To Build a Boat

A long-dormant Cleveland club is once again making waves as its members sail the Cuyahoga on their own creations
Members of the Cleveland Area Boatbuilding and Boating Society — as the name would suggest — build boats.

But to president Ed Neal, they’re building ladders.

Boating can be an intimidating hobby — and building your own craft even more so, with steep barriers to entry. But CABBS, which is being revitalized after a strong start a half-century ago followed by a period of dormancy, is trying to demonstrate the accessibility of boating and boat building.

“It’s not hard to build a boat, but it is a process,” Neal says. “We want to show it doesn’t take many tools to build a boat.”
Why build one yourself? For most CABBS members, there’s an interest in boating and working with their own hands. But more than that, there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with being on the water in something you built yourself, Neal says.

“It’s tremendously satisfying,” he says.

CABBS has started offering a boatbuilding course each February — “probably the easiest time for people to give up five Saturdays,” Neal says – and even provides the tools, which aren’t much different from a well-stocked garage, mostly hand tools, with a power sander and a cordless drill. And clamps. Lots of clamps. “There’s a reason our club’s logo is a clamp,” Neal says. (The regular newsletter is The Clamp as well.)

The clamps hold together the various pieces after they’ve been glued. There are two main types of construction at CABBS. The basic boatbuilding course uses plywood construction, with sheets of marine-grade wood assembled into a sailing vessel. The other type, for more advanced practitioners, is strip construction. As the name indicates, you bend and stack thin strips of cedar onto each other and then varnish them.

There is one thing class participants are asked to bring. “We tell them to bring a ‘moaning chair,’ ” Neal jokes. “It’s a place to retreat to when you make a mistake.” (It’s mostly used when students break for lunch.)

The class relies heavily on a book, “Building the Six-Hour Canoe” by Richard Butz, which details the process to build a single-person craft as designed by Mike O’Brien.
“It’s called the six-hour canoe, but it takes us around 32 hours,” Neal says. “We try to teach as we go, and some of the people who take the class are inexperienced builders.”

Among the prize possessions of CABBS is a letter from O’Brien, attesting that, yes, he did build his canoe in six hours. The letter hangs framed in the CABBS workshop in The Flats district of Cleveland. The facility belongs to a local nonprofit, Phastar, but the bottom floor has been used as the group’s workspace for the past two years, in exchange for educational programming with students at Davis High School — a godsend for a group that’s trying to return to its halcyon days in the early 1970s, when it boasted more than 400 members.

CABB started in 1967, initially to import boating kits from England to make the Mirror Dinghy, a small (slightly more than 10 feet long) family-friendly sailboat that took its name from a newspaper in the United Kingdom. The boat was revolutionary for its stitch-and-glue construction, which made it relatively easy to build in the backyard.
“The group was formed to link together people who were building the kits and race against each other,” Neal says. “Before too long, the boat builders were importing whole container loads as kits and selling them throughout the country.”

Ultimately, interest in the boat waned — although Neal says he still regularly encounters people who tell him they built a Mirror Dinghy — and membership declined. Neal was a boater and woodworker who went to the Cleveland Public Library to find information when he tried to build an outrigger for a canoe he used on a trip to Canada. “I sort of fell down a boatbuilding hole,” he says, and joined the club in 2003. Three years ago, he took over as president, and, since then, he’s tried to regenerate interest in boat building. 

Dave Antolovich joined the group about a year ago, as he’s restoring a Mirror Dinghy. Antolovich, a self-described “cubicle dweller” whose name tag at the boatbuilding workshop puckishly reads, “Hello, my name is trouble,” says he’s been amazed at how easy the process is. “Anyone can do it with a little forethought and a little advice along the way,” he says. 

And CABBS’ mission is to provide that advice. The first boatbuilding class was held in 2017 on Cleveland’s east side, but they’ve moved into their current home in The Flats for each of the previous two workshops. After the course, the group annually gathers in May for their “Hot Dog Day,” a cookout that gives them the opportunity to put the boats in the water. (Last year and this year’s event were at Bass Lake in Geauga County, but, Neal says, the boats, which have flat bottoms, can be used in any inland lake or river – or even Lake Erie on a calm day.) 

Now that they’ve got a permanent workspace, Neal says, they’d like to offer more programming, including a class on how to build strip boats. The six-hour canoe uses pieces of marine plywood for the body, but strip boats, as the name indicates, uses small strips of cedar bent into place.

Member John Potter is building a strip boat. The cedar bends well and doesn’t rot, making it ideal for boat construction. And it looks really nice too. “When you sand it down and put epoxy on it, it’ll look like a piece of furniture,” he says.

“It’s a real people magnet,” Neal adds.

He’s hoping the club turns out to be the same.