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Building the Sharpie Black Swan

Building the Sharpie Black Swan

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Published by John M. Watkins
An account of designing and building a sailboat.
An account of designing and building a sailboat.

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Published by: John M. Watkins on Oct 23, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Building the Sharpie
 Black Swan
 photo by Geri Ventura
By John MacBeath Watkins
I'm not one of those fellows who always dreamed of building a boat. I'm more the sort who likes tosail a boat. So the decision to design and build my own boat didn't spring from a desire to show off my craftsmanship. It came from a desire to own a roomy, reasonably fast boat that I could afford.I once owned a nearly perfect boat, the Yankee One-Design
.She was fast and beautiful and had a huge cockpit in which I could take a companionable groupof friends sailing. She was also old and lightly built, as many racing keelboats are. I could see signsof deterioration, though I didn't want to face them. At some point, it came to me that if I tried to fix all
that ailed the boat, I'd get her apart and never get her back together again.So instead, I sold her.There I was, without a boat. A friend suggested we buy a wooden Snipe together and restore it.Although the partnership didn't work out, restoring Snipe 9603 (which I renamed
after anarchaic sort of fish that is considered a living fossil) taught me that I love working on wooden boats.I'd sailed them since I was eight, but never trained as a craftsman, I'd never had much confidence in myability to work on them.And when I'd finished the restoration, I brought it to the 2004 Seattle Wooden Boat Festival,and she won the People's Choice Award for best sailboat under 25 feet.Even a moment's inattention can change a life. It doesn't even have to be your own inattention.While I was stopped in traffic on Eastlake one day in my 1987 Nissan, Old Nessie, a young woman ranher SUV full-tilt into me, totaled Old Nessie, and left my back in such a state that I could no longer work on the
 Nor could I work my accustomed long hours at my business, which cost melots of money, but the hardest thing was, I couldn't bend over and work on the garboard seams, or spend those endless, pleasant hours varnishing the deck to the splendid state that had helped
win her award.We must adapt and survive. I donated
to the Center for Wooden Boats, bought aSnipe hull that didn't need work on the garboard seams and didn't have a varnished deck. I named the boat
and sailed her with Snipe Fleet 444, the Lake Washington contingent of the legendarySnipe class, as I had with
. But like all Snipes, she was too heavy for a man with a bad back to pull up on the dinghy dock by himself – minimum weight for the class is 381 lb. -- and toocramped for more than two people to sail aboard.It was time for another boat. I wanted something I could sail single-handed or with a group of friends. I like dinghy sailing, and I've enjoyed sailing sharpies, a type of flat-bottomed workboatdeveloped for the New Haven oyster fishery. I wanted a boat I could keep on the dinghy dock, which
is a lot cheaper than a boat that stays in the water. Not finding what I wanted, I decided I could build something. Nothing fancy; I think I'vementioned that I'm not a trained craftsman. In fact, I barely have opposable thumbs.I already had a Snipe rig. Why not find a design that would work with that? I searched, butdidn't find. Dinghy designs tended to be aimed at racing, and wouldn't carry the number of friends Iwanted to sail with. Workboats tended to be heavy. Did I mention my bad back?Finally, I though, screw it, I'll do it myself. I went out and bought some sheets of basswoodand in an afternoon with surprisingly little trial and error, made a 1/12-scale model that had the shape Iwanted. Then all I had to do was build a larger model, big enough for my Snipe rig, and me, and myfriends. I estimated that if I built the boat at 250 lb., she would carry another 600 before the bow andstern went under and started adding to much drag. That's four modest-sized people.
Photo by John Watkins
I started talking to my friends about it. Those who knew my lack of woodworking skills werediscouraging. I decided that if I actually did produce a boat, I would name it
 Black Swan
. In statistics,a black swan event is one that is statistically unlikely, but actually does occur, like a hundred-year flood or a thousand-year storm. Insurance companies dread them.Sadly, I live in an apartment. I thought of building the boat in the loft above my bookstore, butI could never have got it out. Finally my friend Bernard Chester told me I could build in his garage.

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