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Rudy Did It

On March 2, 2011, in Designer Articles, Steel Construction, by Glen L. Witt

Rudy Heckman was 40 years old when he immigrated to the United States from a little town in Germany. Although he spoke no English, he was able to find work at a machine shop on Terminal Island, the port for Los Angeles.

As he drove to work each morning he crossed a bridge where numerous boats were nested in slips. Rudy was especially enamored with the tall masts of the cruising sailboats. Thoughts turned to dreams of sailing the ocean to far away places. Realistically, Rudy had never been sailing and his pocketbook was lean, almost bare. Still the dream was there and with the complete agreement of his wife Ann, they decide to make the dream a reality.

A National Geographic magazine had a picture of a boat anchored in a tropical cove. That would be the boat for them. Of course the selected boat was a schooner with way too many sails to be hoisted and furled by a crew of two.

And, they wanted a steel boat with a round bilge like the picture. Rudy didn’t know that a round bilge hull “can’t” be built out of steel. He didn’t think about how he would actually bend the steel to that round shape. They had a dream and didn’t consider that it couldn’t be done.

They found a set of plans that matched the “dream” boat closely. The plans were for a 42’ wooden hull but the designer assured them it could be converted to steel. Of course the plans would need to be lofted full size from a Table of Offsets.

Rudy had never seen a Table of Offsets and had no reference books or information on how lofting was done. But he knew he must have full sections of the frames, so he built a large plywood floor slightly longer than the boat and wider than the maximum height and Rudy just did it, he lofted the boat.

Lofting a Steel Boat

Rudy’s emprovised lofting table

Most steel boats for DIY builders use steel plate cut to shape for the frames. However, this design called for heavy steel ”T” extrusions bent to shape; a formidable chore with proper equipment and surely not one for a raw amateur but Rudy just did it. He built a device to roll the “T” section into the rounded forms.

Rolling Steel

Rudy rolled each steel “T” into rounded forms

Each frame was bent slowly to shape constantly checking the contour to the lofted sections. The hull was to be built right side up so each frame was mounted and checked so the hull lines were fair. Sheet steel plating will not form to a round surface, so each piece had to be molded by hand to fit each section of the hull. Once again, he didn’t think it couldn’t be done, Rudy just did it and the hull surface was smooth and fair.

Welding Steel

Rudy shaped each piece of steel to fit the round hull

This narrative could go on about what a person can do that is “impossible”. Suffice it to say, Rudy simply did what had to be done and built the boat in three years of long days and weekends with virtually no break.

The launching went off without a hitch with nary a drop of water seeping into the bilge. Rudy and Ann gained sailing experience with short trips along the California coast that didn’t require any real navigating. Rudy took a short course on operating a sextant, but the boat had no navigating electronics aboard. In fact, the only radio they had was a battery powered portable type and no communications to shore were possible.

Rudy’s first step was to sail to Hawaii. Using a sextant, with charts and only a compass, they hit Diamond Head on the island of Oahu right on the button–pretty amazing for a self-taught navigator. After a short stay, Rudy and Ann planned the next and longer trip, exploring the south Pacific and in particular the French Polynesian Islands. For the next three years Rudy did it; he fulfilled his dream.

Steel Sailboat

Rudy’s dream fulfilled!


Steel boat dream fulfilled

Rudy & Ann sail off into the sunset…

The above took place probably 40 years or so ago and Rudy sold the boat in Hawaii and eventually became my friend and neighbor.  He agrees the trip he made with limited electronic equipment was ill advised and he was lucky.

From our experience, we know that there are many “Rudy’s” out there. The kind of guy that has a dream and nothing will stop him. It doesn’t matter the difficulty of the project or the fact that he has no prior experience. Dreams don’t become realities without a lot of effort, but if you truly want a boat, build one….Rudy did it.

(Remember that Glen-L plans are fully lofted, so you can build a steel boat or any boat for that matter, much simpler than Rudy did. And, our steel boats are designed specifically for that material. Having the patterns done for you and having plans specifically for the beginner makes your dream a reality that much quicker.)


Your Thoughts?

11 Responses to Rudy Did It

  1. JOHN ASPINALL says:

    Rudy sounds like a remarkable person and I hope his friendship with your father overcomes his loss of his wife.

    Regards John

  2. keith haworth says:

    Hi Gayle, About the rig, I tend to question the names you’ve given, but maybe we call things by different names her in the UK. Firstly as the foremost of the 2 masts is shorter than the aft mast, the vessel is properly schooner rigged. The foreward shorter mast is the foremast and the taller aft mast is the mainmast. The sail on the foremast is the foresail and the Bermuda sail on the taller mainmast is the mainsail. Of the headsails the aftermost one is a slef tacking boomed staysail, the foreward most, bowsprit mounted, sail is a jib (and could be named the foreward jib) and the upper most sail is a flying jib. Hope I’m not being pedantic. Great cruising rig for short handed sailing.

  3. john lee says:

    I am a boat nut, always have been, always will be. I have a commercial nav ticket and have built and rebuilt several boats in my life but what I find so remarkable about this site is the passion I keep finding. I just love that. I feel Rudy and Gayle are both extremely inspirational to me and keep making me want to go out and do another. Kudos to Gayle for keeping her dads dream alive.

  4. You can change the rig, but you’ll need to keep the CE as designed–we don’t provide details for these changes. It looks like Rudy had 3 jibs or foresails. Not sure.

  5. Timothy says:

    Thanks Gayle! Those pics of Derek’s Lodestar build are breath taking. I hope I’ll be able to attempt somethign that large – funny how a 55′ boat on paper doesn’t seem that big until you see life like photos of the boat in near completion with a full sized person on it’s deck, and in the hull. Wow.

    Wonder if the Lodestar could be schooner rigged… Anyways, you said the two forward sails are the Jib and stay sail? So does that mean Rudy’s boat had 3 jib sails? or is it a jib sail and two stay sails at the forward end of the boat?

  6. Timothy says:

    Wow… Just… wow..

    It’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind and heart to it. I plan on building the Lodestar for me and my family. I do have a stupid question – that boat looks like it’s a schooner rig, correct? What are the three front sails called (I guess where the jib is or is supposed to be)? I’m new to boat building and sailing for that matter and I’ve never seen that kind of forward sail configuration before.

    • Not a stupid question! The Lodestar is a Masthead ketch double headsail rig with club-footed jib. The mizzen is the aft sail, the mainsail is in the center and the forward are the jib topsail and staysail. Have you seen Derek Penney’s Lodestar and all the photos? It’s here. Enjoy!

  7. Mark Ellefson says:

    Thanks for another inspirational story, Gayle. I also have pretty much found that where there’s a will, there’s a way and if someone else can do something, so can I. A book said I could build a log home, so I did. Now I’m building a steamboat including the engine and the boiler, all from scratch. (I would have built a Glen-L boat if you had one for steam.) Anyway, I’m appreciating our relationship, such as it is.

    Mark from Minnesota (and Florida)

  8. Karl says:

    Thank you for another amazing article!

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