With boats, if it's not one thing, it's another

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As I have said many times, it’s “always something” when dealing with boats, and sometimes there’s also a “something else.”

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To prepare for some mild-winter sailing, I decided to drop my mast for the first rigging check in eight years. I have done this with the help of others several times during the past 25 years and encountered few problems. This time around it wasn’t as much “fun” as I remembered from my younger years. The usual boatwork associated with mast-dropping went much slower, dragging on for an unexpected three weeks. Ideal autumn weather blew by me until the boat was finally ready for a sail Oct. 23 after one last adjustment to the angle of the spreaders.

Michael Johnson and my son Eric teamed with me Oct. 19 to raise the stick. I had spent the day before sorting out rigging and lines, and it was a relief that nothing snagged or fouled as the mast arose on a pivot bolt through the tabernacle. Eric was in the cockpit, pushing and guiding the mast skyward. Mike and I were up on a hillside elevation pulling like hell on a 100-foot lifting line to establish the proper leverage. It went smoothly.

I spent the next day fastening hardware. I also had to replace the lower threaded connection of a backstay turnbuckle that had bent during the dropping. Once the mast was firmly in place, however, the always-something rule kicked in. The wooden spreaders had settled into a kind of awkward, droopy position. Of course, that had to be corrected.

I wasn’t going aloft, and I nixed the thought of rigging an adjustable ladder or going to a boatyard. After loosening both turnbuckles, here’s what I did. I have varnished shroud rollers on each upper shroud and an extra one at home that I would use for the push-up job. I taped the spare roller into place under the working starboard roller and used it as a mallet to pound and tap upward to raise the spreader to its proper position. It worked.

Following the same procedure on the port side, I tapped and tapped, but the spreader would not budge. So I tapped a little harder and managed to jam the top of the working roller into the spreader boot. Now the working roller was stuck high and dry, and I couldn’t reach it with my boat hook. I tried shaking the shroud but got nowhere.

Ever the improviser, the Tripper jury-rigged his boat hook and some quarter-round to fix a problem with Erewhon's port shroud roller.

The next day I returned with a 12-foot piece of quarter-round from home. (I save a lot of stuff.) To that I hose-clamped my 5-foot boat hook in two places. This gave me an extension from the deck to snare the top of the working roller and pull it down. And then I finally went for a sail.

I should point out that an earlier mast dropping this fall was unsuccessful. I had originally hoped to take advantage of my old sailing friend John Barry, who was visiting from North Carolina to attend the annual sailboat show in Annapolis. I prepped the boat for this drop, and Barry recruited another sailing friend, Mark Kellogg, to help. Brent Littlefield, a boating neighbor, also helped, but the aluminum mast would not budge as Kellogg pulled hard on the backstay to move it from its base and others tugged on the lifting line. Somehow, some way, someone at some time had jammed a thin aluminum plate under the foot of the mast, and it had frozen in place. Again, it’s always something.

So it was off to the Annapolis Harbor Boatyard in Spa Creek to let the pros have a whack at it. I had loosened the upper and lower shrouds in advance. Boatyard manager Bill Barlow and a helper set up two large blocks of wood and a 4-by-6 brace forward of the mast to pry the thin plate loose with an industrial-size crowbar. Grunting and groaning, they hammered and pried and out it came.

I motored back to my slip and tied up bow-first to ready the mast for dropping. Johnson was in the cockpit to “catch” the mast as I lowered it from the hill, where I had wrapped a stopper control line around a tree. The mast came down quicker than I had planned, and when I lost the leverage as the lifting line came parallel to the mast, the backstay turnbuckle bent when it came down in a bit of a heap. There’s that something else. Ugly.

At this point, the top end of the mast was suspended over the bulkheaded lawn, and I began my careful rigging inspection. All was secure. I replaced the jib halyard and sanded, varnished and painted the top and bottom of the spreaders. I also wiped down the mast with an aluminum cleanser.

Replacing a broken masthead wind vane could not be done until I walked the boat around to allow enough clearance for that job. The positioning of the mast was now reversed as it rested suspended over the water after I tied up stern-to. I could not have done this over the bulkhead because the vane surely would have snagged on something and broken. (Resident golfer Harry Bratcher helped out at this stage.)

I dragged out my dinghy from a years-long clutch of vines and overgrowth and paddled out to install the Davis wind vane. Then I had to return the boat to its bow-to position in order to raise the mast. All this took a lot of time because I was mostly working alone in moving things about here and there, up and down.

Rather than risk jamming a roller-furling jib or main halyard at the masthead by using one or the other as a lifting line, I went with a line that secures the whisker pole to the mast. The line runs through a block attached to a bale bolted through the mast between the spreaders and masthead. (Yes, it gets complicated.) That leaves us, dear reader, where we began, with the finally successful mast raising. Eight people were called upon to assist here and there. I will never raise that mast dockside again, so in that respect it was a somewhat nostalgic end of a boatwork era for me, though not necessarily a sad one.

My mainsail was neatly furled and covered on the boom in a shed on the property, ready to be installed if we have another “pleasant” winter. Meanwhile, Superstorm Sandy did huge damage to the Eastern Seaboard but left Annapolis unharmed. I had prepared for high winds and tides.

So my plans are to sail with the jib alone under favorable winds (10 to 15 knots) and await nature’s decision for the rest of the winter before I make my decision regarding the mainsail. There might be more of this saga coming at you in a later column.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

January 2013 issue