Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Amateur Boatbuilding Coming Alive Again

All things boating have taken a hammering over the past decade, with most people suffering to a greater or lesser extent through the financial woes that flooded the world. Initially, amateur boatbuilding seemed to stay quite strong, while sales of production boats went into a deep slump.

After amateur boatbuilding also started to weaken, it was interesting (but distressing) to observe the progression of the slowing sales around the world. First to go were the industrialised countries, led by USA and UK, then it spread to less developed countries. It is said that when America sneezes the world will catch the cold. When we lived in South Africa we could watch that phenomenon and knew that what was happening financially in USA, whether up or down, was likely to be mimicked in South Africa within a year or two.

The one market that seemed to stay remarkably buoyant was Russia, where amateur boatbuilding seemed to stay strong. Then war and politics stepped in, the Russian economy took a dive and sales of plans to amateurs in Russia also fell.

Boats are not an essential part of life for most people. For some they are transport or a work implement, for others they are a home but for most people their boats are toys, sporting equipment, or somewhere between, certainly not high on the list of essentials when money becomes tight.

Now we seem to be coming out of that slump. The US economy has been showing signs of life for a year or two and that now seems to be filtering down far enough that amateur boatbuilders are again starting new projects. If the normal pattern pertains, the upswing will spread out to the rest of the world as well.

Over the 35 years that I have been designing boats professionally, I have drawn mostly boats that are suitable for amateurs to build. This was not an intentional path in my design career but, in retrospect, was probably the most natural and logical one. My roots are in amateur boatbuilding, when I built a plywood 36ft cruiser/racer in my in-laws' garden, based on a design by Ricus van de Stadt. My own first full design was the CW975 for a 32ft plywood racer/cruiser, which I also built after it won a design competition. The third design that I drew was the steel Pratique 35 cruiser for an amateur-builder friend. Next was the Coquette 39 plywood racer/cruiser commission, also for an amateur. Only after that did I receive my first commission from a professional builder for a production GRP boat.
My own 2nd big boat project, the CW975 "Concept Won", in my garden.
This depth of involvement with amateur boatbuilders and designs has resulted in a long string of commissions for amateur builders, mostly for plywood. My own third build big-boat project, in the form of the radius chine plywood Didi 38 "Black Cat", and my well-publicized voyaging in her, have reinforced that trend. For the past 30 years I have always had at least a year of work waiting in  line. That has now expanded to a 2-year backlog and I have had to turn away new commissions to keep the backlog somewhat manageable.

As the slump deepened, the average size of boats that people chose to build slipped lower, until we were selling only dinghies and trailer-sailers. Now that average size is starting to creep upward again, as builders move back into bigger boats. The most durable design that we have is the Argie 15, which has developed a good following that keeps it going strongly through thick and thin.
Argie 15 built by Andrey Borodikhin in Moscow, Russia.

In trailer-sailers, the little gaffers, in the form of the Cape Cutter 19 and Cape Henry 21, are the ones that keep going. These lapstrake plywood boats are more complicated projects than a simple stitch-&-glue boat but they are just so pretty that they have attracted a good following. They have also proven to be quick in the light stuff and capable in the rough stuff, so they have grown a reputation for being desirable boats. That resulted in the upward expansion of this design range with the Cape May 25.
Beautifully-built Cape Cutter 19, built by Sergio Vianna of Curitiba, Brazil.
Newest in this series, and already generating much interest even before completion of the design, is the Cape Charles 32. Although not yet on our website and pricelist, drawings have already gone out to the first two builders. This one is a coastal and offshore cruiser, with shallow fixed keel and external ballast, whereas the smaller sisters have steel centreplates and internal ballast. We should have a web page for this design in a month or two. Until then, please email me for info on plan price etc.
Accommodation layout of Cape Charles 32 cruiser.
It is not only cruisers that are growing in popularity. One of the commissions that is waiting for attention is a bigger sister to the radius chine plywood Didi 950, at 11.4m (37ft). I have also been asked multiple times to draw a Didi concept to the Class 40 Rule but am not able to fit in the design in a reasonable time, so have turned down the commissions. Meanwhile other larger boats in our radius chine plywood range are also starting in various countries. This includes the first in that series, the Didi 38, with two new builds starting in Asia.
Didi 950 radius chine plywood racer/cruiser.
We are also experiencing increased interest in steel cruising designs, which have been very dormant for the past 10 years. Overall, amateur boatbuilding is looking a lot more healthy now than it has for a long time. Now we all need the politicians in all of our countries to play nicely together. If they do that then life should improve for all of us. Lets all go play with our boats.

To see more of these and our many other designs, visit or

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cutting Boatbuilding Costs

I recently had a situation that comes up on a fairly regular basis, often enough to be worthwhile writing about it. It varies but the core message is the same; "Your plans are too expensive, I don't want to pay so much for a few sheets of paper". I end up having to justify the price of my product to someone who is expecting a cheap deal and it has never resulted in a satisfactory closing.

When considering building a boat for yourself, or having one built by a professional, please bear in mind that you want to build a good and safe boat, one of which you will be proud and hope to own for a long time.

~ The plans are not simply a few sheets of paper, the paper is only the medium used to deliver a tremendous amount of information. When the plans are supplied in digital form by email, the negative feeling of the customer may be aggravated because even the paper has disappeared from the package that is supplied. The value of the plans is in the information, not in the paper. You can buy a pile of paper at your local stationers but they cannot sell you the information that you need to build a quality boat.
DS15 sportboat built by amateur Jim Foot in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo Glen Meyburgh.
~ A quality boat design is the result of many, many hours of work, work that has been done by someone who has spent the time, taken the trouble and paid out a lot of money to get the training and experience needed to do a good job of designing that boat. A 40ft boat can take 500 to 1000 hours to draw accurate and high quality detailing. That is what you are paying for in the price of the plans.

~ If you have chosen wisely, you are also buying the accumulated experience and knowledge of someone who has learned, through thousands of miles and decades of boating, what makes a good boat, one that can be built by an amateur, with efficient use of materials, a boat that looks good, moves through the water efficiently and will give you great joy to launch and voyage.

Beautifully-built Cape Henry 21, by Dean Ivancic of Porec, Croatia
~ We all expect to be paid a reasonable wage for our working hours. The person buying the plans expects to be paid for his labour, why would he wish less for any person who is supplying a service to him? If we cannot get a worthwhile price for our work then we must abandon that work and move into another field of employment. I design boats for a living because I love doing so. I retrained myself from another profession that was not as enjoyable but would have given me much higher income. That doesn't make boat design a hobby nor a pastime that needn't pay a satisfactory wage.

~ If you want to pay a low price for a product then you must expect to receive a product of low value. That is the mindset that has resulted in our shops now being overrun with junk products from cheap manufacturers in the East, mostly not worth the price that is paid and not properly fulfilling the purpose for which they were bought. The purchase ends up being a bad investment purely due to hunting a low price.
Didi 38 cruiser/racer built by amateur Stas Pechenkin of Irkutsk, Russia
~ There are places in a boatbuilding project that money can be saved or the dollars can be stretched a bit further. But you have to be judicious in choosing the places to save money. You will be spending a boatload of money to build a large boat and you need that money to be well-spent, a good investment. All of that money will go into buying materials and equipment to go into and onto what is shown on the drawings. The drawings themselves are likely to cost 2-3% of the total cost of the project. If you buy your plans based on price rather than on the quality of the design, you may save yourself 50% of the plan price, which is only 1-1.5% of the total cost. That is a very small saving but it can have a massive effect on the quality and value of the boat that you build. If a particular boat or construction method really appeals to you then you have good reason to buy that design. Changing to another design that doesn't really do what you want but costs less is really not a good reason for the change. Even if you get the plans for free, if they are for the wrong boat then you will be wasting your time and money to even start the project.

~ You can save money on the expensive shiny bits, then upgrade later when more funds are available. It will irreparably harm your boating experience if you build the wrong design but it will be done no harm if you buy good used winches and other hardware at a large saving. Make sure that the used hardware that you buy is to the required specification and in good order, that it has a useful life ahead of it. In a few years, when available funds permit, you can replace with new and sell the used items to another builder who is in a similar position to what you were.
Dix 43 Pilot built by amateur Dennis Wagner of Empangeni, South Africa.
~ Beware though, if you are tempted to buy used that very costly item, the sailing rig. If you find a used rig that you think is suitable for your boat, please first run the dimensions, mast section, rigging diameters and configuration past your designer for advice. A mast that you might think suitable may really be totally unsuitable for your boat for a host of reasons linked primarily to strength, which might cause it to fall down on deck in a tangle of bits. Something else to take into account is that the insurance industry generally applies a service life to the rig and expecting much beyond that may prove to be foolhardy. The service life is generally 5 years for sails, 10 years for rigging and 20 years for spars. If the items that you are considering exceed these ages then they may not be worth buying, should be examined very carefully or maybe even dropped from consideration.

Few people who build their own boats have endless funds. We all want to get the best deals on our purchases. We need to spend judiciously within the limited budgets that we do have available. Part of spending judiciously is to save money where it won't hurt the overall project.