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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 to

sail 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 Venture.

She was fast and beautiful and had a huge cockpit in which I could take a companionable group

of friends sailing. She was also old and lightly built, as many racing keelboats are. I could see signs

of 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 Coelacanth, after an

archaic 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 my

ability 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 ran

her SUV full-tilt into me, totaled Old Nessie, and left my back in such a state that I could no longer

work on the Coelacanth. Nor could I work my accustomed long hours at my business, which cost me

lots 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

Coelacanth win her award.

We must adapt and survive. I donated Coelacanth to the Center for Wooden Boats, bought a

Snipe hull that didn't need work on the garboard seams and didn't have a varnished deck. I named the

boat Trilobite and sailed her with Snipe Fleet 444, the Lake Washington contingent of the legendary

Snipe class, as I had with Coelacanth. 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 too

cramped 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 workboat

developed 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've

mentioned 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, but

didn't find. Dinghy designs tended to be aimed at racing, and wouldn't carry the number of friends I

wanted 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 basswood

and in an afternoon with surprisingly little trial and error, made a 1/12-scale model that had the shape I

wanted. Then all I had to do was build a larger model, big enough for my Snipe rig, and me, and my

friends. I estimated that if I built the boat at 250 lb., she would carry another 600 before the bow and

stern 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 were

discouraging. 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, but

I could never have got it out. Finally my friend Bernard Chester told me I could build in his garage.
I'd done much of the work on Coelacanth there, so he had some confidence that I could actually finish

the project. I ordered lumber and had it delivered in late November to his garage on Mercer Island.

Then the snow set in, and one of the coldest Northwest winters I can recall. Even a couple

space heaters wouldn't heat it to the point where even fast hardener would get epoxy to cure. It was

late January before I could make a proper start on the project.

Never having built a boat before, I was self-taught. And being self-taught, my teacher had

never built a boat before, either. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how to build the boat, then

started building the boat, then saw what I'd done wrong, and set about fixing what I'd done.

Marvelous fun! There is nothing half so much fun as figuring out how to do things. I find if

I'm doing the same thing too long, I get bored. Nothing like that here. Feeling my way through the

dark night of ignorance to find some gem of knowledge has always been a fine pastime, and since I

was building by myself, I could look foolish to only myself (a most appreciative audience.)

Learning that Western red cedar is perhaps a little soft for frames wasn't too bad. I added some

pine, and had composite frames that are light and strong and hard enough where I've screwed into them

to hold the screws.

Learning what you can do with a router was a world I've barely begun to explore.

My father gave my the Stanley plane my grandfather, Amos Watkins had used, and given him,

and I learned a sharp blade can do sharp work.

And I learned how happy friends are to help when they see a project under way. Lew Barrett

helped me plane my wood smooth and Tim Yeadon helped me rip the chine logs and sheer clamps from

the planks Lew had help me with.

But having never designed a boat, and never built a boat, there was always lurking in the

shadows the possibility that the boat wouldn't come out as I'd planned. I didn't build this boat the way

most boats are built. There was no lofting, no strongback, no carefully shaped and precisely placed

molds. I built two frames. I built a transom. I built the sides. Then I put them together. The shape of
the sides, the frames and the transom should define the shape. It's an old tradition for building flatiron

skiffs, which are the ancestors to sharpies.

At 1/12 scale, the basswood was stiffer than the ¼ inch plywood I was building with full scale.

The sides sagged at the frames. I saw that she wouldn't define her shape until I put the chine logs and

sheer clamps on. The chine logs go along the bottom of the sides, and attach the bottom to the sides.

The sheer clamp goes along the top of the sides and stiffens them.

So I notched and beveled the frames for the chine logs and sheer clamps. I permanently

attached the sides to the transom, the frames and the stem. Only then could I slip the chine logs and

sheer clamps into the notches on the frames and attach them to the inner surface of the sides, finally

defining the shape of the boat. Photo by John Watkins

It worked! The boat was the same graceful shape as the model. Perhaps a bit agricultural in

some parts not easily visible once the deck was installed, but where sailboats are concerned, love is

involved. And as is so often the case with love, an elegant shape can often make us overlook a lack of


And all that remained to do was most of the work of building the boat. The keel, the bottom,

the deck, the centerboard case, the centerboard, the mast step, the chainplates, the rigging...but it all

progressed. When it came time to turn the boat right side up so I could install the centerboard case and

build the decks, one of the people helping me was Tim Yeadon, who built one of the nicest Maine

peapods I've ever seen, a traditional, double-ended boat about 15 feet long.

He started talking about building another boat on Black Swan's model. Granted, he might never

do that, but finding someone else as charmed as I was with the look of the hull was mighty gratifying.

I launched the boat June 28, with Tim Yeadon's help. She proved stable enough that I can stand

on the side deck while entering the boat, and I can go forward of the mast to attach the jib tack without

capsizing the boat.

Then it was time for my first sail, with a non-sailing friend, John McCartney, as crew. He

requested that I not do anything scary. It was blowing about 15 knots out of the north on Lake

Washington, so to keep hiking to a minimum, I reached out across the lake and reached back.

Black Swan showed she could easily exceed hull speed in the gusts or when she'd catch a wave. I later

sailed with three people in the cockpit, and the boat didn't feel at all crowded. She seems a little

slower in light air than the Snipe, but quicker reaching in a breeze and more relaxing to sail.

Black Swan and I sailed in the Norm Blanchard Regatta sponsored by the Center for Wooden

Boats in September, winning five firsts in five starts. It's a casual regatta, so I won't claim she's shown

herself any kind of breakthrough, but Black Swan has certainly shown that she's no dog.

I've still got work to do, touches I'd like to add, but Black Swan has shown she can do the things

I designed her for and – this is important to a first-time boatbuilder – she doesn't leak!

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