Inspiration · Living

Building Boats, Life Lessons

Lowell Grand Banks Dory Model

“All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” – John Mansfield

I’m not a sailor.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, it never comes up as an opportunity in my daily life.  But I love boats, especially the tall ships of the past.  In my eyes, they’re works of art.  The well sculpted hulls sliding through the water and the complex rigging that all work in concert to capture the wind. 

About a decade ago, I received a mail order catalog from an online hobby shop that focuses on wooden ship models.  Whenever I see a picture, or these models on display in a museum, I always pause to admire the details and quality of work.  And I often find myself thinking I could never do something like that.  But as I read through the catalog, I found some inspiration. 

One of the models, a New York Phantom pilot boat, was advertised as a beginner kit, and if you built it and sent a picture back to them within two months, they’d refund my money.  With good intentions, I ordered the kit and was excited the day it came in. 

I could have built it in the timeline and sent something back to them.  I didn’t have experience to fall back on, nor did I have a good sense of where to start.  Sure, the instructions were provided, and I wanted to have a good build, not something thrown together to get my $40-something back.  I’ve read some articles recently about this kit, and many builders say it’s not really a good starting point for a beginner, and hear many of these kits are on eBay, most likely people who bought it with good intentions, but never tried to build it.

So it sat in my closet until recently, when going through some stuff, I caught sight of it.  I pulled out, blowing off a layer of dust.  Peering inside, everything was still there, never been touched.  The glue and the little bottles of paint were dried out.  Even after these years, inspiration resurfaced. 

I changed my starting point.  Maybe this model can loosely be considered a good kit for beginners, although many opinions I see say this is not quite the case.  But I needed to change the starting line.  I found the online store again, and was looking through their online catalog, and they have what a shipwright series of builds, three models, each building on the last in terms of foundation building skills. 

I bought a Lowell Grand Banks Dory model a few months back.  This is a glorified canoe for one or two people, with no rudders, masts, rigging, or sails.  I laid out the framing, learned about shaping wood, beveling the planks, smoothing it all out, etc…  I’m a rank amateur.  I have no illusions that my skill set it anywhere near what I see for advanced builders or displays in museums, but I realized some valuable life lessons along the way. 

Keep Practicing

When we see a professional athlete, an artist, or musician, we don’t see the hours and years of practice they’ve put in.  We only see a finished product, and if we’re not careful, we may never try to learn and grow, because “I’m not that good,” thinking comes into play.  When they started, odds are they were not that good either.  My boat is a bit rough.  I see areas that I didn’t fill in some gaps properly (quite important for a boat!), and a couple of glue splotches that I thought would be covered by the paint better.  I wouldn’t take my boat out on the water if it were life sized.  It may be seaworthy to a point, so maybe if I took it out, I’d stay in wading distance of the shore.  But I learned, and that’s the important thing.  I’m working on the second boat in the shipwright series (a Norwegian Pram, simple like the dory, but with a mast, sail, and basic rigging), and it’s not perfect either, but am getting better.  Life mastery requires practice.  Maybe I’ll build a museum quality USS Constitution, only if I practice and work on my skills.


I’ll probably become more efficient as I learn and gain more experience, but life sometimes requires great patience.  We’re all guilty to some extent of trying to get something done as quick as possible.  The faster we try to be; the more quality suffers.  As I cut out the pieces, I do plenty of dry fitting and mulling over the instructions.  On many occasions, I read the step and had no idea what to do.  I could have started doing something to see what happened, but I decided to step back and mull it over.  Reading the step in the instructions a few times, but usually I wasn’t interpreting the step correctly, and through rough placement and thinking about it, I figured it out for the most part.  Life requires patience.  Sometimes the best decision is to not make one at that point in time, and reflect on things.


A few times I made a goof and didn’t realize it until the next step.  Having to go back and undo something to make the correction is a bit frustrating.  I broke a couple of the pieces through something as trivial as reaching over to grab something, only to not clear the piece in my other hand and there goes one of my critical frame pieces, snapped in half because I was inattentive and perhaps trying to quickly complete the step (see the importance of being patient above).  I missed parts of a step, glued it down before I was ready, the list goes on.  I didn’t give up.  I had to back track a few times, but I pressed on.  I knew early that my boat wasn’t going to win an award, but I wanted to go through the process, completing each step as best I could so I could learn as much as possible. 

Know Your Limitations, Then Build Upon Them

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” is an oft quoted Clint Eastwood line from the Dirty Harry series.  We shouldn’t be bound by our perceived limitations, but we also need to be aware of them.  Looking back when I bought the Phantom, I started beyond my limitations.  As a result, I never started on it.  A decade later, and hopefully a bit wiser, I started with more realistic expectations.  Most importantly, I finished my beginner model, and am working on the next step.  Knowing where to start is critical.  We’re not going to sit at the piano for the first time and play advanced material, nor will anyone hold a paint brush for the first time and create a masterpiece.  I’ll finish the Phantom, but just not quite yet.

The dory is sitting on my work desk, providing inspiration as I build my new pram.  Every time I look at it, I see something to be proud of.  I see struggles and perseverance.  Make sure you start though.  Starting is easy when you’re at the right place and time, but sometimes challenges prevent us from finishing.  I’m proud I finished it and learned a great deal in the process.  Building model boats is not life, but when we are aware of things, we can learn lessons about it through our daily actions.

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