Category Archives: Boatbuilding & Design

Day 1 – Changing Course

What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it.

— Sterling Hayden, Wanderer

Today marked a radical change in the overall course of my project. In the last few days it has become increasingly clear that future access to the facility where my ama is currently stowed, may become problematic. Furthermore there comes a time when you have to face the facts, and the simple fact is that I got practically nothing done on my boat this summer. I had the perfect opportunity, access to a great workshop, and after completing my Bachelor’s thesis I had even taken the rest of the semester off to work on the boat. Despite all of that, since I left Wilhelmshaven in late May / early June, I’ve spent at most 30-40 hours working on the construction of the boat, in a whooping four months of time. It’s a dismal result, and it’s down to having too many other things on my plate, getting stuck, and at times just feeling overwhelmed with the project. I don’t have a sea-faring background or extensive cruising experience to rely on. In an 8.5m cruising proa for coastal and possibly trade-wind use, there’s a thousand details you have to get right, and at present I simply lack the experience and the skills to do so.

There is no way that I will let the next summer pass me by again, but four and a half months down the road I have nothing more than a half-finished 5.8m long ama, so what’s the plan? Simple, I am going to build an Mbuli from the plans by Chesapeake Light Craft. Mbuli is a 6.1m proa with a ‘cabin’ that’s large enough for one person to lie down in. It’s a two-handed daysailor, or a singlehanded minimal weekender designed for sailing in coastal waters. You might say it’s not half the boat I’ve been dreaming and talking about over the last few years, but it’s a boat which will be every bit as capable of taking me on adventures, far more than any ship of the imagination ever could. I am going to finish the ama, build the vaka from the plans, and rig the boat with the single large mainsail I already have. Later on I could even reuse the ama, mast, and mainsail for a larger boat.

What a pile of junk! An afternoon later however, the garage is tidy as ever, and ready to start work.
What a pile of junk! An afternoon later, the garage is tidy as ever, and ready to start work.

At 6.10m the hull would barely fit into my 5.5 x 2.5m garage, having to be oriented double diagonally, but what counts, is that it fits, at least overnight. Thus I have a place right infront of my doorstep, to get the boat done. I can always build the rudders, do the rigging, painting, etc next spring, but now it’s pedal-to-the-metal to get the bare hulls done this year. I’ve got about a month of time before it gets too cold to do anything with epoxy.

Progress for today: Conceived my new strategy, identified the (small) design changes which will be necessary to accomodate my rig, and cleaned out my garage so it’s ready to start work. Thanks a ton to Nils B. for helping me out with the garage, it took all afternoon, but we came through in the end! : )

Now it’s off to bed, for an early start tomorrow! 32 days to go. Let’s do this!

— Marco

Designing the Vaka

It’s been a while since my last post, so I thought I’d get back to it by talking about some of the CAD work that goes into the project, a facet which I haven’t covered at all yet in the blog. After coming up with a design brief and the general configuration and dimensions, the CAD work is one of the most important parts of the design process. Originally I did all of my modelling using Autodesk Inventor which I started using & learning for that purpose back in 2013. As you can see form some of the early renderings, initially I was pursuing more of an open beach-proa:

Soon afterwards I made the jump to a boat with a cabin though. I have since gone through many iterations of the vaka (the main hull) to improve the design. As I would learn later, these early models, especially these early renderings of vakas with a cabin) have a chronic lack of volume in the ends. This would have made the boats a disaster when sailing off the wind or in rough seas. About a year later my designs were starting to be a bit more refined. I took a great deal of inspiration from John Harris’ Mbuli.

I was attracted to the ease of shunting a schooner rig, you go on a beam reach, stop the boat, sheet the booms in toward the other end, and off you go on the new tack. There’s no jibs to raise and lower all the time. The bottom of this hull was round, to minimize the wetted surface area, but at great cost in construction time. I was continuing my trend of having no overhang at the bows, and was also starting to have very little to no flare at the ends of the boat (near the bows the sides of the hull are vertical) to reduce pitching in a seaway. The hope therein was to slice through the smaller waves instead of going over them. This is very much the middle ground between conventional bows and the wave-piercers. After building a mockup of the vaka, it also turned out that the cabin was too small, I simply hadn’t left enough space on the inside. Building and trying out the mockup was a powerful lesson in that sometimes, especially for ergonomics and comfort, it’s best to just build it and have a look. Whether you have enough elbow room or if something feels comfortable or not, is difficult to gauge in a CAD program, especially when the goal is to find the smallest possible configuration which offers that minimal but essential level of comfort.

Overall the designs continued to progress from there, with more volume in the ends, a sloop rig for better upwind performance, a flat or nearly bottom to make the boat easier to build, and a number of other changes. This summer I also changed to a different CAD program, Rhino 5, a NURBS-based modeller, which I find much better for the modelling and manipulation of organic shapes. Overall, Dick Newick’s 34′ atlantic proas ‘Godiva Chocolatier’ (aka ‘Lady Godiva’) and Cheers as well as James Wharram’s Tiki 26 catamaran have been huge inspirations for me over the last few months, at least where the cabin and interior layout is concerned. My underwater body of choice is completely different however, with a flat or near-flat bottom and plenty of volume in the ends. Getting a good combination of all the widths, heights and angles wasn’t easy, but I think it’s really starting to look like something. The heavy flare of the hull at midships (beam overall of 1750mm with the pod, 1300mm without) and slightly increased total height (1350mm) should provide for a quite roomy interior. The LOA is 8500mm, BWL 560mm.

These most recent vaka designs are by far the best I have produced to date. There are still a few more details to work out, but I am really looking forward to building my second full-scale mockup sometime soon!


The Mains’l

Today I purchased my mainsail! 🙂 Last week, Michel gave me the tip that there was a ~17m² catamaran mainsail for sale on Ebay, which looked pretty good. The sail itself is from 2008 but in essentially unused condition. It features three full-length and two partial-length battens. Full-length battens (essentially long strips of flexible but somewhat stiff plastic placed inside batten pockets in the sail) are good for performance, especially when sailing upwind, since they help give the sail a better shape, with a smoother curve. I’d have preferred having all five battens in full length, but fair enough. 😉 It was on offer for 490€ but I got it for 300€. It seems like they had it lying around for a while. I’m not so surprised, it’s from some rather obscure class; no one whom I asked recognized the class symbol. Here’s some stats on the sail:

  • Luff length 7.55m
  • Foot length: 3.15m
  • Head length (it’s a squaretop): 1.30m
  • Sail area (approx.): 16.8m²
  • Sailmaker: Starvoiles

This sail also already features two rows of reef points (to reduce the sail area), which is really good, because it saves me a trip to the sailmaker to have them made (and about a hundred euros). With two rows of reef points, and a selection of jibs / genoas to choose from (I’m thinking roughly 5, 10, and 15m²), in addition to a gennaker, there will be plenty of options to adapt the amount of sail to the present weather conditions.

More after the jump…


The next step for the rig will be to start looking for a suitable beach catamaran mast (it has to sit on a ball joint so you can turn the mast around after all). A Formula 18 mast could be a good option. I also need to start keeping an eye open for a suitable boom. This sail has a pretty long foot, so I may have to opt for a boom from some monohull to get the required length, most beach cat booms are too short.

Having a somewhat lower aspect ratio sail (i.e. a longer foot but not as tall) decreases the upwind performance a bit. Like any wing, the lift-to-drag-ratio is dependent on the aspect ratio of the sail, and the L/D ratio is what gives you good upwind performance. A lower rig has its center of effort closer to the deck though (the lever arm for the force which is trying to knock your boat over is shorter), so you can carry a bit more sail. In the end it’ll be a slight loss when beating to windward, and a slight gain when reaching or running. Since proas tend to have rather low stability, and sloop-rigged pacific proas are exceptionally good at sailing upwind anyway, this was a tradeoff I was happy to make, especially with the sail in such good condition.

It Began by the Sea

In the morning hours of Wednesday, May 27th, I started making my way to Wilhelmshaven, Germany, to start construction of my boat. As usual for a trip, I was packing and preparing for most of the previous night. I had what felt like a ton of gear on me, two backpacks full of boatbuilding tools and materials, sailing gear, and I still had a couple of errands to run before making my way to the railway station. The relief was palpable when I finally got on the train, and with gentle thump-thump thump-thump, it left the station, heading for the sea. With a three hour night behind me, I soon drifted off to sleep.

I was to spend the next couple of days chiefly in the workshop of a friend of mine in Wilhelmshaven. I’d gotten to know Michel on, a website (and formerly a forum) dedicated to proas. There are not too many proa aficionados around, so having someone to talk to, who lives in the same country, was a very good thing. We’d met up the previous year, and I got to sail with him briefly on two occasions. We’d had endless talks about all the little details of designing and building proas in the time since then. Now Michel, a boatbuilder by profession, had invited me to his place and his workshop for a week to start building the ama (the small hull) of my proa there. I was ecstatic about the opportunity to get to learn the basics from him, and about really getting started properly. Nothing would be worse than getting really stuck, right at the beginning. The first steps are always the hardest, so it’s great to have someone around to teach you the basics and help get you over the initial threshold. I hadn’t had any time to work on my ama design in the previous weeks, being in the process of finishing my bachelor’s thesis, but Michel had kindly offered to design the ama for me, and offer which I gladly took up, to start construction as soon as possible.

Around noon, the train arrived in Bremen, where we were to meet up. We still had some shopping to do, so we headed off to ‘Hansa Holz’ and ‘Georgius’ in Bremen, to get high quality wood for stringers and marine plywood respectively, and then drove from there to Wilhelmshaven. We unloaded everything, went regatta sailing for two hours, and called it a day.

Just about to cross the starting line. Frank and Michel gauging time on distance, with the spinnaker ready to go, the moment they are allowed to cross the line. I was manning the backstays. We eventually came in 2nd amongst the monohulls, beating out a number of much larger yachts in Michels Kaasknabbel, a Waarship 750.
Just about to cross the starting line. Michel (right) and crew, gauging time on distance. It’s a handicapped start, downwind. The spinnaker is ready to go, for the moment we are allowed to cross the line. I was manning the backstays, replacing a crew member who was ill that day. We came in 2nd amongst the monohulls, beating out a number of much larger yachts in Michel’s Waarschip 750.

I stayed in Wilhelmshaven until Saturday the 30th and then was there again from the 4th to the 10th of June. That time in Wilhelmshaven was comprised of long days in the workshop (as much as 15 hours on two occasions) and discussions about boat design going well into the night. It certainly wasn’t a picnic, but it was a great time, and we got a tremendous amount done! In the span of a little over a week, we went from a stack of raw materials to an almost complete ama, ready to be transported back to Brunswick for the remaining work. Below is a gallery documenting the build process pretty much step by step. I’m enormously thankful to Michael for giving me the opportunity and all the help that he did!

Next week we’re going to look at some of the design work behind my proa!



The Journey Thus Far

I first got my start in boatbuilding back in the autumn of 2012, when I decided to build a simple flat bottom plywood canoe. I had come across a blog of an undergraduate who had built a canoe in his spare time, using some free plans available online. It looked simple enough: buy some plywood, saw out the panels, laminate them together with fiberglass, epoxy-coat and paint the whole thing, and I’d have a little two-person canoe of my own. For a few hundred euros and a perhaps a few weekends of work, it sounded like a great way to get outdoors and on the water. As such things almost inevitably go, it took far longer than expected, longer than said undergrad in the blog. I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, or maybe I am just slow, but in late 2012 I finally had the canoe finished in any case.

Canoe by the still frozen pond infront of the student dorm I live in.

Upon completion, it went straight into a garage unfortunately, but as winter drew to a close in 2013, I didn’t even wait for the ice to melt. As soon as the weather was warm and the ice on the pond by the student dorm was thin, I was out playing icebreaker, and learning to maneuver my canoe. A couple of weeks later, a friend and I went for our first tour with the canoe on a nearby river. Outdoors in the countryside, no phones, no computers, nowhere to rush off to. I knew right away that I had found something which I absolutely loved. Sundays became my canoe days; calm perfect summer days, with a little bit of adventure, and nothing but the passing of the sun by which to tell the time.

Me and my canoe by the river
Me and my canoe by the river.

Three years on, and while the canoe tours have become less regular, their appeal has become none the weaker. Almost invariably they still comprise some of the best days of any year. As great as they are, the yearning for even greater freedom however, had been kindled much earlier. As early as Jessica Watson’s circumnavigation in 2010-11, I had started reading and learning a little about sailboats and the sea. By the time I started getting my sailing license for lakes and rivers in 2014, I already had my sights firmly set on building a proa for sailing on the North Sea. Through a few matters of circumstance, and constant changes to my own design, I missed my opportunity to start building my proa that year. If I were to do it all again, I’d probably build something smaller first, using plans, to gain some more experience in boatbuilding, and importantly in the actual sailing handling of proas (which I still lack completely), but ultimately I got to where I am anyway. This project has been and will continue to be a lot of hard work, with many long days, but I now find myself in the midst of fulfilling a great dream, in the midst of building my own sailboat, right here, right now.

Now more than ever, is the time to make every day count.

My ama under construction in Wilhelmshaven.