A Boat’s Beginning
When Eric Letham and Spencer Duncan set out to construct a DIY sailboat to take them across the world, they didn’t realize that the process of building it would be their best adventure yet.
Every project, however great, is built in small steps and minor quests. For amateur boat builders Eric Letham and Spencer Duncan, the daily swell of tasks is where the real adventure lies.
Over plates of spicy noodles in Vancouver a few years ago, the two friends from Salmon Arm, BC, decided to build a 39-foot ketch rig sailboat, which they hoped would take them across the world in search of warm waves and endless, empty beaches. But setting out across the open ocean remains a distant goal; for now, all the joy is in the day-to-day.
Letham and Duncan weren’t (yet) experts in shipbuilding so much as committed learners.
Letham had, in fact, built smaller boats before, which the pair have used to embark on numerous camping and fishing adventures throughout the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. He also once built a kayak that he then paddled from Vancouver all the way to Alaska. Building a blue-water sailboat capable of handling the full force of the open ocean, however, was a much more ambitious undertaking.
First they needed a workshop. After all, you can’t just construct a 39-foot boat in your backyard. They bought a few books and learned the basics of timber frame construction on the fly. It took months of work, measuring and cutting huge pieces of timber with fine precision, to fit it all together. The owner of a local small-scale timber mill generously shared his knowledge, even taking them out on an old goat path to help select some of the trees that would provide the wood for their work.
Once the final touches were finished on the workshop, the pair broke it in with the finest barnwarming hospitality Salmon Arm had to offer: food, drink, and live music to celebrate and kick off construction on the ship itself.
All the while, Duncan and Letham were dreaming about their ideal boat design. They found it, ultimately, in an as-yet-unbuilt vision by designer Sam Devlin, which he calls the camarone.
It’s easy to see what called out from Devlin’s design. Its allure is undeniable from a sketch: sleek and elegant, it looks like a vessel that could take you places. The two friends also liked that it contained a lot of space to store ocean essentials like food, water, surfboards, and pilsner.
They named the boat Burnett, after Burnett Bay, a remote spot on the BC coast that was the site of one of their first week-long trips together. It’s a fitting name for their White Whale, as they’ve been chasing the serene perfection of that adventure ever since. Letham jokes that the questions they get asked most often are “What is the boat called?” and “When will it be done?” A good answer for the first is more than enough for now, he says. They’re not in a rush to put a final date on the project.
Shortly after the pair finished their workshop, the opportunity of a lifetime arose. A friend connected them with an eccentric Australian hat dealer with a penchant for boat racing. He needed a ship delivered across the Indian Ocean, from Thailand to South Africa, in time for a cross-Atlantic race and invited Duncan and Letham to help crew the vessel for part of the journey. Setting nerves aside, the pair recognized an invaluable experience and a perfect primer for their future adventures on Burnett. Though details were scarce, it wasn’t the kind of offer they could turn down. They went for it.
The trip turned out to be a profound adventure, as well as a crash course in extreme close-quarters living.
Duncan and Letham shared tight accommodations with three strangers aboard the ship in extreme heat and rough seas. Beginning in Thailand, they sailed through to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Mauritius. They weathered storms, caught exotic fish, and burned their feet trying to play soccer on hot sand with local kids along the way. If they hadn’t pursued their dream this far, they might never have embarked on this voyage; Burnett was already taking them places.
Since returning, Duncan and Letham have made much progress on the boat but have also had to pace themselves, realizing that a project like this is, as they put it, “not a sprint.” It’s something you learn to live around, not something to rush. Every time they’ve had to step away, they’ve returned energized and eager to carry on.
Their website, Building Burnett, lovingly documents the many lessons learned. Their pride and care in each precise step is reflected as their boat begins rounding into shape. Their stitch-and-glue building method requires a great degree of precision. Everything has to be measured to exacting standards, because any variable that could compromise the boat’s integrity or symmetry could represent a real risk out on the high seas, far from shore.
Each material is researched and selected with intention, so that once they finally set sail, their minds can be on the wind, the waves, and the weather, trusting in what they’ve built.
Every step of Burnett’s journey is its own opportunity for unexpected action. They’ve been gathering lead where they can for the ship’s keel, making spontaneous sojourns to BC’s Gulf Islands, fixing up old trucks, and purchasing second-hand chainsaws in parking lots.
As Duncan and Letham have come to embrace the slower pace and rhythm of realizing their dream, they got a head start on a lesson that a year of isolation has taught many of us: a project matters in its making, as much as in its completion. Burnett, as a boat and an idea, has brought them a life’s worth of adventure already, and the best remains in progress.