SPIRIT LEVEL 27' | Building Notes
— A project log of materials, dimensions, and construction techniques.
THE EYE IS A PRECISION INSTRUMENT
I used to sketch the outlines of surfboards I wanted to shape on notebook paper before doing a layout on the foam blank at full size. These were not scale drawings, but roughly proportional nonetheless — just something to transfer the general idea from my mind’s eye into semi-tangible form. Having developed a good set of templates over the past 15-years or so, as well as a general sense of the dimensions that produce the curves I like, I don’t resort to the pencil and sketch pad as often as I used to for surfboards. But I’ve started building a 27-foot sailboat, and well before I secured a single post for the building frame, or built a jig for the bow stem, I put on my naval architect’s hat and carefully laid out the lines at 1:3 scale, with frequent reference to the book, Yacht Designing and Planning (1936 W.W. Norton & Company), by the great American boat designer and historian, Howard Chapell.
“‘[B]oat sense’… obtained by critical observation and comparison of lines and details of successful craft,” Chapelle writes, “is of far more importance than either the ability to make difficult calculations or to draw well.” And that’s a good thing, because while I might draw reasonably well, and can even work out the dimensions for the building projects I undertake, my “boat sense” — gained from the surfboards I’ve shaped and ridden, the boat Cormorant I built and sailed to within an inch of my life, and the many, many vessels I’ve inspected — is far superior to the more mechanical aspects of boat design and building. Simply put, I have a clear idea of the boat I want based on a solid understanding of the design features that make it so.
This boat, Spirit Level, (named for the book by Irish poet, Seamus Heaney) is a Viking Riverboat Channel Crosser, with a balanced lug for the mainsail (like Cormorant’s main) and a gaff rig mizzen — an ancient and efficient sail plan borrowed from boats of the 18th and 19th centuries. Built for coastal cruising in the Southern California Bight from Point Conception and across to the Channel Islands, as well destinations further North and South, Spirit Level will be a family sailboat with a small cabin and diesel motor for auxiliary power. 27-feet LOA, with a beam of 8’6”, Spirit Level is to be built in marine plywood lap-strake planking secured with epoxy, and re-enforced by laminated interior frames. The masts will be un-stayed and removable, fit to chocks when underway with the mainsail halyard run to a block on chain plates on the weather rail for added structural support. Leeboards will provide lateral resistance (think Dutch river barges), and keep the cabin space uncluttered.
The trick to building anything, of course, is getting one’s hands to draw the lines and make the cuts that the mind’s eye conjures. Because the points, lines, and curves of a surfboard or boat exist in theory (or on a plan), we have only to fix these in space with the materials of our choosing. To be sure, certain dimensions represent what could be called “cosmic coordinates” — the foils that allow flight, or exceptional hydrodynamic performance, for example — and although it is a lifetime’s work determining the best lines for either boats or surfboards, a trained eye knows when it sees correct proportion. There is a resonance, or harmony to well-designed objects, and throughout the build — no less in setting up the molds (the interior shapes of the hull over which the planking will be laid) than in choosing the roofline for the cabin top — the eye will inform the dimensions that ultimately define Spirit Level’s form.
Unlike the effort to build and sail Cormorant, Spirit Level will have a greater level of community involvement (although I did receive plenty of help with Cormorant, both while building and subsequently sailing, from Bill Allen, Mickey Munoz, John Reilly, Liz Clark, Aurelio Munoz, Catarino Burjez, and Paula and Diego Arce, as well as many others who have lent a hand to haul us up or down various beaches between Mag Bay and Vancouver Island). While the voyages of the Cormorant have largely been about solitude and exploration, the Spirit Level project involves my new local community in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Ventura: Jeff Hull and his boat yard/motor expertise; Spencer Davis, surfboard and boat ace; Scott Carlson, my neighbor who is always ready to lend a hand, and, crucially, Ronnie Mendoza, who has given me a space to build on behind his ancient little house at the end of the street under the 50-foot avocado tree and hard against the salt marsh (with a tip-toe view of Santa Cruz Island); also, my friends at Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a local conservation non-profit with a mission to protect and restore the Santa Barbara Channel and its watersheds. Sharing my love for this coastline, Channelkeeper has shown a keen interest in my journeys past and present, and they invited me to speak at their Blue Water Ball in April, 2016. I look forward to joining with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and finding ways to utilize Spirit Level in the good work of caring for these waters. Please check in on our progress (because this one will require some help along the way!)
I sought to continue in the way of "Cormorant" building and scraping and saving my way to epic surf adventures en famile. However, I have not been able thus far to make this vision of a 27-foot sailing vessel a reality. We are often encouraged to pursue our dreams, no matter how difficult or impossible they may appear. Indeed, it seems the only path to "greatness" is the one an individual blazes for him or herself, and the idea that we can build our lives just as we want them, sustained by the activities that speak to our hearts, is a powerful and valuable one.
But what if we cannot pull that off? Does the fault lie merely in a lack of belief in our vision? I have long now seen that a major boat construction is not going to be in the best interests of my family. I am a working man now. I have built the shaping bay at our place, and there I create ocean craft in the form of surfboards. And I write. But this big vision, this boat with a snug little cabin, seems to have slipped from my grasp. I suppose it is not the only thing I want, or perhaps I do not want it enough to go through (and put my wife and children through) the grind and the tear of manifesting this particular reality. Although as I write these words I think to myself it doesn't sound so bad, really—a curve here, a bevel there, some plywood and epoxy and I'll see you at the islands!
This is not a manifesto of failure, but my fancy video and self-promotion regarding the "Spirit Level" project rankles a bit, because the truth is the moulds for the hull and the inner stem for the bow lie stacked against the shed and I have no immediate plans, nor any in the foreseeable future, to build this boat. My boy turns three next week. and my girl is but six-years-old. I go to work and come home to this beautiful house and try mightily to keep my mind on happy and productive paths. Surfboard shaping is a grand art and that is my building/designing joy currently. This raising a family business is a smorgasbord of every difficult, maddening, joyous, mundane and wondrous aspect of life. And it is the life I have created along with my wife Natasha, and it is full, and I am fortunate, and within it still I may be able to build that next boat after all. In the meantime I'm seeking the way to share these layers of experience in words in another book to be a companion to "Voyage of the Cormorant."