More Than Just a Pipe-Dream- The Story of Zephyr by John Thompson

Zephyr is a 10’ Tenderfoot sailing dinghy designed and built as part of the 2017 Edensaw Challenge in Port Townsend WA. She is built of western red cedar and covered with two coats of clear fiberglass inside and out. The challenge is to build a boat in 2 1/2 days. That doesn’t include design time, time spent building the forms and the strong-back, or time spent milling the cedar strips.

Zephyr, the finished 10′ Tenderfoot Dinghy

The name Tenderfoot pays homage to the builders after 14 hours on their feet non stop during the Edensaw Challenge. But it also refers to the fact that she is a yacht tender, and she’s 10’ long. Hence, Tenderfoot. She was designed with a fine entry and a long waterline to make her quick and fun to row. She has a high freeboard for dryness and a flat bottom in the stern for stability. And the stern skeg ensures that she tracks straight.

John carved a quarter scale half-hull model of Zephyr to refine her shape in the old-school fashion. Modern boat designers would simply use 3 dimensional CAD, but John preferred the tangible model that he could touch and look at from every angle. There’s a great satisfaction in shaping a boat by eye and feel rather than cold computer lines. The shapes of the forms were taken directly off the half-hull model. And in the end, it all fit together exactly as designed. Next time John designs a boat using this technique, he will use a prettier wood than just pine so the model can be varnished and mounted.

Quarter scale model, notice that is is cut into 2″ sections in order to take the station shapes for the forms easily.

Tenderfoot stations, taken off the model

Zephyr was built by Fran and John Thompson, Barbara Emmonds and Craig Persons. Eric Egge lent his considerable expertise and was the source of the cedar, all of which was salvaged from an abandoned log found on a beach. The forms were all built and aligned on the strong back before the challenge. At the start of the challenge, we simply had to start stapling cedar strips to the forms, edge-gluing them to their neighbor. Simple, right? Not so. The first 9” of strips went on without a fuss. Then came the hard part. As we covered the round chines, each strip had to be twisted 90 degrees as it was also bent around the forms. There was significant resistance in each strip to complying with our wishes. So we brought along a steamer to soften up the wood, and break down the resistance. Problem is, the steamer didn’t work very well. We had to force each and every strip into shape using all four team members on each strip. It ended up taking us a day and a half to get the forms completely covered with the cedar strips, and that didn’t leave us enough time to fiberglass the boat before time expired. The team was out of the competition. Excellent try, though, and with a working steamer and a few tweaks to the process, we could easily have accomplished the impossible task. We were the main focus of the competition as we were building the only boat that was truly a marketable design. And cedar strip boats are eye candy. Before withdrawing, we got her completely stripped, all the staples pulled out and sanded smooth ready for fiberglass.

Fran building the strongback from 3/4′ particle board (next time I’ll use plywood)

Station forms made by printing the full size stations out via AutCAD. Paper glued to 3/4″ particle board prior to cutting out/

All the forms aligned on strong back, awaiting adding the strips.

The race is on! 2 1/2 days to complete a cedar strip boat! Impossible, you say? We almost succeeded…  2017 Edensaw Challenge at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Show.

Here’s the whole crew doing the hard part, closing up the bottom. That’s Fran, Craig, Me and Barbara.

One side complete!  Note the scrap wood chips that we stapled through so as to facilitate staple removal…

Craig and Barbara closing up the second side while Fran and John pull the earlier staples and sand, and sand, and sand….

The second side being closed up.

Craig Person doing the hardest part, fitting the last strips to close up the hull.

John, contemplating failure after withdrawing from the competition on Saturday afternoon. The boat is all stripped, but there’s not enough time left to fiberglass her.

The unfinished Zephyr came home and was put away for a few months, taking backseat to a kitchen remodel job. Every evening, John would come home and check to make sure all the cedar strips didn’t just go “Sproing!!” And end up in a heap on the floor. It’s the fiberglass that holds it all together. It took about a month to finish her up, working from time to time in the evenings and weekends. But eventually, she was finished with two layers of 6 oz fiberglass inside and out. Launching was delayed due a death in the family until May. While she languished, John decided that she really looked like a sailboat, so he designed a sailing rig for her and ordered a brand new sail.

The first layer of cloth awaiting epoxy resin. Two layers of 6 oz cloth were applied.

Fran, hard at work rolling out the first coat of epoxy resin. Starting to get that eye-candy look!  Roll it on thick, saturate the cloth completely, then squeegee off all the excess.  Excess resin adds no strength and a lot of weight.

Two layers of cloth applied and sanded smooth, gunnels clamped in place.  Ready for the last coat of epoxy to bring out the shine.

Finally! She’s off the forms. The inside is ugly. Lots of sanding and scraping ahead….

Two layers of 6 oz cloth on the inside also.  Pour it in the middle and squeegee it out to the edges.  Try not to leave any excess resin (a lot more difficult than on the outside!).

The finished interior.  Grab-handles, bow deck installed and the inner gunwales being installed.

Wow! Eye Candy!  The oarlocks turned out way too weak.  They were replaced with much sturdier blocks of wood later on.

Launch day! She floats perfectly on her lines.  She doesn’t look so big out of the garage….

Building the rudder and daggerboard was a fun challenge as they feature true foil shapes rather than just a piece of plywood with rounded edges like most tenders. It took a bit of research, but the answers are all out there on line. Thank you, Google and You Tube! The mast was are fun project, except that it was rushed due to a pending move into our RV which meant loss of the shop. The mast is hollow, made up of 8 staves of Sitka Spruce in an octagon cross section. After the glue dries, the corners of the octagon are planed off into a circular cross section. It’s called a “bird-mouth mast” due to the way the staves interlock with each other. John used AutoCAD LT to do all the design work. And as a result all the parts fit together exactly with no wasted effort or materials.

Foil template glued to the rudder blank. A table saw was used to cut grooves that just kissed the paper.  The rudder and dagger board blanks are 4 layers of 1/4″ plywood laminated together (lots of very thin layers to work with doing it this way).

After the profiles were cut out, the grooves are painted making sure the paint gets to the bottom of the grooves.

Time to shape the blanks. A belt sander connected to a vacuum was used to remove material quickly. Sand until the black stripes begin to disappear, then stop. Use your eyeballs to shape the rounded tip, keeping the layers parallel around the curve.

Shaped blanks. Both were covered with fiberglass. The wood trailing edge was squared off so that the fiberglass could extend to the final shape, encapsulating the wood completely.

The mast is hollow Sitka Spruce, built in the “Bird’s-Mouth Design”. Just to make it harder, the mast is two-piece with a slip joint, and tapered aver the entire length.

The staves are painted with epoxy on the inside for protection just in case moisture gets trapped inside.

The staves are edge-glued with thickened epoxy and placed together in three U-shaped supports. Blocks are inserted inside the mast where-ever any fasteners will be inserted. These help keep the staves from collapsing in on themselves.  Note the carbon fiber slip-fit tubes that extend out a foot.  Once assembled, zip-ties are used every few inches to keep it tightly together.  Messy job!

The finished mast sections before sanding.  The corners are first planed off to turn the octagon into a 16 sided shape, then sanded round from there.  Some people get creative and spin their masts to get a true circle.  Not necessary.

Sanding the mast blanks is a rewarding process as the messy blanks become clean finished masts. I had originally intended to fiberglass the spars, but chose not to due to lack of time.  Fiberglass isn’t necessary.  The masts have held up nicely in 10-12 knots, and you probably shouldn’t be out in an open dinghy in higher wind.

The rig is similar to a Laser and uses Laser parts. She sails extremely well and never requires hiking. The hull is most stable with the skipper’s weight in the bottom. 10-12 knots wind and the skipper finally slides his butt to the windward side.  But no hiking.

John sailing his baby at Fossil Bay, Sucia Island in the San Juans. This is what she was designed for… Leisurely sailing as well as mundane transportation to shore when anchored.

She was christened Zephyr because she is the tender for Summer Breeze, our Nonsuch 30 sailboat that we are using to cruise the Inside Passage in the summers. Zephyr means a tiny breeze, a whisper of wind.  John feels that every boat should have a name as it provides a spirit, a soul to the otherwise inanimate object.

Zephyr is a success on so many different levels. She is beautiful, and draws appreciative comments every where we go. She sails extremely well in the lightest of breezes (Zephyrs). After trying to row our original very heavy Livingston dinghy, Zephyr is a pure joy to row. At 75 pounds, she is 50 pounds lighter than the Livingstone and 3’ longer. We mounted davits on the stern of Summer Breeze to make her easy to launch and retrieve. No need for the electric winch, which was required for the Livingston.

Zephyr ready for service.

Zephyr fulfilled several bucket list items for John. He had always wanted to build a boat from scratch. He had always wanted to design his own boat. He had always wanted to build a cedar strip boat, and a birds-mouth mast. And since 2013, had wanted to participate in the Edensaw Challenge. All are now checked off, though the desire to design and build boats remains strong.

Plans are available at a nominal fee from John Thompson.  Contact him at  If you are interested in trying to build this boat in the Edensaw Challenge in the future, please include John on your team.  The fire is still lit.  It can be done in 2 1/2 days!

2 thoughts on “More Than Just a Pipe-Dream- The Story of Zephyr by John Thompson

    • Thanks Jimmie. It’s a great little boat, and John is indeed proud. He loves to row and sail it.

      You do know our neighborhood is different nearly every single day right? 😁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *