By Jim Norman
When I first came up with the notion of building a small houseboat that would serve as a vacation cottage on an ever-changing stretch of waterfront property, I figured it would be a relatively short two-year project – three, at most.
So, with high hopes and lots of enthusiasm, I started building on May 5, 2015. The initial launch of what has become Jersey Girl the Houseboat, for test purposes only, took place on Sept. 17, more than five years after I started this project in the driveway of my home in Teaneck.
And she’s not even done! By next May, after I will have celebrated my 79th birthday, I hope to be finished with the interior, the last stage of construction. With the forbearance of my wife, Ginger, who has (usually) patiently tolerated the chaos in the garage and the loss of the driveway for the duration, I have learned a lot – more than just boatbuilding.
I’ve learned that it’s generally not a good idea to overthink things or to depart from proven methods used by many people who have come before. And I’ve learned that elegant solutions to anticipated problems often beget their own new and unanticipated problems.
But like many things in life, boatbuilding is an exercise in problem-solving. Did you know that almost all professional boatbuilding shops have an essential piece of equipment known as a groaning-chair? That’s the place where you go to sit and hold your throbbing head in your hands and groan until the solution to a self-inflicted screwup appears. Well, my cluttered garage is too small to tolerate such a piece of furniture, but I have a very comfortable and well-worn imaginary one tucked away in the recesses of my mind.
For example, there was the time I came up with what I thought would be a solution to the problem of the corrosive effect of galvanic action when dissimilar metals contact each other in the presence of an electrolyte, like water. I decided to use aluminum bars as runners to protect the bottom of my wooden hull from scrapes with rocks in shallow water. But aluminum screws are notoriously weak and to use a more robust screw, like the silicon bronze ones I used everywhere else in the boat, would start the corrosion immediately. So I came up with the idea of pressing plastic washers into carefully drilled recesses in the aluminum, and driving the bronze screws through the plastic. No contact between the dissimilar metals, no galvanic action, right? Wrong, a chorus of Internet experts loudly proclaimed, explaining that water, a conductor, would easily allow electrical current to pass from one metal to the other, jumping right over the insulating washer between them. So, after a trip to the groaning chair in my mind, I scrapped the expensive aluminum stock and plastic washers, chalked off a week of labor as a loss, and settled on stainless steel runners and stainless steel screws. We all know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and now that I’ve directly experienced the consequence, perhaps I’ll remember it. Perhaps.
One of the most satisfying aspects of working day after day in the driveway, in full view of neighbors and folks passing by, has been seeing the amount of goodwill and community that has developed. One neighbor asked if her young sons could help me paint; the answer, of course, was yes. Another neighbor dropped by with an anchor he wasn’t using and a good length of very serviceable half-inch rope, just the stuff I’d come to need for mooring lines.
When it came time to turn the completed hull right-side-up, dozens of people showed up for the equivalent of an old-fashioned barn raising and made light work of a heavy job.
Jersey Girl has even been featured in two Ethical Culture auctions, one where members got to help sheath the bottom of her hull with marine plywood (their signatures are forever preserved, covered with epoxy and fiberglass and green anti-fouling paint), and another, when folks made quick work of installing eight of her 16 windows.
And earlier this month, a crowd of people gathered at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus to help guide Jersey Girl down the ramp into the Hackensack River for her first splash into the water. I’m pleased to report she floated perfectly on her lines, graceful and well balanced. She proved exceptionally stable in the water, even when I tried to rock her by jumping up and down at each of her four corners.
I’m looking forward to travels with Jersey Girl, and sharing the rich experience of exploring local waters with family and friends. In the meantime, you are welcome to follow the rest of construction by checking in at Jersey Girl’s dedicated Facebook page, Jersey Girl the Houseboat, with this link: https://www.facebook.com/Jersey-Girl-the-Houseboat-1885890361711750
Jim Norman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.