Jim Michalak's Boat Designs

118 E Randall, Lebanon, IL 62254

A page of boat designs and essays.

(15apr01) This issue gives some thoughts about choosing a boat. Next issue, 1may01, will rerun the essay about joining plywood sheets.

piccup Left:

Sandra Leinweber at the tiller for Caprice's first sail




Contact info:


Jim Michalak
118 E Randall,
Lebanon, IL 62254

Send $1 for info on 20 boats.





If there is one bit of advice I can give to the potential boat builder (or buyer) it is to always choose a boat for yourself, not for your family or your friends. Sound pretty selfish??

From my personal boat experience and especially from seeing many many boats at marinas I can tell you that no matter what the boat's size or style, about half of the boats in use have solo skippers and maybe a quarter have one extra crew member. The big boats at the marinas often, usually, couldn't go out because their skippers couldn't find enough crew. At one marina we had a group of a few dozen oldsters who all had their own big boats. They went sailing every Wednesday, but not each in his own boat. By grouping three or four in a boat they could all go sailing but of course only a fraction of their boats got wet. And if they hadn't been so organized their boats would have seen even less use.

We also had a lot of "family" boats in the harbor but I suppose on a good summer weekend about 10% of them actually went out with the family.

Here's the deal - not too many folks really want to experience tough yohoho sailing or challenging the elements in the way we see in the magazines. And when you choose a design to build you shouldn't have in mind one of those "charter in paradise" dreams. If you do and get a big sailboat with room to sleep six and standing headroom, etc. I'd say there is at least 90% chance that after the first year (month) you will not be using the boat regularly because you can't find a minimum crew. Yes, there are exceptions.

Not only will you end up with a boat you can't use but you might put a lot of pressure on loved ones who really don't want to be a regular part of that scene. I don't see how anyone has a right to force folks to be avid boaters.

(By the way, the makers of conventional powerboats can go to great lengths to keep everyone occupied in a comfortable way. They have big cushy seats with a drink holder for each hand. They have built in stereo systems and hot and cold running water. The potti problem hasn't really been solved in smaller boats but they try with potties crammed here and there. I saw a small pontoon boat at a dealer last year with sort of a large sofa in the stern. The salesman demonstrated that by lifting one end it stood up on the other end and became an outhouse! Getting Aunt Bea to use it is another problem. But these boats are sold as family entertainment and you might have to do similar things to keep the family involved.)

So here is how I think you should approach the problem. Always choose a boat so you can use it by yourself and in the way you want to use it.


Give some thought to getting a boat that matches your local waters. There was a racing sailboat at the harbor at Carlyle lake with an 11' draft. At the best of times half the lake was too shallow for it. If we had a dry spell it couldn't leave its slip.

Canoes are good in swamps and creeks with no current, bad in big open water. A good rowboat or kayak (with practice) can go into bigger waters and for long distance if it ain't too windy. Small sailboats are mostly for open lakes and inlets, useless in a river with current. Rivers with current usually mean a powerboat or a one way trip (downstream).


Little boats like Tween shown below can have their advantages. Tween weighs about 60 pounds and is easily cartopped and manhandled by one man. You can row two in it but sailing two adults is probably not a good idea. However if you want to sail two adults once or twice a year you can get away with it. These are cheap easy projects, very good for beginners. I always encourage a new builder to get started with a smaller project. You can practice with techniques and materials you might want for your larger dream. The small first project will almost never be wasted - even after you go to a larger boat you will use the tiny one again and again.


About in the same level of effort and cost are small canoes like Toto shown below. But the boating in a canoe can be a lot different. Toto will paddle (some training required) perhaps 30% faster than Tween will row (or faster) and might be more seaworthy. But it will be wetter and you will need to be more nimble to use it. You couldn't use it as a dink for a large boat because you can't climb into it safely from a larger boat, you seldom can take anyone large with you, and there is little room for the dog and groceries.


I haven't designed any elaborate kayaks because there are already so many good ones out there. They can be very fast and seaworthy in the right hands but I'm pretty sure it takes real training to develop the right hands. Me, I'm a poor swimmer and never had the desire to learn how to roll a capsized kayak, nor the desire to be trapped underneath one. So I kept my Toto open so I could fall out of it if it went over (which it has never done with me at the paddle). Remember: any small open boat is useless when swamped - you can't rescue the boat without help. Stay close to shore.


Let's now move up to a larger boat like the 11' Piccup Pram shown here with Vin Mansolillo and son. This boat is easily used solo and yet will easily handle Vin and son on a regular basis. Two big adults would max it out. Piccup stripped will weigh about 90 pounds and that is about the most you can cartop with any ease. You lift it to the cartop one end at a time so you never lift more than about 50 pounds. It's sort of interesting that when I draw something like this I have the weight limit always in mind and it seems like the customers seldom have that in mind. If you overbuilt a boat like this and add say 50 pounds (easy to do) I think you have negated the main reason for building it - weight light enough to cartop easily.

I've done quite a few boats in this size, all about 100 pounds stripped. It usually takes about four sheets of 1/4" plywood to make one this size, about twice the effort of the Tween or Toto, but this is a lot more boat. In fact to me this is a much more useful boat than the dink and I would only suggest a dink to someone with a problem storing a 12' boat. And boats like this have serious emergency flotation boxes which double as storage (provided the hatches are small and don't leak much) and self rescue is possible.


It's a stretch to do a small power boat like this. The boat can be made light enough, I think, but where to put the motor with its fuel, smells and leaks while you cartop the hull? In the trunk? Reader Ross Lillistone sent me a photo of how he does it in Australia. He mounts the motor on a standard bicycle carrier that attaches to the bumper. It looks like it works well, at least in a country with no thieves. Clearly not meant for big horsepower but neither is the little boat on the cartop.

Ross's rack

If you have a pickup truck you will find that almost any of the cartop boats will slide nicely into the truck bed. It's easier than cartopping and you don't have to strip the boat out before loading. Here is Vin's Piccup in his pickup:

Piccup in pickup

I've carried boats over 15' long in my short bed truck although that is pushing the envelope.

Rowing boats often can be cartopped very easily indeed because they can be built long and light. The same four sheets of plywood that make the 12' sailboat will make a 16' rowboat that weighs less than 100 pounds. You need to tie the ends of the boat to the car, especially the bow, and be aware of what high winds and passing semi trucks will do to the big boat on top of the little car. Here is the 15' Sportdory, a great cartop rowboat at about 75 pounds, fast and able:



I would argue that once you've decided to go over 100 pounds you should not make a 12' boat. You will find the heavy boat a real pain to cartop and will either get a trailer or stop boating. Once you get a trailer you should think about going to a 15' boat. Almost any car can pull an unballasted 15 footer on a trailer. The larger boat may cost about 50% more than the 12 footer but it will usually be twice as much boat - a good bargain. A 15 foot boat will usually take three adults with ease, or two adults and two kids. And yet it will be totally managable by a solo skipper. Here is one example in my AF3:


Then you might argue why stop at 15'? Why not go...


Here is the 20' AF2. Most likely it can take another adult or two compared to the smaller AF3. It takes fourteen sheets of plywood compared to AF3's eight. It can still be operated totally by one person with one warning. Smaller boats like AF3 can be recovered from a capsize when the solo skipper puts his weight on the leeboard. We don't know yet if the AF2 will do so. Somewhere in this size and weight range for a 20' boat the skipper's weight won't be sufficient to bring the capsized boat upright and that is why an unballasted boat in this size range can be a bit risky.


One solution has been to use the Bolger Birdwatcher system where the sides of the boat are built high and everyone including the skipper sits inside. The high sides make for great righting buoyancy and the crew weight down low on the bottom makes for a low cg to aid in righting. Plus the bottoms of these boats are usually heavily built to add to the ballast effect. These boats have proven to be self righting without ballast. Below is my own interpretation of this type, the Jewelbox.


OVER 20'....

I don't design much over 20' anymore except as a specialty. My advice to anyone who wants a conventional boat over 20' long is to look hard at the used factory boat market.

Unless you like wild daysailing and have lots of friends who like going fast and getting wet, any sailboat in this range should be ballasted. There have been so many good designs in this range built in fiberglass factories over the past decades that good used ones can be available for a song. Cherry Catalina 22's can sell for $5000 or less, complete with trailer and motor. You could never build anything like it for that. A lot of these boats were sold in the boating boom twenty years ago, used a few times and then placed in storage. Inspite of what you may have read in Wooden Boat, fiberglass boats aren't really effected by weather and usually these oldies only need maybe some new cushions and a scrubbing. The sun chalked surface is usually a cosmetic thing.

I do think there are two good reasons to build a boat in this range - reasons the production builders didn't really address. First is very shallow draft. The production boats that I can think of that featured really shallow draft might be the "Hen" series from Florida and Eddy and Duff's Shearwater and Dovekie. Some of the others feature fairly shallow draft but I can assure you that a boat that draws 6" of water is more versatile that one that draws 16" of water, at least where I live.

The second reason to build a boat in this range is for ease of stepping the sail rig to make it a true solo trailer boat. Here again the Hen and Eddy and Duff boats are the only two I can think of offhand that also meet this requirement. Some of the common trailer sailers like the McGregors actually have light stayed masts which look doable by a solo skipper, but the Catalina is not. I know the vendors of production boats would say something like, "you can rig the boat in an hour on the trailer. Isn't that great!" The answer is no. If you can't pull your boat off the highway and be sailing in 15 minutes you will miss any chance of impulse sailing with it. You will end up in an entire different kind of boating, either stuck with busy weekends or keeping your boat at a marina.

I've only had one boat in this range get built so far, Pete James' 24' Petesboat. Here is a photo of it in the background with brother Karl James' 19' Jewelbox in the foreground. You can see the advantages of these camping boats - pulled all the way up on shore so the the crew steps dry shod and the sail rigs dropped and stowed, but ready to go again at a minutes notice. There are no production boats like these.



Once you've decided how large a boat is needed, you will get into details like hull shape. In general the flat bottomed boats are the roomiest and the easiest to build. The more complex shapes, such as the multichine Piccup, are only slightly harder and more expensive to build and you shouldn't be afraid of them for those reasons. They are almost always better in rough water and often significantly better. They aren't as roomy.


Here is some guidance about using power on boats:

I know of no successful dual function power/rowing or power/paddling boats. The large deep stern needed by a power boat is death to a good rowing or paddle boat. If you think you are going to use a motor regularly then go with a straight power boat.

Any good electric power system will be as expensive as and be a lot heavier than a gasoline motor and will have a much more limited range. But they are excellent for limited waters and where total quiet is required or desired.

Motors and small sailboats don't get along too well because there is seldom room for a good motor installation on the stern (plus things can get tangled there). This is a very difficult problem that needs more study because using a straight sailboat can require a huge amount of patience. Remember that working sail disappeared as soon as reliable motors were invented. (When you watch the National Geographic TV shows you can see aboriginals in genuine dug out canoes zipping up and down with new large outboards on the sterns.) Almost any cabin sailboat you see is really a motor/sailer. The sails are for recreation and the motor actually gets you where you want to go. Bolger has always argued that people who want large sail boats would be better off with a good large powerboat towing a good racing dinghy.


I'll rerun the essay about joining plywood sheets.




Every now and then I draw up a sailboat with a centerboard. A boat with a centerboard can have a prettier rig sometimes because the rig does not have to be centered over the hull's widest beam, as it does with a leeboard boat. But the sail area still has to be right above the centerboard for the boat to balance well. In Vector's case, the widest hull beam is 10' aft and the centerboard is between 4' and 8' aft. And that is the downside of the centerboard - it takes up some the prime space inside the hull.

Some designs will skimp on the centerboard size in order to take up less prime space but the result of that will always be more leeway when sailing to windward. In round numbers the area of the board that moves through the water needs to be about 4% of the sail area to efficiently counteract the full side force of the sail. Essentially the centerboard "flies" through the water in the same way that an airplane's wing flies through the air. True, water is about 900 as dense as air but things conspire to keep the centerboard from getting 900 times as much force from a given area. First the centerboard cannot develop a really high lift coefficient since it must be symmetric in cross section in order to operate on both tacks, unlike a soft sail which can be shaped with camber to reach a Cl of 1.5 in a good sail and maybe 2.0 in a great sail. Worse yet is the fact that the centerboard will flow through water at a fraction of the wind speed, and if your boat is beating to windward at 3 knots in a 15 knot wind, the 4% rule works out almost exactly. That is the worst case - beating to windward especially in rough water. If your boat were to hit a big wave and slow down below 3 knots, or if the centerboard were undersized to start with, the board will "stall" and develop no more lift no matter how much angle of attack (leeway to a sailor) you demand of it. The only solution would be to "fall off" the wind, pick up more speed, and try again just as an airplane pilot needs to recover airspeed after a stall.

Vector was inspired by the 12' Skat. It will be a much better family boat than Skat because of its greater capacity. Two adults and two kids would do it. There is a huge water tight storage volume behind the cockpit. The transom is quite wide and will take a small motor on a bracket mount, or you might try building in a motor notch to one side.


She's V bottomed as you see. Should be fast and handy, better than a flat bottomed boat although she will be a bit tippier and draw a bit more water than the flat bottomed boat.

Taped seam construction. She needs four sheets of 1/2" plywood and six sheets of 1/4" plywood.

Plans for Vector are $20 until one is built and tested.


Prototype News

Some of you may know that in addition to the one buck catalog which now contains 20 "done" boats, I offer another catalog of 20 unbuilt prototypes. The buck catalog has on its last page a list and brief description of the boats currently in the Catalog of Prototypes. That catalog also contains some articles that I wrote for Messing About In Boats and Boatbuilder magazines. The Catalog of Prototypes costs $3. The both together amount to 50 pages for $4, an offer you may have seen in Woodenboat ads. Payment must be in US funds. The banks here won't accept anything else. (I've got a little stash of foreign currency that I can admire but not spend.) I'm way too small for credit cards.

Here are the prototypes abuilding that I know of:

Caprice: Chuck Leinweber of Duckworks Magazine has finished the prototype Caprice. Here is a photo. Waiting for some shakedown cruises and a report.


Skat: I'm told the prototype Skat project is underway again and very close to being done.


Normsboat: This is an 18' sharpie being built by Cullison Smallcraft in Maryland. You should be able to check on it by clicking through to his web site at  Cullison SmallCraft (archived copy, actual site no longer active). He is presenting an excellent photo essay of how to assemble a flattie.

Web site no longer active





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