No Regard For Tradition

liquid mold release

Dinghy plug sanded to 800-grit and buffed, ready for mold release.

With the buffing to shiny of the dinghy plug, which is where the last blog post left her, things could really begin to get moving.  The traditional procedure would have been to apply eight or ten coats of mold release wax, followed a few more for good measure.  Luckily, I have no regard for tradition, and the choice to modernize was easy—especially since I’ve spent far more of my life waxing than is decent.

There are various alternatives to the usual paste wax—all of them very expensive liquids that you wipe on and let dry, without having to put in the elbow grease of a wax job.  I used one made by Axel, because I’d used it before and knew how well it works.  Three coats of mold sealer, eight coats of release (each of which took less than ten minutes), and the mold was ready for gelcoat.

Orange tooling gel brushed thickly on the plug.

In this I adhered strictly to tradition and used a hideous orange tooling gel.  It’s a good color for molds because no one in their right mind would want a boat of that hue ( I exclude continental europeans, some of whom DO seem to have taste that bad ), and so there’s always a contrast between the mold and whatever you’re putting in it—it helps to show how thick your material is getting.  Given that tooling gel is hard to spray without a special gun tip, and that I don’t have a spray gun at all, I just brushed it on. Of course, the surface of the plug was so slippery that the gelcoat wanted to bead up all over it, so it took a few applications to get it all coated.

Skin coat applied–just one thin layer of chopped strand mat. Any thicker might move with the heat of curing and crack the gelcoat.

After the gelcoat came a skin coat—just one thin layer of chopped strand mat which I allowed to cure overnight before starting to pile fiberglass on thickly.  It took a few days, building up material, letting it cure, baking it gently ( I was using the last of the food-grade vinylester that requires post-curing), and then rolling on some more.  After that was done, I built a simple frame around it, screwed some casters to it, and was ready to capsize the whole circus and de-mold.

I half expected a stouter struggle, but the plug came right out of the mold.

Sometimes the de-molding is a painful process: I’ve spent a day and a half sometimes, beating an upside-down mold with a hammer, and driving scores of wedges into every available cranny, trying to get a plug out of a curmudgeonly new mold.  It’s truly discouraging, and one of the reasons I wasn’t interested in wax.  But getting this mold off the plug was completely painless.  No doubt the fact that it was a relatively small and uncomplicated shape helped, but I attribute much of the ease to the Axel mold release.  All it took was to make a simple lifting jig, put a couple of hydraulic jacks in the right spot, and out it came.

The mold all ready for minor blemish repair and mold release.

Typically, there were a few minor blemishes in the gelcoat of the mold I had to fix, but that was soon done and the whole thing buffed out and ready for mold sealer and release.

In the meantime, the bowsprit was making progress as well.  Using a strip of core-foam left over from Ganymede’s cockpit coamings, I opened up the slot in the carbon tube a little, to bring it closer to the diameter I wanted.  Then I rolled it in several layers of carbon, first twill, then some thick biaxial, then a layer of twill for the finish.  After it had baked good and solid, I drilled holes in it for the anchor roller pin, the heel pin, and the hounds around which the shrouds and bobstay will attach.  All of these got a fiberglass rod glued through, to increase the bearing surface of the pins or to provide a sturdy shoulder for the soft eyes of the shrouds.

I gave it a quick fairing, though not too much, then sloshed on some of my favorite primer—Awlgrip’s “545”.  While I was at that, I also applied primer to two or three of Ganymede’s hatches that I’d been slowly fairing with leftover scrapings from the dinghy plug.  In order to maximize efficiency, I got everything ready to paint at once, since the Awlgrip topcoat I’m using is a bother to mix and the cost of roller covers, brushes, mixing cups and cleanup adds up.

Two coats later they were done, ready to put back onto Ganymede whenever I should get around to finishing her.  But that’s another story—a race against pitiless time: an endgame intricately played out in a theater of evil weather, abrupt deadlines, and constant challenges.

A Red-Letter Occasion?

It is telling, perhaps, of how uninteresting sanding is, that every time you get to move from one grit to the next finer is a red-letter occasion.  Imagine, if you’re still reading this after that first sentence, getting to skip straight from 36-grit to 220!  It happened like this: after leaving the dinghy faired and primed at the end of the last blog post, I did some light filling of pinholes with Bondo, scuffed the entire surface again with 220-grit, and laid on two heavy coats of high-build Duratek primer.  In contrast to the black surfacing primer I’d been using, this was an eye-catching baby blue.  Better yet, it filled all the 36-grit gouges that the black hadn’t been able to, and was almost a joy to sand.

This was the last chance to microscopically alter the shape of the hull; to make it as perfect as it is ever destined to get.  To make the most of it, I secured a roll of sticky-back 220 grit sandaper, so I could sand with a two-foot board and not carve any hollows into it.  That done, my shop-mate sprayed a final layer of black Duratek on for me—sprayed it very fine and carefully to avoid excessive “orange peel,” and I was ready for the final push: sanding down through all the grits from 220 to 800, and lastly buffing the duratek with a high-speed polisher and compound.

But let’s leave the dinghy glistering in black opulence for now and jump back to Ganymede’s cockpit, where I managed to get in a half day of fairing before the weather turned violently cold.  It was only a half day because I spent the rest of it drilling out the rope-holes in the manrope holders on the cabintop.  Originally I’d had a little tube of copper in the hole as a bushing for the manropes—which is what Ganymede has instead of handrails—and each end of the tubing was peened over to keep it in place.  They had never looked perfectly tidy, and were going to look worse if I painted the cabin with them in place.  So since they had to go for fairing and painting, and I remembered how hard it had been to put  them in the first place, I’m replacing them by gluing a piece of fiberglass tubing in place.  This can be faired in smooth and painted along with everything else, giving the cabintop (I trust) a cleaner look.

While I was out there with the proper sized hole saw, I drilled out the holes for the belaying pins as well, using a simple wooden jig to keep the saw centered on the hole.  That day was my last chance at getting stuff done out there for a good while, since winter returned with alternate super-cold days or strong gales, and sometimes both at once, just for extra interest.

Fortunately, I still had more on my plate than I could handle back in the civilized warmth of  the shop.  It had seemed a good idea, when I was heaping project upon project on myself back in the fall, to build a new bowsprit.  The old one is really heavy—I can barely stagger with it—and was never faired properly.  It seemed that as long as fairing had to happen anyhow, I may as well fair a new spar as the old one.

The principal virtue of the original bowsprit was that I’d made it out of leftover materials, so it was basically free.  The only thing I’d bought new for it was a length of ABS pipe as a mandrel to wrap glass around—a half inch of glass, which is why it’s so heavy.  This time my resin was free, but I determined to kick down for carbon fiber, which would make it far lighter and stiffer.  I also wanted to take the mandrel out this time once it was formed, since the PVC would add weight without any structural benefits.

home built bowsprit

Ganymede’s first bowsprit. Simple, strong, but heavy.

It took a multi-step process to accomplish, but in the end I think it was well worth it.  After covering the PVC mandrel with Saran Wrap, the poor man’s mold release, I put one layer of carbon twill cloth around it, then two layers of unidirectional fibers, then another layer of carbon twill.  Instead of peel-ply, which would have been the right thing to do, I used some scraps of nylon fabric left over from one of Danielle’s sewing projects.  The idea with using peel-ply (which is also nylon) as a final layer, is that once the resin cures, you can peel it off the part, and it leaves a surface ready to bond to with no sanding.  On top of my ghetto peel ply I wrapped Saran Wrap, round and round, to squeeze everything together.

Once it dried, I peeled off the Saran Wrap, then slit the whole tube lengthwise with a saber saw.  The thin-walled carbon tube I’d created popped apart a little, and the mandrel slid right out.  Unfortunately, the makeshift peel-ply refused to peel off, and I had to waste an afternoon grinding it off.  Live and learn! In the end I had a very light, very rigid tube with a slit along it, ready to have the rest of the material piled on in due time.  But speaking of time, it’s time this blog post came to an end. Until the next one…

A Sandwich of Affliction

There seem to be three choices open to the person who finds he keeps needing to do something completely repugnant. He can do it halfheartedly, and not worry about how it turns out; he can suffer agonies doing it little by little so it can be bearable, or he can become really good at it so that it goes quickly.

If you haven’t yet guessed, I’m talking about the most onerous, backbreaking, discouraging task of the boatbuilder—I’m talking about fairing. I’m solidly stuck on the second choice, but tempted to backslide into choice #1 nearly every day. I’d like to achieve choice number three some day, but if practice makes perfect, I really don’t want that much practice.

Fairing topsides with the help of a professional drywall finisher.

The author’s first big fairing job: Ganymede’s topsides during her construction. I wrote a Complaining Article for Cruising World magazine about that one too.

What I’m fairing, of course, is the dinghy from the last few blog posts that I’m preparing to pull a mold off of. Though it didn’t appear so at first glance, once I levelled it and started putting straightedges and battens here and there, the dips, hollows and wobbles became very apparent. The reasons for that are several: first, it wasn’t built very fair to begin with, having really only one purpose, which was to be a rough-and-tumble family cruising tender. When I was building it, having already overdosed on fairing while trying to get Ganymede presentable, I didn’t see much value in getting it laser-perfect. But then, as vinylester structures will do, it shrank a little when out of the mold, and the radius between hull and skeg tried to fold in (This diabolical tendency is called “closure,” and happens because the resin, shrinking as it cures, pulls the strands of fiberglass, tending to make every angle smaller. It’s a big problem in the fiberglass world).

As if that wasn’t enough, it had been banged on hundreds of docks and rocky beaches, and once been violently smashed into by a drug runner’s launch, speeding heedless through a Honduran harbor in the dead of night. That smash stove in the transom and sides a little, and the repair had left her not entirely straight.

To shorten a long story, the old girl needs a lot of work. After glassing on the flange and transom, and laying on a coat of primer, which is where I left off last blog post, it was time to start piling on fairing putty. I chose to use Poly Fair, a polyester fairing compound that likes to go on thick, cures almost as fast as Bondo, and is catalized with the same MEKP (methyl ethyl ketone peroxide) as most of the other resins I’m using. In order to be efficient, and to not heap up too much more than was necessary, I used planks and battens to establish how far out things needed to be built, and shoved polyfair underneath. Once the planks came off (I covered them in packing tape as a mold release), I had a datum that I could bring the rest of the surface up to.

Here is where being really good at this would have helped, since doing careful work with the putty knives saves sanding later. There are those who with a flick of the wrist and a flash of the knife render a perfect, smooth surface. Then there are those who leave gaps and boogers everywhere in spite of themselves, and when they try to go over a spot again to fix it, make it worse, because the putty is beginning to harden. It’s a discouraging task, because no matter what you do, it looks as though you’re making the whole thing worse. And of course, between each fill you must take a fairing board with 36-grit sandpaper on it and laboriously sand it all until the high spots show up again, giving you a surface to fair against.

Not all the dinghy hull is flat, and while some can fair a curved surface with a flat fairing board, I can’t. Instead I took a strip of flexible ¼” ply, hot-glued some blocks to it as handles, and slapped some sticky-back sandpaper on it. With this I could sand the curved sections, moving the board every which way over the surface so as not to gouge a trench out of one spot.

It’s a slow and painful process, but one five-gallon bucket of fairing putty later, the hull was as good as I could make it. Having learned from bitter experience that it’s useless to make fillets and roundovers until all your other surfaces are done, I now took a scrap of plywood, rounded the corner, and made a big fillet between skeg and hull. A similar, but smaller fillet was made along the sheer with a tongue depressor (the industry standard small-fillet knife). A few more smears with bondo (“Boat in a Can,” we call it), and once again it was ready for black Duratek.

I’d like to say that that’s it, but sadly, there’s lots more sanding in my future. Still, let us leave Woggs there for now, having been primed black, faired over pink, and primed black again. Like a sandwich of affliction, served with a side of elbow grease on a bed of spent abrasive strips.

Late to Supper

Given the severity of the last several winters, I had never imagined that it would be possible to do fiberglass work in January under no other shelter than a plastic canopy.  I had resigned myself to the idea of waiting until late March to glass the new coamings onto Ganymede, then having to rush through the fairing and painting and possibly having to apply the final coat of paint after moving out to the mooring.  I may still have to, but it’s less likely now that I took advantage of a couple of truly mild days to get the new coamings installed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before I could install the new coamings I had to pay the dues of every glass job: trimming the edges and grinding them smooth.  I discovered, some time ago, that a metal-cutting wheel in a grinder cuts fiberglass excellently.  More dust than a saber saw, but lots quicker.  I still used a saber saw to cut out the hole for the compass, which had to be done before installation , since there’s no clearance for the saw afterward.  The last step was to clamp each half to a straightedge to ensure it would stay flat, then glass over the inside edge of the coamings with a couple layers of 1708 fiberglass cloth.  This gave it a nice, rounded, bullnose edge.

Having seen the forecast, I front-burnered this project, and on a day when it was almost 50 degrees, took the new coamings to Ganymede, ground a little for fit, and fiberglassed them firmly underneath.  While I was out there (you gotta make hay while the sun shines!) I glassed some foam strips on the sole under the coamings to serve as fiddles for the storage area underneath.  It was extremely awkward, trying to glass in a tiny space where nothing could be set down that was not underfoot, and every turn endangered a pot of resin or an area of wet glass.  But awkward is the story of my life, and though it took all day, I had the satisfaction of finishing up while it was still warm enough for my resin to cure.

A few days later I returned and glassed the top and sides, on a day that while gently raining was at least sufficiently warm.  A couple of minor details remain, then I can begin, whenever the weather allows, to fair and sand and fair again, racing the inexorable clock to springtime.

As far as the dinghy goes, after getting the new transom on I started working on the new sheer.  My original plan to have a ‘thwartships crosspiece every foot or so for a plywood flange to sit on turned out poorly: the ¼” doorskin I had was too bendy and needed more support.  In fact, it needed to be supported for it’s entire length.  After only a little thought I fetched a couple of sheets of OSB, traced the sheer I wanted on them with a batten, and cut the sheer out with a saber saw.  I made one for each side, screwed them in place, and hot-glued the doorskin to the upper edge, with some braces underneath to ensure it didn’t sag off.  Now I had a perfectly fair flange sticking out sideways from under the snaggly sawed-off sheer of the dinghy.

Next step was to glass it all around with one layer of 1708, making sure that the glass didn’t bulge out anywhere where it spanned the air gap between sheer and flange.  Since I was glassing to wood, and wanted the strongest possible bond, I used epoxy.  Though the West System pumps that meter out resin and hardener in correct ratios are handy, they’re only convenient for small amounts.  I’ll have to secure a postal scale and weigh my materials for any future jobs that size—it’s far quicker and easier.

Since I’m doing this mostly in a two-hour span I have several evenings a week, it only happens a little at a time, and usually the end is a little rushed feeling, and supper is late.  Supper was late that day, since once begun, I had to finish, and it would have wasted a lot of time later do rush this step and then have to fix it.  Happily, it came out well, and the next day I could sand it and apply a coat of primer—Duratek, to be precise: a special primer used commonly in mold-making to provide a strong tie-coat between the old fiberglass of the dinghy and the fairing putty I’ll be piling on next.  It’ll also help the putty stick well to the plywood of the transom and the epoxy, neither of which is fond of putty by itself.

With all that behind me, the next step can begin—but for that you’ll have to wait till the next post.

A Whole Lotta Boat Building

It was pretty agonizing, trying to decide whether to make any modifications to Ganymede’s cockpit geometry.  I mean, since I’m re-doing it entirely this winter, there’s no better time to make the coaming tops bigger or smaller or change them around entirely.  We went over and over it, while sailing the last couple of summers: should the mainsheet attachment move to here? or here? What about the winches? the running backstays?  There was the haunting notion that somehow the most perfectly perfect arrangement was lurking just out of mental reach and our imaginations were falling short of it.  In the end, it was decided to keep it exactly as it was, since it has worked for so many thousands of miles and we haven’t detected any real problems with it.  Other than the fact that Danielle can’t find a comfortable spot in it—but she has trouble finding comfort anywhere, so maybe that’s a lost cause.

Having decided to just upgrade the existing setup, I began by removing the old Cartagena wood after carefully marking where all the pieces went together and making notes of where the gaps were.  Rather than drag them all over the place and try to keep them together I made a pattern from them out of ¼” plywood—a pattern in two halves, so it could fit in the van for transport.  Using the patterns, I then cut ½” coring foam out and laid it out for fiberglassing.  In places where the winches and mainsheet padeyes go I cut out the low-density (and inexpensive) Divinicell foam and put in a high-density foam called Penske Board, which will not crush when squeezed by bolts.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I have temporary access to shop space, and a whole heap of leftover materials to use, which is really helping with the cost of the projects. It takes a little longer, picking through odds and ends of fiberglass cloth, than it would to simply cut it off a new roll, but the savings is worth it.  Likewise the resin, which is half a drum of a special food-grade vinylester we were building water tanks out of last winter.  It’s exceedingly stable and all but bulletproof when dry, but it is a beast to work with.  Not only does it effervesce slightly when catalized, generating new bubbles in the laminate as fast as you can pop them out, it’s hard to get it to soak properly into the cloth, and the smell is not to be believed.  Lastly, for a full cure it has to be post-cured, which means building a ghetto oven over the laminated parts with space heaters inside.  Still, all bother aside, it’s free resin, which is the best sort, it’s nearly as strong and stiff as any epoxy, and you could eat off of it!

In the meantime, the dinghy is not forgotten. The first step was to sand all the old paint off, to which end I invested in a special kind of sander called a “D.A.”  I have no idea what that stands for, but it runs on compressed air and can be hooked up to a vaccuum cleaner.  It’s lighter, quieter and cleaner than an electric sander, and it’s used in every boat shop I’ve ever seen.  With it and some 40-grit sandpaper, it was the work of only a few hours to reduce the hull to glass and gelcoat. Before getting too far into that, I cut off the old gunwales with a saber saw, since I need to change the sheer and make it more even from side to side.

Having it all sanded, the next step was to set it on sawhorses, making sure it was level both fore-and-aft and side to side. Then the modifications could begin.  To ensure that the mold I was making would release the dinghy more easily, and to make the dinghy look better, I wanted a transom that both sloped and curved.  The way to do this was to cut out a transom-shaped piece of ¼” plywood, hot-glue some spacers to the real transom, and bend the plywood into place. To secure it sufficiently for fairing and building a mold on, I glassed the edges on with some biaxial glass cloth (1708 to be precise: 17-ounce biax with 8-ounce mat sewn on—the boatbuilder’s all-purpose workhorse).  Since I was asking the glass to take a sharp turn  and stick on without much surface area, I helped it along by covering it with strips of saran wrap, then taping it firmly down.  The saran wrap won’t stick to the resin, and keeps the tape from getting permanently glued to the glass.

I have no clever sentence with which to end this post—perhaps that’s all right, since the next should follow so closely on this one’s heels that a lack of literature can be forgiven in the overwhelming quantity of posts I plan to do.  Hang tight! There’s gonna be a whole lotta boat building going on.

Interesting Times?

Another ghetto canopy to keep the weather out while I work. What a mess!

It’s the dead of winter again, and with all my rigging projects wrapped up till spring comissioning time, I have a few brief weeks to work on projects of my own.  I’ve chosen two principal tasks for this winter, both more ambitious than I can possibly manage, but both so pressing I couldn’t select one over the other.

Original Cockpit Lockers

Original cockpit with hinged locker lids.

The first one is Ganymede’s cockpit.  After Cockpit, Mark I, didn’t work out so well, I had re-done it during a haulout in Colombia, which improved it immesely.  But, things being what they were, I hadn’t managed to do a fabulous job of it.  After wasting a couple of weeks nearly dying of Dengue fever, it turned into a rush job at the end, and the only wood I could source was very green—dripping-wet green—and in the following years of cruising it has shrunk, separated, and begun to rot.

A cockpit modification in Cartagena, Colombia. Still shaking with fever…

Doing it properly is a big undertaking though.  Instead of relying on wood, I’m making the coaming tops out of fiberglass, which will not only be stronger but take up less space.  Of course, fiberglassing anything means a lot of grinding, and as long as I have the cockpit in pieces and am grinding, it only makes sense to fair the cockpit sole better—something I had no time or ability to do when shaking with tropical fever.  Right now it’s all hills and valleys and rough spots that trap grime and grow black stuff.

Of course, since after I glass a new cockpit in I’ll have to paint, it seems only right to paint the whole deck and cabin, which are also showing the ravages of hard cruising.  Which means a lot of fittings have to come off, and may as well be updated or refurbished while they’re off…oh boy, it never ends.

Grinding the cockpit, ready for modification #2.

So, with another winter shrink-wrap canopy over Ganymede, I took a grinder and a stack of 24-grit discs and went to town on the cockpit.  It took two sessions to reduce the gelcoat to a surface that can be adhered to, mostly because I like to see bare glass before putting anything over it.  Then I began to go after the decks with a sander and 40-grit, since they only need to take primer, not be glassed onto.  Nevertheless, it’s a big project, and I can only sand for so long before needing to do something else, especially in the bone-chilling cold of a canopy in wintertime.

Looking down into Woggs, the ideal rowing tender.

The second project is the dinghy.  For five years the dinghy I built as a tender saw almost daily use, was dragged up onto hundreds of beaches, got smashed into by a heavy launch, was repaired, had her gunnels replaced, got painted, went through several skeg guards, got new seats, got dismasted—in short, our little dinghy Woggs took everything thrown at her and endured as the perfect cruising tender.  She’s a strong thing, but being made of fiberglass roving and vinylester resin, she’s pretty heavy.  And lately, the foam core under her sole has had water intrusion, soaked it up, and she now weighs more than ever.  Now the weight was always a complaint of Danielle’s, especially when she had to hoist the dinghy aboard by the peak halyard.  She’s complained of it even more bitterly since having knee surgery last year, and carrying the dinghy down the beach takes a bit longer than it used to.

The dinghy sits comfortably under the boom. But getting her up there is tricky!

The solution of course is a lighter dinghy.  Making Woggs lighter is impossible; ditto buying a different dinghy—there is no other 9-foot dinghy out there as stable, rowable, and able to carry loads like Woggs can.  Only thing to do is pull a mold off the original Woggs, and make an entirely new one.

Two tiny girls watch their father working on the cockpit.

I am fortunate in having a friend with a little extra shop space, and even more fortunate in that he’s got a whole pile fiberglass supplies left over from a project we were both working on last winter—supplies that are cluttering up his scene and will eventually expire and become useless.  So, we’ve worked out a deal where I’ll dispose of his surplus before it goes bad, which will carve him out some room, and in exchange for that and some help dismantling obsolete molds and tooling, which will redound to even more room available, I’ll use a bit of that room to do my two projects.  I’ll try to keep the blog updated and post lots of pictures as work progresses, regretting only that those of my readers uninterested in boatbuilding and in action-packed photos of curing fiberglass will find the reading bleak.  I only hope, dear reader, that we can both make it to spring and to more interesting times.

Never Say Never

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Mixing hardener into smelly fiberglass in the sun during Ganymede’s construction.

Some years ago, when nearing the completion of our home-finished boat, I testified in a magazine article that once I was done building Ganymede I never wanted to build a boat again.  I think I may have meant it, too.  The itch of grinding fiberglass, the sticky, stinky, messy process of laying it up, the wearisome work of fairing and finishing: for three years I had overdosed on it, working mostly by myself under the murderous California sun.  By the time the boat launched I was ready for a serious break.

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The girls became little acrobats, always clambering in the rigging and finding new ways to defy death.

 

 

Happily, I got my break, and an abundant reward for my labors in an unforgettable voyage with my small family that ultimately took us to twelve different countries and spanned 39 degrees of latitude.  But I have to confess that even early on in our travels I started making mental notes.  How could this or that have been improved, or better designed, or better built?  There’s nothing like the crucible of hard use to both expose the dross and cause the gold to shine, and though there were plenty of issues to address, and some refining still to do before Ganymede is as perfect as I could wish, enough of gold showed through to make every sweat-streaked, itchy afternoon of her construction worth the while.

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Sweaty, sweltering tropical nights.

The fact remains, though, that however much you may do with a 31-foot boat, there are simply some things that cannot be done with it, no matter how cleverly it is redesigned.  One of those things is cramming five people in it with any degree of comfort for long stretches of time.  We managed if for five  years before the children were too big, and a good portion of that time was spent in shocking discomfort, especially on tropical nights when the rain kept our hatches shut.  I repeat: even the most well-arranged small boat is still a small boat, with a finite amount of room to use.

The solution is obvious: the family that outgrows a smaller boat must build a bigger one.  Long before our voyages on Ganymede were over, while we were still happily living that particular dream, a new dream began to take shape.  It took the shape of a bigger boat, one with two bathrooms, cabins with doors that would shut, awash in natural light and ventilation.

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Full-size profile view of the schooner done in sidewalk chalk.

We made sketches on graph paper—notebook sized at first, then table-sized sheets with half-inch squares, to get the design worked out just right.  We stood here and there with yardsticks and tape measures to see how much room was needed for this or that.  Finally, with the perfect length worked out (50 feet), we drew full-sized top and side views on the courtyard with sidewalk chalk.  As Danielle and the girls walked around making marks with chalk, I lay here and there inside the side-view to see how the proportions worked out.  Would a beam this close to the companionway be a head-bumper?  Would a settee just here have enough headroom under the deck?

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Half-model of the 50-foot schooner taking shape.

There were still details to work out when we began the next step of design: a half model.  Leaving aside the romantical-ness of carving it out of cedar or sandalwood or whatever is traditional (I haven’t bothered to find out), I carved it out of a stack of ½” MDF boards.  Pretty easy to carve, no grain to get in the way, and each thickness of board represents a foot.  It was a pretty long process, whittling, sanding, checking for fairness with light and shadow, then whittling and sanding some more.

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Another view of the half model, almost finished shaping!

It’s finished at last, with an even coat of primer and the waterline firmly scribed.  In olden days, I suppose I would have lofted the frames off of the half model, but this being the twenty-first century, we plan to have the model 3D scanned and turned into a CAD file.  Danielle, who has been studiously learning a CAD program called “Rhino”—the local favorite among boat builders—will be able to tweak it all nice and fair, since I have no illusions about the perfection of my model.  Then we can fill in the deck, rig, and interior, do the calculations for displacement and trim, which a plug-in to the program purports to be able to calculate, and presto! Yacht design for modern times.

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It’s a lot of heavy work building even a small sailboat. Here’s one of Ganymede’s side decks going up.

Whether we get to proceed to the next step—having the stations printed full-scale on Mylar for lofting, or having them simply cut out of plywood by a CNC router, is really the edge of the precipice.  It’s relatively easy and cheap to design a boat—it’s another thing entirely to build it.  Just like when we built Ganymede, a lot of circumstances would have to come together: affordable building space, time for building, a sufficient budget, and most of all, the will both to begin and to see it through.  And truly, that last requirement is the hardest.  Knowing that one has to become a de facto hermit, choosing fairing rather than fun, grinding instead of grilling; knowing that success or failure depends on whether every ounce of spare energy and time was spent on the project rather than on all the things you suddenly want very much to do instead, is sobering—especially the second time around.

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Antigone was a big helper as I installed the rudder gudgeons on Ganymede.

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Inspired by all our drawing, Antigone has begun designing a 19-foot cutter of her own.

On the flipside, my family has grown, and while before I had “helpers” whose efforts, however sweet, didn’t actually advance the project, they can now read a tape measure, hold things still, and above all, sand.  Even better, they are eager to get to sea again, and nothing would give them greater joy than to see a fifty-foot schooner taking shape in the yard.  Just how eager they were I didn’t know until recently, when I asked Antigone, the oldest, why she didn’t spend her allowance every couple of weeks like her sisters do.  “Oh,” she said with that little shrug that she has. “I’m saving it so we can build a schooner.”  I’m not often rendered speechless, but this did it.  I wanted to urge her to not vainly save her pocket  money for an unrealistic dream, but what could I say? She’s seen it all happen once; nothing could be more natural than to expect to see it happen again.  With a little luck, a little saving, and a lot of will, she just might.

Too Hot to Think

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My little garage, brimming over with works in progress.

I’d like to say (and think) that the reason I haven’t written a blog post all summer is because I was keeping so busy.  Too much to do! No time to sit down and write!  And while for sure I have been quite industrious (as I’ll get to later), I’m afraid the real reason I haven’t written much is because of the heat.  I mean, it was in the 90’s and muggy as anything for unendurable weeks stacked end-for-end!  Too hot to think, or even to think about thinking.  But it has begun to cool down now, and my steaming brain is willing to be dusted off and put to use again.

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A super-strong, versatile toggled strop from Abednego Marine. Thousands of uses in the boat and in the home!

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A few of the lashings I did in the spring on the Dyneema nets between the hulls of Finn, a custom carbon trimaran.

Alert readers may remember that several blog posts ago I mentioned the start of our small rigging business, Abednego Marine, coupled with a droll story of where the name came from.  The original idea had been mostly to stand in my garage splicing up strops and soft shackles and all the other neat things that can be made with my proprietary and—ahem!—reasonably-priced aluminum toggles, and sell them by mail-order.  While I expected the occasional off-site job, I didn’t really envision spending too much time on other folk’s boats.  After all, I have a full-time gig already as a garbage barge captain.  But my ideas never seem work out as planned, and early in the spring, while it was still pretty chilly, I was asked (by someone who did NOT want the job) to tighten up some nets on a new trimaran.  It was a project that a week and three hundred tiny individual lashings later morphed into a series of visits to the boat for increasingly complicated tasks, and gave Abednego Marine a much-needed boost, since internet sales have admittedly been a little bit flat.

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A new mainsheet for a Gunboat Catamaran. The strops around the boom I had to make in situ, to go through the fixed bails.

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Hundreds of tiny dyneema “sail slugs” for the track around the nets’ perimeter. Sore fingers!

But it didn’t stop there.  The world of high-speed carbon fiber multihulls being relatively small, my name was passed on to another boat needing some work; this time a 66-foot Gunboat catamaran whose rigging had been rode hard and put away wet.  It was all in a shocking crusty state, so for the last several weeks I’ve spent a few evenings and several Saturdays lashing, splicing and knotting in the sun, slowly getting it back to shipshape.  Oh, and preparing close to three hundred tiny lashing loops for its set of nets. It’s the biggest project yet for our little business, and has required the next big step: insurance.  Not for my sake, or the boat’s, but for the Newport Shipyard, which enjoins all independent contractors to carry it on their premises.  Now, with so many insurance salesmen in the world you’d think buying a general liability policy would be a piece of cake.  Not so.  “Your business is what?” potential underwriters would incredulously ask Danielle.

“My husband goes to other people’s boats and ties knots in ropes.”

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New bowsprit shrouds, seen from below.

Silence, perhaps thoughtful.  Then: “We can’t insure for that right now.”   Right now, several of them said, as if maybe in a week or a month they’d be able to.  Strange folk, those underwriters.  Perhaps it’s that being suspicious, distrustful and vague is what it takes to be in the business.  It took my going to an insurance office in person to explain I was, A: not operating these boats, and B: not juggling chainsaws blindfold while hanging by my teeth from a crane over a corral of babies and pregnant women.  Still, when I managed to secure a sort of half-hearted coverage, it had the usual markup associated with anything “marine.”

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This is Abednego Marine’s logo. “Elegance in Rigging” is our motto. Wouldn’t they look great on a mug?

Well, never mind.  In a couple of weeks the policy will be paid off, and Abednego Marine can return to making the money we need to save against winter’s coming.  Better yet, being registered at the Newport Shipyard as an independent rigging contractor might just be good for a few more jobs as time goes by.  Who knows? Maybe I’ll spend half the winter tightening hundreds of tiny lashings in the freezing cold, dreaming of the time when it will again be too hot to think.

A Good Job to Have

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At the helm of an 80-foot Newport sailing schooner

When I became captain  of an 80-foot sailing schooner roughly one year ago, I really didn’t want too much more out of life.  To spend day after day sailing, and to have that actually be my job, seemed about all anyone’s heart could desire, employment-wise.  Of course the position has its difficulties: dealing with still-unseamanlike crew early in the season; dealing with 250 tourists a day all season; the frightful boat traffic on weekends, especially the clueless racing sailors who always seem determined to crush themselves to flinders under the schooner’s inexorable steel bows.  Still, all those things are manageable, and I would have happily continued in that employment until I died from old age at the wheel.  But another unfortunate feature of “headboats”—that is, boats that count by the head—is that they choose, against all reason and decency, to operate seven days a week.  When I asked to be allowed Sundays off, with any combination of the other six days at their disposal, I was firmly invited to hit the road.

My first choice for an alternate job was, of course, what I’ve always wanted: a cushy cubicle in a climate-controlled building, with my very own rolly chair on a plastic mat, a mug full of pencils, and maybe even a stapler (a stapler! Imagine…).  Surprisingly, those sorts of jobs are hard to find—as much as folk pretend to complain of them, they’re pretty unavailable, which makes me think that everyone really wants them after all.  The only place that even wrote me a second email was all hung up on wanting to see a College Degree.  Of course I have no such thing, being a mostly illiterate seafaring man, so I was faced with finding something else in the maritime line.

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The Clean Bays LST, ready to be loaded on a quiet spring morning

As so often happens, a rather surprising thing cropped up at just the right time: Clean the Bay, a nonprofit organization that removes heavy debris from shorelines, needed a full-time captain for their Landing, Staging and Transport craft, or ‘LST’.  Though these come in all sizes, and played a major role in the Normandy Invasion, the one I’m now driving is rather un-grandiose, being on the smaller side, and not big enough to transport a Volkswagen, never mind even the smallest army tank.  But it will cruise at 25 knots, and does what we do most excellently.  And what we do, primarily, is run it aground on a beach, drop the front gate down, and gather up all the man-made flotsam.  Much of it is timber—old ship’s keels, broken-up piers, creosoted railroad ties, things like that.  Most of the pieces are too big to carry, and must be cut into smaller bits with chainsaws before being loaded aboard the LST.

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A forty-foot long piece of yellow pine keel timber from some big vessel gets cut into manageable pieces with a carbide-tipped chainsaw.

Now, when I began my seafaring career, I would never have imagined myself at the helm of a garbage barge, leaping ashore with chainsaws and timber spikes to wrestle huge beams into submission, but I confess I’m finding it pretty satisfactory.  In a way, I’m a professional beachcomber, which is something I wanted to do long before I even knew about office jobs with paper clip organizers and rubber band balls.

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Assessing the sunken barge project with waders and boathook.

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Wetsuit, waders, underwater chainsaw: ready to do some damage!

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The view from my office. Pomham lighthouse at dawn.

But in case even beachcombing loses it’s thrill, we have a secondary objective—two derelict barges that were allowed to sink on a shoal that has been used as a boat graveyard for almost a hundred years.  Last years’ crew managed to cut them down to the low water mark, but now we must get into the water and cut the waterlogged yellow pine timbers largely by feel into pieces small enough to pull aboard.  Of course a regular chainsaw won’t work submerged, so we’ve secured a hydraulic one, meant for underwater demolition.  Again, I have to admit that even five weeks ago such a thing would never have occurred to me—not only would I never have dreamed that  hydraulic chainsaws existed, but that I’d be working the business end of one while standing chest-deep in the Providence River.  But life’s full of surprises, from the small shocks one gets as cold water begins to trickle under the nooks and crannies of one’s wetsuit, to the astonishment at realizing that he’s being paid to explore sun-drenched, lonely beaches.  Some folk spend most of their lives combing beaches, looking for treasure they’ll never find.  If we never find anything but tires, timber, and styrofoam, we can know that one real treasure—the coastline we just cleaned—is prettier, safer, and more natural because we happened by.  It’s a good job to have.

Plumbing Implausible

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Grinding the joint on Ganymede’s new fiberglass outlet pipe

A couple of blog postings ago I promised you, my readers, details on Ganymede’s new plumbing setup.  This will probably be of supreme disinterest to those who have not lived the joys of marine plumbing and can therefore not sympathise or better yet, smugly nod and say: “better you than me, fool.”  But maybe some will watch with interest to see whether it winds up actually working.  Which is, of course, my sincerest hope right now.

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Damaris checks out one of the holes in the hull. Wonder what’s inside?

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One of many dry-fits of the pipes. Note the straps to hold the bigger one to the bulkhead.

Having a horror of traditional bronze through-hull fittings, with seacocks and hose clamps under the waterline (!!!!????), I had determined, ages ago, never to imperil my boat by putting obvious weak spots where such things ought not to be.  Other than no through-hulls at all, which is the ideal, there’s only one other choice: solid tubes glassed firmly to the hull and rising above the waterline before getting a seacock on.  For this I found some suitable pultruded fiberglass tubing at McMaster-Carr, and after drilling the necessary holes in the hull with hole saws, proceeded to fit the pipes.

Each pipe needed to be cut at an angle and have a piece spliced on to match the angle of the hole in the hull, the idea being that both pipes (intake and outlet) would rise parallell to each other and the bulkhead to which they’re attached.  It took several cuts to get the angle just right, and several trips out to the boat to dry-fit.

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Gluing an angled joint into the fiberglass inlet and outlet pipes. Each was later laminated over with carbon fiber and epoxy.

Once happy with the angle of each joint, I glued them with thickened epoxy, then overlaid the joint with carbon fiber cloth.  Why carbon fiber?  Well, because I had it lying around, in bits perfectly suitable for such joints.  While I was at it, I made mounting brackets to attach the standpipes to the bulkhead. For these I used some scraps of tubing for a form, and some 1708 fiberglass cloth I had lying around as well.

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Hole for the inlet pipe. It’s opposite of the hole Damaris was looking at several pictures ago.

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Looking downward at the dry-fit. Ugliest bilge in the world? Maybe, but at least it’s all accessible.

Next step was to fix the pipes to the hull.  The astute reader will notice that one hole is on one side of the hull, and the other is across the bilge space from it.  This was strategic, since the last thing I wanted was the water intake being next to the outlet.  Now there’s an entire full keel separating the two holes, which should keep the water intake as clean as possible.  One pipe, then, has to cross the entire bilge space, which will make re-installation of the bilge pump very interesting when I get around to it at last.

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Using pipe offcuts to make proper-sized straps.

But moving on…the outlet pipe was the first one to be attached, again with carbon fiber, since I didn’t have any suitable fiberglass.  After making a fillet with the same thickened epoxy I used to glue the pipe to the hole in the hull, I started wrapping layers of biaxial carbon around the joint.  The biax really takes the corners nicely, and I used successively bigger layers to get good overlap on the joint.  My brackets, lag-bolted firmly to the bulkhead, held the pipe steady while I worked.

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All firmly attached with biaxial and twill-weave carbon in WEST-System epoxy. Notice the strut supporting the center of the ‘thwartship pipe.

It’s surprising how fast a project can go after all the setting up is done; in no time the outlet was epoxied on and it was time to fit the inlet.  This was no different, except that I had to glass the end opposite the hole onto the hull as well.  Again this was soon done, an extra strut glued in to keep the pipe from accidental breakage, and I could walk away and let everything dry.

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Marelon valves well above the waterline. They can be taken off for inspection/service/replacement whenever without the boat sinking. It’s the only proper way to do this. Note the straps in their final position.

It took a few weeks to find the time and motivation to get out there and hook up all the hoses, valves, anti-siphons, etc., and I might have put it off until after Ganymede was on her mooring, except that I needed the electricity at the boatyard to operate a heat gun.  While some of the hose barbs took the hose quite easily, others required some heat-softening and soap lubrication to get the hose on.  What I did have to put off until later was painting the bilge afterwards.  That I did after moving the boat back to her summer home in the Kickamuit River.  I’m afraid it still looks a fright, but at least now it’s a fright of the same color.

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A little Bilgekote paint….still not pretty, but less horrible. Next time I build a boat, I’ll fair the bilge while I still have the chance.

I’m not entirely pleased with the jumble of pipes, valves, and hoses that now invades Ganymede’s once simple, convenient head.  On the next boat I’ll design the plumbing to be more out-of-sight and elegant.  But for now Ganymede is the boat we have, and though we’re sacrificing looks for convenience, she’s continuing to adapt to our needs, and we’re looking forward to a great summer of sailing.