George Buehler believes we should be driving trollers, not trawlers, while exploring the waters of the world. Enjoying an easygoing life, Buehler designs boats that fit that bill in a studio hidden in the thick, dark woods of Whidbey Island, Washington, many miles from the sea.
He has designed sailboats and powerboats in comfortable anonymity for many years, but the work that threatens to make him famous is his family of seagoing craft called Diesel Ducks. Usually built of welded steel, they carry towering masts that support steadying sails and flopperstopper rig and, perhaps, a crow's nest. Because they look absolutely unlike any other pleasure boat on the market, Buehler's boats sometimes are thought to be military vessels on the prowl.
Lanky, angular, heavy, stout, slow. They are all of those. But they also are seaworthy, comfortable and proven ocean travelers.
While traditional yacht builders hire costly graphic designers to develop luscious renderings for advertisements, Buehler sits down and prepares a simple line drawing. The simplicity may fool some into believing the drawing is the work of a schoolboy, but those who know see that the scale and shape are perfectly true, and they are intrigued by the cruising potential suggested by those few lines.
It's likely someone already has called them "odd ducks." Or worse.
Moor a Diesel Duck alongside a contemporary swoosh boat of glistening fiberglass and a little deeply varnished teak, and the Buehler creation will be considered unusual.
First, there's the obviously heavy steel construction of the full-displacement, hard chine hull, with a lot of freeboard forward and aft. There's a boarding ladder welded into a notch on the transom that looks (and is) intimidating. But his boats may be boarded easily at the pilothouse door, too.
The only thing visible above the sheer is the pilothouse. A low trunk cabin forward provides good overhead in the saloon below. The only windows are in the pilothouse; all other spaces are well illuminated with large portlights fitted with heavy tempered glass and sea covers. Pilothouse doors are fitted with big levers that dog them down tight against any sea. That may remind some of being in the Navy.
The pilothouse windows in his drawings have high arches that made me think of the lifted eyebrows worn by Olive Oyl, Popeye's girlfriend. Others have told Buehler his plans remind them of a circus train. "I just like it," he says of the window styling. Fortunately, only one boat apparently has been built with that exaggerated design feature.
Although they are different, and maybe even a little odd, Diesel Ducks are becoming popular, on a small scale.
Seahorse Marine, an American-owned yard in China, is building semi-custom Diesel Ducks from 38 to 55 feet in length. At last count, Seahorse had launched nine DDs, along with sailboats and powerboats designed by others and built of steel and fiberglass.
Individuals in the United States and Canada are building Ducks in their backyards or in rented space in shipyards, using steel, aluminum and wood.
Their seaworthiness/demonstrated by the 44-foot Seaducktress, which cruised from China to San Francisco on her own bottom/is not questioned. Another advantage is cost: Buehler sells a simple design that is easy to build in steel, aluminum or wood for significantly less than similarly sized production fiberglass-and-teak yachts. He also has published a book telling how to build a boat in the backyard.
One do-it-yourselfer who faithfully followed Buehler's backyard guidance says his 38-foot wood Diesel Duck will cost about $70,000 (plus thousands of hours of his labor over four years). Seahorse will sell a fully fitted 46-foot steel version for about $300,000 at its plant in Zhuhai, China.
I recently spent half a day aboard a 48-foot Canadian-built Diesel Duck, hoping to sense what there is about this family of yachts that appeals to a growing number of boaters. To board the 4-year-old boat, Rusty Duck, I had to step onto a small boarding platform and then climb a ladder built in a notch in the transom, because the boat was moored stern-to at the float and there was no way to board via the side decks. Grabbing the steel handrails, I pulled myself on deck.
A glance shows that this Duck has a dry exhaust system, and if one guesses it's also keel cooled, one would be correct. The long aft deck is high above the water, but a sturdy railing of welded steel pipe keeps it safe.
Inside, Rusty Duck is finished with a cherry-holly sole and white paneling with cherry trim, cabinets and doors. Stainless grabrails are fixed to the overhead for safety of crew and helmsperson. The stairs down to the saloon and master stateroom properly should be called ladders. Each has grabrails perfectly positioned for going down ladder style/ facing the stairway/ladder. The portlights have thick safety glass and covers for cruising in heavy seas. Drawers have latches that lock them tightly shut.
While I was aboard, boat people came down the float and looked in. Several asked and received permission to come aboard.
"She looks good," one of them tells me after a thorough look around. "Maybe a little utilitarian, but good."
Another, who said he had been cruising Pacific Northwest waters aboard the same boat for more than 20 years, agreed. "This is one hell of a boat. I'd like to have something like this."
The final visitor came aboard tentatively and carefully looked around. After standing near the helm for several minutes, he said, "I really like this boat. I really do."
Another tourist, a skilled boatyard worker and marine systems expert who had boarded Rusty Duck several days earlier, told me his first view from shore left him skeptical. But he ended an inspection of the interior impressed with the yacht, and not put off by what he described as its "lifeboat styling."
Obviously, Buehler designed the Diesel Duck to go to sea, not to be a party boat tied to a marina float.
Rusty Duck has an enormous master stateroom aft, with the largest bed I've ever seen on a boat. There are a dozen or more drawers and lockers for storage and a head with a separate shower (which, oddly, has ticket-booth-like windows that look into the stateroom). A two-cylinder diesel get-home engine is in a large cabinet at the foot of the bed. It powers a sail drive unit that sticks down through the bottom of the boat.
The saloon is forward. It has a table and comfortable bench seats. The galley is separate and farther forward; it has a full-size refrigerator and freezer. There's a head here, and additional berths forward, too. Long rows of portlights provide a fair amount of natural light.
Buehler sells plans for Diesel Ducks to backyard builders and others, except for the DD46-2, developed by Seahorse Marine, which has exclusive rights to build and market it.
Diesel Ducks have not yet reached the big time, but they are catching on.
To reach Buehler's forest retreat, look for an old roadside telephone booth about 35 minutes south of Oak Harbor, Washington, on Highway 20. Swing left onto a graveled road. Make several right turns, each leading deeper into the woods, and eventually the guideposts provided by Buehler pop into sight.
His small office building is down a muddy drive. A diesel-powered Dodge pickup, an incomplete 50-foot sailboat resting on blocks and covered with plastic sheeting, and a pair of George Caulkin's Bartender runabouts are in sight, as promised.
The house he and his wife, Gail, built 18 years ago is deeper in the woods and reached by another damp path. There's a fifth-wheel trailer nearby and an old Mercedes-Benz in a detached carport.
Obviously, Buehler doesn't care much for the panache of the yachting business.
He grew up on the coast of Oregon, fishing from small boats in the Pacific Ocean. "I was lucky enough to experience a time when every coastal town had boatyards. I was always boat crazy, even as a little bugger."
When he graduated from high school some four decades ago, he remembers, "They let us out of school at noon to prepare for graduation. I got on a bus."
Buehler got off the bus in Maine and went to work in shipyards that built wood boats. He started sweeping the floor and wound up doing carpentry. He helped with construction of a replica of the 110-foot wood schooner America. "I saw a level of professionalism that's not duplicated around here now," he says.
He drifted into design when he wanted a sailboat but couldn't find one "that was within my ability to build or finance." So he planned and built a 26-footer, which he sailed to Mexico and Hawaii. It did not have an engine.
He has had little formal training in yacht design. "Everything you need to know is in the library."
Buehler sold sailing stories to boating magazines as he traveled, developing a light writing style that he uses effectively in his books and on his website.
In the Pacific Northwest, trollers were simple but seaworthy craft designed for hook-and-line ocean fishing, often with a crew of one. Buehler loves them and is saddened by the fading of the fleet.
"The trollers were the aristocrats of the fleet," he has written. "Trollers didn't trap or snare or drag huge nets across the bottom. Trollers caught fish by outwitting them, fishing for them.
"Beautiful to look at because their hull lines were created to be sea kindly, they ranged the entire coast...and had brave names like Scout, Dauntless, Resolute and Defiant."
He has drawn lines for a full fleet of Diesel Ducks. Choose your size. Construction in steel simplifies the designer's efforts to meet client requirements.
Because they are full-displacement yachts, Ducks are slow and require little horsepower to keep them going. Buehler has recommended 30 horsepower for the smallest of his boats and up to150hp for the largest. Fuel consumption is modest, and ocean crossings can be achieved. The DD48, for example, carries 900 gallons of fuel, and at 7.4 knots she has a range of about 8,000 miles. The 44, running at 7.1 knots, has a range of nearly 7,000 miles on 700 gallons of diesel.
Buehler went to China as Seahorse began building his boats and came away impressed with the quality of its work and design changes. "The quality of fittings is excellent," he says. "They use heavy, heavy stuff. Like you see on ships."
Buehler and his wife often spend several months each winter in Mexico, heading south with a 28-foot fifth-wheel trailer behind the Dodge. This year, they were planning on a couple of months in Italy.
But he doesn't cut his professional ties while lolling in the sun. He carries a laptop and plugs in at cyber cafés to catch up on business.
"I've worked to establish a comfortable lifestyle with minimal work," he says. Buehler seems to have succeeded. Lucky man.
Cal and Sue Edwards have tested their 48-foot Rusty Duck in the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi River system and in gale winds on the Gulf of Mexico. "She's a tough boat," Sue says.
They had owned smaller sailboats and powerboats, but when they went looking for an ocean cruiser they were drawn to George Buehler and his Ducks. They chose McNally Marine, Inc., in Ontario, Canada, because the Canadian builder had built one of Buehler's boats and some of the first Cape Horn yachts. (And it would build a third DD. Details coming.)
"I'm a safety freak, a redundancy freak," Edwards says. "I thought I could make it even safer than George Buehler planned."
As a result, the stem and keel bottom are made of 1-1/2-inch steel plate. The bottom plate from the keel to the chine is 5/16 of an inch thick, and the rest of the hull is quarter-inch plate.
"She has broken ice on the Mississippi River. Serious ice," says Edwards.
With all that steel below the waterline, Rusty Duck weighs about 38 tons. She carries no ballast. She rides low and slow. At 6 knots, she burns about 1-1/2 gallons an hour and shows no wake.
The deckhouse is 3/8-inch aluminum. Pilothouse windows facing forward are inch-thick safety glass; the rest are 3/4 of an inch thick. She'll take almost anything the sea will throw.
Rusty Duck was launched in late 2000, and Cal and friends rushed the boat on a shakedown cruise across the Great Lakes in an effort to hit Chicago and the river system before ice formed. Joined there by Sue and their son, they started downriver toward the gulf. They were the only pleasure boaters on the river.
"It was just us and barges," Edwards remembers. "They treated us nicely; they figured we weren't the usual powerboaters."
They crossed the Gulf of Mexico several times, once in a storm that sent green water over the pilothouse. "She handled better than anything I've ever had," he says. "There was nothing so hard that I even thought about it. She goes like a dream."
Then it was June, and the hurricane season was upon them. Cal and Sue put their Diesel Duck on a Coastwise Transport ship and had it carried to Vancouver, British Columbia. They cruised her to Seattle, where the boat is now moored. They live in Kettle Falls, Washington, in the northeast corner of the state, and are trying to determine how to do the things they need to do at home and still cut loose for a trip to southeast Alaska.
THE CHINA DUCKS
Bill Kimley and his wife, Stella, have been building boats at Seahorse Marine since the 1980s. They have launched sail and power yachts ranging from 30 feet to a mini-expedition yacht of 55 feet. They build in steel and fiberglass in their plant at Zhuhai, near Hong Kong.
Before moving to China, Bill was a Grand Banks dealer in San Francisco briefly and then opened his own yacht brokerage in Richmond. He began importing Taiwan-built boats, which led to the launch of his Seahorse line of powerboats and sailboats.
Seahorse began building Buehler's Diesel Ducks about four years ago. The first two were 44s, Seaducktress, owned by David Katz of Melbourne, Florida, and Gaijin, built for Don Wilson, who lives in Japan. Both drove their boats home, Katz clocking 15,000 miles, all but 4,000 miles of which he singlehanded.
Katz parked his yacht on the hard at Napa Valley Marina, at the head of San Francisco Bay, and went home for the winter. But he sent me the keys and said I was welcome to take a look.
Because she was on blocks, a fair ladder climb was required to gain her decks. The first thing I noticed were the changes Katz ordered in Buehler's design to make it easy for him to handle the boat alone. His changes show that it's easy for builders to modify design when they use steel; it's harder and far more costly if a boat is built of molded fiberglass.
While DDs come with a door on each side of the pilothouse, Seahorse eliminated the portside door and built a small platform inside the pilothouse large enough to accommodate a reclining easy chair. With the boat on autopilot, Katz spent long hours in the comfortable chair watching the seas roll by. Occasionally, he would nap. That's not a problem when you are in the middle of the Pacific with electronic intruder alarms on.
Katz asked for a door in the aft pilothouse bulkhead, which required construction of a small cockpit to allow the door to swing and to provide easy access. Seahorse added teak-covered seats, and Katz found he used that entry more than the starboard pilothouse door.
Although Rusty Duck has ladders leading to saloon and stateroom, Seaducktress has stairways. Cal Edwards has a big watertight door in his saloon that leads to the engine room; on Katz's boat, the locking engine room door is reached through the master head.
Katz, an experienced sailor, ran across Buehler when he went shopping for a powerboat in the Pacific Northwest. "I felt guilty when I switched to power," he admits.
His reaction to the Diesel Duck? "I like the design, and the cost is significantly less, too."
Katz spent three months in China during the 18 months his boat was under construction. He found Kimley on the Internet. "I liked the concept and his willingness to adopt changes," he says. "I checked three references, and all seemed enthusiastic. Seahorse builds an exceptionally strong hull, with much thought given to layout, selection of components and quality of work."
Kimley builds to Chinese commercial vessel standards. State agencies monitor construction and X-ray welds for quality control. He has been in business long enough to have established a crew of trained workers.
Joinery work on the Seahorse Duck is good (as it is on the Canadian-built Rusty Duck), and the finish is excellent.
Among other Seahorse modifications: Kimley replaced Buehler's Olive Oyl arches with rectangular windows. A transom davit was installed to carry a dinghy, but while Katz is at sea, the inflatable is stored on the aft deck.
Seaducktress was launched with a dry exhaust through the pilothouse roof. It left soot on the boat, so in Australia, Katz found a welder who rerouted it through the side of the engine room. The engine is cooled with a half-pipe cooler welded to the massive keel.
"My trip home was from Hong Kong to the Philippines, to Palau, Vanuatu, Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii and to San Francisco," Katz says. "It took two years, and I had no hair-raising events or really bad weather. The boat handled very well at sea, and I have more or less learned to handle a single-screw boat in port."
Katz took the usual looping northerly route from Hawaii to San Francisco, to get the best weather. Still, he encountered stiff head seas and found that the 85hp John Deere used 60 percent more fuel pounding into the wind. Katz was worried and thought about using his sail, but he reached California with fuel in the tanks.
Seaducktress has white paneling overhead and on walls, with neatly crafted teak trim and cabinetry. The sole is teak, but Katz covered it with a pad for protection.
The 44 and 48 have a similar layout, with stateroom aft and saloon forward. Seaducktress has less sitting area in the saloon. The galley is part of the saloon, however, and there's a strong open feeling about the space; with the sea covers off the portlights, the saloon was flooded with natural light, even on a rainy California day.
Staterooms on both are generously sized, although Rusty Duck obviously has more room for storage cabinets and hanging lockers, as well as a huge shower in the master head.
Buehler's Diesel Duck design creates comfortable living spaces, with isolated guest (or crew) quarters that ensure privacy. In serious weather, however, the bow sleeping space might not be the place to snooze.
Both have spacious engine rooms. The engines are small, and that creates space for storage of parts and accessories and should make maintenance and repairs easy.
Outside, the Ducks have long decks fore and aft. The deck line drops into a well at the pilothouse to accommodate the swing of the big watertight doors and to provide sufficient overhead in the house. On Rusty Duck, I found the triangular steps into the doorway potentially unsafe because there is too little area for the foot to land on. Seaducktress does it better, with traditional rectangular treads that would not cause trouble for someone moving quickly.
Cal Edwards designed the inset transom ladder for Rusty Duck, as well as the small boarding platform (which also is intended to protect the propeller if something bumps into the boat). Seahorse did a better job on Seaducktress, with wider and broader steps and a larger platform.
As Buehler designed the Diesel Duck, it had a transom that sloped inward with a rudder hanging from it (like a sailboat). Edwards called for a vertical transom, which allowed use of a ladder, and a standard rudder. Most other Ducks have the modified transom, too.
It's impossible to carry groceries aboard while climbing a ladder. Katz said he pushes a package onto the deck and then climbs up. Normally, however, groceries and other supplies are easy to load through the pilothouse door. Heavy and cumbersome loads are lifted aboard using a boom. Katz said boarding amidships is easy from his dinghy.
First-time visitors may find walking from the transom ladder to the pilothouse awkward because of the paravane stabilizer gear-poles, cables and fish. On Seaducktress, that gear creates a narrow walking area near the steps down to the pilothouse door. After a few days, though, the crew should be at home.
ANOTHER CANADIAN DUCK
Marlene and Benno Klopfer of Whitby, Ontario, Canada, built a steel sailboat a number of years ago and sailed it extensively. Surprisingly, when it came time to switch to power, they still had the energy to build a Diesel Duck, too.
In truth, they are construction managers and subcontractors.
They hired McNally Marine on Lake Ontario (the builder of Rusty Duck) to stretch a DD38 to 41 feet and to build the hull and deckhouse of aluminum. McNally finished its work in 1999, and Marlene and Benno have been at it since/planning, painting, installing equipment and systems, doing a lot of dirty and difficult work, and hiring professionals to do other projects, including interior finishing.
They have a website (msdieselduck.com) that includes photos showing Marlene painting the bilge, the spraying of insulation on the inside walls, Benno with the engine before its installation and the fuel delivery system he planned, built and installed/so well done that others have copied his work.
After McNally launched the hull, with only red primer paint applied, the Klopfers had to move it to Whitby, near their home. Trucking turned out to be costly and difficult, so they chose to drive her home.
At this stage their boat, named/would you believe/Diesel Duck, had no doors or windows in the pilothouse. The engine was in and running, so they started out. Without ballast, or the weight of equipment to come, she looked like a red barrel putting down the lake.
"It was quite an undertaking," Marlene remembers. "We are still laughing about it."
The next major step was to get her painted. That took about six months, but she left the paint shop dressed in flawless white paint with blue trim.
They moved Diesel Duck (George Buehler OK'd that name) into a storage building in Whitby and continued working aboard. Ultimately, they sold their home and moved to Whitby to avoid the long commute. Finally, Benno retired to devote himself full time to the project.
Their goal was to have her finished and in the water in the summer of 2004 and to begin shakedown cruises in the Great Lakes. Experienced ocean sailors, they have ambitious plans for motor cruising. They hope to circumnavigate South America and to explore places rarely visited, including the Amazon River "and more remote places," Marlene tells me.
I asked if ever they were discouraged during the five years of work, expecting an upbeat answer.
"Discouraged? All the time," she says. "But there was too much involved, too much money, to just let it go. To be sensible we must finish it, because we do want to go cruising.
"We did this with the sailboat," she adds. "We thought we would be able to do it again." But they found the DD work to be more costly and more complex.
"It's easier to go out and buy a boat, but we could not get what we were looking for/a tugboat-rugged type of vessel."
She said they liked a Nordhavn but thought it too expensive, and they wanted aluminum, not fiberglass. They saw a DD in the third edition of Robert Beebe's Voyaging Under Power.
"It was love at first sight," Marlene exclaims. "By golly, we have enough bluewater experience to recognize a true passagemaker right away. After four years of searching, Benno knew he had found the 'real McCoy,' and the rest was easy."
They exchanged email messages with Kimley at Seahorse Marine and adopted some of his modifications and designed their own U-shaped galley, but they stuck with Buehler's plan for an outside rudder hung from the face of the transom. That turned out to be difficult and expensive because of issues involved with hydraulic steering.
"We probably should have used a conventional rudder, but it was too expensive to change," Marlene adds.
"Is she beautiful?" I ask. "No, but she's starting to get prettier," Marlene responds.
She's more impressed with the boat's seaworthiness and economy, predicting that at 6 to 7 knots, the boat could cross the Atlantic several times without refueling. "She can take waves; she can take rough weather," she adds. "She won't roll so much because of the hard chine." The Klopfers chose not to use stabilizers. Instead, they will follow Buehler's ideas and use sails for stability.
Does she have any advice for those thinking of doing something similar?
"Don't count the hours."
ALL BY HIMSELF
Jerry Price has it all. A summer home in Michigan's north woods. A winter home in Florida. And the know-how to build a boat in his back yard.
Five years ago, he laid the keel for a 38-foot Diesel Duck in a wooded site in Michigan. He expected to launch her the summer of 2004, after working 25 months over the five years.
She's all wood. I have a photograph on my desk that shows the boat, Timberskeep, with a beautiful, dark green hull and a deckhouse that's finished bright/for now. The windows are rectangular, but Price put a gently curved molding over the tops to hint at Buehler's arched design.
"I have been building things all my life," Price says. "I have manual skills, and it's all explained in Buehler's book."
Price bought his wood from a lumberyard. Nothing exotic. He has used southern yellow pine and Canadian red pine. And plain old white wood. The hull is plywood.
After the keel and frames were in place, Price attached a layer of 1-by-4 boards to the frames. Over that went sheets of 3/8-inch plywood. He covered the ply with a generous coating of tar and laid on another sheet of plywood. The top coat is a layer of six-ounce fiberglass fabric with an epoxy coating.
He did all the work himself. "Occasionally," he says, "relatives insisted on helping."
He acknowledges that one of the major problems was keeping focused. "That was a challenge."
Spending winters in sunny Florida recharged him, however, and he would go north eager to return to work.
Timberskeep is powered by a four-cylinder, 108hp Volvo- Perkins diesel.
The boat, he says, is like a three-room condo "and is perfect for us." She has a stateroom and head, the pilothouse and a saloon with galley. The pilot berth in the pilothouse doubles as a workbench.
The sole is Ponderosa pine, with dark mahogany plugs hiding screw heads.
The mast came from a boat that sank in Florida. Its boom came from a 1934 yacht and will carry a foresail he may use as a steadying sail. Or, "If the wind is going my way, we will haul it up."
Price planned to cruise in Lake Michigan for a few months to get used to the boat and to test her systems. Then he and his wife, Moon, plan to load her up and head south in the fall.
When he began work, Price estimated the cost at about $30,000. When I talked with him recently the bills totaled $62,000, and he expected the final cost to be nearly $70,000.
"I'm happy with it. It turned out the way I visualized in my dreams."
Price was 67 years old when he began Timberskeep. He was 73 when work was finished. What kind of advice do you have? I asked.
"For God's sake, do it," he replies. "Time is short. Don't be afraid."
Seahorse Marine: SeahorseYachts.com email: firstname.lastname@example.org