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April 3rd 2017. By Dieter Loibner.

A 24-Carat Nesting Dinghy

As chic as a Ferragamo slipper. As practical as a Swiss Army knife: The PT 11 breaks new ground for kit boats.

Chicken coops. What would the boating world look like today, on the US West Coast, anyway, if it wasn’t for hen houses that were converted into boat building operations? It’s where Bill Lee and Santa Cruz Yachts built the majestic ULDB-sleds that dominated local offshore racing in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s where Dave Livingston of Ranger Tug fame honed his skills. And it’s where Russell Brown, the founder of Port Townsend Watercraft, turns out polished kits for small plywood boats that DIY owners build in the stitch-and-glue method. His most popular model is the PT 11, a nesting dinghy,  a pretty, pint-sized craft that weighs approximately 90 pounds and can be rowed, sailed, or motored. The 11-foot hull is made of seven precision-cut Okoume plywood sheets that are glued and glassed with West System epoxy. The bottom panel is flat, which helps the boat sit upright on the dock or the beach.

PT11 – Kim’s Port Townsend 11′ Sailing / Nesting Dinghy from Randy Kerr on Vimeo.

By nature, nesting dinghies consist of two parts, a bow-half that nests in the stern-half, just like you’d stack two bowls. This act creates a smaller footprint (about half the regular hull length) during storage or transport and makes them suitable as tenders for cruising yachts with limited deck space. To launch, bow and stern are joined amidships. In the PT 11’s case, this takes only seconds and it is intuitive, thanks to an ingeniously simple yet precise mechanism.

Taking fresh ideas to the coop

“If there’s wind in your anchorage, you think, ’let’s go!’ and the next moment you’re sailing,” said Russell Brown, explaining his thinking behind the PT 11. He is in his mid-fifties, but has a youthfulness about him despite the graying hair. As the younger son of trimaran pioneer Jim Brown, multihull sailing and boatbuilding are parts of his genetic makeup. He became very good at both while cultivating a love affair with proas, those ancient “asymmetrical” multihulls Pacific Islanders had been using for travel and trade since the beginning of time.

Ashlyn and Russell Brown at the chicken coop with a newly refurbished Gougeon 32 catamaran.

Ashlyn and Russell Brown at the chicken coop with a newly refurbished Gougeon 32 catamaran.

The kit of the PT 11 packaged and ready to be shipped.

The kit of the PT 11 packaged and ready to be shipped.

In the 1990s, Brown designed and built Jzerro, a 36-foot proa, and later sailed her from San Francisco to New Zealand. Along for the ride was a nesting dinghy, which he found useful, but also lacking in refinement. Once back, he went to work in his chicken coop to fix what needed fixing. “The [nesting dinghy’s] idea is old, but few people had done a good job with it,” Brown noted. “I sensed a void in the market, so I built my first prototype, which featured ideas I had developed during my journey.” In the process he took the staid concept into the 21st century by making it nicer, lighter, sexier, and way more entertaining than small inflatables. But he operates in a market that defines itself.

“Hard dinghies are for purists, the kind of people who sail off their anchors and use kerosene lamps,” muses John Harris, the owner of Chesapeake Light Craft, a kit boat company in Annapolis, Md. that also sells nesting dinghies and sources parts from PT Watercraft. The average yachtie, he contends, would still want to use an inflatable with outboard, for its stability and the soft sides that are forgiving of boat-handling deficiencies. “But there’s room for all kinds.”

Ashlyn Brown shows off the high-aspect-ratio rudder of the PT 11.

Ashlyn Brown shows off the high-aspect-ratio rudder of the PT 11.

The tack fitting is a simple carabiner.

The tack fitting is a simple carabiner.

Assembling and rigging the PT 11 takes five minutes, give or take, Brown insisted. With a little practice and a decent dock to launch from, this claim doesn’t appear to be outlandish. More challenging, at least for mere mortals, is building the PT 11 to the same clinical standards that Brown applied to the demo boat. “Clinical” means just that, because where others install cheap neoprene for hatch gaskets, this perfectionist uses surgical tubing, “because that rubber has no memory.”

For those who follow the illustrated manual meticulously, he estimates the build time for the PT 11 to be approximately 200 hours, depending on skill and level of finish. “Amateurs are often doing a better job than pros,” he laughed, “simply because they follow instructions!” One such amateur who followed his instructions is Jan Brandt, an environmental consultant in Seattle, Wash., who built the PT Skiff, a center-console boat designed by renowned naval architect Paul Bieker and offered as a kit by PT Watercraft. “It was more involved than building a kayak,” Brandt noted. “And it helps to have worked with epoxy and kit boats before, but closely following the detailed manual was most important, because Russell is very accurate and thought this through carefully.”

Sneaking back into port, the PT 11 kept its momentum in a dying breeze.

Sneaking back into port, the PT 11 kept its momentum in a dying breeze.

The snow-capped volcano Mt. Baker was the backdrop during the sea trial.

The snow-capped volcano Mt. Baker was the backdrop during the sea trial.

Less weight, more fun

As a multihull sailor, Brown knows that to go fast you must go light. It was the iron rule while working on special projects for Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup team BMW Oracle Racing, and it’s the philosophy he carried over to the PT 11. “With the new carbon fiber spars we save three pounds on the rig, which is a lot for such a small boat,” he explained before proceeding to load it all into his tiny Toyota pickup, assisted by his wife Ashlyn, who handles the business end at PT Watercraft. “Pretty little monster” is what she calls the PT 11.

Watching them stow the truck, it was easy to see the magic of nesting dinghies come alive, with the bow neatly stacked into the stern section, leaving plenty of room for rig, sail, appendages, and other kit. That “pretty little monster,” it should be noted, also is available in a conventional version called Spear. Same hull, same everything, minus the nesting fun.

Under sail the nimble dinghy made the most of the light air.

Under sail the nimble dinghy made the most of the light air.

Exquisitely crafted Delrin fittings are part of the deck hardware.

Exquisitely crafted Delrin fittings are part of the deck hardware.

Putting the boat together after floating around Point Hudson Marina in the stern piece for show, was a cinch. Even on the water the two halves were easy to line up with the help of the guide fittings. Then four attachment screws with ergonomic turning handles were tightened to join the two bulkheads. It took only a few moments and it’s so intuitive that it also could be done in the dark, because, as customer Brandt pointed out, Brown is thinking things through. Another jolt of joy came from the whimsical, but incredibly precise and beautiful little carbon, Delrin, and stainless-steel hardware used throughout.

Rowing the PT 11 felt natural, even for an untrained oarsman. Sitting on the centerboard case with bare feet wedged against the sculpted mahogany braces produced enough leverage to lean into the oars (which PT Watercraft doesn’t make). To prevent water sloshing into the cockpit through the daggerboard well, Brown came up with a spiffy cap kit (assembly required).

The PT 11 is easy to row thanks to the foot braces and a good set of oars (not included in the kit).

The PT 11 is easy to row thanks to the foot braces and a good set of oars (not included in the kit).

The author in the stern, adrift.

The author in the stern, adrift.

On smooth water, the boat tracked well and turned on the spot. However, images on the website imply that it is capable of surfing/planing in moderate waves with one person on board. PT Watercraft claims a USCG Safe Capacities Rating of up to 600 pounds total, including motor and gear. Yes, it could be fitted with a tiny outboard, but on this vessel that nearly amounts to blasphemy. The boat will easily carry two adults and one or two children, who sit on the stern thwart and forward on top of the watertight compartment. If there are more people and more stuff to shuttle, so what? Extra trips with the PT 11 don’t feel like a chore.

Sailor’s satisfaction

Switching gears to sailing was quick and painless. The two-part carbon mast went together before the luff sleeve of the sail was pulled over it, Laser style. Boom, vang, and outhaul were rigged in a matter of seconds, followed by the downhaul and the mainsheet, which use carabiners to clip into an eye strap on the boom and the traveler line on the stern, respectively. The slosh cap came off the centerboard well and the boat went back in the water. The daggerboard slid into its slot and the rudder snapped into the gudgeons, but in deference to the impeccable finish, handling of the foils required some care.

Assembly of both halves while afloat.

Assembly of both halves while afloat.

Stacking the bow into the stern in the back of a small pickup truck.

Stacking the bow into the stern in the back of a small pickup truck.

There was only a hint of breeze, yet the boat picked up and took off, proving how diet breeds agility. Once past the breakwater, the northwesterly picked up a tad, which the PT 11 shamelessly used to stretch its legs, unperturbed by a 185-pound male lounging in the cockpit. At first, steering required a bit of concentration, because the helm was light as a feather and the boat eagerly responded. But it didn’t take long to get into the groove, and let other senses take over. Just listening to the muffled sounds of waves hitting the plywood hull had a soothing effect. The 54-square-foot sail might have looked a bit small at first, but it was well cut and provided enough horsepower. The conservative size eliminates the complication of having to reef down when the breeze pipes up.

Turning for home by rounding the red bell buoy off Point Hudson required shifting gears for running. With the daggerboard up halfway and the boat heeled a bit to windward, the “pretty little monster” nimbly scooted past a sailing trimaran that was tuning up for the Race to Alaska. In fact, the PT 11 sailed “autonomously,” like a little maritime Tesla, but without crazy complicated electronics, since Brown devised a tiller extension of precisely the right length to be wedged into the aft corner of the cockpit, keeping the boat on a straight line, hands free.

Ashlyn and Russell Brown carry the stern-half out of the chicken coop.

Ashlyn and Russell Brown carry the stern-half out of the chicken coop.

Two carbon fiber guide pieces for joining the two boat halves.

Two carbon fiber guide pieces for joining the two boat halves.

Rolling up the sleeves

On a well-conceived and executed boat like the PT 11, it’s hard to find fault: A real downhaul and a foot block with cleat would make shaping the sail and sheeting easier in a fresh breeze. A slightly longer mainsheet would encourage sailing by the lee, and a bungee cord that hooks into an eyelet on deck behind the mast would help the daggerboard stay up when sailing downwind.

All these items are easy to retrofit, and discussing them in the context of a vehicle that was conceived to be carried on board a bigger boat and to be assembled on deck, or with both halves afloat, is little more than nitpicking. But that’s the point: Brown’s inquiry into the development of a more cultured nesting dinghy and countless hours of tinkering in the chicken coop rendered a vessel that turned a pedestrian take-apart tender into an entertaining craft that has utility, style and panache. The tricky part is that you’d have to build one if you want one. That’s a limiting factor, but then again, pride of ownership only increases with sweat equity.

The builder's manual is a detailed guide, extensively illustrated.

The builder’s manual is a detailed guide, extensively illustrated.

 

Russell Brown and the illustrated builder's manual.

Russell Brown and the illustrated builder’s manual.

PT 11 Specifications: LOA: 11’0” * Beam: 4’2” * Sail area: 54 sq. ft. * Weight: 90lbs. * Max. motorization: 2 hp. * Dimensions for nested storage: 6′ x 4′ 2″ x 20″

Pricing:

  • Basic Kit: $2,500
  • Daggerboard & rudder kit: $615
  • Rig & sail: $1,350
  • West System 2 gal. epoxy resin: about $500

For more information visit PT Watercraft.



Dieter Loibner