Local man builds skiff from scratch

James Luke proudly shows off his completed 10-foot lapstrake skiff, Tiger.

Most people celebrate their love of boats by casting off from a dock or mooring, slicing through the waves and enjoying a cool breeze with some warm rays. James Luke, however, has brought his passion off the water and into his garage, which he’s converted to a workshop where he built a 10-foot lapstrake skiff from scratch as a hobby. “I wanted to build a classic looking skiff,” he said, using “traditional lapstrake design.”

He’s worked on the boat sporadically over the past four years, but estimated that the whole project would have taken 10 to 12 weeks if he were working full-time. The finished product is a gorgeous vessel with a forest-green exterior and cream interior, varnished ash and mahogany wood and graceful lines that truly give his boat a classic look. He installed a small engine on the boat as well as oarlocks, so if he tires of the engine noise he can go for a peaceful row.

“Lapstrake” refers to a method of hull-building that involves layering planks so that their edges “lap” one another and stick out in a ribbed pattern, rather than creating a uniformly flat side. Mr. Luke got the boat-building plans from “Wooden Boat Magazine,” a publication that caters to those interested in old-style wooden boats. 

Mr. Luke’s first step involved building a frame on which the boat could be constructed, which had to be perfectly level and secured to the cement floor with bolts. Once the frame was set, he cut and mounted molds, a series of half-circle wooden supports with notches cut out onto which the planks were laid to form the hull.

One of the hardest parts of the construction involved cutting the planks to the correct size, since each plank was a different size and shape to form different parts of the hull. The planks were then bent onto the molds, secured by an epoxy resin and screwed together to hold their shape. Once the resin hardened, he began the arduous task of removing the thousands of screws and filling the holes with epoxy. Then he installed the gunnel, the topside rail of the boat, which involved layering many 3/16th-inch pieces of plywood, glued together with epoxy, bending the wood into shape with metal clamps and letting the epoxy dry.

After sanding the surfaces, Mr. Luke cut and varnished floorboards and wooden planks for seating. Finally, he began the arduous task of painting the boat, which he said took especially long. “I’m too particular, I guess.” No kidding. The walls of his living room are lined with ship half-models he’s carved and painted or varnished, as well as scale ship models that are accurate down to the mainsheet and deck furniture.

Mr. Luke and his wife, Jodi, are both from Peconic Bay, where they grew up and met one another. Now they split their time between Williamsburg, Virginia and their Shelter Island home on Dinah Rock Road, which has a beautiful view of Shelter Island Sound and the many boats that cruise by daily. He and his wife were able to pass on their love of boating to their four now-grown children, “who love the quiet of sailing,” says Jodi.

Boating has always been a major interest for Mr. Luke. He was introduced to both boats and carpentry tools as a young boy by his father. He explained where he got the tools and machines that fill his workshop: “Over that period [since I was a young boy] … I never carried coins, so every time I would come home I’d put my coins in a piggy bank. When it was full I would go and buy another machine.” And if he felt good every now and then, he said, laughing, “I’d put a 20 in there, just to supplement the coins.”

His history with boats is extensive. He attended Tabor Academy, a high school in Massachusetts known as “the school by the sea,” where he was further immersed in boating and sailing technique. Mr. Luke went on to Princeton, where he rowed crew and found the inspiration for his skiff’s name, Tiger, his alma mater’s mascot. He served in the Navy and also volunteered for a couple of years at a boat shop at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where he helped as part of a team to construct larger sailing vessels.

His most recent construction, the only vessel he’s built on his own, harkens back to an earlier time when boats were more simple and elegant. He says “a lot of modern contemporary boats try to … have all the facilities that in the old days they didn’t know about and didn’t need.” These alter the shape and the appearance of the boat considerably, he said. Mr. Luke’s skiff stays true to classic form right down to the metal fixtures. “It wouldn’t do to put stainless steel on an old boat,” he said, so he ordered traditional hand-made bronze oar rings and cleats. The boat supplies altogether cost about $1,600. he said

“To me a boat has to look good,” he says, “and that’s in the eye of the beholder to some degree, but there are certain boats that everybody can agree on: ‘that’s done right.’” Certainly Mr. Luke’s skiff is one of those boats.