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Thread: Featherwind

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Loon Lake, Washington

    Default Featherwind

    Since this is a story I'm putting where it belongs, down in the bilge!
    First appeared in Messing About in Boats Magazine, I'm putting it here in case anyone wants to build a Featherwind for themselves.

    A Farewell to my Fantastic Featherwind.
    By Robert Van Putten. This material is copy written, but of course this is a public forum. I'm just asking for due consideration.


    This is the story of my ill-fated second boat. The tale of my first boat, the somewhat crude but serviceable and well traveled La Madalena was recounted in Vol. 37, No. 11 of MAIB. Shortly after the completion of that skiff my wife and I took it on a three day island hopping cruise upon beautiful Priest Lake in the Idaho panhandle. Our load on that trip was about 380 pounds, what with boating and camping gear, food, water and crew, which is pretty close to the maximum capacity of the little skiff. Fellow boaters we met along the way said they couldn’t believe the two of us could fit in such a small boat, and where were we hiding our camping gear? Thankfully we’re used to traveling light.
    The little skiff outdid itself, but we ran into wind and chop that made me wish we were in something bigger. Also, I daydream of taking my wife on a long journey down the Columbia from the Canadian boarder to Grand Coulee Dam, a distance of some 150 miles. The body of water backed up by that dam (the biggest gravity dam on the planet) is called lake Roosevelt. Hundreds of miles of empty, sandy beaches to explore. One shore is mostly empty federal land and the other side mostly empty tribal land. There is a scattering of excellent camp grounds, some accessible only by boat, and one can also camp almost anywhere at whim along the shore. It seems a small boat paradise, yet is almost deserted. Don’t believe me? Just ask Dan of Almost Canada. La Madalena could take one person on such a voyage, but not two. And so began the quest for A Bigger Boat.

    Our home is an off-grid mountain homestead we’ve built ourselves, accessible by car for about seven months and on snow shoes the rest of the year. I am a transplanted Yankee, a Libertarian, and something of a contrarian. Most folk have a career which seems to occupy the vast bulk of their adult lives, buy expensive toys they don’t have time to use and spend decades paying everything off. I’ve never bothered to work more than I need to, never got into debt, and would rather make something than buy it. Like other woodland creatures with no visible means of support our income is low by some standards, dipping below 12 K some years.

    One boat, some assembly required


    I suppose it is only natural that I am drawn to the books of Philip C. Bolger and Harold “Dynamite” Payson. Mr. Bolger was not only a very talented and prodigious designer of boats of all kinds, he was also a fellow Libertarian, something of a contrarian, and understood amateur boat builders. In the forward to Paysons book Instant Boats he wrote “People who build boats because they like carpentry build better boats, and have less grief, than those who build because they want a boat they can’t afford. The former are admirable and valuable, but I have more empathy with the later.”
    Mr. Payson was the guy responsible for the “instant Boat” concept in the first place. In the same book he wrote, “The instant boat idea wasn’t a speculative concept dreamed up out of a blue sky. I had been selling boat plans for years, and I had been getting too many letters from customers saying they couldn’t build a boat from them. When I’d ask,”Did you loft it full size first?” the reply I got would be,”What’s lofting?”

    I like Instant Boats. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate traditional wooden boats, I just can’t afford them, don’t know how to build them, and they usually don’t make good trailer-sailors anyway. It is true that I don’t care for modern fiberglass craft, probably because that’s what most folk have.

    I wanted more capacity than La Madalena, but the new boat still needed to be transported on top of my jalopy. This rig has over 300,000 miles on it and the bumpers are held on with wire. Not worth the effort and expense of putting a hitch on it, even if I could afford a trailer. An outboard motor was also out of the question, so the boat must row well enough when the wind quit. I thumbed through the books and studied many boats. I’ve always liked the Surf, but it’s on the heavy side for getting up on top of the car by myself. June Bug is light, but the removable mast step would be a hassle to stow whenever I needed to row. Windsprint seemed just the ticket, a big double-ender with a large uncluttered cockpit, a huge 113 sq. ft. sail and weighting only about 100 pounds. It is very easy to build–all straight cuts and no transom with pesky bevels to worry about. But double-enders are hard to cartop, unless they are light enough to hoist up on your shoulders canoe-portage-style, or you have two strong men to throw it up there. If a boat has a transom you can attach a dolly to it, flip it over and roll it about like a wheel barrow. Throw the bow up on top of the car, push the boat on up till it balances, then lift the stern up. You never have to lift more than half the weight of the boat. Surf, June Bug, Zephyr, Windsprint, Pirate Racer, each ofthese economical boats take just four sheets of plywood to build! There are more, but they start to get heavier.Nothing seemed quite right. Finally I stumbled across a reference to something called “The $200 Sailboat”.

    Cutting out the sides


    The Featherwind design is in Bolgers book Small Boats. Bolger described it thus, “I drew the best flat-bottomed, straight sided boat I could, to sail,...I don’t see how a real sailboat with as good a performance and as few vices as most, could be put together, one off, much quicker than this one, or out of cheaper materials.” Well, a clever Yankee named David Carnell took the design and simplified it. Bolger had drawn a sloop rig with a stayed mast, and a few other elaborations. Davids version uses the lanteen sail from a Sunfish, or the polytarp equivalent, and is stripped of every last bit it doesn’t need to hold together and float. At about 100 pounds it is readily car-toppable, yet it carries four adults with ease and there are enthusiastic reports of the boats performance. David Carnell is no longer with us, but the plans are still available from Thomas Vetromile of Sagle, Idaho. This boat seemed just right!

    You don’t get just plans. You get full size frame layouts (which I found more confusing than simple, well drawn plans), along with instructions and photos for; A ripping guide for your circular saw, oars, cleats, thole pins, splicing rope, a polytarp Sunfish lanteen sail clone, detailed car-topping directions, advice on epoxy, flotation and construction alternatives, copies of glowing emails from previous customers, a list of recommended reading, chapter 15 from Bolgers book Small Boats, and finally a glossary of boating terms! Not bad for 30 dollars. Clearly, this is intended to be the only resource needed to build a boat for the first time.

    Plans in hand, off we went to Home Depot for the materials. I got a sheet of 2” Styrofoam for flotation, a few good 16 foot 2x4s, two tubes of polyurethane glue to stick the bottom on with, a pint of Titebond II for the frames, two pounds of galvanized roofing nails, a gallon of Bondo polyester resin, and four sheets of plywood. And that’s where I made my fatal error. Instead of the recommended ACX exterior grade Ľ inch plywood at 30 bucks a sheet, I was seduced by the beauty and low cost of underlayment plywood. It was only 12 bucks a sheet. It said it was waterproof. The exterior was flawless. I remember standing by the plywood racks in the store making the decision. I justified it by thinking that this really thin plywood would make a really light boat. All I can say is that sometimes I can be to cheap for my own good. From Amazon I ordered fiberglass cloth and tape. I misjudged the amount of cloth and got enough to do three boats. Total cost, only 211.00!


    The transom with its pesky bevels, the hardest part to make.
    Last edited by Etdbob; 06-17-2021 at 05:32 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Loon Lake, Washington

    Default Re: Featherwind

    It was high summer, so I built the boat outside. I’d just made a plywood bed platform for a little log cabin I’d recently completed, and this got drafted into service as a temporary outdoor workbench.
    The work went fast, but I managed to cut a bevel the wrong way on the transom. I discovered that it is quite impossible to set roofing nails below the surface of plywood, and rejoiced when I realized that meant never having to putty nail holes! When I was done with everything else I simply put a strip of fiberglass tape set in polyester resin over each neat row of nail heads on the outside of the boat, which worked great.

    Ready to assemble


    Like all flat-iron skiffs the boat is made by cutting the sides to shape and bending them around some frames. Add the transom, the stem, and the chine logs. Nail the bottom on, flip it over and add the gunwales, mast partner and step. All that’s left is the sailing bits, rudder, leeboard, mast and sail. No lofting, no splining, no strongback, no jigs, and very little waste! I realize that there are those who sneer at Instant Boats. That’s silly, and just plain Boat Snobbery. The truth is, this type of construction is an ingenious American invention dating back to the early 19th century. Just as soon as saw mills started producing inexpensive wide planks, some clever Yankee figured out how to make small boats by bending pre-shaped side planks around frames to produce skiffs in a tiny fraction of the labor needed to make any other boat. They were called “flat-iron skiffs” because of their resemblance to irons people used to flatten the wrinkles out of clothes with. In The Sharpie Book Reuel B.Parker writes “The New Haven flatiron skiffs were from 15 to 18 feet long and had a beam of approximately one-third the length. Due to the flaring topsides, beam on the bottom was about one-fourth the length. The skiffs had broad, square sterns, and this is what made them hard to row.” The original flat-irons were not well shaped because they had just been invented and were being built off the cuff by trial and error. In time they evolved into the Sharpie. The Featherwind is a highly refined flat-iron designed by Philip Bolger, the master of the type. I’m proud to build and sail such a highly refined traditional American craft, boat snobs be damned.

    Looking like a boat!


    One thing I learned making my first boat was that you never have enough clamps. This longer boat needed even more. I told my wife to keep an eye out at yard sales and I scoured pawn shops. I even bought a couple of new ones. My big splurge was a 30 dollar Chicago Electric belt sander. The dust collector on this thing never worked, but can it remove wood! It isn’t a sander so much as an electric wood chewer. It reduces the time it takes to trim the bottom and such-like. It was about this time I noticed some of my plywood scraps laying on the ground about the boat had absorbed water from the earth and dew and were starting to peel. Yikes! I took some scraps and tossed them into a bucket of water. I left them in the bucket for weeks and they were fine. Huh. I didn’t know what to make of it but figured there was nothing to do but finish the boat. Besides, I was going to fiberglass it. Then I deviated yet again from the plans.

    Fitting the bottom butt strap


    That’s something amateur boat builders should be careful about, there are real reasons the experts design ‘em as they do. In my defense, it wasn’t my fault. I was reading Boats to Go by Thomas Firth Jones at the time. “Except at very low speeds” wrote Tom, “the effect of having no hull to end-stop the foil shape is catastrophic.” He was talking about leeboards, and gives the example of a boat he’d built with a leeboard but converted to a daggerboard some time later. “The improvement was unbelievable. She steered much easier, and made less leeway. I’m certain that no one who has ever tried a good sailboat, first with a leeboard and then with a daggerboard, would ever go back to a leeboard. There simply is no comparison.” He argues this point so well in his book that he convinced me not to put a catastrophic leeboard in the Featherwind. I was almost done with the boat, and had to cut the center frame to build a daggerboard well, fitting it in as best I could. The daggerboard well leaked and often jammed, probably because I was always smacking rocks with the board while sailing full tilt. It took up plenty of space in the cockpit and more than once I’d pulled the board up most of the way out of its well when running down wind, only to jibe accidentally, have the boom smack into the raised board and nearly capsize the boat.

    The lackluster lanteen


    The rudder setup was inspired by Jim Michalaks book, Boat Building for Beginners and Beyond. The book describes a kind of tapered track and slide system to attach rudders, the so-called “Cary Hinge,” named after the inventor. I liked the idea of an easily made wooden track instead of pintles but made it straight without any taper. The track pieces were screwed, glued and fiberglassed to the boat. I screwed some old T hinges I had laying around to the wooden slide, and they carried the rudder. This system worked excellently. La Madalena uses a long rudder pin instead. Once I dropped the pin overboard in deep water when hanging the rudder, and once I’d simply forgot to take it with me when I went sailing. This wooden track and slide system is foolproof, nothing to drop overboard or leave behind.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Loon Lake, Washington

    Default Re: Featherwind

    A Michalak inspired rudder setup


    Next I fiberglassed the bottom. This was the first time I’d glassed anything and I just couldn’t get the cloth smooth. No matter, who cares what the bottom looks like, right? I was impatient to get the boat into the water, and slapped on paint over the fresh fiberglass. Finally I cut some saplings for mast and spars, and taped together a lanteen sail out of an old tarp.

    Off to the local lake I went for the maiden voyage. The boat didn’t sail very well but it always takes time to get used to a new boat, right? When I landed and flipped the boat over to load it up I was shocked to see much of the paint had come off the bottom! This is how I learned about the wax put in polyester finishing resin. This wax must be completely sanded off before painting because nothing will stick to it. What a pain! So I sanded all the paint off and then had to add another coat of resin because I was down to the cloth, sand again and finally repaint the bottom. Sheesh! I guess I got a smooth bottom after all.

    Non-stick paint


    I took the boat to the local lake a few more times and kidded myself that it worked fine. Next I planned a picnic on the Roosevelt with my wife. She packed a lunch and off we went, eager to start exploring hundreds of miles of empty, sandy beaches. We spent an hour tacking up the lake into the wind. At the end of that time the ramp we’d launched from was still clearly visible, about 200 yards downwind. My wife was not impressed! I gave up and we sailed the trusty La Madalena the rest of the season.

    The big skiff has plenty of room


    The big boat was banished to the hayloft. I’d visit sometimes, and daydream of long voyages. I thought about her allot during the long snowy winter, and figured the trouble with the boat had to be the sail. The 81 sq. ft. lanteen I’d made for the Featherwind worked so poorly that I had a growing feeling I’d really lucked out with the standing lugsail I’d made for the La Madalena. I searched high and low for a better sail pattern and didn’t find much. There is the pattern for a 75 sq.ft. lugsail In Jim Michalaks book, but I didn’t think it was big enough. I was much impressed with the huge 113 sq.ft. sail the Windsprint design carried, which after all is a boat of about this size and weight, and decided I wanted a sail like that one. A big sail would mean less rowing in light winds, right?

    Neglected boat


    One day while digging around the internet at a local library I finally found what I was looking for, thanks to the Toledo Community Boathouse. They have great instructions for making a 100 sq. ft. balanced lug sail on their web site. The next summer I bought a brand new tarp, set up my wife’s sewing machine out in the yard, turned on my power inverter while the sun was shinning on our solar panels, and set to work making the best sail I could.

    Sail making 101


  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Loon Lake, Washington

    Default Re: Featherwind

    I believe this sail was designed by John Welsford for his Scamp sailboat. It uses curved edges to give the sail it’s shape, not darts or pleats. It’s still a big job of sewing, with a great many patches, reinforcements and three lines of reef points. It didn’t occur to me to check the center of effort of the new sail, I just cut a sapling for a taller mast and off I went.

    The new sail worked great, and my fantastic Featherwind finally started showing me what she could do. She would drift along with just the slightest suggestion of a breeze and was close winded. The big lug sail did take some getting used to, and could be quite a handful on the 110 pound Featherwind. Once, while rigging it at a dock a minor gust blew the boat right over. The sail was raised but the sheet not yet connected to the boom. Before the sail could swing around over she went, and proved quite difficult to right again. That summer and the next I sailed her plenty on the Roosevelt. She taught me many things; That no matter how much fun you’re having it really is a good idea reef a big sail on a light skiff early, that in high winds I not only had to lower the sail but also the mast to be able to row her, and that a big, fast skiff could be a heck of allot of fun! I experimented with sheet-to-tiller self steering, with lazy jacks and jiffy reefing lines, none of which really worked out very well. All things considered, I think I prefer a standing lug with a sprit boom to the balanced lug sail, and 100 sq. ft. is to big for this boat unless it's always carrying several crew.

    Playing tag with a Bolger Dovekie.


    Sadly, she never fulfilled the dream of a long cruise. Every time I took her out she seemed to be leaking a little more. The bottom inside the boat was starting to delaminatie. I’d be pounding along in the chop on a big lake, looking down at that thin sheet of slowly disintegrating underlayment plywood I was sitting on, and wonder how long it would hold. I considered a layer of fiberglass over the floor, or adding another layer of plywood, but eventually came to the conclusion that I’d really goofed with that 12 dollar plywood, and that no matter how I repaired her it I wouldn’t trust her bottom to stay between me and the deep blue sea. Sooner or later I’d stomp a foot right through, or have the bottom fail in rough going. Besides I figured her sides would start peeling eventually too, and all the extra weight of repairs would make her hard to cartop.

    The big lug sail was ideal with a heavy crew to help hold her up.


    I’ve never had to “retire” a boat before. It's a little emotional. All the effort that went into building, all those trips blasting down the lake in her, the dreams of future voyages, the places she could take us. But a boat that will not stick together isn’t worth much, and I don’t fancy boat-planters in the yard.
    Besides, I knew she wouldn’t be the last boat I’d ever build. At the end of the sailing season I stripped what little fittings she had, fired up my chainsaw to cut her up, and burned the remains. It made quite a fire. I watched the blaze and reflected that she had been plenty of fun while she lasted, had cost only a little coin, and I did learn allot. I just wish I hadn’t been quite so cheap when buying materials. As Philip Bolger once wrote, “ Would-be amateur boat builders – as a class not the most sensible crew alive.”

    An honorable end for a wooden boat



    “200 Dollar Sailboat” plans, 30 dollars. I just checked as of this posting and this info is still good.

    Thomas Vetromile

    499 Camp Bay Rd.

    Sagle, ID. 83860

    Best sail making directions I’ve come across, plus lots of other fun stuff.

    - Sadly, they seem to have updated this web site, and this info is no longer available.
    Last edited by Etdbob; 06-17-2021 at 05:40 PM.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Hills of Vermont, USA

    Default Re: Featherwind

    Quite a story! Thank you.
    "If it ain't broke, you're not trying." - Red Green

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    2 states: NJ and confusion

    Default Re: Featherwind

    I truly regret not having taken pictures of how we built our little skiff way back when. We seemed to have found our own way to build an "instant boat"

    One mistake we made was to fiberglass the bottom. The plywood bottom soaked up bilge water, and apparently could not dry out. We had to replace it.

    But, I have to say, she gave us years of fun.
    "Banning books in spite of the 1st amendment, but refusing to regulate guns in spite of "well regulated militia' being in the 2nd amendment makes no sense. Can't think of anyone ever shot by a book

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Do you have a warrant?

    Default Re: Featherwind

    Good thing you didn't use fire-retardant resin, not only would it have been difficult to dispose of, but it would have blistered before you could burn it. (A little Uniflite Valiant 40 joke there.)
    When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.

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