Boating errand in the flattest dryest spot in North America

"Ha ha," said Alex when we took off with the 20 foot flatbed, "We were worried about the trailer, but just think, my tow kit is only being held on by four bolts." Ha ha, I said.

An hour later we were heading back to Reno after a dramatic bumper removal and whiplashing trailer on a high-speed mountain highway, a situation that Alex who was driving barely snatched out of the jaws of disaster. When we wrestled the truck off the highway into a narrow turnout, we discovered that two of the four bolts holding the tow kit to the truck backed themselves out, and a third was mostly out. "Ha ha," we said weakly, not quite so funny anymore.

(This was not us, except in a scary imagined possible alternate timeline.)

I think Alex was a little more shaken than I was. Though somehow still in decent spirits, I could see stress in the grim straight line of his mouth. (In fairness he was also worried about his differential which was splattering oil across two states.)  For me, though harrowing, I suspect this is just what happens when I take this trailer out, or hop a train, or float down a river on a raft made of trash, or have an open-ended adventure.

My friend Hobo Lee always said "Adventure is never fun when you're doing it."  If adventure leaves room for the unexpected, the unplanned (or poorly-planned), the death-defying near disaster, perhaps that may be true.

Though it is entirely possible that I might have been able to find a 20 foot long flatbed trailer much closer to me in the state of California, there was this trailer waiting for me, abandoned more or less, in a storage yard in far away and remote Gerlach, Nevada.  I think it was the shared history this trailer and I had, the terrifying moments careening down the Altamont Pass when I thought it would be the death of me that made it so attractive.  It is to Alex's eternal credit that he puts up with these quixotic impulses I have.

When we saw the trailer sitting forlorn on a cluttered desert storage yard, for me, it was like seeing an old friend.  Sean and I bought this thing for like $400, a steal really.  I don't even remember who from.  We took the overloaded trailer every summer over the Sierras for a bunch of years, towed by my underpowered '64 F100.  It got stolen at one point and we recovered it through sheer coincidence.  Then we found we could store it in the desert for cheap and avoid the hazardous mountain crossing.  There it has stayed for over a decade.  Until now.

We picked up the trailer and spent the night drinking Jameson and smoking a cigar on the Black Rock Desert while the Lyrid meteor shower whirled overhead and the dogs ran around confused by the featureless immensity of the place.  

When we measured it, we found the trailer is longer than 20 feet.  More like 25 feet tongue to tip.  But the bed is rather narrow, maybe about 6 foot.  We really need 8 foot minimum for the shantyboat.  We were talking about ways to widen the bed.  Do we know a good structural welder?  Alex said, "After all this trouble, we have to use this trailer.  No matter what it costs."

I don't know.  I just like the ridiculousness of the thing.

Tips on how not to die in a fiery ball of twisted metal on the highway

Anyone know anything about trailer tow hardware like sway bars and weight distributing whohaws and whatnots?

The shantyboat we're planning will be trailer-able.  So if I'm gonna be towing a heavy-ass boat on a trailer down the road with a 20 foot double axle trailer with electric brakes, I want not to experience the sheer shit-in-your-pants life-flashes-before-your-eyes terror of a swaying trailer that I remember from my years hauling my theme camp out to the Black Rock Playa back in the day.

The weight of the boat, will be maybe 5000 lbs and change (but maybe as high as 7000 lbs). I'll be towing it with a 1970 Ford 3/4 ton F250. My old work truck.  God, I love that thing.  500 bucks ten years ago.  This is the only vehicle I've shown the commitment of purchasing a stereo for.

Chicken John who's towed big stupid heavy things around for years says:
So that truck probably weighs about 5,000 pounds. If it's a 3/4 ton, it'll have a heavy duty front end, more springs in the back, bigger drums/calipers, beefier suspension all around and should not sway. If it does, I would look to a repair in the truck or changing the weight of the trailer around... maybe move the boat up or back a foot or two. you want like 400 pounds of tongue weight or so.
Swaying is death on wheels. Back in the day, with my smaller '64 F150, if we kept is slow, like 50 and under, all was okay, but if we went faster than that, terror.

I hear there are nifty things called sway bars and other fancy hardware that can allow my life to feel more secure. What do I need to look at if I want to maybe go 55 without dying?

Some helpful webpage about truck and trailer towing says:
1. Chronal circuitry.  2. Mr. Fusion.  3. Flux capacitor.  4. Geissler tubes.  5. Plutonium-powered nuclear reactor
The Weight Distribution Hitch

The weight distribution hitch allows the Ford 250 to tow double the weight of the simple hitch. This hitch uses the same ball attached to the back of the truck. It adds two bars or tubes, stretching two feet back, under the frame of the trailer. Each tube connects with a chain to the trailer frame above it. When the truck slows down and the trailer wants to dip down, the tubes and chains prevent it from doing so. With this type of hitch, the trailer and the truck stay in the same plane. The trailer can't tilt forward and press the back of the truck down.
I'm down with that.  There are all sorts of variations apparently, sway controls, and weight distribution styles.  I read about this until my head spun.

But again from Chicken:
Weight disribution or anti-sway bar... same same. I don't recommend them, but they are useful in over 8,000 pound applications. For you, with your 3/4 ton truck, it would be best to only tow inside your "towing capacity". Which I think you can do. However, if you find that your rig is not right after you hitch up and go on a trial run, you could try something like that. But as I said, if you are towing 5,000 pounds and you start to sway, it's probably the truck needing a repair.
So I like to hear those soothing words, like "You'll be okay," and "You can do it," and "You probably will not die on the highway in the wreckage of your shantyboat."  They warm my chilled little heart.

Destruction and Creation

Sometimes the treasure hunt of creating something from salvaged materials is half the fun.  Okay,  Okay. I'll admit it, more than half the fun.  I've been making art out of bullshit found in junkpiles and on dump runs for more than a decade. 

But when you want to create a barn or a shed or a shantyboat out of old barn wood and rusty sheet metal, you got to do some searching.  If you live in a less-than-rural area, good luck.  On my country drives, the amount of rusty weathered junk in the yard of every farm we pass sets me drooling.  To find materials I have to get more creative.

This weekend we went out to the deep country of Hollister (made famous by Marlon Brando in The Wild One) to tear down an old chicken coop.  It was beautiful.  Beautiful country, beautiful weather, and beautiful 80 year old redwood lumber and rusty sheet metal.

Salvaging a building, involves deconstructing a building in the reverse order it was constructed.  We remove the shingles, then the roof battens, then the roof beams, and so on.  It is an interesting way to understand how a building is constructed. 

The chicken coop featured "single wall" construction.  That is, no stud framing, just siding that holds up the roof.  When we were done, we had a huge pile of beautiful old redwood 1x12s and a handful of redwood beams.  It was rough-cut "dimensional lumber," meaning a 2x4 actually measures 2 inches by 4 inches.

Jen and Kai helped disassemble the chicken coop, and then Alex helped disassemble a nearby outhouse the next weekend.  This lumber will be used to construct the cabin on our shantyboat.  The corrugated metal will form the roofs over the cabin and porches. 

Walking out into the nearby fields we found an old shack with gorgeous peeling paint patterns.  Hard not to joink this door as our shantyboat door.

I get hot just looking at old weathered textures.  In some ways, for better or worse, it is my love of this aesthetic which guides a lot of the decisions about the shantyboat.

Bruce's Pontoons

We were planning to use Bruce's pontoon boat that he scored somewhere around the Lake Shasta area as the base for our shantyboat.  In fact, it was Bruce's pontoon boat score that gave us the greenlight for this project.  Not so sure about this now.  Every boat has a buoyancy, a certain weight that it can support safely.  Bruce writes:
I don't know how easy it is to calculate this. During high school geometry I had a crush on the Castellucio twin sisters (Karyn and Kathleen) and most of my mental energies were taken up by trying to flirt with the two of them rather than on the substance of the coursework. I haven't really revisited the subject of geometry (nor, alas, the Castellucios) since that time.

The pontoons are sort of irregular shaped, they are flat on the top and sort of u-shaped on the bottom. The top to bottom dimension is 17 1/2". They are 18 1/2" wide.  As I've mentioned before, the platform is 16' long. The pontoons extend another 18" to the rear of the platform. They also extend about 24" to the front of the platform. However, in the front they are tapering down to be much more narrow, expecially in that last foot.

Okay, I'm gonna make some assumptions about Bruce's pontoon boat.  Doing some crazy math that requires me to get out my geometry book again, I guesstimate the total cross-sectional area of the pontoon is about 2 sq ft.  To get the volume, we multiply that times the length. We'll say that is 16 feet + another 1.5 ft at the back, and another maybe 1 foot at the front. For 18.5 feet. So the volume of one pontoon is perhaps 37 cu ft.

We just look at one pontoon, because we want to make sure that the capacity we work with never exceeds the floatation of one pontoon, lest a shift in weight drive it under the water and flip the craft. This situation even has an ominous-sounding name:  Pontoon Effect.  Plus, if you think about two pontoons, you want them both no more than half in the water.

To get the floatation, we multiply the volume times the weight of the same amount of water. Thanks, Archimedes.  One cu ft of fresh water weighs 62.4 lbs. So the flotation of one pontoon is 37 cu ft  * 62.4 lbs/cu ft = 2308 lbs. So the weight of the boat, plus the passengers, plus their gear and stuff, plus some margin of safety 10 to 25% should not exceed 2308 lbs.

Probably too tiny for our heavy shantyboat. However, we can build Bruce's pontoon out to be a little hillbilly sun porch to accompany our shantyboat.  Something like this...

Math is Hard - Calculating a Waterline

Who would have thought boatbuilding would involve so much math?

I was reading Glen L. Witt's Boatbuilding With Plywood and realized what should have been obvious to me:  The waterline of a boat is calculated beforehand.  I guess it makes sense that boatbuilders don't guesstimate their designs only to drop their boats into the water and see what happens. On top of that, many of the handling characteristics of a boat are built into the design, including balance.

With our cabin shifted back from the center, this would shift the balance toward the back.  Add to that the weight of the motor and fuel and we have a potential problem.  So far, I've been assuming symmetrical bow and stern as many barge boats feature, but in order to increase buoyancy in back and shift the center of buoyancy forward, I can reduce the rake in back to get more of the hull in the water there.  This explains some of the barge boat that did feature a smaller stern rake.  How would I go about calculating that?  That is something I will have to think about.

But as an interesting exercise, I can calculate the waterline height as a function of the rake angles, length and width of the boat, and overall loaded weight of the boat.

I had to go back to my algebra and trigonometry reference books to look up how tangent and the quadratic equation worked.  The last equation gives us the waterline height hw as a function of
w = overall width/beam
l = overall length
h = height from bottom to deck (or to the top of the rake)
Θb = angle of bow rake
Θs = angle of stern rake
Vw = volume at waterline (= the weight of the displacement of loaded boat)
Simply put, the total volume of water displaced is equal to the sum of the water displaced by the bow, stern, and center.  The volume of each of these can be calculated geometrically as a function of our unknown, the height of the waterline.

We then solve for the unknown and get an equation in a quadratic form (the forth one from the bottom).  So we use the quadradic equation (which I've always hated) to solve for hw.

Taking our equation for a spin

Let's say the total weight of the boat plus gear plus people plus 25% safety margin is 7000 lbs.  Then the calculated volume of the boat at the waterline is 193,846 cu in.

We'll say the boat is 8 foot (96 inches) wide, the length is 20 foot (240 inches), and the height from the bottom to the deck is 2 feet (24 inches).  The bow rake angle is 45° and the stern rake is a modest 10°. 

So plugging in the numbers, and taking the plus-or-minus of the quadratic formula into account, I get:
hw = 370 inches or -9.28 inches
So either my boat will have a waterline 31 feet above the keel (that is to say, the boat will be underwater), or it will float 9 inches out of the water. No wonder I always dreaded the math part of a real-world problem.

Checking my math... ah I forgot a negative sign!  New solutions:
hw = 9.28 inches or -370 inches
That's much better.  If we throw out the negative solution, we have a waterline 9 and a quarter inches above the keel.  Cool.

Karaoke Doodles

So far, I've ignored the inside cabin layout, thinking that it would sort itself out eventually.  But I got thinking, and with a few beers started doodling.  I went to the normally quiet Trout Farm on Zayante Road (the same road on which we will build the shantyboat).  Unbeknownst to me, it was karaoke night at the Trout Farm and so I did my sketches and drank beer while people sang Bonnie Raitt and Sam Cooke. 

As you can see, the beer was liberally applied, and not just to me.

First thing I noticed was that in all my previous drawings I forget the head. Then I had to figure out a good place for it.  We will bump it out on to the deck a bit and bump it into the room a bit for a 3 x 3 foot head.  Probably better on the back deck, just because the bump out looks a little funny in front.

So there are three things that need to be located in a corner:  the head, the galley, and the woodstove.  Actually, the woodstove could go in the middle of a side wall, but it might be in the way.

I have the front door swing out because swinging in on a step down is weird and dangerous.  The back door swings in (despite the step) because otherwise it would interfere to much with whatever's happening on the back deck.

Beyond Napkin Plans

I’m trying to turn my shantyboat speculations into something that feels a little bit more tangible.

Ooo, graph paper!  Getting fancy now.  When I sketch it out proportionally, the shanty boat is less long and skinny than I had drawn it.  In fact, it looks like a tiny shanty.  On a boat.

I'd kind of like to make the cabin a little more squat, which I can afford to do since I've dropped the cabin floor a foot or more below the level of the decks.  However, I am limited by a funny thing:  The head height of the porches.  They need to be at least 6 foot at the lowest part (and even that's pushing it a bit and likely to bonk any of my NBA friends).

There was some concern about balance with the cabin shifted back from center a bit.  Mostly that is to give us a big fine front porch and it only shifts the cabin back about two feet.  Plus I heard a boatbuilder suggestion to shift weight toward the back.  It lifts the bow and allows you to take oncoming chop a bit better.

Oh shit, and why do I keep forgetting the head?  There is a little 1-1/2 deep x 3 foot wide bump out along the front (or maybe the back) where the head goes.  Looking at it here, probably the back would be a bit more aesthetically pleasing.  It bumps into the interior a foot and half also to make a tiny 3 x 3 foot bathroom.

The interior is 10' x 8'.

A little SketchUp magic and Voila!
Nice.  I’m liking the look of this.  Now, I just need to get myself a border collie.