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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Do you have a boat with an interesting story? Please email us. We’d like to hear about it and share it with other Small Boats Magazine readers.
Join The Conversation
We welcome your comments about this article. If you’d like to include a photo or a video with your comment, please email the file or link.