Boat Building in Skopelos

by Tom Dempsey



It occurred to me that perhaps one way to own a boat would be to build one. I remembered Glen-L Marine from my youth when a friend and I sent for info about the "Squirt" when we were 10 years old. Getting the information was as far as we got. This past December I searched the web and found Glen-L's web site and read carefully the descriptions of various boats in their Online catalog. I settled on the RowMe 12 footer in part because the text stated that it could be built be anyone with a sabre saw. A sabre saw I have.

My idea was to purchase only the plans and to develop a network of suppliers here in Greece for all the things necessary for construction. My reason for buying only the plans from Glen-L was that I thought that shipping and duties would make buying Glen-L products too expensive. The plans arrived in early January and I read the instructions carefully. All of the terms were new to me; I didn't know a chine from a sheer, or a breast hook from a butt joint. Stitch and Glue was a technique I read about for the first time on the web site.

The first order of business was to order the plywood. The RowMe takes 2 sheets each of 1/4 and 3/8. The plans suggest Marine quality Douglas Fir. In my first venture to the local lumberyard I learned that ALL of his plywood was marine grade but Douglas fir wasn't something the dealer had ever heard of, and all measurements would be metric. Since I couldn't tell by looking at the wood if it was Marine Grade or not, nor did I have any idea for metric conversions, there would be no purchase that day. I needed help.

The next morning I went to the Web and searched marine plywood. Within the discussion on plywood from boatbuilding. com was info about, among a lot of other things, appropriate alternatives to Douglas Fir. A name of wood that came up was Okoume (never heard of it) and a brand name of Shelman. I kept this info in the back of my head while I tried to find , online, the metric equivalents for 1/4 and 3/8. There are lots of metric equivalents pages available on line including at Glen-L but the numbers they give are too precise, 1/4 inch is 6.4 mm. The plywood comes in sheets of even numbers 4 mm, 6 mm, 8 mm and so on. I needed to find a plywood supplier who read English but who dealt with international clients. It also occurred to me that perhaps Glen-L might have that info. Eventually through I learned that I needed 6mm and 10mm sheets, the metric measurement is rounded to the closest whole number. (Inch to millimeter conversion)

But where was I to find the correct type of wood? There are many good carpenters here on the island so I asked one of the best what he would recommend. He recommended Okoume and recommended a brand called Shelman. I went back to the Web and discovered that Shelman was a Greek Company. My carpenter friend told me the name of his supplier and we could order the wood through him, and the wood would be literally shipped on the weekly freighter. Another problem solved. From the Shelman stamp on the wood I learned that the first lumberman I talked to was indeed trying to sell me Shelman brand okoume.

All progressed as normally as anything can here. I drew the plans and cut out the parts and sanded them. My next problem was what epoxy to get and where to get it. It was back to the Web and boat for some names and suggestions. West System had a particularly helpful web site with an email link to their dealer in Greece. I could gather technical info from the Web and I could have the supplies in a couple of days. The dealer in Greece, Delos Company, was very good in helping me determine how much epoxy I would need. West System, in the meantime, sent me by mail their technical manual and product catalog so that I could ask the Greek supplier for specific products when I communicated with him in Greek. The problems of miscommunication, which happen fairly often here, especially over the telephone, were practically eliminated due to West System's practice of backing up their suppliers and customers with the same relevant information. (The lack of such practices by other manufacturers will be sorely missed in a later chapter!)

I had problems cutting the breast hook properly with the sabre saw. The next time I build a boat I will take multiple angled pieces like the breasthook to a carpenter to have them cut correctly. I also had problems sanding the inside joints by hand or with a disk sander, especially up under the breasthook and under the transom knees. How do people do it? Anyway, I was soon ready to fiberglass the seams. I ordered again from West System via Delos Company. I used the product catalog that they had sent and ordered 3" and 6" tape. The 6" was out of stock so Delos cut the equivalent from fiberglass cloth. They sent me enough cloth to reinforce all the seams and to cover 99% of the outside of the hull.

Sanding and finishing bummer.

My experiences with West System and their dealer Delos Company had been so positive that for finishing I chose to use another product that Delos carried, Hempel Yacht paint. I went online to Chesapeake Light Craft for great technical notes on sanding and preparing the surface for painting. CLC had suggested that most people use the 1 part polyurethane on boats. I went to the Hempel web site to try to learn what Hempel produced and found only general information, which wasn't very helpful. Delos sent me some information about Hempel which was essentially only a color chart. I didn't know or couldn't tell which Hempel products were polyurethane or something else. I set a limit on how much I wanted to pay to paint a 12 foot rowboat for between $150-$175. That seemed like more than enough money (to me) to do the job properly.

I was sent 2.25 liters of yacht enamel which is a basic alkyd enamel and 5 liters of something the dealer called "simple primer" but was labeled "Yacht Primer- bottom primer" for use only below the waterline on wood as a primer for anti fouling paint.

The dealer told me since he didn't have the "simple primer" on the shelf when the order was packed he sent the bottom primer and that in his opinion bottom primer was a good all around primer above the waterline too. The primer was dark gray though and the top coat was going to be bright yellow. I went ahead and applied the two recommended coats of primer on the bottom and sides but I wasn't getting a good feeling from the paint.

The Hempel web site offered a technical hotline via email so I sent them an message explaining my situation. The hotline response was that "Yacht Primer Bottom primer" was not suitable for topsides. They gave me a list of Hempel products which I should have purchased. This did nothing to alleviate my fear that I'd ruined my project so I emailed Hempel again asking them why their dealer had sent me an unsuitable product when I thought I was getting something else and since the dealer had also packed the bright yellow yacht enamel, why did they send a dark colored primer? Hempel's technical hotline responded that even though his first response was that the primer was not suitable, he thought that we should follow the advice of the local dealer and use the Bottom Primer for the entire boat.

Needless to say this answer didn't help. The technical hotline and I had a week's worth of conversations about all kinds of technical, aesthetic and marketing concerns. Hempel said that their product hides well and that two coats of enamel is enough to cover the primer yet it needed four coats. I thought that I bought enough paint to do the whole boat but there was just enough to do the bottom and the outsides. Also if I moved the boat after the paint had dried the paint would tear off. One day during these discussions the Hempel Painting Guide booklet full of relevant information arrived in the mail. from Hempel in Denmark. No where does their guide recommend bottom primer as an all over primer for enamel.

In the end the dealer called and asked why I was lying to headquarters about them and would I like them to send me something to make up for the confusion. By then I'd had it with Hempel and outside of them sending someone to sand down the bottom and sides of my boat to start over again there was nothing that I wanted from them. I also had no idea about the quality of the paint job as the combination of Hempel products was not officially recommended. This is something we shall have to wait and see.

Finally I bought a Greek alkyd enamel as practically all the locals do, and finished the boat with that. The Hempel for the bottom and sides was $167. The local paint for the insides was $20.

I still get a little worked up thinking about all the confusion surrounding Hempel. Were they a better organized company, with a more complete web site, much of the misunderstanding would have been eliminated. Had Hempel's Greek dealer been supplied with copies of their Painting Guide booklet for distribution I believe I would have been much better off.

As a note: Since my incident with Hempel, they have upgraded their site to present more relevant information for customers.

To row the boat we needed to buy some oars which proved to be a little difficult to find. The locals use oars just barely cut from rectangular solid pieces of wood. I wanted oars with rounded handles and shafts. A local supplier showed me a catalog of things nautical and the oars which I need were listed and shown. What arrived were the rectangular type and I was told simply that round shaft oars were not available here in Greece. By asking around I discovered a boatyard- marine services on the next island. First they sent detachable Zodiac oars which were too short but at last they sent the right thing, even though they look like they made them themselves. The important thing is that the oars work.

The Future

Now I've learned that one can pretty much judge a company's commitment to their customers by the quality and depth of the information on their web site. If the information is general or incomplete, I wouldn't bother with them. If the web site gives out clear and concise information on how to use the product, assuming that the customer is a first time user, then I believe that the company will back their products with other forms of technical support. When you are working in a foreign environment, good information is at a premium. In my case, had Hempel's web site carried nearly the quality of information that Glen-L or West System or Interlux or or Chesapeake Light Craft provide to the public, I would have had a much easier time finishing. When a company drives you crazy witherror-file:TidyOut.log "almost information", it is great to experience the first class treatment a good company provides. You believe that the product is better too because you can use the product with more confidence.

The "Mirabella" is in the water now. We've taken it for a number of rows to quiet beaches - hard to find in Skopelos in August. She rides well and looks sharp. We are awaiting a 5 HP motor which has been mysteriously delayed for a month. But that's another story.