Too Hot to Think


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.


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


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.


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


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.”


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.”


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

2015 06 17 Aquidneck Sail (37)

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.


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.


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.


Assessing the sunken barge project with waders and boathook.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Taking Time to Tinker

Dinghy ModelsOne of the things I almost regretted giving up when we went cruising was a workshop—a place to fiddle about with building this and that; a place with tools and a workbench and room to make things.  Part of the reason I didn’t really miss it was because for six years I’d been building this and that like crazy: fifteen dinghies, three molds, sailing kits, furniture—not to mention our cruising boat—all of which involved a lot of time and effort going up blind alleys, altering some things and re-doing others completely.  In short, I was exhausted of building and fiddling and having to invent stuff that I couldn’t afford to buy.

Rigging InspectionAs we cruised, though, and things needed re-doing or repairing, or necessity made me wish for something I hadn’t thought of before, I regretted the absence of tools, a shop, easy mail-order supplies and handy hardware stores.  Over the several years of our cruise, by lamplight in Ganymede’s cabin after the girls had gone to sleep, I compiled a list of things to work on when again I should have a workshop and leisure.  Now that I have at least a workshop, if not that much leisure, I’ve started chiselling away at my list.


One little shop or another...Some items are on the way, way back burner: an indestructible, corrosion-proof titanium umbrella—an idea born of the struggle to keep umbrellas from immediately disintegrating during the rainy season of southern Panama; a telescope with built-in compass and rangefinder (Danielle hates binoculars); acetylene ship’s lamps, to negate the need for smelly kerosene.  But three or four others are front and center, all being worked on at once.

Sailboat Rigging: Toggle in use.One of the aspects of boatbuilding that I enjoyed most was the rigging.  It was not only the greatest design challenge that I faced while building Ganymede; it was the most fun.  The rig is also the part of the boat I’ve tweaked and altered the most since we set out.  Even though everything was designed for maximum simplicity, over the five years of our cruise I managed to make things ever more simple: replacing blocks with fairleads here and there, eliminating excessive runs of line, and mostly, getting rid of metal clips and shackles and hooks whenever I could replace them with Dyneema lashings of soft shackles.

Sailboat Rigging: Toggles and StropsOne of the things I tried that worked best—I don’t claim it’s invention; these have been around for hundreds of years—was a toggle and a loop to replace metal shackles, which are expensive, given to corrosion, heavy, and apt to get sticky with time.  I started out with one or two, but before long was using them all over the place. The wooden ones I spun out on my small lathe worked so well, that I made it my first major project to make them in aluminum.  In a previous blog posting I’ve talked about going into business, with all that that involves.  It’s a slow process, but finally we have an actual product to sell, and a website to sell it on:  The site’s a little rough around the edges yet, but soon I hope to have more and better pictures of the many uses for toggles, perhaps a video or two of how to splice them them on and use them, and hopefully some more products down the road.  You see, the more I fiddle about with this and that, the more ideas keep cropping up, and the more new things I want to try.

Will I ever reach the end of my list?  Looks unlikely, if it keeps growing faster than I can keep up.  Perhaps my titanium umbrella will never be a thing, but having a little shop and starting to make new things again sure feels good.

In short, what winter ought to be like.

2016 Winter in Bristol

Our heaviest snow yet…

After the dreadful hue and cry of the past three winters, each marked by some extraordinary extreme—whether violent gales, or record snowfalls, or simply longlasting endlessness, this winter has so far proved exceptionally comfortable.  Sure, there’s been the coldest day I ever saw—minus 10 degrees F—but the next day it went into the forties, and there’s only been two significant snow events, and no weeks-on-end-of-mind-numbing-cold.  In short, what winter ought to be like.

All at Sea

Free Admission
7PM on March 25th,
L.L. Bean
Freeport, Maine.

While everything necessarily slows down dramatically, project-wise, there’s still some amount of activity on days off and evenings.  Some if it involves the gathering of materials for the upcoming springtime pre-lauch blitz at the boatyard, but most of it centers around more genteel inside stuff, like all the writing that I put off doing all summer in hopes that long evenings would bring motivation.  They haven’t, I suspect, mostly because my evenings seem to go by in a whirlwind of supper, cleaning, and bedtime.  Still, there’s been time to refurbish our “All At Sea” slide show for an upcoming event at the LL Bean store in Freeport, Maine.  (7:00pm on March 25; Admission is free!), and to write a good deal of text for the online store we hope to launch very shortly.  Feel free to check it out:, though it’s still under construction and nothing is for sale yet.

The Wildest Coast

A full page spread introduces our latest article in Cruising World’s current edition (Feb. 2016)

But motivation is arriving at last, in the form of reward for one’s labors.  My reward as winter winds down was a second-place prize in the annual Boating Writer’s International writing contest.  I’ve had an entry or two each winter for the last five years, and taken four prizes, so not a bad average.  Especially since each one comes with a small cash bonus, which I’m never in a position to despise.  As if that wasn’t enough, Cruising World just sent a contract for another article I wrote—the last installment in the tale of Ganymede’s voyage to Newfoundland.  Stuff like that never fails to make me want to sit down and write some more.  So here I am at last, all the motivation in the world, and never a thing to write about!  With my little garage shop being unheated, and the car moreover taking up all of it, there has been absolutely nothing going on in the way of boat projects.

But that will all change very soon.  The weather has improved, and it’s time to get started on Ganymede’s big project for the year: proper plumbing, and at last, through-hulls.  So far Ganymede has no holes beneath the waterline—I like it better that way—and our first plumbing arrangement, just like on Capella before her, was a rubber feed bucket.  No hoses; no valves; no nasty tank; no pumping—simple and perfect for the areas we were cruising where everything goes overboard anyway, one way or another.  I know this is an unpopular idea nowadays, and folk don’t like to think about where their sewage goes (If they saw, honestly, what most of the world does with it’s sewage, and even what much of the “civilized world” does with it, they’d cringe).   But the fact is, human waste is as natural as the waste of whales and dolphins and birds and buffaloes, and there’s far, far worse stuff being released into the sea than p**p.  In other words, we have bigger fish to fry than human waste.

Nevertheless, times being what they are, and we wishing to be as law-abiding as we can, when we needed to cruise in waters where overboard dumping is discouraged, I put in a Lavac toilet (the only worthwhile marine toilet, unless you can get a Wilcox-Crittenden “Skipper” in cast bronze), and a holding tank.  Still no through-hulls: the water intake for flushing was a hose to the bilge, where we would pour fresh water in order to flush. Kept the bilge nice and clean, always having fresh water going through, but an obvioulsy unsustainable system if away from reliable water sources for long.  The holding tank had only one outlet: the deck fitting, so we were bound to find a pumpout station weekly, which though easy in some places, is challenging in others.

So at last I’m breaking down and putting in a traditional plumbing system, with ‘Y’ valves and siphon breaks and all manner of clutter and complications.  Stay tuned for updates, and pictures, and to see the alternative I came up with for having metal fittings, and valves, and hose clamps underwater where everything can end in a catastrophic sinking.  I think you’ll be amused.

Activity is a Virtue

I had reproached myself on more than one occasion last winter for leaving Ganymede in the water rather than hauling her out like she deserves, especially when friends helpfully sent videos of her bucking and plunging in the horrible SW gales that racked New England five or six times.  But we were just moving ashore, and money was needed elsewhere.  In the end she came though unscathed, though with her docklines in rough shape.

Ganymede at the yard

Ganymede’s bottom, sanded and ready for new paint

This winter, though, we’d put by enough to have her hauled out—for the first time since we were preparing to sail to Newfoundland—and give her a rest and a dry-out and a much-needed bottom job.  After some shopping around, we decided on the Borden Light Marina in Fall River: the same marina where we’d left Capella, so long ago, to return to California and build Ganymede.  It’s a casual, friendly  mom & pop place, where they don’t mind you working on your boat, and will give you a lift to the gas station if necessary.

We have been enjoying a mild late-fall so far, and though it was the last thing I felt like doing, I took a sander and a heap of 40-grit out to the yard last weekend and sanded her entire bottom to a nice, paintable surface.  It took less than four hours, which was surprising, and though I could probably sand some more, if I don’t get to it won’t matter.  I did get unbelievably dirty, and emptied an amazing amount of dust out of the catchment bag with every change of paper.

The gaff jaws I’ve talked about in previous posts are done, and with some provisional leathering are ready for testing next spring.  I also decided to strip the aluminum gaff, which was starting to show spots of yellow primer through the paint, and leave it bare.  Now that I have bare aluminum on mooring bitts and tabernacle, it might as well match.  The mast, whose paint is looking chalky, worn, and missing entirely in high-chafe spots, will have to wait till next winter.

One final thing I did for winter storage was to install a solar-powered exhaust fan.  Being unwilling to cut any holes in the deck or house, I simply removed the pie-plate skylight from the forehatch, built a quick fiberglass cap to fit over it using the pie plate-and-melamine method used for making the trim ring, and installed the vent in that.  Now there will be a small fan moving air around all winter, hopefully keeping things from growing stagnant inside.  In summer I’ll simply clap the skylight back on when sailing, and the vent if leaving her on the mooring for a while.

In landward news (we are officially landlubbers now, after all), much of our energy for the last few months has been directed at trying to buy a house.  In the long-term plan, barely visible in the fog of the far future, house ownership plays a pivotal role.  But houses are expensive beyond belief in New England, and the best we could do was a tumbledown cottage in some festering swampland in West Greenwich.

Little Cottage in the Big Swamp

The cottage we almost bought.

In the end we couldn’t even manage that, since the mortgage company, minion of some vile gangster named “Freddie Mac” (I’m not making this up), panicked at the last minute and pulled the plug.  In their well-meaning way, people keep telling us that Swamp Cottage would have been a disaster anyway—no one who looked at it had said anything other than that it oughtta be torn down.  Of course, they’d all said the same thing about Capella, which we sailed to South America and Maine; point being: hopeless projects are our specialty, and the more naysayers we can prove wrong the better.  Still, what can’t be helped must be endured.  So we wait, pouring gobs of money we’ll never see again into rent, and unable to build a boat-shed in the yard, re-configure the inside of our house, or really do anything meaningful for the long-term.  And if you can’t even get started on the big plan, when will you ever see it through?  Sure, patience is a virtue—but activity is a better one.

Keep On Sailing

Bunk Beds

Just enough room for a triple bunk bed.

Ever since our move ashore, the care and upkeep of Ganymede has been necessarily pushed to the back burner.  It was just one year ago that we moved off of her into the rental apartment we now call home, and though we have by no means neglected our dear little boat, there’s been a lot of other things to use up our spare time.  Since we didn’t own a stick of furniture when we moved in, much of this year was spent building bunk beds and shelves and desks and picture frames.  Now Apple Blossom Cottage is pretty well furnished—everything has a place to go, and there’s just one or two more small things on my radar to build.

Paint is white Rust-oleum; varnish is Interlux Schooner

New paint on deckheads and varnish on cabin sides.

With all that, we did spend a good deal of time last winter painting Ganymede’s locker lids and other removable parts in the basement, and in the spring did the gargantuan task of painting the deckheads and varnishing the cabin ceiling.  After that things slowed down as we chose to spend what little time we could devote to Ganymede in sailing her.  We even took a two-night cruise over to Prudence Island when I got three days off during a propitious series of tide cycles.

A fiberglass piece to replace splitting wood

A mold made from a pie plate and melamine plank makes a custom trim ring.

I’m happy to say, though, that in spite of all the distractions, I’ve been able to cross off SOME of the things on my list.  The first was my pie-plate-skylight trim ring (say THAT five times fast!).  The one I’d made of oak while working on the Coronet restoration was cracking horribly, and pretty weather-blackened.  I had always meant to make one out of fiberglass, and finally a few weeks ago I did.

A waterproof, inexpensive skylight

Trim ring primed and installed. It will be painted to match when the decks are repainted

The first step was to borrow another pie plate from my longsuffering wife and attach it to a piece of melamine-faced board with hot glue.  Four rings of fiberglass fabric went on next—three of 1708 (for the composite geeks reading this) and one of 10-oz boat cloth.  Once the resin cured and the piece was de-molded, it was child’s play to trim it with a jigsaw, sand the edges round, and slosh some 545 primer on it.  Fits like a glove, and looks far better than the clunky oak one it replaced.  It will look even better when I re-fair and paint the hatch it sits on….but that’s for another day.

Worked good, but might be improveable

Ganymede’s original mainsheet setup: two separate tackles

Another experiment had been the mainsheet.  Until now we’ve used two mainsheets, attached at opposite sides of the cockpit, which eliminates the need for a traveller and gives excellent control over the position of the boom.  Furthermore, two people working together can get the boom sheeted in easily in the hardest winds by tallying onto a tackle apiece.  It has worked splendidly in all the conditions that Ganymede encountered in five years of voyaging.

Making the best of that pesky sheet

Danielle being distracted by the weather sheet while steering into Isla Mujeres, Mexico

But the system has it’s downsides.  First, there’s two tackle falls to get all tangled up among the jibsheets and running backstay falls.  Second, the weather sheet, which is kept slack, tends to distract the helmsman, especially when it’s Danielle.  Then, when sailing with guests aboard, you have to have not one but two of them move to access the sheet cleats, which they are inevitably sitting on.

Five-part mainsheet.

Sailing with a friend on the first occasion of testing the new mainsheet setup.




So using some spare blocks and a very long piece of nylon rope left over from my old rockclimbing days, we experimented with a single mainsheet, rove from one side and back several times by way of the boom.  To my surprise it worked superbly on the one test-sail we’ve been on, well enough that I’ll probably spring for twenty fathoms of proper mainsheet line and a triple block for the boom end next time I find that a couple hundred dollars are disturbing my rest by crying out to be spent.


Experimental gaff jaws

Testing the prototype gaff jaws for fit.

Lastly, one of the things I’ve been thinking hard about for a long time is a set of proper gaff jaws.  It took ages to get my gaff saddle engineered so it would work properly, and it still manages to capsize from time to time, especially when I need to get the sail down in an hurry.  So I made a form out of a paint can (which is what I used as a mold for the saddle), some scrap lumber, Bondo, hot glue, and tape, and laid up a set of jaws on it.

The gaff jaws prototype required seven different sessions, with sanding between each

Piece by piece, the gaff jaws prototype goes together.

After a quick run out to the boat to test for fit, I’m now adding layers of carbon fiber here and there to ensure sufficient strength against the huge twisting force exerted by the gaff under full sail.  No doubt it will take several tries to get it just right, and the test model will get hacked beyond recognition before serving as a prototype for the proper one I’ll make later, but that seems to be the story of my boatbuilding life.  The important thing is to keep on tweaking, keep improving, keep inventing, and most of all, keep on sailing.

Sailing hard is great fun.

A breezy day on Mt.Hope Bay.

The Zartman Nautical Depository

Navigating on CapellaOne of the best parts of preparing for a cruise on Ganymede (and on Capella before her), was the day the charts would arrive in the mail and we could begin to inspect and organize them.  It has usually been a pretty big project, since we try to buy in bulk and get discounts that way.  Even so, the temptation to open up one chart after another and scrutinize it for possible anchorages and sweet cruising grounds is always irresistible.  Even after hours of carefully folding and labelling several scores of charts, one with a name like “Barra de Catarasca and Approaches” or “Gulf of Fonseca” would have Danielle and me poring over soundings and dreaming of tropical rain falling on thatched palapas.  It would be some time before we could get along and get all the charts in their proper places.

Nautical Chart ColoringIt was even better the first time we bought chart photocopies from Bellingham Chart Printers, which came in plain black and white (they print in grayscale now), and before venturing from one anchorage to the next, would sit down with colored pencils and fill in the land in pale yellow or green, the 2-fathom line in light blue, and the reefs in brown.  This helped us become familiar with the area immediately ahead, and was a pleasant pastime in the days before we had children and all our time was spent in caring for them.

Hand Colored ChartOur paper charts always live in the driest, safest locker on the boat (I built a special, easily accessible chart cabinet on each boat, in fact), with the next series we’ll need stacked in neat order on top.  In spite of all the modern hype about computer charting and navigation software, I can’t imagine going sailing without a proper paper chart to look at (I’ve written about this before), and whenever I have to look at a route or a passage on someone’s computer screen it seems the most uninteresting thing compared to tracing it out on a sheet of paper spread before me.  Call me quaint, but I love the nautical-ness of plotting lines with dividers and rulers; of walking bearings here and there from a compass rose; of a plotting sheet all marked up with spidery pencil lines and a line of ‘Xs’ showing morning, noon and evening celestial fixes.  To me, zoning in on a computer screen is bad enough when I’m writing an article or blog post; I don’t want to be bothered with computers and screens when I’m sailing somewhere, which is supposed to be enjoyable.  Even the prosaic plots off of the handheld GPS are improved by being made with a real pencil on a real chart.

There are some folks who fear that paper charts are going to go away entirely; there are even some who seem to delight in that idea, as though the precense of something physical and reliable rather than data dubiously stored on a fragile electrical chip was an offense to them (they’re like the people who not only use the Metric system, of all things, but are grumpy that the rest of us don’t).  I have no such fears, however; as long as there are sailors, there will be charts.  In fact, with modern print-on-demand technology, it may soon be possible to have printed a chart of the exact size and scale you want, with soundings converted back to fathoms, if necessary, all lights updated, and none of those pesky Loran or Omega lines that are such a distraction on middle-aged editions.

Old Nautical Chart ArtIn the meantime, as those charts of yesteryear age and decay, it seems a shame that they should be allowed to rot away uncared for.  They are, after all, how everybody navigated years ago (and a good many of us still do and always will), and some charts from the 1800s are still the most recent surveys we posess.  I have a soft spot for old chart editions, printed on yellowed paper with old-fashined italic fonts—several worn and wrinkled copies of such charts hang here and there about our house to remind us of favorite places we’ve cruised and spots we still need to go.  But now that we live in a house, I can do something I’ve had in mind for several years now, and that is to offer to take any and all charts that might be burdening our reader’s load; charts that it would be a shame to throw away, but are outdated, worn out, or no longer used.  If you send them to us, I promise to store them safe and dry, to keep them archived for posterity, to love them and look at them and appreciate them, and who knows? Maybe to display them next to my collection of outdated Bowditch editions, the Cuban Coast Pilot (in Spanish), and all the other odd navigational treasures I’ve gathered here and there on our travels.  Call it the Zartman Nautical Depository.  Here’s the address:

Ben Zartman

308 State St. Apt 1e

Bristol RI 02809

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (57)One of the advantages of living and working in a boatbuilding town is that you’re surrounded by boatbuilders, and boatbuilding suppliers, and boatbuilding surplus.  Riches I had only dreamed of, when living in the faraway mountains of California and building Ganymede, are here at my very fingertips.  Not only do we have five or six boat hardware stores like West Marine within easy driving distance, there’s as many consignment and used marine goods stores, not to mention the major wholesale distributors of fiberglass, resins, and all other composite construction supplies.  While building Ganymede most of my supplies came by mail order, or by dint of a several-hours’ drive if I wanted to avoid shipping.  There was no possibility of browsing through piles of used cleats and winches, buying the last few fathoms of line off a spool for peanuts, or dumpster diving at the megayacht yard for the perfectly good gear they always throw away.

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (69)Goetz Composites, where I worked over the winter (building boats, of course), is in a building surrounded by other buildings where boat stuff is also being done.  Right across from the shop’s front door was the Bristol campus of the International Yacht Restoration School, where they give instruction in boat systems and composites construction.  And one of the things they do is teach resin infusion by making canoe hulls in a 10 ½ foot mold.  Though the students are allowed to keep these and finish them if they wish, they usually have too much on their plates and the canoes wind up stacked next to the dumpster.  I had walked by them scores of times without giving them any thought until this spring, when it became evident that I needed a lightweight one-man boat to get out to Ganymede’s mooring without going through the bother of launching the big dinghy, which is a beast for one person to move around (Danielle contends that it’s a beast for two to move; I may have to build her a carbon fiber one someday).

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (80)The hardest part of any conversation is starting it, but the reward of walking into the building and conversing with the instructor about whether it would be helpful to him if one of those canoes were to be disposed of was worth it.  He told me that if they All went away it would not “Bum him out.”  Five minutes later the cleanest one was in my car being portaged home.

Fiberglass/PVC StringersOf course by the time I snagged a canoe shell to finish out, I was no longer working at Goetz, where if I’d thought of it, I could have spent evenings and Saturdays all winter using their facilities and materials at an employee’s cost to trick out the canoe properly.  But nevermind, there’s no shortage of options in this town, like I mentioned before, and another friend whom I’d worked with—building boats, predictably—let me use his shop.  Turns out he’d built these same canoes in the past, and knew the best way to move forward with it.

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (51)After a whole winter of similar work on a much larger scale, it was child’s play to vaccuum-bag a piece of ¼” core foam onto the sole of the canoe.  The bag ensured an even clamping pressure, and that the foam would conform exactly to the curved bottom of the canoe.  Another layer of fiberglass boat cloth over the entire inside of the canoe, a couple of ‘thwartships braces to stiffen everything up, and I had a very lightweight, easy-to-paddle canoe that I can quickly load onto the roof-racks I bolted to the roof of the car.  It’s a bit tippy and won’t carry much cargo, but nothing beats it for a convenient and quick ride out to Ganymede on her mooring, where I’ve been sloshing paint and varnish around lately.

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (73)The children, of course, were wild with excitement.  A new boat! They were even more wild when they found out that there were more shells by the dumpster; they were dumbfounded that I hadn’t grabbed them all at once!  “Why on earth wouldn’t you?” Even Danielle wanted to know.  “We could have a canoe each!”  “I’m gonna call mine ‘Marshmallow’!”

2015 06 05 Sachuest walk and canoe trials (91)


I had hoped to avoid the cost, effort and bother of finishing THREE canoes, but had to yield to force majure. I secured the last four shells, gave one to my friend as a goodwill offering for letting me use his shop, and am now in the middle of glassing up the second one, this time with enough foam in the ends to keep it afloat in the event of a capsize.  The third one will have to wait a few weeks while other necessary projects overwhelm the garage—it’s tiny even for working on one small canoe in there—but before summer’s too far along I expect to have a fleet of canoes following the big rowing dinghy around, like ducklings in the wake of a mother goose.


Captains Outrageous

Gaff-rigged Schooner Aquidneck under sail.

Aquidneck’s staysail gets furled as she gently sails homeward at the end of a trip.

Sailing season has returned to New England again, and is quickly going into full swing.  There’s nothing like the strong blustery winds of May to blow the cobwebs out, shake down everything that’s likely to break, and remind incautious sailors to reef early and keep an eye to weather for sudden gusts.  This spring brings an extra note of interest for me, since I’ve been promoted to Captain of the Aquidneck, and now have 37 tons of schoonerific pulchritude under my command for exactly half the days of the summer.

Aquidneck under her winter storage canopy.

The schooner Aquidneck, nearing the end of spring commissioning.

I had expected to end up at the helm of a schooner in Newport eventually—it’s why I went through the extreme expense and bother of securing a captain’s ticket winter-before-last—but I hadn’t figured on getting there so soon.  It’s a most welcome circumstance, though, especially with house rent to pay as well as Ganymede to maintain.  In fact, knowing since the fall that I’d be a schooner captain come spring had made winter drag extra slowly, and the final thankless, bitter weeks at the boatyard getting the schooner ready to launch nearly unbearable.  Still, though the yardwork leaves a black place in the soul that never entirely goes away, eventually the boats go in, the sails go up, and the wheel kicks playfully at a hand that will soon be copper colored with days of endless sun.

Steering on the Aquidneck is with a worm gear.

Ben Zartman at the wheel the gaff-rigged schooner Aquidneck, sailing past Fort Adams in Narragansett Bay

Of course there was training; not only for me, but for an all-new crew.  In anticipation of this event, I had done a multitude of ins-and-outs from the long, narrow wharf where Aquidneck is berthed, as well as practice swipes at other lanes, nosing in, stopping, and gathering sternway back out again.  But still I needed additional coaching, and of the four deckhands only one had ever clapped eyes on a schooner’s deck before.  So for the first couple of weeks Curt Porter, the other captain, went out every day, teaching the hands the intricacies of schooner handling while discoursing with me on the proper way to goose the engine in reverse or forward to keep the bows to weather while they fumbled with the sails.

It’s probably good that early season doesn’t bring full boatloads of guests—it’s enough of a challenge for the crew to sail the boat without having four dozen people to trip over.  To be fair to them, there’s a lot of halyards and sheets aboard a schooner to manage, as well as topping lifts, docklines and assorted reefing tackle.  They’re slowly getting up to speed, and hopefully soon we’ll be able to move from blind routine (After belaying this halyard, cast off this line) to knowing what needs to be done by instinct: looking up at the rig, looking aft for signals from the skipper, seeing something amiss and knowing how to fix it.  That’s really the essence of successful sailing on any sort of boat.  You must have a perpetual and undistracted situational awareness.  In the meantime, Curt and I have to be extra watchful to clap a stopper over nascent bad habits; to gently correct unseamanlike behavior before it becomes routine.

What's on the grill?

A meal worthy of an intercaptain communication!

No doubt the new crew will forever have some scars from those early days: not one but two captains perpetually giving orders and coming alongside to tell them they must always pass the springline thusly, and not how they just did it, but when they understand it all they’ll be grateful in the end.  For now, they’re just happy that Curt and I work on opposite days, and we’re no longer both there at once to critique their handiwork from separate angles.  In fact, we captains won’t see each other again until it’s time to put the boat away in November.  Until then, any boat communication will be by notes in the logbook.  We could text, I suppose, but who wants to get that involved with work?  We usually reserve text messaging to communicate what sort of meat we’re eating on our day off, knowing the other one is stuck with either a lukewarm sandwich or hot dogs from the snack stand on the wharf.  Anything from a 5-Guys hamburger and better rates a text: bratwurst on the grill, sirloin tip burritos, pork chops in Jerk Sauce.  We share the joy not to rub it in, but to inspire for the next day off.

A porthole's perspective of the anchorage at sunset.

Two Newport Schooners douse their sails at sunset across the anchorage.

And so the stage is set: the crew will soon settle into easy competence, the schooner will go and return several hundreds of times, and the captains will exchange many lively text-messages about food.  The only pity is that it can’t go on year ‘round, but there’ll be time enough to regret that in the winter.  For now, it looks like a pretty good summer shaping up.