Sailing from their driveway

After more than two years of work, a family slows down into 'sailing time' on a hand-built boat

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

When the Zeigers launched their sailboat in June, their neighbors were as happy as they were to see it in the water and out of the driveway where it was built.

"We were just ecstatic that they were finally able to get their boat in the water," said neighbor Judy Keskinen, who watched the S/V Selkie take shape under a blue tarp outside her window for two years. "They worked so hard for so long."

Since then the Zeigers have been sailing the Selkie around Auke Bay on weekends.

Onboard Labor Day weekend, their lives slowed down to sailing time. They took off their rubber boots, manning the deck in bare feet, and sometimes rainwear. There was no cell phone, no television, no computer. The Zeigers sometimes read aloud to each other as they sail.

"Any time we've been out it's like time is suspended," said Michelle Zeiger. "It's just wonderful. You feel like you've been gone a week and it's only been overnight. It's the ultimate getaway vacation on a budget."

Eight-year-old Ally Zeiger floated a toy boat off the back on a long string or inspected the world through a small telescope.

"At first I thought I didn't really want a boat, but now I really like it because I've never really been able to spend the night on the water before," Ally said. "I can go to great places where the canoe won't take us and there's lots and lots and lots of wildlife."

So far she's seen deer and mink, as well as porpoises, starfish, sea urchins and other sea life.

Mark Zeiger was inspired to try building a boat after seeing the 19-footer his brother had made. Mark practiced on a 14-foot sailing dingy, built over a winter of weekends.

"That was basically all the skills you need in miniature," Mark said.

But the goal was to take the family out overnight, or longer. At first Mark tried building an 39-foot live-aboard sailer. That was squashed when a city official pointed out that Mendenhaven is suburban neighborhood and the boat shed didn't fit within the Zeigers setbacks.

So Mark downscaled his plans to a 23-foot-6 design by Philip Bolger.

"He's kind of a maverick boat designer who is either respected or feared depending on who you talk to," Mark Zeiger said. "His two catch phrases are 'boats with an open mind' and 'instant boats.'"

The Zeiger's boat wasn't instant, but it was fast for a boat built after work and on weekends. Mark chose a Martha Jane design, a close relative of the Sharpie. He started in November 1998 in his garage.

The boat was built with plywood, two-by-fours and pieces scavenged off other boats. By the time they bought sails, the boat cost about $11,000. Mark did most of the work, but a group of Juneau boat building enthusiasts helped him with more difficult parts, including lining up the bulkheads, hanging the sides and turning over the hull. Mark, who is webmaster for the Alaska Commission on Aging, documented his boat building for family, fellow sailors and the just-plain-curious at www.alaska. net/~mzeiger/Boat_Building.html.

In June, 2 1/2 years after Mark started, they launched the Selkie in Auke Bay.

"It's been a really incredible project," Michelle Zeiger said. "It was really cool to see it actually get in the water this summer."

The Martha Jane is a flat-bottom design, using leaboards instead of a keel. The bow is flat and open, allowing it to self-bail. That gives the Selkie a draft of about eight inches.

"We only need about a foot of water to be afloat and you can pull it up if it's a nice, sandy shore," Mark said. "You can pull it right onto the beach and go a lot of places that other boats can't go."

He made a few adjustments to Bolger's design along the way. Bolger designed the Martha Jane to be a water ballast boat, so that she's light and easy to trailer. Since the Zeigers don't plan to trailer their boat, Mark decked over the water ballast holds to create a berth for Ally and extra storage. The Selkie uses lead ballast.

Mark also added a wood stove in a corner of the cabin.

The cabin is tiny, just tall enough to sit, not stand, while cooking on a camp stove in the corner. At night, it's cozy, with room for Mark and Michelle to stretch out in the main cabin. Ally has a separate bed under the stairs.

"It's more of a camper," Michelle said.

One thing Mark didn't change was the rigging. The Martha Jane design uses a balanced lug sail, a somewhat squarish sail, rather than the more common triangular Marconi rigging. Though it's unusual, the Martha Jane is reputed to be a fast boat. Mark's brother, a more experienced sailor, had the Selkie going 15 to 20 knots from Auke Rec to Auke Bay.

"It can really move if you know what you're doing," Mark said. "It's going to be probably a year before I test that out. I'm a pretty timid sailor at this point."

So far he's sailed close to home, touring around Suedla, and Spoon islands in Auke Bay. Over Labor Day weekend they sailed farther out, paralleling the road to Amalga Harbor.

"It was a very very interesting trip," Mark said Wednesday.

The wind was strong when the Zeigers started out Saturday afternoon and the self-bailing bow filled occasionally with water.

"It was getting kind of hairy, just because we're kind of inexperienced and we had a following sea," Mark said.

They sailed swiftly to Amalga, but had difficulty maneuvering the Selkie into the shelter of the island. With the anchor barely holding and the wind blowing, they slept lightly all night.

"Even at three in the morning, when the wind was just howling and we were horsing on those anchors, I thought that as long we survive, this is an adventure we're going to look back on fondly," Mark said.

The next day they caught a perfect wind into Amalga Harbor and anchored into calm waters, "a mill pond, basically," Mark said.

There they stayed as the tide ebbed and flowed, and Amalga residents dropped by to see the boat.

"The community of Amalga is pretty excited about the boat and there's a lot of people there who'd like to go out," said Mark, who plans to take some of them on rides this weekend.

Now that the Selkie's afloat, Mark's making bigger plans. He's thinking about building a houseboat to anchor by some property they bought in Gustavus. Someday he'd like to pull up anchor altogether, taking their lives to the water.

"We're already living the dream," Mark said. "It's just a matter of degrees now."


Kristan Hutchison can be reached at

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