It only took two weekends, but my sailboat is painted and awaiting its launching on the next high tide. It is impressive to be afloat a week before the Fourth of July — something got into me last weekend — perhaps the sight of four idle youths with strong backs and their
stupidity ability to lug the 520-pound, 14-foot boat out of the dirt-floored lean-to into the cement floored car garage without requiring more than a lot of barked orders from weak-backed me — or maybe it was the simple, mindless pleasure of scraping, sanding, priming and painting that has been my June ritual since the age of 11.
Communing with the old boat is as close to ancestor worship as it gets in my world. The boat was built sixty years ago by my grandfather, rescued from the dump from me in 2000, and restored in the spring of 2001 by Ned Crosby thanks to some dot.bomb profits I locked in before the bottom fell out (BRCM), and she is now sailed by me on weekends in a couple club races but mainly lazy day sails around the bay with a kid or two to keep me company. I hung up the big racing pants ten years ago, pissed off at my peers who were engaged in an arms war of exotic materials and go-fast tricks more in keeping with Larry Ellison than an ancient fleet of cedar skiffs. That and a temper tantrum on my part where I called the sister of a good friend a very, very bad word.
I love boat work. It starts with a sweeping with an old fox-tail broom, then a quick pass with the shop vac. I always begin with the boat right-side up on the saw horses, beginning inside the cockpit and then moving my way outwards to the combing, the deck, the rub rail and the hull, saving the bottom until phase two when the boat is flipped and left upside down. I use an oscillating sander with 120 grit discs, bearing down oh-so lightly so only a bit of old paint is scoured. I then wipe the paint dust off with a rag soaked in denatured alcohol, and go at the loose paint with a sharp scraper, feathering again with a palm sander and more 120 grit paper until the cracks and blisters are smoothed out and left bare.
The fun part, an act I couldn’t have attempted twenty years ago, is what my plastic surgeon and goomba buddy Dr. Dan calls “boat dentistry.” The problem with old boats of a certain vintage was they were nailed or screwed together with galvanized iron fittings. Iron is death to wood, and the rust causes a gradual rot that turns the surrounding wood into powder. In the old days, one denied iron sickness and tried to encapsulate it with nasty two part epoxies like Marine-Tex or Gluvit. That only postponed the inevitable, a massive restoration project costing thousands of dollars.
When I had Number 19 restored, Ned Crosby left a lot of iron behind in the lower strake, or plank, where it met the old cedar planked bottom. He replaced that old-school bottom with a sheet of marine plywood, but the iron remained in the original hull, weeping out red tears of corrosion through the summer. Now I go after the stuff at the rate of a few pieces per year, using a Dremel tool with a rasp bit like a dentist going after a cavity.
The only reason I can safely chew away at an antique sailboat with a power tool is thanks to the Gougeon Brothers of Michigan. These guys are the pioneers of the WEST System, an epoxy concoction which makes wooden boat construction and maintenance as simple as working with Fiberglas. The WEST System has sparked an amazing renaissance in classic woodenboat construction and restoration, and I am a total convert.
With Dremel in hand, I thoroughly remove all suspect boat from a rotten patch, usually finding an iron boat nail in the middle of it. I swap the rasp bit with a cutting wheel and cut the nail out. Then I get an old tomato sauce can, pump in a dozen squirts of epoxy, an equal number of squirts of hardener, and then, to give it some consistency, mix in a fine powder called “microballoons” until the stuff is as thick as creamy peanut butter.
Then I trowel the mixture into the cavity, carefully packing it in to get any air bubbles out, and then seal the whole thing down with a few strips of clear plastic packing tape. 24-hours later, off comes the tape, out comes the 80-grit sandpaper, and in ten minutes I have a perfect patch stronger than the original white Atlantic cedar.
After I cure the boat cancer and am sure I have no more sanding to do, I re-sweep and vacuum, do another alcohol rub down, then turn to the paint. Marine paint is horribly expensive ($80 a quart for antifouling bottom paint, $40 for topside enamel, $40 for varnish), and very difficult stuff to work with. This is paint that rewards careful reading of the label. What I’ve learned over the years about marine paint:
- Thin it.
- Use a closed foam roller
- Brush out bubbles with a high quality brush
- Always paint with a tack cloth soaked in thinner in your pocket
- Wear expendable clothing
- Do it on dry, sunny days with little to no wind
- Don’t paint after 3 pm (evening condensation/dew is a killer)
- Never paint at night under lights (attracts bugs, nothing like a moth landing in a perfect topside job to ruin the day)
- Two coats are better than one.
- Vertical surfaces always sag
- Regular, less expensive enamels don’t get the job done
I paint from the inside out, starting with the centerboard trunk, moving to the floor, then the insides of gunwales. I re-thin the interior paint until it is the consistency of water, then put a light wash on the canvas deck. Unthinned paint fills the warp and woof of the canvas, defeating the purpose of having a rough surface with some traction. There are years when I skip the deck paint altogether if the prior year’s coat is holding up. Then I move to varnish.
Varnish is nasty stuff. One, it is clear, so you have to have great light to find the “holidays” — that’s salty Cape Codder talk for the spots you miss. It drove me insane as a kid to have old timers come by and point out the “holidays” (pronounded “halladays”). Varnish also sags, is completely temperamental, and likes to trap bugs like amber. You never know how good (or bad) a job you’ve done until the spars and brightwork are out in the bright sunshine.
The hardest part of the entire process is the painting of the boottop — the fancy stripe along the waterline. Most people go without, not me. The color scheme of the boat, green hull, yellow boot top, white bottom, is a variation of the classic Churbuck color scheme found on the original family boat, the Snafu II (seen on the homepage of Churbuck.com), yellow hull, green boottop, white bottom. Painting this line is a three hour affair of masking tape, fine brush, tack rag and a good radio station.
I’ll try to launch later this week, most likely on the weekend. Then comes the fun step of rigging the boat and getting it tuned up for the racing season. The sad part is the boat will never look better than it does right now on the sawhorses. Another month and the rust will start, and the slime and barnacles will start to foul the bottom and the sand will get tracked into the cockpit and the seagulls will poop on the deck ….