Roger Fletcher’s book, Drift Boats and River Dories, presents the results of his obsessive search for the evolution of Oregon drift boats. Their history and design are recorded here for posterity. One of the designs he saved from oblivion is a fourteen-foot, wide-tailed, hybrid drift boat/ motorboat called a Rapid Robert. With the help of Doug Bridges he documented the sixteen-foot version as well. The design has intrigued me ever since I saw one in Ray Heater’s Portland boatshop around 2001.
My two friends Connie and Alan were both looking for something they could row or motor, and we agreed to make a pair of the sixteen-footers. Making two is pretty efficient. One learning curve, two boats. My part of the deal was to be boat-midwife, and help them create these boats and deliver them into the world. We planned to do the hulls in my shop, then send the boats home for outfitting the interiors. In as much as no one seems to have a lot of time, or a lot of money, and time is money, we planned to build them quickly. So quickly I have been too exhausted at night to blog the progress. True Rapid Roberts. Here is what I think just happened.
We lofted the boat lines from the information in Roger’s book. Lofting is a wonderful thing, as you encounter nearly all the discrepancies, typos, and misinformation with a pencil and eraser, rather than with expensive wood. A drift boat is about the simplest boat in the world to loft. By noon we were milling Port Orford cedar for the ribs, cutting out the ribs, and scarf-jointing the plywood for floors and sides. We shut down early–around midnight.
We finished cutting out all the rib work, then assembled and oiled eighteen rib stations–nine for each boat. Meanwhile we glued up one set of side-panels and one floor. We only made it to about eight o’clock. Sheesh.
We laminated two one-inch thick transoms–a bit heavier than called for in the plans, but we felt we wanted them to hold up to abuse. We also milled out a bunch of rough ash. Or at least we thought it was ash. Jim told me it was ash. Rob assures me it is actually willow. Hmmm. Anyhow, we made up all the wood for the inner and outer chines. We also glued up the second set of sides and floor. This being the evening of a big annual boatman’s bash, we had to leave the shop at five. How can you build a boat like that?
We trimmed the transoms and cut them to size. We glued on the inner transom frames. Rob milled out two bow posts. And we cut all the chine logs into inner and outer chines. Since fitting an inner chine (or gunwale) is a tricky step necessitating making compound angles at both ends EXACTLY the right distance apart, then forcing it into the boat against its will, we decided to steam-bend the boards before we glued them up into their full length.
Connie finished cutting the chine notches in all the frames while Alan ground down the scarf glue joints on the sides and floors. We also cleaned up and sanded the chines.
We laid out the side panels using a technique that Roy and I cooked up. This is a bit technical but a few boatbuilders may want to know so here goes. Skip the next paragraph if you’re not wanting to try this step.
Note: this only works on boats like McKenzies, where all four sides of the side panel are straight cuts.
When building a boat without building a strong back form to wrap it around, you have to know the exact placement of the bowpost, transom, and most importantly, every rib. And the shape of the side panels have to be perfect. Since the side panel will bend around in a flaring arc, the ribs, if they are to be plumb to mother earth, will only be square to the chine at the very center. How to figure the angles for the rest of them? They aren’t in the plans. We took long wooden battens and bent them out on our lofting, one along the sheer line, one along the chine. We marked bow post, transom, and every rib station on each batten. Then we laid the chine batten on our giant wood side-panel and marked the base of each rib, as well as the transom an bow post. The center rib, #6, was perfectly plumb to the chine on the lofting, so we drew that on our panel. Then, by putting the sheer batten with its #6 mark on our #6 line, all we had to do was measure the bow post and transom distances, push that sheer batten up until they bow and stern were in the right place, and voila, the tops of all the rib stations were indicated by the sheer batten. And a few of them go as much as a half inch out of square to the chine. Pretty cool. (Spoiler alert: this worked perfectly.) Once we had drawn the rib lines, we measured out where every screw would go, pre-drilled and countersunk every one.
By four o’clock all the parts were ready. We commenced. This is the funnest part of boatbuilding: Screw both sides to the bow post. Screw on rib #1. Rib #2. Rib#3. Etc. Though to the transom. Repeat on boat two. By 8p.m. we had two hulls on the floor.
We began with the delicate job of cutting and fitting the inner chines into the boats. Then we planed them down flush with the plywood edges. This took most of the day, as Alan has this thing he calls a “job”, so it was just Connie and I. Late in the afternoon several other folks arrived and things really took off.
We marked, cut, and drilled Connie’s floor and screwed it on.
While one team was grinding the chine smooth, and putting on the outer chines, we started in on Alan’s floor. Since we wanted to put gunwales on the next morning, and we had not cut them out or glued them into full length yet, we had to get this going too. Roy and I milled them out of Eastern ash and cut the scarf joints into them.
We took half of the gunwales outside and put them in the steam box. While they cooked we finished off Connie’s outer chines and rolled the boat right-side up. Just in time for us to bring in the steamed gunwale sections and clamp them to Connie’s boat so they would have the perfect curves. 11p.m. We started cooking the second set of gunwales and took a break for whiskey and boat stories.
We ran into a glitch bending Alan’s outer chines on and snapped one. Fortunately we had a spare section so we steamed that, bent it on, and scarfed it in place. Meanwhile we cleaned up the scarf glue on Connie’s gunwales and routed, sanded, and oiled them. Roy cut and chiseled the gunwale notches and we began ciphering the inner gunwale cuts.
We set Connie’s inner gunwales, clamped on the outer gunwales, and bolted them in place.
Alan got off work and arrived in time for the final grinding, routing, and sanding of the gunwales.
Connie had to leave town in the afternoon, so we focussed on getting her boat finished: bow cap, transom trim, and a full oiling of the gunwales and boat interior.
Meanwhile I set Alan’s gunwales, ready for bolting when he got off work. Connie headed out of town around four, and I cut Alan’s bow-cap and trim by dark. I was trying to conjure the energy to do the last sprint of gunwale bolting, grinding, sanding and oiling and finish the bugger off. But Alan got off work late exhausted and we had a rare flash of sanity and put the project on hold. We’ll do that last blast on Saturday.