The purpose of this project is to design and mass-produce kits for a floating tiny house that can sail. It combines high-tech modeling and fabrication and low-tech assembly that can be carried out DIY-style on a riverbank or a beach. This boat is a 3-bedroom with a kitchen, a sauna and a dining room. The deck is big enough to throw dance parties. It can be used as a river boat, a canal boat or even a beach house. Oh, and it's rugged and stable enough to take out on the ocean. Kits will start at around $50k (USD). The design has been tested in simulation and prototype; full-scale production will begin next year.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

World's Largest Playground

Lake Baikal
Quite a number of people in the world have taken up a nomadic lifestyle by living aboard boats. Instead of cooperatively running in the rat race, they have escaped and now work some vague and sketchy internet-based job while sailing around the islands of the Caribbean or around the Mediterranean, with the Greek islands a particular favorite. Other favorite cruising grounds, for those who don’t much care for the open ocean, include the canals of England or Canal du Midi in France. The Inside Passage which runs up the coast of British Columbia from Washington state to Alaska is another favored playground. The Intracoastal Waterway that runs along the Eastern Seaboard (and is lovingly called “the ditch”) is said to start in Boston, Massachusetts, but can really only be said to exist between Norfolk, Virginia and Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border. The more adventurous go through Panama Canal and go island-hopping among Pacific atolls. There are many others. But there is one truly gigantic cruising ground that is charted, dredged, has plenty to see and plenty to do, but remains almost entirely unexplored.

The boats used depend on the application: the seaworthier sailboats—keelboats and catamarans—for the ocean, while motor boats are restricted to the coasts, the canals and the rivers. There are exceptions: plenty of keelboats try to get through the Intracoastal and often end up running aground, and every autumn a steady stream of sailboats and catamarans arrives from Canada via the Erie Canal and Hudson River with their masts down (to make it under the bridges) and their decks a mad tangle of rigging.

There is a lot to like about cruising: the relaxed, unhurried lifestyle (you move at your own pace with no schedules to hurry you along); there is the chance to explore new places that are not easily accessible except by water and therefore not likely to be overrun with tourists; the intimate contact with nature and the chance to observe it daily at close range.

One of the biggest problems with cruising is that it’s boring: virtually all of the cruising grounds have been mapped out, with detailed cruising guides telling you where to go and what to look at. Essentially, when you go cruising, you are signing up to do something that’s already been done.

Another problem with cruising is rich people. Now, there is nothing wrong with being rich, and a good quote to remember is Deng Xiaoping’s 致富光荣 (zhìfù guāngróng): “To get rich is glorious!” The problem is with people who try to act rich around you while you are trying to ignore all of that competitive nonsense and just have a good time. To quote me: “To act rich is in bad taste.”

An associated problem is that cruising tends to be expensive: the industrial sector that supplies the boats is competitive, and it competes on the basis of ostentation—in sportiness and luxury—while catering primarily to those who want to act rich. And what sits at the intersection of sportiness and luxury is a financial black hole: the boats that result from this process are maintenance nightmares, and the most common topic of discussion among cruisers is getting their broken stuff fixed, wherever they happen to end up.

And the offshoot of all this is that most cruisers happen to be over the hill. The vast majority of those I’ve seen are baby boomers squandering their children’s inheritance on expensive toys, marina transient fees (which cost as much as hotel room stays) and lots of trips to local restaurants. Most of them are reasonably friendly and personable, but what they mostly talk about is insipid: the quality of the food and the service, the weather and, of course, what broke and how they fixed it or are planning to. If this doesn’t sound too adventurous or exciting to you, then perhaps you are right.

And then it occurred to me that there is a cruising destination that hasn’t been explored at all: Russia. Russia has the largest network of navigable waterways in the world: over 100,000 km long. The European part of it is 6,500 km long, all of it dredged to 4 m (13 feet). A system of canals connect it into a single network of waterways that reaches from the Baltic to the Ural mountains and from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. The following map shows all of the navigable waterways in light blue.

Click to enlarge

Of particular interest is the area just inland from St. Petersburg, which is on the Baltic Sea. River Neva, which is short and wide, connects it to Ladoga Lake, which is the largest lake in Europe. It has islands, fjords and plenty of good sailing. From there is the somewhat smaller Onega Lake, and rivers and canals then run on to Moscow and a ring of cities around it, which are some of the most spectacular travel destinations in Russia, featuring medieval fortresses and monasteries, most of them accessible from the water. South from there, the mighty Volga River takes you through most of the rest of Russia’s historical heartland. Then, via the Volga-Don Canal, you can cross over to River Don, which takes you to the Black Sea.

There are a few logistical problems with going on such a cruising adventure. One is that no foreign-flagged vessels are allowed on Russia’s inland waterways. Another is that a local skipper, who speaks fluent Russian and knows the local regulations, is an absolute requirement. Also, any small craft that goes on this adventure has to be maximally self-sufficient: there are few to no marinas offering yacht repair services to be found. Lastly, the cruising season runs from May through October. It can be stretched by a few weeks each way further south, but nobody in their right mind would brave River Neva before the end of April, when Onega Lake has dumped its load of winter ice into the Baltic. But none of these problems is insoluble.

Specifically, it has occurred to me that Quidnon, by its design, makes it a splendid choice as a platform for such an adventure. It is simple, rugged, quickly and cheaply constructed from commonly available materials and parts, is safe in both deep and shallow water, and can be set up for comfortable living in a harsh climate. I will explain the details of this in the next post. Meanwhile, please enjoy the scenery!

Caspian Sea
Volga Delta
Yenisei River
Ladoga Lake

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Self-Sufficient Haulout

A self-sufficient sailor needs to be able to get his boat in and out of the water either with minimal assistance or entirely unassisted.

This need arises in a variety of situations, both common and less so:

1. To deal with maintenance and emergencies.

1.A. To redo the bottom paint and to make emergency repairs that cannot be done with the boat in the water. With Quidnon, the list of such emergencies is much smaller than with most boats. There is no engine shaft, cutlass bearing or propeller; these are integral to the outboard engine, which is easy to pull out for servicing. There are no through-hulls below the water line; raw water intakes for the ballast tanks are via siphons. The bottom is surfaced with roofing copper that lasts longer the useful lifetime of the boat. The sides below the waterline need to be scrubbed and painted periodically, but this can be done with the boat drying out at low tide. Marine growth on the bottom, which cannot be reached while the boat is drying out, simply gets crushed and ground off against the sand or gravel and falls off. Still, there are situations when a haulout is needed for maintenance.

2.B. To get out of the water if a hurricane or a typhoon is bearing down on you. The easiest thing to do is to run Quidnon into the shallows in a sheltered spot and to run long lines out to surrounding rocks and trees. But an even better option is to haul it clear of the water first. While other yachts are busy hunting around for a hurricane hole (a sheltered spot with enough water to get in and out without running aground) or wait in line at a boatyard or a marina for an (expensive) emergency haulout, the captain of a Quidnon has plenty of options.

2. To turn Quidnon into a waterside home.

2.A. Suppose you arrive at a tropical island and decide that you want to spend a few months there, subsisting on fresh-caught fish and crabs, coconuts, sea bird eggs, growing a patch of taro or yucca and generally lazing around. There is nobody around to assist you. You enter the lagoon, find a nice sheltered spot with an easy grade up a white sand beach, let Quidnon nose up to it, jump overboard, wade ashore, walk the anchor ashore, dragging the chain, and bury it in the sand. Then you drain the ballast tanks and unbolt and drop the solid ballast box that fits snugly in a recess under the cockpit. Finally, you spend an hour or so working the anchor winch while placing coconut palm logs under the hull for it to roll over. Voilà! Quidnon is now a beach house: it doesn’t rock, the bottom doesn’t accumulate seafood, and getting ashore is as easy as climbing down a ladder.

2.B. You spend your summers cruising inland lakes, rivers and canals, catching and drying fish, hunting wild game and harvesting wild-growing fruits and vegetables along the shoreline. Autumn arrives, it starts snowing and the waterways start icing over. Before they become icebound and dangerous you pick a spot where you want to overwinter: somewhere sheltered, with plenty of firewood available locally. If you are lucky, you find a spot that has something like a beach, with no more than a 10º grade. Failing that, you grab a shovel and an axe (to chop through tree roots) and dig down a slope. Then you follow the same procedure as above. If you are quite far north where temperatures stay below freezing for months on end, it would make sense to insulate the hull on the outside by piling snow against it (snow is an excellent insulator, and is free).

There are lots of other, less extreme scenarios. For example:

3.A. You either own or lease a patch of land next to a waterway and build a boat ramp. Then, equipped with nothing more than a boat trailer and a pickup truck or an SUV you can either live on a Quidnon ashore or put it in the water and go cruising. This would be ideal in colder climates, where you would prefer to stay put during the winter. In going through the Intracoastal Waterway, I saw plenty of places where such a lifestyle would make sense. People there tend to have a full-size house and a half-size boat, but why not have a full-size boat and a small, utilitarian structure on land used as a workshop and for storage?

3.B. For those who have a shoreside dwelling, it is perfectly reasonable to own a Quidnon but only use it during the warmer months. But storing a boat, whether in the water or on shore, is often an expensive proposition. But there are plenty of creative ways to store boats in close proximity to boat ramps. For example, people who own vacation properties are often quite happy to have you pay a little bit of rent—much less than a marina or a boatyard would charge—to store your boat on their land during the off-season. Again, all you need is a trailer, a good-sized pickup truck or SUV and a boat ramp that’s nearby. (If it’s farther away, you will need highway permits and signal cars, because Quidnon qualifies as a “wide load.”)

The mechanics of a self-sufficient Quidnon haulout are as follows.

1. Get rid of all ballast. Fully ballasted, Quidnon weighs in at 12 tons, 8 of which is ballast. Of that, 5 tons is water ballast, which can be made to disappear by draining the tanks. The remaining 3 tons is solid ballast consisting of steel scrap encapsulated in a concrete block bolted into a recess in the bottom directly under the cockpit and held in place by several large bolts and a purchase. To remove the solid ballast, with the boat in the water, it is necessary to rig and tighten the purchase, undo the nuts on the bolts (which are along the sides of the chain locker below the cockpit, so the cockpit sole needs to be removed to access them), then ease the ballast down to the bottom using the purchase. Finally you would probably want to attach a line and a buoy to the ballast block before letting go of it, so that you can find and retrieve it later.

2. If your haulout spot has overhead obstructions (tree branches, power lines) remove the sails and drop the masts. This can be done by one person using a comealong. Once down, the sails and the masts are lashed down on top of the deck arches, to keep them safe and out of the way. On the other hand, if your haulout spot is exposed, you may want to leave the masts up and mount wind generators on top of them, to avail yourself of the free, though somewhat unreliable electricity.

3. Let Quidnon nose up to a grade no more than 10º. The maximum slope for boat ramps is 15% grade, which is 8.5º; most beaches are less than that. If you are hauling over ground solid enough for logs to roll, all you need are the rollers; if not, you will need to lay down some logs to serve as rails. Walk the anchor ashore and bury it, as described above. Work a log under the skids, then work the anchor winch to move the boat forward. The first log will try to squirm out and will require some gentle persuasion using a sledgehammer. Repeat. Catch the logs that slip out the back and move them to the front.

4. The amount of time required to move Quidnon 100 feet up a 10º grade using a crab winch (where a single person rocks a winch handle back and forth) is around an hour of steady effort (assuming a person can generate 100W of power) not including the time needed to move and pound in logs, drink water, curse, swat insects and whatever else. Reasonably, it adds up to a few hours’ work for one reasonably fit person. Of course, if you have a 1kW generator, an electric winch and a couple of helpers you can get this accomplished in around 20 minutes.

Quidnon will come equipped with rails, integral to the keelboard trunks and surfaced with bronze angle to distribute the load and to resist abrasion. The round logs are not included and would need to be procured locally. Driftwood is often a good, free source, and can be collected beforehand in preparation and stored on deck. It can be used as firewood afterward.

Once Quidnon is far enough from the water, it is important to level it, by digging down or by pounding in wedges. It is rather important that it doesn’t try to roll back into the water one stormy night while you are asleep. On the other hand, if your haulout spot is in an area that is considered dicy from a security standpoint, you may want to crank the boat around, so that it faces the water, and rig up a system so that a few blows with a sledgehammer and a few minutes on the anchor winch will cause it to roll back into the water (or onto the ice) and, one would hope, away from danger.

Incidentally, although this is hardly their main function, the rails over which Quidnon is rolled ashore can also be used to turn Quidnon into a sled, over ice. Ice provides a nearly frictionless surface, and it should be possible for a few people to haul Quidnon to a new location a few miles over ice. This trick may come in handy if halfway through the winter the game or the firewood at a haulout site on one side of a river becomes depleted. A particularly adventurous Quidnon skipper might even consider putting up a bit of sail and taking advantage of a winter windstorm to try a bit of ice sailing. (It would make sense to put up a bit of each sail, and to use the sheets for steering, because the rudders won’t be of much use when gliding over ice… unless the adventurous skipper takes the time to fit them with skates.

If these scenarios seem outlandish to you, then consider the more prosaic ones: while all the other skippers are waiting around with their wallets wide open—for the diesel mechanic to fix their engine, for a scuba diver to cut away the dock line that got wrapped around their prop, for the travelift to haul them out of the water and put them up on jacks so that they can paint their bottom or fix a leaky through-hull, or for a crane to remove their mast so that it can be worked on it—you would be off on your next adventure, self-sufficient and free.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Prince Kropotkin is for sale!

I am selling my sailboat in preparation for building the first Quidnon. It's a proven and capable ocean cruiser set up for living aboard, either at a marina, at a mooring or anchor, for coastal cruising and for the open ocean. It's in good condition, carefully maintained, reasonably priced at 28,500 USD and is a turnkey solution for someone who wants to live aboard and cruise around. Here is the full listing with all the details. If you are interested, please contact the broker, Capt. Mark Covington.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Speech



How would you like to build yourself a free place to live that doesn't take up land?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Boat for the Reluctant Sailor

A couple of days ago I conducted an interesting social experiment. I joined the largest Facebook group dedicated to sailing a cruising, and started a discussion thread about QUIDNON:

“Looking for some advice from group members. For the past two years I have been working on a boat design with two other engineers. It is a 36-foot houseboat, with private accommodations for 3 couples and 2 single people. It is also a surprisingly seaworthy and competent sailboat. We've tested a radio-controlled scale model and it sails really well. Now we are looking forward to building the first full-size hull. It's going to be a kit boat, featuring high-tech manufacturing and rapid DIY assembly. Don't hold back, what do you think?”

The results were roughly as follows:

• It doesn’t have the proper lines of a sailing yacht, and is therefore ugly.

There is a certain image that sailboats are supposed to have, and anything that doesn’t fit with the image is by definition ugly. It is like approaching people who like Ferraris and Lambourghinis and trying to sell them a VW Bus.

• It doesn’t have the right elements to be a top-notch performer under sail, and wouldn’t win any races.

Saying “But it’s a houseboat!” doesn’t seem to have any effect. How well does a houseboat have to sail in order to be “A Houseboat that Sails”? Apparently, it has to be able to win ocean races. Just being able to move house whenever you like without burning fossil fuels… What was that? Hey, look, a squirrel!

• It doesn’t look expensive enough.

This last point was not made explicitly, but I sensed great discomfort when I mentioned how cheap it is, or the fact that moderately skilled people can assemble the boat from a kit on any riverbank or beach, roll it into the water and sail off, or that it uses an outboard engine in an inboard well to avoid the expense and the stink of a diesel, or that it never needs to be hauled out and have its bottom repainted because the bottom is clad in roofing copper… You see, an important function of owning a sailboat is to tell the world how rich you are. And what this boat tells the world is that you are happily living well below your means. Oh, the cognitive dissonance!

• It looks better without the masts and the sails.

Again, sailboats aren’t supposed to look like what it looks like. But without the masts, it looks like some kind of strange barge-like thing, doesn’t intrude on the sailboat space and is therefore inoffensive. Plus, if it no longer sails, then there is nothing further to discuss: problem solved! (But that is, in fact an option: if you don’t want to sail, you don’t need to install the mast tabernacles or the masts. Just place plugs in the 6-inch holes where the mast tabernacles penetrate the deck.)

The creature comforts, unprecedented in a 36-foot sailboat, such as three bedrooms with queen-size beds and full privacy, or the sauna, or a deck large enough to throw dance parties, left them entirely unimpressed. I guess sailboats are meant to be cramped, claustrophobic and uncomfortable. And houseboats aren’t supposed to be able to sail, at all.

I even came in for some insults, slander and abuse. One opinionated character with the last name Aass (can’t make this up!) made quite an… Aass of himself by claiming that I am clueless and running a scam. But that comes with the territory; after all, it’s Facebook, the natural habitat of the lonely half-crazed idiot.

In short, QUIDNON does not appeal to cruising sailors or racing sailors (and that’s pretty much who responded). To be sure, some people found the project fascinating and, based on the blog stats, went and read all about it. And some of them wished me and the project the very best luck. But the most vocal people were also the most negative. In all, it appears that most of the people who responded did so because QUIDNON rubbed them the wrong way in any one of several ways: it doesn’t fit the glamorous image of yachting, it is useless for either sport or ostentation, and it shows people the way to live and enjoy themselves on the water for very little money. Anathema!

And so who does QUIDNON appeal to? After all, 10,000 people visit this blog every month, close to 100 have already supported the crowdfunding campaign, and a dozen or so are seriously interested in building one, or having one built for them, once the design gets shaken out at full size.

There is one particular demographic that QUIDNON is explicitly designed to appeal to: wives of men who want to live aboard and like to sail. The vast majority of women have absolutely no interest in living aboard any of the typical commercially produced sailboats. Why is it so cramped? Where do you put the shoes? Where is the closet space I need? Why is there no bathtub? Why does it lean so much all the time? Why is the deck weirdly shaped and has strange hardware all over it? Why can’t it be like a proper deck/patio with room for a couple of chaise-lounges and a beach umbrella? Why do I keep bumping my head against things? Where do I hang the potted plants? Why is the refrigerator so tiny? A man may convince a woman to live aboard for a while even without coming up with good answers to any of these questions, but then longer-term the project is doomed.

And so the options are:

1. Abandon the dream of living aboard a sailboat and pay lots of money to live on land.

2. Get a houseboat and abandon the dream of sailing.

3. Get a houseboat to live on and a sailboat to sail around on, and go broke paying for both.

4. Get a divorce and live on a sailboat. (This happens surprisingly often; the call of the sea is sometimes stronger than the funny stuff Cupid coats his arrow tips with.)

5. Get a QUIDNON. It is every bit a houseboat and answers all of the above questions. In designing it, I thought extremely hard about putting in all the things that would convince my wife that living aboard is still reasonable and, on the other hand, about getting rid of all the things that she has hated about living aboard.

How well should a houseboat sail? Sailing performance comes at a cost in comfort, safety and skill level. Sailing a 36-foot high-performance racer is something of an art. Sail handling is quite demanding, and if you make a mistake you can capsize, hurt yourself or rip a very expensive sail. While sailing, you have to handle lines that are under a lot of tension—enough to rip your hands off if you aren’t careful. And none of that is necessary.

People who live on a houseboat and sometimes move house under sail have no specific reason to want to master that art and achieve that level of performance. They just want to get from Point A to Point B with a minimum of effort and drama. Other than moving house, the main reason to go sailing is to pass time, with company on board. This is best done on medium-breezy, sunny sommer days. Motor away from the dock, put the sails up, leave the engine idling away just in case, and noodle about the harbor. Time is not of the essence; safety and comfort are. And, of course, cost.

QUIDNON’s sails are controlled using just four ropes (called “lines”) and all of them are led right to the cockpit, go through clutch blocks, and then disappear under the cockpit floor, where they spool themselves up on take-up reels. Yes, you do need to learn what they are called and what they do, but that’s about it.

• Halyard: used to hoist the sail up the mast. The clutches for the other three lines have to be released before you do that.

• Reefing line: opposite of the halyard; used to reduce the area of sail that is up and keep it taut. The more wind there is, the less sail you have to raise to push QUIDNON along at its maximum warp 7.5 knots (8.5 MPH, 13.9 km/h). QUIDNON’s sails can be reefed down to just the upper two panels.

• Two sheets, one on each side: these pull the sail toward the centerline while keeping it from twisting. The closer to the wind you sail, the more you haul in the sheet.

Of these lines, only the halyard requires the use of the winch. To get a sail up (which is quite heavy), you release the clutches, loop the halyard around the anchor winch and crank.

There is more to sailing than that, but this information, plus what you can learn from any introductory book on sailing, will be enough for you to sail a QUIDNON.

QUIDNON should be able to make ocean passages in good weather. The preferred direction is definitely with the wind rather than against it. Going with the wind stretches out the waves; going against the wind causes them to bunch together. It is like the difference between driving through a hilly countryside and driving down a rutted, potholed road. Because of its blunt bow and high topsides QUIDNON may not be able to make good progress to windward in all conditions. But it should do well downwind in almost all conditions.

Keep in mind, almost the entire planet was explored and colonized using sailing ships that could barely go to windward at all. For every mile they made good to windward, they made two moving sideways. And so they mostly moved with prevailing winds or waited for favorable winds. They made laps around the North Atlantic going clockwise, to take advantage of the Coriolis effect: the rotation of the Earth causes both water and air to move clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern. And QUIDNON can probably do the same, safely and comfortably.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Talk in Boston

I'll give a talk and Q&A on QUIDNON at the Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, MA at 8pm on Thursday, May 4th. Hope to see you there.