Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Bit Outside the Box

John Vigor is well known to small boat sailors as a prolific writer whose works includes numerous books and the Non-Denominational Boat Denaming Ceremony. Mr. Vigor also writes a blog and his blog post yesterday Amateur Boatbuilders Can Do Better generated some spirited discussion on the DuckWorks FaceBook page.

Some thought Vigor's premises (amateur boatbuilders can do better than build simple/crude boats; amateur boatbuilders do this because they lack the confidence to build complex/fancy boats; amateur boatbuilders can produce professional-like results trading time for skill; simple/crude boats do not easily find new homes (limited resale value) are elitist and offensive. Some thought the simple/crude characterization of some designs meant boxy and ugly. Some thought those premises are spot-on in describing a general failure of amateur boatbuilders to live up to their potential; and thought these premises necessary for introspective analysis of (and by) the amateur boatbuilding community.

My initial reaction fell more or less with those who felt the remarks to be elitist. There was something a bit snarky about Vigor's remarks. There was a bit of defensiveness in me as I read the piece. After all, while I envision perfect joinery, what I see in my mind's eye just doesn't come out of my hands - and I am okay with that.

I could (and did in a hurriedly typed draft) take Vigor's premises apart one at a time, it seemed to me this morning that I had missed the boat, so to speak, about the post. I realized some people like to build - for them it is about the process of building a boat and these are the builders who turn out those impossibly-good-looking-works-of-art and craftsmanship. Some folks like building a boat and getting out on the water. These are the builders who turn out solid, functional, work-boat quality boats that get used - a lot. And, there are those whose interest is in getting out on the water as quickly as possible; their boats, while functional and well-used, often raise eyebrows (at the other end of the spectrum from the works-of-art boats). Nothing wrong with any of these folks or their approaches to building boats.

My impression this morning is that John Vigor is, however inelegantly, expressing his preference for high quality workmanship - which has little to do with how simple or complex a design may be. His use of simple/crude vs. complex/fancy designs confused the issue and was interpreted by some to mean ugly vs. pretty designs. But I do think he missed his mark by insisting that lack of self-confidence is the main (really the only factor he addresses) factor why amateur boatbuilders choose to build "simple/crude" designs instead of "complex/fancy" designs.

We all know our own limitations. We all push our own envelopes and are sometimes surprised with a new skill or a better-than-expected result. The Maid of Endor is a fine, complex and fancy design. I don't believe I am selling myself short by deciding not to build that, or any other, particular design. It is beyond my capacity to build but my self-confidence is not the limiting factor. Time, space and materials are greater limitations on my choice of designs to build.

Sure, amateur boatbuilders can do "better"… as can every doctor, lawyer, dishwasher, ditch-digger, hobbyist or professional - you name it - out there. But what is meant by "better"? As for introspective analysis, I think we all do that all the time, particularly when we are building on our boats.


  1. Very good post Bob. Indeed, "out of the box" designs appeal a lot to me. Also the issue regarding perfectionism being a handicap is always there in my mind. I see the piano finish woodenboats and compare my workboat finish. I have kind of overcome this issue from holding me back and accepting what comes from my hands. What is most important for me is to be on the water, safely, with a boat that looks good to me from 6 feet and more.

    1. Thanks Rik. We've shared our thoughts re "perfectionism" before and I agree with you; I no longer fret about what comes out of my hands. Gardens is/will be the product of my efforts and I'll be proud to sail her.

      Time is a much greater limitation on my progress than anything else: there just doesn't seem to be enough time for all the things I want to do.

  2. John Vigor wrote an equally elitist article on the Welsford Navigator back in June entitled "Why re-invent the wheel". In it, he wonders why anyone would re-invent the wheel by building a Navigator, or any other dinghy for that matter, when they could have a Wayfarer instead, which, he claims, is better in every way than any other dinghy.

    Well, I can think of several reasons. The most obvious is, there is no way to build a Wayfarer even if you wanted to. The plans are not available for purchase. Neither are kits, at least not in his hemisphere. And anyone who knows anything about the Wayfarer is aware of this, except, apparently, Mr. Vigor.

    But let's ignore that fact for a moment. Suppose you could build a Wayfarer. One reason for doing so, according to Mr. Vigor, is that the Wayfarer has simple, conservative lines unlike the clinker-built, sliding gunter rigged, bowsprit and boomkin equipped Navigator. Here, Mr. Vigor directly contradicts himself when he argues, in his latest blog, that "boat builders can do better than build simple boats".

    Wayfarer is a magnificent boat, but there are other reasons why one might select a Navigator over a Wayfarer. For example, I wanted a yawl, not a bermuda sloop. Navigator has more beautiful lines (even Mr. Vigor admits that). I suspect Navigator is a safer, equally capable, and comparably performing boat due to her yawl rig with more reefing options. Plus she has many more options available to the builder (Wayfarer has, well, none), and far better support from her designer.

    The premise that any boat cannot be improved upon, and that any attempt to do so is merely "re-inventing the wheel" is not only elitist, but ridiculous.

    1. Very interesting. Thanks for that, Joel. I'm still curious about what boat(s) Mr. Vigor has built...

    2. Also... I thought it odd that Mr. Vigor referred to the Navigator in the past tense.