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5200 and my tight bond with boat work

The day Mel got 3M 5200 in her hair wasn’t a good day. Bad hair day, yes, but I’m not talking about bad hair days. I’m talking about bad boating days, the kind that have nothing to do with the weather or even paying the boat bills. They’re what almost always happens when you take on any boat job to make things “better.”

Tom has a love-hate relationship with 3M 5200 adhesive.

5200 is really interesting stuff. I’ve been using it for years and hope I’ll be using it for years to come. I usually squeeze it from a tube. I know I can buy it in the much larger caulking-gun containers, but considering my lack of skill I’m afraid I’d never come out alive if I used it in that volume. So I just squeeze what I need from the tube, put the cap on and pull it out for the next job later, usually so much later that it’s hardened under the cap. Never one to waste money, I slit the opposite end and squeeze from there. I don’t have to do much squeezing because it starts flowing out and overwhelming everything nearby (especially me) before I even get a chance to put my knife away.

As you probably know, this stuff redefines “permanence.” When we had to un-5200 our anchor platform to install a better windlass, we had to cut it off with a fillet knife, inch by inch, row by row. Which is why I was so surprised when I learned that it has another characteristic. Before it begins setting up, it can be very slippery. It’s about as slick as a baby’s bottom covered with 30-weight oil. I’ve never done this to a baby’s bottom and I’m sure I never will, but that was the thought that came to mind on one of my typically hair-raising boat jobs.

This particular project started out with good intentions. We’ve lived aboard while cruising for many years, and our deck junk has become somewhat spectacular. It’s been a marvel to behold, and it hasn’t gotten any better despite the fact that we’ve moved to larger boats. I used to be proud of my deck junk. I thought people going by in other boats would recognize us as “true cruisers.” Instead, as I sat cowering below, I repeatedly heard comments such as, “Good gawd, Martha, look at that boat. It looks like Sanford and Son.” So we decided to do something about it. In theory, it seemed easy enough.

We bought four beautiful new deck junk boxes. The sign in the store didn’t call them deck junk boxes; it called them “dock boxes,” but that wasn’t what I had in mind when I shelled out the money. I just didn’t admit I was actually going to load them aboard and put them on my deck. Yes, they were costly, but I figured they had a redundancy of purpose so necessary for cruising. Not only would they give me a place for my junk, they could also serve as floats to hold on to if we sink, which for some reason is a thought that rises to the surface of my consciousness more and more as I get older.

Paying for them was hard enough. Getting them from West Marine in Fort Lauderdale was almost harder. They wouldn’t fit into a cab, and I didn’t have a pickup truck — or any other vehicle. But someone at West did, and we finally got them to the dock alongside the boat. Actually, it was at the pointy end of the boat.

These dock boxes were large, bulky and heavy. And the wind was blowing hard from the ocean, just over a block away. I hadn’t even thought about how I’d get these boxes over the CQR and Fortress anchors protruding out from my bowsprit, let alone the bowsprit itself, particularly surrounded, as it was, by my tall pulpit rail.

I found a friend on the dock to help, and the two of us started lifting and maneuvering. As the wind gusted harder and harder, I began to think I’d gotten a good deal on four super-huge box kites rather than four dock boxes. And I soon found that my friend wasn’t that much of a friend, having far more sense than me.

The deck boxes cleared Chez Nous of junk, but closing the lids was another matter.

There was nothing to do but wait until a little after 5 o’clock. Usually the sea breeze lays down a bit about then, and it seems people around the docks are always in a more mellow and willing mood, or at least soon thereafter. And true to form, with help from many friends and not too much beer spilled overboard, we got the boxes onto the deck. Where they were, indeed, very big. I had no idea when I saw them in the store, but at this point there was no turning back. Mel and I were going to install them.

Pencil lines and other good intentions

I know that the “Better Boating Boat Job” rules say you’re supposed to through-bolt deck boxes so they won’t be washed off by boarding seas, but I figured if that big wave comes, I’d rather it sweep my boxes into the ocean without tearing out huge chunks of deck. There would then be four floating boxes out there, each not only capable of floating and saving lives but also full of junk that I could barter to the islanders or to the U.S. government, whichever picked me up first.

So I came up with an idea that was essentially having my cake and eating it, too. The idea was to avoid through-bolting and screw the boxes into thick teak boards glued permanently and thoroughly to the deck. I could have just forgotten the teak and screwed the boxes to the top layer of the cored fiberglass deck, but each glass layer of our decks is at least twice as thick as the hull of any boat built today. I thought that before screws would pull out of that top layer of decking they would probably pull up the decking itself. And screwing anything into the cored deck is a no-no, in my opinion, because I don’t want to do anything that would allow water into the deck core.

Knowing that 5200 is about as permanent as prayer in a Baptist church, I decided to use it to glue down the teak boards. We gooped up the bottom of the first of four boards and pressed it carefully onto the deck right inside the neatly drawn pencil lines. Mel, being the artist that she is, always draws neat pencil lines to assist my installations, somehow doubting that I will get the thing — whatever the thing may be — within 3 feet of where it is supposed to go. She just wants to make it all very clear to me.

It was clear to me, and I got the gooped-up boards perfectly in place within the lines. I walked away to another chore, planning to return after they’d had a chance to firm up a little. I took an admiring look at my precision placement a few moments later. This is when the fun really began. There was a 6-inch-wide white track of 5200 following the path of the board down the slope of the deck. Of course, I had pressed the board down tightly within the pencil lines to form an extra-secure bond. I just hadn’t reckoned on that other remarkable feature of 5200. Keeping that permanency in mind, I quickly moved to undo the damage.

Then came the next surprise. Strangely enough, picking up the teak plank that had just slid so easily down the deck proved to be relatively impossible, even though it had moved about a foot and would still slide along with just a little push. Although you can slide 5200 while it’s still wet from one end of the boat to the other, you can’t just pick up that to which it has been applied.

It would have been a good time to move on to another project, but Mel said no. With big screwdrivers and persevering patience, as the evening grew darker and the gnats grew bolder, we gently coaxed this expensive piece of teak into letting go of its death grip to the wrong spot on the deck without breaking or cracking it.

Clear of junk, Chez Nous is now a proper yacht - or is she?

I regooped it, laid it down again within the pencil marks and pushed down hard. The board slipped out from under me, and the 5200 squirted out from under it as I crashed down into the trail of white goo. The pencil lines were becoming less and less relevant. Mel, who had been kneeling close by and leaning over to ensure that I honored the pencil lines, was kneeling by a little too closely. At least it didn’t get in my hair.

Then we had to clean up the white streak. Although cleaning up cured 5200 is next to impossible, I’ve had quite a bit of experience wiping it up shortly after it’s been applied when it somehow got to places it shouldn’t be. I usually use something such as acetone, WD-40, alcohol, turpentine or whatever other chemical in a can I can put my hands on, keeping in mind that the can may become permanently affixed to my hands if the chemical in it doesn’t work. With many of these products you have to be sure you don’t clean where you want to reapply, but that’s seldom a problem for me because I seldom apply in the right place in the first place.

After restoring the deck to decency, we bit the bullet and decided to screw the boards into the top layer of the deck so they would stay in place until the 5200 dried. Mel restored the pencil lines, and we began the screwing job. When I make a hole anywhere in my boat, I get a case of extreme willies — meaning, in psychiatric terms, “reality-based paranoia.” I want them to not only be in the right place but also of the right depth. I’ve seen quite a few boat jobs where a stream of water followed the bit as it was pulled from the hole. (No, I didn’t say they were mine.) I wasn’t worried about this, as I was drilling through my deck, but with my luck and skill I was thinking that maybe I should.

First, we predrilled the teak planks for the screws that would fasten them to the deck, taking care that the holes were not where the corners of the box would be located. (Mel had drawn X’s for this precision work.) We placed the planks exactly where they were supposed to be, using those holes as templates to make little holes in the deck. We then slathered the bottom of the planks yet again and screwed them to the deck, exactly within the now fabled pencil lines. By this time there was quite a bit of goo on top of the planks, too. It had migrated there from my increasingly covered hands. But I was not concerned because I knew that these areas would be hidden under the deck box.

I chose to use my ancient Makita drill. With this, I thought, I was somewhat protected from screwing up (or down) too much. Because the drill was a bit feeble and the evening was fast approaching bourbon time, I pressed down with just a little extra strength — just hard enough so that when the screw broke through the top layer of the cored deck, the drill chuck head followed it into the teak. Fortunately, the teak remained intact; unfortunately, goo projectiles followed no discernible pattern as they sped through the air, coming to rest in some of the more conspicuous places of our already quite conspicuous Chez Nous. Of course, they also came to rest in some of the least conspicuous places, but we didn’t see those just yet.

We had already drilled holes in the “appropriate” places in the corners of the boxes. We set the boxes in place on the teak boards (sans 5200) and carefully aligned them. We then used the holes in the box corners to make template holes in the teak so that I couldn’t possibly mount the boxes out of place. After that, we took a deep breath and put a small measure of 5200 underneath each box corner.

We used big, fat pan-headed screws with washers and threaded them through the holes in the bottom of the box and into the holes in the teak and carefully torqued them. After we finished the last big screw in the last box, we stepped back to view our work with pride — considerable pride. This rare glow of truly justified satisfaction remained through the evening until I realized I had stepped on one of those obscure spots where a blob of 5200 lay. I found out when traces of 5200 showed up everywhere I’d been, including on the new carpet in the saloon.

Now, in case you think I have a thing for 5200, I should make it clear that 5200 is a great product, and there are many other great products I also use. The problem with all of them is that the user has to know what he’s doing and have some modicum of skill. And from time to time, and time to time again, I’ve found myself a bit lacking in this regard.

Hidden deep inside a box

Finally came the much anticipated raison d’etre for all we’d gone through. It was time to store our deck junk in our deck junk boxes. We assumed, naturally, that we’d finally have a decent-looking yacht, immune from snooty stares down the noses of all the passing “proper” yachtsmen.

I harbored the thought that maybe I could finally qualify as a “proper” yachtsman myself. But I quickly learned that it’s a lot easier to just pile and tie deck junk to the deck than it is to fit it into a box with a top that somehow has to be closed. Consider, if you will, the tricycle. No, we don’t have tricycles on our deck, but consider them, anyway. If ever you’ve tried to neatly store a few in a confined space, you know what I’m talking about. They’re just not made to be stored.

Such is the nature of deck junk — at least my deck junk. Try and try again and again, I couldn’t get it all to fit in. And when I say “all” I’m not talking about a few leftovers. I’m talking about most. And fitting anything in was just the beginning. The real issue was closing the top. Even if I only half-filled the box, there was going to be something that was going to poke up and keep the top from closing.

I never was good at jigsaw puzzles, but I worked and worked to get as many pieces of assorted deck junk into those boxes as humanly possible. Finally, at the end of the day (actually it was several days) some of the stuff was in the boxes and the lids were down. But I even then had no idea of the real problem. I soon needed to retrieve something for a boat job from one of the boxes. Of course, it wasn’t on top. I didn’t know where it was, but it was in there somewhere. Trying to visually identify a piece of junk deep in a deck box is like trying to identify a drop of water in the ocean.

At this point the issue is whether you start pulling everything out until you find what you want or get a flashlight and peer into the tangled mess, hoping against hope that you’ll see it and, if you do see it, you’ll recognize it. I first tried the flashlight. Not only did I not see it, I was soon also cross-eyed with a feeling of nausea coming on. That meant slowly disentangling each piece of deck junk and pulling it out. This was almost as hard as getting it all in there in the first place.

Eventually, the thing I was looking for came to light. Problem was I needed it for a job that was going to take several days. Do you leave the junk out on deck for the duration of the job or put it all back? And if you do the latter, will the piece that you’ve kept out ever fit back in? This is not a frivolous issue. I, of course, elected to leave the stuff out on deck until my project was finished. Mel noted that she still had 5200 in her hair and that there was no way she was going to suffer the further indignity of continued deck junk, not to mention the cost and effort we’d invested.

Now, after years of use, we’ve had a sort of a settling and balancing of priorities as well as stray deck junk on Chez Nous. We put into the boxes what we think we can fit into them with some degree of convenience and with due consideration to whether we’ll ever want to retrieve it. And if we look for something in there and reach the bottom without finding it, we figure that — you guessed it — it’s on the deck or long since gone overboard.

The good news is that now we have four nice deck boxes that are screwed into teak and may or may not come off if we sink. This, in addition to our Switlik offshore life raft, gives us a hitherto unrealized sense of security. The plan now is that if the boat sinks, we can get into the life raft and hang around to see whether the deck boxes pop up. If they do, they may still have my junk and some 5200 in them, which I’m sure will be helpful for survival on the high seas.

Now I have another problem. As I was sitting in the aft stateroom at my desk writing this, I heard the soft gurgling sound of a boat sailing by. I got up and looked out the porthole to see a beautiful, well-groomed proper yacht grandly ghosting along on a light breeze. Then I heard the gentleman at the tiller: “My gawd, Martha, would you look at that? It looks like Sanford and Son have gone into the container ship business.”

July 2014 issue