Duckworks - Safety First!
The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

Bayside Boatshop
by Ross Lillistone

A Little Bit of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

The most difficult part of boat building is choosing the design. We all know the agony of endless sleepless nights induced by boat-thought, and my self-inflicted research into the subject has convinced me that it doesn’t get any better as you get older!

Being passionate about a subject (in my case, Proper Boats) is a bitter/sweet pill which must be swallowed daily. A monomaniac faces the dilemma of being classed as a messiah by some, and a complete bore by others. I don’t consider myself to be either - I do think of things other than boats, and I am not an oracle.

What passion does do, is to give a person the motivation to look deeply into a subject which is a side issue for others. Computers, for example, are a side issue in my life. I am in awe of computer science, and I am extremely grateful to those zealots who have provided us with the computers we use daily. However, I am not passionate about computers, and when I have a problem with mine, I just want advice at short notice.

My passion is boats. For more than forty years I’ve been fascinated by boats, boat building, and boat design. The subject matter is never ending, rich and evocative - even the most apparently simple aspects are traps for the romantic. Painting and varnishing have caught me from behind while my attention was drawn elsewhere - I am now passionate about coatings as well as about boats themselves. What next?

In previous articles I have mentioned being grateful for the teaching which has come to me from books. A visit to the local library will yield a treasury of knowledge, especially if you are prepared to delve deeply into the vaults of the State Libraries. Venture overseas to places like the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum, the Smithsonian, Lloyds Register of Shipping, Woodenboat Magazine Publications, The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and be rewarded for your efforts - the cost is tiny.

Our own maritime museums in Sydney and Brisbane, here in Australia, are full of research material - I am sorry to say that I am not familiar with the museums in the other states, but will eventually discover more about their contents.

The point about all this is that we live in a world that is filled with wells of retained knowledge, and these wells are easy to access. I receive a huge number of emails, ’phone calls, and personal visits from people who want the short answer to their boating questions. I am not qualified to give definitive answers, but I try my best. Where does my knowledge come from? Years of reading, thinking and doing; that is all.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out in the boating world who don’t seem to suffer too much from self-doubt when it comes to being an oracle. Beware - a little bit of knowledge is a very dangerous thing in this business. As an example, there exist several ranges of designs and kits which ape the looks of particular “traditional” types. The traditional types became traditional because of a ruthless process of natural selection, and this selection is associated with the availability of certain types of building material. To imitate the designs without having an understanding about why and how they came to be smacks of playing the supreme authority.

Two years ago I was called on to rectify some serious faults in a kit boat. This particular one had been assembled at the factory, and was the second one to come through my workshop for modification (I have no desire to identify the design, nor the builder, so don’t ask me). The rig was touted as being of a particular traditional type, but it was clear that the designer did not understand the dynamics of the rig. There were three pieces of running rigging on the yard, for example, when only one piece was required (according to tradition and practice). The result was a rig which was more expensive than necessary, more difficult and laborious to rig and unrig than required, and which was inefficient in action.

Unfortunately for purchasers, the above mentioned design looked traditional to the un-trained eye, and from certain perspectives was and is quite attractive. A small amount of research into the history of such a rig would have resulted in a boat which benefited from the experience of those who went before, and which would have performed far better than she did, in fact.

Lest any of you think that I am putting myself forward as an authority, think again. I am the beneficiary of other people’s knowledge. Due to fortunate circumstance, I have been able to gain a few small insights from my own experience. But I’m not very clever, and the vast bulk of my knowledge has been gained second-hand.

Instead of asking other people for solutions to your problems, take the time to read the words of Herreshoff, Chappelle, Bolger, White, Parker, Atkin (father and son), Rabl, Farmer, Garden, Gardener, Welsford, Payson, Michalak, Mower, Mackintosh, Colvin, Hasler, McLeod, Fenger, McGregor, Bray, Wilson, Whittman, Worth, Skene, Stephens, Munroe, Oughtred, Kunhardt, Ransome….and on and on. No matter where you concentrate your search, there is such a rich lode of knowledge available that anybody can get high-grade information easily.

Gaining your own understanding from research instead of relying on others to do your thinking will richen your experience. Once you begin to see why certain construction techniques, hull configurations, and rigs came into existence, the chances are that you will be able to make a much better go of choosing the boat which is best for your particular needs.