Building a Norwalk Islands Sharpie 18


I've had the boat building urge since getting involved with sailing in college. My father had similar urges, only his dream involved a house. I lived in that house for 16 years without it ever being finished, so I figured that I should pursue a more realistically achievable goal.

So I began innocuously enough with the purchase of the NIS 18 building plans followed by the Jim Wharram designed Tiki 21. The house I rented had a large single-car garage, so I picked the Tiki 21, the maximum size I could build. Over the next 5 years, many things happened in my life that hampered the construction process. Marriage, moving, career change, and starting a family to name a few. The latter decision facilitated a move of my shop from a 30 ft. storage unit to a 20 ft. storage unit. This was a bit of a dilemma since the Tiki is 21 ft. long. I spent 230 hours on it so both hulls were mostly assembled. The size of it started to make me nervous. At 12 ft. wide with 3 beams, decking and netting, mast and rigging, it became a bit daunting to think about trailering and launching it myself. So, after many hours of introspective thought, I made the decision to cut the Tiki up and haul it to the dump. I realize that this action would stop the heart of any boater, but it was actually very instructive. I took the opportunity to demolish it in a way that would show me the strength of differently glued joints. In most cases, I was impressed. In any case, the Tiki became known to me as Failure #1.

My next attempt at boat building madness was procuring the plans for a Bobcat, a Phil Bolger designed plywood Beetle Cat. I figured that it was small enough to handle easily by myself and construct in a reasonable amount of time. I even bought the cut-out templates from Peter Spectre/Compass Rose. Boy, that was really slick. Just plop the template down and draw. No measuring for hours. This had the hope of making the "40-hour" construction actually approach 40 hours. But, alas, after only cutting a few pieces, an impending divorce and subsequent move reduced my building to yet another trip to the dump. As such, the Bobcat signed into history as Failure #2.

As life can be somewhat circular at times, I returned to eyeballing the NIS 18. The attributes of being small with a nice cabin, simply rigged and simply designed were very attractive. I've always admired Bruce Kirby's work and knew that he would design something fun to sail. Besides, my garage on my new house is 20 ft. long, just long enough for the 18.25 ft. required to build it. The cabin will allow overnight (or more) trips or just getting out of the weather. The shoal draft is perfect for sailing around Chesapeake Bay. It's small enough to easily launch, rig and sail myself. So on Thanksgiving 1998, I started construction of what I hope will become Success #1. That will not be its name, by the way.

The Boat

The Norwalk Islands Sharpie is a line of boats from 18 ft. to 31 ft. designed as a shoal draft weekender/cruiser by Bruce Kirby. He used the traditions of the Sharpie and the advent of modern building materials to draw a boat easy to build for the inexperienced. The simple cat ketch rig with unstayed masts is prevalent on most of the designs except the 18, where a single cat rig is used. Despite the shoal draft and internal ballast, Kirby showed in stability tests that the NIS concept is surprisingly more resistant to capsize than originally thought. I've never sailed on an NIS boat so I can't attest to sailing ability or seakindliness, but I do take comfort that the ancestral sharpies were very seaworthy in nasty weather and were banned from racing events because they were too fast.

Here are the specifications of the NIS 18.

Length:   18.25 ft.
Waterline Length:   16.25 ft.
Beam:   6.7 ft.
Draft - Centerboard Up:   0.6 ft.
Centerboard Down:   4.0 ft.
Displacement - Empty:   1450 lbs.
Loaded:   1850 lbs.
Ballast:   600 lbs.
Sail Area:   202 sq. ft.

Like some of her bigger sisters, the 18's centerboard is slightly off-center to make the accomodations below a bit more spacious.

Before I started this project I wrote Kirby to find out if any changes have been made to the design in the 10 years since I bought the plans. He sent me blueprints detailing 2 rig changes made by client request. One was providing a salty-looking gaff rig which would decrease the length of spars needed. The other was a simple shortening of the mast by several feet so that the normally powerful rig wouldn't need to be reefed so soon. Since I live in an area of notoriously light winds and would rather be overpowered than underpowered I'm going to opt for the original 30 ft. mast.

One major consideration I have for any boat is safety. The typical bulkhead style of construction lends itself well to the creation of watertight compartments. When completed, my 18 will have 11 separate watertight compartments which can also be used for storage. The ballast will be in the form of lead ingots, and I plan to attach them in a way that will enable me to remove them in an emergency. These things may never matter, but I rest easier knowing that I have options.

Auxiliary power is something that I have wrestled with in the past. Although the outboard motor on my Cal 2-24 was very reliable despite my abuse, it was a pain in the neck. Dealing with the fuel, its fumes, moving the motor below to lock it up, mixing oil in just the right amount, having the tanks bang back and forth when I tacked, nevermind the racket it made when was all just a great open sore on my sailing experience. The small size of the NIS 18 will allow me to forgo any type of petroleum propulsion. I plan to build oar locks in the cockpit coaming, and just use a pair of 8 or 9 ft. oars. I figure that the dory-like hull will lend itself easily to rowing, but I'll reserve judgement until I actually get to that stage. At any rate, it still won't hurt to have the option built into the boat. Like my Sunfish, the main engine will be the sail.

The plans for the NIS 18 give pretty good step-by-step instructions for the building process. They are not as good as Bolger/Payson instructions where everything is detailed. For the complete novice I would recommend getting a couple of Payson's Instant Boatbuilding books and reading them over before starting anything. The important thing is to think everything through first before picking up any tools. If I come to a head-scratching point, I put the tools down to prevent making grievous errors that I'll regret afterwards.