Friday, March 2, 2012

Designing DELILAH

In 1942 a man named William Atkin designed a 19’ skiff for the purpose of landing on far away beaches to collect American servicemen wounded in battle. The aim was to get in, load up, get out and do it quickly.  Atkin named the design RESCUE MINOR. Plans for his design are available here.

To the best of my knowledge none of Mr. Atkin’s designs were put into service for the purpose he envisioned, but in recent years a handful of the boats have been built. Renewed interest in the design is due in no small part to the efforts of author and boatbuilder  Robb White.  A few images of what he calls his “bastardization” of Atkin’s design captured the imagination of several amateur and home builders. It takes only a quick glance to see that Robb departed significantly from Atkin’s design above the water.While the shape he created is striking, I think it’s the part the minnows see that makes these photos of the boat running at speed in very shallow water so compelling.

Credit: Jane White /
 Atkin incorporated what’s commonly called a "propeller tunnel" in this design and as a result the boat draws just a few inches in spite of a pretty large propeller. Atkin’s design is plywood construction so the tunnel takes the form of an inverted  "vee" shape in way of the propeller.

If you’re the type that reads things like the technical papers written by Donald Blount’s office about the most efficient shape for a propeller tunnel, you’ll recognize that this one’s pretty rudimentary. I think the point is that it works well and is simple to build. Take a look for yourself.  

Finally, a couple of summers ago WoodenBoat Magazine ran an article written by my friend and colleague, Dan MacNaughton,  about a young man named Timm Schlieff and the fine job he made of building a boat quite faithful  to the original RESCUE MINOR design.  You can see some of Timm’s work here

WoodenBoat Magazine Issues 212 and 215 contain beautifully written pieces by Dan on the work of the father and son design team of John and William Atkin and the RESCUE MINOR design in particular. If you  are not familiar with the simple beauty of the work these two men produced you are in for a real treat.  I think it is fair to say that Dan is a connoisseur of the work of both Atkins; a cup of tea and a tour of their work with Dan as your guide is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

In one of these articles Dan advances a notion, almost in passing, that stuck with me.  It’s an inference about the way the elder and younger Atkins men felt about fiberglass as a boatbuilding material. Dan writes “I don’t think either of them was as distressed by fiberglass the material so much as they were by the use of molds. The very idea of producing hundreds of boats, just alike, without any consideration for the individuality of their owners was anathema to both Atkins…”

I have no way of knowing whether Dan’s supposition accurately reflects the Atkin men’s thoughts on the topic, but it went a long way toward voicing my own.  It’s not about the material, it’s about the opportunity to embrace idiosyncrasies. The best designs are tailored to suit the eccentricities of the client, the distinctive characteristics of the natural environment where the boat will be used, and the techniques favored by local boatbuilders.

So it was this idea that got me sketching for this week’s blog post: Idiosyncrasy as the key ingredient. I think this must be why so many production boats fall flat. Designing a boat without it is like writing one love letter to a thousand different people. Good luck.  (though if you’re the kind of person who can pull that off, there’s an opening in our marketing department…)

So I chose my father as an imaginary client reasoning that his (and the waters of Cotuit, Massachusetts) idiosyncrasies are reasonably familiar to me. The design brief took shape pretty quickly. Simple to operate, pleasant to look at, no high speeds required, visions of the bow nudged up on the point of the island and grandchildren jumping off the stern. There should probably be room to read a newspaper, (the kind that you unfold and find it is actually made of paper) and somewhere to put a cup of coffee so it doesn’t spill. The only real requirements were a bit of shade at the helm and the ability to operate and moor the boat in very shallow water.  And I bet he’d like the color scheme of our old skiff: "Fighting Lady Yellow" topsides, "Aristo Blue" bootstripe and white bottom.

The RESCUE MINOR design was there in the back of my head. It had been there for some time knocking up against a particular comment William Atkin wrote encouraging would be builders to resist the temptation to change anything in order to make the boat pretty. I think I know what he meant, and for the most part I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment. It’s not that designers have a monopoly on knowing what it takes to make a boat look good, it’s just that more often than not tinkering by the builder does as much harm as good.  With apologies to Mr. Atkin, and collecting injured soldiers notwithstanding, when I look at Robb White’s “bastardization”  the aesthetic improvements are plain as day and…well I guess I’m still looking for the changes that aren’t improvements.

Anyway, I resolved to take a stab at another design based on the RESCUE MINOR. I think both generations of Atkins men would approve of the notion that a design should reflect both place and people. If you take a look at these next images you’ll see Sampson’s Island Sancutary separating Cotuit Bay from Nantucket Sound.  So let’s call the design DELILAH.

I want this new boat to fit where, how, by whom it will be used. I can imagine a lingering frown and perhaps something mumbled from elder to younger Atkins about whether the level of spit and polish of our new design is really necessary. To that I guess I’d say necessary or not, the whole town carries a level of spit and polish it didn’t seem to have when I was a kid. It’s possible to cling to the past too firmly it seems, and get passed by and forgotten altogether for your efforts. I think the Atkins men would agree that yacht design is no different.

I have an idea that our new design would do quite nicely running East in the Seapuit river and touring the loop around Grand Island. From West Bay and Eel River, past Crosby’s and under the bridge into North Bay, out through the narrows and past Tims Cove into Cotuit Bay. Thanks to Mr. Atkin’s recessed propeller you need not concern yourself with the shoals near Codman’s Point or the West entrance to the Seapuit river, though I’m sure the parents of those kids swimming off the point of Sampson’s Island would appreciate it if you’d keep to the channel as you head around the corner.  Even at low tide on the full moon you can cut right across the sandbar that pokes out to the Southeast between Loop and Oregon beaches, pick up the mooring in water so thin the local sailing skiffs have to first raise the centerboard and then remove the rudder too.   

With respect to the underbody I’m with Mr. White; it’s simple and it works so let’s leave it alone. It’s not the prettiest shape you’ll ever see out of the water but the minnows don’t seem much to mind. How can you argue with a fuel consumption of 28 nautical miles to the gallon and a speed of 20 knots?  Anyway it’s really only the tunnel where it meets the transom that looks odd and I’ve hidden that beneath the grandkids’ swim platform.

If you were to search for RESCUE MINOR online you’ll find a bit of banter about Atkin’s off-center prop shaft. For my part I’m not sold on the reasoning and I don’t want to get bogged down in the debate. I don’t doubt that it works fine, I just like what the centerline installation does for the layout. As far as maneuverability astern and the impacts of prop walk are concerned I concede the point.  As to whether or not you have to pull the rudder in order to pull the propeller shaft... I guess I just don’t think any of it is very difficult or time consuming to do. Besides, keeping our imaginary client in mind I think my father would get a good chuckle at the idea of pulling the prop shaft by himself.  Certainly he doesn’t have enough boating experience to have an educated opinion about things like prop walk and maneuverability astern. I doubt he’d lose much sleep over the debate if he did.

After that, DELILAH is just  a touch larger in every respect and  I’ve left an awful lot of beam and flare forward in comparison to the original. The tumblehome is pronounced compared to Atkin’s effort, modest compared to White’s. We’ll use the Tier III emissions compliant, 20 or 30 hp Volvo principally because I like the look of that throttle lever and it plays nice with the new Raymarine equipment, so you can keep a clean center console by sending all the information that’s usually read on analogue gauges to the two small electronic displays.  I’ll probably tuck the standard engine start panel inside the console with the battery.

You might prefer to leave off the bimini. Certainly it is a distinctive look that’s not for everybody. While I don’t recall thinking of it while I was drawing, clearly the bimini on the French &Webb built Stephens-Waring designed ZOGO was a subliminal inspiration.

At any rate, leave it off if you like. For my part I quite like the way it looks and If Jeff Kent and the crew at composite solutions can pull it off without breaking the bank or adding too much weight, I’m going to keep it.  I bet I’ll keep my Dad’s dermatologist and grandkids happy at the same time. 
-Brendan Riordan

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At March 2, 2012 at 11:48 PM , Blogger DT said...

Sampson's Island (Pirate's Cove is what we used to call the shallow inlet east of the inside beach) is very familiar from my youth, too. I built and sailed Cotuit Skiffs and was boat boy for a family with a Wianno Senior just by that sand spit on the west end of the Seapuit. Did you know that the original 1920s layout for Oyster Harbors envisioned a polo field on Sampson's and a bridge across to it right at that sand spit? The Depression scotched that idea and I'm glad of it. We probably wouldn't have been able to spend all night out there, drinking beer, roasting hot dogs and steaming oysters and clams after skinny dipping.

At March 3, 2012 at 12:12 PM , Blogger Josh Hodges said...

A beautiful boat and a beautifully written post.

At March 6, 2012 at 11:20 AM , Blogger Rockport Marine said...

Thanks for the note DT. I had never heard that story about the polo field. I doubt the extra fertilizer on the island would have helped the nesting terns of the oyster beds though! My family had a Cotuit Skiff badly in need of repair when I was a kid. It spent several years languishing under the deck until I fixed it up under the supervision of a handful of wonderful and generous men. The whole community was very supportive and I wouldn't be exaggerating to say Mike Coppe and his father Mickey, and Larry Odence set me off on the path that landed me here at Rockport Marine. And I like to tell people that by the time you learn to sail a Cotuit skiff down wind on an August afternoon, you can handle just about anything else with a sail.

At March 12, 2012 at 9:34 PM , Blogger Michael Reardon said...

Great piece Brendan, lots of good ideas floating round there. I'm very familiar with those waters, born and raise, and that design will suit it to a tee. Looks like the wake is miniscule, which is perfect for all those no wake zones.

At March 8, 2013 at 1:37 PM , Blogger John Martin said...

Just my style this one. I always loved the look of Zogo but far too large a boat for me or my wallet. I am sure this cold be built sans power for under $10K by a competent carpenter. I wonder how tender side to side she would be? My wife would not feel comfortable in a boat with such limited freeboard unfortunately. She'd feel far too exposed but this would be a wonderfully trailerable boat to explore the coast of the Carolinas along the intracoastal. I'd engineer a way to fold the bimini forward and lock down for trailering. Well done.


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Rockport Marine is a group of talented craftspeople who design, build and restore wooden yachts with unparalleled expertise.