Building my sneakbox, LUNA, in the winter of 1984 in a shop without electricity wasn’t as hard as it might seem. While I was living on an old mine claim in Monte Cristo in the heart of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, I used a Tote Goat trail motorcycle to power a makeshift tablesaw and a gas lawnmower engine for my bandsaw.
Once I had all the red cedar ripped into planks for cold-molding, hand tools were all I needed and what I preferred to use even if I’d had power to run electric tools. I didn’t work long hours after dark, and battery-powered lanterns and candles provided enough light.
Heat for curing the epoxy was provided by a woodstove, which worked very well even in the dead of winter when the shop roof was thickly frosted with snow. I’d fire it up for a gluing session and have the shop heated up into the 90s before I epoxied and stapled a set of planks in place. The fire would die down and the shop would cool overnight, but it never dropped below 50 degrees, even when it was freezing outside.
After I had laminated the hull and deck, I joined them together with a sheer clamp. There was no other framing in the hull, so I set out to fiberglass the deck and hull to the clamp on the inside to strengthen the union. That task was easy enough in the cockpit, where I could just reach through the foot-locker-sized opening and apply the ’glass and epoxy, and not so bad in the stern where the transom provided enough space for me to move around and get the ’glass-taping job done. The bow was another matter. The space between the deck and hull tapered from about 14″ at the cockpit to the 1-1/2″ sheer clamp. There was just barely enough room for me to work.
I put on a pair of gloves, cut fiberglass tape to length, and mixed up a batch of epoxy. To illuminate the space in the bow, I lit a votive candle, set it in an empty tuna-fish can, and pushed it ahead of me as I crawled in. I loaded a disposable brush with epoxy and went to work prodding the ’glass tape into place on the port side. It was a tight squeeze, and I could only reach the tip of the bow (a distant 5′ 6″ away from the cockpit opening) by holding the very end of the brush handle. I backed up, rolled over, and went to work on the starboard side. The daggerboard trunk, set on the starboard side of the cockpit coaming, gave me less room to work and pinned my left arm against my side. I managed to get all but the last few inches saturated with epoxy and pressed in place against the sheer clamp. To get the reach I needed to finish the job, I squeezed myself forward a few more inches. As I dipped the brush into the dish of epoxy, I smelled something burning, slightly acrid like bread smoking in a toaster. I didn’t feel or hear anything unusual, but it was easy enough to tell that I had lunged into the votive candle and set my hair on fire.
I couldn’t do anything with my left hand. It was pinned tight. The glove on my right hand was dripping with epoxy and the brush was stuck to it. For a moment, I feared that liquid epoxy might be flammable, but I had to take the chance that it wouldn’t catch fire and set the whole boat ablaze. I flicked off the brush and patted my head as I writhed out of the bow. That put the fire out, but my hair was coated with epoxy.
I had warmed the shop to cure the taping job, but I certainly didn’t want to hasten the cure of the epoxy on my head, leaving an unsightly and permanent coiffure. I closed up the shop and walked through the snow to my cabin, a dozen yards away. Brushing the epoxy out would only have spread it. I squirted the best part of a bottle of shampoo on top of my head and worked it in, trying to get every strand of hair separated. When I could run my fingers through it, I put a plastic produce bag over my hair and left it there for a couple of hours while I tended to dinner, dishes, and getting ready for bed. When I took the bag off, I was able to run a comb through my hair and pull out the gummy shampoo-and-epoxy gunk.
The following winter, I launched the sneakbox on the Allegheny River on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Over the following two-and-a-half months and 2,400 miles I rowed downriver to New Orleans and then sailed and rowed the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida. I had some miserable times and some frightening moments, but the cruising was certainly less dangerous and more romantic than boatbuilding by candlelight.
This issue goes out with special thanks to Delaney Brown, who was instrumental in producing the past two years of Small Boats Magazine.