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Columns On the Wind

Want to bond with your children? Go build a boat

If you ever wonder what leads to some of my columns, well, it’s sometimes a pretty strange tale. In this case, it starts with an armadillo.

You know, those little mammals with armored shells? They have bad tempers and sharp claws, and when I lived in the Arizona desert, I learned they have a worse habit: when frightened, they jump straight up while rolling into a ball. If you startle one on an empty road, you stand a good chance of having a really angry bowling ball come through your windshield.

Anyway, an armadillo burrowed under a shed against which I lean some of the Caswell fleet of small boats, and She Who Must Be Obeyed reminded me that it wouldn’t have been an issue had I poured the concrete slab I had promised would become my mini-boatyard. Sigh.

As I considered the project, I thought back to building a concrete patio with my dad. Since I was about 10 at the time, my contributions were holding the dumb end of the tape measure and adding water to the concrete mixer.

But I was ecstatic. It was a bonding experience that has lasted a lifetime, and whenever I stood on that patio, I remembered the good feeling I had from working with my dad. The several weekends that it took were precious moments of sharing and laughing and occasionally getting to use the “damn” word.

Apropos of bonding, I had a note from Carl Cramer, who runs WoodenBoat Publications in Maine, who had come across a photo of the Flight of the Snowbirds regatta in Southern California. Something like Beetle Cats on the East Coast, several hundred of these tubby little catboats once raced on Newport Harbor. With the advent of the fiberglass, the Snowbird died out and one remains in a local museum as a lonely memory.

Cramer wondered if it would be possible to offer the Snowbird either as a set of plans or as a kit for homebuilders, and I realized that this (or something similar) might be the nautical version of my concrete slab for modern kids. Building something with dad. Having a project. Having fun.

In looking at the choices for kids today, I realized that the world has gone mad. Take the Optimist pram, which was designed 50 years ago as a cheap do-it-yourself project for parents and kids to build and enjoy. It was to be the sailing version of the soapbox racers, but one that would be usable year around.

Those early Optis were designed to be built from four sheets of plywood, using basic tools and minimal skills. Cheap. Quick. Fun.

Today, a competitive fiberglass Optimist sells for more than $5,000, or about $650 a foot for a 7-foot, 6-inch pram. Add in another $700 for racing rudder and centerboard, and it’s going to pretty hard for most kids to save up that money from their paper route.

We may live in a high-tech world filled with iPods and iPads and Twitters and Facebook, but it seems to me that there is a place for low-tech boats that bring families together.

When I was a kid, I lusted after an 11-foot Penguin dinghy and I found that there was a company that would send me a big box full of pre-cut wood parts that could be assembled, under my dad’s supervision, in our garage. That might have happened, but I found a finished Penguin at a price that drained my summer savings account. Still, it would have been great fun to build that
boat together.

In Southern California, the Naples Sabot was the pram of choice and, once again, it could be built in a garage from sheets of plywood. In Northern California, it was the El Toro, and when America’s Cup skipper Paul Cayard was 8 years old, an El Toro built in his garage took him to three class championships and launched a brilliant sailing career.

I like the idea of parents and kids building boats together and then enjoying them. But it doesn’t have to be a one-family project. What if a community group got together, built some jigs, and everyone helped everyone build a fleet? What if every boat in the fleet had to be built by a parent? Don’t want to bond with your kids? Fine, go play somewhere else.

But this needs to be about kids and parents having fun together, first and foremost. I don’t want to upset readers who think an Optimist is the perfect junior boat but, hey, the class sounds a little out of control.

One of the leading builders advertises that they gain a speed advantage by using a special molding process.
Is that what the original builders had in mind when they were nailing together sheets of plywood for their kids’ boats? C’mon! The modern Optimist is the antithesis of a fun kid’s boat, from the Teflon-polished bottom to exotic hardware suitable for an America’s Cup yacht.
I think there is a place in this world for a low-tech dinghy for kids, one they can build with their parents and sail with their friends. One that doesn’t require a huge initial investment, or an ongoing Cold War of new sails, trick masts and exotic booms, all that skirt that narrow line between legal and cheating. Is this the mentality we need to teach our kids?

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s that original clunky Optimist or a Snowbird or a Penguin. Or something entirely new. Make it simple, make it fun, make it accessible.
So who’s going to step up to the plate and make it happen? Where are the Optimists when we need them? The Rotarians? The local Domino’s Pizza? A local sailing club?
Come on. Give your kids some memories to cherish.

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written by Gerald Elfendahl , September 12, 2011

Caswell, you are right on the money. Axel Damgard Olsen was a Danish American sailing mentor to many in Seattle from 1960 to 1980. He had co-designed the OK Dinghy in Denmark and was responsible for taking the Optimist Pram to Europe after meeting Clark Mills and seeing one in Clearwater, FL, while working on a merchant ship after WW II. Overnight, the OP was a huge hit in Europe as well as the US.

The racing fanatics and professional builders ruined the spirit upon which the class was founded by ever increasing the tolerances so that soon no home builders' boats could measure in. Thus, as you describe, the once $65 boat has become a $2,500 to $5,000 barrier to kids learning to build together with their parents, and a high priced barrier to sailing for many many kids when it need not be so.

Some local sailors here, old friends of Olsen's, have an answer to your suggestion which I hope will be known in time.

I am surprised that your article in SAILING seems to have drawn no comments. I suspect that is because its readers are already sailors. Perhaps you should provide your editorial feature to different magazines. There was no SAILING Magazine around when OP's began. As a sailing historian of sorts, we have several interesting designs and manuscripts that might enable another small boat sailing renaissance.

Thank you for your thoughtfulness in support of kids' and families sailing.

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We did it!
written by Thomas Mauer , October 23, 2011

This spring my son and I did just what you are talking about. We built a a Puddle Duck Racer. The plans were free, the people involved looked like they were having a good time and I was looking for a way to reconnect with my 11yr old son after four years of no weekends because I went back to school after retiring from the Navy. We built our little boat in the basement mostly from Home Depot gift card money we got at Christmas. (Anticipating this type of project I asked for those gift cards instead of other gifts.) We built our boat for just over $250, and picked up a used trailer for another $250 dollars. We spent a lot of time on the water learning to sail, but mostly rowing on local rivers and creeks. In October we pulled out boat from Philadelphia to Lake Eufaula Oklahoma and raced in the Puddle Duck World Championships. We finished dead last and had the best time doing it. I don't know if anyone else has ever competed in this event as a father/son team but we did and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. We learned a lot about boat handling, we bonded over a 2800 mile round trip, and we showed off the boat "we" built. Our little Puddle Duck was the center of one of the best summers of our lives. We're planing to build a pair of canoes for next spring. Who could ask for anything more? The satisfaction of building something with your own hands and your son pushing you for the next project. Priceless.
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Thanks
written by Kyle Leonard , November 05, 2011

Thanks for the inspiration Chris. My brother and I just received our Optimist pram plans from CABBS and plan to make two old-school Optimists for our kids. Your article along with the book "Saving Sailing" by Nick Hayes have really pointed to the heart of sailing for me. My love of sailing is tied with nostalgia, a connection to the water and times I spent sailing alone and with my family as a kid. I'm going to go build some little boats and make some new memories.
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