Introducing The “Bereft of Reason”

The Bereft of Reason, a small wooden runabout, hand-built and designed by Chris Sullivan and friends.

I have a pretty great story to tell you. It’s about a weekend in late August, 2018, when ten people managed to move a 750 pound wooden boat out of a room barely larger than the boat itself. It’s about a time that same hand-built boat, three years in the making, nearly splintered into a million pieces on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It’s about two brothers, performing a night launch of this experimental craft, backwards. And that’s still hours before the adventure would end.

But first, for good dramatic effect and to address the elephant in the warehouse, I have to back up and explain this strange-as-hell boat name.

Bereft of Reason

It was about a year ago, August 9th, and I hadn’t yet begun building the boat. I was spending my weekends coding and CADing the details of the design. I was on my couch with the nightly news for background noise, as the latest victor of our nation’s flawless electoral college system was, with a statesmanly elegance to rival Lincoln, taunting a nuclear armed third world dictator with names on Twitter.

In kind, the North Koreans responded with the sort of beautifully antiquated english put-down only a hermit communist regime with a dictionary from the 1920s and no functional knowledge of modern english dialects could achieve: They called him “bereft of reason”.

I couldn’t stop laughing. Maybe it was because of the anachronism of a word so rarely used in modern speech. Maybe it was because I lived in Silicon Valley’s financial symbol of American ego, recently within nuclear missile range, and I needed to laugh. Who knows.

But as the weeks and months went on, I came to decide there was no more apt a name for boat built by a man who had never built a boat before, based on a design this same man conjured up in his mind, extrapolating that his undergraduate degree in aircraft engineering and childhood on the water made him fit to be a naval architect. The absurdity of the project demanded a North Korean insult.

So now you know.

The Escape from a Room

One of my favorite aspects of this project was how a parametrically-designed boat allowed me to scale the schematics to whatever sized space I found to build it in. When I found an 18 foot warehouse room, I changed one variable and poof, had a 17.5 foot design. Three inches of wiggle room forward and back. The trouble was that the double doors out of the room were about 6 inches too narrow for the design aspect ratio I had spent months meticulously over-engineering to maximize stabilize per unit length. And I had already shaved 2.5 feet off the length to fit in the room, I wasn’t going any smaller. Damn it, we’d just have to tilt the boat on its side like we do moving furniture into our homes.

Simple task: How do we get a 750 pound boat wider than the doors, out those doors and onto a trailer?

As usual, I called up a squad of DroneDeploy coworkers to come help with the task. Most of them had now flipped the boat twice with me, and we were getting pretty good at lifting and rotating this sucker.

Leaving the warehouse once and for all.

The big epiphany was that sliding it out on foam insulation padding was infinitely easier than lifting it. It took me about an hour to back up the trailer into the tough angle of the loading dock. And by me, I mean a homeless former big rig trucker who got fed up watching me fail at trailering, and volunteered to help (real story). It only took 5 minutes to actually get the boat out the door.

Next we had to tie down to the trailer for the 15 mile ride to Alameda. I was nervous about this, because my attachment points weren’t exactly “overbuilt” for trailering, and a failure during this leg, at 50 MPH on a 5-lane bridge, would obviously be catastrophic and put me on the 6 o'clock news for all the wrong reasons.

My brother Tom missed the morning fun, because construction guys work 6 days a week in SF during this economic boom. But I really didn’t feel comfortable moving and launching the boat without his experience, so we killed a few hours and a few pizzas until he could catch up.

That decision pretty much saved the entire project. I’m not going to go into it in too much detail for a couple reasons, but suffice to say it involved a tire locking up and smoking on the freeway, nearly spilling the rig, an hour of attempted repairs, and a new trailer eventually being brought to get us out of the mess. Buy me a beer some time and I’ll tell you the details.

When the second trailer arrived, we had to back them up against each other, and slide the 750 pound boat from one to the other, re-secure the tie-downs, and were good to go again.

There were a few issues. First, the boat was now backwards on the trailer. If I was uncomfortable with the loading of attachment points in the standard direction, I was doubly concerned in this configuration. It also meant the entire launch procedure I had studied up on and knew from experience was completely out the window. The motor would now be the last thing in the water. Finally, we were now hours behind schedule, and losing daylight quickly. Even though the actual boat move had been easy, the day had been a long one, and part of us really wanted to call it off and return early Sunday morning.

But there was another part of us as well.

Fuck it, Let’s Go For The Night Time, Reverse, Experimental Boat Launch!

With the new trailer secured, we made a push for the boat ramp in Alameda. Dusk launches aren’t really that crazy or uncommon. And neither is going in nose-first, for a craft our size. The only scary part was that if something didn’t go right (this was a custom craft) we’d be stuck dealing with it at night.

I asked for this picture in case she didn’t float.

Everything started really smoothly at the ramp, and it was still light out. Tom launched the boat masterfully from the truck, and I kept an eye for a leak situation and worked the lines. It turns out, this thing is a beast, and not a drop came aboard. We tied up to the dock and put everything else onboard, and then fired up the engine.

…Here’s a good pro-tip. When you take your newly purchased outboard motor to get serviced and tank-tested, make sure you bring the fuel pump system you’ll actually be using at launch. I had taken my motor to get tested a month earlier, and it performed beautifully. I was so wrapped up in the million other details of the project during crunch time, I had left the gas tank and pump in the shop, so they hooked it up to one of their own systems. I watched it run beautifully in the tank, had the guy show me what a great machine I had bought, and then mentally checked that item off the list: Propulsion is Go.

It turned out, while the engine was superb, the fuel system was total garbage. Like with the first trailer, we spent a few hours trying to fix it, now in the dark with flashlights and with limited tools, and it wasn’t going well. Everywhere that could have helped us out with parts, if only the first trailer hadn’t shit out, was now closed.

At this point, around 10pm, we were both exhausted and ready to quit. I was sizing up nearby docks we could throw lines to and store it overnight, which is not cool in marinas and a terrible way to introduce oneself to a harbor.

Then, right as we were about to call it, a gentleman to whom I will be forever indebted arrived, Ryan, with his little boy, to perform their own night launch and head to Treasure Island before an early morning fishing trip. I could see the gears in the guy’s head turning as he debated offering to help us. Towing an unpowered boat at night is risky. What was he going to do, fling us into our slip? We didn’t have any oars because of course I didn’t bring any oars, why would I have brought oars to my maiden voyage in case something went wrong?! I’m such an idiot!!!

We went for it. The night tow. The starboard-side swing that gently cast us toward my slip. The outreach with a hook in the dark to grab our dock without crashing. Or maybe, to cover my ass, none of that happened, and the motor worked just fine and I made it all up for dramatic effect and to be a good blog boy.

Around 11pm, we were finally in the slip. Moving started at 9am.

Conclusion, and Some Thank You’s

Today I went back to the slip with my girlfriend, to find the boat had remained solid overnight and taken on no water. Armed with brand new paddles, we rowed around the harbor for the first “powered” voyage! The motor is a work in progress, so there are victories yet to be claimed. But for now, I’m just happy the thing floats, and is in its new home. I think this will be my last blog post about building a boat from scratch. There’s going to be a christening party, eventually.

On that note, the only reason I did this blogging thing is because a few buddies, Luis and Joe T, convinced me I’d be glad I did after. They were right, and I’m really thankful you guys talked me into it. I probably would have given up on the project a dozen times already, if I didn’t have the internet to answer to, as weird as that sounds. Telling everyone you’re going to do something really gives you motivation to get up when you’re knocked down, I highly recommend it. I also recommend taking on something so absurd as to demand a North Korean insult.

Joe T, burning the midnight oil teaching me how Americans do everything wrong with electrical.

My girlfriend Becca has put up with, encouraged, and helped me throughout the whole damn project. I’m incredibly grateful for her patience and support while I whined about fiberglassing for 6 months. In addition to helping with said fiberglassing, she also painted a beautiful name on the side of the boat, and countless other helping tasks.

My cousin Kelli also rolled up her sleeves, and saved my ass from the pathetic paint job I was doomed to, left to my own devices. She also researched and showed me the pretty amazing history of the boatyard I was working in:

My high school buddy Jon flew all the way up to San Francisco from San Diego to teach me how to fiberglass:

My brother Tom came through in some of the biggest moments of the project, and my buddy James was a constant source of good ideas, and talked through most of the hard design decisions with me.

The TechShop got me started prototyping and the first few sheets of plywood, but it was really the team at Shaper who are responsible for the majority of the structure getting cut precisely. I got to test out some really cool tech with their Origin, and they got to test their device on a relatively large-scale project.

TechShop CNC rig (left) that started the project, and Shaper Origin (right) that finished it.

I have a ton of friends from the DroneDeploy family who volunteered a lot of their nights and weekends to help cut, glue, epoxy, and lift the boat: Joe S and Tasha, Dan the Man, Dillon, Jeremy, Nick, Mike, Kerry, Jono, Jenny, Chase, Edith, Joe L, Ruby, Bryant, Eric, Conor, and Jay. Marwan and Ivo also came through big time.

Boat Roll, Part Deuce Crew

I’ll leave with my favorite two before and afters. Thanks for reading!

First and last days of construction
Theory, and final product