Larry Cheek’s memoir, The Year of the Boat, tells the story of building his first wooden boat, a Sam Devlin–designed Zephyr 14, a modest sprit-rigged daysailer. His work, he wrote, was “incomprehensibly slow, stumbling, often incompetent, plagued by doubt, and at the same time infected by too much pride to ask for help.” Even though he had embarked on the project knowing he was “fully unqualified to build a boat,” he pressed on for 18 months “buoyed by the belief that every first-time boatbuilder is unqualified, by definition.” When launched in April 2007, and christened FAR FROM PERFECT, Larry’s boat sailed well and became a source of pride.

Photographs courtesy of Nick Grumbles, Anna Lee Haag, and Larry and Patty Cheek

With all the plywood parts for the boat and the strongback precut by a CNC machine, Nick and Larry, both graduates of Texas Tech, got the Ilur boatbuilding project off to a quick start in Larry’s spacious shop. Here, they’ve just finished the stem. Beyond the boat’s stern is Larry’s Inspiration Wall where he has quotations posted with blue masking tape:  Michael Ruhlman—“All great accomplishments are composed entirely of interlocking details.” Richard Todd—“The problem of insistence on a pure vision is that so much life exists within the impurities.”

Through the years that followed, Larry became a self-described, serial boatbuilder. He built two kayaks, three more sailboats, and eventually PATTY B, a 21′3″ Devlin-designed gaff cutter. In 2019, he and his wife, Patty, took PATTY B to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. While sitting in the cockpit, they invited dozens of admiring festival attendees aboard; among them was a young couple, Nick Grumbles and Anna Lee Haag.

Anna Lee, Nick, Larry, and Patty toast the completion of the planking. Next, the hull will be removed from the jig and turned right side up, but Larry, ever the realist, impressed upon Nick and Anna Lee that until it hit the water it was simply a “boat-shaped-object.”

As the four of them sat and chatted aboard PATTY B, they discovered that, despite an age difference of more than 40 years, they had much in common: they were all from Texas, had all graduated from Texas Tech, and Nick, like Larry, had dreamed of building his own boat. He even had a name picked out, TURN AGAIN, after an Alaskan inlet south of Anchorage that had impressed him with its beauty when he and his family had visited it in 2006.

Much of the painting and varnish has been done and the hull has most of its fittings installed. The hollow bird’s-mouth mast awaits final shaping and finishing.

Before the day was out, Larry and Patty had invited Nick and Anna Lee to their home on Whidbey Island. A couple of weeks later, the older couple took Nick and Anna Lee sailing and gave them an introductory lesson. A few weeks after that, Nick asked if he could help build the 28′ schooner Larry had spoken longingly of during a few earlier conversations. Larry explained that the boat really was little more than an idle dream, but then made a “spur-of-the-moment counter-offer: we could build a boat together, their boat, in my workshop.”

The Ilur was launched as a rowing vessel at Lone Lake on Whidbey Island. With the christening of MEASURE AGAIN, another milestone was toasted.

Larry suggested to Nick and Anna Lee several boats that he thought would be appropriate for them, but “Nick fell for the Vivier Ilur. He just responded to its looks on an emotional level.” Larry understood the power of that impulse; he had once been sorely tempted to buy a 45′ wooden sloop as a liveaboard, not because it was at all practical—he didn’t then know how to sail or even if he liked sailing—but because it was “breathtakingly beautiful.”

The first row; as Nick pulls away from the Lone Lake launch ramp, the smile says it all. The hole in the port side of the transom will accommodate the boomkin, and the notch to starboard of the rudder will hold a sculling oar. Both features are familiar on the traditional Breton boats that were the inspiration for the Ilur design.

With delivery of a CNC-cut kit of the Ilur’s plywood pieces, Nick and Anna Lee became first-time boatbuilders. Over the course of the next 22 months, under Larry’s instruction and guidance, they built the Ilur—a 14′ lugsail dinghy designed by French naval architect François Vivier with inspiration drawn from traditional small craft of Brittany.

Nick, Larry, and Anna Lee join forces on a second attempt to make accommodations for the mizzen mast, which Anna Lee has tucked by her shoulder.

At the outset, Nick and Anna Lee were equipped with little more than Nick’s dream and passion. Neither of them knew much about using hand tools or power tools, “but that just reminded me of me 15 years earlier,” recalls Larry. The young tyros inevitably made mistakes along the way but, as Larry told them, boatbuilding is not about preventing mistakes, it’s about solving the mistakes you make.

As launching day neared, Nick and Anna bent on the sails. The driveway gave the space needed to lay the sails out flat, but tarps were put down to protect the sailcloth and spars from any grit or dirt.

Larry became teacher and mentor, coaching Nick and Anna Lee until they gained the skill and confidence to work on their own. They both were, he says, attentive and focused and while they were working “no blood was spilled. We started in the fall of 2020, and by spring of 2022 I had receded mostly to the role of advisor rather than boatbuilder.”

With the mizzen mast in place with its sail laced on, the focus of the work moved forward to the main-mast partner.

Most weekends, the young Seattle-based couple would drive to Mukilteo and take the ferry to Whidbey Island. They stayed in the Cheeks’ second bedroom and as the weeks became months, the pieces of wood in the garage slowly but surely transformed into what Larry called a “boat-shaped-object,” inching toward the moment it would first float and become a boat.

Larry and Patty, Nick and Anna Lee became friends. “We don’t have children or grandchildren,” says Larry, “so we feel like we’ve adopted Nick and Anna Lee as honoraries. They’re as good as—no, probably better than—any we could have designed and produced ourselves: smart, responsible, unfailingly helpful, and always fun to have around.” Along the way the two couples did more than build a boat; they shared ideas about relationships, careers…even music. “In the mornings,” says Larry, “I would stream all five Beethoven piano concertos, then Anna Lee would respond with a cavalcade of Eurovision bands through the afternoon. We each began to appreciate the other’s music…at least a little.”

During the build, Larry noticed that one side of the hull was 1cm shorter than the other and the transom was not quite square to the centerline. The three builders did what they could to minimize the impact of the misalignment and, in the end, no one else would notice it. Larry assured Nick and Anna Lee that the goal wasn’t perfection, but “finding a level of imperfection that seems reasonable and comfortable.”

It was an image like this that made Nick fall in love with the Ilur. Larry knows well how such a feeling can carry a novice through the challenges of boatbuilding, even when using a boat of any kind will also be completely new territory. Mole, of The Wind in the Willows, was also struck by his first vision of a boat: “Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.”

The Ilur was launched in July 2022. Instead of being named TURN AGAIN, the boat was christened MEASURE AGAIN, a name that Anna Lee had suggested when the short side of the boat was discovered. It was offered in jest, but the name stuck. Larry and Patty watched from the shore as Nick and Anna Lee pulled away for the first time. Larry, who had initially been unsure that the Ilur was the best choice for a first-time project, could see that it was a boat that would “take care of you when you misjudge and get out in conditions a bit over your head.” He believes MEASURE AGAIN is “a boat that Nick and Anna Lee can grow into and enjoy.”

The chance meeting at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, Larry notes, “has become a wonderful friendship, even better than the boat we built together.” Nick and Anna Lee also grew closer together as they built their first boat. Two months after they launched MEASURE AGAIN, they were engaged.

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