Are you scared to start a boatbuilding or other project in case you mess up, in case you make a mistake? What will people say, will your friends joke about it and embarrass you?
Nearly everyone makes mistakes. No, let me correct that, everyone makes mistakes, without exception. Those who say that they don’t make mistakes are either lying or are not pushing the boundaries of their own ability. If they are not pushing their boundaries then that is their mistake. If we don’t stretch our boundaries then we stagnate and miss out on so much. As long as we are trying new things, taking on new life experiences, we will make mistakes. It is an essential part of the whole learning experience. Sure, it is nice to learn from the mistakes that are made by others but is that necessarily the best way to learn? We learn more lessons, we learn them faster and the message sticks better when we make those mistakes ourselves. The more painful the mistake, the stronger the lesson that we will learn.
That is not to say that you should go into any new project blindly and learn all that is needed from your mistakes. Any time that we venture into something outside of our normal sphere of knowledge and experience, we should first research by reading or asking knowledgeable sources, to ensure that we enter this new experience with the best chance of success. Even armed with knowledge and experience, there is a myriad of potential mistakes that lie in wait, ready to catch the careless or unwary.
I have made many mistakes, some of them very publicly, right in front of the cameras. A noteworthy one was when, while racing too hard and not paying enough attention, my boat was pushed onto Barker Rock by another competitor. It was a mark of the course, a very hard barnacle-encrusted one. Photos of my mistake appeared in the newspaper and a sailing magazine. A client of mine even saw it on TV in Finland. The only damage was a scratch on my ego but none on the boat. Was it embarrassing? Yes, mildly so, I had long before decided to own my mistakes and not try to hide from them. Ever since, that mistake has made a great story at any gathering of friends.
When I designed the Paper Jet, I had a particular building procedure in mind for the boat. As it turned out, the Paper Jet could not be built the way that I had envisaged. So, I had to backtrack a few steps and think of a different way to assemble it. I did that and went ahead and built my boat by a different method. I had a few other smaller backtracks and eventually had my boat complete. The backtracks probably added about 25 hours to my building time but I got there in the end with a successful build.
Did I make some mistakes? Yes I did but so what? I made those mistakes because I was doing something that I had never done before. I was doing something that nobody else had done before either. I needed to learn the lessons that had to come out of building this prototype so that I could write the building instructions in the best way that I could, to enable other builders to get it right without making those same mistakes.
If I were scared of making mistakes I would not be trying new things. I designed and built the first radius chine plywood boat, my own Black Cat, and made mistakes along the way. Every time I was able to recover the situation very quickly and move on to the next stage of building.
I shrugged off the comments and criticisms of others (there were some sceptics in Cape Town about the wisdom of my project and its chances of success) because they were of no consequence unless I allowed them to be. They were generally from people who have never built anything major themselves. It is normal that the people who will get pleasure when someone makes a mistake are those who don’t achieve much themselves. Disregard those people.
Overall, the project was a great success. That design and its construction method spawned a demand worldwide for similar designs that now forms the backbone of my business. Black Cat was an experiment that has proven to be successful beyond anything that I could have dreamed. If I had been worried that my experiment was a mistake then I would not have even started the build. All that has followed would also not have happened.
A project that I have been working on the past few years is rebuilding a 1971 Lotus Europa sports car. It was given to me as a decrepit wreck, unable to move because everything was rusted solid. It hadn’t been driven for over 20 years, the motor was seized, the electrics shot and everything of steel below door sill level inside the car rusted away. Nobody wanted to take it on as a restoration project; it was destined to disintegrate in the back corner of a garden. I looked at it and decided that it was not beyond my ability to bring it back to life. Some declared that I was making the biggest mistake of my life, that I didn’t know what I was taking on. One neighbour took delight in dropping by and passing negative comments. Now, that car is licensed, running and more-or-less roadworthy. I have a few small issues to sort out and I must repaint it. I brought a dead car back to life and I now own a Lotus. Not a bad outcome from the biggest mistake of my life.
While building Black Cat, one evening outside of normal business hours I was working with a spindle router shaping some small plywood parts. A professional boatbuilder who was building one of my boats phoned and asked a rather stupid question, one which he should have known better than to ask. I was annoyed about it and allowed it to break my concentration. In my distracted state of mind, I put my right thumb through the router bit, which was spinning at 20,000rpm. It made 11 cuts to the bone in the space of 10mm and I was spraying blood. Within a minute or two I was passing out from pain and shock and was hauled off to the doctor. She said she had never seen such neatly done damage to human flesh and described it as sliced like deli meat. She was able to fix it with one stitch threaded through all of the slices. The worst impact from my mistake was a couple of weeks knocked out of the middle of my already tight building schedule. I still have scar tissue inside that thumb, a reminder to be more careful around routers and other power tools.
I have made my share of setting out mistakes. More than once I have made a beautiful scarph joint on a plywood skin panel, rough-cut with a skill-saw or power-plane, then meticulously finished with a sharp jack-plane. The first half of the joint is already glued to the hull or deck framing. I am fitting the next panel along, with the second half of the joint. It is only when I offer it up against the first half of the joint that I see that I have planed the slope onto the wrong face of the plywood. I can’t repeat here the names that I have called myself in those situations. If there is enough edge waste allowance on the panel then I can cut off the scarph and make a new one on the other face. If not, set the panel aside to be cut up for smaller parts elsewhere in the boat, then make a new correct panel. Kick yourself, promise yourself to measure twice and cut once next time, then get on with the job. Rest assured that you will make that mistake again in the distant future but don’t let it discourage you.
It is not only amateur boatbuilders who make mistakes. I was once walking along the marina with my crew when an oddity about a professionally-built boat caught my eye. I stopped, walked back and looked again. It was clear for me to see, the hull was a different shape on one side from the other. I asked my crew to look and none of them could see it until I pointed out the error. One side of the boat had a flattish spot about 1m long and the other side was convex. The builder had set up one frame about 5mm out of position laterally or he had made the two sides of the frame differently. The point here is that nobody else saw the unfairness in the surface and only my trained eye picked it up. The builder no doubt knew what he had done wrong but it was not for me to embarrass him by picking on his error. It was a very pretty boat with a small error that few people would ever spot.
I had a somewhat similar problem to correct on Black Cat. I didn’t notice that one bulkhead had slipped downward by a few millimetres before I fitted the hull skin panels. It wasn’t until we turned the hull upright that I saw it, at which stage it stood out like a sore thumb. If left as it was the mistake would have been obvious to many people. I planed some of the excess off the offending bulkhead and built up those immediately forward and aft of it, in the process making the error disappear completely.
Okay, so we all make mistakes. Hopefully most of them will be to your boat rather than to yourself. How do you recover from your mistake? First you need to know what your mistake was, i.e. what it was that you did and what you should have done differently. That should help you to figure whether or not you can take apart the incorrect work. If you can take it apart then do so and rebuild it correctly. If you can’t take it apart then you must figure the best way to modify the structure to correct it.
When you buy a set of quality boat plans you get access to a support system as part of the package. That includes being able to ask the designer for advice when needed and to steer you along the best path whenever you have a problem. You may think of a way to correct it but the designer, from past experience, may be able to offer some other alternatives and to say what will be best. It is likely that the designer or another builder has made that same mistake before.
The important things to understand are:-
1. You will occasionally make mistakes.
2. Some of those mistakes will be silly ones and may embarrass you. Laugh them off. Own your mistake. Take control of the situation and correct it, don’t allow the mistake to take control of you and break you down.
3. The designer of your boat should be available to help. Contact him, explain your mistake and ask for advice.
4. You can recover from most mistakes. It may take a bit of application on your part but you can do it.
5. When your boat is finished you will know where your mistakes are but most other people will never see them.
When prospective builders tell me that they could not build to the standard that they see in my Paper Jet, I sometimes point out some imperfect workmanship so that they can see that my work, like theirs, is not perfect. We all make mistakes. Fix them, then get on with life.