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If it quacks like a Puddle Duck it must be a fun boat to sail

2011 November 1

There is a lot of chest-beating going on about the current state of the sailing world. Participation is down 40% since 1997, sailboat builders are folding, regattas are getting smaller and the sailing community seems to be in the doldrums.

There have been a lot of theories advanced on the whys of all this, ranging from the high cost of boating to the growing demands on family time. Nick Hayes, in his book
Saving Sailing, argues many have turned to highly structured activities and away from family-based multi-generational recreation. I've railed in these columns about how junior sailing has deteriorated with the advent of $4,000 prams, mommy boats and private coaches, and how the loss of interest by kids has added to the downturn. 
My view is a simple one: sailing stopped being fun.

Near our home is a 900-acre public park that we love because it's not just beautiful, but free. There are walking trails and pavilions for picnics, exercise paths and ball fields, and a lake for sailing and kayaks. We stopped by on a recent drive, and ended up sitting by the sailing lake just watching people have fun. And I discovered the antidote for the sailing blues.

Near us, a family of three generations was enjoying a couple of boats for a day of sailing and a picnic at the water's edge. One of the boats, essentially a square box, was ugly in such a charming way that She Who Must be Obeyed asked, "What the heck is that?" And thus I met Patrick Johnson and his wife, Joann. He explained that he was using the day for some practice, because he was heading for the Puddle Duck Racer World Championship in a couple of weeks. Huh?
I've been sailing for more than five decades, but I'd never heard of a Puddle Duck Racer (PDRacer to insiders). It is, in essence, a boat so simple that even the tool-challenged can build it in a couple of weekends in their garage. It is designed to be built from three sheets of plywood, and all the low-cost hardware comes from the local building supply store. You can build it for a couple of hundred bucks, including the latex house paint of your choice and the sail, which is a tarp trimmed to size.   
It is basically a box with a curved bottom and, get this, the plans are free! On the PDRacer website (www.pdracer.com), designer Shorty Routh was reminding readers that, with less than a month until the world championships in Oklahoma, there was still time to build a boat to compete.

Six hundred of these little boats have been registered with Routh all over North America since the first three were built in 2004, which is a number that gives me hope for the future of sailing.  And you know why they're so popular?

Because they are fun!

You can sail them with a boatload of parents and kids, you can row them, you can hang an outboard on them. They fit on the top of even the smallest cars, and you can stand them up in your garage to store them. 

The PDRacer is, in a way, a development class that delights in keeping it simple and fun. Only the lower 10 inches of the hull are restricted, and even that has quarter-inch tolerances because, as Routh says, "Hey, these are being built by families, not professional craftsmen." You can choose to build your PDRacer with a daggerboard or a leeboard (or even two leeboards). You can rig it with three-sided or four-sided sails, such as lateens, gunters, and sprits, and some have cuddies for stashing jackets.
More important, however, there is a PDRacer mentality that is all about fun. At the three-day world championship, only one day is set aside for actual racing. The rest of the time is, in Routh's words, "a family festival of sailing." There are prizes for the best costumes, a pirate beard contest, and youth events like the rain gutter regatta, where kids blow mini-sailboats down water-filled rain gutters. 

You've got to love this idea: every entrant has to bring a hand-made trophy and, from this bizarre collection, the first-place winner gets the first choice, second gets second, and so on. Picture that at the Star worlds or even the Optimist worlds.

It's about fun.

If you aren't sure you could build a Puddle Duck, the class helps organize "hatchings," where several families gather over a few weekends to "hatch" a bunch of PDRacers with the help of experienced owners. It's where parents and kids work together to build something they will enjoy together.

It's about fun.

Depending upon how sophisticated you get (are you sewing your tarp/sail or using duct tape to hold it together?) you can build a PDRacer for as little as $100, but most are in the $250 range, says Routh. Johnson's bright red PDRacer cost him exactly $417.60, but he admits that he bought a couple of deck hatches from a marine hardware store, thus driving up his cost, and he invested in a professionally stitched tarp from a sailmaker (PolySail International) that actually specializes in low-cost poly-tarp sails for home-built boats. Who knew such a sailmaker even existed? 

Johnson spent $109.95 on that sail but, on the other hand, his entire boat still cost $75 less than just the sail alone for an Optimist racer. Hmmmm.

Routh says the motto of the class is "Keep creative and get out on the water!" He adds, "We don't build boats to impress people, we build boats to get on the water and
have fun."

By the way, the buoys for the world championship? They'll be inflatable duck pool toys from a discount store.
It's all about fun.