Wooden Boat Relapse

Some phrases in the English language are simply loaded trouble, on the hoof. With children and puppies it's,"Can't I keep him for just one night?" With the alcoholic it's "One drink won't hurt.", with wooden boats it's, "It can't hurt to just go and look." Seemingly innocuous, they are the first step down a slippery slope of deliberately inflicted self deceptions, invariably leading down a road one know's perfectly well should remain untraveled.

Although not generally acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association, wooden boat attraction is an incurable addiction. Intensity of the affliction may vary and although the regular perusal of "WoodenBoat" magazine, attendence at shows, and books of old Rosenfeld prints may be panacea for many, in advanced cases, the urge to own and minister to an elderly wooden boat may strike unexpectedly, and uncontrollably.

Temptation is always beckoning, flitting past at unexpected moments, like the trout fisherman's fly, setting on the water's surface for but a moment, a second's wrong choice catapulting you from water to frying pan.

Free — Needs Work

In our case it was an ad, ten words in the Boston Globe, that read simply "Free wooden Alberg 30, just pay winter storage. Needs Work." "I'll bet it does" I thought to myself, on a warm, sunny, Sunday in April. I put the paper aside on the discard pile, to pretend I hadn't seen it. Fifteen minutes later, the mantle of resolve slipping, I casually mentioned it to my wife. "It can't hurt to go and look, it's such a nice day out", one of us said, although we both disavow it later. This was at 12:30, by 2:00 we'd made the 50 minute drive to Portsmouth, RI and we poked around. I tapped a lot with my plastic hammer, looking for the certain to be there rot, and tried to remind myself how much work was involved by getting too near this project. By 5:00 we had travelled back home, and located an article by L.E. Nicholson in the September 1976 issue of Wooden Boat Magazine on refastening that clearly explained what was involved, sort of. Later I tried to put into words, for my wifes benefit, what the scope of labor and time involved in adopting a 30 year wooden sloop was; that it was probably not a realistic or sane project to undertake. I was unsuccessful in convincing either myself or my wife. By 7:30 we were on the phone with the owner making final arrangements to transfer ownership the next day.

The look on the yard managers face as I'd exchanged papers with the boat's owner in the marina office said he thought it unlikely she'd ever go anywhere else; that he'd seen his share of starry eyed wooden yacht rescuers. But he was pleased to have the winter bill paid. I said something foolish about wanting to launch before the winter storage term was up, six weeks later, so I guess I earned his look.

The following weekend, we packed an assortment of tools, a ladder, scrapers and plastic bags into the car and made the first of may trips down Rt. 324 in Massachusetts. I remember feeling overwhelmed , as we confronted the consequences of an idle afternoon's daytrip. Thirty feet of 31 year old sloop, with a number of planks sprung, daylight peeking through the planking as well as the portlights, was now ours, and the meter was running.

A Sense of Past

As we started foraging through her, we developed a sense of her past. Solidified bottles of suntan oil, cocktail napkins with her name embossed, a child's tee shirt, and an inflatable raft, suggested lazy afternoons at anchor in quiet coves. Fitted racks for her dishes, a cocktail table custom made to fit on the bronze compass bracket, a layer of soot on the smoke bell of an oil lamp and an assortment of marked up charts ranging from Marblehead, MA to Gardiners Bay, Long Island said she'd been well used . There was a ready anchor, in chocks on deck, a second haws pipe and chain rhode, with an anchor in a the cockpit locker, and a third one in chocks under the cockpit, of such a size that I knew I'd not want to be on board in weather that it might be needed. Which was probably the point.

There were mahogany brackets to hold all the Merriman winch handles neatly, a pencil holder and a rack with an old Eldridge in it. There was a bracket still holding the crank handle for the old Universal "Utility 4" engine. There were topping lift, down haul, sheets, and halyards, whose ends had been back-spliced, not whipped; innumerable such details said she had been someone's pet, and well cared for. But now she sat on the far edge of the yard, out of the way, with shards of winter cover hanging off her, looking tired and arthritic, and she'd been there a long time.

I sensed she was sizing us up, as well, while we climbed around, poking in lockers, muttering positive things we were no longer certain we felt, like, "maybe we can be in by Memorial Day", and "this layer of mildew isn't too deep."

As Felise and I walked around studying the sloughing paint on the bottom, ferreting out lumps of mildew and rust from the lockers, generally trying to come to grips with what we had gotten into,some phrases kept rolling around the perimeter of my subconscious, like the steel ball on a roulette wheel. "It can't hurt to go and look" alternated with the formers owners passing along the information that "It just needs to be refastened."

"It just needs to be refastened"

The words "just" and "refasten" ought not to be joined in the same sentence. Together they illustrate a strong ability to deny reality and readjust an improbable series of facts to fit a desired situation. However, as the project progressed, I came to understand that a strong ability to deny reality may be a healthy asset, if not a requirement, when undertaking such a project.

What we eventually found was: Her fastenings below the waterline were indeed badly deteriorated, and I wound up refastening the entire bottom at once, not by quarters as I'd thought I would. There were 11 coats of paint on the decks, and yes, there was, in fact, mahogany under the many, many layers of varnish and stain. There was no significant amount of rot anywhere; and there were 14 broken ribs, not three; there were many coats of peeling paint. Inadequate lighting and the delusional wish for the project to appear manageable had conspired to hide them from me on the initial inspection.

We settled into a rhythm. Pack a lunch and drive down to the boatyard early, try and park near the boat, unstring the two 100ft 12 gage extension cords, set up the compressor for the D/A sander, unpack the drills, cordless drivers and battery chargers. I sometimes sensed I was laying out a large open air operating theater. My wife would attack the brightwork, or the decks, alternating with heat guns or chemical stripper, and interspersing a new Porter-Cable random orbit sander for variety. I would replace screws until my neck was stiff, and when I couldn't hold those tools up any more, go up into the cabin, and work on setting the broken ribs.

We bought the boat on April 15, and spent every subsequent weekend day, and every off day, working on her. Gradually, as the other boats were launched, we were able park right next to her, an improvement of sorts. The milestones came slowly. First the fastening on starboard side was finished, then Felise finished stripping the brightwork, then the deck. One day, after three times checking around the bottom, I finally realized that all the fastening was done.

As we worked, and advanced through the various stages of construction, we attracted a variety of onlookers. The beginning was the hardest, the opening comments usually along the line of "do you really think you're going to get her back into the water?" The first two weeks or so, I harbored some private doubts, particularly as I contemplated the ribs. Then, as we began to find a rhythm, and make visible headway, the quality of our kibitzers seemed to improve. At the risk of generalization, we appeared to garner two different sorts of sidewalk supers. The younger boat owners, 30-40 and generally sailing glass boats, would stare for a while and make a remark about how much work was involved. Very occasionally, one would talk about a wood boat his or her parents had owned, and you could see a twinkle of nostalgia in their look. When someone closer to retirement came along we would hear about the boats they'd owned, the battles with rot, and about caulking. They usually knew, without my having to explain it, what refastening was, and what fourteen broken ribs meant.

Fourteen Broken Ribs

When we started, I had the vague plan of steaming and bending oak for sister ribs. There were already four sisters up in the bow, but they only extended 2/3 rds of the length of the original rib, and they were in an area with little curve to the hull. The majority of the ones I was facing were midships, and the turn of the bilge was fairly pronounced. To put a full length sister rib in would also require dismantling most of the boats interior and deck. I was saved by the April (1991) , Wooden Boat M agazine and as I read the article by Daniel McNaughton on the subject of laminate wood repairs to ribs, I knew I had stumbled on the solution.

The rib repairs were amazingly messy. For cutting down the 12 to 1 scarf, in place, I used a 5,000 r.p.m. Makita sander, with 36 grit paper. This tool did not have as much torque as you might like, but cut very well, while a 4" gringer, for which I'd procured some equally rough paper, would get too hot to hold after about 1/2 hour of use.The amount of sawdust was simply incredible after grinding down a rib, and I usually tried to do two at a time. It was important to vacume the area thoroughly because no matter how neat you may think you are, epoxy will go everywhere.

Once the operating area was clean I would take six strips of the 6/4 white oak,which I ripped into 1/8" thick strips and cut them to approximate length. Then I would lay out the jugs of West System, with their pumps and fillers and four or five pairs of the green utility grade disposable gloves found in most hardware stores (I'd purchased a bucket of them). Mixing epoxy and filler to the prescribed "peanut butter consistency" was easy. Spreading the ensuing goo on the oak strips, and flexing them into place in some semblance of order, and getting them to stay there, was not. The strips become very slippery and try to fan out as you flex them into place. I first tried using some strapping (1x3 pine), braced against the cabin top, but it was very difficult to exert enough leverage to bend the strips into the curv of the scarf cut in the old rib, and twice I had the whole pile of epoxy coated strips slid away. Eventually, I came to cut some "J" shaped retainers from plywood and fastened them to ribs on either side of the repair, using a stringer from rib to rib to bridge the repair, and achieving final snugness by driving wedges between the stringer and the strips. Gloves quickly became fouled because the easiest way to keep the strips in column or to realign them was to firmly grasp them, and push, tweak or twist. To touch anything else that you didn't want to glue up required removing the current pair, and it was much easier to don a new pair than try to wriggle back in the old without encapsulating one's self. I would let the ribs set over night, then make them the subject of the next day's refastening effort.

For the refastening the Porter-Cable Mangnequench, the first of the 12 volt cordless driver/drills, was a life saver. I did try the traditional brace and bit, but the novelty of honoring tradition and my grandfather's memory wore off promptly. Half of the screw heads, having turned red and soft, stripped off immediately and had to be drilled for an easy out, which I did with a standard electric drill. The rhythm became, clean the screw head, try and back it out with a screwdriver, if/when the head stripped, move on to the next. Do this for about seventy holes, or two ribs, then go back and get the stripped ones. Pick up the electric drill, drill down the center of the remaining screws, pick up the Porter-Cable, put an easy out in the chuck and back out the remaining screws, change to a tapered bit with counterbore, re-drill the series of holes for the new screws, then change to a driver bit. I would set a rib full of screws in their holes, then run down the row, until, with each one, the clutch on the driver released. Then I would set the clutch to a full lock position and get another 1/2 to 3/4 's of a turn to completely set the screw. Not very photogenic, but very efficient.

Every two weeks I would calculate the number of screws remaining, apparently incorrectly, go to Jamestown Distributors in Jamestown, RI, and buy them, then marvel at how quickly they would be absorbed. Eventually, the boat consumed 2,600 #14 x 1-1/2" silicone bronze wood screws. These were one diameter thicker than what was removed. They cost two and half times the the initial acquisition of the boat.

Setting the bungs, in epoxy, was tedious, time consuming and a mess. Pick up the bung, orient the grain, put the bung in the jaws of a pair of pliers, dip the bottom 2/3 rds of the bung in a cup filled with West System epoxy, let it drip back into the cup for a moment, try and set the bung lightly into the hole, remove the pliers and give it a light tap with a hammer. When we were done, all 2,600 in place, the boat looked as if it had 5 o'clock shadow. Then they all had to be cut and faired. By the time we were done, each screw hole had been touched nine times, eleven if they had to drilled and an easy out used.

I splurged, and bought an air driven caulking gun, which made the application of eighteen tubes of Boatlife ploysulfide caulk, into the seams, marginally easier.

Visible Progress

Gradually, we made enough visible progress that the questions changed to when did we think we would get her in. Yet, every time I tried to formulate an answer, the goalpost seemed to inch away. On top of the substantial effort involved in refastening and the rib repairs, we had a boat which had been let go long enough that every single coated surface, inside and out, needed to be stripped and re-finished. Felise had wrestled with, and conquered, the decks, cabin top and brightwork, and the brightwork now gleamed incongruously among the peeling hull and spot primed decks. In order to get the boat in that year we compromised and just aggressively sanded the hull, mast and boom to remove loose surfaces, spot primed and faired, but left a proper refinishing to the following year.

The engine, a rusty lump in the bilge which appeared to have been red at some time, was an unknown quantity I'd studiously avoided, on the theory that it didn't matter whether it ran, if the boat didn't float. I was not encouraged, when I tried to find a source for parts I anticipated might be needed. Shops that proudly advertise they still have parts for an Atomic4 would listen then say, "A Utility Four? That's a *really* old engine. When I finally did hump a battery up the ladder and try it, I was relieved it at least turned over, and fired, with an injection of ether. All marine engines are prone to attracting demons, which become more firmly ensconced when the boat is unattended. This engine was firmly infested, and it took many hours of fiddling, once the boat hit the water, before it gradually agreed to come back to life. Initially, it would run only for five minutes or so before over heating, the waterjacket so clogged with rust and scale there was little or no passage of water. I unhooked the raw water intake and the dump line into the exhaust, set up a recirculating pump with radiator cleaner, and hoped some of the sludge would disintigrate. Eventually, in desperation, as a new engine was completely out of the question, and theorizing I had nothing left to loose, using the outlet hose, I poured a very strong sulphuric acid drain cleaner called Rooto into the engine. The resulting reaction was spectacular as the block heated up and the reaction steamed out the raw water intake through hull fitting, but we now had an engine that cools pretty well.

That fall, a childhood friend from New Jersey came up for a weekend sail. We'd planned to go out to Block Island, but lack of wind caused us to divert to Newport. About the fourth time a glass boat sailor altered course, looked us over and shouted nice boat or gave us a friendly wave, he asked if this happened all the time. Not all the time, I think I said, but just enough to help us believe it was worth it.


I wrote this article, never to be published, in 1992. My relationship with "Alestra" lasted longer than the one with my wife, and it was 1998, after 7 years of ownership, that I passed her on to another caretaker, because injuries I suffered in an auto accident were making maintenance too difficult.

This boat owns a piece of my soul. During those years we sailed around Narragansett Bay, the Sakonnett River, and over to the Vineyard and Cuttyhunk. I remember transiting Woods Hole after epoxying back on the rotor, and ghosting up the harbor past the Edgartown Yacht Club at dusk. I remember sitting in Fogland with my daughter, at 16 months, suspended over the cockpit in a baby swing, gaily waving to all the new arrivals and another time in Edgartown, waiting out a 70 m.p.h. gale after a Labor Day weekend.

Initially tender, as many sloops of that era were, she stiffened up after the first 15 degrees of heel and charged forward. A wooden boat simply cuts through the water differently than a comparable glass boat. Five years after selling her I had to strongly resist the urge to buy her back, and settled for a family member, an Alberg 35.

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