When Phil Thiel designed his Escargot canal boat, he had two things in mind: It had to be easily built from readily available materials and it had to offer its occupants comfortable travel at a relaxed pace so they might more fully take in the world around them. He took great pride in his boat designs and his exceptionally well-detailed plans, so he occasionally bristled at the liberties builders with them, but the simplicity of the Escargot’s structure makes it very easy, even for novice boatbuilders, to make modifications to suit personal visions. That’s part of its appeal, albeit unintentional on Thiel’s part.
Nate Cunningham and his friend Bobby Calnan, both new to boatbuilding, built their Escargot, BONZO, with more headroom by making the cabin sides 6″ higher than the 48” specified in the plans, and lengthened the cockpit by 12”. The changes added complexity but paid off with more room to move about.
Last year, Curt White of Saluda, North Carolina, made some even more dramatic modifications to his Escargot, BEULAH, creating a well-appointed living room afloat. He and his wife Debby had lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for 30 years and to take advantage of the rivers and backwaters that surround the city, they had five boats ranging from a 10′ sailing pram to a 25′ outboard cruiser. When the two retired, they moved inland, trading the coast for the mountains surrounding Saluda, North Carolina. Building a boat was on Curt’s “bucket list,” so he and Debby kept an eye out for designs that would be well suited to the mountain lakes near their new home. The review of Escargot in the April 2015 issue of Small Boats Monthly provided just the inspiration they were looking for.
Curt had done a fair bit of woodworking—fences, sheds, tables, and cabinets—but had never taken on a task as complex as building a boat. The Escargot, with its simple construction—just two curves, the cabin roof and the bottom of the hull—gave him the confidence that he’d stay with the project until its completion. And the lumberyard materials would keep the cost within his budget.
Curt bought the plans and studied them, occasionally going to the web to look up any boatbuilding terms that were new to him. He and Debby intended to use the boat only for day trips, so they didn’t need the sleeping quarters forward. They planned to move the head and the stove into that space, allowing them to eliminate a bulkhead and extend the main cabin by 2′. They liked the idea of raising the cabin roof: “We can’t crawl around as well as we used to,” Curt noted. They stretched the frames and bulkheads to span 6′ from bottom to rooftop to create better headroom. Debby designed the interior, which included a floor built over the framework backing up the bottom of the hull. The uninterrupted floor made it possible to forgo the built-in seating, instead opting for living-room furniture.
Curt started construction in January 2017. He didn’t have space at home for the project, but his friends Don and Sean Mintz had a warehouse for their homebuilding business and made space for him. The warehouse is a busy place and sharing it required that Curt’s worktable and the strongback supporting the boat be mobile, so he set them both on wheels.
Curt had to make a drive to Charleston to get the 20-plus sheets of okoume plywood he needed, but got the rest of the materials from local home-improvement stores and online hardware retailers. The plans include detailed drawings for shop-made windows, but he simplified the work by installing vinyl-framed double-glazed windows.
When Curt suggested painting the entire interior white, Debby insisted that it would look better with a touch of brightwork. The two-tone scheme would add weeks to the project and he wasn’t convinced that varnish on ordinary white pine would be worth the effort. “In the end,” Curt wrote, “she convinced me to do it her way, and I’m very thankful I’ve learned to listen to my wife because more often than not, she’s right.”
A crew of warehouse workers helped wheel the finished hull outside and roll it upright. With the boat sitting on its bottom it was possible to step into the cockpit for the first time. It was evident that the extra cabin height obscured the view forward from the cockpit, a problem solved when he installed an automotive back-up camera on the bow and attached its monitor alongside the aft companionway hatch.
The boatbuilding took over 10 months and about 1,000 hours from start to finish. To get the Escargot out of the warehouse and on the road, the Whites bought a custom-built trailer: “It was more than I had budgeted, but it has made getting the boat in and out of the water very easy.”
They mounted a used 4-hp outboard on the transom and were ready to launch. On October 26, 2017, BEULAH was backed into Lake Summit, just 3 miles west of Saluda. “The moment she slid into the water and floated,” wrote Curt, “will never be forgotten.”
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