Boatyard blues


To the editor: Haul outs are de rigueur for big displacement boaters; the old fun machine must be pulled out regularly for a scrape and a fresh coat of ablative bottom paint. But you see, my wife and I, we’re parents, with careers and kids who run our lives. We barely have time to sail, let alone maintain our weekend fun machine. And so, like many difficult things in life, we put it off, and put it off.

I make a list of all to be done to our Catalina 34, Ukiyo, and I sigh. At first glance it’s exhaustive and overwhelming — an enormous amount of work and money. But I can put it off no longer; the submarine organisms are winning the war of attrition and my zincs are surely shot. It’s not unlike dental hygiene, the longer you delay it, the more painful and expensive the remedy will be.

To be well-organized is paramount here: I divide the list into “Must Do,” mostly running rigging, a manual bilge pump, a DC power panel, and, of course, scraping and painting the hull, and “Would Be Nice,” habited by pricey things like a battery charger, wind vane self-steering, SSB radio, and a water heater. Things that fit into my long-range plans but aren’t crucial.

Examining the first list closely I consider ways to economize each task, and which must be done first. A DIY boatyard will save me thousands in labor, but they are frequently full and I must reserve my haul out date months in advance. I keep an eye out for sales at the chandlery and online for slightly used equipment.

Owning a sailboat teaches you that in life there are only two mutually exclusive ways to do things: the easy way, or the right way. This is a good time to review the expensive mistakes of the past and to not repeat them. Once I brushed on most of a $100 gallon of bottom paint only to realize that I had failed to mix it properly and most of the cuprous oxide was at the bottom of the can. And another time I wasn’t present at the haul out and discovered thousands of hardened barnacles under the wing keel I had to scrape by hand.

That brings up another concern: DIY boat work is physically demanding. My body isn’t what it used to be and climbing that ladder, crawling upside down in the engine room, the bugs, the dust, the heat — whoa, is it too late to take up golf?

The order of the tasks is as important as the tasks themselves. You wouldn’t start with a power wash of the deck, it would be filthy again by the time you hauled it back in the water. Project managers call this “the critical path” and I carefully plot out the order of my tasks the week before my haul out. And then of course, all my planning gets shot to hell. An odd but familiar stench permeates the saloon one day and an inspection of the bilge shows that diesel is leaking at an alarming rate. I hand pump it into jerry jugs as I sail to the boatyard and beg for an early haul.

As she slowly comes out of the St. Johns River, the slime and barnacles are ubiquitous. The yard guys cast me a disgusted look and begin the power wash that ultimately raises the waterline an inch.

As soon as the travel lift backs away, I waste no time and dig in to the first of many tasks. I sand, scrub, saw, rip, wash, tear, lift and curse in the 95°F Florida heat. The sweat pours off me in torrents and I hallucinate a new reality TV show: The Biggest Loser-Boatyard Edition.

After a few days I meet some fellow maintenance men, busy at work on their boats; many have been here for months, even years, and it’s easy to get a sense of dead-end complacency here, a feeling that life is boat maintenance. I’m spurned on to work faster and leave this place. After all, boats are not built for boatyards.

They saunter over to have a look at the new guy’s boat and to proffer advice on paint, tools, where to buy beer, and how to kill bugs. I appreciate the camaraderie and awesome war stories, but I have a lot of work and not a lot of time. I scrape till dark, and use a flashlight to put my tools away. Most nights it’s three Advil and straight to bed.

One by one I knock off the redoubtable tasks, making solid progress until I come to the dreaded fuel tank. I catch a break when I realize that a removable teak panel gives me full access to it, obviating the need to cut through the lazarette. The pounds melt as I struggle in the tiny aft cabin to unfasten the 60-pound quarter-filled leviathan and muscle it out of there. In the cockpit I see that several pinprick holes have corroded through the bottom and I make the decision to replace, rather than repair the 20-year-old tank. Break number two happens when the part arrives and it’s a perfect fit. Installation is fairly simple, and she’s ready to get wet.

But never mind me here, I’m just venting. At the end of the project I have a brand-new used boat, ready for another several years of far-flung sorties into the Atlantic. The back-aches, bruises, and expense are well worth it, and just a part of the fun.

—Robert Beringer keeps his Catalina 34 Ukiyo on the St. Johns River in Florida. He holds a USCG 50-ton license and works as a college administrator in Florida.

By Ocean Navigator