Many years ago, Fred Shell tucked himself away with his wife and children in a corner of far-northern Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain, settling down to a life of designing, building, sailing, and selling small sailboats.
One result is a series of simple, lightweight, inexpensive, easy-to-build small boats that have a beauty to them that stems from the flared sides and simple rig. I’ve just gotten my third boat from Fred, and it’s an updated version of the one I built from his kit some 30 years ago called a Swifty 12. The Swifty was the first boat Fred designed from scratch, and he’s produced several variations of it in different lengths.
This time around I had Fred build it for me. I just didn’t have the energy to take on the assembly project, though truth be told, the last time I did it was a very pleasant and quite easy 80 hours or so from shipping crate to river. The shipping crate—most of Fred’s thousand or so boats have been sold as kits—was quite magical to unpack and see a host of mostly flat pieces of wood that would end up in my basement, and through Fred’s incredibly simple process, come together as a lightweight, 12-foot sailboat suitable for river, pond, or lake. I would not recommend these boats in areas of high waves, such as the ocean, but they’re perfect for the kind of gunkholing I love to do around my home in Westport, Massachusetts.
What inspires confidence in taking on such a project, even if the only tool you are familiar with is a screwdriver, is the fact that Fred has already built your boat—then taken it apart and packed it into a kit with detailed instructions and even some pencil marks on the wood to make sure you get key parts lined up correctly. But hey, I’m knocking on the door of 80, and I figured I had a right to have Fred build this for me. After all, he’s…well…only 78!
I also wanted to ask Fred one simple question: “So you’ve been designing and building small boats for close to 40 years—what have you learned?” Fred’s answer involved lots of pictures, some short videos, and a couple of hours or so on Zoom. (Yeah, this is the age of the pandemic, and while we met briefly for me to pick up the new Swifty—boy, she’s gorgeous—I couldn’t travel the five hours to his home and workshop and spend a day with him sailing and talking as I’d done 30 years ago. But I was darned if I could tell Fred had changed much. He’s a wiry, easy-going craftsman who knows what he’s doing and why.)
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