase to 4:1. Some people opt for a fusible link, often a ballpoint pen tube or similar, that will shatter under sudden load, but this seems to me to be incapable of adjustment and maybe won’t get tested until disaster strikes.

Suddenly in March the weather turned warm and I got keen to do some work on the boat itself again. The rudders were put hastily aside – I can go back to them if we get a spell of poor weather later in the year. Instead thoughts turned to the beams.

We tackled the aft box beam first, just because it seemed a straightforward one to do. It has 6mm ply sides and 9mm top, with spruce reinforcing the corners and some bulkheads to keep the shape. Getting the curves right involved tracing the hull shapes onto hardboard and transferring the outline to the scarfed-up panels. Amazingly the 2 sides of the boat were not all that dissimilar! We marked the hull centrelines very clearly and lined them up with the beam lines (at 16ft apart). So provided we could also get the main beam to line up its own 16ft lines with the centres, we could be certain the boat was square!

The box beam forms the back end of the cockpit and just slides forward into position. We do not glue it in at this stage because of the need to transport the boat in sections. However we do need to assemble the beam sections on the boat as we will be unable to lift the completed items into position without a crane or hoist.

Boats don’t come together in a linear fashion – at least this one doesn’t. Sometimes it seems we labour for weeks on end and it hardly changes at all. Then we spend an afternoon getting a beam into place and it is suddenly transformed! It was very exciting to stand back and see just how big the boat would eventually be. Even more significantly, there is a sense that the end of the build is a whole lot nearer. We are now assembling a boat, not just creating a lot of parts. It is moments like this that provide me with much of the motivation to keep hard at it.

Having just received a very sad email from a friend who has decided to abandon his own project in the early stages, I have been thinking a lot about motivation. To tackle a project like this you cannot rely on a romantic dream of sailing away to carry you through. It is a long and tough struggle.

These are some of the things that are still keeping me going after 2 years:

  • Lots of early planning. I bought my plans several years before starting construction – other things took precedence – and had time to get thoroughly familiarised. Even so there have been plenty of surprises along the way. I wish now that I had spent time drawing up a specification list to sort out materials and order of tasks.
  • Making sure there is enough money, and expecting the budget to overrun. If I were building the boat within my original budget I would have already overrun. But completing a boat does not have to be done all at once. I am fortunate in having set aside enough to finish the basic boat at least. One or two luxuries may have to wait a season or two!
  • Not believing the designer’s hype. Just about every designer will claim that his design is the quickest/cheapest to construct. All this is just to sell plans and it is mostly untrue. They usually forget to mention that the one shown almost complete in six months has been made by a team of professionals completely familiar with this type of construction. I started to get depressed when it became clear my boat was not going to get done quickly, but overcame this when I realised that it was nothing to do with my competence.
  • Not rushing to meet self-imposed deadlines. Targets are good, deadlines are irrelevant. Only a fool would build a boat and set off immediately on a long voyage. I anticipate at least a season of modest outings, testing the boat a little bit more each time. If the rudder takes an extra few days to construct, so what? I have found that every task takes longer than I thought it would, often twice as long, and have had to learn patience.
  • Weekly planning sheets. I do prepare weekly sheets, largely to break down the processes and to maximise use of any assistance for the bigger tasks. It also helps to plan ordering materials, and nothing boosts morale better than ticking off jobs completed!
  • Treating it as a series of small projects. Such a large project can be demoralising if you spend all the time looking at the whole thing. It is so complex that it can be overwhelming. By breaking it down into small tasks, I can set myself achievable targets and vary the pace. This way I can also enjoy doing the work for its own sake.
  • But keep an overview…! I have a wall-mounted year-planner with a rough outline of the bigger tasks. For instance, I want to build the mast during the best weather, so May and June have been set aside for this. I can also keep an eye on whether I am generally making the progress I anticipated, take account of holidays, school terms etc., and schedule in the optimum times to take advantage of discounts, e.g. sails are best bought in autumn.
  • The 80/20 rule. It is worth bearing in mind that it will take roughly the same amount of time to do the last 20% of a job as it will the first 80%. Striving for perfection all the time is a recipe for losing motivation. I have had to curb my own perfectionism and accept the tolerances that are inevitable on a one-off boat. Yes, I could work harder to get everything lined up exactly to the millimetre, but progress would be frustratingly slow. This isn’t an excuse for shoddy workmanship: you set your own standards.
  • Keeping a day-book. It is so useful to have somewhere to jot down notes, measurements and ideas. Capturing that brilliant thought is essential to making the boat the best it can be. My book is full of useful jottings and sketches.
  • Eat more toads! I am a terrible procrastinator, and tend to do the jobs that I like first, which results in a growing list of unpleasant or boring tasks. Eating toads is getting the horrid things over and done before going on to the fun bits. By doing things like tedious sanding first in the day, I can look forward to the construction later.
  • Employing someone. Labour is the single most expensive element in any boat, but nothing in my opinion works better to keep me motivated. Paying someone concentrates the mind on getting value, and two people together work faster than two individuals. Andy is currently working for me 2 to 3 days a week, which gives me a target for the rest of the week to get the next big task ready. And there is plenty on any boat that just cannot be done by one person. I also do not turn down offers of unpaid help if I can. Even though these sometimes do not speed up the work, it is still good to welcome others onto the ‘team’.
  • Never underestimate a tea-break. There are so many design decisions to take that you need to be able to sit and talk them through, sketch out ideas and refine details. Tea and biscuits provide that opportunity for reflection as well as punctuating the day.
  • Keeping a clear vision of the end product. It is no good starting a project with the intention of constructing a racing boat, then changing to a cruiser halfway through. I have tried to keep a consistent idea of my requirements from the start. For instance finding room for a fridge has been important – it is an indicator of the level of comfort that I am trying to achieve.
  • Treats and celebrations. Little things like a chocolate biscuit after an hour’s sanding (I really must get out more…!) or big things like toasting the completion of a hull, they all help to give the stages of the work significance. I have even been thinking of arrangements for the launch party while doing yet more sanding. Buying goodies for the boat along the way spreads out payments and feels like a treat in itself.
  • It will not get built unless you are there building! I made a decision to treat the project like a job of work and put in a full week whenever possible. It is really hardly possible to do something on this scale during evenings and weekends. Progress would be painfully slow. There is the psychological thing of “going out to work”, which makes me actually do the work.
  • Know thyself. I have taken a long hard look at my strengths and weaknesses, skills and abilities, and chose a construction method that I was happy with. I thrive on challenges, so tackling diverse areas such as the cabin redesign, LED lighting or the mast have kept my interest alive. I could have chosen a design that gave more construction detail and led me through it step by step, but it would not have allowed me so much freedom to challenge my own resources.
  • Sharing it with others. I am happy to show people the progress on the boat, and it is particularly good to talk through some aspects with sailors, who might just come up with a good idea. Looking at other boats and other people’s work also gives me a boost. Multihull forums, where I can be in touch with other builders, are a great place to find answers or share frustrations. Email correspondence is another useful way to keep the morale high.
  • Go sailing! It is important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal. I continue to coach juniors at the yacht club and have done several charters. Sailing a monohull helps to remind me why I am building a catamaran!

Contacts: Importers of Sicomin epoxies, PB 250 epoxy foam, stockists of glass, carbon and vacuum bag consumables. Manufacturers of bearing plastic specifically designed for marine use. UK distributors of SP resins, glass, carbon, Antal deck gear, Corecell foam sheets and more.