Students Build & Sail a Radio-Controlled Model Sailboat
by Captain David Bill
Nautical Sciences Teacher at Tabor Academy, Marion Massachusetts.
Edited by Dan Walker, National Sailing Hall of Fame
Radio-controlled sailboat models are not just fun to sail and build; they also serve as excellent hands-on teaching tools for several different lessons in maritime skills, math and physics… even in art!
Tabor Academy is a co-ed boarding and day school located on the water in Marion, Massachusetts. As the “school by the sea,” Tabor sustains a unique maritime heritage that embodies in all its programs the qualities that a seagoing life requires: Thoughtful preparation for and awareness of the wider world, perseverance, courage, good humor, a sense of direction, and humility.
A number of years ago at Tabor we decided to change our traditional year-long Marine Architecture class into a one semester class which allowed for more flexible student scheduling for this nautical science elective. This new class, which we call “Practical Ship and Boat Design,” includes teaching sailing theory, boat building, parts of the boat vocabulary, rigging, boat design and many other applications. Math, physics and other lessons easily work their way into the lessons learned from this class.
The class utilizes a wooden Tippecanoe T27 radio-controlled racing sloop as its “textbook.” Each student builds and then sails their own boat during the 16-week semester, in addition to learning the basics of lines drawing, designing their own boats, and producing a simple design portfolio.
Building and sailing the model allows for numerous teaching moments and building real life skills. In our digital world, young people have an unconscious desire and need to learn hands-on skills, even skills as simple as constructing a wooden hull using two-part epoxy, or learning to wire controllers and configuring the running rigging of their boats. Many of our students have never sailed a boat before, and now here they are — masters of their own first command!
Concepts Learned - Math, Chemistry, Physics, Leadership, and Art!
Math is first and foremost, since there is a lot of measuring involved in the building process. For example, calculating the proper ratio of epoxy to hardener, as well as understanding the correlation of temperature vs. drying time. Chemistry lessons can be incorporated. You can even give students the key information and have them graph the correlation, and then use their graph to determine what ratios and/or drying times they should anticipate based on the ambient temperature that day.
Physics plays a large role as well. Strength of materials is an important concept. Light but strong is the name of the game. The physics of sailing the boat, buoyancy, stability, drag, force and resistance are all important variables that can be presented, illustrated, discussed and assessed.
After the boats are sailing, navigation concepts can pull in both the math and physics, as the students work to explore concepts of distance, rate and time, speed over ground, velocity made good, etc.
Even the Art department can get on the game: I threw this in since one of my students was working on an Art independent study project on original graphic design, which he applied to the sails of the model he built. Don’t be afraid to make all the department heads in your school aware of your class project, and to solicit ideas from them on how to reinforce concepts from their disciplines. Who knows, you might even find support that results in a cross-discipline project?
Since Tabor is a private boarding school, we are more free than most schools to develop our own standards and how they are applied. That doesn’t mean, however, that this class could not easily comply in with typical core curriculum standards found in most public schools. Given a motivated teacher and some thinking outside the box, there are many “tests” along the way in the building process:
Did your epoxied pieces set up properly? If not, reasons why and what can be done to repair?
Is your keel shaped for best hydrodynamic flow? Is your hull symmetrical or is there twist along the longitudinal axis? How will that impact your boat’s speed?
If the boat is a group project, team leaders could be assigned for each step of the process, and encouraged to teach their part of the process to the others in their team.
Extrapolate how this process would be controlled by a company in the business of building and marketing these boats?
Given a set of performance data after several measured test sails, develop a statistical model that could be used to rate and handicap each student’s boat, then race the boats using the handicaps; are the statistics fair and consistent?
There are several sizes and types of radio-controlled sailboat kits available. In addition to cost, factor in the place where you will be having your students sail their finished boats. Places with more wind need a larger boat; I’ll talk about why later on.
We use a T27 model sailboat kit, available online from Tippecanoe Boats:
The cost for the complete kit, which includes radio control equipment, sails, zinc ballast — everything except batteries and materials to paint or varnish the boat — is around $240 per boat (likely the least expensive racing boat anyone will ever own!). Tippecanoe Boats has both larger and smaller kits, ranging in cost from $49 for a T12 (a 12” boat without radio controls that can be sailed with a light line and fishing reel (for retrieval purposes) all the way up to the T65, weighing in at almost 5-1/2 feet long, 12 pounds of weight and costing $895 each. They even have a trimaran and a US Venom One-Meter class racer, which has a carbon fiber hull! Enough day-dreaming…
Other companies also make wooden model sailboat kits:
Chesapeake Light Craft (
) sells a 48-inch long wooden Independence R/C boat kit for $199 for the wood parts, plus costs for epoxy and wire kits. You will still need to source the sail material — rip-stop nylon makes a good model sailboat sail, and is readily available from fabric store chains like Jo-Ann Fabrics.
Another potential source for both boats and advice is the American Model Yachting Association:
Radio-controlled model yacht racing has several one-design classes, and the competition can get as serious as the big boys, with yacht prices to match… even for a model! That said, every class of boat has a low-cost entry point, and model sailboats are no exception. Google “wooden model sailboat kits that sail” or “DIY model sailboat kits” - I’ve seen model kits available for as low as $29.
If you are more creative, and your school has the resources and tools to allow students to shape the wood themselves, you could encourage them to apply what you’ve taught about hull design. Let them shape their own unique hull design from blocks of balsa or other light, easily workable wood, available at hobby stores, finishing it off with keels and sailing rigs made either from pre-built rig kits or materials of your own sourcing.
For elementary schools with “Maker Labs,” Oriental Trading sells DIY wooden sailboat kits for $19 that contains all the components to build a dozen 7.5-inch sailboats good enough for a “Rain Gutter Regatta” - that’s $1.58 per boat! For kits like these, you could use non-toxic wood glue and instead of epoxy to assemble, and fabric markers, wood markers or even crayons to decorate, making this a project even for younger grades.
Workshop as Classroom
A shop-like area is needed to set up student model building work stations. The area should be sufficiently heated (epoxies needs room temperature to cure) and lighted, and allow for dirty work (sanding, epoxying). For our model building, we share the same space as the prop building area used by our Drama Department for building sets and props for our plays and other productions. Don’t forget to include clean-up time into the lesson plan.
Students should be dressed appropriately: Have them wear clothes they don’t care about, and bring in old long-sleeve shirts that can get ruined; they can keep them at school with their boat projects. Boiler suits, shop aprons or disposable Tyvek suits could be useful — see if you can get some donated.
You will also want work gloves, and disposable gloves for the messier activities like gluing and painting. Make sure that no one in the class has latex allergies, or else use a latex-free disposable glove; these are available cheaply in bulk from home improvement stores and paint stores. Also your science department may already maintain a supply. Insist that students with long hair tie it back (nothing worse than making your hair a part of the boat).
The model building period, from start to finish, spanned a time period of eight weeks, with one 40-minute class per day, five days a week. Of course, a single model built by a skilled individual could be accomplished in far less time, but the timeline for our students’ model building was governed by the school class schedule and other commitments they have in their normal school day.
All work on the boats was done in class. Nightly reading was assigned from the instruction manual so students will have a step by step understanding of what we will accomplish the following day.
Sample from the T27 Assembly Instructions, courtesy Tippecanoe Boats.
Click here to download the manual PDF.
An important engineering skill set involves learning how to read and follow a technical manual. By following the detailed instructions, they quickly learn these skills. And sometimes, when in the course of learning the students make mistakes, they learn another important skill: Problem-solving.
Most of the students have never built a boat, nor have they been given responsibility of their own building project from start to finish. Simple things like mixing epoxy properly or just following written and oral directions can be challenging for them. Because each student must accomplish all of the steps in the process, they learn by doing (and sometimes, by making mistakes). This is also an opportunity to teach teamwork, cooperation and being there to support fellow students. After all, the closer all the boats are to each other in ability, the more exciting the racing will be!
Obviously, since materials like epoxy, paint and/or varnish are used, safety procedures must be first taught and then supervised to ensure that any mistakes don’t result in a mess, or worse.
If possible, you might want to build one of the boat kits ahead of the class, so you can have firsthand knowledge of what is involved and the time that you should plan in for your students to perform the same procedures. Since it takes time for things like epoxy and paint to cure or dry, plan on either finishing a class so the boats can dry overnight, or use that time for cleanup, group discussion or introducing the next concept.
This IS Possible for Land-Locked Schools
Our students sail their boats on the waterfront that is part of our campus, but you don’t need to be near waterfront property for this to work. The beauty of radio-controlled boats is that they can be sailed on any body of water — including shallow ponds and lakes. I’ve heard that inland folks even sail their boats in indoor swimming pools utilizing fans for a wind source.
End Result: A Fleet of Sailboats!
At Tabor, each student purchased their own kit, and built their own boat, so they retain full ownership of their boat, and full control of the process. What they put into the project is what they get out of it.
It would be possible for teams of students to work on a single boat, treating the costs as either a “lab fee” or using PTA or school funds for the materials. I would guess in those cases that the boats would be school property.
You could display them and use the best ones as reference boats for next year’s class, hold a competition where students vie to win the boats, or offer them as a reward for students who provide additional volunteer assistance or some other good work that is “above and beyond.”
You could also put them up for sale or auction as a fund-raiser to help purchase future kits. With an entire fleet of boats, you could also easily start an after-school model sailing club! Check and see if there is a model R/C sailing club in your area; if there is I think they would be more than excited to help you out.
And a School Regatta!
Where your students will sail the boats should factor in to what type of boat you have the students build. Just as it is for any sailboat, a general rule is that the greater the LOA (Length Over All) of a radio-controlled model sailboat, the greater its ability to sail and manage higher velocity winds.
So length is a factor, depending on where you set up your regatta. The T27s we use, for instance, can handle a good breeze, but will start to get overpowered anything greater than 15 knots of wind. Since we are in a semi-protected area of Buzzards Bay, which is known for having lots of wind, I figured that the T27, at 27-inches LOA, would have what it takes to handle most typical days here at Tabor. I felt that a shorter boat wouldn’t work as well for our location, but smaller boats should perform adequately in more sheltered waters, such as what might be found at a pond, or a pool (especially if you create your own wind with fans in an indoor pool). For areas prone to higher prevailing winds, a longer model (36-inches or more) should handle 20 knots of wind.
The big success of the Practical Ship and Boat Design class is because each student can build and sail their own boat. They take complete ownership of the boat, connect with the hands-on aspect of the work, and they are very proud of the finished product. Plus, the boats are VERY fun to sail.
After eight years of teaching this class, the result is that there is a waiting list to get in. Sometimes a student must wait patiently for two or even three years in order to get a spot in this class.
My students tell me that it is their most challenging class (but also favorite) because they have to think and problem solve on their own.