Will There Be A Mad Cow?

A chilly summer in northern latitudes

Danielle, game as ever, steers Ganymede across the Straits of Belle Isle in northern Newfoundland

My wife Danielle and I have been married for quite some time.  How long exactly I can’t say—no doubt my mother has it written down somewhere—it seems that a couple times a year we get a congratulatory note from her on making it thus far.  But believe me when I testify that it’s been a while.  And in all those long years, almost every scheme I’ve cooked up has met with Danielle’s support and enthusiasm.  Whether the idea was to explore a road in Baja marked only by a dotted line (I’ve carefully avoided unpaved roads since then) or to sail to South America in a sailboat bought at a thrift store, or build a gaff-rigged cutter, or sail it the wrong way ‘round Newfoundland, she’s always been game.

A modern, sturdy, composite coracle.

A three-foot coracle. Boats don’t get much tinier.

So it came as a complete surprise when my latest well-reasoned, sensible, and totally awesome scheme met with not only skepticism, but with downright discouraging incredulity.  Her precise words, if memory serves, were, “Are you crazy?”  What I’m talking about, of course, is the idea that hit me the day we sea-trialed my latest boat construction—a 3-foot coracle.  Now I made the coracle for several reasons: first, because I have a thing for tiny watercraft, and nothing is tinier than a coracle  (I don’t count SUPs or inner tubes as watercraft—any device that guarantees you’ll get wet is a failure of boat design).

Coracle in the Kicky

So light and easy even a child can carry and launch it.

Second, because the girls will need tenders for the boats they’re designing that I’d like to build some day, and a coracle will be the lightest, cheapest dinghy to build, and third, because a prototype coracle was the most fun-sounding thing on my project list. 

It was dead easy to knock together a plug out of plywood scraps, fair it over with wallboard joint compound, and lay the hull up over it.  Once it came off the plug, all I had to do was crimp the rim to induce tumblehome, glass on a gunwale, and it was ready for primer.  Easiest boat I’ve ever built.

Not quite large enough for an adult. It was difficult not to ship water.

As the girls gleefully paddled it around the Kickemuit River, it was evident that an adult-sized coracle would need an extra foot of diameter and a couple more inches of freeboard.  No problem. That was the purpose of the smaller, inexpensive prototype.  But it was as I went on to wonder how big would be too big that it hit me: there really isn’t any limit on size!  What if I could build an ocean-going coracle to sail across to Europe?

“Wife!” I could hardly contain my excitement.  “I’m going to build and ocean-going coracle and do a transatlantic!”

“Are you crazy?”

Quickly scanning my conscience for what I might have said wrong, I added generously, “Well, you can come too of course.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Wouldn’t—wouldn’t you like to come?” This was the astonishing thing I wrote about at the beginning of this post.

A preliminary hand-sketch of the ocean-going coracle.

“Of course not!  I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than tossing around in a barf bowl like that.”

“But it will be decked over, with a snug cabin and a galley and a woodstove.  It’ll be perfectly safe and seaworthy.”

“No doubt it’ll be all that,” said Danielle. “But if you want to do it, I’m staying here.”

Coracle design fever has caught the girls. These are Emily’s ideas for coracle design and decoration. The big blue one is for selling soup on chilly days.

Well, at least I had permission.  But there were still logistical hurdles to leap.  “How much will it cost to build an 18-foot coracle?” Antigone, our oldest daughter, wanted to know as we chalked out the design on the driveway.  We did some quick figures.  A couple drums of resin, several rolls fiberglass, core foam, fittings….

“Looks like five or six thousand dollars at least,” I concluded finally.

“Shouldn’t we save that money for the fifty-foot schooner?” When did she become so sensible?

“We’ll have to do a Kickstarter, I guess.”

“You mean people will just give you money to cross the ocean in a coracle?”

“Probably not,” I concluded. I still remembered the failed Kickstarter campaign I’d tried to raise money with for my rigging business.  I had been offering something tangible then.  Here all I had to offer was that I’d be out of everyone’s hair for a few weeks.  Hardly worth six thousand bucks.

“What we need is an angle—we need to do the trip to raise awareness for some cause or other.  People are suckers for that.”

“What sort of a cause? Like vitamin D deficiency?”  We have recently begun taking supplements to make up for the lack of sunshine in the winter.

“Something more exotic-sounding and misunderstood,” I mused.  “What about for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?”  It’s the biggest set of words I know.

Antigone smiled. “We could call the coracle the Mad Cow.  Then maybe if you write a book about the trip it’ll make enough money for the schooner.”  She keeps coming back to that.  Still…

It may be a little farfetched, but that’s the way that dreams begin.  A notion your wife thinks is crazy, a little support from your fan base—or your daughters—and next thing you know you’re rattling your fillings out on an unpaved, washed-out road in Baja, or as Danielle puts it, puking your way across the Atlantic in a boat barely fit for a river.

Our current Mad Cow: Buxtehude the Navigator. I rescued him from the water, no doubt after he fell off a ship while trying to take a sextant sight.

Will there ever be a Mad Cow? Will it ride the tossing billows of the North Atlantic?  Who knows? It’s a dream for now, perhaps a foolish one, but captivating nonetheless—and that’s just how many an excellent adventure has begun.

A Sailing Bonanza

Dutch Island

Ganymede anchored by Dutch Island

The Dutch Island Lighthouse.

Every once in a while, the changing tides of life and work leave me not with a mountain of things to attend to, but with a couple of weeks of nothing to do.  While from an economic standpoint this is rather less than desirable, from a seafaring point of view it can be a bonanza.  After all, I’m usually too busy trying to keep body and soul together to do much more than some afternoon sailing after work.  But late this summer, when a gap between projects at my full-time job left me at a loose end, I was just in time to volunteer for an offshore delivery from Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia.

Schooner Magic getting underway

Magic puts to sea

The boat was a 38-foot cold molded schooner I had done a bit of rigging on for the new owner, our friend Chris Museler, who was staging for a winter in the Bahamas.  The timing was slightly…surgical, since Hurricane Jose had just passed, and we were trying to catch the tail end of Maria as she headed east into the open ocean.  There was a narrow window between when the wind would blow fair (if slightly hard), then not at all, then from directly ahead.

Chris and Tim sorting out some iPad navigation

Being a habitual racing sailor, Chris put a lot more faith in the pinpoint precision of weather routing services than I do, but to my astonishment, they were absolutely spot on—so accurate that we tied up to the dock just ten minutes before the computer model had predicted.  No doubt it helped that Chris and our other companion, Tim, are experts at midnight sail changes, and we always managed to keep the optimum sail area for the wind.

Magic sails wing-on wing with boomless foresail and poled-out jib

Between all sorts of fun with a pretty stiff breeze, rising sea state, and pop-up thunderstorms, the first 30 hours were a bit too busy to do much more than hang on when on watch, but as the weather mellowed on the second day we could really enjoy the voyage.  Magic is about the sweetest little schooner you could ever wish to sail, with every detail of her layout carefully designed, and working as perfectly as when she was built twenty years ago.

22 years of seafaring…not done yet!

It was a perfect day, slipping along through the white-crested seas, and an even more perfect night under a sky now cloudless and absolutely alive with stars.  Since I first went to sea 22 years ago, I’ve spent scores of nights sitting at the helm gazing at the stars, and what struck me on this occasion was that while I’ve changed immensely since my first voyage down the Pacific coast of Mexico, the sea and the sky are exactly the same as they were then.  That night watch could have been any of hundreds I’ve stood over the years—all the same stars, the same slosh of water alongside, the same lift and roll as waves passed under the keel.  If not for the memories of voyages past: of children; of life; of joys and sorrows come and gone, I might have been that same youth of long ago standing his first night watch on an ancient wooden ketch bound for Mexico.

Getting close to the Chesapeake

We entered the Chesapeake Bay just before sunset on the third day, and it was fully dark as we chugged up the double dogleg channel into Hampton.  A night of uninterrupted rest, a mad rush to the airport after sleeping in, and the trip was over: we were back among the throngs who do little more than drive to work and back, people who will never see the grandeur of the moon setting into a silky black sea or wait, shivering, for the first ray of the sunrise to warm their salty cheek.  Back among people who though rich in things are poor in experience, and are much to be pitied for it.

Ganymede ghosting down the Sakonnet River

But though much time seemed to have passed, I still had no work on the radar, so we took Ganymede on a mini-cruise instead.  Things could not have been better: we sailed all the way down the Sakonnet river to Third Beach to anchor, then crossed under Aquidneck Island, tacked up the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, and anchored in a tiny cove at Dutch Island, all without using the engine.  After a good explore ashore and a blustery night, we motored Ganymede to a spot with a better lee and spent the day reading books and playing games in the cabin, with a fire in the woodstove morning and evening to take off the chill.

Rail-down along the south shore of Aquidneck Island

On the last day we tacked further up the West Passage, ducked under the south end of Prudence Island, and put the rail under sailing for the Mount Hope bridge and the entrance to the Kickemuit river.  If the tide hadn’t been running so strong, we’d have picked up the mooring under sail.  As it was, the pickup stick was wrenched out of my hands as Ganymede shot by, and we had to fire up the engine and double back for it.  Oh well, four days of cruising with less than an hour of motoring ain’t bad.

Danielle at her favorite spot

Sadly, that might be it for the year’s seafaring—with fall well underway and the clock about to change, the next visit to Ganymede will be to take down her sails and snug her down for winter.  So be it; we had some splendid sailing this year, and one thing is sure: the sea, the stars, and the sunrise will be no different next time we get out to see them.

Ready for Summer in Time for Fall

Dyneema on Carbon Fiber, with rosewood toggle

Custom-made strops and splicing are the lifeblood of Abednego Marine.

With the coming of summer, and having the dinghy project wrapped up, I was finally free to turn to a few other bits and pieces that had been pushed off the edge of the winter’s to-do list in favor of more important things. Of course, with summer underway I had plenty of other things to push them further back—a hefty load of rigging work, regular work, and taking Ganymede sailing has kept me pretty busy, but in the nooks and crannies I’ve still managed to chip away at a couple of other things.


Carbon fiber and epoxy, the most modern oar ever.

Antigone helps apply epoxy to the carbon sock on the oar loom.

The first is Ganymede’s sculling oar, a sixteen-foot sweep I’d made out of an old Beetle Cat mast while working in the Coronet shed. Though the length was good (the first one had been too short at 14 feet), it was remarkably whippy, and more energy was wasted in bending the loom than in forward motion. The best way, of course, to stiffen something up without making it excessively heavy is with carbon fiber, and the neatest carbon fiber for shafts is a woven sock you can buy by the foot. I got some of that, as well as a roll of unidirectional strands, and after sanding the loom for good adhesion, wrapped it up, unis first, then the sock over all. I then made the mistake of wrapping it in peel-ply: though convenient for the avoiding of further sanding, it wrinkled the sock and spoiled what would have otherwise been a very nice looking finish. I wonder if they make peel-ply socks?

The old green paint—a beautiful Shipendeck enamel called “Marsh Grass” is no longer made, much to my wife’s relief. We chose another traditional boat paint—Kirby’s, out of New Bedford—since I was tired by now of dealing with two and three part paints. This is an easy, inexpensive, oil-based enamel that thins with regular paint thinner and isn’t violently toxic. The blue that Danielle picked was a little too bright for me, so I mixed some leftover black paint in it to darken it up. Of course the children protested, and in the end I compomised by painting the loom bright blue and the blade darker. Then I surreptitiously painted the dinghy oars with the darker mix before anyone could object.
We tried the oar out next time we took a sail: it’s stiff enough that I can actually get good way on, though I hope I never need to scull more than a couple hundred yards—it’s a real workout.

Prepreg carbon fiber, it even looks fast!

Dry-fitting the new skylight. The old one is in the foreground.

The last big sort of project for Ganymede is a new skylight hatch. Before we went to Canada I replaced the original one, that only let light in when it was open, with a glass-topped one I made from Coronet offcuts and some panes I found in dumpster. It worked great on our northern voyage, where we never wanted to open it for ventilation because of the cold. But it’s heavy—it’s about all I can do to open it when we do want ventilation, and what’s more, the paint I used doesn’t match the rest of our newly-painted boat. It was the same cream sort of color I’d painted the dinghy with before the Canada trip, and as it turns out, it’s the sort of cream color Danielle hates the most. I had neglected to ask her opinion before buying it, imagining in my innocence that all creams are created equal. (Note to men: the line between “beautiful” and “revolting” is razor-thin, and undetectable to most of us. But there is such a thing as Too Yellow. Who knew?)

3/8" tempered glass

New skylight in position. Lookin’ good.

The new skylight hatch (which is painted with the same Awlgrip color I used for the rest of the boat and the dinghy) is made from an off-cut sheet of foam-cored carbon fiber I was given by a friend. I ruined the blades of my table and miter saws cutting it, but it was worth it to get straight edges and nice corners. It took a little creativity to get all the pieces out of the one odd-shaped plank, but it went together nicely and required only minimal fairing. Rather than just a flat box, like the first two, I made it peaked in the traditional fashion, and exposed more area to glass, so it gathers better light. I glazed it with 3/8” tempered glass, which almost ruined my weight savings, but should be all but bulletproof.

Light air fun.

Out for a sail and a… swing.


With that Ganymede is finally ready for the sailing season, barring a buff and wax that her hull desperately needs, and probably won’t get until goodness knows when. No matter—we’ve been having her out for sails all summer, and if there’s still improvements to do, they’re nothing that can take away our joy at getting out for a sail and a swim and an occasional night aboard for old times’ sake.

Working Outside Again

Of all the benefits of warm weather, being able to work outside is one of the finest—having the dinghy twenty feet from my front door really sped up the process of getting it done. Not only did it no longer take 45 minutes of driving ‘round trip to get to it and back, but all my tools were in one place: no need to gather everything up each time only to forget a critical bit and have to go back or change plans.  Sure, it’s all stuffed into two tiny garage units that have become proper midshipmen’s lockers: everything on top and nothing handy—but that’s just one inconvenience traded for another.

Carbon fiber

A layer of 6-ounce 2×2 carbon fiber twill to cover the gunwale.

The last picture of the previous post shows a coat of 545 primer going on the outside.  After that I left the hull alone for a spell in order to work on the gunwales and interior. Because the inward-oriented gunwale had so far only been attached to the inside of the hull, I wanted to tie it to the outside with one last layer of carbon, which would make a nice transition and smooth radius between hull and “inwale.”

The color is Awlgrip "Cream"

On sawhorses getting topcoat.

Working outside like this was kind of like when I built Ganymede, all those years ago, in the side yard in California under a spreading oak tree.  A pleasant shade, fresh, gentle breezes blowing by, and, just like before, all sorts of leaves and bugs dropping out of the tree onto my work.  Well, that’s the lot of the backyard boatbuilder.

Mad splicing skills!

An eye through the bow, with a custom-spliced dyneema strop for painter attachment.

With the inwales on and the foredeck in, I had one last detail to attend to before paint.  Rather than bolting an eye through the stem for the painter, I cut a hole straight ‘thwartships just behind the stempiece, glued a thick piece of fiberglass tube through, and tabbed it on with carbon scraps.  That gave an eye of sorts through which I spliced a dyneema strop for the painter attachment, eliminating the need for a heavy metal bow eye, and bolts and caulk and backing plates.  It’s also a prototype for bobstay attachments on future sailboats I plan to build—but let’s not get too far ahead.

Awlgrip "545" epoxy finish primer.

Sloshing some primer around the inside.

All that remained was a week or so of priming, very light fairing, more priming, and topcoating with the same color of Awlgrip I used on Ganymede.  On the inside I also put nonskid, not only to hide minor imperfections, but to make the dinghy safe for leaping into on damp days.  While on close scrutiny the paint job looks exactly what it is: hand-rolled outdoors in the breeze with leaves and critters dropping by to say hello, it’s still far more gorgeous than the original Woggs.

Polyester gunnel guard.

Final step: Sewing on a gunwale guard.

For the first time ever, I invested in a proper gunnel guard.  After years of fooling around with pipe insulation and old fire hose, I’m trying out the special-made, proper-shaped commercial dinghy bumper.  At $8 a foot, it comes in rather pricey, but it looks good, and if it lasts it’ll be worth it.  Rather than bolting or screwing it on, I lashed it laboriously with dyneema thread.  Not so much to keep weight down, but to avoid bolt or screw ends poking in right where hands will be picking it up.

Carbon Fiber and Kevlar dinghy--strong, light, handsome.

A breeze to load up–weighs less than 1/3 what the old one did.

Our first trial run on it was done at a local beach, where one of my rigging-business clients has his boat on a mooring.  It doesn’t row any differently from the old dinghy, aside from feeling stiffer along the gunnels, but boy is it easy to pick up and carry!  It seems to only weigh a third of what the old one did, and is absolutely no struggle for two people to lift onto the roof racks of the car.  We can even flip it easily without putting it down, which was completely impossible with the last one.  And so Ganymede’s ideal tender is reborn: stronger, lighter, stiffer, fairer—and with the mold buried somewhere in my midshipmen’s locker of a garage, I can make another in future if need arises or fancy strikes.  It’s a comforting thought.


A Little Breather….Cloth

The mold prepared with release agent and ready to have a dinghy laid up inside

While I was willing, as the last blog post illustrates, to paint in almost all conditions in order to get Ganymede finished in time, even I had to draw the line at rain. On rainy days—of which there were plenty—I tried to get some work done on the dinghy project. We last left the new mold empty of the plug and ready for quick localized repairs followed by buffing and coating with with Axel mold release agent. After that, there was nothing to stop the beginning of work on the dinghy itself.

My primary purpose in the dinghy project was to build a boat that Danielle could carry more easily, so I had determined to make it from Kevlar and carbon fiber: Kevlar so it could be dragged over a thousand rocky beaches without more than the inevitable cosmetic damage, and carbon fiber to make it stiff and keep it lightweight. Of course, in shopping for deals on the cloths I wanted, ran into all sorts of exciting new exotic materials: Vectran, Innegra, carbon/dyneema, and other fancy blends. All tempting, but in the end I stuck with an old-fashioned tight-weave Kevlar that I found on closeout, and the standard carbon twill.

After spending a day carefully cutting out all the materials and stacking them in order, as well as preparing the vacuum bagging materials, I was ready to mix resin. And on the next frightfully rainy day, with the help of a former shipmate who thought he wanted to learn all about this stuff (and who am I to discourage learning?), we started mixing epoxy and rolling it into the mold. I chose Pro-set 135 epoxy resin with a slow hardener—one that would allow us several hours of working time before kicking off. This gave us time to take it slow and careful, making sure to get each layer down neat and tidy before the next. At first the contrast between bright yellow Kevlar and the orange mold was quite astonishing, but we were soon into the soothing black of carbon fiber, and in less than four hours all the material was in place.

I had built the mold with vacuum-bagging in mind, which is one of the best ways to get a really good, tight laminate. After laying in the vacuum stack: peel ply first, then Tedlar release film, then a blanket-like material called “breather” to allow air to flow, we taped a big sheet of vacuum-bag plastic to the flange with double-sided butyl tape.  Then we turned on a borrowed vacuum pump. As the pump sucked all the air from the bag, it pressed down tighter and tighter, until resin came seeping through the breather.
After a couple of days to let the resin get good and stable (though it didn’t reach it’s full properties until I post-cured it with heat later), I pulled back the vacuum bag and laid a piece of foam core covered with carbon and kevlar into the transom, then vacuumed the bag down again. After that the bag was done with and I could begin getting in the seats, foredeck, and gunwale.

It’s astonishing how much more time-consuming all the details can be than the actual layup of the hull. It took many small steps to get the seat-rails cut, fitted, and tabbed on both sides; it took several days to cut core foam and carbon for the gunwales and to actually get them installed. But at last those details were done and the dinghy could come out of the mold. This it did more easily than any object I’ve ever de-molded, and was astonishingly light, lighter than I had dared to expect.

Sadly, the outside of the hull was fraught with blemishes: not fatal ones, just cosmetic flaws that left her looking almost like a lunar landscape in spots. It turns out that a combination of the kevlar being too tight a weave, and the resin being overly viscous, especially in the cold of spring, prevented all the outer surface bubbles from being sucked out by the vacuum bag. Live and learn, I guess—at least my layup was good and tight, and it didn’t take too long to fill in and fair the lunar landscape.

By now the weather had improved enough to move out of my borrowed shop space, which had got me admirably though the winter, but now felt far enough away from home to make it a bother to go. So I moved the whole circus back into my two little garage units, set the dinghy on sawhorses under the big shade tree in the yard, and started on the home stretch. There are still details innumerable to attend to, but being able to step out of the kitchen and slosh on some paint or whatever without having to drive three towns over will definitely speed things up. I only hope I can get it launched before half the summer’s gone.

The Most Pessimistic Painter

Ladies with sanders in the spring

Danielle and Antigone sand up a storm while they can.

There was a delay of some weeks in working further on the dinghy, since Ganymede needed to be finished and got out of the marina by a certain date.  It was a desperate time, with Danielle and the girls going out and sanding whenever the weather allowed, then me sanding some more after work, then scraping on a bit of filler to sand off again next day.  She needed two coats of primer before the four-stage process of topcoat, and of course all the best hours of the day were taken up with working at my full-time job or tending the side business of rigging.

Ganymede all smooth and gray.

A couple of coats of 545 primer–my favorite sort.

But you’re probably wondering what the four-stage topcoat process involves.  It is simply this: first, the areas to receive nonskid must be taped off neatly.  Then, a coat of paint is rolled onto just those areas.  While it’s still very wet, you sprinkle dry nonskid dust (in this case Griptex, the Awlgrip brand nonskid) onto it.  Next day, whatever dust didn’t soak in gets vacuumed off, then the process is repeated.  Usually two thorough sprinkles is enough to get a nice even bed of nonskid down.

Awlgrip nonskid- Griptex

Taping off for the first of two topcoats. The nonskid sections have two coats already with grit.

Now the masking tape can be removed, and the areas not receiving any paint at all masked off; last of all, two final coats go over all areas.  This ensures that there will be no ugly tape lines between the nonskid and the smooth spots, and leaves a really nice finish with extra coats over the high-wear areas.

If you’ve done any amount of painting, you’ll know that the very worst time to apply shiny topcoat is outdoors on a windy day with dusk falling and a good chance of dew later.  But we were lucky. Not only did we have all of those setbacks, but another that even the most pessimistic painter could not have foreseen: the gypsy moths were hatching, and thousands of tiny gray worms were airborne, dangling by transparent threads of gossamer.  Almost all of them found their way to Ganymede’s fresh paint and settled there like sprinkles on an ice cream sundae.  What to do? I couldn’t pick each one out individually, so I just rolled paint right over them all, and was thankful that they were still small.

Awlgrip 'Cream' on decks and house. Less glare than white, but not a hot color.

Final coat: now everything can go back together. What a big job!

After all’s said and done, Ganymede doesn’t look too terrible, if you look at her only on a windy day with dusk falling, and her nonskid is a delight to walk on: nice and grippy, but not so harsh as to damage ropes.  The paint was still quite soft, and her sheer stripe barely dry, when we left the marina with the mast newly stepped, none of the shrouds tuned, and not a single halyard rove.  I hadn’t even bolted the wooden bulwarks back on, and they were just lying on deck all a-hoo, as the saying goes.  But the important thing is that she has a new cockpit and fresh paint and was out of the marina before her welcome wore out.

The rest of her—putting on winches and compass and bolting on hardware and rigging her up will be finished up while she dances to her mooring bridle.  Not so convenient as being dockside, since everything must go back and forth by dinghy, and the alert reader will no doubt remember that Woggs, our primary dinghy, is not done yet.  For the interim, we’re using an old beater I used to use as a commuter while we were still living aboard.  Every perilous trip I make out to Ganymede in her (she’s not a cargo dinghy), makes me more determined to crack down on Woggs and get her ready to go.

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.