Boatbuilding For Beginners
Review by Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA
Regular readers of Jim Michalak’s online newsletter will find this book to be a review of several years of his wisdom, augmented in parts and packaged for convenience. I bet every one of us has fought with printouts of his articles in the shop.
Those who haven’t read Jim Michalak’s online newsletter will find a door into another world.
Michalak has the uncanny ability to explain in plain English the rather complicated engineering decisions that go into boat design. He makes them almost seem easy. For example, the appendix on powerboat math walks the reader through how one determines the horsepower limit of a design, how fast it can be expected to go, and even the details and pitfalls of electric propulsion. The sail area math appendix shows you how to find the area and center of effort of any type of sail, then tells you where it should be positioned on the boat. (Take note, all you rig tinkerers.)
After a brief history of wooden boats, Michalak begins the book with a discussion of how to choose the right boat for you. I have a feeling that this topic is near the front because he gets so many questions that relate to deciding on a design. Maybe also because there is so much misinformation in this area. Too many slick newsstand magazines will pump you up with all manner of hype on the “resale value” of something that’s bigger/faster/shinier/newer.
Not so with Michalak. His background as an aerospace engineer leads him to define a problem, then solve it with the cheapest and easiest solution. First he talks the reader out of those slick newsstand delusions of grandeur. To paraphrase, “Don’t count on your friends/wife/kids coming along – build the boat for you.” That’s a tough pill to swallow if you’ve built your entire boat fantasy around a barge full of people having fun. But it’s a lot better to face investigating their interest before building the barge! In no uncertain terms Michalak tells us that it is no shame in building a small boat first, because even after you have a big boat you’ll probably use the small boat more. It will still be easier to use in every way.
In the following chapters he touches on topics seldom visited elsewhere. How to camp on a boat without being miserable. How to cartop a boat. Capsize recovery. How to interpret the weather in relation to a small boat on a small lake. These are topics I have never seen discussed in any depth elsewhere, even though they are very handy for enjoying small boats.
Perhaps even more important is the chapter on “Sailing for Non-Sailors”. There are a great many people who have been on boats quite a bit, but never considered sailing. In many areas sailing is perceived as a snobby pastime for rich people with Ivy League backgrounds and country club memberships. Michalak shows the reader that sailing is not so hard as the elitists portray it. In fact it’s fun, easy, and so cheap that anyone can try it out.
And that is really the central virtue of Michalak’s writing. He shows that anyone can build a boat and have fun on the water. He does it by sharing his own successes and mistakes, as well as a vast wealth of technical information. Yet he manages to do it all in plain English that anyone can understand. I think there’s also a second, less obvious virtue. Michalak’s method of tackling problems with cold logic helps the reader shed his or her illusions and learn to tackle problems the same way. Nothing could be more useful when boating on a budget.
All of these topics have a quiet centerpiece in the form of full plans for five of his designs – Mayfly, a 14x4’ row/sail skiff; Piragua, a 14x3’ double paddle pirogue; QT Skiffs, a 14x4’ skiff with rowing and power versions; Jonsboat, a 16x5’ planing johnboat; and Robote, a 14x4’ V-bottom rowboat. These are full plans, including fold-out prints, instructions and the right to build them. The only difference in ordering “real” plans is that the extra money gets you full-size blueprints. A really cheap person might consider that this is $127.50 worth of plans included in a $17 book. But with the low price of his plans, I’d always order the full-size blueprints for the convenience of direct measurement with a scale rule. As if this weren’t enough, the appendix contains study plans for another 23 boats.
$17 seems almost ridiculously inexpensive for the content in this book. I would have expected $24.50. But this seems to fit with the Michalak philosophy of pricing. I guess how it works out is that when someone is thinking of building a boat, it is not a great stretch to buy several full sets of plans at his prices. This is a tremendous boon to the builder. “Study plans” have nothing on comparing the actual blueprints. (I go one better and make full-size photocopies for a couple bucks each. Then I can write on them!)
So far the review is positively glowing. Is there a negative? Yes, but a minor one. In the section on wooden boat history, Michalak states that the boats of the ancient Norse and Mediterraneans were built frame first, then skinned. This is based on outdated archaeological information. We now know that nearly all wooden boats were built skin first until the Renaissance era. But the archaeological community doesn’t exactly go out of their way to disseminate this new information, so the error is understandable. Most of us would save that section for mid-winter anyhow. (If you really want to delve deeper into ancient ships, I highly recommend Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks, by J. Richard Steffy. That’ll keep you busy all winter and then some.)
Like I said, that complaint is a minor one. And it is wholly outweighed by the value of this book as a single reference for the beginner. Now when I meet someone who is interested in building a boat or getting into boating, this is the only book I recommend. No other single resource contains so much that is useful to the beginner and veteran alike. But shouldn’t the beginner know of the works of Chapelle, Gardner, Payson and Bolger? Yup. Michalak provides all these references under “Further Reading”.
Now that’s thorough.
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