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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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.

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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