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Boatwork, the business of winter

As I assembled these words during Thanksgiving week, I was still sailing. Air temperatures were in the 50s and even 60s, but it was definitely time to put sailing aside and get on with the business of winter. Fortunately my older sailboat keeps me busy year-round as my one and only hobby in-season and off, and I actually welcome being lured into the cozy interior of the cabin to work on projects in the relative warmth provided by a portable electric heater.

I have stated this before and I'll state it again: Any boatless person who loves the water, but is recreationally bored and bewildered, should buy an older small boat to fill in the hours. The boob tube, housework, tending the lawn and all those other diversions cannot equal the joy of ownership and maintaining your own boat. You will be astonished at how much you can accomplish while learning new tricks of the trade.

Between November cold snaps, my annual refinishing chores were already under way, with the sanding and varnishing of two forward mahogany floorboards. This time around, I used Pettit Flagship varnish, properly diluted with brushing thinner and applied with a new badger-hair brush. Four pieces that make up the painted aft floorboards support a heavy cooler and battery, as well as a folding, removable step on which I land my 160 pounds when I enter the small cabin in a single bound.

I had not originally planned to remove those unsightly, but concealed, boards until I accidentally dropped a stopper spring while cleaning an old bronze Merriman halyard winch. It vanished somewhere underfoot as I stood on that distressed aft floorboard, presumably having fallen into a deep part of the bilge. Forget about a replacement part; I simply had to find the spring and I began excavation and removal.

Out came the heavy battery (in a case), the cooler, the folding step and a storage rack wedged above the deepest part of the full keel and under the cockpit floor. But those floorboards seemed to be permanently bonded in place and would not budge. I used a crowbar and then had to cut them loose with a jigsaw, which further battered the already bruised supports. I found the elusive spring en route to the deepest part of the inaccessible bilge and sucked it up with a Shop-Vac.

Those once-varnished aft floorboards, long since painted and covered with a sheet of non-skid Treadmaster, were also attacked by a little rot in a few places and this called for professional help. I turned to the talented "Two Keiths" (Manuel and Fletcher) of Maritime Plastics in Annapolis, where I rent a corner for a desk and PC. This creative team makes things and suggested using a black ABS plastic with a non-skid surface. Instead of replacement, however, they covered the existing floorboards and refastened with a quarter-inch sheet of that black plastic.

Before the floorboards go back into place in the spring, I'll don a dust mask to scour and rough-sand the bilge and prep for a new coat of white paint. I'll also sand, paint and varnish the sides of storage and bunk compartments.

I cannot wiggle in and out of the tight aft quarter berths to attack the mildew jungle, then sand and paint those hidden canyon walls, so I turned again to Lawrence "Shorty" Franklin, 63, at Sarles Boatyard in Annapolis. He previously helped me reach a leaking aft cockpit drain after I had cut out a panel in the cockpit wall to get at it. The nimble and obliging Shorty, incidentally, is often called upon to reach tight little spaces since he weighs only 115 pounds and is aptly nicknamed because of his 5-foot, 2-inch stature.

Other winter chores I can handle, such as removal of the mainsail, roller-furling jib, boom (to be sanded and painted) and the 5-hp Honda 4-stroke, which Shorty takes back with him to Sarles so Mike, the boatyard's outboard mechanic, can solve some minor issues regarding fuel flow.

With my boat wintering in her slip in the Eastport section of Annapolis, just five minutes away from my cubbyhole workstation, I don't have a long drive to Casa Rio Boatyard off the Rhode River in Mayo, where the boat usually winters every other year in storage. I will haul out there in the spring once again for annual bottom and topsides work.

One more thing: My boat was built in Holland in 1962 and it has aging issues - for example, the inside facing of the varnished mahogany cockpit coamings. I found and treated some rot in these coamings and plugged excavated holes with thickened epoxy, which does not look nice varnished. I had painted over some of the coamings last spring with a lovely traditional color named "mahogany" from Epifanes - the rich, deep red mahogany color of a ripe tomato - but it is not the elegant look of varnished mahogany.

This winter I will either epoxy-glue two sections of 1/8-inch mahogany, 6 by 53 inches, over the painted portions or cover the offending sides with a 1/8-inch mahogany veneer. Before installation, I'll sand, seal and varnish, accumulating eight to 10 coats in my home workshop - consulting with woodwright Dave Hannam of the Varnish Barn at Sarles, where they restore, repair, refinish and build antique and classic watercraft.

All this will keep me busy until mid-March, when everything comes together in time for the 2011 boating season, during which I am determined to cruise the Western Shore of the southern Chesapeake Bay below the Rappahannock River. Until then ...

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.


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