Dories are one of the few hundreds of year old boat designs to have survived into the 21st century, and for good reason. Their sea keeping abilities, slippery shapes, extreme versatility, and ease of construction make them one of the best choices for a first-time or veteran boat builder looking for a great boat able to be built on a budget.
Dories began appearing over 200 years ago as small, light, versatile work boats ideal for fishing. They were easy to construct, easy to launch from the beach, easy to row or sail, and could haul a huge load of gear and fish. No one knows exactly where the design came from but many builders started constructing these boats on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe dories were popular in Portugal, and in the US, Nova Scotia was the center of dory construction. Dories were used extensively to fish the Grand Banks, one of the most important cod fishing locales in the world at that time.
Many people think that flat bottomed boats, as most dories are, are somehow less seaworthy than boats of some other bottom shape. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When you load a dory down, with its flared sides, the boat gets more and more stable. As an example of how seaworthy dories are, in 1876 a man named Alfred Johnson took a dare in a Gloucester, Massachusetts bar to single handedly sail across the Atlantic in an open dory. He chose a 20 foot dory which he named Centennial to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the United States that year. He fitted with sails and a centerboard, and on June 15th set off from Gloucester for England. He arrived in Liverpool on August 21st 1876 after crossing one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world, the North Atlantic. He survived a major gale and some horrid seas in a flat bottomed, open boat with no flotation or self bailing decks!
Modern dories come in a number of variants. There are those optimized for rowing, sail, power, high power, wild white water, and more. Almost every possible boating use or preference can be accommodated in some kind of dory. Dories are used for launching through the surf, fishing in the open ocean, drifting down whitewater rivers, water skiing in lakes, as work boats hauling heavy loads of traps or divers, sailing along on a light breeze, just about any use you can imagine. They also do it with far less effort than many other kinds of boats. Imagine going 25 mph using only 25 horsepower in a 20 foot boat – a dory can do it. Imagine a 20 foot row boat that one person can row up to the hull speed of 6 knots with ease over long distances – a dory can do it. Imagine loading 8 tons of cargo on a 27 foot boat and powering it in the open ocean – a dory can do it.
Modern dories are surprisingly easy to build. All of the frame elements are straight. You can literally go to any lumber yard, buy pre-milled construction grade lumber, screw and glue it together, cover it with plywood, and viola – you have a dory. No exotic materials, no specialized tools, no special techniques are required. If you can build a sawhorse, you can build a dory. Most modest sized dories can be built in a few dozen hours for a few hundred dollars. All you need to do is to ensure the designer of the dory you select has designed his boat to be made from standard sized lumber. Some of the old fashioned designs call for unusual sizes you have to spend many hours sizing down the lumber before you can start building.
With modern epoxy, and the new polyurethane “Gorilla Glue” type glues, you can build strong, safe dories, even if you’re not an expert wood craftsman. These glues fill gaps well, so there is no need to carefully fit and expertly clamp each joint in the hull framing. With fiberglass and epoxy, you can even use non-marine grades of plywood also. The flexible and exceptionally strong coating of epoxy and fiberglass on the outside seals the hull as well as adding strength and abrasion resistance. Unlike older polyester resin based fiberglass, with epoxy, there is no specialized application techniques needed for boat building. You just lay the cloth on the plywood then wet it down with resin applied with a brush or roller. It’s simple.