A few weeks ago, I launched Pup, a little custom-built wooden tender for Dog Days, my Islander Bahama 28 sailboat. Once chocks are built, Pup will nest comfortably on Dog Days’ foredeck. Next step will be a cover and a tie-down system. Now that it’s done, I confess that I find myself wondering whatever possessed me in the first place to have it built. I don’t row and have never really thought about having a little rowboat, but somehow it just had to be.
It all began, I think, as way to live out a finally recognized childhood dream. In tender years, I know Water Rat’s admonition to Mole came to me in a bedtime story: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And from another collection of childhood stories by Thorton W. Burgess, I recall a similar message about the joys of messing about along the muddy banks of Paddy the Beaver’s pond fed by a system of wandering streams. But I was a landlubber for too many years, and rowing a little boat was the last thing on my mind, so busy was I with things ashore.
After I found my way into sailing, I went on to buy boats and discovered the pleasure of motoring about in an inflatable dinghy. And as I wandered the docks at various marinas, whenever I saw a little wooden tender – a Fatty Knees or a Trinka – I found myself remembering the words of Jehosophat in Robert Gordon Anderson’s Half-Past Seven tale, the Jolly Roger: “wouldn’t that be fine!”
This all struck me one day last spring, while talking with my friend John Tuma, sailor and, as I discovered in our conversation, small boat builder. As we stood on the docks beside Green Onions, his Alerion Express 28, just across from Dog Days, an idea hatched. Why not have John build a tender for Dog Days, one I could use at mooring or anchor, a fine little wooden one.
One of John's custom built rowboats.
We talked about it, and a concept began to emerge. It would have to be small, perhaps six feet long by three-and-a-half feet wide. It had to be lightweight, maybe forty pounds, so I could easily put it on and off the foredeck of Dog Days. And that meant, if it was to be wooden, which was the whole point in my mind, it would have to be plank, not lap construction.
John’s eyes lit up. “Just happens,” he said, “that I’m finishing another project and am looking for something new.” With that, we embarked on trying to find a design that would fit my needs as well as serve him as a prototype of a lightweight, small boat tender.
At home I looked over brochures on various tenders, and John emailed me photos of a tender he’d recently built as well as other ideas. I loved the idea of a boat that could sail as well, and I liked the traditional look of lap construction, but both these characteristics meant the tender would easily top eighty pounds. Moreover, the length of the typical tender inevitably was around eight feet, and this seemed (although probably was not) just a bit too big to nest easily on the foredeck of my twenty-eight foot Islander. Weight and length came to govern our search.
Via the Internet I finally found an example of what I was looking. The Barrow Boat Company, located in the U.K., offers a variety of completed or kit-built rowing and sailing dinghies. Among them was their original little six-foot dinghy, which seemed to be just the sort of thing I was looking for. I sent the reference to John, and he agreed that this style would probably work well, so he set out to design our tender based on the general idea of the six-foot Barrow Boat.
While Pup was under construction, Latitude 38 published a photo a similar nesting dinghy, Taxi Dancer, built by Warwick Tompkins in 2004.
From Lectronic Latitude, August 8, 2004.
Pup was constructed in John’s shop, a one-stall garage in the city parks and recreation yard storage building at Lake Elizabeth in Fremont, California. There, John finalized the plans for our tender, drawing it full size on a 4x8 piece of plywood. From this pattern he constructed the closely spaced molds on which he would apply the planking of western red cedar strips.
The cedar strips were edge glued and then glued and doweled to the plywood transoms. Because the boat has so much shape, staples would not hold the cedar strips to the molds. John therefore screwed the strips to molds, removing them after the glue set. Dowels were used to fill the screw holes.
Once the hull planking was completed, the hull and transoms were sheathed on the outside with a layer of four-ounce fiberglass set in epoxy. The interior of the hull also was sheathed with four-ounce glass, but the interior of the transoms was not as a way to save weight. Prior to final painting and varnishing, all wood surfaces were sealed with two coats of epoxy.
A tiny keel is added, and the bottom painted with epoxy thickened with cabosil (amorphous fumed silica) and graphite powder, a mixture formulated by John. The clear fir rails are been glued in place.
Off the framing, the tender is supported by a temporary brace. Clear fir rails have been added, and the interior hull has been glassed.
Initially, we thought we would paint the inside, but the cedar strip planking looked so nice, we agreed to varnish it instead.
The aft bulkhead was constructed of Finnish Birch, Okoume, and Luaun. Foam was mixed and filled the bulkhead to meet U.S. Coast Guard floatation requirements.
Two coats of epoxy were applied to the seats prior to painting.
John prepares a high quality rope bumper, which will be glued to the rail, with hand holds on each end of the boat.
Painted and varnished, everything is done except for the rope rail and attaching hardware.
Off the bench, the tender Pup, is finished, with double-rope-handholds at the bow and bronze oarlocks in place.
The stern has a single-rope-handhold.
As only appropriate, John Tuma is the first to take Pup for a spin at the marina.
John demonstrates the proper way to enter and exit Pup at the dock. Notice the nice floor board which John added to the interior. It added a little weight, but makes enormous difference when using the boat.
After John took the first spin in Pup, I got my chance, and quickly discovered I needed to do a lot of practicing to improve my rowing skills.
My partner, Deborah, clearly has rowed more often than me, and she loved her spin in Pup.
Pup is just what John and I hoped she’d be: a pretty and surprisingly stable little tender. Deborah and I are going to have lots of fun with her over the years, and I'm really looking forward to exploring anchorages all across San Francisco Bay.