Learning to Do It Yourself

I never used to read how-to articles in sailing magazines. They were too daunting. I might want to build a thingie or fix a whatnot, but a few paragraphs in, I would learn that success was possible only if certain conditions were met.
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I never used to read how-to articles in sailing magazines. They were too daunting. I might want to build a thingie or fix a whatnot, but a few paragraphs in, I would learn that success was possible only if certain conditions were met: I needed a machine shop and a basement full of professional woodworking tools; and I would have to use tools I’d never heard of or handle chemicals and play with electrical currents that might kill or corrode me if I didn’t make absolutely sure to first, uh...well, I don’t really remember. It was all very discouraging. I decided to stick to painting my bottom once a year and leave the rest to the experts.

This was an excellent policy that worked well for years, right up until I purchased my latest boat, a tired Cape Dory 31, and my luck ran out. Until then I had not realized that I had been living a charmed life, that my early boats had been simple and in great shape, and the previous owner's saints and handymen. Worse yet, it was April, and it turns out that if you need major boat work done most yards like to have a little more notice than is possible when you want to get in the water that same spring.

“Yes, I’d like to launch this May,” I told them.

Taciturn Mainers, they didn’t laugh out loud. Let’s just say they were noncommittal.

I was therefore forced to become a boatwright, or in my case a boat-wrong, after I’d screwed up my courage and decided that an imperfect boat in the water was worth two on land. From there, sprung three major projects. Two were simple and improved life on board. One was a complex, miserable, stinking ordeal that made life aboard possible.

1) The Filler Bridge

I was replacing the boat’s rather large hot water tank when I realized it must have been installed before the deck was put on; the thing was a beast to remove. One afternoon, after 10 bloody rounds with Rusty Raritan, I went below to nap in the cabin. Alas, there was nowhere to rest. The cabin was awash in tools, cleaning supplies, sail bags and that dratted filler piece with its cushion. That sucker was always in the way.

In an instant, I knew I had found a project commensurate with my skill level. I forgot about the water tank, put off the nap and proceeded to the pile of scrap lumber under the boat. There I found enough cheap pine to build what I now call “the filler bridge.”

In terms of actual construction, there’s not much to say. I used a tape measure, a jigsaw, a drill and a screwdriver. It took about an hour and a half. I lived with my creation for a week, declared it good, threw it in the truck and brought it home to paint. Using a brush seemed like a lot of work, so being a classy yachtsman, I spray-painted it brown. I know someone else would have used, say, teak, or at least would have recessed the screw holes and covered them with bungs. But not me. I wanted to free up the bunk, nap and dream of someday having hot water on the boat. Priorities.

2) The Accidental Deck Box

Then there was the liferaft. When I first saw my Cape Dory listed on the online brokerage site, I thought: I deserve to survive a tragedy as much as the next guy. Then I learned that the raft that came with the boat hadn’t been serviced in 10 years. After that, I priced out what it would take to bring it up to code. Yikes! Then there was the fact that it weighed more than I did. I could imagine the headlines: “Man killed by liferaft. Wife manages to sail leaking boat home with flattened corpse.” I also thought about how this boat didn’t have an anchor locker, and how nice it would be to have a place to stow away buckets and brushes.

So I abandoned the raft, sold it to a dealer and made enough to pay for the cheap project it spawned: a deck box. Truthfully, I built the deck box because after I removed the liferaft cradle, the foredeck looked tacky. So call it a deck box, or call it an ugly-blocker. Again, I went all out and selected cheap pine. I wanted the top to be one piece, so I found a nice big sheet of wood made up of cheap glued-parallel-strips, which started delaminating before I even finished sanding it.

I would need to be able to stand on this thing, so I decided to screw a piece of scrap plywood onto the underside as a splint. That worked. I also cut some scuppers into the bottom edge of the box to drain away water, accommodate the deck’s curvature and help the box look shippy. Some high-quality polyurethane completed the job. A set of three bolts had secured each corner of the old liferaft cradle, so I used the same bolts along with some eye straps, washers and hose clamps to attach the box to the deck.

Cheap does have its drawbacks. After one season, the makeshift top swelled to the point that I hurt my back opening it. Since orthopedic health was one reason I had canned the liferaft, I added a replacement deck-box lid to my project list.

3) Battle of the Bilge 

After solving literally dozens of problems onboard, I launched my boat, and she was fantastic. Or so I thought until we ate a few meals on board and began to fill the holding tank. It only took one hot day for us to nearly faint from the odor. Suspecting a leak, I pumped out the bilge and holding tank, and then poured water dyed with blue food coloring into the holding tank. Within seconds the blue stuff appeared in the bilge.

This led to a crash course in epoxy work. My previous experience had been that you buy a double tube, apply just the right amount of wrist-English, and if you are lucky, squeeze out equal parts resin and hardener. West System epoxy, which uses a set of pumps to carefully dispense the resin and hardener in the correct amount, proved to be vastly superior.

The opening in the cabin sole for accessing the bilge and the bulkhead which forms the integral holding tank is about 9in by 12in, but the bilge itself is deeper than the Grand Canyon. No tool in the Whole Earth Catalog was remotely up to this task, so with the help of some broomsticks, dowels and my good friends, the hose clamps, I made some custom tools of my own. This was all pretty heady stuff for a rookie like me, although maybe it was just the smell.

I then pumped out both spaces again, vacuumed out the residual liquid and lowered lamp cords with high-watt bulbs into the spaces to dry them. Because the inspection port is so tiny, I borrowed my wife’s hand mirror for looking around (quite graciously, she has never asked me to return it) and found a crack in the bottom of the holding tank. I then used some long-handled wire brushes to rough things up, wiped the area down with acetone and, like a fine chef drizzled epoxy syrup into the crack. After letting it set a few days, I chose red food coloring for my next test. I was confident but unsuccessful. It was like watching the blood pour from my broken heart.

After taking out some time to re-evaluate the wisdom of boat ownership, I pressed on, thinking it had to be the bulkhead itself, or its joints with the hull.

Step one was to go back to the marine store and buy a whole bunch of epoxy. Everything was bigger: more epoxy, more hardener and bigger pumps, all in perfect relative scale.

Once again, I roughed up the bottom of the bilge, wiped it down and then really epoxied it. The instructions said that if the epoxy started smoking, I should “place it outside and allow it to burn itself out.” The boat did not self-immolate, but unfortunately, the dye (I was on to green by this time) was just as intrepid in making its way to the bilge. Picture a grown man, alone, weeping in a sailboat cabin.

But I was on a roll now, and I still owned lots of epoxy. I reasoned it had to be the bulkhead itself, or its joints with the hull. So with my now familiar collection of ragtag implements, I roughed up all the seams, wiped again and started doing some serious epoxy-glomming, this time after adding colloidal silica. I also had a vacuum cleaner simultaneously sucking away inside the holding tank. I knew I had struck gold when, as I passed my goopy wand over certain areas, there was a pfft sound, and epoxy leapt onto the bulkhead. In fact, I had to lower the vacuum pressure to keep it from becoming a liquid epoxy pipeline.

Finally, after a few days of repeating the cycle, I built up the areas to the point where the problem was finally solved. The two happiest days in this boatman’s life have been the day I bought my boat, and the day the epoxy quit spitting off the wand.

Lessons Learned

Had I insisted on doing it “right,” I would still be in the research phase. Instead, I now have a place to lie down in the fo’c’sle, a janitor’s closet on the foredeck and a cabin that no longer smells like a toilet. There were many other critical projects that had to be done by the book, so I learned. But a boat ain’t a temple. Don’t be afraid to dive on in. Expertise is an acquired trait.

Photos by Dean Abramson

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