The Perfectly Normal Obsession with Making Stuff: Boats
As I look back over my life I have seen a recurring theme in my personality. For whatever reason, I have a strong desire to build things that I could just as easily, and probably more inexpensively buy. It seems that any time I have a desire to possess something my first inclination is to try to figure out how to make it. I confess that while it mostly seems perfectly normal to me, it sometimes drives me crazy and frequently drives my wife crazy. Furniture, bows, arrows, landing nets, tools, hot sauce, tree stands, ammo, fly tying vices, bobbins, epoxy drying wheels, Hackintosh computers, and dozens of other things get built in our basement. Boats are one of those things that I have reconfigured, repaired, and fabricated through the years. Everything from jon boats to runabouts, inflatables to a bass boat.
I have built two McKenzie style driftboats; one of wood/epoxy and another of fiberglass. These are the two boats I am most proud of. The wooden one was a Tatman kit that I built in 1993 and is presently owned by my best friend Mike. Pictures of it can be seen in my video Fly Fishing the Hiwassee. I logged about 400 trips down the Hiwassee in that boat from 1993-1995. It was a decent enough boat but it was really too small for guiding and it required a lot of maintenance. I felt liked I logged as much time repairing it as I did rowing it or fishing from it. I bet Mike feels that way now.
During the two years I guided from that boat, I spent many hours thinking about the perfect drift boat. This was after all my office. I was spending 9 hours a day in this boat, sometimes for 30 days straight. I rowed as many different makes of boats I could get my hands on: ClackaCraft, Hyde, Willie, Lavro, Osprey, and a few other wooden boats. There were things I liked about some of them, and many things I did not like. Clackas were probably my favorite, but I could not see the point of the huge front deck, and felt like the angler in the back was very crowded. A big deal to me was the fact that a cooler could not be stowed perpendicular to the gunnels between the rower and the front angler. It has to be stowed lengthwise next to the rower’s knees and you have to kind of crawl over it to land a fish for the anglers. It also just irritated me that my knee was rubbing against it all day. I guess it’s something you get used to, but I didn’t want to. The hull of the Clacka is huge, but it did not seem very well laid out. The other brands have too many deficiencies to list.
I spent many hours drawing up plans, calculating measurements, researching fiberglass materials, “volunteering” in a fiberglass manufacturing industry to gain experience, and finally coming to the conclusion that I could build a better boat than I could buy. My father provided valuable contributions to the planning of the boat, and it was one of the last projects we did together. I bought a 55-gallon barrel of polyester resin, 5 gallons of white gel coat, release agent, the appropriate tools, and two bolts of cloth. To end up with a finished boat, I essentially had to build three. First I made all the plugs: the hull, the seats, decks, floors, etc. Everything had to have a male plug. Then I made molds off of each of those plugs. The plug had to be perfectly designed so that the mold would come off. Any flaws in the plug would also show up it the mold, and ultimately in the finished product. Finally I got to work laying up the boat and before long our entre neighborhood was smelling like fiberglass. Something that our neighbors were not necessarily enthused about, but were not surprised about either.
The hull needed to be indestructible so I settled on using a material called biaxial instead of the standard 24-ounce weave used in other boats. I wanted this boat to last forever under heavy use, with little maintenance. Biaxial is essentially a heavy weave with a two- ounce matt sewn to it. It is extremely strong stuff. Two layers of biaxial plus a layer of two-ounce matt make up the sides. Seven layers went into the bottom, resulting in a yet 3/8” thick bottom that is flexible when going over rocks, yet very strong and impervious to fracture or puncture. All the interior parts are made out of two-ounce cloth and there is no wood other than some used for aesthetics. The chines take the greatest amount of abuse and are the most subject to failure. The chines on my boat are nearly 3” thick. I seriously think you could drop this boat from an airplane and it would not be hurt. (As an aside, someone once “borrowed” my boat without me knowing when I was on a fishing trip in Florida. He had a 1 and 7/8” hitchball on his Jeep and failed to realize that my trailer had a 2″ hitch. He also neglected to hook up the safety chains. You can probably see where this is going. As he was going down the road he suddenly saw the boat and trailer passing him. Fortunately it went off the road onto a golf course and the tongue plowed up a 20’ furrow in the green. The boat flipped off the trailer, bouncing and rolling a couple times before coming to a stop. Luckily no-one was hurt and aside from the wooden gunnels being broken, nothing happened to the boat or trailer. Of course the “borrower” had a humbling story to tell me when I returned. To this very day he is remorseful for that mishap.)
The boat is 15’ 10” stem to stern and 54” wide on the bottom. The interior is laid out to put the maximum amount of distancebetween the two anglers and is very easy to move around in. A cooler can be stored crossways in front of the oarsman, directly behind the front seat. It has plenty of storage, level non-skid floors, and rows like a dream. Because the front angler is positioned very far forward, the transom rides just out of the water so that the current is not pushing against it, causing more work for the oarsman. The boat is heavier than comparably sized fiberglass driftboats because the biaxial soaks up a lot of resin. I don’t see this as a disadvantage though. A driftboat is supposed to drift slowly with a minimal amount of work from the oarsman. The extra weight of this boat allows for a slow drift which gives the anglers more time to make casts, more time for me to get out of sticky situations in whitewater, and overall less strokes on the oars. Over the course of a nine-hour day, that makes a big difference. The only time the extra weight is a disadvantage is at the end of the day when it is pitch dark, there is a mile left to go and my wife is I’m ready to get back to the ramp.
In keeping with the “I could probably build that” theme, I enlisted the services of my dad who was a master metal fabricator to help me build a trailer. Using measurements from standard drifboat trailers, we went to work. He was the brains behind this project, doing the engineering, welding, and hard stuff, while I did the grunt work of cutting metal. We even built the axle, which is made from square tubing and bolt-on automotive grade hubs. The full-length roller on the back was scavenged from some sort of a conveyor we found at a salvage yard. I decided not to paint the trailer but rather to keep it in grey primer. Knowing it would be in and out of the water, and would be stored outside, I realized that rust would be inevitable. Removing spots of rust and touching up primer rather than paint makes for easier maintenance.
The boat was refinished on its 10th birthday in 2005. The initial color was green and white with a red accent. I changed the green to royal blue and the red accent to chrome. I also shaved down the front of the boat to make it less wind resistant, and went with fake wood for the gunnels instead of oak.
This boat has given me and many other people a lot of pleasure in the 15 years that I have owned it. It has seen hundreds of miles of water pass beneath its hull, hundreds of fish caught and released, and hundreds of bare feet on its floors. I fully expect that it will last at least through my lifetime, and hopefully my son will use it throughout his.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 2012. Sadly this boat and trailer has been stolen. It was at Callaway Gardens and was last seen being towed through the property on October 2, 2012. If anyone sees this boat, please get in touch with me.
Posted on July 22, 2010, in Fishing Blog Entries and tagged boatbuilding, callaway gardens, callaway gardens fly fishing, clackacraft driftboat, don hill, dory, driftboat, driftboat for sale, fiberglass driftboat, fly fishing, fly fishing boat, greg tatman, hiwassee river, homemade driftboat, hyde driftboat, mckenzie boat, stolen boat, wooden boat, wooden driftboat. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.