Category Archives: Rebuilding Boats

It’s the wrong bunny suit, Grommit!

It started with a deck leak where the bolts hold the bow pulpit onto the boat.  Then we removed the bow cleats and two big bolts holding on the anchoring platform. Then the grinding began, wearing full protective gear.

Barry wearing the wrong bunny suitI’ve had much better times in a different bunny suit…and Meps had a great time with just the head a while back. But this is a different time, and it calls for another kind of bunny suit.  I actually like it, especially the riot police style facemask which lets me both see and breath at the same time. And while this stuff isn’t fun, it really improves my life/health while I’m grinding fiberglass and doing fiberglass and epoxy repairs, which has been job #1 lately.

Actually, the balsa core wasn’t damaged far from the bolts, but it was kinda rotten for an inch or so around the bolts.  I have to call that “good news” since it means that the water and rot didn’t migrate very far.  Unfortunately, it was still a pretty big grinding job because where some of the bolts go through, the core was angled at 45 degrees, which made for a very poor place to bolt something on.  So I had to grind it out in a much larger area to make a flat-ish area under the bolts, then bevel the area around that.  Up in the forepeak, this is even more grinding, because there are two layers of balsa core (about two inches think) for extra strength where it holds the main mast up, so the bevel just goes on and on and on.

This makes it sound like a simple job, probably done quickly.  But of course, it wasn’t–first, the grinding happened in three or four strages as I figured out how big my problem was and how much bevel I needed, and that coarse sanding disks on my grinder work better than the abrasive disks for this job….with about four trips to the hardware stores trying to figure out exactly which attachments I needed for the grinder. (Thanks again for the grinder, Tom!)  Then there is the fiberglass and epoxy layup.

Since I had put on the full suit of gear and started grinding away in temperatures too hot for the job, Meps took the uncomfortable job of climbing into the forepeak laying on her back and fiberglassing over her head while I mixed epoxy and saturated cloth on deck and passed it down.  The first time it seemed easy, but that was before I took a careful look and then ground out quite a few voids.  The net result was that the first layup didn’t actually leave much on the boat, but we learned a lot:  1. Don’t lay up fiberglass at dusk, when you can’t see it.  2. If you are doing it overhead, use plenty of resin so it saturates well.  3. Grind those holes smoother so it won’t make voids at the transition points.  4. Start with thickened epoxy in the corners like a fillet to help with those voids too.

So I went back to grinding, then Meps went back to glassing.  Ultimately, if I remember correctly, there were three more gooey upside-down layups with glass cloth and epoxy.  Then I realized that the new backing plates wouldn’t sit flat.  Oops, I neglected to mention that in addition to the angle under some bolts, there were only fender washers underneath, and we didn’t think that was up to the job….so we made backing plates from 3/16″ aluminum plate…I know 3/16 is overkill, but that was the size of the scrap available in the boatyard. So back to putting the backing plates on–the flat area that was supposed to be above them was smaller than they were, so first we tried putting on some layers of chopped strand mat with epoxy to build up a flat area, but that didn’t do enough.  So after letting it cure and grinding it for the next coat to stick, we added a layer of thickened epoxy. Still the backing plates didn’t quite fit flush.  Grind it again so it had a little more tooth, and move on.

Then came the next step–fitting the bow pulpit back on.  It got bent a little in its history somehow, and that is probably why it wants to spring its feet apart–when you attach one foot, the other three don’t want to go where they belong any more.  So with a bit of wrestling, I got some holes drilled that were almost aligned–I could get all 12 bolts through, and they didn’t ALL bind up at once, at least after I had re-drilled three or four holes to enlarge them.  Then we tried to fit the backing plates onto the bottom….I mostly ground those holes larger with the Dremel instead of re-drilling them.  Finally we cleaned everything up, waxed the bolts and nuts, and added a last layer of thickened epoxy to both fill the space and glue the backing plates to the underside of the deck.

When that was done, we removed the bolts and drilled the holes out again (the epoxy had formed threads on the bottom, and I wanted open holes to put nuts and washers on the bottom). Then one last grinding job — removing the frozen epoxy “goobers” — and a very careful final cleanup.

The bow pulpit is now installed, mounted with expensive marine caulk and 12 brand-new 316 stainless steel bolts, nuts, and washers. Finally one thing is ready to go back to sea–way too much of the work so far has been in the direction of taking things apart instead of putting them back together.

The high cost of fuel for flying pigs

A couple of weeks ago, we were sitting in the air-conditioned lounge between fiberglassing projects. We were wearing what Barry and I call our “itchy-scratchy” clothes, ratty things we only wear for the nastiest, messiest jobs. For me, that means denim shorts with a hole in the rear, an old t-shirt large enough to fit an elephant, and sandals.

A fellow walked in, and I glanced up from my notebook and said hello, absently. Then I looked at him again.

It was over 100 degrees, and he looked cool as a cucumber. He was wearing tooled leather cowboy boots and black jeans, with the kind of dress shirt you see at a country and western dance, or a square dance. It had shiny button covers and fancy trim along the yoke.

I realized I was staring, and I blurted out, “You sure don’t look like you’re working on a boat today!”

“No, I came on my motorcycle to show my boat to a prospective buyer,” he replied. He explained that he had a powerboat for sale out in the storage lot, the place we jokingly call “the field of broken dreams.”

A few years ago, when shopping for a boat, he was that extremely rare breed of boater who would consider either a powerboat or sailboat. He’d found a sailboat he liked, but the asking price was too high. He thought of making a lowball offer, but didn’t want to offend the seller. So he walked away from the sailboat. Later, it sold for the amount he would have offered. He kicked himself, but it was too late. He’d just bought a powerboat, a tri-cabin cruiser.

Now his powerboat is for sale. He can’t afford to use it, his dream broken by the high cost of fuel.

Occasionally, sailors buy powerboats, when they get old and tired of hoisting and trimming sails. Rarely does a powerboater buy a sailboat, but these are unusual times.

There was a very large Hunter sailboat tied up at the dock last week, and Val and Gigi wandered out to see it. “We were surprised to see all the lights on, but none of the hatches were open,” she said. “Then we realized it had two air conditioners, so of course the hatches were closed!”

They chatted with the couple on board, who were taking their new boat home to Texas and had recently run aground and needed repairs. They had sold their powerboat, because the cost of fuel was so high, and now they were going to try sailing. Given the size and complexity of the boat, they were certainly jumping in with both feet. But it was what Barry and I call a “furniture boat,” lots of pretty woodwork and fancy electrical systems, designed for the dock, not the waves.

The problem is, it’s just not natural to make a sailor out of a powerboater. A few years back, I had a coworker with a 25-foot planing powerboat. At the time, we had the Northern Crow, a gutsy little 25-foot sailboat.

Initially, I’d come in on Monday and compare notes with Gary. We’d spent a day ghosting to Poulsbo, watching for favorable currents, while he’d zipped up to Port Townsend in a couple of hours. But after a few months, I started coming in on Monday and seeing a long face. “How was your weekend, Gary? Did you take the boat out?” I’d ask. And his answer was always, “No, I couldn’t afford the fuel this weekend. The kids needed…” At the time, gas prices were half of what they are today, but he had teenaged boys in the house who ate up all his money.

I often teased him, saying, “How about a sailboat?” but it was a joke. He’d take up sailing when pigs fly.

Eventually, Gary got fired and had a mid-life crisis. He ran off with his stepson’s girlfriend, and his wife bitterly filed for divorce. She sold the boat.

I wonder if Gary or the fellow in the cowboy boots will ever have another boat. Given the price of fuel — high and going higher — the answer might just be, when pigs fly.


Barry came to me with a long face. “Er, I have some bad news.” He paused, leaving me to wonder just how bad this news was going to be. Sometimes, I wish he would just blurt it out, instead of making me wonder how bad it was. I found myself checking to make sure all his fingers were still attached.

“I killed your Dremel.”

Well, that wasn’t so terrible. I was a little sentimental about it, because it was a gift from my sister, and it was the only power tool in our arsenal that Barry and I both called “mine.” But we could easily buy another one.

So the next day, we got in the van and drove to the hardware store, about 15 miles, to buy another Dremel. Mission accomplished, we headed for a nearby restaurant for lunch. I was driving, and then Barry said, from the passenger seat, “Uh-oh.”

The only thing I hate more than “I have some bad news” is “Uh-oh.”

And one more thing we both hate is power windows. Unfortunately, the Squid Wagon has them. For months, I’d refused to use the one on the driver’s side. It was so slow, I was sure it was going to break and get stuck in the “down” position, and then it would rain. Now Barry followed his “Uh-oh” by telling me that the passenger window was stuck in the down position. This was followed by a rumble of thunder.

The window was going to be a much bigger headache than the Dremel. Frantic, we drove to the nearest Ford dealer.

“We don’t keep such old motors in stock, but I can order you one,” said the parts manager, smiling.

“I’m not certain the motor’s what I need…” said Barry.

“Electrical parts are non-returnable,” said the parts manager, and I realized the smile was robotic.

“I’ll go home and figure it out, and we’ll call you to order it in the morning,” said Barry.

“Nope, I can’t accept a credit card over the phone,” said the smiling, robotic parts manager. So we’d have to come back in person to order it, then come back in person to pick it up? At this point, Barry had to leave the store, unable to say anything besides, “Grrrrrrrrrrr.”

Luckily, the motor was in stock, cheaper, at an auto parts store.

The rain held off; it hadn’t actually rained in two week. Then, that night, before Barry could figure out how to install the new motor, it poured buckets on our sorry plastic-covered window. He finished the installation between showers the next day. He said “Grrrrrrrrrr” a lot.

And then it was my turn. I was using our tiny, lame saber saw to cut some aluminum backing plates. The motor started running more and more slowly, until it couldn’t cut any more. Well, it might still cut butter, but only if it was soft, and you wanted to cut butter with a saber saw.

This was turning into a bad week for motors.

At this point, I had to decide what to say to Barry. Should I start with “I have some bad news,” or simply “Uh-oh?” I opted for a different method.

“Barry!” I hollered. An alien looked down at me from the deck, wearing a white Tyvek bunny suit, full-face respirator, and ear muffs. His mouth was invisible behind the respirator, but I saw his jaw move. I guess he said, “What?”

“I killed the saber saw,” I shouted, twice, three times, waving the dead saw at him. Suddenly, he took off the respirator and the ear muffs. He was grinning.

“You killed it? Really? That’s great!”

He’d been wanting to replace that lame piece of junk for years, and I had just given him the excuse. The next day, he was exceedingly cheerful as we got into the van, and I got into the mood by playing with the passenger window. Up, down, up, down…wheeeee! We tooled around town and finally chose a 6.0 amp Skil brand saber saw. Then we rewarded ourselves some more with dinner, internet, and a phone chat with a Seattle friend. A lovely day, unlike the one when we replaced the Dremel.

It would have been an appropriate coincidence for the driver’s window motor to die that day, but it’s still working, although only fast enough to cut soft butter. So maybe our run of bad motor luck is over. May all the other motors on the boat live long and prosper, and best of luck with your motors, too.

Can you hear me now?

The optimist says the cup is half full; the pessimist says the cup is half empty, and the engineer says the cup has twice the required capacity. I’m not sure which way I feel about our first couple weeks in the boatyard.

We started moving aboard, but there are still about a dozen boxes in the van. (Yes, the storage locker is full, but maybe we can stack it a little higher) We’ve done a few projects, but they nearly all require re-doing, un-doing, or just doing more. So far, we’ve uninstalled far more than we’ve installed.

It started with the head, holding tank, hoses, and macerator pump. All that is gone, leaving just two through-hull fittings and a deck fitting. Now we need to find somebody who wants to take it all away. We installed a Nature’s Head composting toilet, which is working well enough (on the hard!), but we still have to make a permanent installation for ventilation. The big job is that the head floor needs to go down something like six inches, which means cutting a hole and fabricating a new fiberglass platform. That part will probably wait until we want to make a big mess … again. (Grinding out the fiberglass supports for the holding tank made the boat uninhabitable and sent us running to Sears for a shop-vac.)

Installing the “new” stove went really well, once we managed to lower the old one down and haul the new one up. If only the brackets didn’t need to be moved so it could gimbal! Ah well, we won’t be heeling the boat until we launch, so that one can wait. Along with the head floor project.

The next job we wanted to do was remove the bow pulpit because we could see that it needed to be re-bedded (badly!) Unfortunately, my shoulders didn’t fit into the anchor locker. Meps’ shoulders fit, but her upper torso (aka boobs) did not. (For the confused, a reminder: We have a cat ketch rig, with the mainmast located about two feet aft of the bow, and a bulkhead about three inches behind the mast.)

So in comes the crane, and out go the masts. OK, that makes it sound easy, but it wasn’t quite that easy — the spartight compound where the masts go through the deck wasn’t willing to let go of either the mast or the deck. The mizzen mast bound up, then made a mighty jump of about a foot before binding up again. When we did the mainmast, we spent an extra hour trying to break it free with hammers, wedges, and other implements of destruction, while the crane operator waited patiently in his cab, at $150 per hour, alternating between smoking a cigarette and chewing on a toothpick.

Today’s job was cutting, drilling, fitting, painting, glopping, and bolting down plywood “lids” to cover the mast holes in the deck. We wisely used the bolts that held the mast collar in, so we can’t lose them between now and when we need to put the masts back in, which may be months.

Waiting for the paint to dry, I scraped barnacle remnants off one side of the rudder. Now there’s some real, visible progress.

And of course, plumbing projects continue–I constructed a filter to (we hope) make the local water drinkable. Then I had an argument with the convoluted set of hoses and pipes between the sink drain and the through-hull fitting. I lost the first part of the argument: “There has to be a way to do this without so many !@#!@ junctions which could leak.” Now I understand why they are all needed, and I just want to make a version that doesn’t leak. I dunno when I’ll have a better plan or how many more two-dollar plumbing parts that will take.

And then there is the bit where the cup is definitely half-empty: Communications out here in the boonies.

This boatyard is remote enough that broadband internet is unavailable, and most cellphones do not work. (Ours gets signal here so rarely that we both jump up with excitement when it suddenly announces a voicemail — then loses signal to actually retrieve said voicemail.) I just ordered a powerful wifi bridge and antenna that I hoped would be able to get signal from someplace nearby and distribute it to our computer(s). After cabling it up and firing up the computer, no luck.

So I asked Meps to pick up family-sized can of soup at the grocery store. With that, and some electronic parts on order, I’m going to make a directional wi-fi “can-tenna.” And if that finally works, then the cup, or the can, will be half-full!

What we brought back from Canada

Crossing the border from the United States to Canada last week, the border guard asked the standard questions. What nationality are you? May I see some identification? What is the reason for your visit?

Answering that last question, Barry said, “Goin’ to see a man about a boat.”

After the border crossing, there was a long wait for the ferry to Vancouver Island, then a one-and-a-half-hour ferry trip, a long drive to Nanaimo, and another ferry to Gabriola Island. Why all this effort, when we have boats and designers right here in our local area?

Blame it on the Demotivators.

For almost ten years, Barry and I have been planning to build our own boat, from scratch. It’s a huge, daunting project, but it’s not impossible. It requires a number of skills, ranging from drafting to woodworking, fiberglass, plumbing, wiring, upholstery, rigging, and sail-making. Over the years, we’ve dabbled in most of those areas, and we think we can figure out what we need to know. We’re nonconformists, and we like things that are different.

The problem is, for almost ten years, we’ve been ridiculed, teased, and abused about the notion of building a boat. Total strangers think it’s their duty to convince us not to build a boat. People we thought were our friends think it’s cute to make fun of us. It’s happened over and over again, and I’d think I was hallucinating some of these horrible encounters, if Barry wasn’t right there experiencing it with me.

So I came up with a name for these people: Demotivators. They are the people who don’t want to see us succeed, they want us to fail.

Barry and I have studied the problem until we’re cross-eyed, wondering why there’s such vehemence. Mostly, it’s people who own plastic production boats. Perhaps they’re afraid some non-conformist will challenge the status quo and their Tupperware will lose value? Sometimes, though, we’ve been harassed by people who have built their own boats. Maybe they’re afraid they won’t be so special if we do it, too?

Regardless, it’s gotten us down. So we decided to make a trip to Canada and get motivated. We scheduled a consultation with Ted Brewer, who has designed lots of lovely traditional sailboats, many of them capable little ocean cruisers. We also scheduled a visit with Collin Wynne, who’s been working on a Benford dory in his backyard for the past ten years.

Our appointment with Ted was on a Monday morning, and despite the lack of electricity on Gabriola Island, which he and his wife assured us was a common occurrence, we covered a lot of ground. Ted looked at the specs for the boat we’re considering and gave us an evaluation “by the numbers.” He said it looked like a safe offshore boat with a reasonable capsize screening factor, but he had reservations about the flat dory bottom and the junk rig.

Ted also felt that the Benford dory would be an odd boat, hard to resell. He said a strip-planked or cold-molded hull, something with compound curves, would both perform better and have more market value. Even a plywood boat with a V-bottom or a multi-chine design would be more efficient and preferable to the flat-bottomed dory, as far as he’s concerned.

It was a good visit, and we came away with a lot of thoughts about hull shapes, rigs, keel and rudder designs. One of the biggest things, though, was the confirmation that we are not crazy, we can build a reasonably-sized boat in a couple of years and sail it around the world. Ted Brewer has known lots of people who’ve done just that over the years.

Ted Brewer is a Motivator.

From Ted and Betty’s house, we headed, on their recommendation, down to the south end of the island, where the marinas are. In addition to docks full of interesting boats, there is a boatbuilding school there, the Silva Bay Shipyard School. We wandered over to the office and tapped on the door, hoping for a tour.

Luckily for us, Les Jackson was in, and he answered lots of questions and took us around the school. It’s a small facility, with 16 students completing a 6-month program. The students divide into teams of 3 or 4 people, and each team builds a complete wooden boat, about a 12-footer, from lofting to completion, using traditional methods. It’s the only program of its kind, where the projects are selected so that students can complete an entire boat in one session.

Silva Bay gets students from all over the world, men and women who want to learn traditional methods of boatbuilding. We watched two fellows cooperating to sand down a spar, while another fellow came and went from the tool room, carefully notching a piece of wood to fit around the stem of a lapstrake sailing dinghy.

Afterwards, we hung out in the office and talked with Les about boats, boatbuilding, the school, the island, and life. Les is a former journalist who left that field and made a living building lots of things, including many small boats. He’s recently completed a house on Gabriola and bought a small cruising boat, so he can explore the local waters. He struck me as a nonconformist do-it-yourselfer, like us, and he offered a lot of encouragement to our backyard boat-building dream.

Les Jackson is a Motivator.

A few days later, we drove up to Collin Wynne’s house near the shore of Vancouver Island, north of Victoria. At first, I only had eyes for the big tarped object in the backyard: A 37-1/2 foot Benford dory. The hull, masts, and rudder are done, and he’s working on the interior. He plans to put the deck on this summer.

We clambered all over the boat, examining Collin’s craftsmanship. We sat for a long time in the cockpit, imagining her out on the ocean. We poked our noses in the spice cupboard and inspected the ceiling (which is actually the side). We examined portlights and lockers and squatted underneath to inspect the keel. We ran our hands over the topsides and had to walk all the way across the backyard to take in the whole thing. It’s a huge project for one person.

Afterwards, we sat in the house with a pot of tea, looking at the plans and photographs. I asked Collin, as tactfully as I could, what kind of experience he had in doing this sort of project. He’s retired, and I wondered whether he’d worked in some field that gave him boat-building skills.

No, he admitted he hadn’t done much along those lines. He modestly told me that he’d built the house we were sitting in, along with his previous house. And he’d built a sailing dory when he was a young lad. It was evident that Collin, like us, just decided that he had enough skills and enough smarts to figure it out. Along the way, he’s found help and encouragement from others, such as a fiberglass boat builder down the road and an esteemed wooden boat expert, Hugh Campbell, in Sidney.

We spent over six hours with Collin, which I consider extremely generous on his part — after all, he has a boat to build. He also told us to stay in touch and feel free to contact him with further questions as we get into our own boat-building project.

Collin Wynne is a Motivator.

When we came back across the border to the U.S., the guard asked us the usual questions, plus a number of questions about what we’d been doing and what we were bringing back from Canada. Any eggs or chicken? Meat? Produce?

“No, just a bit of bread,” answered Barry, truthfully. What we really brought back from Canada is not something that can be taxed or measured. What we brought back, this time, is the knowledge that there are three people who want us to build our own boat. What we brought back, this time, is motivation.