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Whenever I travel for work, it’s a favorite pastime of mine to take a day and experience the local flavor. Not surprisingly, beyond the obligatory epicurean samplings, I’ve found some of the best provincial treasures to be in the sheds of local boatyards. My latest discovery came on a recent visit to the Olympia, Washington-based yard of wooden boat builder Sam Devlin.

Banjo fit the bill for her original owner, who needed a trailerable boat that he could launch and retrieve himself. 

Banjo fit the bill for her original owner, who needed a trailerable boat that he could launch and retrieve himself. 

In the past, Passagemaker editor pilgrimages to Devlin’s eclectic yard have revealed a wealth of maritime curiosities. This trip was no exception. His latest project was winding down in the big shed—a radical new all-electric, solar-powered catamaran I’ll be telling you more about in a future issue. But what caught my eye was a quaint little cruiser minding her own business on a trailer just outside the shed. After climbing aboard and poking around for a minute, I was smitten. And I’m not the only one.

“Everyone who sees Banjo in person immediately falls in love,” Devlin said with a wink.

Devlin’s Banjo 20 design is the quintessential pocket cruiser. Like any Devlin custom build, she is purpose-designed for a unique style of boating—in this case, the desire to go cruising without the hassles of a larger boat. She bridges the gap between a proper cruising boat and something small enough to enjoy on a whim. Twenty feet may be too small for some, but part of the appeal is just how much cruising room she carries in such a petite footprint. It’s a lot of bang for the buck.

“There’s very little that comes off my drawing board that isn’t an extension of something we’ve fooled around with before,” Devlin says. “I’m a believer in the evolution of design. The little Banjo was an outgrowth of a boat called the Scout 20, a compact motor cruiser with a lot of function in a small package, which we built for some customers on Puget Sound.”

The 90-hp Mercury outboard provides quiet and smooth power—a top end of around 24 knots or an economical 18-knot cruising speed. Note the open, but protected pilothouse.

The 90-hp Mercury outboard provides quiet and smooth power—a top end of around 24 knots or an economical 18-knot cruising speed. Note the open, but protected pilothouse.

Their cruising needs were a little different from those of Banjo’s original owner, who was coming into power cruising for the first time from pocket sailboats. An older gentleman, he wanted a trailerable boat that he could launch and retrieve himself. He also needed enough space to be comfortable while cruising the waters and tributaries of San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound, but not so much space that he’d be overwhelmed.

Airflow was also important for his summer cruising plans, hence the open, but protected concept employed with Banjo. While the pilothouse is not completely enclosed, it is positioned to keep the captain and crew out of the elements. The top-hinged forward window and side windows open to create a comfortable, secure “porch” area at the steering station. At the helm, and adding to Banjo’s charm, a traditional Edson bronze spoked wheel hearkens back to a simpler time of boatbuilding. Abaft the pilothouse, the cockpit can be open to the elements or protected with a windowed canvas enclosure.

The enclosable cabin is cozy, with a pair of berths to port and starboard, a galley at the bow, and a marine head that is concealed by seating when not in use. An old-fashioned wood stove is on the galley bulkhead forward for chilly nights on the hook. Devlin says the stove also helps to make the air a little drier for added comfort.

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Her 90-hp Mercury outboard delivers a quiet, economical cruising speed at around 18 knots, with a top end around 24 knots. When locked in the tilted position, the entire engine and mounting bracket are out of the water, reducing maintenance. Even with the engine down, her draft is only 1 foot, 6 inches, leaving a lot of options for exploring nooks and crannies. Her size also allows her to pick her way around a congested moorage with ease.

“Let’s say we went out on a weekend cruise to explore Puget Sound and we’d spend a night or two on the boat in some pretty anchorage,” Devlin says. “We’ll get a bit of a meal in our bellies and then go down below for a warm drink. I like cigars, so maybe we’ll light up a cigar or two. You can sit on the starboard side, Andrew. I’ll sit on the port side, or vice versa, and we’ve got about 6 feet of space between us so no one feels cramped. Pull out the sleeping bags, get a relaxed night’s sleep, then wake up in the morning, have a swim, start the next day, and off we go. This big little cruiser suits that lifestyle very well.”

I could even see the Banjo 20 appealing to an adventurous owner for extended coastal cruising. She is every bit the right proper little pocket cruiser she was designed to be—and a downright adorable one at that.

A Wooden Wanderlust

The tradition of woodworking means different things to different people—an opportunity to let the creative juices flow, a source of stress relief, a connection to the past. For Olympia, Washington-­based wooden boatbuilder Sam Devlin, it might be a combination of the three.

The enclosable cabin is cozy, with a pair of berths to port and starboard, a galley at the bow, and a marine head that is concealed by seating when not in use. An old-fashioned wood stove is on the galley bulkhead forward for chilly nights on the hook. Devlin says the stove also helps to make the air a little drier for added comfort.

The enclosable cabin is cozy, with a pair of berths to port and starboard, a galley at the bow, and a marine head that is concealed by seating when not in use. An old-fashioned wood stove is on the galley bulkhead forward for chilly nights on the hook. Devlin says the stove also helps to make the air a little drier for added comfort.

Devlin describes the exact moment when his interest in boats solidified: “In 1974, I was working on an old tug in Southeast Alaska. I was off watch in the galley drinking coffee while reading the first issue of WoodenBoat. I remember feeling the warmth of the oil range, the strong coffee and the sound of the engine beating away—something about that worked for me, and I could never shake it from my mind.”

A few years later, Devlin started designing and building boats. He became an early pioneer of the stitch-and-glue method of building wood boats, including the use of advanced epoxy resins, fiberglass cloth and computer-cut plywood panels. For the types of boats that he builds—always one-off, custom designs—he can maintain a small but efficient shop and doesn’t have to worry about pressing a certain volume of boats out of a single piece of tooling.

There is no one in the industry I know who cares more about the products he builds. One could say that Devlin obsesses over his boats, constantly evaluating and re-evaluating them from an emotive and functional perspective.  —Jonathan Cooper

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Stitch-and-Glue Process, Simplified

After the design is roughed out between Devlin and his client, the CAD drawings are finished, and all parts are ordered for delivery to his shop. Marine-grade plywood is cut at a CNC router shop that Devlin trusts. Once the plywood, resin and fiberglass cloth arrive, it’s time to begin.

Bulkheads are the first element to be put into place. They are installed on a jig of 2-by-6s that sits on the floor and defines the location of each station. For the first half of her build, the boat is assembled upside down. Once the stations are in place, the hull is built with plywood planks that have joints designed to interlock at the kerfs like puzzle pieces: The joints themselves resemble 2D cartoon-drawn ocean waves and, when interlocked with their mates, provide superior strength to dovetails or similar joinery.

The joints are then reinforced with glass and epoxy, and installed along the outside edges of the bulkheads, which naturally taper to form the shape of the hull. Working from the top (the boat’s bottom, since she is planked upside down), completing the first layer of paneling takes about a day on a typical 30-footer. Next, tabs epoxied to bulkheads form this first layer of the outer shell.

Once the tabbing and joints are glassed in, the hull is ready for initial fairing in preparation for cold molding the hull sides and bottom. On Sam’s Kingfisher 33, the hull’s bottom is laminated with ¼-inch-thick layers of marine ply to a thickness of 1½ inches. Hull sides are laminated to 1¼-inch thickness, but the process is otherwise the same. Twelve-ounce biaxial fiberglass tape is set over all the chines, and at each joint, the cold-molding process continues until the total thickness is reached, bottom to top.

Once the boat is planked, two layers of fiberglass cloth are laid onto the hull and separately glassed into place. The final layer before adding the stem and keel is a course of polyester Dynel cloth, also set in epoxy. Devlin removes any air pockets to ensure a paint-ready surface. Final sanding and fairing of the hull is followed by sealing the surface before priming.

An epoxy primer is applied before the boat is rolled right-side up using a custom-built jig that is strapped to the hull. Then comes the nerve-wracking process of lifting and rolling, performed by double-crane trucks, forklifts and patience.

Once the hull is upright, Devlin’s crew installs the decks, superstructure, motor, electrical systems, finish work and everything else before the final paint is applied to the hull. —Jonathan Cooper

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