Boatbuilding is a lot like writing. Plenty of people say they want to do it, but few ever take a big project from conception to completed reality. Peter Poanessa, 51, of Keene, New Hampshire, took his dream the full distance, and the boat he created is as captivating as a Patrick O'Brian sea saga. But here's the kicker: almost nothing went awry in the building process. In all my years of writing, this was a first. How could I tell a story without anguish, mishaps, time delays, or bankruptcy? This guy didn't make it easy for me.
It was while Peter was working as a commercial fisherman that the notion of someday having his own boat first entered his head. He studied the pros and cons of each vessel he saw. He knew he would want a boat that was trailerable so that travel to his dream destinations would be easier. Heat and an inside steering station were a must, to make cruising in colder climates more comfortable. And he wanted a fishboat style.
The necessary boating and building skills evolved over Peter's adult years. He hadn't spent much time afloat as a kid, although he had made use of his family's old outboard skiff. And, he admits, "I did go deep-sea fishing once...and was seasick as soon as we cleared the jetties." Yet, after a year of college and a yearning to change direction, he spent 10 years fishing off the coast of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. He also served as first mate on a 92-foot fishing vessel that he helped pilot from Texas to Washington State. The captain was recuperating from a quadruple bypass, so Peter shouldered a lot of responsibility. "We ran 24 hours a day for 35 days, with one day off at the Panama Canal," he says. (Peter's new boat has more electronics than were on the 92-footer.)
Peter's dream of owning a boat didn't waver, despite the difficult life his fishing occupation afforded him. His vision foresaw pure recreation. Nothing commercial. Initially, he thought he would buy an old salmon troller and truck it home to do a conversion. But he eventually decided to build from scratch, a decision he has not regretted.
Peter figured building a boat would be a retirement project. But, sometimes, major events jolt our timelines. In Peter's case, both of his parents were diagnosed with debilitating disease soon after retiring in their mid-60s, and their health and savings dwindled. It served to remind Peter of the fragility of life. A number of years later, he was spurred to action when a seemingly healthy 48-year-old friend died suddenly. Peter immediately asked his wife, Mary, what she thought about him getting started on building a boat right away. She was all for it.
Mary and Peter have an interesting history as a couple, with boats playing a life-changing part. They were high school sweethearts in New England, but broke up when Peter headed across the country to seek his fortune fishing. Mary traveled south and ended up working on a shrimp boat in Florida. They each married other people, and Mary had three children. Later, with all of life's changes, circumstances became right for them to once again take up a life together.
A BOAT IS BORN
Although Peter describes himself as a regular guy, his creativity and expertise with wood were a huge benefit in building Alsek, his sleek new 27-foot pocket trawler. Peter owns Keene Signworx, and if the portfolio on his company's website is typical, he makes a gorgeous product. He built a boat shed right next to his shop and found that having tools and software at the ready was a big plus. On hot, difficult, or celebratory days, one wonders if stock from his other business also helped get him through this large undertaking. (Peter co-owns a microbrewery.)
Alsek is a Sam Devlin design and was helped along by Mr. Devlin himse lf, who was at the receiving end of the phone line whenever Peter needed him. Peter also read Devlin's Boat Building about 15 times before laying the semi-displacement hull's first frame rail.
Alsek is a river in the Yukon and Alaska, but that's not what Peter's boat is named after. He took the moniker from an old 58-foot seiner, a real beauty with brightwork and stainless steel rigging. "Anyone who spent any time around the Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries 20 years back has heard of this boat," Peter says. "She was the pride of the fleet."
With abundant energy, obsessive drive, and long work sessions, the fun began. Peter took a weeklong course at Maine's WoodenBoat School to learn stitch-and-glue construction. Mastering this Sam Devlin method is the number one thing Peter recommends to anyone contemplating a similar project. "It's really quite simple and user friendly, and the finished product is very durable," he says. It doesn't require a lot of tools, but, oh, that sanding! Each surface needs to be gone over and over as layers of epoxy build. "A good quality random orbital sander with dust pickup and vacuum is a must have. And a good respirator."
Having the boat shed next to his place of business was handy, but in order to maintain an income, Peter had to stay focused and exercise lots of discipline. Of course, when building a boat, discipline is needed on several levels. There's the matter of getting oneself to the worksite to put tool to wood, and then there's avoiding distraction as one works. For Peter, getting to the shed wasn't a problem. Only a hundred feet away from his custom sign shop, it sucked him in like a whirlpool. Luckily, he had a patient and supportive business partner who let him live his dream.
Dealing with the gallery of onlookers that such a project attracts was another story. With two other businesses on the property, there was no shortage of passersby. An on-site neighbor, Steve Corrigan, soon lost count of how many people stopped to find out the purpose of the shed. Peter had painted Alsek's silhouette on the shed's side, so, when curious visitors asked, Steve would show them the picture of what eventually would come rolling out. But nobody believed him. "If there was this much interest about the boathouse, I couldn't wait until he started the boat," says Steve.
On Aug. 18, 2003, Peter laid frame rails for Alsek. Knowing the tricks of the trade served him well. He had years of experience in building and managing all sorts of construction projects: houses, his 150-seat brew pub, furniture, other commercial endeavors, and, of course, signs.
In late 2004, Peter first contacted me to say he was working on building a boat and that the hull was almost done. OK, I thought, if I'm alive when you're finished, I'll be willing to hear more. I had listened to others tell similar stories that had gone nowhere. What I hadn't understood was that Peter had zeroed in on this project like an eagle on a salmon.
"I was just so stoked to be building this boat...and would wake up every morning around 3 or 4 a.m. and think about what I needed to do that day," he says.
Twenty-two hundred hours later-24 months of work with a little time off here and there-he accomplished his goal. And I'm still alive to write about it.
SAVING TIME AND MONEY...OR NOT
Although Peter compared prices and watched expenses, his first priority was to use quality products. He wanted to finish with a boat that would last. He didn't want to do this again.
He found that the way to save on plywood was to figure the full amount he would need and to get a quote on the entire order. He used top-grade (BS 1088) Okoumé that cost about $100 for a 3/4-inch sheet. It's lighter weight plywood, weighing about 60 lb. per sheet, compared with 75/80 lb. per sheet for some other types. He began with a 1/2-inch skin on the entire hull, then a layer of 1/4 inch laminated to the bottom, and then another 3/16 inch for good measure. That brings the bottom to almost an inch thick.
Peter lives 90 miles from the coast, where suppliers are more likely to be, so he did most of his ordering by phone or Internet. Halfway through his project, he realized he had missed a money-saving opportunity. While at a boatbuilders show, he stopped by a marine store booth. When they found out what he was doing, they set him up with a builder's account. It saved him a substantial amount.
The most tedious job was sanding. With no real way to shorten labor time, Peter spent 600 hours grinding away. Figured on a 40-hour workweek, that's almost four months. Just another example of why it takes grit to make grit. (He used a Porter-Cable sander and vacuum; cost, $400.)
Peter already had extensive fabricating talents, and his years on fishing boats had given him systems knowledge. He was very familiar with CAD software. Plus, he had a CNC router that could help him cut anything that he was capable of drawing. He laid out the cabin window openings and "when I went to Diamond/Sea-Glaze for custom windows, I was able to just email them the CAD files," he says. All cabin doors have curved tops and bottoms, generally done with the router. Peter cut and carved the hull number plates into solid bronze, made bronze vent covers, and cut the instrument panel.
By now he was thinking with a builder's mind. So when it came time to buy his diesel engine and drive package, he went directly to a distributor, bypassing the dealer. Although this saved him money, he found a downside. Dealers provide a certain amount of service and problem-solving help. Peter was more on his own than he would have liked. "I would say to first-time builders to at least consider a good dealer's value for information on how to choose and install the engine."
Finished with the hull and basic cabin structure, Peter kept up the quality workmanship as he moved on to the boat's interior, an area that is sometimes neglected by first-time builders (especially financially strapped ones). The raised pilothouse has a spacious feel, with 6 feet 3 inches of headroom. Because the boat is small, Peter went with a generally light appearance. He didn't want entering the V-berth to feel like stepping into a cave, so he painted it and the head white. He used wood trim in the full head with shower, and ash overhead in the Vberth. The cabin sole is teak and holly, and all lower cabinets are painted white. He had experience using Honduran mahogany in his sign business, and he loved working with it. "It's not only beautiful, but durable and easy to work," he says. For the most part, he used that in the cabin.
Peter is proud of his V-berth's curved finish board, into which he carved the designer's name and the model name, Surf Scoter. "I enjoy the thought of an owner far into the future, after my lifetime, seeing that," he says.
CHANGES AND CHARGES
Peter is highly pleased with most everything about Alsek. "I would have a hard time calling her a floating home, but, as ex-tent campers, she seems pretty plush to us," he says.
The only change he would make would be to eliminate the second steering station on the aft deck. It turned out to be a poor spot from which to maneuver this particular boat. "On top of that, it complicated steering and engine controls, and added about $5,000 in costs," he says.
Peter's skills generally made everything flow smoothly, but he had one discouraging morning when he went to check on his freshly epoxied decks. (Yes, finally, a problem!) On the previous day, which had been hot and humid, he had applied a second coat, and now it was looking bad. "The first coat had gone off, and it formed a blush that prevented the next coat from adhering," he says. Fixing the problem would mean stripping it all off and starting over. Peter decided the best way to handle it was to take the boat out of the shed "to celebrate how far I had come, and deal with the problem later." Encouragement from family and friends and a few beers helped ease any pain Peter was feeling. (I knew the microbrews would rear their foamy heads.) He had come a long way. The next day he got back to work and removed the bad stuff, and within a week the unpleasant memory had faded like brightwork on a rail.
If Peter had to pick one item aboard Alsek in which he takes the greatest pride, it would be his Dutch door, a mistake gone right. The door he had originally planned was to have a sliding window to allow airflow throughout the cabin, but he neglected to order it as a slider. Since all of his windows were custom built, they were not returnable. To rectify the error, he took solid mahogany and made it into a two-piece, flat paneled door that easily lets in the sea breeze. He loves it!
Cost was the only thing that frightened Peter when he began building his boat. "It seemed as though estimates sometimes grew daily," he says. Although he had saved in advance, it was nowhere near enough. "Eventually, the need to find money for the next big purchase became as much work as building," he admits. But he was determined to have a paid-for boat on completion. No mortgage.
Now he's pleased to say how much he has invested in Alsek: $70,000 total, including his new double-axle trailer and all electronics. Even though it's twice what he thought he could build her for, Alsek surveyed out at $140,000. That keeps a smile on Peter's face.
FAMILY AND OTHER HELPERS
Peter took 98 percent of this task on by himself. When he needed extra hands, Mary or a close friend or two pitched in. Mary also helped him cold-mold the hull and install the engine. She takes extensive interest in this boat and how it works, and she loves life afloat.
Peter says, "I noticed a funny thing about this project and the perception of wives-about them, not from them." It seems one of the first questions out of the mouths of visitors, whether man or woman, single or married, was, "What does your wife think about this?" Peter was happy to relieve their minds. Mary was behind him all the way!
Peter was able to get the kids out on the water as preteens, when he had access to a friend's 34-foot Wellcraft. But later he experienced the same thing many parents do. By the time he finished Alsek, the "kids" were young adults, and they had moved on to other interests. The Poanessas had expected that, though, which explains the layout they chose for the vessel. "The boat was really designed to be an economical cruiser for two, and it works great as such," Peter says.
Besides his faithful dog, Kira, who spent hours, days, and months patiently hanging around the boat shed, Peter had two other dyed-in-the-wool "helpers." In the nearby house where the Corrigan family lives, Steve's two boys (aged 3 and 5 at the project's start) were in awe of this wondrous venture. Peter could depend on Brenden and Sean appearing every single day to check his progress. Each time, without fail, they would ask when the boat would be finished and if they could do anything to help. Peter would always tell them that the project would take years, but still, the same questions came.
"I would always try to take a little time and chat and once in a while invite them in for a look," Peter says. He always wished he could find something for the boys to do, but truth is, a boatbuilding site is not a safe location for two barefoot youngsters. He made a rule that they always had to ask permission before entering the shed, a way of keeping them out of metal shavings and such.
One day Peter was working inside the hull, trying to wedge himself into a 4-foot-deep, funnel-shaped area in the bow's peak to apply a coat of epoxy. Along came Brenden and Sean. Peter wondered if his pintsized friends could handle the job, and, sure enough, they squeezed in with no problem and helped out. When the boys get their much-anticipated ride on Alsek, it's not likely to be one they'll forget.
PRIDE IN COMPLETION
No one who knows Peter well was surprised by his determination to finish the boat. "That's just Peter," they all agreed.
Steve Corrigan witnessed that resolve. "He has a wealth of knowledge in many areas...if he doesn't know how to do something and he wants or needs to, he works harder to figure it out."
But that doesn't mean there was no time for fun during the project. Steve remembers one spring day when he found his boys playing on the almost-finished boat. "They told me I had to take them to the store so they could get good pirate clothes, because Peter was going to let them pretend to sail the seas looking for treasure." Steve's only regret is that his boys weren't a bit older while Alsek was being built, so they fully could appreciate what was taking place before their eyes.
Peter's attention to detail and form made this building adventure an aesthetic event. And Steve believes little pleased Peter more than that spring day in 2006 when it was time for the unveiling. "His pride showed like I had never seen before," says Steve. Summer of 2006 had Peter and Alsek on Narragansett Bay, on the north side of Rhode Island Sound, testing equipment and getting to know his new boat.
Since I had been following his progress, Peter had let me know when he had finished building his boat, in the early autumn of 2005. I told him "completed" is a word I rarely hear when it comes to boatbuilding projects. (My husband says that's the word that comes right before "remodel.") Peter later admitted he might have been a bit premature in pronouncing the boat finished, as he's found many tasks to tend to on board.
Still, he says building this boat is the most rewarding thing he's ever done, and he regards it as a work of art, from beginning to completion. He put thought into how each detail would look, even when installing the engine and fuel system.
Peter has big plans for the summer of 2008. He intends to close his business for four months, which will give him time to trailer Alsek west and make his dream cruise to Southeast Alaska. With that Poanessa pluck, I have no doubt he will truly savor the much-deserved rewards of his completed dream.