Queequeg's Coffin

Before boats were designed for the tyranny of stand-up headroom, esthetic proportion ruled nautical form, and while it is as difficult now as ever it was to define such beauty, you know it when you see it. William Atkins knew it, and I fell in love with his efforts from the first time I saw Ripple for sale. The price to be paid is not small, though. Well, actually, it is exactly small. You won't find a more compact (Latin for cramped) 26 footer than Ripple, so every cubic foot of storage space is dear.

Facing two to three months aboard for a trip up and down the Inside Passage, I need to optimize my storage, and have been building a house-top carrier to help.  The challenge, of course, is to devise a solution that does minimal esthetic damage while making a substantial contribution to available storage.  I'll be taking propane canisters along with me as well, and having a non-interior storage space for those will increase safety and peace of mind.

I also wanted it to be secure, easily removable, and to do no damage. My solution is a box contoured along its bottom to match the house roof, with its top contoured to match the companionway profile, which are different. A closed-cell pad is captured in a recess below the bottom,  to distribute the weight evenly along the house top.  The box will be secured to the deck hand rails with webbing straps with leather chafing protection.

The box itself is made of 1/2" marine grade plywood epoxied together with reinforcing blocks.  The profiled 1/4" bottom is let into a 3/16 deep channel that follows the curve of the house-top profile.  It was not a trivial glue-up.  In fact, the first attempt I tried to do too much, and had to abort, wiping off the thickened epoxy so as to start over in a two-step glue up.  What a mess.  The second go worked fine.

The top was trickier still. With less depth to lend rigidity, I chose box joints for the mahogany frame to make them as strong as I could. Fussing with dado blade shims took more time than actually cutting the box joints, but the results are satisfying.

I didn't think the mahogany would be strong enough to cut a slot so close to the top of the profile without breaking down at the vulnerable corners, so I cut ledgers that matched the profile, set about 1/2 inch below the top profile.  Thus, the top is supported securely much as it would be if captured in a slot.

As it curves down to the straight sides, the 1/4" top plywood lands on the full 1"-thick sides, running all the way to the edges so there is no ridge to collect water.  This leaves an exposed ply edge, a potential failure point, especially if the paint is compromised, as corners sometimes are.  I'll have to keep an eye on that, but the benefit of smooth drainage laterally seems reason enough to chance it.

The mahogany frame for the top will be finished bright, of course.  The wood I used has its own special provenance.  It came from a table leaf that once lived in the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.  For all I know, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos may have plotted nefariously at that table!  Two such leaves were given to me 25 years ago and I've been looking for a project for them ever since.  In a way, it was sad to cut them into small widths, as these leaves were continuous boards 30 inches wide, without joins!  But the wood is lovely, and will serve its new purpose admirably.

I looked in vain for a piano hinge of stainless that I was willing to afford, and found instead two stout 3" stainless hinges that I let into the top back edge of the box and through-bolted for extra security. The hinges do not show, so stainless seemed an acceptable compromise.  I was concerned about installing them straight and true... no second chances once you drill the holes, but they work smoothly enough.

The top fits well enough that you can drop the top from its open position and compression of air in the box cushions the stop - a piston fit.  If I made 10 more,  I wouldn't get it so close.  With some weather stripping it will be as water-tight as Quequeg's coffin... and who knows, with as many whales as there are along the Inside Passage, it could prove just as useful.


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