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.

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.

Mast Head-ache

After finalizing much of the logistics necessary to purchase my boat it was finally time to bring her from Warren R.I. down to her new home at Clark’s Boat Yard in Jamestown, R.I.

It was early on a still Saturday morning; my girlfriend, Karen and I met up with the boat’s original owner, who had generously volunteered to join us on our maiden voyage. Together the three of us ventured out to where she was moored. Approaching my vessel not as a visitor but as a new owner provided a totally different rush.

At that moment I was filled with the excitement only comparable to buying your first car, or a young boy on Christmas morning. It took a bit of effort to transition from jumping-on-the-bed-excited to focused on the trip at hand. I fired up the diesel, slipped free of the mooring, grabbed a hold of the wheel and made my way towards the channel.

Leaving Warren behind our zig-zagged turbulence (hey, it’s a new boat) to take her to her new home really helped solidify the feeling that this boat was really mine. Eventually I got acquainted with the steering and was able to keep her straightened out. The volleyball-sized knot in my stomach began to loosen with each buoy we passed. For the next hour or so, Scott the previous owner and I swapped boating stories. Though he owned several boats, most of his favorite stories had taken place aboard this one. As he recounted trips made to Block Island he tapped the hull. It was obvious he was second-guessing the sale.

As we neared Newport, we decided to shut off the engine to give sailing a shot, (which was when the knot in my stomach re-tangled itself, with vengeance).  We had very light air that morning but just as Scott was showing me the ropes, the wind picked up to 10-12 knots. Just enough. We raised the mainsail and then the jib. Once the sails were set, I ran back to the wheel and as Scott gave me a reassuring nod, I smiled and turned the boat into the wind for the first time. The wind grabbed the sails and we were once again underway.

The first thing that amazed me was how quiet everything was. With just the sound of the bay lapping against the hull and the occasional powerboat off in the distance it was eerily silent. I loved it. As Karen and I practiced tacking, Scott kicked back to soak in some rays and enjoy his final time on the boat.

Cutting back and forth in the empty bay, Scott was quick with advice when asked, yet was careful not to critique Karen and I as we fumbled around the boat. We were having such a great time we even asked Scott to snap a couple pictures (on the header). After a few hours of sailing, we decided that we’d had our fun for the day and decided to find our mooring and get our new friend/sailing instructor home.

With Scott at the wheel keeping us upwind, I took down the sails. I couldn’t help but beam with the pride that I think only comes with successfully sailing for the first time. I’m not a fan of clichés but I have to say, life was good.

Thunk.

A loud noise echoed right next to my foot where I discovered a four-inch piece of wood. I picked up the soft white wood; not immediately knowing where it came from, I glanced back to Scott who was starring up at the top of the mast, mouth agape. My heart sank immediately. As I peered to the top of the 35-foot mast a second and third scrap of wood came crashing down to the deck.

The top of the mast looked as if it has been split down the middle with the right and left sides of the mast folding out like banana peels.

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Even now, after the incident, it is hard to find the words to talk about this turn of events. Going from one of the highest moments of sailing your first boat to seeing it crumble before your eyes was for a lack of better words, humbling.

It appeared that the release of tension of the sails on the mast caused the (recently discovered) water logged top of the mast to break apart.

I looked back at Scott again, with a look that I’m sure made him wonder if he could swim to shore.

He explained that he had no idea that the mast was suffering from water damage. The look of pain in his face, which I’m sure matched my own made me think he was telling me the truth.

I went on to find our mooring, return to shore and begin to drive Scott the 45 minutes back to Warren. During the drive we spent a few minutes speculating as to the severity of the damage to the mast but mostly we sat in silence. The silence I had cherished an hour before was now agonizing.

As we finally dropped Scott off,  he urged me to keep him posted on the mast damage and to contact him with whatever he could do to fix the mast. I learned that a good previous owner could be a very valuable resource. (Note to self: so is a survey!)

 

My first sleepless night

I am a notoriously sound sleeper. I’ve slept through many a New Years celebration, thunderstorms, even the odd hurricane. But the night after I purchased my first boat, a 1961 Rhodes Chesapeake, I found myself in the unique situation off staring up at the ceiling.

All I could think about was my recent purchase and the affects it would have on me. My bravery that had been front and center earlier in the day faded as every sleepless hour passed. Was this smart financially, will I even be able to sail it, and can I really restore it like I was so certain I could?

The next day after a few winks of sleep, I turned my focus to the Web, determined to find the answers to all those questions. Terms like bill of sale, notary, registration, insurance, sales tax, and winter storage cost seemed to reach out from my monitor and slap me across the face. I quickly realized that buying a boat would take more than a check and a handshake.

Now in a cold sweat, I decided the first thing I needed to find was a local mooring to keep the boat for the few weeks after the sale. An hour of searching and a few phone calls led me to Clark’s Boat Yard in Jamestown R.I., which was only 10 minutes from my apartment in Newport. The price was right, the staff seemed friendly over the phone and their website boasted stunning images of Newport Harbor and the iconic Pell Bridge.

As quickly as I began daydreaming about this location, I ran into a obstacle. The hiccup was Clark’s required insurance before renting me the mooring. A bit of hunting on the Internet led to a patient woman at a local insurance company who informed me I could recieve coverage immediately as long as I got the boat surveyed first. Great, right? Well not really.

You see, in order to get insurance I needed a survey, but in order to get hauled and get the survey, I needed insurance. Jeeze!

My next call was a second one to Clark’s, this time not as a frazzled madman but as someone calmly looking for advice. When I explained to them that I was in over my head they patiently provided advice on insurance and the type of rider I should try to get. A phone call to Boat U.S. with this information about a rider in mind and I was insured.

The following night, I met with the boat’s owner to finalize the sale, which thankfully went rather smoothly. A few forms and the big check later, I was officially a sailboat owner!

The (now previous) owner even offered to come along on my maiden voyage to make sure I got it to Jamestown all right. An offer I immediately accepted.

Reflecting on this series of events, I realize now that I have already committed my first mistake in boat ownership, which is trying to figure everything out at once. In this sport, I don’t think you ever really have it figured out. There is always more to learn, and there is ALWAYS someone out there who knows more than you. Lucky for me, I have found that many seasoned boaters are generous with their time and advice.