A sticky performance

Jackella’s mast is 52 feet long, hollow and made of Oregon pine. We felt a wooden mast in an otherwise steel yacht lent us a touch of maritime tradition. It is stepped on deck and supported below by two fore-and-aft steel bulkheads. It is immensely strong, and we are proud of it.

So it came as a bit of a shock to find that the timber was rotten at the base. Where the electric cables for masthead and spreader lights and the cable for the VHF aerial emerge from the interior, a few inches above deck level, the wood was spongy and smelled of rot. On further inspection, the gluing at the lower spreaders seemed to be opening up. The mast, which with the rigging probably weighs about 1,300 lbs, would have to be taken out.

We would need a good yard and a skilled shipwright with mast-building experience. We were in Vanuatu, however, where these were not to be found.

In our wanderings, we had sailed to Tasmania on three separate occasions. Wooden boats abound there. Nearly all Tasmanians, at heart at least, are sailors. Surrounded by the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean, they are a hardy lot and understand the need of reliable gear. We felt there would surely be someone there to help us.

We sailed to Tasmania and by chance found ourselves on a private wharf in the Huon River. The valley is rural with steep apple orchards and meadows. We met John and Ruth Young, directors of Shipwright’s Point School of Wooden Boatbuilding in the nearby riverside village of Franklin. John is a traditionalist. He and Ruth, both from Adelaide, set up the school several years ago. At first they taught woodworking skills to the unemployed. Now they run two-year courses for 10 students at a time in all aspects of wooden boatbuilding, repair and maintenance. When we arrived the students were planking up a 27-foot vessel, a stretched version of the Pardeys’ Taleisin.

Two of these students, John told us, would be allocated to help us as part of their course, but they would only be able to work evenings and weekends. John kindly offered to supervise.

The question that had been nagging me for some time was where were we going to do the work? It is not that easy to find a workshop where you can lay out a 52-foot mast. This problem stumped John for a few hours. When I met him in his little office he said, “You can have the Palais Theatre.”

In bygone days, the Tasmanian town of Franklin was a prosperous logging center. Steamers came up the river from Hobart. Huon pine grew abundantly in the marshy areas upriver. Halfway along the main street, which is the only street, stands a substantial brick-built theater, left over from those halcyon days. No longer used as a playhouse, it was a workshop in a million for us.

John moved fishing boats at Franklin’s rickety wharf so Jackella could get alongside. A heavy-lift crane turned up and, this being Tasmania, the driver knew all about masts and knew exactly what to do. Twenty minutes later, ours lay on trestles on the bank beside an apple shed.

A tangle of rigging and halyards trailed in the grass. Before I began to strip them off, I took a series of close-up photographs.

John’s 10 students, plus the two teachers, shouldered the mast, now much lighter without the rigging, and carried it 320 yards to the entrance doors of the theater. Local police halted traffic as students blocked the road in carefully lining up the mast to enter and pass through the foyer.

The students allocated to me were Simon McCracken, 39, from Western Australia, who was born in Wilmslow, Cheshire, England, and who had given up geology and his job in a mine to become a boatbuilder; and Mark Singleton, 30, from New South Wales, a joiner whose skills in scarfing and gluing were to prove a great asset. There was very little in wood that Mark could not make.

The four sides of our mast are glued; the center is hollow and contains the conduit for the cables. The first evening we cut off 4 feet of one side at the lower end, to be able to inspect the interior. We found a lot more rot than we had anticipated. All four sides at the lower end to a height of between 10 feet and 17 feet had to be replaced. New timber had to be scarfed to the old. It was about that time that we discovered the wood was not Oregon pine, as we had thought, but American spruce, a light, very strong wood, used in aircraft and glider construction. This was a bonus, though repairs would have to be done with Oregon, as spruce was unobtainable in Tasmania.

The gluing was giving way at both spreaders, but fortunately only on the aft side, to which our two sail tracks are screwed. The mast was then more than 20 years old. We had no idea what glue had been used &mdash Jackella was built in Belgium. Both Simon and Mark were scornful about epoxy. Any gluing they were going to do would be with resorcinol. And it now looked as if quite a lot would be done.

It was decided to cut the entire aft side of the mast off from top to bottom in one long piece: a job requiring a steady hand and a good eye. Mark did this very skillfully with an electric saw. When reassembled, the mast would be smaller fore and aft by the saw cut, about a quarter inch, but that couldn’t be helped. To make this cut the mast had to be stripped of all fittings &mdash including the 26 mast steps and the two sail tracks &mdash and of nearly all the paint. With one side removed, we were able to inspect the whole length of the interior. I looked in apprehensively, but luckily there was no further rot.

Finally we began the reassembly. Simon and Mark worked on scarfing three of the sides onto the lower end. Clamps were used to hold the two parts together until the glue had set. When the aft side in its entirety, except for a few feet at the lower end, was glued back on, 50 clamps were used. Beforehand, I unrolled two rolls of aluminum foil in the mast from the upper spreaders to the truck, hoping they might act as a radar reflector (so far the success of this at sea is indeterminate).

When the four sides were back together, the bare wood was treated with four coats of Everdure epoxy sealer, followed by two undercoats and four topcoats of marine enamel, all put on with a roller. This was slow work because of the drying time between coats. In putting back the tracks, 200 silicon bronze screws were used.

The spreaders had small local areas of rot; so Simon made new ones of celery-top pine, a hard, durable Tasmanian wood.

Hardly a morning went by without someone wandering in to see what I was doing &mdash usually sweeping up the shavings. The work had taken three months.

My wife, Lella, bought 48 cans of Boags (Tasmanian) beer and once again, the students, the teachers and several newfound friends shouldered the mast. The police again controlled traffic.

Working on the riverbank near the apple shed, I spent a day clipping on the new rigging, using new split pins. My photos helped me get the right bits in the right places. The imperturbable crane driver appeared and took all of 10 minutes to attach his strop, lift the mast and place its base on exactly the right spot on the coach roof. Hardly a word was spoken. John was smiling. We began to attach the lower ends of the rigging, and with the mast once again standing, Jackella looked like a yacht again. The curtain had finally fallen on the last act. There was a round of applause.

Editor’s Note: John and Ruth Young are no longer connected with the Shipwright’s Point School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Franklin, Tasmania. It is now owned and run by STEPS (Southern Training, Employment & Placement Solutions), a Tasmanian independent, non-profit organization. Diploma boatbuilding courses of 18 months’ duration are still taking place.

By Ocean Navigator