C-shanty on a Harmonica  
Jim Michalak's "Harmonica" shantyboat design: Chris Crandall's "Occam's Razor"
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 Text copyright (c) Chris Crandall, photo (c) Jim Michalak, doodles by Flying Tadpole (c) TJ Fatchen (whew!)
Occam's Razor
 
 
 
Chronic boat disease 
I suffer from a difficulty that many of you share with me.  It's not a terrifying malady, and it's not fatal.  But it's chronic, and it grabs my attention almost every boating week of the year.  I love boats, I love boating, I love boatbuilding.  I love maritime museums, inter-library loan of rare boating books, and design catalogs.  That's not the problem. 

house'n'carThe problem.  My wife doesn't.  It's not that she hates boating, although she's impatient with the fuss that happens between leaving the house and getting out on the water.  It's just that she's not a fan.  Now I love my wife more than boating, but the real trick is to get her to share my passion.  I could write a long article on what doesn't work.  But what I really needed was a boat that she would enjoy along with me. 

 
tornadoWe both liked the Catalina 22 we had.  I named it after her.  Unfortunately (for my boating plans), we bought a nice house with no landscaping, and a new car, and after the outboard died, and the swing keel needed repair, and a near-tornado hit the marina, I had to agree that we were paying a pretty high price for an occasional use of a boat.  We put the boat up for sale. 
 
low freeboardUnsuccessful solutions 
Before the Catalina was sold, I built a 9' flatiron skiff-dory, which looked awfully big in the shop, and awfully small in the water.  I should have picked up the clue from the plans advertisement--the captain was a girl who weighed in at about 35 pounds.  Together, my wife and I weigh 10 times that.  It's clear that the dory has a load-carrying shape, but I understand that freeboard of 2 inches is considered to be a narrow safety margin.  You haven't lived as a boater until you've been frightened by 2-foot waves. 

The 12-ft sharpie sailboat (a Bolger Teal) did not appeal to her, and the pair of 6-Hour Canoes got her out on the water only once.  By now I had built four boats, and failed utterly in generating enthusiasm.  (I could always set my standards lower . . . I managed to generate tolerance more than once.)  I needed to find a boat that met her needs as well as mine.

 
on offer
 
So, what does this woman want?  Actually, it was very simple--she wanted peace and quiet, the ability to relax, comfort, and room to snooze. How can this be provided on a budget that does not admit yearly slip fees? I decided we needed a shanty boat. 
 
boxA better solution 
Shanty boats are flat-bottomed houseboats.  They are usually built on a shoestring, they almost always reflect the personality of the builder, and they are not designed for seaworthiness so much as comfort while afloat.  There's one big problem--a big shanty boat was outside the budget.  I had to be able to purchase the materials from my own personal weekly operating fund, that is, walking-around money.  I had one advantage; on almost every wood and materials purchase made for the house, for furniture, for shelving, I had "accidentally" purchased too much wood, paint, fasteners, and glue.  This meant I had a terrific stock of material, and when it came time to compare my stock to the bill of materials, I found that I could build a shanty boat for about $200. Seemed like a pretty good price, but one must assume that (1) I wasn't counting the cost of my back stock, and (2) I was underestimating things dramatically. 

gnomeStill, shanty boats are supposed to be cheap, and I wanted to uphold tradition.  I got a set of plans from Jim Michalak for a boat that I never built, but was captivated by the plans for "Fusebox", a small box of a boat designed for electric power.  Jim considered his design, and realized it (1) needed to be a little bigger, and (2) recharging batteries ain't all it's cracked up to be, and the redesign became, ultimately, the "Harmonica".  It's radical-cheap. 

The boat is a big box, really, with an open slot-top, a swept-up transom bow, topped by a "porch" of a deck.  It looked easy, cheap, able to be built with lumberyard materials, and if not handsome, at least it looked jaunty.  I suspect that what really sold me on the design was the plans drawing of a man on the bow, with a foot up, drink in hand, hat forward over his eyes.  This boat spoke to me; it said "easy-to-use". 

 
clean workshopBuilding Harmonica 
I bought the plans from Jim, and set out to build it.  It could hardly be easier.  The boat is built by creating four bulkheads/frames, all of which are flat and square, using 2X2 pine and 3/8" plywood.  To this, 1/4" plywood sides are added, some extra dimensional framing, a hull bottom and a semi-covered topdeck.  The building process itself took about 6 months; I began in the fall, and launched it in the spring. 

There are no photos of the building process.  I'm extremely happy about the boat, and proud of it, even, so why are building photos so scarce?  I am an eager boatbuilder, and like woodworking a lot, but I am a poor workplace maid.  I simply didn't keep the workplace clean enough for construction photos that would not cause me shame. 

boatbuildingThis boat is extremely easy to build.  The difficulties are in the size of the project.  I rolled this boat over (and back) three or four times.  Only once did I get any help to roll it.  But building this boat takes space, planning, and the willingness to put one's back at risk.  As I push 40, I'm starting to worry about back injuries--I don't want one.  I felt a pop or two while rolling; I will seek help next time I roll (or stick to smaller boats). 

If you can build a square box, then the Harmonica will pose no particular difficulties.  OK, OK, I admit, I have trouble with building a square box.  Still, the Harmonica is large enough that modest deviations from square are invisible.  The couple of errors I made have even disappeared from my vision--only my building partner David Unruh knows the truth, and he's a pal--he's not telling.

 
Decoration design 
I like the idea of the shanty boat, and really enjoy what I know about them.  There are two acceptable theories for decoration of a shanty boat.  The first is what I'll call "pure shanty", but you might call "sophisticated junk motif" (I'm not referring to Chinese freight-carrying sailboats).  While useable, it's hard for me to be proud of a floating pile of junk. 

The other theory is to go for an American vernacular architectural style, and the most appropriate, in my opinion, is Victorian.  Shantyboats were just taking shape as a phenomenon at the tail end of the Victorian era, and so the style has a whiff of authenticity to it.  Plus, Victorian style is made for woodworking, and the colors look good.  Victorian homes are mostly highly decorated boxes--the homes are square, but with lots of detail added, a perfect model for a shanty boat design originally named Fusebox.  I set down to do some research. 

I was lucky.  The Psychology Department at the University of California at Berkeley invited me to give a talk on cross-cultural research on prejudice toward fat people (it's easy to be the best in your specialty area when you're the only one in it), and we added a side trip to San Francisco to do research on Victorian architectural style.  What it really meant was traipsing around the city looking at marvelous homes with unbelieveably detailed (and expensive!) paint schemes, and taking a trip down to the the Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier.  On a trip to Ghirardelli Square, I found an incredibly detailed and richly colored book on Victorian exterior paint schemes, complete with paint chips, brand names, and the theory of Victorian coloration.  It was the first time I was able to engage my wife in boatbuilding decision making.  The enthusiasms we acquire in pursuit of connubial bliss! 

We had the good fortune of staying in a hotel in Chinatown, and on the next block was a Chinese linen shop.  Chinese decoration is consistent with Victorian style, and we bought a tablecloth and some placemats to cut into curtains for the boat's windows.  Very authentic, and radical-cheap. 

 
nickelodeonParsimony 
With construction well underway, a paint scheme selected, curtains sewed, it was time to name the boat.  "Harmonica" is the name of the design, but I needed a name for my vessel.  We settled on "Occam's Razor", which in philosophy of science means the law of parsimony; the simplest theory that fits the facts should be preferred.  But other synonyms of parsimony are "cheap" or "tight with a nickel".  In boatbuilding, the law of parsimony means that the cheapest version of a boat that fits the water should be preferred.  As the shanty boat of a shallow-pocketed scientist, "Occam's Razor" celebrates both good science and small budgets. 
 
Launch date 
I promised, late in the fall, to have the boat ready for the Midwest Small Boat Messabout on Rend Lake, Illinois, that Jim Michalak organizes every year near Father's Day.  I kept promising, but the boat did not progress according to my fanciful timetables.  I started spending every spare hour in the basement.  I was obsessed!  My building partner David started coming over two and three times a week, then his family, and then even my wife ventured downstairs.  Soon, entire gangs of us worked on painting, gluing trim, fitting windows, sanding primer, spreading epoxy, drilling holes, and so on, as the deadline approached.  A deadline is a very useful thing for ensuring you'll finish the work, but there's no guarantee that you'll enjoy the process.  We did not complete the boat (is any homebuilt boat every truly completed?), but we got it launchable. 

Excavating the shanty boat from the basement 
On the Thursday before we were scheduled to leave, we had to pull the boat out of the basement. We live on the side of a gentle hill, and our daylight basement opens up onto our yard by way of a two-panel glass sliding door.  Prior to selecting Harmonica as a design, I had carefully compared the plans to the door jam, to ensure that her beam did not exceed the opening in the door frame.  There were nearly two inches to spare.  David and I secured the able backs of a half-dozen men from among our poker buddies, and we planned an earlier evening transfer from the basement to the trailer.  Everything was in place. 

extractionUntil I discovered that the second glass panel door was screwed and nailed into place.  We had to hire a glass-and-door crew to come and completely remove the door assembly.  Removal would cost $50, and replacement the next morning would cost another $50.  For a $200 boat, this was a significant expense!  The glass-and-door crew was pretty amused at the sight of a large boat in a small basement, and after removing the door, they helped David and me remove Occam's Razor (no charge for boat moving), and they reinstalled the door for free.  I nearly passed out with relief--I hadn't told my wife about disassembling the side of our house, and I had no way to explain the gaping hole in our home that door removal would have left.  (Still, it was smaller than the hole in marital peace it would have created.)  That evening, five guys easily lift the boat up onto the trailer, with no strained backs. 

 
antarcticaShort drive to lake 
The following day, we prepared the boat for a trip to the Messabout, a mere 400 miles away.  We tied the boat to the trailer, hitched the trailer to the car, and drove to Rend Lake.  We arrived in the rain, set up camp in the dark, and awoke to rain and no stove.  We drove out of the park for a hot drink, the rain broke, and we launched her for the first time.  She floated.  Although the boat is pretty big (14ft by 5ft, with no narrowing at the bow or stern), she's light.  I jumped on, and the boat tried to dump me immediately.  I now board more gingerly. 

Occam's Razor was launched with power from a handy-dandy, corn-popper sounding, shrill-but-paid-for Tanaka 1.2hp outboard.  It's not enough.  The boat moved reasonably well, but we were reluctant to go out into the lake itself.  We stayed the day in a tiny arm off the main lake.  It was a great day of life at anchor, admiring and sharing other people's boats.  After that 1st-rate day, we drove 400 miles back home.

 
How we actually use the boat  (This is the section you should take most seriously) 
Almost anybody who sells you a boat design, plans, or a finished boat, sells you a dream.  Many bluewater boats are sold to hopeful sailors who never sail out of the bay. 

Occam's Razor is a dream, too, but a modest one.  Our hope was to take the boat out on lakes and rivers, anchor out once we've arrived, and eat, drink, swim, sleep, read, and talk.  We have succeeded, and spectacularly.  When the temperatures have reached 98F, we've gone out to the lake, and floated lazily in our PFD's, slept inside in the shade, or snoozed on an air mattress while afloat, tied to the boat.  Occam's Razor is the single most relaxing place in Douglas County.  Our ambitions have been remarkably modest, and the Harmonica class boat has genuinely delivered.  We've had as many as 6 aboard (3 adults, 3 children), and as few as one.  Two or three is the ideal number; four if everyone gets along. 

We've replaced the 2-stroke tiny Tanaka with a 4-stroke 5hp Nissan outboard.  The difference is substantial.  The motor isn't really quieter, but the pitch is bass instead of soprano.  It's much more powerful, pollutes much less, and doesn't jangle the nerves or deafen the ears. 

Will the wife go shanty-boating?  David and I like the boat a lot--it's been a great success, and we used it all last summer and fall.  But how does my wife feel about Occam's Razor?  She likes it.  She's not crazy about it, but she's comfortable aboard, and enjoys a weekend day reading the paper or a novel, and eating a lunch I've made for her.  She's not crazy smiling while aboard (like I am), but she enjoys the process.  We're still hoping to get more people afloat--everyone likes it, but we're stingy with our quiet afternoons afloat. 

 
More info about Harmonica and Shanty Boats 
The plans are available from Jim Michalak Designs, 118 E. Randle St., Lebanon, IL, 62254, and are two blueprint sheets plus instructions.  Jim describes it this way: "Harmonica soaks up four sheets of 3/8" plywood and six sheets of 1/4" plywood and uses very simple glue and nail jigless construction. Blueprints with keyed instructions are $25." 

A favorite book of mine is Harlan Hubbard's "Shantyboat: A river way of life" which was first published in 1953, and is still available from the University Press of Kentucky for about $14 (ISBN 0-8131-1359-8).  I can strongly recommend its account of river life on the Ohio, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers in the 1940's. 

For more about life afloat on houseboats and other affordable on-the-water lifestyles, the best current reference is "Handmade houseboats: Independent living afloat" by Russell Conder, published in 1997, available from McGraw-Hill for about $20 (ISBN 0-0715-8022-0) 

 
parsimonious razor Some Internet Resources for the Harmonica: 
    Jim Michalak's design pages 
    Craig O'Donnell's Cheap Pages  
    Shantyboats  
 
 Other SquareBoat designers 
SquareBoats home page 
Bolger Boats in the Web 
Sick of Square Boats? Visit the Light Schooner!