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Sam Devlin - Designer, builder, tinkerer

The master of stitch-and-glue will build you a boat or show you how to do it yourself

Taking US 101 west from Olympia on a crystal-clear day, it's obvious why the license plates refer to Washington as the Evergreen State. Pastures, meadows and forests frame the islands and the sparkling blue waters of Puget Sound against the backdrop of the jagged Olympic Mountains in the distance.

Devlin (here in his Olympia, Wash., office) says he builds boats with 'personality.'

It is fitting, then, for yacht designer Sam Devlin to have set up shop on Gravelly Beach Loop, near the southern terminus of Puget Sound in Olympia, a place where Mother Nature provides the perfect mix of conditions and scenery for messing about in all kinds of boats. Calling himself a designing boatbuilder, Devlin builds boats from plywood, epoxy and fiberglass, a construction method that's known as stitch-and-glue (

It's less complex than traditional plank-on-frame or building in fiberglass from a mold, and it's a reason for the popularity of Devlin's boat plans, which are available to other builders and hobbyists who have tired of the uniformity of production offerings. More than 400 such vessels have left his own shop, and maybe twice as many have been built by others thus far.

"There's a line in the sand for everyone," Devlin says, "and to me that line is fiberglass. Don't get me wrong - I don't disagree with it. There are tangible benefits. But it's the psychology behind it, which I call the 'hypocrisy of design.' We think a boat has to be perfect from Day One. But freezing the evolution of design is hurting the industry."

In Devlin's world, a good boat is as much about character as it is about appearance. "My design goal is giving a boat personality and 'boat-like looks,' " he says. "Hypothetically speaking, whimsy is more important than accommodation or performance."

A salty variety of boats

Since going into business for himself in 1979, Devlin has built an impressive design collection that includes tiny rowing and sailing dinghies like the Pollywog and Guppy, as well as larger sailboats like the 23-foot Arctic Tern sloop, the sleek 36-foot cruising yacht Peregrine, and the 42-foot Oysta motorsailer. Over time, however, his focus has shifted.

Devlin piloted his restored 1934 fishing boat through Alaska's Inside Passage.

"I used to design mostly sailboats, but sailing tanked 25 years ago," Devlin says. "Today, it's 80 percent power."

Among these powerboats are duck boats and the aptly named 16-foot harbor tug Godzilli, the pilothouse cruisers Surf Scoter 22 and 26, and fantail tug yachts such as the Czarinna 30 and the oceangoing Sockeye 45. His latest is the Pelicano 18, which is available in center console skiff, bass boat, raised-deck and picnic versions.

"I'm a tinkerer, and I don't like to do one thing and one thing only for too long," he says. "All my boats start as a design for an individual. I tend to customize them for the owner, then I come up with spin-offs."

That's distinctly different from large production boatbuilders that invest big sums upfront for tooling to crank out a high number of the same boat with minimal variations. "Building many copies of one design is neither economically nor emotionally important to me. It doesn't define success,"

Devlin says. More important is the personal experience in the use of the vessel he conceives.

His wife is Mexican, so the Devlins travel there frequently. Of course, Mexico is the land of pangas - slender, long outboard-powered skiffs that have great load-carrying and seakeeping abilities. The Pelicano is "simply a translation of the panga type ... perhaps a bit shorter because I will have to trailer her down behind my Toyota," reads Devlin's design brief. Making good time across open water, poking into a shallow cove, putting her nose on the beach to snorkel in the clear waters - that's his vision for this small, elegant yet simple 18-footer.

The Pelicano 18 was inspired by the pangas of Mexico.

It is no coincidence that the terms "small" and "simple" are central to Devlin's work. He's bothered by the complexity of today's boats that are fitted out with heavy and complicated systems. "I think we'll see a step back from that," he says. "The trend is going toward smaller and less complex vessels. Giant is a thing of the past."

An artist's eye

Devlin's thinking resonated with Henry Wendt, a retired pharmaceutical executive and a collector of rare, old maps. Wendt downsized from a 65-foot Chinook Post, a cruising powerboat inspired by the Canadian Post Class patrol vessels, to a Devlin Sockeye 45.

"Sam has a good reputation - he's an artist with a good eye," says Wendt. "I used to hunt ducks, and the Sockeye's elegant fantail reminds me of a duck sitting on the water."

The Godzilli 16 was designed as a small workboat or launch.

Wendt and his wife, Holly, who are in their 70s, like to cruise the waters of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. "I wanted a boat we can easily handle in all conditions and that is fit for the waves of the Pacific Northwest," he says.

He also carries a bright-red rowing skiff that he lowers with a hoist on calm mornings to get his exercise. Wendt says he is drawn to remote fjords where he can catch a glimpse of eagles, bears and whales. However, these places are off the beaten path, so a strong and reliable vessel is essential. He considers Devlin's stitch-and-glue construction bulletproof. "I get the quality of wood and the strength of epoxy and fiberglass," he says.

If Devlin has a reputation as an artist, he's also known for his unusual naming conventions. Devlin designed a "recession package" in the early 1980s that included a 15-foot boat that is now simply known as the NC. At the time, he had a product but no name. So he waited for inspiration, which came at the dentist's office, where he read a story about Nancy Reagan's procurement of fine china for the White House.

"One place setting cost as much as my boat with sails and trailer," he muses. "And so I decided to call it Nancy's China."

Devlin also has taken his licks in this current Great Recession, losing a contract for a 52-footer. But he has held up better than many of his peers who sell mass-market confection. "Business is warfare," he says. "A long time ago I realized we have to be guerillas, not an army, attacking the right niches and getting out before we get burned."

So he'll carry on his stitch-and-glue mission here on Gravelly Beach Loop, near the bottom end of Puget Sound in the Evergreen State. "It's been said that a designer only has one boat from which he builds different versions over time," Devlin says. "But if I do my job well, my customers will never look at boats with the same eyes."

See related articles:

- A first-time boatbuilder dives right in

- The ins and outs of stitch-and-glue

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.