What we brought back from Canada

Crossing the border from the United States to Canada last week, the border guard asked the standard questions. What nationality are you? May I see some identification? What is the reason for your visit?

Answering that last question, Barry said, “Goin’ to see a man about a boat.”

After the border crossing, there was a long wait for the ferry to Vancouver Island, then a one-and-a-half-hour ferry trip, a long drive to Nanaimo, and another ferry to Gabriola Island. Why all this effort, when we have boats and designers right here in our local area?

Blame it on the Demotivators.

For almost ten years, Barry and I have been planning to build our own boat, from scratch. It’s a huge, daunting project, but it’s not impossible. It requires a number of skills, ranging from drafting to woodworking, fiberglass, plumbing, wiring, upholstery, rigging, and sail-making. Over the years, we’ve dabbled in most of those areas, and we think we can figure out what we need to know. We’re nonconformists, and we like things that are different.

The problem is, for almost ten years, we’ve been ridiculed, teased, and abused about the notion of building a boat. Total strangers think it’s their duty to convince us not to build a boat. People we thought were our friends think it’s cute to make fun of us. It’s happened over and over again, and I’d think I was hallucinating some of these horrible encounters, if Barry wasn’t right there experiencing it with me.

So I came up with a name for these people: Demotivators. They are the people who don’t want to see us succeed, they want us to fail.

Barry and I have studied the problem until we’re cross-eyed, wondering why there’s such vehemence. Mostly, it’s people who own plastic production boats. Perhaps they’re afraid some non-conformist will challenge the status quo and their Tupperware will lose value? Sometimes, though, we’ve been harassed by people who have built their own boats. Maybe they’re afraid they won’t be so special if we do it, too?

Regardless, it’s gotten us down. So we decided to make a trip to Canada and get motivated. We scheduled a consultation with Ted Brewer, who has designed lots of lovely traditional sailboats, many of them capable little ocean cruisers. We also scheduled a visit with Collin Wynne, who’s been working on a Benford dory in his backyard for the past ten years.

Our appointment with Ted was on a Monday morning, and despite the lack of electricity on Gabriola Island, which he and his wife assured us was a common occurrence, we covered a lot of ground. Ted looked at the specs for the boat we’re considering and gave us an evaluation “by the numbers.” He said it looked like a safe offshore boat with a reasonable capsize screening factor, but he had reservations about the flat dory bottom and the junk rig.

Ted also felt that the Benford dory would be an odd boat, hard to resell. He said a strip-planked or cold-molded hull, something with compound curves, would both perform better and have more market value. Even a plywood boat with a V-bottom or a multi-chine design would be more efficient and preferable to the flat-bottomed dory, as far as he’s concerned.

It was a good visit, and we came away with a lot of thoughts about hull shapes, rigs, keel and rudder designs. One of the biggest things, though, was the confirmation that we are not crazy, we can build a reasonably-sized boat in a couple of years and sail it around the world. Ted Brewer has known lots of people who’ve done just that over the years.

Ted Brewer is a Motivator.

From Ted and Betty’s house, we headed, on their recommendation, down to the south end of the island, where the marinas are. In addition to docks full of interesting boats, there is a boatbuilding school there, the Silva Bay Shipyard School. We wandered over to the office and tapped on the door, hoping for a tour.

Luckily for us, Les Jackson was in, and he answered lots of questions and took us around the school. It’s a small facility, with 16 students completing a 6-month program. The students divide into teams of 3 or 4 people, and each team builds a complete wooden boat, about a 12-footer, from lofting to completion, using traditional methods. It’s the only program of its kind, where the projects are selected so that students can complete an entire boat in one session.

Silva Bay gets students from all over the world, men and women who want to learn traditional methods of boatbuilding. We watched two fellows cooperating to sand down a spar, while another fellow came and went from the tool room, carefully notching a piece of wood to fit around the stem of a lapstrake sailing dinghy.

Afterwards, we hung out in the office and talked with Les about boats, boatbuilding, the school, the island, and life. Les is a former journalist who left that field and made a living building lots of things, including many small boats. He’s recently completed a house on Gabriola and bought a small cruising boat, so he can explore the local waters. He struck me as a nonconformist do-it-yourselfer, like us, and he offered a lot of encouragement to our backyard boat-building dream.

Les Jackson is a Motivator.

A few days later, we drove up to Collin Wynne’s house near the shore of Vancouver Island, north of Victoria. At first, I only had eyes for the big tarped object in the backyard: A 37-1/2 foot Benford dory. The hull, masts, and rudder are done, and he’s working on the interior. He plans to put the deck on this summer.

We clambered all over the boat, examining Collin’s craftsmanship. We sat for a long time in the cockpit, imagining her out on the ocean. We poked our noses in the spice cupboard and inspected the ceiling (which is actually the side). We examined portlights and lockers and squatted underneath to inspect the keel. We ran our hands over the topsides and had to walk all the way across the backyard to take in the whole thing. It’s a huge project for one person.

Afterwards, we sat in the house with a pot of tea, looking at the plans and photographs. I asked Collin, as tactfully as I could, what kind of experience he had in doing this sort of project. He’s retired, and I wondered whether he’d worked in some field that gave him boat-building skills.

No, he admitted he hadn’t done much along those lines. He modestly told me that he’d built the house we were sitting in, along with his previous house. And he’d built a sailing dory when he was a young lad. It was evident that Collin, like us, just decided that he had enough skills and enough smarts to figure it out. Along the way, he’s found help and encouragement from others, such as a fiberglass boat builder down the road and an esteemed wooden boat expert, Hugh Campbell, in Sidney.

We spent over six hours with Collin, which I consider extremely generous on his part — after all, he has a boat to build. He also told us to stay in touch and feel free to contact him with further questions as we get into our own boat-building project.

Collin Wynne is a Motivator.

When we came back across the border to the U.S., the guard asked us the usual questions, plus a number of questions about what we’d been doing and what we were bringing back from Canada. Any eggs or chicken? Meat? Produce?

“No, just a bit of bread,” answered Barry, truthfully. What we really brought back from Canada is not something that can be taxed or measured. What we brought back, this time, is the knowledge that there are three people who want us to build our own boat. What we brought back, this time, is motivation.

One thought on “What we brought back from Canada

  1. I am 62 yrs old, I have never built a boat. I possibly don’t have enough life time left to build one then sail it. But sail I will, darn it. I have just bought a 15ft GRP dinghy shell last year, no rigging, no centreboard. $200. It will sail this summer even if I have to use a blue tarp from the hardware store for a sail.
    But all those demotivators are victims of corporate propaganda. They are typically right-handed introverts who follow society’s lack of innovation throughout their lives. Do you imagine for a minute that dudes on the River Nile or wherever who build Feluccas and the like, have ‘naval architect’ experience?
    I say, live your dreams, build your boat whatever way you wish. If you need large cheap masts, go and see a utility pole making outfit, and get a pole without it being creosoted, so it can be varnished. Sails? What the heck is the difference if they go baggy after a few years and the ‘performance’ decreases – who is racing anyway? Rigging? How about galvanised turnbuckles such as is used on the aforementioned ute poles? It has been done successfully before, many times.
    Humans have been sailing for years, with no tipping over testing, no regulations, just knowledge from those who already did it (not just paid a plastics factory to build one) and good old fashioned commonsense and long term thinking, (you might have heard of that, it is the stuff that Wall Street hasn’t used for years).
    So, go for it guys, overbuild if in doubt, and may you never get caught on a lee shore.
    My next boat after I get the hang of sailing, will be a 30 footer or so, and darn it, I will sail that too, as Costa Rica looks good every winter. You might want to read Annie Hills book about voyaging on a small income, just to set the mood, even if, like me, you hate canned fish.
    Good Luck,

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