Step one: Get your dad to build most of the dory

Lots of dads think football is important. And cars. And showing off your money. But my dad didn’t care about any of those things. What he did care about was nature. And learning. And for some reason in 1983 he cared very much about the four-plank lapstrake dory. So he started building one.

In autumn of my freshman year, my parents went crazy and moved to Alaska, leaving the unfinished dory in my granddad’s garage. For sixteen years it waited there, next to the tomato patch, while Granddad took up tango dancing and cut down the oak tree that was planted the day I was born.

But in conversations with my own father, the dream of finishing the dory was always looming. At some point Dad started calling it my dory, and that’s when he got me hooked.

II. Take the summer off to make sawdust

Finally one summer between schoolteaching gigs, I tended bar in a fancy fish restaurant. But I could never tell the halibut and chips from the fish and chips and so I was encouraged to seek other work.

Now I understood that fate had spoken her peace, and she'd be pissed if I didn't head north and finally start work on my bequeathed dory. So I packed my truck and headed up to Dad’s new place in the North Cascades. And through til Steptember, mite sized wood shavings coated every lawn, house, car and person in our neighborhood.

III. Oh shit... math!

By the time I was on board, Archimedes, I mean Dad, had already done all the tricky geometry, plotting every sweeping line and curve to create his own modification of the classic John Mower Swampscott design.
Dad built everything of substance on this boat: Ribs. Hull. Centerboard. Rudder. All he asked me to do was make it beautiful. To me it was already beautiful, but I wasn’t going to let him down.

IV. Laying the deck

The story of building a deck is the story of gluing stuff together with epoxy: It begins with quarter-inch strips of African mahogany to a plywood hull. But soon you realize it’s your fingers.

Suddenly epoxy is everywhere. You step back and stick to the keeshond. You want to scream but your lips won’t open. Dad sees you're in trouble and laughs, then walks into the house, locking the door.

V. African mahogany

Unlike the notorious Africanized bees that tormented California in the 80's, African Mahogany doesn't lurk in your Dr Pepper so it can sting your tongue. But it is exotic. And if you don't watch out it will give you splinters.

For a variety of reasons this will earn you no sympathy from Dad: First, he is a doctor and has pulled spikes from people’s heads. Second, he planed off two of his own fingers a few years ago while building a dobro guitar. His wife was out of town when it happened. I drove up from Seattle and found him laying there all bandaged up on the couch. Then I went out to the garage and picked all the little bone and skin fragments off the wall and floor, laying them in a neat little pile on the workbench. Ours is no family of cowards.

VI. You wouldn't believe how many hours I've spent sanding

This deck glowed profoundly once, with a hard epoxy shell pornographically exposing every sinew of the grain. But not anymore.

You see all those cloudy spots in the mahogany? How it's all murky and depressing-looking. I did that. On purpose. Untold moons of sanding away a gorgeous finish yet again so we can add another coat of epoxy.

In the end this deck will be gorilla strong. It will be gloriously good looking, making the prettiest boat you've ever seen look like oyster pus.

But for now it just feels a little Sisyphean.

VII. Refreshments

Whenever I go back west I like to stock up on Olys, usually hauling several dozen six-packs off the luggage carousel, confident now that they won't explode in flight.

But when I’m in Washington these beverages are as plentiful as the blueberries in the woods. Add in a pack of chaw and the East Indian radio station (AM 1550) that floats down from Canada, and I never want to leave, save for jaunts down to Coupeville for mussels.

VIII. Pain with a t

Before you take on boat paint, consider this:

I have been snakebit, crashed motorcycles, and fallen 30 feet off a shale rock wall onto a cactus, but none of it ever aches like your knees on the third day of boat paint. Under the hot shop lamps where time stops.

You can't give up because you love your boat. Punch-drunk and high on naphthalene, you stay in there. No defense, all heart.

Paint is better than you are. More tenacious for sure. It will ripple if it wants to. If you try to cheat and smooth it out, it will gum. So you can't daydream. You know only the sheen where you've been and the matte where you're headed. Suddenly you've applied the last stroke and you collapse onto the cement. And for the first time that day you realize there's a gentle mountain breeze.

IX. Coaming and jigs

The coaming is a lip around the top edge of the cockpit so lobsters don’t wash over the deck and get after the pimento cheese sandwiches.
It is both conspicuous and overlooked. Because people might rest their haunches on it, you have to build it strong. Yet it has to curve. So how do you make something curve and be strong?


Well what you’ve got to do is take a big raw chunk of mahogany and re-saw into long, slender planks. Then for about six months you bend these over a jig real slow so they don’t snap.

Once your planks have a deep curve, you layer them all together, with six tail extensions staggered between your plies. Make sure they're all re-sawn and planed to identical thickness (according to your caliper-micrometer) or you'll be sorry.

Then you glue everything together over several days with more clamps and jigs (all told you'll need about 4000 clamps).

And once it's dry and you've shaped and sanded it all down, you place the entire U-shaped arc into a cylinder with a variable and irregular pivot and hope the whole thing fits.

And it did. Perfectly. Cause we’re really good.

X. The three whales

So there were these 3 whales.

They came in under the glare of the setting sun to conceal their position - a famous trick from old kamikazee movies.

The ocean was bottomless and boundaryless for 30,000 miles, and when the whales got to land they wanted to rest a little in the coves.

I was there that day, at Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point in the Lower 48.

Some hikers were there too. Trying to chuck Luna bars off the cliffs and into the blowholes.

The whales wondered what was happening.

I ducked through the rain forest and ran up the coast, to take these farewell photos as the whales went north, searching for smarter people. 

XI. Here's glue in your eye

Remember when we laid the mahogany strips?

That process caused splinter blowouts under the deck. Naturally the epoxy oozed thru these spots, creating lethal glue stalactites.

Other dory builders would probably find it terrifying to be totally confined while razors of boat chaff crash on your face.

XII. Metal!

With it's classic gunther rig, our mast will stand about 14' above board. That'll give us almost 150 sq ft of sail, which means a lot of wind force, even for a sturdy timber like sitka spruce.

1/4 Inch stainless steel cables will stay the mast so our dory can dance in a hurricane, if she wants to.

You cut em roughly to length. Then uncoil the wires by hand, inserting each filament deep under your fingernail until it really hurts.

Bend the filaments back and stuff the whole frayed mess upside-down through a bronze bell and fill the bell with liquid metal.

Then you'll want to obsessively re and re-measure the wire to get it the precise length for your mast. Repeat the whole torrid metal process on the other end and then stand there while Dad rigs it all up.

XIII. The rudder and the tiller

I'm not sure when dad built the rudder. He did a great job tho - with a nice curve to the fin and a head of layered mahogany.

Now it was time to build the tiller - a much more simple task.
Just find a big chunk of African Mahogany with a little arc to the grain, and then carve a sweeping curve to harmonize with the stern deck.

XIV. Turk's Heads, leathers and oars

Here's Dad working on the oars. He carved these each from a single piece of Douglas fir.

When life gives you beautiful hand-carved oars, you don't just stuff them brutally into bronze oar locks - they'll get all smacked up.

You wrap them in leather tho, and they stay nice.

This is a running Turk's head. It's the ancient way to keep your oars from sliding around. You don't see these much anymore because people are lazy.

XV. Wooden Boat Festival

After 30 years of craft and love, our dory debuted at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, WA.

For three days she was adored by strangers, lauded as the best and most beautiful of any boat in the show.

So many photos.
A pirate greedily eyes the dory.