Sheguiandah woodworker crafts sailboat during pandemic

Sheguiandah’s Detlef Heiser poses with his newly-built craft, which weighs around 150 lbs. photo by Michael Erskine

SHEGUIANDAH – Detlef Heiser retired from his career as a Windsor firefighter and moved to a much quieter life in Sheguiandah where he soon gained fame as a fine woodworker as he did the odd job and commission for the folks he met on the Island and surrounding region. One of the commissions Mr. Heiser recently undertook was a small two-person sailboat, handcrafted for a clients’ two grandchildren.

The vessel began two years before the current pandemic arrived, but Mr. Heiser completed the project while the world was on lockdown. The sailboat is relatively small, just right for two young men in their early teens.

“It needed to be small and simple enough for them to be able to handle it by themselves,” said Mr. Heiser. “It is heavier than the original design called for,” he admitted. “That’s likely because I used a denser wood than that design called for.” 

The sailboat is carefully crafted in mahogany, a wood that is more resistant to rot and other nemesis that can plague a wooden vessel. “The original wood was pine, but I used mostly mahogany,” he said.

The sail and rigging arrangement is simplified and operates without the encumbrance of a boom. “I chose that design for safety,” he said. “A boom can swing about and hit someone. I imagine that you could add a boom to the mast later.”

The sail and oars (a matched set of two pairs) are the only pieces of the vessel Mr. Heiser didn’t craft himself. Trim and well-balanced, the sailboat will likely be swift in the water whether under sail or oar-power. There are a number of small but important details in the construction, including a handstitched leather padding that protects the upper yard from chaffing damage. 

“I had the sail made at National Sail Supply,” he said. “They did a good job, but they got the name wrong,” he added pointing to a white tag bearing the name ‘Puffer.’ “It’s was supposed to be ‘Puffin.’ It works just the same.”

The vessel rests on a custom-built trailer, awaiting its new owners who are likely some very excited young sailors. “They know it is being built,” said Mr. Heiser, who declined to name the client out of respect for his privacy.

Building the boat may have taken more than a year, but Mr. Heiser estimates his actually labour to have tallied closer to 300 hours. “There is a lot of time in between waiting for things to set or dry,” he said. “It was probably a bit more than that, but it is hard to gauge exactly.”

A gentle tune hovers in the air, emanating from the open-ended garage where the sailboat awaits its new owners. “A couple of swallows took up residence in one of the birdhouses stacked in there,” smiled Mr. Heiser. “I keep the radio on French CBC to give them a little melody.”

Nestled on a cradle in another workshop on the property is another vessel, a skiff that Mr. Heiser has been refinishing. Long and lean, this vessel can be propelled at a “pretty good clip” with just a small trolling motor. “It’s pretty thin, so I think I might add an outrigger to give it more balance,” the boatbuilder mused.

All in good time. “I am slowing down a bit these days,” admitted Mr. Heiser.

The fine woodworker is a familiar sight at the Centennial Museum of Sheguiandah, where he can often be found giving demonstrations of the traditional woodworking skills that supplied much of the furniture and tools home-built by the settlers who arrived on Manitoulin in the mid-nineteenth century.