Winters in Scotland are long, and the days are short and often dreary. Months stretch into seemingly endless semi-darkness, and it’s all too easy to slump into boredom. Dan Loveridge and his two friends, Jacques and Juan, have a way of avoiding the malaise: an annual Christmas Challenge. Two years ago, Dan won a fancy-dress challenge with a Bender Robot costume and a Bumblebee Transformer costume for two of his daughters, as well as an Oscar-the-Grouch costume for himself. Last winter, the challenge was to make something from small stirring sticks, and he won again with a fully articulated model excavator.
In the fall of 2022, one of the three friends mentioned building a boat and holding a Christmas Day regatta. Dan liked the suggestion. Originally from New Zealand, he grew up on the Bay of Islands surrounded by boats and always on the water, but he had never built a boat. Discussions centered around keeping costs down when someone mentioned the article in Small Boats about Riley Hall’s AVANTI, a diminutive outboard powerboat built from one sheet of plywood. “AVANTI really set the wheels in motion,” Dan says, “and she became the go-to example during our debates on how to proceed.”
Ultimately, the rules of the 2022 Christmas Challenge stipulated “one sheet of plywood, no more than £50 for an engine, and whatever else you could beg, steal, or borrow,” says Dan. “The rules were never set in concrete, and it led to heated and entertaining debate: basically, it was me seeing how far I could push the boundaries, and the other two altering the rules to stop me.
“At home,” Dan says, “I’d sit and doodle, and run calculations, and little by little I formed an idea.” He made a rough scale model and proved that he could get a beam of 1m and still have sides wide enough to provide good freeboard. Next came a computer-drawn scale model and then, although the design was “seat-of-the-pants stuff rather than carefully calculated,” Dan bought two sheets of 5mm non-marine-grade plywood.
Dan would use one sheet for the hull and the other for the deck and coaming. “I was determined to have style at all costs,” he says, “I’d let the lawyers argue the case after the event.” After drawing his pattern on the plywood and cutting it out, Dan found that he had to trim the panels to get the two sides to meet at the bow. He also made some adjustments to the sheer. “At first it looked very much like a banana while I wanted it to look like a tiny scarab-style speedboat. It took a few more alterations to get it right.”
When Dan shipped out for work, he’d be away from the project two weeks at a time. And at home, when he didn’t have family commitments, the weather was not on his side. “The entire build took place in subfreezing temperatures in a breezy workshop that I had to throw up just to build the boat. I bought a secondhand woodstove to get the shop warm enough for the resin and paint to cure.”
Once the hull and deck were assembled and the plywood sealed with epoxy, Dan was eager to see how the boat floated. He and his friends and family carried it to a water trough in a nearby paddock. They chopped away the thick ice and set the boat in the water. With trepidation, Dan clambered aboard and was pleased to discover it was no more tippy than a canoe.
Back at the shop, he applied a layer of ’glass cloth with polyester resin. “I’d already used most of the epoxy resin and had bought the polyester by mistake. But time was pressing, and there was no time to get something else.” Dan also didn’t have time to get fairing compound on the deck and coaming, so the taped seams there are still visible. “At some point,” he says, “I’ll do it properly.”
Dan applied several quick coats of spray paint then added homemade decals, printed on paper that he lacquered on both sides to make it waterproof. The decals include the shark’s mouth like one used by his favorite motorcycle racers (and originally on Curtis P-40 Warhawks, American WWII attack aircraft), silver ferns (symbols of his New Zealand homeland), and in racing-boat style, a sponsor decal for his materials supplier.
As the challenge rules did not permit pre-race trials, SEA BESTIA was launched on Christmas Day in front of both his fellow contestants and a crowd of excited onlookers. The day was calm, and Dan was pleased that SEA BESTIA sat well in the water, but when he climbed aboard he was dismayed that, despite the findings in the water-trough trials, she was extremely tender. He had built a fore-and-aft bench amidships so that he could adjust the trim while underway, but to start the vintage outboard he had to face the stern. The engine had no neutral and once it was fired up, SEA BESTIA was underway and to see forward, Dan had to turn around while dealing with the instability and the obstacle of the seat.
Eventually, once he had managed the maneuver, Dan moved forward a little, cranked on the throttle and SEA BESTIA took off. “She was quickly at speed and stable as a rock!” But then the outboard died. Dan restarted it and it ran for a few minutes but died again. He never got a chance to fully open the throttle or run long enough to see how she handled at speed.
And Dan wasn’t alone in his troubles. Jacques and Juan were also coming to grips with their newly launched vessels. Dan recalls: “Jacques had built a marvelous device. He’d used his sheet of plywood to make frames for a catamaran. Then he took some bedsheets, covered them in fiberglass and resin, and made the hull panels. He sealed the bow with a liberal use of expanding foam and hospital corners. It looked horrific, but with a borrowed Honda 2.3-hp outboard, it performed flawlessly, slow and stable…the winning formula.
“Juan had decided to copy AVANTI, but it was a rough copy and initially quite unstable. We added sponsons to try to make it safe. We all predicted it would sink, which it did, albeit not on its own: I accidentally rammed it and towed it backward until it partially sank. It wasn’t entirely my fault, as it happened when I was turning around after starting the engine and I veered off course and straight into Juan. He couldn’t get out of the way because he’d hit a rock, sheared off his propeller, and was dead in the water. Then my engine died, and we drifted away as he slowly sank. We made it to the far side of the harbor where Jacques rescued me and towed SEA BESTIA back to the onshore support crew for engine repairs. Juan scrambled out onto a fishing boat, and the crew helped him drag his boat up onto the dock and into retirement. I did get out again, but the outboard kept breaking down and I was finally towed in and quit.
“So, Jacques won the day: He had produced the only fully working package, although I think he should have been disqualified because his outboard was definitely not a £50 model. But then, Juan and I had both used more than one sheet of plywood, so perhaps the best man won. It was a great day, farcical but immensely fun.”
Next year, the crew will be out on the water again, and 2024 entries will be shop-bought or home-made radio-controlled boats with a budget of £50.
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