Questions for the Old Man

I didn't expect myself to be talking to the old man, the designer himself, bouncing my dumb ideas off him and hearing the edge of concern in his voice.

I bought our Shantyboat plans from Glen-L Marine.  The company was started by and named after Glen L. Witt, a boat designer who's been designing boats for over 50 years.  When other boat designers needed to give people in-depth information about plywood boats or about fiberglass, they referred me to Glen Witt's books on the subjects.  This is one of the reasons I went with the Glen-L plans.

From the 50s-era Glen-L Marine calendar.

Glen Witt is now retired in his 80s, and the company is run by his daughter Gayle.  When I emailed questions, Gayle herself personally and graciously answered them.  When I ordered stuff, it arrived quickly on my doorstep in good condition, exactly as described.  Okay, what more could I want, right?

This week, I had a question about materials needed to complete the Waterlodge plans.  I was on my way to the lumberyard, so I didn't have time to wait around for an email.  I called up Glen-L expecting to talk to some random employee.  Gayle answered the phone, and fielded my questions deftly, clearly familiar with this design, one of hundreds they offer.

I thought this might be an opportunity to get something off my mind.  We'd made changes to the design, and I really wanted to get the assurance of someone who knew better before we moved forward.  We'd messed up Glen Witt's perfectly elegant design with the following changes:
  • Reduced the size of the cabin by two feet to get a longer fore deck.
  • Put a covered porch over the fore and aft decks
  • Raised the cabin height by a foot to get more head room on the decks (and a sleeping loft in the cabin)
  • Replaced the cabin roof with a gabled roof
  • Added more and larger windows
  • And proposed to build the cabin with board and batten for a traditional cabin-y look

Could Gayle answer these questions, or could she put some experienced boatbuilder on the phone to field my questions? Instead she said, "Well hold on, let me put Glen on the phone."

There was a little delay in which I had time to be a little star struck.   You mean the Glen L. whose plans I'd been studying for a year?  Who wrote what appears to be the bible on plywood boats?  Was I really going to have to tell him how I was planning on ruining his perfectly good plans with my modifications?

An older man came on the phone, "Hello?"

I asked my questions to which most he replied, "Well, if you want to do that."  Though I expected something more like, "Good God, are you trying to be killed?"

But no, we talked about the height of the roof, in which his suggestion was to keep the weight low, and suggested that the "fair lines" of the boat were less important than the appearance I was looking for.  He had a concern about the weight of board and battens,. a concern which I shared.  I asked a few more questions about weight distribution and stuff, all of which he answered politely and knowledgeably. 

Overall, I think I received his cautious stamp of approval.

Boat Plans: Choices Made and Not Made

So it looks like we're building a boat.

Not merely throwing a bunch of shit on the deck of a couple pontoons, or strapping a bunch of barrels together, but making a boat.

You know, one of those things that floats in the water and has things like a hull and a deck, not to mention nautical terms I'm still learning like bilge, stringers, chines, skegs, and bulwarks.

I checked out a half dozen plans seriously.  I ordered study plans, an abbreviated form of the full plans for study purposes, from a couple of boatbuilders, and looked at reviews of many more.

Designed by William Atkin, c. 1947
Length: 18'
Beam: 7'
Atkin's Retreat is a sweet boat.  We liked the simple barge styling and how the cabin was positioned.  We ordered the study plans and particularly enjoyed dealing with Pat Atkin, William's daughter-in-law who now manages Atkin Boat Plans in Noroton, Connecticut.  However this is an old design that suggests cedar planking rather than plywood. We thought William Atkin would be assuming we knew stuff that our generation had long ago forgotten.  More here.
Minnie Hill 20
Designed by Sam Devlin, 2008
Length: 20'
Beam: 8' 2"
We took a look at this boat as well.  It seemed like a fine boat with a simple design inspired by the Retreat.  The scant study plans and coarse lines of the plan did not inspire a ton of confidence.  More info here.
Aqua Casa 20
Designed by Berkeley Eastman, 1990
Length: 20'
Beam: 7' 3"
We liked the look of the Aqua Casa but thought the curved hull would confound us.  We also wanted a covered deck rather than an open deck that could be swamped.  More info here.

Designed by Glen L. Witt, c. 1990
Length: 20' 2"
Beam: 8' 2"
We liked a lot of the things about the Waterlodge.  The simple design and construction.  We did wish the cabin was pushed back toward the stern which it is in the 24' version.   More info here.

There were lots and lots of boat plans we looked at,  but these are the ones for which study plans were readily available.  It's worth mentioning that we also looked at the classic Coolwater, but knew that the plans that appeared in Modern Mechanix in the 1940's were sketchy at best and no competent boat designer had made a crack at developing complete plans.

In the end it came down to confidence that the boat designer could adequately communicate to us what we needed to know to build a boat.  Our choice came down to small details.  There were designs that had a centered cabin or one pushed a bit back toward the stern -- we leaned toward the latter.  There were designs that had covered decks versus open decks -- we went with covered decks.  There were designs that called for twin rakes fore and aft, and designs that had very little rake in back -- we were drawn to the latter.  We understood that all these things could be modified in the plans, but were not confident in our ability to freestyle from the designer's intentions.

A few boat designers and builders suggested Glen L. Witt's Boat Building With Plywood as a great guide to understanding plywood boats.  I picked it up first through inter-library loan at the local university library, read it, and, when it seemed like such an indispensable volume, bought it online.  Step-by-step, every aspect considered.  Sober and serious and refreshingly frank, the tone was perfect for what and how I wanted to learn.  I was impressed by Glen L. Witt's ability to describe the nitty-gritty of boat building.

When it came time to shell out money for boat building plans, I was confident that the Glen-L plans would not only feature a great barge-style houseboat, but that the devil in the details would be on our side. 

I ordered the Glen-L Waterlodge plans for just over a hundred bucks.  They arrived promptly.  I opened them with excitement and was not disappointed.  These are beautiful large detailed blueprints.  Gorgeous.

Even if I don't build a boat, I now have beautiful nautical art I can hang.