Thursday, 20 October 2011

Swampscott Dory

"Dories have long been recognized as fine seaboats, but their low initial stability and active response to wave action is apt to be disconcerting to the sailor unaccustomed to dories."

The late John Gardner of Mystic Seaport combined a massive understanding of the history and practicalities of small boat design and construction with an ability to write lucid and interesting prose to guide the novice through his or her first few projects.

When I got a copy of "Building Classic Small Craft" about twenty five years ago I had just completed the Joel White Nutshell, about which I have already enthused - here- and was ready for a larger project. The book was a treasure chest of interesting shapes and romantic histories, evocative of the coast of Maine in its transition from a series of traditional fishing ports to a holiday destination, conjuring up the spirit of Winslow Homer.


Here were fully detailed drawings of everything from planks to spars and sails, with simple instructions and words of encouragement. Long evenings were spent agonising over which of these evocative craft should grace the shores of Loch Melfort. 

There were a number of factors in the choice of the Swampscott dory as my next build. The shape was enticing, a lovely curve to the stem and an extreme "tombstone" stern, plus an utterly insane leg o' mutton mainsail and tiny jib set on an unstayed mast. I read that if you saw a line squall coming up you could throw the whole rig overboard in an instant and the boat would ride to it on her mainsheet like a sea anchor. That transom could never take an outboard, so rowability was a major factor.

Dories evolved in ancient history when wide flexible planks of cedar or pine were available, many presumably coming form old-growth forests long since destroyed. Plywood is of course an excellent modern alternative, stable and capable of providing a watertight glued structure.  Also there weren't too many planks to cut, unlike some of the other lovely designs in the book.

Like most amateur projects my dory was massively over-built. The hull planking came from 9mm marine ply, sourced from an ordinary builder's merchants, put together upside down over a temporary strong back set into the frames. The latter were cut off to length in due course and remained in the finished boat.

To get the sixteen foot length most of the planks had two scarfs.

I hadn't learned the delights of epoxy and glued the lands together with a polyurethane glue that went off in contact with moisture, not a problem in Argyll, but a plant spray was useful in occasional dry days. I didn't entirely trust the glue and added hundreds of copper nails as well, quite unnecessarily.

Don't paint the inside this colour - it attracts dung beetles
End of shed unbolted to get her out - it never recovered
The plank dimensions in the book were accurate and everything went together pretty well. My one gripe with these old American designs is with the profiles of centreboards and rudders. We now know that a good hydrofoil shape will make a world of difference to the performance of any vessel through the water and while there's an historical argument for keeping the traditional slab shape there's also a lot to be said for improving performance when it can easily be achieved. Here is the board, as drawn, just after I had cast in the required lead to make it sink.

In the Spring of 1988 the dory Anne, named after an understanding wife, took the water.

During the build process I had dreams of the result being an ideal boat for messing about, perhaps evening sails with a few friends, one in the bow with the case of beer passing refreshments down the line as required. Homer had after all got five boys aboard his admittedly slightly larger craft. But the dory turned out to be no picnic boat. Neither wife nor dog showed any great enthusiasm for going out in what was in reality quite a racy machine.

Dory and Nutshell
I found that I was mainly taking the dory Anne out on my own, which gave me a good sense of her qualities. One was her extreme sensitivity to weight distribution. Any movement forward would bring her sharply into the wind, so I changed the steering by removing the tiller and substituting a yoke with lines leading round the boat, enabling her to be controlled from anywhere.

The new Commander

Eventually dory Anne found a new owner, younger and fitter than I and with friends willing to experience the excitement of a hull that heals just so far, the rail exactly on the water, but that is almost impossible to push further. Under her new commander she made frequent explorations down the loch, invariably bringing her new crew home safe and well, if a little wet. I don't think the experience was unique, because when John Gardner's Volume Two came out there were drawings for wider, improved version. The quotation above comes from there.

From a construction point of view the dory lasted well. She endured many years of minimal maintenance and is still around somewhere, but I don't know where. She has been through a number of changes of ownership, generally and as far as I know has never been sold.


  1. Awesome! I'm a professional sailor as well as boat maker. My suggestion is to be prepared to deal with the building. Have a list containing what tools and materials you need and have. You might also want to keep your directions around to mark up with a marker as you work through them. This provides you with a visual motivation to keep your engine going during the most patience trying time of building your own boat. It also will help you adjust your schedule to deal with any delays.
    thanks all!! @Mark

  2. I spent many hours, back in the late 70s and early 80s, poring over Gardner's books. I was deeply in love with the Swampscott Dory, but, as I was moving frequently back then, and knew that my woodworking skills would have to come a long way during the process, I built a twelve foot Phil Bolger designed dory, the Teal, instead. Still have her, and am in the late stages of her first major refit, all these years later. Life is good.


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water