Walking the Plank: Sam Devlin

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If you love wooden boats, there’s a good chance you’ve been smitten by a couple of Sam Devlin designs. After more than 35 years in business, there are hundreds of Devlins afloat around the world, from skiffs to daysailers to tugs.

Photo by Neil Rabinowitz

Devlin is the king of stitch-and-glue building, which he says results in a stronger, better one-piece boat that is faster to construct, requires no expensive molding and is easier to maintain. The process involves using wire sutures to hold panels of wood together until they are joined permanently with epoxy and fiberglass tape. Fiberglass or Dynel cloth is used to sheath the entire hull, and any exposed wood is coated with epoxy. The last step is coating the boat with high-quality marine paint.

The results speak for themselves — Devlin’s are among the most beautiful boats on the water. At his website (devlinboat.com) visitors are invited to talk to Devlin about designing and building a dream boat. But Devlin Designing Boat Builders, as his business is called, also offers kit boats and plans for the ambitious backyard builder. For those with the skill and the commitment, the hard part will be choosing which design you like best. And for those of us who are always looking for that shortcut to greatness, there are usually a scant couple of used Devlins on the market.

We asked Devlin to tell us about some of his favorite boats and boating memories.

First memory of being on a boat: I was 3 years old and was fishing in Puget Sound near Olympia, Washington, with my dad and grandfather. They sat me at the stern, put a fishing pole in my hands to keep me occupied, and after a couple of minutes I told my dad, “Dad, I got a fish on.” With help I landed my first salmon, and something about that day on the water — the sun on my face, the smells and the experience — probably had a large part in what I later decided to pursue as a career.

First boat you owned: An 8-foot plywood pram dinghy. I had to paint it myself each year, whether we used it or not.

Last or current boat owned: I confess that I own 12 boats [from 7 to 38 feet], all of them unique and individual, and yes, I should properly say that they own me, not the other way around!

Favorite boat you’ve built: That is always the last boat built. Any other answer will do nothing but get one in trouble. So the Red Salmon design Anne Elise, a 33-foot fishing boat with twin 300-hp Mercury outboards on her stern and 50 mph speeds, built for Anne and Lee Kilcup of Seattle.

Your dream boat: I have a design called the Oysta 42, original design work done in 1990 for a customer in Massachusetts. She was never built, but I have an airbrush rendering done by the famous Steven Davis that adorns the walls of my office, and it’s a rare week that I don’t sit for a few minutes and dream on her. A motorsailer, ketch-rigged with aft pilothouse — very halibut schooner in appearance — and gaffed-rigged main.

Most rewarding professional experience: It will sound very clichéd, but truly it is the absolutely amazing and wonderful people I have met while spending these many years designing and building wooden boats. From customers to friends that work in the industry, these have to be the most gifted and talented people walking the planet.

Your scariest adventure aboard: There is a place in Admiralty Inlet just off the Point Wilson light in Puget Sound that has a tidal rip I have been caught in three times over the years. Each time I literally had no idea why the rip developed or what conditions would make it so very steep and dangerous, and each time I have spent the hour or so that it takes to work my way through the rip, I swear I won’t be caught again. Steep and very tall waves, typically along with some wind to ice the cake — that experience is scary and dangerous, a potent brew for any sailor.

Your most memorable experience aboard: In 2005 I led a group of Devlin boats from Puget Sound to Alaska. We had been out for about a dozen days and were entering a body of water called Kynoch Inlet. It was a rainy day with low clouds mixed among steep granite cliffs on both sides; the water was deep and still and very, very moody, with an almost spiritual feel to it. I looked back at the two boats following my own boat Josephine, and it felt like all of us were floating in air — the water was so still and smooth that all sense of moving through the water had disappeared. We were simply floating in space, in the haven of the rocks and clouds, and the whole experience had a sense of calm peace with our environment and with the moment. Memories of those few minutes are my go-to space when I need to find a quiet moment in a hectic day.

Longest time you’ve spent aboard: During my college years I worked on tugboats in Alaska and once did 66 days straight on board. That was a very long trip, with six-hour watches. As I would do my rounds of the engine room, I’d stare at the fuel cocks and fantasize about shutting them off just to hear the sound of true quiet.

Favorite destination so far: Kynoch Inlet, British Columbia.

Favorite nautical book: Joe Upton’s Alaska Blues. I read it easily two times a year and enjoy it every time. Joe is a great writer and has a true gift for explaining the mystery and the beauty of our Northwest coast.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: We support many youth boatbuilding programs around the country with our boatbuilding plans and books. These programs encourage youth to build boats using the stitch-and-glue method that I have helped champion. They develop confidence and building skills — and who knows, it might be encouraging a new batch of future boatbuilders.

Favorite quote about the sea: It’s an original quote said every time I launch a new boat. “Over the land and into the drink, please God, don’t let her sink!” P.S.: It has been said over 400 times in the 38 years I have designed and built boats.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.