Custom Search

By Ross Lillistone - Esk, Queensland - Australia

Under the Roller-Door

click for bio

A month or so ago I found myself sitting under the roller-door of my main shed, cup of black coffee in hand, watching the rain pour down onto our small country property. The feeling was good, as I had only just completed a three metre-wide lean-to across the shed doors, giving an extra twenty-seven square metres of sheltered space, and I was enjoying the cave-like protection from the welcome rain.

Compared with big industrial sheds, the little addition was modest – but my wife and I had constructed it with our own hands, and the resulting satisfaction and utility was out of all proportion to the small size of the structure. As the summer rain tumbled down, I was able to luxuriate in the knowledge that the collection of boats and tools outside the shed doors were dry and, if I felt that way inclined, work could continue.

Pleasant working conditions...

In front of the shed stood a Phil Bolger-designed Micro which I had built for a customer-turned-friend nine years earlier. She was there for some minor modifications and I was able to observe evidence of the standards I employed nearly a decade in the past. It gave me pause for reflection…

Beside the Micro, a twelve foot lapstrake (clinker) sailing dinghy rested up-side-down on saw horses waiting patiently for a couple of dabs of paint on some scratches. This boat was built by one of my sons when he was just a fourteen-year-old boy – he will be twenty-three at his next birthday, but the boat is strong and functional – testament to a young fellow who used his brain and did the job properly the first time around.

Around the corner stood another Phil Bolger design called Bee. This was another example of work from the distant past, having been built twelve years earlier as an interesting toy for my three sons. I built her in the evenings at a time when my life was very different – a stressful job, a big mortgage, young family, busy city life – but the boat was finished and used in countless children’s adventures. Nephews, nieces, in-laws, friends, and even me – we all gained pleasure from this tiny boat, and here she stands against the shed waiting for her next operation on a creek, lake, or ocean. Her simple hull shows evidence of past action, but she ages gracefully, which is something difficult to say about a ‘glass or alloy production boat.

Bee providing fun and education

The rain continued to pour down, and by this time I had been joined by my wife and as the light faded we traded the coffee mugs for wine glasses and some pleasant red. Our recent workload had been high, and the construction of the lean-to had been physically demanding, so the opportunity to relax and listen to the drumming of the rain on the metal roof was a pleasure difficult to properly describe.

Behind us, the building shed was filled with the clutter and dust of wooden boatbuilding - scattered tools, sheets of plans, a boat under construction, and a couple of possums peeking out from their daytime hiding place in the rafters.

All of what I have just described paints the current stage of an odyssey I first set out on ten years ago, and I make mention of it for those of you who may be feeling what I had been suffering in the lead up to a fateful day in early July of the year 2000.

I’ve been obsessed with hand-built wooden boats since childhood, but the realities of career and family-life meant that most of my building activities were spread very thinly over the years. However, I was always able to make time for reading, and my library of boating books increased steadily over the years - it was obvious that the obsession was not going to go away anytime soon.

It is difficult to say just when I made my final decision to commit to boatbuilding in a serious way, but I do clearly remember one afternoon when I was all dressed up for a shift in the operational career I had been committed to for twenty-five years. I had five minutes of spare time before setting out on my city commute, and I used that time to cut out a plywood part on the bandsaw for a boat I was building. I can clearly remember saying to myself that this is what I really wanted to be doing, regardless of money.

To cut what could be a very long story short, I resigned my respectable and well-paid job to follow my own star as a full-time boatbuilder. Now, ten years down the track I can look back on an unbelievable adventure, and I thank my luck stars that I decided to make the jump.

Early days in a self-made career

Things have certainly changed for me, and for my family. As expected, I now have less money, but I have become an officially trade-qualified boat-builder, and more than fifty new boats have come through the doors of my various sheds, along with countless smaller repair and construction jobs. All of this could not have been achieved without the help and support of many, many people of high-quality – family, friends, suppliers, designers, and customers - but it has been done, and my blood runs cold to think that I could have so easily missed out on the adventure if I had remained in my previous job.

Please do not think I am encouraging everyone to chuck in their existing job to become a penniless hippie. All I am saying is that I was able make the change and have survived by the skin of my teeth, and that for me it was, and continues to be, worthwhile. People must make their own decisions in life, but if you are someone who is currently questioning your path, and you have a real passion for boats, it may be worth the jump…

Work never stops

So, what has been the downside for me? Well, first and foremost, it has been HARD WORK! There is a certain amount of romance in being creative in the boatshop, but about 97% of it is just plain dusty, noisy, monotonous and tiring labour. Other negatives are that I’ve spent countless hours answering emails, letters, ‘phone calls and personal visits – followed by doing the inevitable paperwork associated with running a small business which cannot afford administrative help.

But the upside? I’ve learnt more about my passion than I could have learnt in several lifetimes of part-time study; my life has been immeasurably improved because of the people who have come into it as a direct result of the boat-building and designing; I can go to my grave knowing that I gave it a go instead of just wondering; I’ve had the rare privilege of having made my hobby into my career.

These days I’m doing less building and in its place doing more design work. This has been part of an on-going evolution, and is very exciting. Where it will lead I do not know, but I’m enjoying the ride.

My sort of building and designing still centres around small boats – anywhere between eight feet and twenty-six feet long – and I strongly favour boats which are very simple in structure and rig. Strangely, simple boats are not necessarily simple to design, and there is a huge difference between the best and worst examples of simple design on the market. The very best designs are often quite difficult to properly appreciate, and may not appear to be that much different from the lower-quality members of the crowd.

When it comes to simple-to-build designs, it pays to educate yourself on the subtleties by studying the work of the acknowledged masters - two of the best being the late Philip C. Bolger and Jim Michalak. Phil Bolger in particular has been criticized about his so-called “Bolger Boxes” by people who do not understand the hydrodynamic and structural quality of his work. Also, most of the detractors do not understand that his “Bolger Boxes” represent significantly less than 10% of his massive output. The remaining 90% or more of Phil Bolger’s conventional designs rival those of any acknowledged master yacht designer. Jim Michalak continues the tradition of Phil Bolger’s simple-to-build designs, and I hold his work in the highest regard. There are others….

Happy surroundings

So, back to the shed where we quietly drink wine from chunky glasses, while watching the rain drip from the edges of the shed lean-to roof. We sit and meditate on the difference between city and country life, and think about what provides real wealth – lots of money, or following a quiet, creative path. To each his own, and I know very well that everybody is driven by the need to achieve their own particular goals. But for me, the design and construction of simple, well-engineered boats provides unending satisfaction.

If you feel the need to produce a boat, choose the best design you can, do not compromise on the quality of your work, and build a simple, utilitarian boat - I don’t think you will regret the move. If, in addition, you want to step out on an adventure in life, think carefully, but be bold.


For photos and regular updates, please visit Ross' website at

To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit our forum