Setting sail: Launch of hand-crafted sailboat to follow 11-year build

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME: John Stevenson has been hand-crafting his Penobscot 14 sailboat named "Sweet Dreams" since 2005. He's seen here, nearly two and a half years ago, celebrating the point of construction in which he rolls the boat over--a rollover is a major milestone in the life of a wooden boat, as they're typically built upside down. Photo courtesy of John Stevenson

For over a decade, Fairview resident John Stevenson has spent nearly all of his free time focused on accomplishing a singular vision: constructing a wooden sailboat by hand. What started as a hobby project 11 years ago has evolved into a symbol of one man’s journey though life. On July 29, Stevenson will finally set sail in his boat, Sweet Dreams, at the Asheville Sailing Club on Lake Julian.

The adventure begins

Stevenson’s passion for the sea stems back to his time living in the Northeast. “I moved to Maine in 1999 and was very involved in sailing and boating there,” says Stevenson. “I was a member of what’s called the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which is the civilian volunteer branch of the Coast Guard. I went out on patrols and did drills with the regular Coast Guard. I was also involved with sailboat deliveries — I delivered a 52-foot boat from Fort Lauderdale to New York City and sailed as crew on a number of different boats. I went up to New Brunswick on one trip and went over to Nova Scotia twice, crossing the Gulf of Maine.”

Ironically, Stevenson says he didn’t get the idea to build his own boat until he moved to the Midwest in 2005. “I lived in Maine for six years, but there was never really a huge desire to start building until I left and moved to Indiana. And Indiana being so far from the water, it was kind of like ,‘Well, I guess now it’s time to build a boat,” says Stevenson with a chuckle.

“I found this particular design online just doing research,” says Stevenson. “It’s called a Penobscot 14 and was designed by a man named Arch Davis. He lives in Belfast, Maine, right on what’s called Penobscot Bay, which is where the name came from.”

Stevenson says he found a two-hour, step-by-step videotape of Davis building a Penobscot 14, showing the various stages of the boat as it was being built. “I figured ‘Well, let me order the tape and see if I can do this. I’ve never built a boat before, but I’m decently handy and willing to jump in and figure things out as I go.’ That skill set gave me enough ground to think I could do this. So [along with the videotape] I received what was maybe a 100-page book of detailed instructions and a full set of plans, which didn’t include any of the wood, but showed different views of the boat and its segments. Just like you have a set of plans for building a house, [Davis] put together a set of plans for the boat that walks you through every step of the way,” says Stevenson.

A boat from another era 

“This particular design is fashioned after a type of boat called a Whitehall that was commonly used almost like taxicabs in the waterfronts of any major city — New York, Boston, London, etc. — in the late 1800s and early 1900s ferrying goods and people back and forth from shore to ships,” says Stevenson.

“[Sweet Dreams] is what they call a ‘lapstrake’ – ‘strake’ is the English word for plank – so this boat has six planks per side and they overlap each other. Modern boats are mostly made out of fiberglass and are smooth-sided; they don’t need to be lapstrake. There are other methods to make wooden boats that are not lapstrake, but it’s a good technique that’s stood the test of time,” explains Stevenson.

Although Stevenson has built Sweet Dream using a style that’s well over a century old, he used modern construction materials and technology to help get the job done. “I’m using marine-grade plywood, which is a special type of plywood that has waterproof glues in the plies of the wood, as well as epoxy and stainless steel screws, all of which are used to hold it together and keep it waterproof. Of course it’s sealed up and painted as well, but those are the materials that contrast to what was used 100 or 150 years ago,” says Stevenson.

Sweet Dreams driveway sailing
DREAMING BIG: Sweet Dreams is a lapstrake, lug-rigged, day-sailor made from marine-grade plywood, epoxied and screwed together, with cypress and walnut seats, cherry knees, quarter knees and breasthook, cypress spars, sassafras keel and oars, and a few pieces of oak thrown in on high stress areas (mast step, under the centerboard case and the tenon at the bottom of the mast.) Photo courtesy of John Stevenson

Over a decade in the making

“It’s been a long time coming for a number of reasons,” says Stevenson. “First, I’m pretty slow at building. I tend to be too much of a perfectionist and can get caught up in that. Though I’ve learned to give up a lot of my perfectionism just to save my sanity, it still takes me a while to build.”

Stevenson says he found it was necessary to let the idea of perfection go and simply focus on the pursuit of excellence. “I like to think there’s a reasonable level of craftsmanship and excellence that’s produced in the product — definitely not perfection. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I haven’t made a mistake that I’ve been unable to recover from. There are times when you just drop back, figure out a different approach, figure out a way to work around the mistake you made and get the job done one way or another. So it’s been a really interesting learning experience,” he says.

Aside from the tedium of being a perfectionist attempting to build a boat by hand, Stevenson says he also contended with a series of personal challenges. “[During the build,] I was diagnosed with a failed heart valve and had open-heart surgery. The surgeon and the cardiologist told me not to go near the shop for like six or eight months. I was on blood thinners, and if I went out there and cut myself while I was building, it could be bad, so that set things back a bit,” says Stevenson.

Stevenson also notes that a contributing factor to the sprawling construction timeline was his relocation to Western North Carolina from Indiana in 2013. “The majority of the boat has really been built in the last five years. Once we got settled down here, I was able to finish it up and work in earnest,” says Stevenson.

Sweet Dreams transom varnish
ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Stevenson says that part of the reason construction took so long is that he wasn’t shy about straying from the original plans to incorporate his own custom designs, as seen here with a close up look into the boat’s custom interior. Photo by John Stevenson

More than just a boat

For Stevenson, this process has yielded more than he expected. “One of the greatest joys of this build has actually been meeting a good friend online who also built one of these boats,” says Stevenson, referring to Illinois resident Vince Bobrosky. “Vince has become such a good friend that he’s actually flown down here six times and spent multiple weeks helping out just because he enjoys building boats and wants to be around.”

Stevenson continues: “I buy him a plane ticket and a bunch of beer and he’s a hard worker; it’s a great trade, and he and I have a really nice collaboration. So that is a legacy of my boat, creating this friendship and having him contribute. I cannot stake the claim that I built the entire boat; Vince has been a huge help and made a major impact. My boat is better off for his role in it.”

Time to celebrate

“I’m really excited to finally be launching it, of course,” says Stevenson. “In the life of a wooden boat, the launch is probably the most spectacular day of all, and it’s something that I have anticipated for 11 years. I have friends and family members that are literally flying in from California, Oregon and Florida, as well as a number of friends locally and family locally and the sailing club members. To be able to invite them to share what is a really thrilling day in my life is just very special for me.”

“Also,” Stevenson continues, “the boat has actually turned out better than I expected. It’s better than I could have ever imagined.”

TIME TO TOAST: John Stevenson seen here toasting during his rollover ceremony over two years ago. He’ll be toasting again for his boat’s launch on July 29. Photo courtesy of John Stevenson

Typically, new boats are christened by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow, but considering how much time and effort Stevenson has put into the boat, he’s content with pouring some champagne over the bow instead.

Sweet Dreams’ launch ceremony will take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 29, at the Asheville Sailing Club at Lake Julian Park, 406 Overlook Road Extension, Arden. The ceremony is free, open to the public and non-alcoholic drinks will be provided. Stevenson recommends coming early to inspect the boat pre-launch and staying later for an opportunity to sail. 


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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a native of the Midwest who moved to Asheville in September of 2016 after eight years in Los Angeles. When he's not writing for Mountain Xpress, his energies are focused on better understanding himself and the rich wealth of history that the world has to offer.

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