Boatbuilding, stress relief and the Ph.D.

Ask Piero “Peter” Biancani how many boats he has built and he’s likely to respond with a bemused expression as though he’s never thought of counting. When pressed, he’ll probably answer, as he did one bluebird mid-February day on the shore of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, “Oh, maybe a dozen.”

From where I am standing, at the west side of his house, I can see parts of seven or eight vessels of varying sizes, and I know there are three more “Biancani Boatworks” products at the southeast end of his house, and a couple stored beneath it. I suspect the retired Applied Mechanics engineer, Brown Medical School professor, and researcher at Rhode Island Hospital’s Division of Gastroenterology has never thought a hull count important.

I ask Peter to list the boats he’s crafted – some strip-planked/epoxy coated; others plywood/epoxy construction – and he looks off in the distance and says, “Well, there are two or three kayaks, a 16-foot Chapelle-drawn “flatiron” skiff, a 13-foot peapod, a 20-foot [self-designed] catamaran motorboat – I just wanted to see how it would work as a powerboat: 16 knots with a five-horse motor – a 28-foot sharpie under construction to Chapelle’s scantlings in a shed under the house – and the catboat.” This latter creation is what brought me, this day, to Peter’s home on Greenwich Cove, where, with so many sheers, flares and shapely transoms in sight, it’s a challenge to concentrate on just one set of lines.

What about the dory? I ask, recalling it from a visit last fall. “Yes, the dory,” Peter continues. “It’s an 18-foot Chapelle-drawn Banks dory [page 88, “American Small Sailing Craft” by Howard L. Chapelle].” In this rakish and purposeful vessel, Peter cruised 90 miles in 18 hours – averaging precisely five miles per hour, driven by a six-horse Tohatsu four-cycle outboard – from East Greenwich to Shinnecock Bay, Long Island – by way of Wickford, Newport and Point Judith, R.I.; Gardiners Bay, Mattituck Inlet, Great Peconic Bay and Shinnecock Inlet.

Workboat designs that have evolved over the years, Peter says, “give a builder a reasonable chance to come up with a boat that behaves and moves well with minimal power.”

Which brought us to, arguably, the quintessential Northeast sailing workboat, the catboat, a workhorse of the fin-fishing and shellfishing trades from the early 1800s to the mid- 20th century. Peter chose to build a 15-foot catboat to lines drawn after the turn of the last century by F.W. Goeller of New York City. With its six-foot, six-inch beam, barn-door rudder, and 12-inch draft with the centerboard up, the design seemed ideal for the salt-marsh-bordered waters at the foot of Peter’s home. “Greenwich Cove is a well-protected extension of Narragansett Bay,” Peter explains. “The cove is fairly shallow, with portions uncovered at low tide, favoring shallow-draft boats if a substantial amount of sailing is expected to occur there.”
Instead of the cedar-on-oak, plank-on-frame construction stipulated by Goeller more than a century ago, Peter chose plain-old, non-marine plywood – quarter-inch on the sides and five-sixteenths-inch on the bottom, coated with epoxy, and faired brilliantly with up to 600-grit sandpaper. The lands at the bow, where, on the sides, the second “planks” overlap the bottom ones, have been sanded away, providing a lovely, smooth entry that catches the eye.

The lightweight spruce mast, which flies a bountiful 175-square-foot gaff sail, is raised on a stainless-steel tabernacle. Peter admits that, for him, an optimal, easily handled sail area is 10 square feet for every foot of length, or 150 square feet for his catboat. But Goeller apparently had faith in the flat sections created by the double-chine construction, and recommended this heady spread of canvas.

Then there was that 16-foot Chapelle “flatiron,” or flat-bottomed, skiff, the very first boat that Peter built, this one of epoxy-coated plywood (half-inch on the sides and three-quarter-inch on the bottom). He was living in coastal Guilford, Conn., then, perhaps a dozen miles, as the night heron flies, from New Haven. I ask Peter why he picked this particular design, and he answers, “I wanted to build a boat, and the sharpie made sense; it would be easy to put together.” He not only built the hull, but also crafted the oars, the mast, the sprit and the sail.

Then I ask Piero Biancani, Ph.D. why he started building boats in the first place, and he answers somewhat tentatively, “Well, there are a lot of interesting designs to work with.” When he sees I am not buying this benign response, he says quietly but convincingly, “Being on the water, and not having something to float on it, is . . .  very stressful.”

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