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The Little Dipper

This tiny, capable coastal cruiser can be stowed—or sent across the pond—in a standard-size shipping container.
Dipper-Profile-#11

My ears perked up when prospective customer John Irving called me with his idea for a new design. He wanted a boat that would snugly fit into a 20-foot shipping container during the off-season in his home waters of Maine. The container could be relied upon to keep its contents warm, dry and out of the extreme elements. When the spring weather broke, out the little boat would come from her hobbit cave and into the drink for a season’s cruising.

He had the additional notion of shipping the boat to Europe, to spend several months upon its rivers and canals. The idea of lazing about upon European waters, living on fresh-baked bread, cheese and wine, sounded like heaven to me. His dream inspired me. The result is this design.

There are several sizes of shipping containers. The most common are 20 feet long or 40 feet long, both with a width of 8 feet. As interior dimensions are a bit smaller, somewhere beteeen 7 feet and 8 feet is the real defining parameter that I would need to design around.

And the more I thought about these containers, the more they made sense to me. They can be locked, which means a small boatyard of tools and supplies can be stowed inside, along with the boat itself. Used shipping containers were, at the time, unbelievably cheap; with a bit of ingenuity, designers were repurposing them for many uses. And the shipping costs for a 20-foot container were, pre-pandemic, also dirt cheap: less than $2,000 to cross the Atlantic. If the boat were fitted tightly into its little traveling garage, then the owner could afford to take her on many adventures.

Simplicity is the order of business for Dipper, with twin berths forward flanked by a Porta Potti. Remove it and a filler cushion makes a nearly queen-size bed. 

Simplicity is the order of business for Dipper, with twin berths forward flanked by a Porta Potti. Remove it and a filler cushion makes a nearly queen-size bed. 

His design specifications did not include a first mate, but I knew from long experience that I would need to design a boat large enough to handle two occupants, to help ensure the most capability possible.

I chose a pair of small, 4-stroke outboards to power the Dipper. All the canals and rivers of Europe have speed restrictions, so I erred on the side of ease of maneuvering and the redundant horsepower of a twin installation. Of course, a single, larger-horsepower outboard could be fitted, topping out at about 90 hp, for respectable semi-displacement speeds.

But the twin, low-horsepower outboards served the design for a number of reasons. The first advantage is that using two smaller outboards allowed the client to remove the outboards and stow them flat in the cockpit while the boat was in storage or in transit. Without the outboards hanging off the stern, a slightly longer boat could fit into the 20-foot container. Those smaller and much lighter outboards could also be handled without the need for lifting devices. Add the maneuverability of twin power, and the Dipper offers the captain the most control over his vessel.

With twin 10-hp outboards, the fuel burn at 6 knots would be something less than 1 gallon per hour, for an efficiency of 1 gallon of fuel burned every 7 miles of travel. At top speed, the twin 10s would offer 10 knots of speed. Twin 15s would bump that up to 12 knots.

 A flexible, open cockpit can house the engines during storage or while being shipped overseas.

 A flexible, open cockpit can house the engines during storage or while being shipped overseas.

The cockpit is open and unencumbered by seats or other appendages. The concept was to have a couple of movable folding chairs that could be placed anywhere. Flexibility is really the key, as this arrangement leaves an open space for the two outboards to be laid on their sides.

In the cabin, there is a small but well-equipped standup galley. A bulkhead propane fireplace/heater would provide additional crew comfort. With a little ingenuity, a sliding galley could be incorporated on the Dipper’s port side, sliding in and out of the pilothouse, allowing the option for alfresco cooking in the cockpit or for the crew to prepare a meal under cover in inclement weather.

With her twin 10-hp engines raised, her draft is a skinny 1 foot, 3 inches.

With her twin 10-hp engines raised, her draft is a skinny 1 foot, 3 inches.

Forward under the trunk cabin, there is space for a Porta Potti and twin berths on each side. In the evening hours, the Porta Potti could be placed in the pilothouse or cockpit. A filler could be used in the berth area, making an almost queen-size bed.

It sure seems that, in these days of confusion and isolation, building your own boat with access to waters almost anywhere is the perfect use of one’s time and energy.

Dipper Specifications

LOA: 20ft. 2in. 18ft. 8in. (w/o outboards)
Beam: 7ft. 3in.
Draft: 1ft. 7in.
Displacement: 2,545 lbs.
Engine: 2 x 10-hp outboard

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.

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