Scale Down and Ship Out
Diners at the Islamorada Fish Company in Dania Beach -- at least those seated on the deck overlooking the man-made lagoon -- are occasionally reminded how the succulent, scaly critters on their plates ended up there. A fishing trawler periodically cruises the small, landlocked waterway, with its rigging and nets set to haul in seafood. As seaworthy as it is, however, the trawler will never pull into port with a hold full of fish; many sea creatures are actually bigger than the boat, which is just two and a half feet long. But miniature fish are about the only thing the guys in Shipcrafters of Broward County haven't added in order to make their radio-controlled boats realistic.
Club member Jim Spohn, who built one of the trawlers, also pilots an elaborate tugboat on the lagoon, which is shared by the restaurant and the nearby International Game Fish Association (IGFA) Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, where the club holds meetings. Inside the tug's hull is the electric motor that propels it, plus a sound-and-smoke generator, which supplies the tug with its signature toot and a plume of diesel exhaust.
Spohn, who joined Shipcrafters shortly after it was founded in the late '70s, is fond of fishing boats, tugs, and workboats in general, which comprise one of the three classes of models that will be judged at the club's regatta on October 9. He has also built a few sailboats, which fall into the pleasure-boat class. Other club members specialize in military craft, the third classification.
Club president Herb Leach, for example, spent two years building a six-and-a-half-foot model of the aircraft carrier Enterprise. It was so true to life that World War II vets who served on the real ship asked Leach to attend their reunion -- along with the model, of course. The replica carrier's radar dishes rotate, and its flight deck is populated by about 30 model aircraft. In fact, the propellers of one plane can be set in motion via radio control.
Both Spohn and Leach are "scratch" builders. Instead of buying a kit of premade parts, they build their intricate models from the ground up. "This [type of model] is started with a set of plans, a stack of wood, and a lot of ambition," says Spohn.
The woodpile usually consists of lightweight balsa wood or something called "aircraft plywood," from which the basic skeleton of the boat is fashioned. Balsa or basswood planks are attached with glue to the frame, and the entire model is sealed with epoxy resin (or fiberglass resin). In some cases a thin fiberglass cloth is laid atop fragile wood to strengthen it and protect it from scrapes.
Extra protection comes in handy during the precision-steering competition, one of the regatta's two main events. "The operator of the boat has to run through the obstacles that represent what a skipper would do," explains Spohn. The obstacles include a 30-inch-wide, 16-foot-long channel with a dogleg turn; a series of buoys; and a three-sided boat slip captains must pull into and out of. "Backing is a real challenge with most boats," says Spohn.
While pilots test their mettle outside, boats on display inside the IGFA museum will be judged in the scale competition. Judges will make sure fittings and equipment on the models are built to scale, and if a model is a reproduction of a life-size boat, it will be compared closely to the real thing.
This attention to detail shouldn't scare off potential modelers looking for fun. "We're a very laid-back club," claims Spohn. "Anybody who has a [model] boat and wants to come out and float it, they're welcome. I don't care if it's the Titanic or Little Toot the tugboat."
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