Dan and a Polliwog Conquer
Great Sacandaga Lake

by Patrick Smullens 

Azulito  (little blue one) is a Sam Devlin Designing Boatbuilders Polliwog design V bottom 7ft, 6-inch dinghy that I built, with some excellent assistance from 13-year-old family friend Dan Van Deusen in my small basement shop. 

Azulito is built of plywood, using the stitch and glue method.  It is epoxy sealed, with glass cloth on the bottom, as specified in the Devlin plans. 

The plans do not provide for a sailing rig, but the Devlin Design Guppy does and I chose to make a sailing rig for my Polliwog.  The Guppy is a 9ft 6inch boat, very similar to the Polliwog.  I made a daggerboard that was similar to the one in the Guppy.  It fits under a seat that runs from the bow to approximately amidships along the centerline.  For rowing, the seat arrangement allows the rower to trim the boat properly by adjusting the sitting position a bit forward or aft. 

The Guppy design specifies a cut down windsurfer sailing rig.   I made an alternate choice for Azulito for two reasons.  First, the windsurfer mast and sails that I saw, cost something on the order of $500, way over the budget I had in mind.  Secondly, I wanted something that I could easily stow in the boat if I decided to switch from sailing to rowing while underway. Winds in local lakes can be inconsistent.  

 The rig I chose was designed as a temporary sailing conversion for a pram type dinghy from an article I found on Gavin Atkin’s Free Boat Design Resources web site.  According to the article, “The magical thing about this rig is that if you let fly the tack line the whole contrivance up-ends and dissolves into a mass of floppy folds so that if a hard squall descends one can just jerk the line and duck”.   I was less concerned about squalls in our area than having the wind totally die in the summer and I did not want to start trying to row with a sail thrashing around.  Of course, the appearance of the article on the site is a quote. The article is quoted from “The A-Z of cheaper boating' by Bill Beavis, publisher Stanley Paul, London 1977” and the book author credited the idea to “Des Sleightholme, editor of Yachting Monthly.”  So the rig design was not exactly meant for my boat, but I had at least 3 respectable sources implying that the rig was not a bad idea for a dinghy. 

I did not use the leeboard, having a daggerboard instead, similar to the Guppy.  Instead of using a wooden mast and a bamboo yard, I got a larger diameter piece of bamboo for the mast (it worked, with no flexing) and a bamboo yard as specified.  It was easy to epoxy a little dowel in the top of the mast to hold the yard becket.  (I suspect I am not the only person who did not know what a “yard becket” is before I read the article).  I liked the idea of using bamboo as a cheap alternative to craftsman-built or commercially available hollow spars.  I chose to ignore the “looks like some sort of contraption from Gilligan’s Island” remarks that resulted. 

The other modification of the sail rig was a matter of personal courage, or rather, a lack of courage.  I reasoned that the rig was designed for an 8 foot or larger pram, and my boat was to be pointy bowed, a little shorter, and perhaps less beamy.   I do enjoy swimming, but I like to keep my sailing and my swimming as totally separate activities, so I asked my sailmaker, Paul J Heyse of Ulta Sail, to reduce the size of the sail in the design. He made one up for me at a very reasonable price in Dacron.  

The conversion rig’s design also called for a steering oar rather than a rudder.  This fit nicely with my idea of switching from sailing to rowing on the water.  The oar had to be there anyhow and I did not want another piece to get in the way on a tiny boat.  Besides, with an oar for a rudder, I wouldn’t have to make a rudder.  I bought a pair of commercially made oars that come apart into two pieces.  The oar that is not being used for steering comes apart and fits nicely next to the seat.

Besides staying dry while sailing, I wanted to be comfortable, so I made some L shaped padded boards that fit over the shear clamps, with dowels that fit into the oarlock sockets.  The pad on one side was to be for my back, the other for my extended legs.  My bottom was to fit on the boat’s bottom with a flotation cushion for padding.  It was sort of a reclining TV chair arrangement.  In fact, I did sail the boat in that position; I was glad to keep my center of gravity low and my legs extended rather than scrunched.  Dan is smaller and more agile at 13 than I am at 55, so he chose to sit in the bottom center on the cushion with his legs curled. 

There is no boom, so I wanted to get the mainsheet as far back on the boat as I could.  I put little open hooks, single prong clothes hooks, really, on each of the quarter knees.  You have to move the line when tacking.   

The project was pretty straightforward, but it took forever when measured on a calendar, with me usually working in short spurts of stolen time, often only a few minutes in a session.  Dan was a significant contributor, working for a most of a weekend on the boat.

The oak inner and outer shear clamps on Azulito did require steam bending. I had met Geoff McKonly and other nice folks at The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory a non-profit educational facility, while I was visiting Philadelphia.  One night they let me audit a class in steam bending, a session from a full boatbuilding course offered periodically.  Back home in upstate NY, I used a length of plastic drainpipe as my steam chamber, hooked up with a hose to a teakettle.  The ideal wood for bending is somewhat green.  I got my oak pieces when I bought a factory new pickup truck, to make stakes to extend the box sides.  I bought a cap instead and had never made stakes.  Since the pickup was a 1977 model, I had missed the green wood specification by a huge margin, but the wood bent nicely anyhow.

We were pleased with the results under oar and sail at the launching on September 9, 2002, at Great Sacandaga Lake, a large man-made lake in NY State’s southern Adirondack Mountain region. We celebrated the launch with a douse of sparkling grape juice on the bow and sent the boat off from a dock under oar power with Dan in command. It worked just fine.

Dan’s Dad, Dave, gave an assist at rowing launch time

Despite limited rowing experience, Dan rowed Azulito like a veteran waterman to a dock that was closer to open water for the sail launching. 

The families present agreed that I was more expendable in case something unseemly happened during the sail launch, so I took the helm next.  Dan released the boat from the dock, while his Dad, Dave, acted as official photographer.

Dan took over later, after we had established that the boat was not going to sink immediately under sail.  Dan had a little sailing experience previously but he had practiced in reverse of the traditional sequence.  First, a couple years ago, he had tried the helm on our 26 foot fiberglass sloop, doing an excellent job despite being still young enough to have trouble seeing over the cabin.  Later, he spent a fair portion of an afternoon sailing a more kid-sized Bolger Tortoise that I had built and named Amy’s Giggle, after a sister of Dan’s with an infectious laugh.

That was Dan’s entire sailing resume before the Azulito launch, but he also had spent some time paddling a Jim Michalak designed Quark that I had built and named “wine quark” for its color.   The Quark is a minimal 1 sheet plywood double paddle canoe intended for short shallow water and harbor jaunts, but with Dan’s natural skill and light weight, it became a proper exploration vehicle.  Dan used it on a family camping trip at Rollins Pond state campsite in the Adirondacks and day-cruised through protected waters in company with others in conventional canoes. We added improvised flotation to the hull, just in case.   Dan’s Quark weighs 22 lbs, perhaps a little heavier than it needed to be because of too much filler for finishing, but he could portage it alone.

Dan and the Wine Quark

Azulito’s launch day was warm and clear, with a wind of 7-10 MPH average and an occasional stronger gust.  Dan and I both had difficulty getting familiar with the steering oar, but only initially.  The boat steered and came about easily and the hook arrangement for the mainsheet seemed to be a good solution. Occasionally, we could reduce drag by pulling the steering oar out of the water when we got the sail/wind and daggerboard all in balance.  It was also easy to use the steering oar more like an oar to force the boat through a less than ideal tack maneuver where a rudder might not have worked as well.  Dan took a couple deep breaths when the first powerboat wakes and wind gusts came, but he soon learned to trust the boat.  The boat and helmsman never seemed in danger of being overwhelmed and Dan was completely in control.  The rest of us watched from the 26 footer.

Don’t blame Dan for the odd sunglasses in the photo.  These are loaners from a mesh bag in the cockpit of the 26 footer.  We chose them as the most unlikely sunglasses to ever be stolen and so far have been proven right.  A more likely end for the glasses is that someone will eventually throw them in the drink as a sort of mercy gesture.

The launch was a success, but of course, there were a few problems.  I have not weighed the boat; it is perhaps 60 lbs.  My wife, Carol, had previously contributed to the boat project only by helping me liberate corks from wine bottles and being extremely patient while I ignored more important things to work on the boat.  The corks were used as plugs for the floatation chambers (there are two of them) for inspection and to drain water in case of condensation or leakage.  No fit alternative helpers were around, so she had to help me load the boat on our tallish Jeep Cherokee, after helping me get the boat out of the basement shop, the basement having far too many stair steps.  She has some knee and muscle problems, so stairs are hard for her even without boats to carry.  This did not improve marital harmony for me.  Future boats will probably be lighter, or the kind that come in two parts that you can bolt together.  If I can’t carry it myself, I probably shouldn’t build it.

Our Jeep Cherokee is a sort of anachronism in a way I like.  It has old-fashioned roof gutters, the kind that work perfectly with the old-fashioned gutter clamps on my aftermarket roof racks.  You can get racks that work nicely without gutters, of course, but they often depend on pads resting on the sheet metal, where bits of grit against the paint and oilcan flexing are potential enemies.  Aerodynamic factory racks are a bit slippery without accessories and, in the case of my factory racks and Azulito, too low to clear some protrusions from the boat and the arc in its shear line. The current Jeep Liberty model, sadly, has no gutters.

The only problem with the way I used the racks was that the hold down straps wanted to slip dangerously close to the edge of the keel and I was afraid they would slip off.  It didn’t happen, but I plan to make an oblong hole in the keel as a handhold for manipulating the boat while carrying it and as a place to route the straps.

I made two mistakes with the sailing rig.  First, before the launch, I did not have the downhaul line at the sail tack tight enough, and so the standing lug peak sagged a bit.  I fixed this before Dan sailed.  Worse, I did not secure the sail to the yard well enough.  The lashed top attachment (I did not want to put potentially weakening holes in my bamboo) slid down the yard a little, interfering with sail shape.  The bits of line holding the sail to the yard through two grommets near the yard midpoint came loose during Dan’s sail, further degrading the sail shape.   I’ll do better for the next trip, if there is a next trip. We have established that the next trip will not involve my wife in boat lugging chores.

The way I fastened the oar to the stern for steering used clamped-on oarlocks that are fastened tightly to the oars. The transom has an oarlock socket.   This worked and there were no unattached pieces to lose, but it precluded using the steering oar for sculling.  As long is the oar is back there anyhow, I probably should have opted for oar leathers or a sculling slot in the transom that would let me twist the oar for sculling.

Building Azulito was great fun for me.   I would be glad to try to answer any questions a would-be builder of this type of boat might have via email,   I am an admitted pure amateur, of course, so any answers might be suspect, but I could at least know that I would then not be alone in my misconceptions.