Over the Top

My tiptoes screaming uncle, my arm stretched as high as it would possibly go but still I was forced to watch helplessly as my halyard (the line that lifts and lowers the sails) passed beyond my reach climbing up and over the pulley at the top of my mast. In a rush to clean up my boat and head off to an appointment, I neglected to tie down the most paramount line aboard and now the only way to reattach the line would be to climb to the top of the mast. I don’t have a fear of heights but I do have a fear of masts, having had to dodge falling pieces of crumbling mast earlier in my career.

I typically like to do the work on my boat myself but I thought this was a task best handled by professionals. I told my yard owner what had happened, hoping he would send someone out to reattach it for me.

“No problem, we’ll send someone right out to help you.”

Half an hour later, and late for my appointment a man by the name of Benjamin (not Ben, Benjamin) strolled onto the boat. After a brief introduction he handed me a mess of plastic pieces and lines.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and get yourself strapped in there,” said Benjamin as he handed me a harness of sorts. My stomach sank to my feet.

Any question as to who was going to be climbing the mast was eliminated. I fumbled with the harness as Benjamin looked out at the harbor. His nonchalant attitude could be misconstrued as bored and uninterested with the task at hand. With virtually no assistance in strapping myself into harness, I finally had something tied around me that looked respectable.

“How’s this look?” I asked, trying to get my new friend to focus.

“Yeah, that seems about right.”

Not really the reassuring inspection I was hoping for.

I would later learn (which seems to be how I do most of my learning) that most seasoned sailors climb their mast once or twice every season.  I, of course, was not seasoned. And, if I’m being honest, the thought of being hauled up a 35-foot mast by my other halyard that spent the last few months in the trunk of my car, by a man I met minutes before scared the hell out of me. My mind raced with questions, “is the line strong enough to hold me, is the mast strong enough to hold me, is this guy strong enough to hold me and why the hell did I order a three-egg breakfast sandwich this morning?!”

I tried to sound calm as I asked, “What do you want me to do, just let you pull me up the mast?”

“Well is would be a lot easier for me if you just climbed it as fast as you can,” he replied.

A former collegiate wrestler, I have done my fair share of rope climbing in practice. I never thought I’d be saying this, but I was now thankful for that experience.

With a few deep breaths I jumped onto the mast and climbed it as fast as I could. I winced as my Sperrys scuffed the varnish of my mast but I didn’t slow down. I did a pull-up on my spreaders and continued my ascent to the top all with the halyard around my shoulder. The challenging part came when I finally reached the top. At 35-feet high the boat wakes that were a minor inconvenience on deck were now a big problem. I swayed back and forth like a giant pendulum. Looking down I saw a miniature version of Karen, snapping pictures of my turmoil from her phone. If I get killed, at least it will be well documented I thought.

ImageUmm, are you sure this harness is on right?!

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Half a second later…Image

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Ugh, crap, I looked down. 

I sat atop the mast for what seemed like an hour trying to untangle the line on my shoulder and feed it through the pulley at the masthead. I’m sure the fact that I kept one hand around the mast with a death-grip didn’t help my efficiency.

I would eventually reattach the halyard and be returned to my deck. Sweating and tense, I could have taken a page from the pope’s playbook and kissed the ground.

Later that day a neighboring sailor would approach me and say, “I saw you climb the mast before. I’ve never in my life seen anyone climb a mast like that and so quickly,” she said. “I took a video of it and was showing it to my friends.” I then discovered a nautical law of nature: when a boater is in over his head, there will be a crowd of people there to watch. Know what you’re doing however and there won’t be any onlookers. Go ahead, test it out, the next time you dock perfectly despite strong winds and current there won’t be a soul around to see it.

After some time, and a couple rum drinks, the tension in my back and neck would dissipate and my hands would stop shaking. I had survived a sailing rite of passage and I was proud of that…even if there is a YouTube video out there called “monkey-man climbs mast.”

Vindication

After months of toiling in the wood shop, weekends of sanding and painting and days spent pouring over sailing forums, it was finally time to put the Karen Marie to the test. My sails were aboard and prepped, the halyards were (re)attached and all systems were a go. It was time to go for a sail.

The crew of the Karen Marie (Karen and I) ditched the mooring ball and pointed our bow north, up Naraggansett Bay. Motoring, we prepped the mainsail and jib for use. There was not another boat around for miles and the wind was just right, strong enough to sail yet not strong enough to pose any real threat. As my first mate and I built up the courage to raise the mainsail, a pair of dolphins appeared off our starboard bow. Though they disappeared faster than you could say “get your camera”, I took it as a good omen.

Facing up wind, with the engine purring in neutral, we raised the mainsail. After taking a second to admire the sheer size of the sail I would make a short, yet deliberate turn of the wheel to again send us underway. Sailing at a relatively slow two to three knots, I killed the engine; the hum and vibration of the diesel was replaced by complete silence, a silence only broken by the sound of the bay lapping against the hull.

ImageMy plan was originally to sail with just the mainsail for an hour or so to get a feel for the boat. The feel I was getting from her was…slow. Standing guard at the wheel, I volunteered the rest of my crew to attach the jib. It took some time and few death stares from my mate on the bow but the jib got attached and was hoisted with relative ease, a matter that seemed to surprise me. Fumbling with lines a bit at first, we eventually had the Karen Marie sailing once more.

Gliding through the water at five knots was for a lack of better word, invigorating. Karen boasted a smile that stretched ear to ear, a gesture I’m sure mirrored my own. For months during the restoration of the boat there was a voice in the back of my mind that whispered “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Was the boat worth sinking all that money into? Do you really want to spend every weekend in a dusty woodshop?” And perhaps the most frequent question, “Is this even going to be worth it?

Glancing from Karen to the sails above me, that voice was finally silenced. The resounding answer was, yes.Image

Hours would pass as we practiced tacking back and forth across the bay. The sailing itself wasn’t always pretty; in fact there were points when it was downright ugly. On more than one occasion we pulled textbook maneuvers, and by textbook I mean the section that illustrates what not to do. We found ourselves in the irons more than once, which I’ve learned means completely stuck with the boat facing into the wind with the sails flapping violently. Thankfully, like a protective older brother, the engine would fire up and take us out of those situations.

Only after most the day had passed and full sunburn settled into our skin did we return to Clark Boat Yard and our mooring. A lifelong power boater who took his responsibility of washing down to heart, it felt weird to not to wash down. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

My crew and I had one last maneuver to practice before the day ended, a practice that dates back to the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, mixing rum and ginger beer to create a Dark n’ Stormy. Sipping a cold cocktail after a full day on the water, yup I could get used to this whole sailing thing.

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We have splashdown

Riding the marina launch to the recently splashed Karen Marie, I peered through the mooring field trying to get a glimpse of her. My tip-toes found relief quickly when her profile came into view. Her bowed sheer line seemed to smile at me and I smiled looking at the mast, standing vertically for the first time.

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Though I had spent months aboard her on land, tending to her brightwork and many cosmetic needs I felt as if I were aboard a totally different boat. Gently rocking back and forth had thrown off my muscle memory as I stumbled aboard and made my way into to the cabin. I would find a flashlight and frantically check her bilge and stuffing box. Seeing both bone dry I breathed a sigh of relief. Cracking open a cold beer I sat with my feet dangling off her stern.

Watching darkness descend on the Newport skyline as the final fiery rays of the day retreating over Jamestown was a sight I have ogled many times before, though it had been a long time (and I mean a real long time) since I admired it from a mooring. It was a moment that was sweeter than the lime in Corona.  Image

I’m glad no one else was out on the water that night, because a man sitting alone on his boat with a goofy grin is sure to give the wrong impression.

Moving a mast

Since day one of working with Jim on the mast I wondered, “how are we going to get the mast across the bridge to Jamestown?” I voiced this question a few times but never got a serious answer, “we’ll float it across,” or “we’ll throw it in your car” were traditional replies. If Jim wasn’t worried, I wasn’t worried. That is until the mast was finished and we actually had to bring it to Jamestown.

As fate (and luck) would have it, a client of Jim’s had just launched his boat and had a boat trailer we could borrow. Bright and early, Jim and I armed with a set of ropes fashioned a cradle for the mast on the trailer. The situation seemed a bit hoaky, but again, if Jim was sure it would work then so was I…sort of. We finished fastening the 35-foot mast with the high polish shine to the trailer. Jim and I stared at the mast behind his work truck.Image

Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

And with a visual of the mast shattering into millions of splinters on the highway fresh in my mind, we were off. Following close behind Jim, because his trailer taillights didn’t work, I held my breath hoping for the love of God that the mast would stay on that trailer.

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With each bump in the road a shock wave was sent through the Spruce causing s shape waves to travel through it. My heart pounded in my throat as we traveled over the Pell Bridge and through the tollbooth on the other side. “Now there is something a booth operator doesn’t see everyday,” I thought to myself. Minutes, which felt like years later, the mast was safe and sound at Clark Boat Yard and resting on saw horses next to the boat.

Jim and I both took a few minutes to stand over the mast with pride while people from the boat yard came over to admire the mast. A quick handshake and a “see you around” and Jim was off.

Finally finished, I couldn’t help but think back nostalgically about the time spent in the shop. Were the days there long, cold and sometimes frustrating as all hell, definitely! That being said, I learned how to use a ton of tools, acquired invaluable skills and knowledge of traditional masts. I built something beautiful from scratch and formed an unlikely friendship with a truly great marine carpenter and person in Jim Titus.

Inviting some kid from New York who knew nothing about sailing or sailboats into his shop to teach and help him build a wooden mast while charging him only pennies compared to his normal price was an incredible gesture. Jim would leave me not just with a new mast but a love for woodworking and traditional boat building that I know, I will carry with me for a lifetime. Jim, thank you for everything. (And be warned, I’m already thinking up projects and schemes that will get me back into the wood shop next winter. What’s a mast without a matching boom, right?)

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A Father’s Day Shout Out

Cold, cramped and bored out of my mind, those are the feelings that return to me when I think back to my old man’s first lesson on how to change the oil of the family’s 33-foot Egg Harbor. It was early on a weekend morning (It was probably 8 o’clock but on a Saturday when you’re 10 years old that might as well be midnight) and I was paying more attention to my fatiguing flashlight-holding arm than how to change an oil filter. It would take two hands to hold the light by the time we left to go home for lunch. I wish I could say that during my high-school years I really started absorbing the nautical knowledge my dad tried passing on to me, but that would be lying. Nope, at 17, I was wise in the ways of the world. I had my first job at a local boat yard, and though I was only bottom painting boats with a pair of probably illegal immigrants, in my teenage mind, I was an industry expert. It was not until recently, after purchasing what would become the Karen Marie and staring her diesel heart that I began to think to myself, “maybe I should have spent more time listening to those mechanical messages and less time wondering if we were going to get bagels for lunch.” Luckily for me, my old man is for a lack or better word, a persistent parent. Sitting in my first boat’s cabin with me the other weekend he showed me how to tighten the engines belt, replace the fuel filters and swap out the water pump impeller. No flashlight was needed for these projects but if I think about it, I guess they never were. I’m thankful for the lessons and advice, nautical and otherwise that he has given me recently. (As I write this I got an email from him that reads, “you might want to grease your mast track before it goes up, I’d hate to see Karen have to climb the mast to do it later.”) It scares me to think about what the Karen Marie would look like today without his help. Thanks Dad, happy father’s day. Image

Mistakes made and lessons learned

Warm and sunny with a gentle yet salty breeze blowing off the bay, it was a perfect weekend by New England standards. Sailors took to the water like a swarm of locusts. While Schooners and Lasers were out swapping wakes, I was impatiently prepping my mast hardware for installation. While I was physically in a dark shed counting screws and straightening my bent bronze track my mind was on a mooring in Jamestown.

It was this restlessness that prompted me to put a 10th coat of varnish on an already finished mast. There were a couple sags and few pesky drips that called to me.  I hastily answered that call. Leaving the garage door open, the sun shining with a slight breeze, along with some loud country music made this chore a near pleasant experience. Other shop workers came and went providing a steady stream of company and conversation.

The next day I strolled up to the shop to reorganize my mast hardware and take a minute to step back and admire my finished mast…or so I thought. The runs in my mast varnish previously were weekend joggers compared to the Kenyan marathoners that now danced across the shiny Spruce. To make matters worse a fine layer of dust and dirt had settled into the mast.

It was as disheartening and frustrating a moment that I’ve had since my original mast broke apart, this time, I had no one to blame but myself. My ego got in my way and I didn’t do the prep work necessary to varnish a mast, let alone adhere the final coat. It was a mistake I would not make twice.

Closing the garage door, I hosed down the floor, re-sanded the mast and even changed my dust-covered clothes. In a much more monk-like atmosphere, I was able to put a smooth-as-glass final layer of varnish on the mast, one that I felt proud of when I took a step back.

There is no place for an oversized ego when it comes to boating and boat restoration. I hope keeping that in mind will help me join my boating brethren soon.

A Wheel Pain in the A$$

With Christmas and the New Year fast approaching, I would be taking a break from mast construction to spend time with my family on Long Island. Not wanting to completely lose momentum, I brought home my wooden cabin doors, cockpit bench seats and the wheel, all of which had layers of varnish that were peeling like a Irishman after a sunny-summer day.

Armed with my orbital sander and some 80-grit sandpaper, I tore through the neglected layers of varnish on the doors and seats with relative ease. Applying a fresh piece of paper to the sander, I was ready to tackle the wheel. Peering at the myriad rounded edges and small decorative crevices caused a cold sweat to condense on my brow. After 10 minutes of staring at the wheel, I realized I was destined to sand the wheel by hand.

Setting up shop in my parent’s basement, I clamped the wheel to the old workbench, took one last breathe of debris-free air and dug in. Zone focused with ample amounts of elbow grease, I worked the paper back and forth on one of the mast’s handles. When I had exhausted both an entire sheet of paper and my right arm I had managed to…barely scratch the surface. I cursed the previous owner and each of the seemingly hundreds of coats of varnish he slathered onto my cockpit’s centerpiece.

I found myself at a proverbial crossroads. Do I condemn myself to a weekend muttering to myself in my parent’s basement while restoring this wheel or do I pry open my wallet and buy a new one? To be perfectly honest the latter sounded pretty darn good but I ultimately convinced myself (more muttering alone in a basement) that doing so would be a sin in the eyes of purist boat restorers.

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I instead spent my money on shares in 3M and dozens of packages of paper and went to work. Thankfully, I would not be left to sand off my fingertips alone as Karen soon joined me this endeavor. Though it was a monotonous and laborious 16-hour undertaking, we eventually had the wheel stripped down to bare teak. Thankfully for all involved underneath all the weathered varnish was a beautiful-original wooden wheel.

My old man would help me varnish the wheel and cockpit doors and when they were finished to a high-polished shine they were like works of art. Admiring the finished product, I couldn’t help but hope that with time, elbow grease, and the occasional tear (rising stock in 3M wouldn’t hurt either) the Karen Marie’s hidden beauty would also appear.

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I love the smell of Varnish in the morning (and night)

Driving over the Pell Bridge between Newport and Jamestown , I couldn’t help but notice more and more boats out on the water. The sailboats gliding across the bay were so close yet so far away. Though it was impossible to see, I imagined the sailors had smiles as full as their sails, laughing at the commuters above them. I was jealous but I know (/hope) I will be joining them soon and tonight was a big step. I showed up to the shop after work to give my mast one last sanding with 300 grit paper and hopefully apply the first coat of varnish. After a light final sanding, Jim inspected it.

“I’m happy with it. I think it’s ready for varnish,” I said, more asking than telling.

“Knock yourself out,” said Jim who reminded me to shut off the lights when I was done.

Armed with a foam bursh, some paint thinner and a quart of Epifanes high gloss clear varnish, I took to it. Cracking the fresh can of varnish after nearly seven months of working on the mast was a great feeling. It smelled like victory.

ImageCarefully mixing eight ounces of thinner with eight ounces of varnish, I stirred up my first batch. The 1:1 ratio is used for the first two coats to seal the wood. Later rounds of varnish will be done with a ratio closer to seven parts varnish one part thinner and will be done with a badger hair bursh and will require almost an artists patience and smooth hand to ensure a high-shine finish. The only one in the shop that night, I took the liberty of blasting some of my favorite country songs from my phone and started coating the mast. The work was easy, and dare I even say, fun. Seeing an immediate change, is not something I’ve been accustomed to with this project so watching the bare wood take on a shine, as slight as it may be, was a rewarding experience. Then entire mast took less than an hour to coat.

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I was so excited to be varnishing and to have the run of the shop that despite the fact that 9 o’clock was pressing upon me, I decided to hit my favorite bench grinder to clean up my winch handle, which would complete the set of winches I had in a box of hardware.

Tonight was a small victory but I have learned, when it comes to boat restoration, you need to celebrate those too.

The Big Glue

Before today, when people would ask to see a picture of the mast that has been taking up many weekends I sheepishly passed them a shot on my phone of the four long pieces of wood stacked neatly on top one another.

“Oh, cool” was the standard-polite answer, said through disappointed and surprised eyes.

I looked forward to putting that behind me as it was finally time for Jim and I to glue the mast together. To accomplish something like this Jim explained that we were going to need clamps, and a lot of them.

No problem, I thought as I looked around the carpentry shop that had clamps lying everywhere.

As if reading my mind, Jim said, “no, not those clamps. We are gunna have to make some,” without putting any emphasis on the word we. I would spend the day scouring the shop for scraps of wood to stick threaded pipe through to make 35 homemade mast clamps. These cheap clamps would end up being much better than small metal clamps because you didn’t have to worry about the glue damaging the tools.

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When we were ready to glue all four sides together Jim enlisted the help of a couple of his employees. Together the four of us slathered West Epoxy on 140-feet of wood. I wish I could say this was done is a clean assembly line like format, no this was very much a free for all. Running from one end to the other cover making sure we didn’t miss a spot. Working together, we clamped the sides of the mast to the sides of the blocking and then placed the top piece down.

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The hand made clamps would be put into place and tightened just like the blocking, with a little pressure being adding to the clamps one at a time. With each turn glue would ooze from the seems, dripping down the mast until they either landed on the clamps or the floor below.

Before this process began I donned a pair of disposable gloves which, didn’t do one bit of good. My hands were so sticky it felt as if I can finger-paint the glue onto the mast. From my Sperry’s to my hair (epoxy works as one tough hair gel) I was covered in the super-strong glue.

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I began to wipe up the glue covered mast when Jim suggested that I “just leave it, it’ll keep dripping like that for a while.” If this sounds familiar to you, like a similar situation had happened in my last blog post, than you are a quicker learner than I am.

Block Head

The sun had yet to creep over the horizon and greet the sleepy seaside town of Newport when my cell phone/alarm clock began blaring music and vibrating next to my brain. Looking out the window onto the silent street below my apartment, I swear you could tell just by looking that it was going to be a cold day.

Is there anybody else working on their boat today, I wondered as I dragged myself into my car (waited for it to heat up) and began making my way to Mount Hope. I thought we would be gluing the four sides of the mast together today.

After chatting about our goals for the day, our breathe visible in the air, Jim told me that today’s project was to build the blocking for the mast. I learned that the mast would basically be hollow except for the three places (in my case) where it needs the most support, the bottom, about two-thirds of the way up where the spreaders are and the masthead (the top).  It didn’t sound too difficult but I swear Jim can make launching the space shuttle seem as simple as tying your shoes . The blocking couldn’t just be drilled into their places, we would need to glue tracks to the inside of the mast for it to rest and be glued to. This meant another full round of measurements.

Also, building the precise blocking we needed  required gluing four to six spare pieces of Spruce together.

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Once we had the measurements we needed, I glued the Spruce boards together by applying West Epoxy to both faces and them clamped them together. Jim explained, the best way  to clamp  together something like this is to start with the corners, so they don’t slide on you, then add clamps every few inches around the perimeter. You’ll want to tighten a clamp on one side then tighten the clamp opposite just like if you were tightening the lug nuts on a tire.

Keep in mind that a lot of the glue you just put on will leak out the sides when you do this, essentially gluing the blocking to the bench you’re working on. Jim told me to just glue it up and not worry about gluing it to the bench. (He would later be telling me where he kept his spare heat gun and chisels.)

Finally prying my crucial mast supports from a stubborn bench, Jim introduced me to a machine known as the jointer. This large machine would rip the faces of the blocking and ensure that they had perfect 90-degree angles. As we cleaned off and set up the jointer, Jim shared one of his famous stories about how that same machine ripped the fingers from the hand of his high school classmate and how they were never seen again.

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I decided to graciously let Jim handle the jointing, nice guy that I am. Once jointed up and sanded we drilled a hole in the blocking for the antennae and masthead light to pass through.

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Recently I’ve been telling some locals sailors that I’ve met about the new mast project, which is typically met with rolled eyes, deep exhales and looks as though I’m crazy and there are times driving in the snow to work on a mast when I think they might be right. But if I didn’t have the opportunity to work alongside Jim on this project, I would never have known about the inner workings of a mast and why things like blocking are important. Not knowing any of that is what sounds crazy to me.