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Northabout - Building a polar passagemaker

Boatbuilding is an art, and to see a hull emerge from a craftsman’s hands is, for me, one of life’s miracles.

Boatbuilding is an art, and to see a hull emerge from a craftsman’s hands is, for me, one of life’s miracles. After having built several dozen boats, the process continues to fascinate me. This unique project was no different.

Northabout was designed by Gilbert Caroff of Caroff-Dufloss Naval Architects in Paris. It was specifically designed for polar expeditions and has a number of unique features that make it suitable for this work. More on that in a bit.

The 49-foot cutter was designed for construction in either steel or aluminum. I decided on aluminum in large part because of its lighter weight. Since I was mainly working alone, I could fabricate all the frames and lift them without help. Another attraction of aluminum is that it can be cut with the woodworking machinery I had available. And since it doesn’t rust, I figured it wouldn’t show the scratches and dents from ice. I used aluminum alloy 5086, which was made in Germany. I’m pleased to report that after six years in the water the boat doesn’t show the slightest sign of corrosion.

The boatbuilding process began in February 2000 by setting out, or lofting, all 15 frames full-size onto sheets of plywood. Paddy Barry and I did this lofting at night after work, in the site offices of a construction project in Dublin. We made plywood patterns of each of the frames, which were used later as patterns for marking out the aluminum frames. This saved a lot of time when construction began in earnest.

Northabout’s hull was built upside-down in my late father’s unused joinery workshop in County Mayo in northwest Ireland. After making the 15 aluminum frames that formed the hull shape, I positioned them accurately on their premarked positions on the floor. The frames then were plumbed and temporarily braced in position. When stringers were added, the boat’s shape emerged like a vision, with each day’s progress clearly visible.

Working as I was on my own, lifting the full-length plates was something of a problem. I solved that by “borrowing” some willing members of the local football team for a “quick lift” on their way home from training. I organized other work to enable the team to assist with particular events on some weekends.

I also made full-size plywood patterns of the hull panels, and from these patterns I marked out the actual aluminum panels. This pretty much ensured that I wouldn’t make costly errors when I cut the aluminum. As a result, the hull is fair and without bumps. When all the panels were tack-welded in place, the proper welding began. Having no previous experience welding aluminum, I took a crash course in MIG, or metal inert gas, welding. MIG uses an aluminum alloy wire as a combined electrode and filler material. The filler metal is added continuously, so welding without it, therefore, is not possible. I was pleased when my test-welding passed all the laboratory tests, as the integrity of the welding would be severely tested later in the Arctic.

I welded for weeks, first inside and then outside, followed by grinding all protruding welds. In the meantime, Frank Nugent organized construction of the rudder and centerboard case in Dublin. The centerboard was machined in an engineering shop in Galway, the stainless steel exhaust assembly fabricated by Terry Irvine’s friends in Belfast, and the rudder bearings machined by Nugent’s friends in Dundalk. From his office in Dublin, Barry continued to expedite the delivery of materials to Mayo. Truly, an all-Ireland team effort.

Hull turnover day was a landmark event in the building process. When the time came to move the boat out of the workshop it was necessary to enlarge the door opening, much to the amusement of the neighbors who thought we had overlooked this problem. One of the advantages of working in the construction industry is that one gets to know the right man for the job. I knew a man with a giant concrete saw, who solved this challenge without difficulty.

The hull was hauled outside and turned over by hired mobile crane. There was no resting on our laurels or slackening in the activity. The hull was immediately hauled back into the workshop for engine-fitting, decking and interior fitting out. The list of tasks to be done seemed endless. Some of the major items to be tackled included fitting 6 tons of internal lead ballast, spraying insulation, fitting electrical and electronic equipment, steering gear, fitting hatches and windows, gas installation, plumbing, fuel tanks, upholstery, and the most important item: the cooker. I hired a carpenter to help with the interior while I continued with other work.

With the departure date edging ever closer, the pressure to complete the project grew even more intense. Many long nights were spent in the workshop under floodlights.

After 15 months of work, Northabout finally was lifted onto a heavy-duty truck trailer and transported 30 miles to Westport, where she was launched June 9, 2001. The road journey went smoothly, despite Northabout’s “abnormal load” status. We were given a police escort through the narrow streets of Westport. It was an unforgettable day.

Northabout’s design has several unique features I believe were important in our successful voyage. For starters, the bow is raised above the waterline, like an icebreaker’s. This means that when maneuvering in ice, the bow will ride up on ice floes, lessening the impact. It then slides back down again, or breaks through lighter ice. Other designs would crash headlong to a full stop, with the possibility of damaging the hull.

Now I must caution that Northabout is not an icebreaker, and crashing into ice is not unlike crashing into granite. We always avoided direct contact with ice floes as much as possible. I noticed that the Russian icebreakers also weave all over the place to avoid the heavier ice.

Also, with the rudder and propeller protected by a shallow skeg, we could run aground or hit ice without damaging either. And when reversing in ice — a frequent occurrence — the rudder was protected by a strong “foil” fixed to the transom and extending below the waterline. I also used a keel cooler flush with the hull bottom, which I felt was necessary, given that much of our time was spent motoring in shallow Arctic waters, where a conventional cooling system would be susceptible to choking with sand or ice.