Building First Mate

A sailboat designed by Ross Lillistone

Built by Stephen Chatelain

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This project is a fifteen foot sailboat built from plans that I bought from a boat designer in Australia. This design is called First Mate and is the sister ship to Phoenix III.

The plans call for stitch-and-glue construction in which you temporarily "stitch" the plywood panels together with zip ties (cable ties) or small bits of wire. Then epoxy is used to "glue" the panels together, at which point the zip ties can be cut out. All interior seams and the whole outside hull will be covered in fiberglass for maximum strength.

The wood is marine-grade plywood from Menards. Most people use Okoume plywood because of its superior quality, but I chose not to pay $77 per sheet of 1/4" plywood and $111 for 1/2".

I started this project on January 1, 2020 and hope to have it completed by the end of June. That might be wishful thinking because there is so much work to do.

The entire motivation for this build is to sail it in the 2021 Everglades Challenge, but that is another story for another time.

Edit 02/07/2021: EC 2021 is a no-go due to logistics; the new plan is for the BlackBeard Challenge 2021 in N. Carolina, 300 miles around Pamlico Sound Map

For an idea of what it will look like some day... First Mate blog or plans site.


Step One: Gluing 8' sheets of plywood together to make 16' sheets. Better known as scarfing. It entails shaving an 8:1 angle on one edge of each sheet (2 inches) for maximum epoxy coverage. It's actually easier to do all four sheets at once. When it's finished, there should be a smooth, continuous angle across all sheets. It would have been better to use Okoume plywood instead of Menards marine-grade plywood. But I did save $$$ and in the end, no one will notice any difference.

The weights force the panels together while the epoxy dries.

These are poor quality scarfs. Some of that was the quality of the plywood and some of that was just me. The edge of the top sheet should line up with the pencil line on the bottom sheet.

Working with a 16' sheet of 1/4 inch plywood is not easy. It didn't help that the humidity was so high - notice the plywood bowing. Also, store plywood flat on the floor. Duh.

The nails provide support for a batten to draw a curved line. Missed the mark by a little. I didn't know at the time, but this little errant pencil line (and others like it) will create more work for me later; I'll either have to plane the edge of the bulkhead to match a lower side panel or fill large gaps between panels with thickened epoxy, and try to make everything look smooth and level. Luckily, there are only two spots where I'm disappointed with my lines.

More curved lines.

Boat shapes! Sweet curved lines.

So much measuring.

High-quality tools. Only the best will do.

Measuring the bulkheads. I ordered the metric plans because I hate working with fractions.

It's a good thing I kept this compass from twenty years ago. I knew it would be handy someday.

Stitch and glue boat-building; using zip ties to hold it all together.

Preparing to attach the first side panel.

Look at that beautiful curve.

Kind of boat-shaped already.

Gluing a crossbeam to a bulkhead. It's good that I can work on small projects in the basement where it's warm enough to work with epoxy.

I use wood flour (very fine saw dust) to thicken the epoxy. It sands easily and I like the color.

A cross-section of a bulkhead. The zip tie shows the "stitch" part of stitch-and-glue boat building.

Now might be a good time to point out the saw horses. I built four of these specifically for this project from a video I saw online. It was a good up-front investment as I've already got my time and money's worth out of them.

It officially looks like a boat now.

Progress as of 02/27/20. Bulkheads are in, panels are attached, everything is square (so lucky), and zip ties are given one last tightening. Next step is to tack weld all the seams with thicked epoxy, so I can cut all those zip ties out.

And for those people wondering about the big boat in the little room with the very little door, I've already measured and the boat will fit out the door when I'm finished. I'll just tip the boat on its side and have plenty of room. It is only two feet high by five feet wide - smaller than it looks in the pictures.

03/03/2020 - Tack weld. Lay down a thin bead of thickened epoxy to hold the seams enough to cut the zip ties out and the boat not fall apart. I'll go over all the seams later with a thick "fillet" of epoxy to cover the tack welds. Not as simple as I thought, because I started to over-think it. I'm sure it'll hold when I cut the zip ties, but maybe I'll let it sit for two days just to be sure.

03/04/2020 - I didn't like the way the transom seated to the bottom panel - there was a gap on the left side which gave the bottom a slight bow, so with a drywall saw and a Dremel tool, I cut the hardened epoxy out to start over. No one would have ever noticed, but I would have known it was there.

Here's the new bead of epoxy with everything joined to my satisfaction.

The next step is a big one. Every seam inside the boat will get a fillet of thickened epoxy to add adhesion and strength to the joint. Then a strip of 12 oz. fiberglass tape will be applied and covered in three coats of epoxy. This process adds a lot of weight (and cost), but is necessary to make the boat as strong as possible.


And now a quick note on epoxy. It's a two part glue that consists of resin and a hardener. When mixed, there is a chemical reaction that will create a very strong solid - almost like hard plastic. Once mixed, you have limited time to use it before it hardens. Another consideration is heat. The chemical reaction generates a lot of heat, so you can't mix too much at a time or it could make enough heat to melt the plastic cup used for mixing.

Epoxy in this form is great for coating surfaces such as table tops or boat hulls. But it's too thin to use as a glue. So you have to mix it with a thickener. I prefer wood flour (powdered saw dust) for it's color and ease of sanding. There is also silica (white) and micro-beads, etc. Once thickened to a peanut butter consistency, it can be used to fill in voids or glue two surfaces together.

03/08/2020 - Long day; about five hours. Made good progress with the fiberglass. The first picture is prep work - pre-soaked the plywood with epoxy and filled the seams with thickened epoxy.

Next, I laid the fiberglass tape (not actual tape) on the fillets while they're still soft.

Finally, I spread a generous amount of epoxy on the tape and work it into the fibers until they become translucent. It's a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of epoxy to wet-out 12 oz. fiberglass. And this is only the first of three coats. The second coat should fill the weave completely. And the third lays on top the tape, smooth to the touch.

Update I checked on the epoxy the next morning and it looks great. No air pockets and no runs. I think I'm starting to get the hang of this boat-building thing.

Sidenote on this pic The more I look at that bulkhead, the more I want to re-cut those holes. They currently fit 6-inch hatches, but now I think I want 8 inch hatches there to make it easier to store items in the bow. That'll be a tough job to cut perfect circles with a jigsaw at that angle while sitting in the boat that's sitting on sawhorses.

03/14/2020 - Did some more fiberglassing this weekend. It takes a lot to fully work the epoxy into the fibers. I sped up the video because it's like watching paint dry. What I wouldn't give to be able to work that fast.

Fiberglassed the transom and then ran out of epoxy. Apparently, Coronavirus is causing delays in shipping because I can't get more from Amazon until Friday, March 20 even though it's in stock.

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