But in boat building mythology, lofting is the eye of the needle through which all prospective boat builders must pass before entering boat building heaven.
Every boat building book has a chapter that insists that lofting isn't a black art, that any damn fool can do it. They then try to demystify the supposed non-mystery with language and diagrams so impenetrably complicated that the mind -- at least this mind -- boggles.
Even Wikipedia, the giant online encyclopedia that can explain Nuclear Fusion with enough detail to threaten national security, sputters out after a few confused sentences when trying to explain the ancient and humble craft of lofting. They throw in the towel saying: "Generally, boat building books have a detailed description of the lofting process, beyond the scope of this article."
Boat designers encode their designs onto paper using three standard views -- Profile, Half Plan, and Body Plan -- and a table of numbers called the Table of Offsets.
Drawing by Howard Chapelle (public domain)
This standard system of encoding the plans for a complex three-dimensional structure onto paper has evolved over many years, and is an extremely efficient way to capture the essential information needed to reproduce the boat it describes, which is why it reminds me of DNA.
Lofting is also system that has been standardized over the years. In a nutshell, it boils down to two steps:
- drawing a grid on a large surface -- traditionally the floor of the loft above the boat shop, thus the term 'lofting'
- plotting the coordinates contained in the Table of Offsets on the grid, and connecting them with smooth curves
This task isn't really complicated, it's just persnickety and time consuming.
Having spent 25 years doing the most persnickety and time consuming work ever invented -- computer programming -- I found lofting the plans for Cabin Boy to be both sublime and incredibly relaxing. Compared to debugging a C program, for instance, it was a romp in the park.
Now, I have no doubt that lofting a 55 foot schooner would be a long and arduous job, and I have no idea where I could borrow the gym-sized space I'd need. But building a 55 foot schooner is the equivalent of cloning a Tyrannosaurus rex. Building Cabin Boy is more like cloning a one-celled animal. I was pretty sure I could do it.
My first step was to prepare a lofting board. While you'd need a huge space to loft a big boat, the full-size plans for Cabin Boy are small enough to fit on one 4x8 foot sheet of plywood. Traditionally, this is laid on the floor and the builder lofts his plans on his hands and knees. Gardener's knee pads are highly recommended.
Lines of Cabin Boy
Drawing by John Atkin
Unfortunately, my only practical building space was a semi-finished room in the basement. There wasn't enough floor space for both a sheet of plywood and an 8' boat mold, so I decided to mount the plywood vertically on the wall, like a school black board.
My lofting board
Photo by John Almberg
I thought this was pretty clever for several reasons:
- there was plenty of light in that spot
- it would save my slightly creaking knees from crawling around on the floor
- gravity would be a very handy 'tool', not available to those who loft on the floor
Helena came up behind me, put her arm on my shoulder, and helped with the admiring process.
"You've started," she said. And she was right. I'd cast off the lines to the Pier of Procrastination, and was on my way.
Next I'd lay down some lines.
Next Installment: Lofting - Take 1