Chuggerboat trip - November 2005
By Pat Johnson - Pensacola, Florida - USA

The Chuggerboat had been inspired by a comment my dad had made about kayaking down the Yukon River while we were camping and fishing the Prudhoe Bay Pipeline Road near the Arctic Circle. I responded quickly saying I didn’t think I wanted to spend over a month in a kayak, and that maybe we should build a bare-bones boat with sleeping accommodations to use instead. I further explained that we could simply donate the boat to the Indians upon reaching the Bearing Sea and haul the motor back on the float plane that would bring us back to where we started. The conversation quickly turned to other matters and neither of us spoke about it again during the trip. Still, the idea had not died.

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The Chuggerboat had been inspired by a comment my dad had made about kayaking down the Yukon River.

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After thinking about it off & on again for several months I was pretty sure in my mind that we would probably never haul a boat the 5000 miles (as the crow flies) to the Yukon River from my home in Florida. Although it was unlikely that we would ever actually build a boat to take the trip, I had already begun thinking about a simplistic design that would have all the absolute necessities while at the same time keeping the cost low enough to be able to afford to give it away in the end. I settled on a flat bottomed boat that would have lots of capacity for its size. I even built a test version of the hull. I call it the Brick since it resembled the Phil Bolger boat design called the “Bolger Brick”). The Brick was shorter than the ultimate project boat but its hull shape was the same and would let us know how the boat would handle and how stable it would be. The Brick turned out to be extremely stable with an extraordinary capacity for its size. The hull design was settled in my mind.

I was now determined to build the boat even if we didn’t take it to Alaska. However, since I wouldn’t be giving it away to the Indians on the Bearing Sea, I could add some luxuries that would otherwise be left off. I designed a more attractive topside that included solid walls with windows and a solid top with a hatch in it.

Dad stands beside the nearly finished hull of the Chuggerboat

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Well, nearly a year later the boat was structurally finished. We had taken the boat up and down the local river several miles to ensure it wouldn’t sink and that everything was seaworthy. The boat performed remarkably well and we were satisfied with everything we learned about its performance. The little 5hp engine was enough to push it about 6-7mph while consuming only 1/3 gallon per hour. The motor could be left in one position while the steering was performed by shifting one’s weight from side to side. The boat turned like a ski turns. Of course the motor had to be turned manually when in tight places but while cruising, it didn’t have to be touched. I finished the paintjob and all the details needed to complete the boat.

Dad and I had been trying to get some time set aside for an overnight test run on the Chuggerboat. We finally decided on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We chose the Alabama River because we knew we could count on it being navigatable since small barges occasionally used it commercially. Dad and I had taken a pontoon boat on it years ago. We had hoped to be able to get someone to drop us off and pick us up so that we could do a longer trip one way. Unfortunately everyone was busy and we were left to our own devices.

We chose to put the boat in at the upriver side of the Claiborne Dam & Lock near Monroeville Alabama. We knew there was a nice ramp to launch the boat and that the river was pretty desolate and wild to the north. We like the desolate stretches of river as opposed to the populated ones. The Alabama River runs from Montgomery Alabama to just north of Mobile Alabama where it joins the Tombigbee to form the Mobile River which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

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We chose to put the boat in at the upriver side of the Claiborne Dam & Lock near Monroeville Alabama. We knew there was a nice ramp to launch the boat and that the river was pretty desolate and wild to the north.

As it turned out, the weather made for a good test on the Chuggerboat. It was scheduled to be cold and windy and that was exactly what the boat was intended for. We drove to the Army Corps of Engineers campground at the lock arriving around 9:00pm. We camped in the van for the night. The temperatures were near freezing overnight but were expected to climb into the 60s during the day. We launched the boat, loaded the gear and were under way by 8:00am. I moved the boat out into the river at a slow speed while dad fired up the stove to make coffee and oatmeal.

We ate breakfast on the run as we sped up to around 5mph. The current coming down river made 5mph our top speed going up the river. We spent the day cruising up the river and enjoying the scenery. We saw lots of fish jumping. A deer swam across the river in front of us and we spotted a few more along the river’s edge as we motored by. At the end of the day we were approximately 40-50 miles upriver from our starting point. We dropped the anchor off to the side of the river where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. Then we cooked dinner and enjoyed a cup of tea before going to bed. The cabin transforms into a 4’ X 8’ bed by inserting a filler between the two bench seats. That made for plenty of room for our two sleeping bags. We made sure the windows were secure and put a tarp over the rear opening to make sure the heat stayed inside. Dad turned the stove on for a few minutes to warm up the cabin before we crawled into our sleeping bags.

Sea trials prior to painting

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The cabin was warm enough to be comfortable and we slept well. We got up just after sunrise and peeked outside where we saw a fog rolling up off the water. A quick look out the back revealed frost and ice on the outside of the boat. We decided to pack things up and make some coffee before going outside to start our return trip. Things went well until we tried to start the motor. After several cranks it still wouldn’t start and we concluded that it was cold and we had flooded the engine. We waited a while and tried again with no success. Dad proposed that we begin floating back down river while we worked on the engine and so we pulled in the anchor and started to drift. The current was a little over a mile an hour and we determined that if all else failed we would reach the ramp late Sunday afternoon by simply drifting along.

We tried and tried and couldn’t get the engine to start. Finally we used the boat pole and a broken branch to paddle a little to increase our drifting speed. After near three hours of alternating between drifting, paddling and trying to start the motor we discovered the reason the motor hadn’t started. After turning the motor off the preceding evening we had restarted it to back away from the anchor to ensure it was dug in good. After doing that I had simply hit the kill switch and had not returned the gearshift to neutral. Of course the motor won’t start in any position other than neutral so it hadn’t! The little 5hp engine is so easy to pull start that you can’t tell it’s in gear when you pull it and consequently, it had not been obvious when we had tried over and over again. Anyway, as soon as we put the gearshift into neutral the motor immediately fired up and we were off. We were able to maintain a speed of 6 to 7mph going downstream and were able to get back to the dock just as the sun was going down. The boat was quickly loaded onto the trailer and we drove back to Pensacola.

The Chuggerboat had proven to be more than acceptable for a minimalist cruiser. There had been plenty of room to sleep and store gear in. The ability to be inside at night kept us warm enough to be comfortable on a freezing night. The low fuel consumption had allowed us to go nearly 100 miles on about 7 gallons of gas. The ability to stand up anytime we chose, allowed us to be much more rested at the end of the day than if we had been forced to sit the entire time. Although dad had gotten off the boat briefly to get the branch to paddle with, we had stayed on the boat the rest of the time proving that being on the boat we were pretty much self contained. That was important since many rivers have swampy areas where there is no way to get off the boat. If there was one thing that we were less than pleased with it was the motor noise. But the Briggs & Stratton engine is much noisier and vibrates more than is typical, and another engine would probably reduce the noise level to an acceptable one. Dad and I both agreed that the test was a glowing success!

Although my boat is significantly different, I was inspired by many of the ideas and design from Steven Lewis at the Lewis Boat Works and named my boat after his in tribute. The Chuggerboat is 12 feet long and 4 feet wide. The cabin is 6 feet long but the area under the bow extends another 2 feet making the bed 8 feet long when the filler is inserted between the bench seats. The filler stores like a drawer under the bow. The entire boat weights about 175 pounds. The side windows do not open but the front one swings up to let the breeze in. The hatch in the top is 2 feet by two feet and allows plenty of room to stand up and turn around in. It also allows more air circulation inside. The hatch stores directly aft of the hatch opening when open. The back of the cabin has a open area nearly 3 feet wide and almost 4 feet high making it easy to get into and out of the cabin from the cockpit in the back. The cockpit is 4 feet square and is plenty of room for two people to sit comfortably in. The boat could safely operate with as many as 6 people in it but it would be awfully crowded. The total cost to build the boat was approximately $500 plus a little labor and a lot of thought.

About the author….Pat Johnson builds boats as a hobby and has built about 20 odd boats to date. All of the boats are less than 16ft and about half are power and the others are sail or row boats. Pat enjoys helping others get started building boats and offers to show people how it’s done if asked. Pat lives in Pensacola Florida and often sails in Pensacola Bay and surrounding rivers and lakes. Pat’s most common advise to people thinking about building a boat is to start small and start now!

Pat Johnson
Pensacola Florida

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