Every designer probably has in the back of his mind an idea in want of a project. For me, the strongest one stems from my interest in boats and boating.
When I was a kid, my father bought a Highlander Inland class sailboat. This is a 20′ boat with a mainsail & jib and which also could carry a spinnaker. Our boat was solid wood construction with a mahogany hull and a wooden mast & boom. My family sailed it during summers for a couple of years at the Hoover Yacht Club near Westerville Ohio where I grew up. Tragically, the boat was holed, the mast and boom destroyed by a careless driver who ran off the road and ended up upside down on top of the boat taking a couple of fence posts with him and ripping the boat off the trailer, sliding atop it across the gravel marina parking area for about 50 feet. We moved the boat to our backyard under a shed and worked on & off for years trying to restore it. Dad sold it 10 or more years later but she never sailed again for us.
I also took sailing lessons (with my Mom) at the Yacht Club in 1974 (the year that Jaws came out in movie theaters). We learned to sail on a fleet of little Sunfish, small 13 3/4′ single person boats (2 could sail without incident if they both knew what they were doing). Though I never sailed much after that summer (except for a brief session at summer camp a couple of year’s later earning my sailing merit badge) I trace my love of boats and the water to these experiences.
Years later, when my own family was young, I embraced the sit-on-top kayak like the ones manufactured by Ocean Kayak. I was introduced to this type of kayak when my family took a paddling tour while vacationing at Las Olas Beach Resort in Satellite Beach Florida in the late 90s and bought our own a few years later. We use it practically every year when we return to Florida to explore the canals and islands of the inland waterways looking to observe manatee and dolphins. Recently, I have embraced the paddle-board craze by purchasing ISUP boards from Tower Paddle Boards. But I am getting ahead of myself!
Over the years, I have often sought to include boats into my set designs. In graduate school at Penn State University one of my scene design professors assigned us the set design for Porgy and Bess. Most of the play occurs in Catfish Row (a fictitious
neighborhood of run-down tenements near the Charlestown South Carolina waterfront circa 1920s) However, smack in the middle of the play, the action moves briefly to Kittiwah Island where the community goes to have a picnic. I envisioned the island for this project as a low, flat, sandy dune with scraggly growth, a stunted Palmetto tree and an upturned boat.
I also included an upturned boat in the design project for Ah, Wilderness! that I designed as another grad. school project. When Richard and Muriel meet for an evening rendezvous at the beach, I thought of them sitting on an upturned skiff. A couple of years later I was unsuccessful in getting a boat included for a realized production at Allentown College (now De Sales University).
On and off over the years, I failed repeatedly to integrate boats into the design of several productions where I thought one might be useful (most recently my 2013 design for A Winter’s Tale which saw the 2nd act set in a Texas/Louisiana bayou.) I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but when I had the opportunity to design Carousel in Fall 2014, I seized on the boat idea for the clambake scene. As in Porgy and Bess, the community retires at one point in the action to an offshore island for a picnic (characterized in this New England setting as a “clambake”). I had been unsuccessful in getting a boat into the 2004 production of Carousel , so this time, because I was determined to give each scene an iconic look, I was more-than-ever determined to finally get a boat into the production.
One of the things that always “thwarted” me (pardon the pun) in the past was how complicated that it would be to construct something that actually looked like a boat, while also being able to support the weight of the actors who would inevitably sit, climb and possibly dance on it. While researching the look of old wooden boats, I concluded that the standard caravel or lapstrake planking methods of boatbuilding would exceed our available skills, space, time and budget. I flirted briefly with the idea of purchasing a boat and searched local Craigslist listings. I found a couple of possibilities including a 15′ Sirocco daysailer that was going for around $750. At that price, I strongly considered it (thinking that I might just buy it myself and loan it to the production) but I thought better of the idea, concluding that the work needed to make the fiberglass hull appear to be a late nineteenth-century boat would be overly time consuming and would probably wreck the boat besides.
During my research I ran across a boat-building technique known as “Stitch and Glue”. This method uses sheets of plywood cut into pre-designed shapes, held together with copper wire as the basis for the boat hull. There are books that detail this technique, but I found a pretty useful free tutorial on Stitch and Glue boatbuilding online.
I found also found free plans online and downloaded several before settling on the 14′ Sunny Skiff rowing boat at intheboatshed.net. Full-scale templates for these boats are available on the web sites (for a fee), but I imported the pdf pages into Vectorworks, scaled them, then traced the parts using the 2D Polygon [drawing] Tool to create the orthographic drawing and the part layouts that are shown on this page. Using the Viewport feature of Vectorworks, I was able to print out full-scale templates of my own on our HP 24″ DesignJet printer. That way there was no question about my carpenters reinterpreting the shapes in such a way that the parts would not fit together properly. Notice that the bottom and the sides of the boat are longer than the standard 8′ length of a sheet of plywood. Boat builders get around this issue by joining two lengths of plywood with a tapered “scarf” joint, thus creating one long piece of plywood out of two. There is even a tool available to accomplish this job. Since this wasn’t going to be a REAL boat, we scabbed the plywood pieces together, positioning the side joints so that they would be hidden in the “thwart” (the seat that is positioned in roughly the middle of the boat). To maintain the maximum offset between them, the joint on the bottom of the boat was about 12″ astern (behind) the one in the sides. The original plan was to have the boat upturned anyway, so none of these scabbed joints were expected to show. The boat bottom and all of the frames and decks from were cut from 5/8″ ply, and the sides from 1/4″ ply. An authentic boat would be constructed from marine grade plywood, costing a premium, but since this was scenery, we used standard CDX for the 5/8″ & B/C for the 1/4″ ply. Instead of using the copper wire “stitching” and epoxy resin to construct the hull, we used staples, construction adhesive and adhesive caulk. We did not take pains to bevel joints where pieces abutted others at non-right angles either, relying on the application of adhesive caulk to cover up the omission. After completing the hull, we reinforced the gunwales by ripping 1x to 3/4″ widths and bending and gluing them along the top edges of both sides. laminating 3 strips to gain a 2 1/4″ reinforced edge.
After about 1 week of construction, the boat was ready for tech rehearsals. During that process, we made several changes to how the boat was to be used. While I always thought of it as an “overturned” boat, the director Jennifer Nostrala and I realized that as a scenic element, it was more picturesque and more useful in an upright orientation. Also, although my original intent was to have the boat onstage throughout the scene, Jennifer decided to strike all of the scenery and props following the initial “Clambake” number, leaving the unit set stark and bare. Later, she decided to leave the “market umbrella” that we used to dress the stage on stage right, but the boat did not stay. While the boat did provide seating variety for some couples during the clambake number, its picturesque presence was absent throughout the rest of the scene, meaning that we didn’t get many great production photos of the boat onstage.
Once the production was over, I resisted the persistent requests to take the boat to a local lake and put her in the water to see how she would float. I have no doubt that the boat would initially float and behave as it should. However, built as she was of inferior materials using “set construction shortcuts” I am also convinced that she would deteriorate quickly and shortly become unserviceable. So, we slid her into a storage garage next to the carousel horses. When next I need a boat (overturned or otherwise) for a production, she will be waiting. Meanwhile, I now have some experience with boat-building. Perhaps my next boat will be made of better stuff and will be able to paddle or sail in the water for real!
Meanwhile, thanks for reading. Have fun! But be safe!