Boats of the Bay – Inuksuk

February 3rd, 2013


Name: Inuksuk  (Inook-shook)

Type: Blue Water Capable Sailing Ketch

Length: 44 feet (14.65 m)

Weight: 23.5 tons (47,000 lbs)

Hull: Ferro-Cement

Owners: John and Catherine Dook

A few years ago, it was possible to wander down to the harbour and see good ferro-cement boats and bad ferro-cement boats. The age of the backyard builder was in full swing and ferro-cement had definite attractions for the do-it-yourself crowd. Cost of materials was one advantage, and it seemed as inexpensive to build a 50 foot hull as it was to build a 40 footer. Many were well built, but more than a few became projects in limbo, poorly planned and executed, a problem for everyone who would own or work on them.

One had to be very careful when looking to buy such a vessel, for it was easy to wind up with one of the “problem” boats if you weren’t careful. That’s really no longer the case, because the ferro-cement boat building craze of the 70′s and early 80′s has all but died away and all the bad ferro-cement boast have already met their ultimate fates. Some are on the bottom, others are sitting on land in storage, others float at anchor, good enough for the live-aboard lifestyle, but not seaworthy enough to leave the bay. Still others have been crushed back into the sand and gravel from which they came. From cracking hulls to poorly bedded concrete, to keels that fell off while underway, to wire mesh showing rust stains at surface; all the poor ones showed their defects early and with a stunning certainty. One way or another, most of the poorly built ferro-cement vessels are gone and long forgotten.

Interior Looking Forward

Interior Looking Forward

Inuksuk isn’t one of these. She’s well built, tough, strong; a beautiful example of a well built ferro-cement blue water sailing ketch. Built by her original owner in Port Credit Ontario Canada in 1975, Inuksuk has survived the truck journey from there to British Columbia and a three day hurricane while en-route to Hawaii, which was sufficiently fierce enough to cause damage to the sails and rigging. The hull took it all in stride, which says a lot for it’s construction.

Some people have a hard time imagining a boat made of cement. They can well imagine a wooden boat floating, and they have seen steel boats, from cruise ships to oil tankers, but a boat made of cement? How is this possible? How does it float? It’s possible and it floats, because a displacement hull doesn’t care whether it’s made of wood, steel, aluminum, fiberglass or cement. A displacement hull floats, not because the materials it’s made of are buoyant, but because the materials it’s made of keep the water outside of the internal hull space. It floats because the hull displaces a volume of water greater in weight than the total weight of the boat and everything in it. Find a material with which is strong enough to hold it’s shape and keep water out of your hull-space, and you can build a boat.

A boat is a hole in the water surrounded by your hull material. A block of wood will float in the bathtub because it’s weight, when compared to the weight of the volume of water it displaces, is less than that of the water. A teacup saucer won’t float because it’s weight, compared to it’s volume and therefore the amount of water it displaces, is more than that of water. But a teacup will float, because it meets the standard required for floating, even though it’s made of the same porcelain as the saucer. It displaces more water by weight than it weighs itself. Think of the ferro-cement boat, as a giant boat shaped teacup, with a lid (deck) on it. It weighs less than the water it’s hull can displace. The equilibrium occurs at the waterline, just as it does with any other vessel. Add weight to the vessel, it rides a bit lower. Remove weight and it rides a little higher. There’s a lot of thinking and engineering that goes into successful boat design.

Gangway to Cockpit and passage to aft cabin

Gangway to Cockpit and passage to aft cabin

Ferro-cement boats like Inuksuk are built from cement and a steel armature of varying thicknesses. One method of construction, and there are several, goes something like this: First, the entire hull outline is fabricated by welding together a basic framework made of concrete reinforcing bar. It’s the same sort of thing they use in concrete overpasses, buildings and interstate freeways. The bar is bent to follow the lines and curves of the boat’s design. Often this is done with the hull being formed upside-down, but not always. Then layers of wire mesh are applied to the skeletal under framing,  until the basic outline of the hull can be seen. Often the hull, deck, inner bulkheads, fuel tanks, engine bed and rigging points are all formed up at the same time. The trick then, is to apply the specially formulated cement in such a manner as to afford the smoothest and strongest finish. This is called “plastering”. It’s the toughest part of the job to do and it’s here that most mistakes happen. These show up later in the boat as cracks, rough areas or unevenness in weight distribution.

Catherine and John Dook

Catherine and John Dook

The very best ferro-cement vessels are plastered in one continuous process from start to finish. It can take 24 hours or more, begins at one end of the hull and proceeds in orderly stages, keeping the working area of cement wet at all times. Inuksuk is one of these. This method means there are no seams, no places for cracks to form later; the entire structure is one solid piece, like a teacup. Once the plaster has been completed, none of the metal framework is visible, inside or especially outside the boat. It will be sealed in the concrete, safe from moisture and rust. The cement must then cure for the proper time and must be kept damp and at the correct temperature while it undergoes this process. Cement gets warm as it cures and inattention can allow it to dry out before it hardens properly. Finally fairing of the hull takes place, grinders are used to remove any imperfections from the hull making it ready for painting just like any other boat. The hull is complete at this point and it then remains for the fitting out to be completed.

John and Catherine have owned Inuksuk for 17 years. They have lived aboard her for every one of those. It was they who survived the three day hurricane while en-route to Hawaii, an experience you have to live through to fully understand. The interior is roomy and warm. The cabins both fore and aft feature teak woodwork, as do the main salon and galley. Teak is getting to be hard to come by, and the interior of this vessel would cost many thousands of dollars to complete today. Cooking is by propane stove and there’s even an oven. Heating is electrical while at dockside and by propane at other times. The heater is a design particularly favored by West Coast mariners, as it draws on outside air for combustion. That way you don’t lose warm cabin air up the stack. It’s only on the coldest nights that they have to resort to lighting the auxiliary kerosene heater.

The rigging is all modern. Aluminum masts and stainless steel wire keep everything in place. The engine is a 60hp Isuzu diesel, an easy engine to find parts for, which is something you consider when planning a boat fit to travel around the world. The gentleman who built Inuksuk was an airline pilot and apparently in love with electronics and the switches used to control it all. The navigational electronics and the electrical panels are impressive to say the least.

All in all, this is a very spacious, comfortable, sturdy and reliable vessel. She’s served John and Catherine very well over the years.

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