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The hull and deck of Shirley Rose had been repaired, but what kind of sailboat would she be without a sturdy rig? I was told she was ready to sail, and that the owner replaced the standing rigging a few years before. Shirley Rose is a single-spreader masthead rigged sloop, with a 90 percent jib on a roller-furler. The traveler is aft of the tiller, and thankfully the boom is high enough that you would not hit your head even when standing on the lazarette. When I bought her, the halyards were rope to wire, which wasn’t exactly the best. The wire was appropriately nicknamed “meat hooks,” because it would occasionally fray and cut your hands while raising and lowering the sail. There was a little corrosion on the mast and boom, but colleagues at the yard told me not to worry about it. The jib looked to be in better shape than the main, but I took both down and sent them for repairs, while I fixed the hull and deck. When she was back in the water again, I reattached the sails, replaced the jib sheets, and Shirley Rose was ready to go.
The sailing was fantastic, although the shakedown cruise was a bit of a trial by fire, due to the fact it was blowing a good 15-20 knots out on San Francisco Bay. With the first sail in the books, I took my friends out for a number of weekend trips and watched them grow more confident at the helm. During one of these trips we were sailing downwind in 8-10 knots on our way home when we accidentally jibed. The mast did not have a wind indicator, and I should have been paying closer attention to the person at the tiller. Thankfully everyone was OK. However, the boom, which now had an unusual sag where the boom vang was bolted on, was another matter. Long story short, we’d broken it clean in two. Dropping the mainsail I slid the foot out of the bolt rope track, being careful not to snag the newly repaired sail on any jagged aluminum. I then removed the rest of the boom from the gooseneck fitting and secured it to the top of the cabintrunk. That Monday morning, I walked into work with a piece of the boom in each hand and a good story to tell from the weekend.
In terms of a fix I had two very different options: I could 1) strip the boom of all its hardware, sand everything down to bare aluminum and weld on a patch, or 2) remove the vang, sand down just the damaged section, weld on a smaller patch and reattach the vang. I was eager to get sailing again, so I opted for option two, the quick fix. The welder did an amazing job of bending a piece of aluminum into shape and welding it over the break. He deemed it the “Franken Boom” when he was finished. I chose to blend in the obvious repair by spray painting the entire boom black—matte black to be specific. I didn’t want a shiny boom to make the age of the rest of the boat glaringly obvious. Less than a week later, the boom was back on and Shirley Rose was ready to go. Or so I thought.
A perk of working in a boatyard is you build friendships with professionals from across the marine industry. One day my friend Ryan, the owner and lead rigger of Rogue Rigging (roguerigging.com) at the Berkeley Marine Center, was kind enough to spend his lunch break on Shirley Rose and do a quick survey. Unfortunately, we didn’t get far before he noticed a whole lot of corrosion on the mast. According to Ryan, when people wash down their boats, they often forget to wash down the mast and boom because it’s already hidden away under a sail cover. Aboard Shirley Rose, the most grievous corrosion was near the base of the mast around the area of the vang. He warned me the vang would have to come off, get cleaned up and be repaired before I could sail again.
I naively assumed this would be another quick fix and still hoped to go for a sail that Sunday. To start out I doused the screws with Kroil penetrating oil and then set to work the following morning with a wire brush and some aluminum repair putty. Alas, it was soon obvious that not only were the screws all different styles, but the problem was galvanic corrosion, not just salt, as a result of the various dissimilar metals reacting with one another.
The first two screws came off no problem. However, the drill couldn’t budge the third and the fourth just spun in place leaving me no choice but to use an oscillating saw to cut them off. Worse yet, pulling off the vang revealed a truly devastating scene underneath. The base of the mast looked like the surface of the moon, with a quarter-sized hole in one spot that went the entire way through the extrusion. I realized not only was my sailing trip off, but I would have to take the mast down.
A few days later I had my boat over on the dock at the Berkeley Marine Center waiting to be hauled. Back on the hard, we plucked the mast off its step and laid it to rest on a set of rolling dollies, ready to be put right again…eventually.
The project soon proved to be an even bigger one than I had expected, as the task list grew from simply patching the base of the mast (the same as with the boom), to replacing the lights and wires, stripping the entire spar down to bare aluminum and then rebuilding from scratch. Ryan looked at it with me and happily reported the shrouds remained in great shape. However, he was shocked at the amount of corrosion he found in the spreaders. Add another task to the punch list.
I was especially intimidated by the electrical work I was going to have to do, installing a new anchor light and steaming lights. In my anxiety, I was soon diagramming out the entire electrical system trying to calculate the various different loads. My brain quickly created a tsunami out of a ripple. A month and a half later, a friend at the yard finally got through to me by saying, “It’s as simple as connecting wires. You just have to do it.”
The silver lining to this cloud of anxiety was it motivated me to do my due diligence, comparing lights, and calculating the lengths of wire and figuring out the materials I was going to need. Before taking anything off the mast, I also took lots of photos, so I would know exactly where things were supposed to go when it came time to put things together again. That done, I went to work on the mast with a set of wire cutters, wrenches and an impact driver. Ripping out wiring, removing the halyards and wrenching off old cleats proved to be incredibly satisfying, especially when it came time to take a blow torch to the worst of the stuck bolts. My project anxiety quickly dissipated.
Not surprisingly, I found yet more corrosion lurking under the cleats, which would need to be taken care of as well. A wire brush attachment on a drill is the easiest way to remove corrosion, and within 45 minutes I’d brushed the mast down to shiny aluminum. The same machinist who’d fixed the boom now bent an aluminum patch into shape for this repair and welded it into position. While he was patching the mast, I also stayed busy building a new set of spreaders, complete with G10 fiberglass end caps to accommodate the shrouds. That done, it was time to paint the newly repaired mast and spreaders to prevent any future corrosion.
The old paint came off easily enough with 80 grit sandpaper and an orbital sander. However, while the process wasn’t a difficult one, it still took a while. Every time I thought I was done, I’d find another speck of paint that needed to be removed. It’s essential every last bit be taken off, otherwise the new paint won’t stick properly. Finally, after a few nights of work, the mast was sanded and ready to paint…or so I thought.
Turns out a bare aluminum mast cannot be simply primed and painted. Sanding creates a mechanical bond, but a chemical bond is needed for the primer to adhere properly. I ended up using Bonderite, a two-part product that creates a rock-solid chemical bond and also comes with great directions. Phase one consisted of deoxidizing the aluminum, by scrubbing some chemical on with a brillow pad and then quickly rinsing it off again with water to remove any surface contamination. After that comes phase two, in which a chromic acid is brushed on to provide a combination of oxidation protection and an adhesive surface for the primer. Phase two is done in sections, because the entire mast needs two coats, and you cannot let the first coat dry before applying the second. When I was done, I wrapped the entire mast assembly in plastic so no contaminants could spoil my hard work. The coating is so particular you can’t even touch it with your bare hands, since the oils in your skin can interfere with the bond. As is the case with so many boat projects, when it comes to painting aluminum, careful preparation is vital to success.
The next day I met the painter, who showed me how to mix the primer, set up a spray gun and talked me through the spraying process. The trick is to hold the sprayer about 8in away from the surface and keep moving. He told me not to worry about touching up the drips because everything would be fixed over the course of the multiple passes we’d be making. I tried a few passes, but thankfully he took the sprayer back for the final coats. Within an hour, the mast and spreaders were primed and drying.
A short while later, after everything was dry, I used some 120 grit paper and a soft sanding pad to rough the primer up a bit. A soft foam sanding pad bends around the curves and is necessary to help prevent flat spots. As is the case when spraying, it’s crucial to keep the sander moving. I also used a painter’s brillow pad to scruff up and remove any remaining shine from the mast and the spreader parts. Shiny primer means the paint won’t bond as well. After an acetone bath, the mast was ready to paint. As soon as the paint was dry, it was time to put things back together again.
Thankfully, aboard Shirley Rose the halyards all run externally, so the only things that needed to be run up the length of inside of the extrusion were the wires for the anchor and steaming lights. It never occurred to me until Ryan mentioned it, but 33ft of wire dangling freely inside an aluminum spar can make quite the racket as it clangs back and forth against the inner surface of the extrusion. According to Ryan, some masts run a narrow PVC conduit up the length of the mast to house the wires. However, I didn’t want to put any additional holes in my new paint job. Ryan, therefore, suggested attaching three long zip-ties in alternating directions every three feet or so. The long tails of the zip-ties, he said, would serve to hold the wires in the center of the spar. Finally, a quick and easy solution!
With a friend’s help, I guided the wire bundle up the mast and out through the top using a coat hanger and needle-nose pliers. After that I attached the custom steaming light mount I’d fabricated out of “Starboard,” plastic to the top of the mast using a combination of 4200 marine adhesive, Teff Gel and a handful of self-tapping screws. Despite my fears, actually connecting the wires couldn’t have been easier. I used a set of heat-shrink crimps to attach the positive and negative wires and was all set.
Next came the shrouds. Again, they had all been replaced a few years earlier, so no extra work was needed. With the custom end caps installed, I used some seizing wire to hold them in place and then covered them with electrical tape to help protect them from the weather. I’ve got to hand it to Ryan. He never once looked annoyed even, after the 100th time I called him over to make sure I was doing things correctly.
With the shrouds on, I focused my attention to rebuilding the masthead fittings to accommodate my new all-rope halyards. Ryan had sold me some line that was thin enough to run through the old phenolic shivs after I’d sanded out the burs. I also added a new carbon-fiber divider, because the original aluminum one was a little too thick for the line to run through easily. I complicated the rebuild by adding a bale to the masthead in order attach a new spinnaker halyard block, which ended up costing me another hour or two of work. Eventually, though, I had everything together again and all the halyards running in the right directions.
Finally, in addition to everything else on my task list, I’d decided to revamp Shirley Rose’s deck-stepped mast step. To start out I added a stainless steel organizer plate in order to remove the original deck blocks and prevent having to drill any new holes in the event I ever wanted to install another block or two in the future. Unfortunately, while I was installing it, I discovered yet another problem. Turns out the deck beneath the mast step consists of a sandwich of plywood and aluminum in between layers of fiberglass, and over time enough water had dripped in along the bolts to rot the wood. Thankfully, the rot didn’t travel too far, and I was able gouge it out with an Allen wrench in the jaws of a drill. After that I filled the voids with Dynaglass, added a layer of fiberglass and drilled a new set of bolt holes. Thankfully, it wasn’t too big a problem, and the new organizer fits great.
By now, it was February, and I was relying on a headlamp to do my work. Luckily, the winters in Berkeley are mild, which allowed me to work well into the night. As I was re-installing the various bits of hardware, I coated everything in a thick layer of Teff Gel to prevent any more corrosion in the future. “Use it like you bought stock in it!” a friend advised. Finally, after months of work, it was time to step the mast again.
Driving Shirley Rose over to the lift dock, we had it up in no time. By the end of the day all the pins were secured, and I even had the rig tuned. With Ryan’s approval Shirley Rose was ready to sail!
I have to admit, I was pretty nervous the first time out, and although my girlfriend said, “Greg, it’s fine. You’re a professional, people pay you work on their boats,” I couldn’t help thinking, “I’m a fiberglasser not a rigger!” A year of hard sailing later, though, and the mast still looks great. Mission accomplished!
Photos by Greg MacIver