Nothing to Scarf at

Now with smooth 20-foot sections of Spruce the magic trick would be to transform the sections into single 40-foot sections. I understood that two ends would need to be cut on a diagonal and eventually glued together but how we would accomplish that escaped me.

That is when Jim pulled out a bucket of parts, a large drill bit and plastic contraption. The Mount Hope custom creation ended up being just that a one of a kind mobile drill press that would make perfect scarfs in wood planks. While setting up the machine Jim recounted how this very machine got away from one of his female workers (a professional carpenter) and cut across the top of her hand. A gruesome story in it’s own right, I questioned the timing of this particular story as Jim set out to begin using the machine.

Snugging up my safety goggles, I watched as Jim manhandled the 2-inch bit through the wood. A few minutes later one side was finished and the device was shut down.

“I’m going to run a few errands, do you got this?”

Glancing around the completely empty shop I didn’t have much of a choice.

“Uh, yeah no problem.”

Jim left and I stepped up to the machine.  Glancing down at my hands, I really wished Jim hadn’t told me that story. An extra tightening of the safety goggles for good measure and I fired up the serious(ly intimidating machine).

Taking almost 15 minutes to do what had taken Jim three, I had finished scarfing my first plank, only six more to go. Eventually I did get the hang of scarfing and by the end I was able to finish one in a respectable 5 minutes. Not setting any speed records the scarfs were long and even. I sanded down the recently cut ends and wiped it down with paint thinner to prep them for gluing.

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West System Epoxy is the glue of choice for Jim Titus and the rest of the crew at Mount Hope. They’ve experimented with other wood glues but trust this product the most. With that in mind I mixed up a cup of the sticky stuff and with a quarter inch brush glued and clamped the boards together under the watchful eye of Jim who returned from his other tasks. I would return during the week to see that the pieces had dried well and began sanding the boards with a belt sand to help smooth the pieces together.

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Leaving the shop on the cold and gray winter afternoon, I was filled with a small sense of accomplishment. Not only had I finished the day with both hands intact but also the mast was slowly taking shape. Trudging through the snow and slush I may have been the only one dreaming about sailing that day.

What’s in a name?

Taking a break from mast building, I returned home for Christmas with a few boating chores to accomplish. One of them, which had been nagging at me was to pick a name for my boat.

Now, there are many legends out there regarding what makes a ship unlucky. Some dockside superstitions I have heard over the years are:

  • Black travel bags are bad luck
  • Don’t allow people with red hair aboard your ship
  • A silver coin placed under the masthead will ensure a safe voyage
  • Pouring wine on the deck will bring a voyage good luck
  • Women aboard a ship make the sea angry
  • Black Cats are good luck for sailors

While not normally superstitious, having my first day of sailing end with a broken mast made me reconsider my stance. I’ve been contemplating dying my red hair and ditching my black backpack. Spilling a little wine, well twist my arm if you must (white wine, of course). Between my landlord’s annoying black cat and an old silver dollar in my desk, I am pretty well covered. Telling my girlfriend she is unlucky aboard however…let’s just say, I’d rather take my chances with Poseiden’s wrath.

Perhaps the most egregious rule is that a boat that is renamed is the unluckiest. It is said that every ship is recorded by its name in the Ledger of the Deep and is known personally to Poseidon.

Several articles online (the most trusted source for maritime traditions) state that you should purge your vessel from all traces of the old name. Thinking about my empty boat with no name on the hull, I had nailed step one. This may be easier than I thought.

The next step is to state the following aboard with a bottle of bubbly in hand.

“Oh mighty and great ruler of the seas and oceans, to whom all ships and we who venture upon your vast domain are required to pay homage, implore you in your graciousness to expunge for all time from your records and recollection the name (here insert the old name of your vessel) which has ceased to be an entity in your kingdom. As proof thereof, we submit this ingot bearing her name to be corrupted through your powers and forever be purged from the sea.In grateful acknowledgment of your munificence and dispensation, we offer these libations to your majesty and your court. (Pour at least half of the bottle of Champagne into the sea from East to West. The remainder may be passed among your guests.)”

That all sounded like a good time, except for one small dilemma, I had no idea what to name the boat. To make matters worse, I had yet to register the boat because you need a name to do that. I have walked enough docks to know that there were names I really like and names that are just plain bad. Certainly naming your boat Aqua-holic or Miss Behavin’ would piss off Posedon more than a nameless boat, right?

I knew my name couldn’t be a play off the word Sea, Miss or anything other common variation. When she is fully restored she would be a one of a kind, and I needed a name that reflected that.  One name that was suggested to me was Rough Draft (Ahhh, now the blog title makes sense, huh?). Reflecting both my passion for writing and the tough shape my new vessel was in, it seemed perfect.

After much (and I mean a ton) of internal debate, I decided to name the boat after my girlfriend. Sweating and still unsure, I jotted down the Karen Marie on the dotted line of the registration form. Handing the form to the clerk at the Department of Environmental Management, we engaged in a cartoon-like tug of war over the form.

Finally the, surprisingly strong, clerk snatched the form and sent me on my way. I could hear my friends giving me a hard time in my head the whole car ride home.

Just as I had feared, family members and friends alike gave me a heaping dose of ribbing for my name choice. I endured a barrage of sarcastic awwws and that’s sooooo cute over beers that weekend.

On Christmas I gave a framed photoshopped image Karen’s name written across the back of the boat. (It was a big hit) That night one of my her uncles capitalized on the opportunity.

“So you go out and buy a boat, name it after Karen and give that as a gift?! Well next Christmas I’m going to go out and get myself a new couch and name it Mary Ellen!” The jokes continued into the night.

I joke that I named the boat after Karen because they both are a drain on my billfold, are a lot of work and I can’t seem to figure either of them out.

But joking aside, the name fits because they are both one of a kind, have a special place in my heart and what’s an adventure without the company of loving woman?

Your move Poseidon.

Stay tuned for my next blog about: Something extra manly and tough.

Measured 10 times, cut once

I was never a good math student in school. (Stay with me, there is a point to be made here.) I could handle basic addition and multiplication but compound fractions and solving for x was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. 

When Jim told me we were going to be doing some measuring of the old mast to plan for the new one, I was confident I was up for the challenge especially since my mast was rectangular.  He grabbed a pair of old calipers off the wall and we set off measuring the height of the mast at one foot increments of the 35-foot mast. I thought we would both start at each end and stop when we got to the middle but Jim insisted that we each measure the same points and then compare numbers. If our measurements were different, even an eighth of an inch different, we would both go back and redo the measurements. I was surprised to learn that because the mast tapered in size at the top and bottom that the measurements were different at each spot (this was no ordinary rectangle).

We also measured the width of the new Sitka Spruce planks in a similar fashion. Once we had all of measurements, the next step was to calculate where each piece of would should go and where each piece needed to be cut. This would require dividing a lot of complex fractions. Just as the first beads of cold perspiration formed on my brow, Jim had to run off and tend to another project.

‘Why don’t you figure these out and we’ll meet back in an hour?”

“Uh, yeah ok,” I stammered.

Unable to find the phone number for my high school math tutor, I broke out the calculator to subtract 35 and 7/8 inches from 1 3/8 plus 1 and 5/8 .  It took me a full hour, a dozen scraps of paper and half a charge on my cell phone but I struggled through it.

I mention this story, not to gloat about my mathematical accomplishment, (that is an added plus) I mention this because when Jim returned, he decided to double check my numbers by doing the calculations himself. While I had broken a mental and physical sweat, Jim calculated all those numbers immediately, off the top of his head.

This skill would prove invaluable as the rest of the day was spent organizing the wood and deciding which ones would be best suited where. By the days end we had double and triple (and sometimes more than that) checked our measurments and laid out of the wood. We would go through the same exercise the following weekend, too.

“You can never be too careful when dealing with dimensions like this.” As anxious as I was to keep production moving I was thankful we were airing on the side of caution. Especially when you are working with $700 wood from Maine. 

The Man with the plan(er)

At long last, my phone alerted me to a text from Jim Titus, asking me when I could come down to start building. “He’s really committed to having me be there to help,” I thought to myself. I would stop down to the shop that night to begin working.

Our first task would be planning the wood, which basically means smoothing it all out since the stock we got was pretty rough. The process would require Jim to feed one end of the 20-foot pieces through a three foot tall planner while I caught it on the other end. Each side of the wood would go through the planner half a dozen times to ensure the wood was smooth as glass.

For nearly 3 hours we passed the wood through the machine, not saying a word as the machine thanks to the loud machine. My hands would catch a number of spruce splinters during this process, which I ignored as not to look like a woos in front of Jim. At least I could say mast building is in my blood, I thought to myself.

Finally, with the wood smoothed out and restacked, we shut down the machine.

“So what do you think?” he asked looking at the pile of perfect planks.

“I don’t think I can sail with it. What’s next?” I joked.

With a smile Jim said, “I’ll see you this weekend,” in a tone that suggested I shouldn’t have asked.

A handshake a prayer

Going into a business agreement with Jim Titus, is unlike going into business with anyone else. There are no signatures on a formal document. There are no estimates, timetables or schedules of anysort. No, with Jim, all decisions end with the handshake from a hand callused from a life of marine carpentry.

A native New Yorker, who is typically slow to trust, I started to sweat my nonchalant, contract free agreement, especially at first. For weeks after the wood arrived at Jim’s shop, a dozen calls and a half dozen emails to the shop owner went unanswered. Mount Hope seemed an appropriate business name as the pressure was mounting, and all I had was the hope that I could trust a local carpenter who told me he would give me a good deal.

I drove by his shop one afternoon to see if I could catch him. Sure enough he saw me, gave me a wave and asked me how I was doing. I went on to ask him 21 questions about getting started on the mast. The full WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and especially HOW. Jim just smiled, explained that he was just finishing up some other projects but assured me that we would get started soon enough. And with that he went back to work. As I was leaving I spotted a young guy carrying some tools from the shop. After exhcnaging pleasentries the journalist in me began asking him what he thought about Jim and Mount Hope.

“You see these tools,” the young man asked gesturing to the power tools in his arms.

I told him that I did.

“I left these tools in the shop before I went over to Afghanistan,” he said. He explained that in a business where tools are often misplaced or walk off, every tool he left there before being deployed was waiting for him when he returned.

It seemed like a small thing, holding on to someone’s tools but to this soldier it meant a whole lot.

“You’ve come to the right place. Jim will take care of you,” said the soldier. “He takes care of everyone around here. He’s sort of like Newport’s big brother.”

He picked up the rest of his tools, wished me luck and strolled off, taking with him all of my earlier concerns.

Sealing the Deal

A few days after verbally agreeing to hire Jim Titus to build a wooden mast for me, it was time to as they say, put my money where my mouth is. I had to pay Jim for the wood needed for the construction. I assumed this process would include a trip to our local Home Depot and a pair of flat carts.

“We’ll want to go will some nice Sitka Spruce from up in Maine,” explained Jim. He would take a long pause, long enough for me to visual in horror the road trip with my new friend in his aging work van to Maine. “There is a place outside Boston that should have some.”

Ohh thank god. It wasn’t down the block but it wasn’t across the country either.

He told me he would pick it up in another week or two and I could just pay him for it later. This struck me as unorthodox coming from a business owner but I agreed.

In the meantime, Jim instructed me to cut my old mast in half so we could throw it in his truck and bring it to the shop, there it would serve as an on-scene template.

Eager to get the process started, I borrowed a sawzall and buzzed down to where my mast lay broken. I ran a few extension cords and found the center of the mast and prepared to rip into it.

Now at this point there has been multiple occasions since buying the boat where I second-guessed myself but this one was stays vivid in my mind. Once in two pieces no amount of opoxy, clamps and hope would rebuild my water logged mast.

After a few deep breathes and a lot of mumbling to myself (which surely concerned the marinas employees who looked on) I took a leap of faith and dug the blade into the heart of a mast that was more than half a century old. I wish I could say I felt relieved when after the mast was cut, like I finally had commited to building a new one, not the case.

A few days would pass before the mast was brought over the Mount Hope and even longer before a fresh pile of 20-foot long Sitka Spruce planks would arrive (the cost of the wood was $700). The broken mast lying next to pile of planks were in sharp contrast to each other. The past and present, a long winter and myriad of lessons lay before me. Looking at the two, I had more questions than I had answers. The only thing I did know, was there was no turning back now.

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Aftermath: A Wooden Mast’s One Night Stand

I found myself in a unique situation. I was a new sailboat owner; I had virtually no working knowledge of sailboats or sailing for that matter and I needed to replace the mast, which even I knew was an important piece. I mean why couldn’t it be some cushions that needed replacing, that I could have handled. Completely overwhelmed, I stared at my computer screen, hoping the Google gods would help me through this.

I scoured dozens of forums and websites where sailors discussed the benefits of both aluminum and wooden masts. Wooden masts, it was argued, would be more work over the years to maintain but they were also more beautiful.  Aluminum masts while not as attractive would be more loyal. I spoke with experienced sailors who reassured me that I could find an inexpensive aluminum mast that would save me a lot of future heartache. “Go aluminum and you’ll never have to feel this way again.” Given that my last relationship with a wooden mast was a demoralizing one-night stand, literally, I began thinking metal might be the way to go.

In need of an aluminum mast, I returned to my Craigslist comfort zone. A quick search showed that, in the sail friendly state of Rhode Island, I was surrounded by such masts. After placing a few calls with some people I met online, I discovered that most of the masts being sold were in someway damaged or were works in progress. Already in over my head with the boat I found on Craigslist, I was uneasy about making the same fixer-upper mistake twice. What’s more, nearly all of the aluminum masts I found would require me to change the mounting bracket and nearly all the rigging.

I sat in my apartment confused and frustrated. That was about the time an email from my old man popped up into my inbox. The subject line of “this is interesting,” the email contained a link to an article about building wooden masts. The image of my dad and I cutting down the Spruce tree in our backyard, which once held my childhood tree fort, played out in my mind and I quickly forwarded the email to the crazy folder.

A few days later I would gather the courage to go back and give it a read (http://www.diy-wood-boat.com/Mast.html). The article broke mast building down in such a simple fashion (plenty of videos and pictures) even I understood what it was talking about. It persuaded me to begin looking into the once outlandish possibility.

I stopped down to Mount Hope Boatworks to again meet Jim Titus, the man who presided over my old mast’s funeral.  Perhaps he would be able to breathe life into my sailing career.

I asked the old-school-carpenter what he thought about building a new mast for my boat. He immediately began showing me around his shop, a massive warehouse that was filled to the brim with wooden boats in disrepair, hundreds of planks of wood and myriad power tools were scattered about. If the shop were to have a theme song, Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams would have been a good fit.

Skeptical and thinking that I just totally wasted my lunch break, we walked across the parking lot to another area he owned. When we reached an oversized garage he pushed a button, as the door rose my jaw dropped. There hanging up against the wall were half a dozen 40-foot masts, all polished to a fine shine that I could literally see myself in.

“Why didn’t you just show me this first!?” I wondered, running my hands down the finely varnished spruce and teak.

“What would something like this cost?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“Well I didn’t see a Newport Yacht Club Sticker on your car and judging by the boat you bought, hmm,” mumbled Titus. “Where do you live?”

Confused as to why that would matter, I explained that I was just down the road.

“Perfect! Then you can help build it, which will keep the cost down!”

Not certain if he was joking or not, I told him his last four magic words sounded good to me. I thanked him for his time and left to do more research. I reread the forums that previously warned me about how difficult a wooden mast was to maintain.

The next day, I was venting to Cruising World’s office manager, Kathy Gregory, a sailor and former marine consignment shop co-owner about my situation. She listened patiently as I talked myself in circles.

“What did you think about the wooden mast when you first bought the boat, before all of this happened?” she asked with genuine interest.

“I loved it. It’s what made the boat look and feel like a real classic worth restoring,” I replied.

“Well, then there’s your answer.”

I smiled and thanked her for the wise words. Knowing she was right I called Jim and told him I wanted to build a mast. I was still in way over my head, but at least I had direction.

The Diagnosis

A few days after the masthead of my recently purchased Rhodes Chesapeake suffered catastrophic failure, it was apparent my sailing season was over. Anxious to find out how extensively the mast would need to be repaired. I asked the gentlemen at Clark Boat Yard to haul her out and pull the mast.

I got a call a week later informing me that the mast was down and ready for me to come see. I rushed down to take a look. A quick Google search yielded that Clark Boat Yard had done extensive refits and repairs on wooden boats in their shop so I took solace in knowing that if anyone could fix it, they would be the guys.

When I arrived, I found one of the yard owners, Gary poking at the mast with his pocketknife, trying to determine where the wood was suffering from water damage. The serious look on his face told me I had a problem.

“You might need a new mast,” said Gary.

Any hope I had that this would be a quick fix sank like a rock.

He went on to explain that he thought the water damage to the masthead was extensive and that it might be cheaper to find a replacement.

If this were a cartoon, I would have been knocked down, sitting on butt, though instead of seeing Tweety birds, I would have seen seeing dollar signs circling my head.

He gave me the phone number of a local mast builder, Jim Titus who would be able to give me a second opinion and advice on what to do next. Following his advice, I contacted Titus who agreed to meet me at the yard later in the week to have a look at it.

Days, (that felt like years) later, arriving at the yard a few minutes early I walked over to the mast and noticed a member of the yard staff and Titus looking over to the mast. Unaware that I was walking up behind them, I noticed Jim look over at the man and make the sign of the cross. He was reading my mast its last rights.

“So you can fix her right up, right?” I asked, surprising them.

“Fraid not,” Titus responded.

He took out his own (much bigger) pocket knife and he began stabbing my mast less delicately than the yard owner had previously done. While I winced, Titus explained that there was water damage to the masthead, near the spreaders and the base. If I fixed the top, I would still be on borrowed time before the whole thing came down. Because of the simple rectangular shape of my mast, he explained that I might be better off building a new one or finding a replacement.

The two men wished me luck and left me alone to “say good-bye.”

Starring down at the broken mast with knife marks in it, I realized that boating was not going to be the relaxing past time I had envisioned.

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Fresh Starts

Exhausted from the long first day of boat ownership, I made my way to the forward berth to get some much-needed sleep. I sleep well on boats, always have. Maybe it’s the gentle rocking motion or the sound of the water lapping against the hull, but I was out like a light.

That was until I felt a single, solitary, cold wet drip land bull’s-eye right between my eyes. This little droplet may as well have been a bucket of water. Startled and in a new surrounding I jumped up, filled with a sense of urgency that I needed to get something, an extra bilge pump, a bucket or life raft perhaps. Thankfully, before I called in the Coast Guard, I was able to realize that the leak from the forward window was actually quite small, just poorly placed.

I stuffed it with paper towels and lay right up next to the gunall to avoid the drip. Now wide-awake I was still steaming about how my first day (and night) was panning out.

After dozing off for another few hours, I noticed the first light began to peer through my paper towel stuffed port light. Needing to stretch my legs and realign my back, I made my way out the companionway as my eyes adjusted to the light. Peering out across the flat-as-glass harbor to the Newport skyline, which was illuminated in a fiery orange tint was a sight I will not soon forget. It was a million dollar view. I kicked myself at the time for forgetting my camera in the melee but it is probably just as well. That sunrise was exactly the fresh start I needed. Sitting on the starboard rail with my feet dangling off the side, I finally let myself laugh at about the previous day. It’s funny how something as simple as watching the sunrise is all it takes to make everything right with the world (at least for a while).

Ruined Plans

Before my mast broke apart before my very eyes, I had a plan in mind as to how the day would go. After an afternoon of sailing, my girlfriend and I would run to shore, pick up a few last minute items then spend our first night aboard. We’d watch the sunset sink over the harbor with a glass of champagne…yup, it was going to be perfect.

Alas, Murphy and his law were aboard with us that day. After tying up to our designated mooring we hopped in the marina launch and went ashore. Leaving my damaged vessel, the operator informed me that the last shuttle back out to her would be at six o’clock sharp. Looking at my watch and knowing I had to drive to 40 minutes each way to bring the original owner home, I knew I would be cutting it close to make it back in time for the last launch. Very close.

Driving shall we say, efficiently, I left Scott in at his home and returned to my apartment. I would have to gather everything we needed for our night aboard and be back on the road in 10 minutes. Frantically, I threw peanut butter pretzels, a pillow, champagne and a toothbrush onto a blanket, wrapped it up took off for the door. Watching me pack “the essentials” must have terrified Karen, but she played along.

With the sun sinking fast, I drove, again efficiently, over the Pell Bridge to Jamestown, glancing from the clock to the sinking sun the entire way. In spite of everything that had gone wrong during the day, I was determined to make it.

Skidding into the marina, I got out of my car and ran down to the launch with boat cushions under each arm and a pretzel filled blanket in my hand, while Karen trailed behind, I’m sure contemplating the logic of spending the night in a confined space with someone who was using a blanket for luggage.

The launch operator looked at me like I was a lunatic, which was fair enough and took us out to the boat. Before dropping us off, the operator asked, “you know this is the last shuttle right? Are you sure you want to stay out here all night?”

The sun was just about to set. I looked back at him, “I was staying.”

Still all wound up, I went down bellow to find a bottle opener for the champagne. As I fumbled around the drawers looking for it, the last rays of light penetrated the starboard port lights.

“Forget the champagne!”

I ran topside dragging Karen with me and we sat down, just in time… to have completely missed the sunset.

I wish I could say I took a deep breath, and said something insightful about how despite everything it was still great to be out on the water. No such luck.

I drowned my sorrows in stale peanut butter-filled pretzels, wondering what the hell had I gotten myself into.