Staying Within Your Budget

by Captain James R. Watson

Staying within a set budget of time and money can be the toughest of all goals for a boat builder. The beach cat I wrote about in this issue is the 19th boat I’ve built from scratch. From these projects, and from talking to many folks building similar projects, I’ve learned some elements of maintaining a budget of time and money.

Be sure of your goals

Focus on what you really want, recognizing that the longer your project takes, the greater the chance your needs will change before it’s completed. I know this as much as anyone or I wouldn’t have built so many boats. Most of us have wants that are moving targets. I’ve seen more than one seven-year project be sold right after completion because it was no longer what was wanted. A friend of mine built a huge multihull—sleek and fast with accommodations like an airliner—a totally impressive machine that was the envy of everyone, including me. He had spent lots of money and toiled more than three years to create her. But when she was done, he became the star of the show with people bumping into one another along the docks trying to get a closer view. He told me, “I wish I had a smaller boat.”

For my latest boat project, I developed a wish list based upon what I already had: I wish it would launch easier, get underway quicker, sail faster and so on. I set some time and money limitations.

Choose the right design

Select a proven design with plans unless you really know what you’re doing. The beach catamaran I built was not my design, but a slight modification of one I’d built nearly 20 years ago. The new beach boat’s design was developed from other successful craft over several decades. Her blood line looks like this: 1967 John Mazzotti-designed Unicorn; 1972 Cal Fuller-designed Cat Nip; 1975 Lindahl-designed Michigan A; my 1978 A-Class US 39; to my new Beach Boat 18. Too many folks want to be designers, and after all their hard work end up with a fundamental design error that dooms the entire effort. Having a designer work out modifications and corrections later can double or triple time and money costs.

Keep size manageable

The epic begins with a dream, but is accomplished with determination, sweat, slivers, dust and blood which erases much of the romance. The smaller the overall project, the easier it is to stay within your time and money budget. The project can be reduced to the number of times you pick up your tool box, march up to the project and work on it.

The number of times you have to do this is related to much more than the boat’s length alone. It also involves the boat’s width, height, weight and the overall complexity of the design. Therefore “a large 15-footer” or “a small 30-footer” are not really contradictory statements.

Minimize & miniaturize

Physicist and space exploration expert Freeman Dyson predicts that the future of space travel will rely on cheap, miniaturized spacecraft instead of huge projects such as the Voyager probe missions (successful, but expensive). The same holds true for boats.
Minimizing and miniaturizing allows you to get your craft on the water sooner and with a lower initial investment. You will probably find it more versatile and end up using it more often as well. Take only what you need. Leave behind the extra this and the just-in-case that. A lot of the high tech, expensive stuff looks good in the catalog but is unnecessary. Put it all in a pile and it would probably weigh so much that you couldn’t lift it.

Miniaturized navigation equipment is making obsolete the navigation room with table, rolled charts, sextants, VHF radios and other instruments. Today, you can hold your chart room in the palm of your hand. You can now buy a stove the size of a softball to cook food that is stored and heated in waterproof envelopes, then eaten from them.
A boat that would normally be limited to daysailing can be equipped with these miniaturized items for extended weekend cruising.

Select good materials

Wood is reasonably priced, easy to cut and shape, and readily available in sizes ideal for boatbuilding. Wood joinery is easy and reliable, and wood is amazingly light for its strength. Plywood is sold in 4’x 8’ sheets for a fraction of the cost of “high tech” materials.
Some construction methods using wood are more difficult and time consuming than others. Some materials and techniques may offer advantages but may also have hidden snags that are difficult to resolve or require extensive tooling commitments (e.g. you build a plug to build a mold to build a finished part.) Some materials produce impressively lightweight, rigid panels but it can be tricky join them or get them to address issues such as localized loads.

Whatever material you select, use the best available. The cost of the materials represents a fraction of the overall project, and cheap materials can reduce the life span and resale value.

Keep it simple

Developed plywood construction, a form of stitch and glue, was the method I used to build my 18’ catamaran. It is one of the simplest methods of building a small craft. However, if you are building a bigger boat, developed plywood construction is less feasible and other techniques may make more sense. Some boat designers will provide sound recommendations for construction methods, and certain designs dictate a specific construction method. You don’t have to use the simplest building method possible, but you should keep the degree of building difficulty in mind. Why do a backward handspring when all you have to do is turn around?

Trust your eye

Some of the old timers I’ve worked with weren’t so good at division. When they needed to halve an odd number such as 5 7/8″“ they would lay their rulers at an angle, find half of 6″ and be done with it faster than you could get your calculator out. It seems that with cyberspace, and 3-D images on color computer screens we tend to micro-measure everything. We don’t trust the ol’ eyeball anymore.

There is a place for precision measurement, but at some point the project must pass the test of your eye. Is it fair? That’s when you put the calipers and tape measure down and say, “it looks good.” Battens are a good aid in fairing, but the eye is not easily tricked. For determining whether a straight edge is really straight, the only computer up to the job is in the interaction of your brain and your eyeball. When aligning the centerboards of a boat, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate measurement. Eventually, I learned to rely on the ol’ eyeball.

When you study a model that you can hold in your hand, you rotate it to observe it from multiple views noting the shape change, fairness and alignment. With a large craft you walk around it, bob your head, and move back and forth. You note the distances and gain a feel for if things look right or not. You’d be surprised how accurate you can be if you trust the ol’ eyeball.

Limit the systems

Systems are an arrangement of units that function together: A canoe has two systems: a hull and a paddle. A small sailboat has more; hull, steering, centerboard or keel, rigging and sails. A larger sailboat’s systems may include its interior, auxiliary power, electronics, overland transportation (towing rig, trailer, tow vehicle) and so on. The more systems there are and the more complex these systems, the greater the chance you’ll have to rely on an outside experts for information. This will affect your overall budget of time and money.

It makes sense to build many of your boat’s components, but not all of them. In previous projects, I’ve made my own sails. Heck, I even made my own ball bearing blocks (before ball bearing blocks were readily available). Sometimes it doesn’t make sense time-wise, and often it doesn’t make sense dollar-wise, to make a component yourself. The determining factor should be whether your enjoyment or sense of accomplishment will be enhanced by building a particular component.

Shorten your to-do list

In the previous issue of EPOXYWORKS, I told how my friend sold me a wrecked boat that included spars, sails, rudders, boards, and cross beams. This saved me a great deal of time and money. It was like hitting the lottery. The shorter your list of things to do, the more accurately you can predict your time and dollar commitment. We’ve seen many projects where an ambitious builder has hewn his own timber, cast his own bronze fittings and spun the twine to make his own rope, only to die before his dream was completed.

Avoid neat ideas

They invariably spell delays and cost overruns and most often compromise the original design intent. You can’t have it all. After reading Frank Bethwaite’s excellent book High Performance Sailing I got all stoked to up-grade the performance potential of the original design. All the numbers were there for this boat, low weight, low wetted area, all I had to do was increase sail area and righting moment. That meant more halyards, line for sheets, blocks, cleats, hiking racks and a trapeze. The complexity increased dramatically. Then, totally losing the perspective of my original design concept, I became fascinated with hydrofoil retrofit kits. A great concept, but not for this project. Just in the nick of time, I stomped out the fire. I realized I was abandoning my original design objective and turning this thing into a potential speed monster. It might have had plenty of merit, but it was a totally separate design concept that would have compromised all of my original goals. I turned to the page where I had sketched my great ideas, and went back to the original drawings of the boat with my goals listed next to it.

Keep at it

Everyday you should do something on your project. It doesn’t have to be significant, sand a rough spot smooth, give some thought how a future detail will be accomplished. The longer you do nothing, the harder it will be to get the project moving again.

Enjoy the project

I’ve seen many people blast through their projects with one objective—get it done. I think they often miss something essential along the way. Let’s not forget that the building process is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a release of creative energy, a distraction from the pressures of the day and a source of satisfaction. You have to take time to sit back and imagining her slicing through the water, taking you to the places you’ve always wanted to go. That’s part of the creating process—enjoying it as you proceed.