Posted by: oldsalt1942 | March 2, 2015

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Posted by: oldsalt1942 | September 13, 2015

Another Crazy Idea…

A while back I was investigating the availability here in Panama of close-cell foam to use as a building material for shantyboat pontoons. There is one place in Panama City that has the stuff, but it is, for my purposes, prohibitively expansive, especially when you consider the cost of fiberglass mat and roving and epoxy resin to cover the stuff. Actually, I’d probably use polyester resin. I’m not talking about building a yacht, here, and since I’m a 73-year old guy with COPD and three stents in my arteries I’m not looking for something that needs to last forever.

One thing they do have around here in Chiriquí Province is stuff like this:



It’s a foam core with high-tensile metal mesh on both sides. At first I didn’t think it could be adapted to use in shanty boat construction. But as so often happens, things are put aside and percolate subconsciously. There is a place along on my bus route from Boquerón into David (dah VEED) that actually stocks the stuff. I see it sitting in racks near the street. It looks like it comes in 4X8-foot sheets. It may be available in other sizes, but that’s what this stuff looks like.

When they’re building houses with this stuff they set up the foam panels and then coat both sides with concrete. Then several things came to me over the past couple of days. First: remember when ferro-cement boats were the big rage for home builders a few decades ago? Hundreds, perhaps thousands were started. Few were ever finished. Second: down here in Panama the majority of houses are cement block construction, wood being FOOD for a lot of different things. So the people around here are skilled with mixing and creating stuff out of concrete. I’m not just talking about piling up blocks to build houses with either. At the hostel I’m staying at for a few days while the owners of my house are down here on vacation they’ve made these counters out of concrete out in the palapa hut where the communal kitchen is located.

counter 1

counter 2

So, I’m thinking…if the panels are cheap enough why couldn’t they be used as the basis for either pontoons or a barge and have concrete applied to both sides to form a hull? b-panel, one of several companies that make these panels advertise them as being “quake resistant” so a hull could probably be strong enough to survive a truck ride of 25 miles or so down to Pedrigal from my house. Besides, the company advertises that pre-fab wall panels can be easily built and transported to a building site.

b-panel also has this interesting segment of their web site…Q: Can expanded polystyrene (EPS) be used for a floating house?

A: Yes, because EPS consists of 98% air, its buoyance is excellent. EPS is widely used for floating structures including floating houses. Furthermore, EPS as floatation has a much better safety factor than drum or other materials because EPS cannot easily sink, as its buoyancy is provided by millions of individual air cells.

So, tomorrow, Monday, I’m going to swing by the place that has the foam and see what they cost. Who knows what might develop?

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | September 1, 2015

Simple And Easily Done

I know, I know, I haven’t posted in a while but new shantyboat stuff doesn’t hit the internet on a daily basis.

This is a simple, easily done shantyboat that shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. I’m sure nearly every reader would be able to find an inexpensive pontoon boat near them that could be converted. You could buy a shed at a lot of outlets and mount it aboard. Voilà!


Read about it here:

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | May 3, 2015

Learning Curve

I’ve decided that I should build a pontoon-type boat, doing it in four-foot segments (possibly eight-foot if I can be sure to divide that in half with a leak-proof bulkhead. These segments would be built here at the house in Boquerón and then trucked down to the marina in Pedregal where they’d be bolted and epoxied together. I have a LOT of experience with thickened epoxy as a bonding agent and I KNOW that the wood around the epoxied joint will give way before the joint will.

The pontoons will be 2-feet wide by 2-feet high, and between 24 and 28 feet long. Probably the latter. The beam of the boat will be 10-feet, with the house being 8-feet wide allowing for a nice roof overhang, or whatever that’s called in carpentry terms.

I decided on the pontoons because of the amount of flotation they offer. Here are the numbers I’ve come up with…

Each pontoon segment will be 2’X2’X4’ = 16 cubic feet

One cubic foot = 7.5 gallons (7.48)

One gallon of water weighs = 8.3453 pounds. One cubic foot = 7.48052 gallons. The weight of one cubic foot of water is 7.48052 gallons times 8.3453 pounds, which equals 62.42 pounds of water per cubic foot. OR, it would take 62.42 lbs. to completely sink a cubic foot container.

SO, 62.42 lbs X 16 cubic feet = 998.72 lbs. displacement for each 4’ pontoon. Minus the weight of the materials each pontoon will support, roughly, 900 lbs.

The sections in the bow would be made like the bow of a barge or scow, sloped up from the bottom to move through the water with less resistance. Figure that each one of those will be roughly half the volume of the regular one for a 28’ long structure overall, or roughly 11,700 lbs. flotation. Whatever kind of house structure I build on top of the pontoon segments plus all the junk that I’d bring aboard certainly isn’t going to amount to five and a half TONS!

If you look as building a raft-type structure using 55-gallon drums the figures look like this:

Now, a 55 gallon drum measures 35” X 24”. A 55 gallon drum will displace 459 lbs.

Because of the odd measurement of 35” you’d need 10 drums to make up each pontoon of a similar size to the plywood pontoons. Now you’re mucking around with non-standard size lumber or going for 10 barrels a side. The cheapest 55-gallon plastic barrels I’ve found around here cost $30/each (can’t find a source for used barrels like in the States because if they are available they’re snapped up instantly by people who use them for water storage.). That’s $600 for flotation. And how much flotation? Potentially 9,180 lbs., before deducting the weight of the materials needed to contain them. So more than a ton less flotation than the plywood pontoons.

I tried drawing these pontoon segments out on paper, but it wasn’t very successful, everything in 2-D. So I downloaded the free SketchUp design program and found out there’s a HUGE, STEEP learning curve and the frustration level was almost more than I could bear.

So, one Sunday morning last month I went into David (Dah VEED) to the store where I knew I could get 2′ X 2′ X 4′ styrofoam drop ceiling tiles, 1/2″ thick which is EXACTLY what like a pontoon segment would be like. (I’ve since decided that the bottoms of each segment should be 3/4″ thick instead of 1/2″. Using a hot-glue gun to assemble the pieces (Elmer’s School Glue took too long to dry and needed constant pressure to stick together, and contact cement INSTANTLY melts styrofoam) this is what I came up with.




Not only did this help me to visualize the building process, I found out that certain things had to be inset from an edge to accommodate other pieces.

If there’s one character trait I possess it’s that I’m STUBBORN! I became bound and determined that I was going to learn how to use the SketchUp program at least well enough so that I could document here, and possibly later in e-book form, how to build this boat. So I watched, over and over again, various YouTube tutorials on how the program works. I had to constantly trying something, discarding it, repeat, repeat, repeat. But I persevered and, while the measurements are a bit off at least I was finally able to get something resembling a 3-D rendition of a pontoon segment…

Segment 1Segment 3

Those end pieces that stick up above the pontoons are where the 2 X 6 cross beams will attach the pontoons to form a catamaran structure. End to end each 4′ section will have a one-inch-thick attachment point. Bolted and epoxied they should be strong enough to be able to move the boat without a problem. So, diddling around some more with SketchUp, and getting better at it all the time though still having to try something, discard it and do it over again, I came up with these ideas.

28-foot pontoon 2

This is what a pontoon would look like. That square thing in the bow would be a hatch so I could use those segments to store anchor line and fenders.

Here they are with the cross braces and decking…

28-foot pontoon with cross braces28-foot pontoon with decking

So that’s what I’ve come up with so far…


Posted by: oldsalt1942 | April 20, 2015

A New Phase

Things are moving along with the plan to build a shantyboat. Things go in phases.

The first phase was all the crackpot ideas I’ve come up with over the years. Camper shells on pontoons. Bamboo rafts. I’ve even gone so far as to actually buy plans for one. There were ideas of collecting empty plastic bottles, stuffing them into plastic milk crates that would be lashed together, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve finally decided that the most practical thing to do is to build a pair of pontoons in four-foot sections because they’re small enough that I can man-handle them by myself, and then epoxy them together.

So, I went out and bought some 2’X4′ styrofoam ceiling tiles and started to put together a full-size mockup of a pontoon section. The Sketchup program was had too steep a learning curve and trying to visualize how it should all go together on paper wasn’t working. Doing this, though, was a good lesson and I can see how this is going to have to go together and how pieces of wood need to be cut.

The first photo shows the bottom which will be 2’X4′ as will the top piece. The bottom piece will be 3/4″ ply and the top and sides will be 1/2 inch ply EXCEPT for the very last end piece on each pontoon. The pieces with the squiggly lines are going to be 2X4 set on end. The sides and end pieces will be glued and screwed into these 2X4s. In putting this model together I was right to inset the end carlins 1/2″ in from the ends because the end piece will sit on TOP of the bottom piece. I found out, while putting this together, that the carlins on the sides at the bottom must ALSO be inset 1/2 inch to accept the sides and maintain the 2′ width. 

You can see that the end piece sticks up an additional 5-1/2 inches ABOVE the 2′ height. To connect the two pontoons it’s necessary to have pieces spanning the beam of the boat. Except for the very last cross piece I plan on using 2X6 and bolting and gluing them to the ends. When 2 sections come together those “tabs”, if you will, will be 1″ thick. The reason for the 5-1/2″ height is that lumber is trimmed and a 2X6 actually measures 1-1/2″ X 5-1/2″. Plywood, on the other hand is actual size. That is, 3/4″ plywood REALLY IS 3/4 of an inch thick.

Each side piece will have a single carlin at the top so that the top of the pontoon can be glued and screwed securely.

Now, the very LAST end piece of each pontoon will be made up of TWO half-inch pieces of ply epoxied together so that the “tab” will be 1″ thick. But IT will extend 11-1/2″ above the tops of the pontoons and the cross member will be a 2X12 so that it will be strong enough and big enough to accept an outboard motor.

Why make so many 2’X4′ sections instead of one long one? First of all I’m going to be doing practically everything by myself and I’m pretty sure I can manhandle a 2X4′ section on my own. Second, I want to have several watertight segments so that if one part of a pontoon gets holed it won’t sink the boat. I can also buy enough of these 2X4-foot, 1/2″ styrofoam blanks to fill all the pontoons for $385. They come in bales of 35 sheets. Seventeen and a half inches high. If I opted to just put a single bale in each pontoon that would give me potential buoyancy of 746.67 lbs. Certainly good enough to keep from sinking, and it would save me $128 which would buy quite a bit of lumber.

Richard Philbrick's photo.
Richard Philbrick's photo.
Richard Philbrick's photo.
Today I took another step towards actually building the damned thing. After going into the city to pay my cable bill I want to the biggest hardware outlet in the area and the closest thing we have around here to a Lowes or Home Depot (don’t kid your self, Do It Center isn’t even close to being a Home Depot) and bought a circular saw.
I didn’t buy the most expensive saw they had in the place. After all, when I finish building the shantyboat and a dinghy I’ll probably never use the saw again. But it wasn’t the cheapest saw they had, either.
Next thing to buy is a drill and some C clamps and a couple of bar clamps and then a load of wood. Perhaps start building sometime in June.
Posted by: oldsalt1942 | March 3, 2015

What Good Are Plans If You Can’t Change Them?

I’ve had problems sleeping, lately. I get up in the middle of the night to take a whiz and can’t get back to sleep because variations of the shanty boat build whirl around in my mind.

I thought about filling milk crates with empty 2-liter plastic bottles and then found out there’s only one dairy in the whole country that uses them and they won’t sell them. Using other kinds of containers to hold the bottles are no real answer to the problem, either. In any case, I would have built a plywood pontoon around them.

So I got to thinking about using foam flotation. I found a place that sells open-cell foam ceiling tiles and could buy enough of them to provide, literally, tons of buoyancy. The problem with them is each 2’X4′ panel is only 1/2″ thick. Also, open-cell foam, I discovered from rummaging around on line when I couldn’t get back to sleep, will absorb water over time. I’d also have to  find a way to keep the 35 sheets that came in a bundle together.

Closed-cell foam doesn’t absorb water. There’s only one place in all of Panama that sells closed-foam sheets. The sheets are 4’X8′ and 4″ thick. They cost $100 each. I’d need 24 sheets to get the size and amount of buoyancy required for what I have in mind. I’m NOT spending $2,400 for floatation.

So, I’m looking at a site that shows some people building pontoons and stuffing it with foam.

Foam filling


As you can see in the bottom pic they’re using a combination of bottles, 5-gallon pails and foam. They also mentioned in their story that they weren’t making the pontoons water-tight because they were making a single river trip and the shanty wasn’t for long-term use.

The foam isn’t providing any buoyancy of its own. None at all. What it’s doing is providing potential buoyancy should the pontoons be breached.

Well, I intend on making my pontoons watertight using a combination of glues, epoxy filets, and glass over wood. I also plan on building the pontoons in separate 2’X2’X4′ sections. They’d be easy for an old geezer like me to build and move around than building two long 20′ or 24′ pontoons. These segments would, of course, each have closed ends so that a breach in one wouldn’t flood the whole pontoon. Then I would fill them, like seen above, with a collection of discarded bottles.

So, we’ll see if sorting this out in the daylight will help me sleep through the night.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | March 2, 2015

Harlan and Anna Hubbard Video

The artist, Harlan Hubbard, and his wife, Anna, could be considered the guru of modern shanty boating. He and Anna were married in 1943 and the next year they started to build their shanty boat in Brent, Kentucky eventually traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, ending their journey in the Louisiana bayous in 1951. His book Shantyboat, and several others he wrote recounts the eight-year journey from Brent to New Orleans, are still available through His book Shantyboat in the Bayous, which was published in 1990, completes the story.

Harlan produced many woodcuts and drawings like this one showing the inside of their boat and their voyage.




Posted by: oldsalt1942 | March 1, 2015

Vintage Shanty Boat Article


Posted by: oldsalt1942 | February 28, 2015

Advantages of a Shanty Boat vs. Sail or Powerboat

I have a very dear friend in Florida who is always trying to convince me to give up the shanty boat idea. “Come up here,” he says, “and get a REAL boat. Then you can sail it back down to Panama if you want.”

Well, there are a lot of reasons I don’t want to do that. One, I don’t really want to go back to the States even to visit. People around here often ask me if I don’t miss my family and friends up north. Well, sure. But if I travel some place I want to go to somewhere I’ve never been before. I don’t need to go visit those people up there. I KNOW what it looks like where they live. They should come down HERE and take part in the adventure of a different country and culture.

But getting back to the theme of this post. One of the big disadvantages of powerboats and sailboats as live aboards is the DRAFT. My lovely Nancy Dawson which I lived on for nearly six years drew 4′ feet.


That meant that I needed to be in AT LEAST four and a half feet of water and also take into account the tidal range. For instance, over here around Boca Chica where I’d like to be, the tidal range is as much as 19 feet! Take a gander of these sport fishing boats at Boca Chica…(By the way, there are MANY world record catches off the shores in this area).


Jolie Aire-Golfe Juan

The boat I ran over in France, after we changed the old, short-weighted wing keel which made the boat dangerously unstable for a spade-type keel drew over TEN FEET!!!



Because of this great tidal range (it’s only about 3′ over in the Bocas del Toro area) if you’re in a sailboat with a keel or a power boat where the props and rudders hang below the level of the keel, you have to be anchored quite a way from the beach in order to stay afloat or pay an outrageous fee for a dock at a marina.

With a shanty boat you can choose from a couple of options. You could hang around, see where the low tide line is and anchor yourself just off it and walk ashore since your boat will only have a draft of a foot or so. Of course, six hours after you left it will be high tide and you’ll either have to wait for the tide to fall or swim out to your home. OR, if you’ve built your boat sturdy enough, you can go inshore as far as possible and “take the ground” as they say if you’ve found a nice protected spot where there isn’t much wave action to bounce you around as the tide drops.

In either case you’re going to want/need to have a dinghy. I wrote this several years ago…

My choice for a dinghy is the Puddle Duck Racer. I’ve written about it before on this blog.

Posted by: oldsalt1942 | February 24, 2015

Nutty Idea # ???

Lately my idea of building a shanty “boat” has shifted to building a shanty “raft.” As a Canadian member of my Facebook group calls them, “Float Shacks.”  One of the main reasons for this recent focus is the building process would be a lot easier. I have also been thinking about how to keep the costs down and one way would be by using recyclable materials.

One of the very few things that disappoint me about Panama, and there are really only two, is that so many people treat this beautiful country as a trash can. Sometimes you can almost imagine dad telling the family, “Okay, everybody in the car. We’re going to drive around for a while and throw shit out the windows.” (The other thing I don’t like is the loud music all over the place. It doesn’t have to be GOOD music but it does have to be LOUD!) I got into it with a woman one time on the bus. When she finished drinking her soda she opened the window and tossed the empty out onto the Interamerican Highway. I admonished her in my horrible Spanish and a couple of nearby Panamanian riders backed me up. One of the most egregious things I’ve seen, and this is the absolute truth, one trash day the garbage truck was stopped outside my gate. One of the workers was drinking from a two liter bottle of water. When he polished it off, what do you think he did? Did he throw the empty into the truck? Of course not, the idiot threw it into the grass. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Anyway, I’m thinking about the possibility of using plastic bottles as flotation. I like the idea of 55-gal plastic drums, and I need to investigate that further. The only place I asked for pricing wanted $35/each for used barrels. In one plan good plan I saw online I’d need 14 of them which is $490! But I see a hardware company distribution yard when I take the bus into David (Dah VEED) and they always seem to have a lot of those drums. The reason it might not be able to get them cheaply here unlike in the States is that water service is often sporadic here and outages are a way of life, so many, many houses have these barrels as a reserve water supply.


And the framing required to make something like this is made out of 2X6 and 2X10 lumber and lag bolts and it’s HEAVY. Here’s an example of what I mean…



But as far as using bottles I saw this on my last trip over to Bocas del Toro in July… It wasn’t very big, but it’s all a matter of just working things out, right?

bocas bottles 2


There are LOTS of discarded bottles lying around down here. One thought that crossed my mind would be to approach the schools in the area and tell the kids that I’d pay them, say, 5 cents for each two liter bottle that was clean, no label and a cap. That doesn’t seem like much to gringos like us (I use the word “gringo” all the time and I use it to mean anyone here whose native language isn‘t Spanish.), but you have to realize what it is to the local people, especially the indigenous kids who live around here. The owner of the house I rent wants to have it painted and one guy that came to bid the job said he works for $15 A DAY!!! So picking up 300 bottles other people have thrown away would be a fortune to a bunch of young indian kids. But down here it’s what’s called “Summer” and school doesn’t start until March 2nd, so I need to wait a few weeks before I can make my pitch.

I could also get some free radio publicity. A nearby neighbor, and friend, is a reporter for one of the local radio stations. We’ve often talked about how awful the mind set of people is who throw trash around. I’d be willing to bet if I approached him with my idea of using discarded bottles I’d be able to get some free air-time. After all, when the town I live in, Boqueron, had their feast day celebration for their patron saint last October, they put out a small magazine and half of one page was devoted to the only gringo that lives in their pueblo…ME!

But this morning, over my morning cup of locally-grown coffee, I stumbled across THIS and I think this could be the deal. Milk crates filled with 2-liter bottles. As you can see in the video it’s sagging where the guy is sitting but that’s because the thing is held together with plastic wire ties. Certainly not designed for strength and durability. A couple of ways of overcoming that that instantly pop to mind would be to somehow through-bolt the crates together, or build a simple 2X4 frame around the top and bottom edges to keep it rigid. Another possibility might be to screw 1/4″ plywood with fiberglass sheathing to the outside, or perhaps just paint it. I’m not building a yacht here, and I’m nearly 73 years old with COPD and three stents in my arteries. How many years do I have to figure on being on the thing, anyway? There are 9 bottles per crate, so I need to go measure a crate and see how many I’ll need to put together something around 10’X24′ . I might have to double up on the crates to get enough clearance for the deck above water.

Where would I get the crates? You won’t find those along the side of the road. Not a problem. Chiriqui province is the bread basket of Panama, and on the short trip over to Bugaba, to the west of Boqueron, there are THREE dairies: Estrella, Nevada and La Chiricana. I’ll have to stop in and see if I can buy a bunch from them. I bet if I explain what I plan to do they’ll go along with it.

Anyway, this is the thing that’s got my willie tingling this morning.



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