Sailing Journey: Building a Boat Part 1

Continually asked about the adventures of my sailing journey, building a boat, and living on a boat for 21 years, so this is the first chapter.

Why a sailing boat?

They say that when you’re young, you’re crazy. Although when you’re young, time is a different dimension.

Part of this chapter starts back in the early 1980s without me on the scene. And, during a time when the future skipper worked on a fishing trawler in far north Queensland’s Cape York waters. Thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have my own boat to sail the beautiful secluded islands of eastern Australia when I want and for how long I want. I’ll build my own boat’ – or words to that effect.

The ambitious dream is born.

sailing, Queensland, Australia, Oceania

Six months after building commenced, a chance meeting throws me into this dream, which soon engulfs our lives and almost every waking hour.

Is it delusional or optimistic in believing that building a boat would take only 6 months and cost only AUD$10,000 (a lot of money back then)? Through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – not so much of the tears – your life morphs into a very different story.

A little background

Thinking of building a boat? Don’t do it, but don’t let me put you off. If you don’t try, you won’t know what’s involved, right?

building a boat, Hawkesbury, Australia, Oceania

Building a boat is just like excavating a massive-sized cavernous hole, whimsically throwing dollars into this endless void then lighting a fire to it all for good measure. Dramatic? Maybe.

But don’t be fooled. It isn’t cheap building your own boat unless you’re in the habit of slapping things together on the cheap.

The problem with a project of this size when you’re in your early twenties is that you don’t have the available cash flow unless of course, you’re born into a wealthy family made of money. What’s the alternative? Work for 6 months of the year then take 6 months off to build the boat. This is what we could afford at the time.

Before starting the boat building, I was saving hard for a 12-month trip around the world, which I did solo during 1985, some 18-months after meeting my partner. This was something I felt I must do and longed for since leaving school, and very thankful I wasn’t stopped.

Choosing the boat plans

Arriving on the scene 6 months after the building commenced and with plans already purchased for a Bruce Roberts 28′ Motorsailer, I go with the flow as don’t really know what I’m doing. Although, you’d think that the thick bundle of a zillion plans would indicate the amount of work to follow?

Bruce Roberts 28' plans
Photo credit: Bruce Roberts

Reasons for choosing a Roberts 28′, which is just over 8.5-metres long:

  • Bruce Roberts’ boats are typically home-built and its plans are easy to follow (they say)
  • 28′ size is a little easier to handle as a first boat
  • the size saves costs when mooring, berthing, and on slipping fees as in Australia, you’re under the 30-foot fee threshold before the next expensive tier
  • twin-steering (helm in the wheelhouse and tiller in the cockpit), the cockpit’s tiller also acts as an emergency steering tiller
  • hide in the wheelhouse during nasty weather
  • spacious living areas especially for a 28′ boat
  • a steel boat is safer than other materials when running aground or hitting a reef (hopefully)
  • shoal draft for creeping closer into bays and coves, also better to take further into riverways
  • a long keel for more stability and comfortable sailing, although this does create drag and slows the boat down more than a fin keel
  • great long-term coastal cruising boat

So on to building the dream…

Where do you build a boat?

Hiring an enclosed shed is out of the question as the rent is too expensive. At this stage, there isn’t an end date for completion – scary.

Luckily, there’s a vacant paddock next to the skipper’s parents’ home alongside a creek, although in the open. As the rent is minimal, this spot is to be the boat’s home during the build.

What’s it like building a boat?

Hard. Slow. Time-consuming. Expensive. Stressful. Challenging. Numerous hurdles. Gain a plethora of skills. Teaches patience.

We learn everything on the job by trial and error as neither of us is a boatbuilder. It’s incredibly fulfilling knowing that you’re building your own boat. When finished, you’ll know your baby inside and out – every inch.

The sense of achievement is immense.

After 6 months into this mammoth project, the boat resembles only a mere skeleton of stringers and frames.

Eventually, the shell becomes just like an enormous upside-down carcass of a great whale.

building a boat, Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, Australia, Oceania

At this stage, thoughts of uncertainty run through my mind. This boat-building project is both hugely daunting and overwhelming, and with no end in sight.

Can we finish this boat? How long will it take to build? How much will everything cost? Don’t forget, we’re in our early twenties and not earning a plethora of money.

Can you sail?


For now, I’m taking part in building a boat, not actually sailing a boat. Back then, I didn’t know how to sail and had never set foot on one either.

The skipper’s family always owned boats of some kind, albeit not the sailing variety.

Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Luckily, hijacking their boat during our downtime is a great way to learn some of the boating ropes and to gain a little experience, whilst enjoying the Hawkesbury River…

Hawkesbury River, NSW, Australia, Oceania

…or, leisurely discovering Sydney’s northern beaches and inhabitants.

Kookaburra, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Learning how to sail came with an 18′ Hobie Cat, which teaches you the principles of sailing even though it’s much smaller than what we’re building.

If you haven’t seen one before, this short video by Flofloflo869 gives you a taste of a more modern Hobie Cat than in the early 1980s.

Whizzing across Sydney Harbour dodging commercial vessels whilst freezing our butts off in the skipper’s Hobie Cat, is not only exhilarating but an excellent way to learn how to sail.

Donning wetsuits during Sydney’s icy-cold and windy winters, you don’t need to sail for very long before turning blue from the bitter cold. Returning as quickly as possible for a little warmth becomes a priority. So, pushing the Hobie forward fast without capsizing becomes the objective and challenge.

Learning some boating theory

During the build, we indulge in TAFE college night classes for vital theory subjects.

Lessons include Small-craft Seamanship, Radiotelephony (even learning Morse Code), Meteorology, and several more as after the boat is finished, of course, we’re going sailing.

As we’ll be cruising in riverways and along Australia’s vast coastline, then we need to know what to do out there – can’t expect someone to save us and the boat, should something go amiss.

Colo River, Hawkesbury, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Most courses lasted a full semester including exams, proving an invaluable way to learn how to read charts and use a Sextant (long gone now). Let’s face it, what happens if all of your electronics on the boat die when you’re out at sea or near an isolated island? What’s your Plan B?

Back to boat building. Be sure to check back next week to read the next chapter of the Sailing Journey: Building a Boat Part 2, where I get into the real nitty-gritty of boat building.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

More boat-building chapters

Check out more of my chapters in this boat-building series!

34 responses to “Sailing Journey: Building a Boat Part 1”

  1. Trablogger Avatar

    This is indeed quite an adventure, to throw oneself into a massive challenge and get it done! You have lived some amazing adventures by doing such crazy things! Will be reading next parts too, soon.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, as I said, were we young and silly or both just had an objective we worked towards?
      Yes, many crazy adventures but why not? 😉
      Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

      1. Trablogger Avatar

        Yes WHY NOT! That is the best motivation for any adventure!!

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        A boat gives you so much freedom whilst simultaneously restricting certain freedom.

      3. Trablogger Avatar

        Though I don’t have a boat experience, with my motorbike experience I understand what you’re saying.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I also have a little motorbike experience. 😉

  2. equinoxio21 Avatar

    Quite an endeavour… 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yeah, tell me about it and lasted many, many years until the boat was finished! 😉

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Bu then you built your “house”(boat)?

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, the sail (house) boat. 😉
        Check out Part 2 to see how it shaped up…

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        On my way.

  3. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    Some friends of my mom’s from her boat club built a boat – it was bigger than the one you built and it took them a long time. They said it wasn’t easy and they’ve had some problems with it over the years. It was cool to go onboard and see all the things they incorporated into the design so that it suits their needs!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ah right, how long was the boat they built? What was if build from, fibreglass, steel, wood, concrete?
      Yes, it’s a massive project and we were so young to take something like this on…

      1. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

        I’m pretty sure it was steel, but I don’t remember how long it was. I remember it being really spacious on the inside.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ah right, so maybe if the steel wasn’t treated properly during the building stage, the boat had rust problems – this happens a lot.

        Typically, home-built designs are more spacious as they’re cruising boats. Racing boats aren’t as spacious and much lighter. 😉

  4. gillmorris Avatar

    Nilla! Is there any end to your talents! Sounds hard work, but what an achievement. Not many people I know can say, “yeah I built my own boat” xx

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Gill, very kind!
      Just try and do as much in life that I can while I can. And, yes it was bloody hard but worth it as we lived on this one for 21 years. ☺️ X

      1. gillmorris Avatar

        Good plan! WOW – 21 years, bet you had sea legs for a while afterwards 😉 xx

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Certainly did and found it hard to settle back on land for several years! 🙂 x

  5. Dave Ply Avatar

    Building a sailboat in 6 months? Seriously? A canoe maybe.

    Of course, when I was 20 I moved halfway across the country, knowing no one and having no prospects upfront, hoping to find a job in a new climate. Ah, the optimism of youth.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, yeah Dave, seriously. Well when you’re young, time takes on a different dimension.

      Exactly, we don’t think twice at that age and take more chances, which is great as I believe you experience more in life. I bet you had a blast and made some wonderful friends during those years.

      As we get older, we seem to put up more obstacles as to why we can’t do things…may be we just become too ‘Comfortably Numb’. 😉

      There’s quite a few chapters to this Sailing journey and still have 4 posts in my Draft folder with another 11 posts completed and scheduled for the coming weeks, but still but to share. I haven’t even gone into a great detail but a brain dump of 20,000+ words later and it’s still going. Guess this part of the journey spans across 25 years, so a lot there to write about. Hope I don’t bore my readers too much. 😉

  6. rhyia'srucksack Avatar

    great images

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for taking the time to leave me feedback. 🙂

  7. Following the Rivera Avatar
    Following the Rivera

    This is quite a task you’ve set for your yourself! Looking forward to reading part 2.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It was a massive task but completed this project after many years.
      I’ve written 12 posts on this journey and have around 5 posts still in Draft to complete.

  8. the eternal traveller Avatar

    I’m not so sure I would want to slap a boat together on the cheap, considering where it would be going. It sounds like this boat was done the right way. 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It was a labour of love Carol and guess why it took us so long. The next chapter gives more detail. 😉

  9. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

    Very interesting journey
    Keep it up

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Mohamad, Chapter 2 is coming out next week. 😉

      1. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

        Looking forward to it

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Cool, thank you and have a great week! Cheers, Nilla

      3. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

        Same to you too Nilla

  10. nitinsingh Avatar

    This time you wrote v different 🙂🙂.
    Lovely post

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi, you mean not about travelling? This post is part of a travelling segment. 😉
      Thank you for your feedback. Cheers, Nilla

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