Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Picaroon, by Sam Rabl

Just reminiscing today.
Doryman's first fixed keel boat Scud was for up sale at the first
Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. It was a hardy looking little boat with a simple cabin and it was love at first sight. Doryman had been teaching himself sailing for a couple years, so knew next to nothing about sailing, boat design, or how to buy a boat. Ignorance is bliss, as they say! It was a happy marriage. Scud was a Picaroon and fortunately, for our intrepid sailor, was practically indestructible. The first night aboard, just about a mile south of Port Townsend, an odd scrapping noise woke our hero who jumped up to find he could see the rocks of the sea bottom in the faint light of the moon. Navigating by dining table place mats made from old charts, disaster was narrowly avoided (not the last time!) Oh, the folly of youth!

It's time to acknowledge the genius of Sam Rabl. Here is what the man himself has to say about his Picaroon (scroll through the alphabetical index on the last link; there's a lot of good stuff there):

"Picaroon is that same little boat that Brice Johnson built for me in Cambridge over thirty years ago, the same boat in which Hank Hemingway had his great adventure in the Gulf of Mexico, sailing from Mobile to Neuvitas in Cuba. The same tabloid cruiser of which Westy Farmer wrote: “A delight to the eyes of every sailorman,” and to which the late Charles Hall attached the title of the “Perennial Picaroon”. She is the same little ship that was destined to become world-famous and to have been built on every continent of this globe."

"Modern methods of construction have afforded some improvement in her construction but have detracted not a whit from her seaworthy lines. Plywood has produced a better hull, there is no reason why she cannot still be built with main frames of 11/8” x 3¼”, and intermediates of 11/8” x 2¼” on 12” centers. The chine, sheer and bottom stringers would be 11/8” x 2¾” and the planking of 1” dressed material which will measure 13/16”. For this reason the lines are drawn to the outside of the planking. All pieces of the backbone are detailed so that no lay down is necessary. The keel, stem and all parts are assembled and set right-side-up on a keel horse. The frames are erected and braced and the stringers run in. By this time the reader has become familiar with the methods used in constructing other boats in this book so a detailed step-by-step instruction would be senseless. The frames are a combination of oak and plywood and form bulkheads and partial bulkheads as they are assembled in the boat. Properly fabricated, it is possible to assemble them in such a manner as to eliminate over 75 % of the interior work. Even the motor beds are detailed for pre-fabrication so that they may be assembled along with the frames. If you have a little knowledge of lofting it is also possible to pick up from the body plan the shape of such flat surfaces as the berth tops and cockpit flooring and fit these items before the planking is applied. Make extensive use of Elmer’s Glue and patent nails in all the assemblies. The motor fitted is a Universal Blue Jacket Twin. This motor develops 12 H.P. at full speed and is thoroughly reliable. While it has more power than is needed it will not be overstrained to maintain cruising speed. It also has electric starting which is a must in most single-handed work. Electric starting gives the added advantage of power for lighting and an automatic bilge pump. The cabin arrangement is primitive. The head is an ordinary galvanized pail with a homemade Johnnie seat to cover it and make its use more comfortable. The galley is self-contained and built around a G.I. Coleman stove and which may be stowed anywhere that loading conditions may permit. Inflatable beach mattresses will work well on the berths, and for clothes stowage there is nothing better than the traditional sea bag which still exists in our atomic Navy much in the same form that it did on Old Ironsides. The sailing rig is much the same as I used with complete success on my last little auxiliary, the Meg. The loose-footed sail permits brailing against the mast without lowering, keeps clean in this way, and removes the temptation to soil it with hands slimy from fish or bait if it were stowed on the boom. One thing that I would personally carry would be a combination sail with slides on one edge and jib snaps on the other, and which would serve the double purpose of either storm jib or storm trysail as occasion would demand. Both the mast and boom are hollow spars built up from lumber and plywood and should present no difficulties. The outside ballast may be a weldment or a casting, either of which will cost about the same unless you have a friend who is familiar with acetylene cutting and arc welding. The original Pic carried all of her ballast inside and this boat will do the same if you wish to eliminate the weighted keel. Still another alternative is to cast the keel in concrete, filling in as much lead or iron scrap as the aggregate will permit. In this case it will be well to cap the entire keel bottom with two pieces of 1” x 3” flat iron bar and weld the lower ends of the keel bolts to this as well as tack-welding the two bars together. This iron alone will weigh about 40 pounds per running foot and will be down where it will do the most good. A good coating of Rustoleum paint on all of the iron work will eliminate a lot of corrosion."

Old fashioned construction with old fashioned virtues! Sam had it right. The Picaroon would not win a race, except against another Picaroon, but a stronger, more resilient boat would be hard to find. Doryman's Scud had a simple cutter rig that was easy to tend and forgiving of the grossest error.

Hats off to Sam! May his designs live forever and inspire many more generations.


tedpainter said...

I don't know how long ago this was posted so maybe nobody is paying any attention but I thought to add a comment.
I had a Picaroon that was built here on the Great Lakes sometime back in the late 1920's or early 30's. It was hard chine and cross carvel planked. Had a Kermath single cylinder engine in it. I sailed it a couple of years and made a lot of "new wood" repairs. Finally decided to completely replace the bottom planking and removed it all only to find that in order to do the job correctly I'd have to pretty much replace everything from the gunnel down. Rot everywhere. I wound up cutting the boat up and burning it. Sorry day! That was my favorite boat. I still have all the hardware. I'd love to have another, but being retired now can't afford to keep a boat in the water, even if I could afford to build it. Now I sail a Swampscott Dory.

doryman said...

Hello, Ted!
I wonder occasionally, myself, if people look at these older posts. I wander back through them myself sometimes.
I would love to see a planked Picaroon. Mine was plywood, but this design as a planked boat would be solid. Rot around the cabin was my problem, and is how I came to build and restore boats in the first place.
You don't say how long ago you salvaged your boat, but it sounds like you have had the hardware as a keepsake for quite some time.
Now, the Swampscott! You have my attention there... is there any chance you could send me some photos of her? We could put up a post of your own:


Anonymous said...

I built a strip plank Titmouse which was a flat bottom 15' centerboard with curved sides, and also designed by Sam Rabl. She was very pretty, but really didn't sail all that well. Mr. Rabl had the original Picaroon, and he fell in serious love with that boat. This is a good place for a design consideration to begin. I think he re-designed the Pic so many times in so many sizes and configurations becaues he believed the basic design was so good he couldn't hurt it. A friend built a strip plank picaroon in San Diego, which has been in constant use for 23 years. He made some modifications to the rig and keel which rather detracted from the design. The hard chine Picaroon Fair Dinkum is now in San Diego, and she is a very pretty boat. My thought is that the hard chine version has much more pleasing lines than the round bottom strip plank version. I'm sure she sails better too. Fair Dinkum is so pretty, I'm going to build one myself!

doryman said...

Sam designed some timeless boats. I love his Uncle Gabe Skiff.
At the time I thought my Picaroon was a perfect boat and for a beginner, I could have done much worse.
But in retrospect, she was a bit slow.
Beamy and solid, she stood up to a lot of stupid mistakes, which was probably Sam's intention from the start.

Guitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
guitz said...

I had a Mahogany strip plank Picaroon here in Melbourne Australia back in the early 90's. Was a great little yacht that could survive a nasty blow in choppy Port Phillip and survive a trip into Mordialloc Creek surfing the breakers alongside the pier!.....not by choice

doryman said...

My point, exactly. The Picaroon could survive anything. That's how some designs become timeless.

Unknown said...

My father, Dean T Stephens, built a Sam Rabl Picaroon in Alameda, California, when I was a child (1955). He named that lovely little boat, "Fair Dinkum." She was the first boat he had ever built, but she certainly wasn't his last. He became a shipwright--building many traditional wooden boats up and down the California coast, and teaching wooden boat building to a younger generation until he was forced to retire for health reasons in his early 80s. He passed away in May 2010 in Ventura, California.

We sailed the Fair Dinkum extensively in the San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River. My father modified the cabin, making it possible when not sailing for my mom, two sisters and I to sleep below by secreting away specially sized boards to fit to the two settee/bunks on either side of the cabin, thereby making one large bunk from port to starboard. With the addition of the extra foam/cloth 'mattress' strategically placed, my mom, two sisters and I could sleep comfortably down below on our 'big' bunk. Luckily with the design such as it was of this wide little boat, it was easy for my older brother and dad to sleep on deck.

I can't begin to tell you how much fun we had on the Fair Dinkum. Even though I was about 8 when my dad built her, by the time I was 10 I had become quite the little sailor because of that wonderful boat. My dad built a small dingy, which we towed behind the boat (we named the dingy "Dinky Di") and my dad fitted it with a removable mast, a sail and small tiller. I sailed the Dinky Di all over the Alameda harbor for a couple of years.

We were sad when my dad decided to sell the Fair Dinkum and build a 33 foot ketch from the design plans of William Atkins (a Jonquil). That project took 2-1/2 years to build in our backyard and we launched the "Charity" in 1962. Soon after launching, we got rid of almost everything we owned and all six of us moved aboard. But that's another story. One of my three sons has been talking about building a boat and I couldn't help but suggest he build a Picaroon. Such wonderful and safe adventures we experienced on the Fair Dinkum. I often wonder if she still exists somewhere. Valerie Stephens-Brown

doryman said...

Hello, Valerie.
What a great story. I suppose you noticed another note above (from 2011) in which we heard Fair Dinkum was in San Diego and apparently still quite the looker. I know of only one Picaroon, on a lake in the central Willamette Valley, in Oregon. If you're curious, copy and paste this link into your browser:
Fair winds!


Unknown said...

Hello to Valerie!

Fair Dinkum is alive and very well! I have owned her since 1977 when purchased from the broker Jay Oppenheimer at Pete’s Harbor in Redwood City, CA... in these many years, Fair Dinkum has travelled to San Diego (her port of call for nearly 40 years), and now, berthed in Toledo, Oregon. I recently finished her second restoration since owning this fine little boat(!), and now appears in the annual Toledo Wooden Boat Shows, held every August.

If there is a chance that Valerie still reads these posts/blogspot, I would love to give her much more detail (and pictures) about the boat her dad built. I was very fortunate to visit with Dean Stephens several years ago when he lived in Fort Bragg. It was a very special time with the builder. It would be a pleasure to correspond and/or talk with Valerie about the boat that lives forever in many hearts. And, Michael, it is true... “the Picaroon can survive... “!

Keith Korporaal

doryman said...

Simply amazing, Keith. I was mentoring the Family Boat Build again this year, in the old boathouse, all weekend, which always keeps me at a distance from the rest of the Toledo Boat Show. I saw your Picaroon from across the way (brought a big grin to my face) but never got out of the shop to look at the boats. Perhaps we can get together on my next trip to Toledo?

Unknown said...

Hello Keith,

I would love to hear back from you about the Fair Dinkum! I'm so thrilled that she is still 'alive,' loved and well taken care of. I will be seeing my Mom in the next few days and I'll try to borrow the photo album of the building and sailing of my favorite boat in the world. I'm so happy you had a chance to meet my Dad--and unique and fascinating man.

My husband and I have traveled to Oregon on occasion, but our oldest son who lived there has now moved down here. He wants to return to Oregon, so we'll see what the future holds!

Here is my email address: Hope to hear from you. With sincerest regards, Valerie Stephens-Brown

Unknown said...

Hi Michael!

Great to hear from you... and what a small world that you were at the Toledo Wooden Boat show, so near! And yes, let’s get together on your next trip to Toledo. Fair Dinkum is snugly tucked into her slip, ready for winter. I am hoping that this is a much more milder winter and get her out for a few sailings... have too, as I just had a new sail made!

Thanks for ha Ingwers this forum, Michael. I look forward to meeting up with you.

P.S. Is there a way I can send a picture or two of her?

doryman said...

Our overlap is slightly out of time. I lived in South Beach for 15 years and kept boats at the Port of Toledo marina for longer than that. I was actually one of the original organizers of the Boat Show there and had a lot to do with upgrading the docks from a rather decrepit condition. You would find many stories here about the Yaquina watershed, a place still very dear to me, though I moved to Port Townsend a couple years ago. There are no places here in PT as protected from the winter weather, nor as affordable, as Toledo.
As I no longer own a home in Oregon, my trips to the old haunts will be limited, in future. But I plan to participate in the August boat show as long as my health allows (which hopefully will be a long time yet...). If you are ever in Port Townsend, please give me a shout. Love to see some photos of Fair Dinkum: mbogoger(at) gmail

Unknown said...

Dear Keith and Val,
Here it is January 2019 and I have just discovered this site. Wow! I owned Fair Dinkum from 1973 to about 1975. She was my first boat (sort of like first love) and taught me a lot about the joy of sailing. What a wonderful little pocket cruiser. I especially enjoyed the fact that she had been 'published' in the 1958 edition of Rabl's book, with a picture of her with her little squaresail and a copy of Dean's letter on the dust jacket, IIRC. I saw her several years ago in San Diego. I am delighted to learn that she is still alive and well and living in Oregon. I will try to track down Keith and visit her the next time we are driving up the coast.
Best Regards
Mike Bennett
mbennett (at)

Unknown said...

Hello Michael Bennett,
It was such a pleasant surprise to hear from another prior owner of the Fair Dinkum. Oh, how I have missed that boat all these many years. I also loved her so! In 1958 I was just 11 years old and had become a pretty sharp sailor girl by then, thanks to Fair Dinkum. My dad, Dean Stephens, build a small dingy which we named Dinky Di. We would tow the Dinky Di behind Fair Dinkum as we made our way down the Oakland/Alameda Estuary on our way to San Francisco Bay and many times up the Sacramento River. My dad turned the Dinky Di into a little sailboat and I could be found sailing around the Alameda harbor on many a weekend. Needless to say I was brokenhearted when my dad sold the Fair Dinkum (we saved the Dinky Di to use on the next boat my dad built, the Charity). He used the money from the sale to begin building the Charity in our backyard. It took 2-1/2 years for that project. My dad told me years later that he had seen the Fair Dinkum in San Diego and was admittedly surprised, but thrilled she was still afloat! He would feel the same thrill if he knew of her continued existence. He passed away at the age of 87 in 2010. In the next few months I will have time to look for the picture album of the building of the Fair Dinkum. My elderly Mom doesn't seem to remember if she has it or my brother (who is now deceased) had possession of that album. My dad built her in my aunt's backyard in Alameda, California. Thanks for your message and sharing your fond memories of the undeniably unique Fair Diinkum!
Valerie Stephens Brown

Deb said...

My Dad taught me to sail on a Picaroon when I was 12. I am 60 now. I would give anything to go back to those times with my Dad on our little boat! Dad left us in 2004. Just last week I was going through his old books on the shelf and there was a book about Picaroon. Tomorrow when I stop to check in my Mom on my way home from work I am grabbing that book for a read! My Dad teaching his daughter to sail was one of his greatest gifts to me! Sailing teachs so much more than sailing!

Deb said...

My Dad taught me to sail on a Picaroon when I was 12. I am 60 now. I would give anything to go back to those times with my Dad on our little boat! Dad left us in 2004. Just last week I was going through his old books on the shelf and there was a book about Picaroon. Tomorrow when I stop to check in my Mom on my way home from work I am grabbing that book for a read! My Dad teaching his daughter to sail was one of his greatest gifts to me! Sailing teachs so much more than sailing!

doryman said...

Hello Deb!
So good to hear from you. Your note caused me to read back through this post and the accompanying comments. Satisfied to hear from so many who have fond memories of the Picaroon. It's been many years and many boats since I sailed that simple little vessel, yet the memory always brings a smile.