Boats with an Open Mind
by Philip C. Bolger

Review By Gavin Atkin

If you're relatively new to the idea of building your own boat, you've probably wondered about all the fuss surrounding Philip C Bolger. Why is this particular boat designer a living cult?

Partly, it's because he has designed an astonishingly wide and innovative range of boats, a significant number of which are intended to appeal to home builders anxious about their lack of ability. 

Partly, it's because Bolger is canny: he doesn't just design boats, he also writes books of cartoons and descriptions of his designs that reveal some of his thinking while designing. These tantalise the reader with fascinating little items of boat design understanding. The information isn't organised - it comes at you a morsel here, a morsel there - but boat nuts with a particular kind of enquiring mind are literally forced to race from chapter to chapter to find out what they can glean next. More than once I have been known to read a rare and precious copy of one of Bolger's books far into the night when I should have been sleeping, and paid dearly for my enthusiasm the following day. I know I'm not alone. 

Partly, also, it's because of Bolger's endearing habit of including his often interesting failures as well as his successes. There's no doubt he does have failures - no designer as prolific as Bolger could get by without them - but few would be as unstintingly honest as the Sage of Gloucester, and most would at least sweep the offending item under the carpet. 

BWAOM, which covers 75 designs, all told, is typical of Bolger's books of design cartoons - but because it's the only one still in print, it attracts the lion's share of the discussion these days. 

Perhaps more than any other book of Bolger's it's the one that introduced the 'square boats' - it includes the AS29 advanced sharpie, the Loose Moose II, the Martha Jane water-ballasted sharpie and the Micro ballast keeled sharpie. It's sometimes said that when designing boats a mass of conflicting requirements besets the designer and that the most functional solution may be aesthetically shocking, and that's how many people would describe the rather plain square boats. But it would not be fair to focus too much on their plainness: these boats are an example of designing for a particular end, and though some are quite large they are all simple enough to appeal to almost any builder, cack-handed or otherwise. In general they seem to work pretty well and the Micro in particular has a great reputation as a practical little boat, even though some have complained about it's performance to windward. The Micro even manages to be cute if not conventionally beautiful, at least to my eye.

As I've implied, there's more to BWAOM than boats that often resemble floating concrete machine gun emplacements. There are also quite a few more conventional craft, among which the Bobcat (12ft plywood catboat), the Presto Cruiser (a kind of round-bilged relative of the sharpie designed for somewhat sheltered waters) and the Chebacco series of open cruising boats are probably the best known. To that list I should add that there's also the very attractive Blueberry pocket cruiser, the Plywood 12 1/2 (a soft-chine development of the Herreshoff 12 1/2) and an updated Seabird. Entertainingly, there are also a Viking Longship, a pocket cruiser dressed up as a pirate ship and a Dutch schuyt. And I haven't even mentioned the power craft, including the Sneakeasy 26ft outboard sharpie, and various plywood and steel tugs and trawlers.

There's a hidden bonus in all this. Some of the small craft here could probably be built straight off the page with the help of a magnifying glass or an enlarging photocopier. This is clearly the hard way to build these boats, and it's probably not the way to do it if you're a tyro. Still, I reckon that there's enough detail here to build a Cartopper (11ft 6in ) sailing and rowing skiff, the distinctive and useful 9ft 9in Auray punt (which has a form that I think merits further development by somebody), and a couple of little tenders. 

There's also enough readable information to build the famous Brick, a real square boat dinghy, if ever there was one. You know by now, that I'm a Bolger fan. I have good reason to thank him for providing me with reasons and inspiration in my life as a boat nut. In many ways, BWAOM has helped to change my life, or at least introduced me to a wonderful new obsession, but even I have my limits – and nothing on earth could persuade me to contemplate building the Brick. For me, it's pig-ugly, not least in the way if makes no concession to the way water likes to flow around a moving object in its midst. Eeeeuuugghgh... I wonder if he designed it for a bet – or a joke?

Reading this book may help to identify your limits too! But don't let that stop you from buying this book. If you’re thinking even slightly of building your own small craft, it’s a must.

Useful Web references

Bolger boat projects and commentary 
Bolger designs 
Bolger discussion groups, links, where to buy Bolger designs etc 


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