Robert Olson, a 15′ Dayboat

When I was in boat school Robert Olson was my neighbor on West Quoddy Head. He was the caretaker there, and a lobsterman, and someone I came to think of as a friend.

He never took the time to go sailing. Always too busy for that! But I would like to dedicate this design to his memory. He was, in his own way, instrumental in my formation as someone who’s been involved with small boats for all these years….

When I was there I had a 10′ Penn Yan sailing dinghy. My experiences with this boat led to Harry, Katrina, Fast Harry, and eventually Small. Sailing those frigid waters in such a little boat… we had to be young and foolish!  My most vivid memories from those long ago days are of times spent within sight of the Lubec Channel Lighthouse that now serves as the logo for this design.

That Penn Yan was crazy small. Somehow we still managed to sail with as many as four of us aboard, trailing a six-pack of Canadian beer, chilling to ice cold in our wake….

At 15 feet, and with a more freeboard and displacement, this new design should make a grand dayboat for semi-protected waters. The kind of boat suitable for the Small Reach Regatta for example. The load waterline shown is for a maximum displacement, without submerging the transom, of 990 pounds. Enough to carry those four adults without seriously overloading. Enough for two people and and their gear for a camp-cruising adventure….

This design is hand drawn. The plans specify traditional lapstrake construction. As I see it now, the only plywood and ‘glass will be in the foils. Along with the larger size these changes are significant differences from Small.

There are trade-offs when we enter “virtual” reality. It’s the kind of thing that leads quite readily to “alternate realities,” as we’re now finding out. There’s a false sense of ease. It’s easy to create a model. Easy to make patterns. Easy to build a boat without much experience. The whole thing stresses ease without getting into what we give up for its shallow promise.

Nothing can replace the immediacy of carving a half-model or drawing a design on paper. We bring all our senses to bear and the hand will solve a mystery… even before we can even put our questions into words. What’s actually there is not hidden behind the flash and glitz of animated 3-d renderings.

People want boats. They want them like they want a lot of things and the promise of business-as-usual is that what we want can be bought and that besides coming up with the cash it will be easy: easy to build, easy to use, easy to set aside when the next want pulls us away….

When I went to boat school it was out of an inchoate yearning after some kind of authenticity that was missing in the world of The Graduate, “I’ve got one word for you boy, Plastics!”

I felt a need to find a way to connect with a deep tradition of making things that mattered. To connect with the way people have made things with their hands since people started making things. Not trivial things. I didn’t want to end up pottering with a “hobby” in my “spare time….”

It was hard. It still is. It may not be possible at all to do this quest justice; but it is still the driving force behind my continual involvement with boats and boatbuilding.

I’m afraid a lot of the accommodations we’ve made over the ensuing decades, attempts to be “reasonable,” and not so extreme, purist, elitist…. These have not really done much good for anyone. Boats are still hard. Doing anything for real is still hard. It can’t be any other way. We know this if we just give it some thought.

What’s impossible though, is to attempt to dedicate oneself to what is hard while at the same time pretending that it can be made easy. That’s truly impossible. It only compounds the confusion, the incoherence of our approach, whether it be cake having and eating, or anything else we set out to tackle.

Lapstrake boatbuilding is not easy. Lofting a design from offsets and a small scale drawing is not easy. But….

I’ve recently had the great fortune to work with the staff and students of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory. I designed a small sailboat for them and then joined a class of thirteen to sixteen year old city kids as they lofted and then began to build a series of these boats. I was amazed, though not surprised, by their capacity, their ability to accomplish these difficult tasks. They did have help, teachers, but this process was new to them all. What was learned was learned together. A collaboration between eager youngsters and their young instructors. Long on understanding what their students needed as people, but short on traditional boatbuilding experience.

What they’ve been able to accomplish is amazing. Imperfect, but real.


I took from this a sense that as designers we’ve tended to coddle home boatbuilders and dumbing down the work has not done them any favors.

Woodworking is a practice. Boatbuilding is a practice. A practice is open-ended. We never totally master it. We are always working to understand more about it, to add to our skills, our capacity to value what is involved and to grow through deepening our relationship with our practice.

Short-cuts dilute and derail any practice. While we come at the whole notion of any practice, or discipline, in fear and trembling, wishing it could be made easier, we need to understand that as we grow into it we become less afraid, more capable. This leads us to appreciate and seek out the value to be found in what is hard to do.

To build a lapstrake boat like this requires some basic geometry, sharp tools, and the patience to gather the appropriate materials and learn the basic skills involved. If these kids can do it…?

Factory 1d Shelf & Stringers

A friend had this suggestion, “You really don’t need much more than that, paired with Walt Simmons book and a willingness to understand that your mistakes are the best teachers you will ever find.”

I’d like to add two other titles: John Leather’s Clinker Boatbuilding and Eric McKee’s Clenched Lap or Clinker.

*  *  *

Knowing Robert Olson provided me with a strong, personal connection with the way people did things before easy became the only value. He fished. He farmed. He fixed the neighboring properties for his rusticator-neighbors.

I remember going out with him in his peapod on a cold, Autumn night. We rowed out and entered into a weir set in Bailey’s Mistake to check if it held enough herring to call for the carry-away boat. Beneath a moonless sky studded with stars, bio-luminescence flashing all around us, he let me hold the weighted piano wire, feeling for a pulse as fish bumped it, sending an electrifying jolt through my thumb and fingers, rising from out of the sparkling darkness below….

I remember one of my proudest days when I was able, along with most of the school, to help him retrieve his lobsterboat after it had broken loose in a snowstorm. Spending a fading December afternoon up to neck deep in icy water to re-float and guide his boat by hand into a protected back channel….

I remember the spur of the moment party he gave in his kitchen as dusk fell. We celebrated the happy result, basking in the heat of his woodstove and our shared good-feeling, our gratitude…. Our gratitude: a Grace we all felt at having been able to help someone so worthy of the effort.

I hope to have this design ready in another month or so. There’ll be some fine-tuning, a few more sheets to draw, along with the offsets table. The plans will be available as a .pdf – along with this site and my Photoshop illustrations this is the extent of my willingness to bend to high tech. At least there won’t be tubes of printed drawings to send out, no postage and handling fees….

Enough for now…. I’ll have more to say when it’s done. More description and we’ll go into more detail on the reasoning behind choices made in this design compared to, say, Small or Fast Harry, or Harrier….

Until then I hope you enjoy this foretaste and, as always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Visit this design’s Project Page on Antonio Dias Designs.


  • LBP: 15′-4.5″
  • Beam: 5′-10.5″
  • Sail Area: 143 sq. ft.
  • LWL: 15′-0″
  • Draft: 0′-9″ / 3′-3″

Traditional lapstrake construction.

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Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

5 thoughts on “Robert Olson, a 15′ Dayboat

  1. I believe that your story is about my grandfather. I would love to exchange information. My sister stumbled upon this article because she just gave birth to her first son who she named Olson in his and our grandmothers (Marie) honor. This was so amazing to read.

    Liked by 1 person

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