Great Falls man is building a boat from scratch - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Great Falls man is building a boat from scratch

Posted: Jan 01, 2018 11:08 AM Updated:

Even though winter is here with sub-zero temperatures, Jeff and Yvonne Nicholas are thinking about sailing.

Since May of 2013, Jeff has been building a sailboat by hand in his garage.

"I didn't have any expertise on this when I started," he said. "Obviously, this is the biggest project I've ever done like this."

Four years ago, Jeff started with only an idea and a pile of wood after retiring from the Air Force.

The idea and pile of wood have since grown into a 37-foot by 12-foot sailboat, which barely fits in the garage.

Although Jeff doesn't know the exact weight of the boat right now, he estimates it's around 3,000 pounds.

The boat is a classic style with a gaff rig designed by Mark Smaalders. It's called the 'Sweet Escape.' 

"I wanted to build one a long time ago but we were moving around with the military," Jeff said. "We got here, we got settled, and we thought, 'I'm going to do it.'"

Jeff's love for sailing was born around 1975 in Tacoma when he was seven years old.

Two men asked him if he would climb to the top of the mast on their boat and pull the main sheet down. He agreed and the experience opened his eyes. "I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty cool,'" he said. 

The project began with the building of the boat's jig and then the frames. Strip planking followed with sanding in between each stage. 

Jeff has gone through at least four sanders since the start of the project. 

There are 88 planks on each side of the sailboat with 750 staples per plank. It took Jeff about a year to complete the planking.

While the project itself is long and complex, the purpose for it is simple: "I just always felt like that's what I wanted to do. Really doing a sailboat is kind of like the pinnacle of woodworking because there's no straight lines," Jeff said. "Everything's a curve, everything's a tolerance around a corner or bending. There's no straight lines anywhere."

Right now, the hull of the boat is around four weeks away from being finished and then Jeff will focus on making the keel out of Douglas fir and lead.

The sailboat will eventually be rolled over in the garage so Jeff can start on the inside.

"It's got a galley, which is basically your kitchen and then the pilothouse," he said. "Each little section is going to be a woodwork project."

Jeff believes the boat will be ready for the water in about two years.

"I'll feel very relieved when it's done and super proud of him," Yvonne said. 

Jeff and Yvonne credit the expertise and knowledge of several friends for many stages of the project.

They plan to sail it for the first time on Canyon Ferry.

Jeff will soon start a blog capturing his adventures and experiences with the 'Sweet Escape.' To watch videos documenting his construction journey, visit A View from the Pilothouse's YouTube page.

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