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30,000 boats and counting: Chesapeake Light Craft

By typical kindergarten standards, John C. Harris was sort of a weird kid. As a 5-year-old he preferred fiddling with the pencils, compasses and other drawing tools on his father’s drafting table to the more conventional childhood games his friends were playing outside. And when his classmates were drawing engineering schematics in high school drafting class, Harris’ frustrated teacher simply left him alone to design and draw what he was completely obsessed with: boats.

Visitors to the CLC shop face difficult choices.

Almost three decades of scribbling and designing later, Harris today owns and runs Chesapeake Light Craft, a wooden-kit-boat company based on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. The company has an enthusiastic, cult-like following made up of thousands of amateur garage, basement and backyard boatbuilders. And if there were any doubt about the popularity of CLC’s kits, consider that 30,000 have been shipped to almost every corner of the planet.

An Act of Rebellion

Originally from lake country in Aiken, South Carolina, Harris designed and built his first boat — a 16-foot wooden rowing shell — when he was 14. It was an act he amusingly describes as a “moment of teenage rebellion.”

“When I was a teenager, I demanded that my folks buy me a rowing shell,” Harris says. “Well, they simply laughed at the proposition. I’ll show them! I thought to myself, so I set off drawing, designing and building what was probably the worst rowing boat ever. My subsequent boats got better and better, but that first one was a mess, if I’m honest.”

Later in high school, while other students were preparing to attend college, Harris was laser-focused on becoming a boatbuilder and designer. Surprisingly, he struggled in high school, but it wasn’t for lack of smarts. “I was not a good student,” Harris says. “I never got in trouble, but I wrestled with lousy grades and overwhelming boredom in school. In retrospect, a creative educator could have leveraged my fascination with boats into better academic results. For example, I scraped through trigonometry one semester by turning in extra-credit projects solving boat design problems. But mostly no one gave a fig that I had this thing for boats, so I was adrift as a high school student.” 

Harris had some difficult choices to make as his high school years wound to a close. “I didn’t have the grades to get into the schools that offer naval architecture degrees,” Harris recalls. “I couldn’t major in boatbuilding, so the logical thing to do was to study music, my second love. I picked Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, for its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, and for its active sailing and rowing teams. There I got a degree in music, working in the maritime trades and building boats during the summers and holidays.”

This Skerry design draws on traditional working craft of the U.K. and Scandinavia, and a little bit of American Swampscott dory.

New Beginnings

Harris’ post-college career started at O’Connell’s Wooden Boat Shop in Chestertown. His first job was cutting boat parts — panels, frames and trim — from sheets of marine plywood for a fledgling operation on the Western Shore that specialized in kayak plans and build-it-yourself kits. The name of that shop, as you might have guessed, was Chesapeake Light Craft. Unfortunately O’Connell’s suffered from cash-flow problems, even with the steady CLC business. “In a fit of frustration over wondering whether my next paycheck would clear, I approached CLC’s owner, Chris Kulczycki, who started the company in 1991,” Harris says. “I asked him about starting my own shop to make his kits, and he countered by suggesting that he would rent a shop space and bring me and the kit manufacturing in-house. So I became CLC’s first employee and set up shop at our current location in Annapolis.” 

Popular Kits, Pricing And Hours To Build Among Chesapeake Light Craft’s most popular kits are the Kaholo SUP, Wood Duck kayak, Northeaster Dory and PocketShip (one of John C. Harris’ favorite designs). Wondering how much money you’ll spend and how much time you’ll need to invest in building one of these? Here are some guidelines to help you get started in the selection process. Design Complete Kit Plans Time To Build Kaholo 14 SUP $899 $89 50-70 hours Wood Duck 12 Kayak $1,049 $99 70-80 hours Northeaster Dory (Sail) $1,499 $99 120-150 hours PocketShip $3,399 $249 650-750 hours

Harris’ timing couldn’t have been more perfect. With an exploding craze for sea kayaks, CLC grew rapidly. Harris added employees, more shop space and eventually a computer numerical controlled machine that eliminated the manual cutting of kit parts with routers and saws. Harris rounded up investors and bought the business in December 1999. Today CLC has 20 employees and a shop 20 times the size of the original workshop corner Harris set up in 1995.

Modern Design

The CLC kit lineup is impressive, ranging from small prams and kayaks to a 31-foot proa. The company has even diversified into powerboat kits, including a 15-foot, 2-inch Peeler Skiff and an 8-foot Cocktail Class Racer. CLC’s designs are known for their clever looks, rich wood finishes, performance and uniqueness. Asked about his favorites, Harris replies, “Among my own designs, two of them — PocketShip and the Northeaster Dory — always make me smile. Both were whimsical, impulsive creations, not at all driven by any sense of market demand. I really just designed them for the fun of it. Both have proven enormously popular.”

Not all of CLC’s designs have been instant hits. Harris has had his share of misses — for instance, a modern interpretation of one of Adney & Chapelle’s indigenous West Greenland kayaks. “This was a design that had already been around for years, garnered great reviews and was widely considered one of the best kayaks of its type on the marketplace,” Harris says. “The kit we developed was intricate and beautifully thought out, and we put together this ludicrously detailed manual — more than 450 pages. Well, people were excited that it was available … until they started building it. They’d get to about Page 120 and just get tired of the project. We spent $65,000 on the project in 2002, and I think we sold one last year. One of the many lessons I learned with that design was to keep the projects realistic. That was and is a great design, but it’s only a little better than kayaks in our catalog that take a fraction of the time to build.”

Harris’ guru is the late designer Philip C. Bolger, known for many eccentric stitch-and-glue sharpie sailboats, catamarans and elegant rowing craft, as well as many larger designs, including the original Egg Harbor 31. “When I was in eighth grade I discovered Bolger’s books, and those of his business partner, H.H. ‘Dynamite’ Payson,” Harris says. “Forty years before CLC found its groove, Bolger and Payson had identified a need for good boats that could be built by amateurs. The amateur boatbuilder market has been around since the invention of the middle class, but the 1920s through 1960s were troubled with designs for amateurs that were mostly really bad. By modern standards they weren’t at all easy to build, and many of them were dumbed down in ways that afflicted performance. Bolger blew all that up. He wondered why you couldn’t have it both ways — performance and ease of construction.”

Closer inspections of Harris’ designs show undeniable Bolger influences. Take a look at Harris’ dory designs and you’ll see some essence of Bolger’s popular Gloucester Light Dory. And it’s no mistake that CLC has a robust lineup of sharpie and multihull craft. Bolger was a fan of these relatively inexpensive, high-performance boats. But performance and good looks don’t matter if the boats don’t get built. Easy-to-build boats are a core ingredient of CLC’s secret sauce.

The Best Boats You Can Build

Harris sails a 17-foot Northeaster Dory. A perennial favorite with CLC customers, it is easy to build, fast under sail or oars and stable, thanks to the flared topsides.

Sharp-looking, fast and easy to handle, CLC’s boats are also known for being easy for first-time builders to construct. That “you can do it yourself” mantra is the backbone of the business. When Harris designs a boat, he draws it so that most anyone with a decent level of craftiness and basic household tools can build it. The key is not just in the design, however, but also in the instruction manual that comes with each CLC kit. Harris admits that creating a build-it-yourself kit design that is accessible to first-timers is a gigantic undertaking. He also admits that not all amateur builders have a great time with a kit they’ve purchased. 

“Often it’s because the kit or the instruction manual isn’t perfect,” Harris says. “So a bunch of us at CLC spend thousands of hours (and dollars) per year working on the documentation, the assembly sequence and the fit of the parts in the kits. I think CLC’s essential strength is that we’re sympathetic to the first-time builder, and we aren’t insulted when someone has a problem with an instruction manual we just spent six months writing. In the end, our manuals and the way we write them make or break us.”

Simple stitch-and-glue construction is another standard that makes CLC’s kits so popular. Broken down into its essentials, the process utilizes multiple pieces of marine-grade plywood that can be wrangled and bent around frames and supports before being “stitched” together with copper wire at the seams. Thickened epoxy resin is then slathered into the seams and allowed to cure. The copper stitches are removed, and fiberglass cloth is laminated over the entire structure. That’s stitch-and-glue, in a nutshell. The process works so well for CLC’s kits because all of the parts for the boat can be precut by a CNC machine, then packaged and shipped to the customer in a compact parcel.

A jewel in CLC’s crown is the company’s patented LapStitch building method, which allows entry-level builders to construct a number of beautiful lapstrake designs. “Our brainstorm was to combine stitch-and-glue techniques with computer-cut lapstrake planking,” Harris says. “It’s the best of all worlds. You get the fast, moldless assembly of stitch-and-glue, with no tricky edge tool work anywhere. The resulting boat is indistinguishable from a lapstrake boat built using more traditional methods. And there are added benefits. Since each overlapping plank forms, in effect, a structural longitudinal stringer, the monocoque hull shell is innately very strong. Thus there are few frames, and we don’t need to use as much fiberglass as we would in a straightforward stitch-and-glue hull. This makes the boats even easier to build. It’s win-win-win.”

Outside World

Away from the shop, Harris is an enthusiastic family man. He lives with his wife, Kerry, and daughter, Ella, in a home on the Wye River, which Harris says is perfect for exploration. “It’s a spectacular stretch of water,” he says. “It would take decades in a small boat to explore every cove and eel rut on the Wye. While my college classmates were partying on weekends, I’d explore the Eastern Shore alone, lurking around wonderful old yards like Cutts & Case in Oxford, Maryland. I fell in love with that beautiful, perfect, fragile estuarine landscape that is the essential character of the Eastern Shore, so the Wye is perfect for me.”

Remember that music degree? Music is still a big part of Harris’ life. “I play jazz trombone, and once in a while do a little writing and arranging,” he says. “I guess at my apogee, before my daughter was born, I was a solid second-call trombone player in the D.C./Baltimore scene. I loved it, though, and really kept at it until the arrival of my daughter. So I play only once or twice a month these days. I think as little Ella gets older we’ll explore music together, maybe take guitar lessons together. I have loved music so much that it will always be a part of my life somehow.”

When he’s not trying out his own creations behind his house or playing music, Harris can be found exploring the Wye on a 15-foot, Scandinavian-style rowing/sailing boat, his C-Dory powerboat or a C&C 27 Mark V. Can he imagine a different life for himself? “I can’t imagine doing anything else. The world of small wooden boats is such a joyful place.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.



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