The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders














An Interview with Stephen Ladd
reprinted with permission from

Shortly after high school Stephen Ladd set out on a journey of self-discovery that took him through Africa, Asia and Europe. Afterwards, he returned to his home town of Bremerton, Washington where he attended college and took a job in city government. For most, this is where the story would’ve ended; protagonist marries, works his life away, retires and dies. Not in Stephen’s case. Always, the urge to go simmered just below the surface. Finally, in the Fall of 1990, Stephen set out again, this time in a twelve-foot boat of his own design. It would be three years before he returned.

SCA: Which commercial boat design or designs came closest to meeting your requirements?

Ladd: Without even looking I assumed none would come close. I needed a cabin I could sleep in stretched out, capsize-proofness, a weight I could pull up on a beach by myself, and a super-shallow draft. To my knowledge it still doesn't exist commercially.

SCA: From which boats did you draw the most in design and features for Squeak?

Ladd: Commodore Munroe's Presto (you'll have to look hard in libraries to find a book about that boat; the book is called "The Good Little Ship"), and Chuck Paine's Francis (I've always preferred double-enders), plus Philip Bolger in general.

SCA: Did you have any sailing experience before Squeak?

Ladd: Only in a San Francisco Pelican (12') around Puget Sound.

SCA: What do you think of the Pelican? What limits it for your purposes?

Ladd: No cabin, too heavy to pull up, not capsize-proof. But sturdy and otherwise useful. Can be rowed.

SCA: Was there any one historical voyage that particularly inspired your own?

Ladd: No. My inspiration didn't come from other people's experiences. I had read Tristan Jones' Incredible Voyage, and liked it, but the similarity of our routes is coincidental. If you want a long list of what I consider the best adventure books, however, see the sidebar. It also contains my definition of a good adventure book.

SCA: Having been mugged, capsized, bound in red tape and who knows what else, what would you say is to be feared most on an adventure of this nature?

Ladd: Death at the hands of pirates in lawless areas, or the bad surf way offshore in the Colombian Pacific.

SCA: Where are those lawless areas where pirates might be found?

Ladd: In the Western Hemisphere, the only concentrated area is the Pacific Coast of Colombia, and it's never talked about because nobody seems to want to go there anyway, so the actual amount of piracy is small. The main places of global piracy are around Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, etc.

SCA: What eventually became of little Squeak?

Ladd: In my carport right now! I haven't used her much the past few years, except to take to festivals where I tell my story and sell books.

SCA: Was Squeak simply the means to an end, or do you feel a real affinity for her? If someone walked up with cash, how much would it take for you to part with her?

Ladd: An affinity, certainly. A great love, during the voyage. But now it's only a sentimental respect. I would sell her for $5000 after a couple more years of selling my book. I don't believe in owning things I don't use, and while I may do another voyage in Squeak, I would also enjoy designing and building another small boat. Currently I ponder a stitch-&-glue, row/sail trimaran similar in capacity to Squeak, narrower but longer, with the amas close in so as to hold the oarlocks the right distance out and allow the boat to be righted by leveraged crew weight.

SCA: Squeak is a sort of cross between a canoe and sailboat; in retrospect, was the compromise about right, or would it been better if she’d favored one more than the other?

Ladd: Yes, the compromise was about right. A short fat canoe with cabin and masts. Her hydrodynamic efficiency is very good (rowable at 3 knots), at some cost to stability (you have to keep your weight fairly centered).

SCA: What design changes would you incorporate in a Squeak II?

Ladd: A drain in the cockpit footwell. And possibly more initial stability, not for safety but for comfort when living aboard. That would imply a less rounded cross section (a pity aesthetically and hydrodynamically)!

SCA: Do you feel you sacrificed seaworthiness and safety because of weight considerations, or can a boat that size can be capable and safe?

Ladd: No sacrifice. A strong, capsize-proof boat big enough for a cabin, properly used, is as safe as the Queen Mary. (Capsize-proof means able to survive, not prevent, a capsize.) The only limitation is comfort and range. And even those limitations are not so great if you ask me. I was generally comfortable, given my ability to lazily camp on any remote beach or river bank. And combined with boat-hitchhiking my range didn't really suffer. True ocean-crossing requires a lift, surprisingly easy and cheap to obtain.

SCA: Do you still communicate with any of the many friends you made during those three years?

Ladd: Yes, I have corresponded with Chuck and Babe, all my Morro Mico friends, Mariela, Lothar the German university president and ranch-owner, Luis the pot-smoker from Bucaramanga, Meg, and Angela. Several have visited me here in the Seattle area. No word from Traci, I'm afraid.

SCA: It seems your motivation was a search for answers. Having had some time to reflect, do you feel you found any?

Ladd: First, questions. The one-size-fits-all question is, what is the meaning of life? Or, how can I have the most meaningful life? Answers include:

  1. Life is valuable only as an adventure. Adventure is basically spiritual. Use adventure to find truth, beauty, pathos, tragedy.
  2. Be your bravest self. Do the hard thing, the thing you're afraid of, the thing you're putting off.
  3. Seek beauty, including the beauty in ugliness and poverty. Don't romanticize away the harshness of life.
  4. Enjoy the details, because the real beauty is there, not in pithy generalities like these.

SCA: Which country did you find most hospitable? Least?

Ladd: Cuba was most hospitable, though I'm most nostalgic toward Colombia because it has so much character and memories for me. I suppose Haiti is inhospitable, but misery usually is.

SCA: No problems in Cuba because you were an American?

Ladd: I've never had a problem because I'm an American, especially not in Cuba.
They love America! Only their security officials must be careful regarding Americans. They detained me two days upon arrival, and for shorter durations occasionally thereafter, but it was all very friendly.

SCA: We know you used everything from road maps to local knowledge as aids to navigation. How extensive was your collection of nautical charts? Would you take more if going again?

Ladd: As I went along I gathered nautical charts of the saltwater portions of the trip. Rivers aren't as complicated; road maps suffice there. I scrounged what I needed. Often photocopied, sometimes even traced by hand. I wouldn't want to leave with a huge roll of charts I might not need.

SCA: What luxuries does the long-term sailor of a 12 -foot boat miss the most?

Ladd: Love and sex. Maybe a cold drink now and then, or a shaded cockpit. (But cold drinks and shaded cockpits have no place in a tiny boat.)

SCA: One gets the feeling you'd chase adventure by plane, train or balloon if the mood struck. True?

Ladd: I've always been adventurous. Not necessarily big dramatic things. Lately I'm into mountain biking in the surrounding foothills of the Cascades, because it's convenient to where I live, and there's a lot to explore up there. Nature always makes me feel good.

SCA: Why do you think it's so hard for most people to put down the TV remote, leave
their comfort zone and follow their dreams?

Ladd: Their role models disliked physical effort and discomfort. And we're prisoners of our evolutionary biology, which wants us to be fat to survive the famine that probably won't come anymore.

SCA: How about your role models?

Ladd: My father jogged daily decades before it was popular, and has always been
adventurous, though his adventure was largely provided by the US government. They called it WW II.

SCA: We expect your book will be a hit with our readership. Has it been received well generally?

Ladd: Five thousand copies have sold, which more than pleases me. I'm glad to have put forth a positive message for people willing to consider new notions of the world we live in.

SCA: In your opinion, what is the message and what are those new notions?

Ladd: See the four above pithy generalities.

SCA: What’s next for Stephen Ladd?

Ladd: I'm enjoying my professional life, city planner for a couple of small cities near Seattle. I also organize continuing education for my fellow planners as a volunteer. My work allows me to write. I already mentioned my current outdoor activities. Backcountry skiing and target practice too.

Eventually my wanderlust will build back up to where I must leave again for a long time. I have considered circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean by the same or similar boat, and numerous other daydreams. They'll remain only daydreams until the moment gets closer.

SCA: Must each adventure surpass the previous to satisfy you?

Ladd: Not at all. I sure hope not, since I'm getting older and won't always be as athletic. I'm 47. I just try to keep a little adventure in my daily life, and I save my money so the only limitation on the next big one will only be inspiration and wanderlust.

Be sure to read the sidebar

Our thanks to Small Craft Advisor Magazine for
permission to publish this article