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Want to bond with your children? Go build a boat

2011 June 3

If you ever wonder what leads to some of my columns, well, it's sometimes a pretty strange tale. In this case, it starts with an armadillo.

You know, those little mammals with armored shells? They have bad tempers and sharp claws, and when I lived in the Arizona desert, I learned they have a worse habit: when frightened, they jump straight up while rolling into a ball. If you startle one on an empty road, you stand a good chance of having a really angry bowling ball come through your windshield.

Anyway, an armadillo burrowed under a shed against which I lean some of the Caswell fleet of small boats, and She Who Must Be Obeyed reminded me that it wouldn't have been an issue had I poured the concrete slab I had promised would become my mini-boatyard. Sigh.

As I considered the project, I thought back to building a concrete patio with my dad. Since I was about 10 at the time, my contributions were holding the dumb end of the tape measure and adding water to the concrete mixer.

But I was ecstatic. It was a bonding experience that has lasted a lifetime, and whenever I stood on that patio, I remembered the good feeling I had from working with my dad. The several weekends that it took were precious moments of sharing and laughing and occasionally getting to use the "damn" word.

Apropos of bonding, I had a note from Carl Cramer, who runs WoodenBoat Publications in Maine, who had come across a photo of the Flight of the Snowbirds regatta in Southern California. Something like Beetle Cats on the East Coast, several hundred of these tubby little catboats once raced on Newport Harbor. With the advent of the fiberglass, the Snowbird died out and one remains in a local museum as a lonely memory.

Cramer wondered if it would be possible to offer the Snowbird either as a set of plans or as a kit for homebuilders, and I realized that this (or something similar) might be the nautical version of my concrete slab for modern kids. Building something with dad. Having a project. Having fun.

In looking at the choices for kids today, I realized that the world has gone mad. Take the Optimist pram, which was designed 50 years ago as a cheap do-it-yourself project for parents and kids to build and enjoy. It was to be the sailing version of the soapbox racers, but one that would be usable year around.

Those early Optis were designed to be built from four sheets of plywood, using basic tools and minimal skills. Cheap. Quick. Fun.

Today, a competitive fiberglass Optimist sells for more than $5,000, or about $650 a foot for a 7-foot, 6-inch pram. Add in another $700 for racing rudder and centerboard, and it's going to pretty hard for most kids to save up that money from their paper route.

We may live in a high-tech world filled with iPods and iPads and Twitters and Facebook, but it seems to me that there is a place for low-tech boats that bring families together.

When I was a kid, I lusted after an 11-foot Penguin dinghy and I found that there was a company that would send me a big box full of pre-cut wood parts that could be assembled, under my dad's supervision, in our garage. That might have happened, but I found a finished Penguin at a price that drained my summer savings account. Still, it would have been great fun to build that
boat together.

In Southern California, the Naples Sabot was the pram of choice and, once again, it could be built in a garage from sheets of plywood. In Northern California, it was the El Toro, and when America's Cup skipper Paul Cayard was 8 years old, an El Toro built in his garage took him to three class championships and launched a brilliant sailing career.

I like the idea of parents and kids building boats together and then enjoying them. But it doesn't have to be a one-family project. What if a community group got together, built some jigs, and everyone helped everyone build a fleet? What if every boat in the fleet had to be built by a parent? Don't want to bond with your kids? Fine, go play somewhere else.

But this needs to be about kids and parents having fun together, first and foremost. I don't want to upset readers who think an Optimist is the perfect junior boat but, hey, the class sounds a little out of control.

One of the leading builders advertises that they gain a speed advantage by using a special molding process.
Is that what the original builders had in mind when they were nailing together sheets of plywood for their kids' boats? C'mon! The modern Optimist is the antithesis of a fun kid's boat, from the Teflon-polished bottom to exotic hardware suitable for an America's Cup yacht. 

I think there is a place in this world for a low-tech dinghy for kids, one they can build with their parents and sail with their friends. One that doesn't require a huge initial investment, or an ongoing Cold War of new sails, trick masts and exotic booms, all that skirt that narrow line between legal and cheating. Is this the mentality we need to teach our kids?

It doesn't really matter whether it's that original clunky Optimist or a Snowbird or a Penguin. Or something entirely new. Make it simple, make it fun, make it accessible. 

So who's going to step up to the plate and make it happen? Where are the Optimists when we need them? The Rotarians? The local Domino's Pizza? A local sailing club?
Come on. Give your kids some memories to cherish.