Maintaining a schooner from another time

To the editor: One of the more interesting — and frustrating — aspects to owning a fairly large, old wooden vessel is finding parts that will fit the particular requirements of these old boats. The industry that once supported them — the shipyards with legions of workers who were skilled at caulking, framing, planking, rigging and even repairing, and the companies that manufactured all their fastenings and hardware — has all but disappeared. There are specialty shops, to be sure. There are high-end yacht yards that will do anything for the right price. But I’m referring to the basic, no-frills hardware, the items you bought off the shelf for pennies a hundred years ago. As a result, I often find myself improvising, attempting to strike the right balance between do-it-yourself and paying a skilled shop to perform custom work. I am a partner in Portland Schooner Co., a company that, since the summer of 2002, has been operating the 1924 Alden schooner Bagheera out of Portland, Maine. Admittedly, I am lucky to be in Maine; if I had to maintain this boat in just about any other state, I would not have the luxury of contact with the remaining people who understand the needs of old wooden boats.

When I had the boat hauled at the end of last season, I spent some time puzzling about how to remove the remaining foot or so of water that was left in the bilge. In the old days, I was told, a hole was drilled in the planking and then plugged with a dowel and bunged. This was done every time the boat was hauled out for any period of time. I think I’ll haul the boat every year, which means I’ll have a garboard plank riddled with holes if I drill a new drain each time, or a very worn hole that will get progressively larger over the years. I decided against this idea, despite the apparent simplicity.

And then there was the option of installing the silicon bronze garboard plug, a fairly common piece of hardware available at most marine retailers. I found that Hamilton Marine outfitters carried bronze garboard plugs of various sizes, but I didn’t want to buy one until I could find out the thickness of the hull planking. So, I sponged out as much water as I could after the pumps reached their limit and drilled a small pilot hole, something that would allow me to drain the water and then determine the thickness of the hull. (Drilling a hole into the garboard of your boat is a counter-intuitive an act — yet oddly satisfying when the water came dribbling out.)

I then poked a screwdriver into the hole from the inside and, climbing back outside, marked the shaft of the screwdriver flush with the hull with a permanent marker. I went back inside, pulled out the screwdriver and then measured the thickness: 1 1/2 inches. I repeated the measurement three or four times to be absolutely certain, and then I wandered over to Hamilton Marine, which is 300 yards away from where the boat was sitting. I spent a good 45 minutes in the through-hull section of the store, rummaging through the various plugs and working with the employees to find one that fit. It turned out that there was no garboard plug available — anywhere in the country — for a hull that is more than about 1 inch thick. I went home and searched the Internet, to no avail. I was told that numerous companies used to make standard garboard plugs for a boat my size, but I was on my own nowadays.

I considered purchasing a through-hull fitting and having the inside threaded, but I was worried that this would take off too much metal from an important fitting that is already pretty thin. Ultimately, I chose to purchase a basic through-hull fitting — the standard one was too short, of course — that was 6 inches long. I would drill a hole into the plank with a hole saw, slather the fitting with 5200, insert it into the hole, tighten the backing nut and then cap the through-hull fitting with a standard bronze pipe cap. I would have to cut the through-hull back to the right size, but it was the only option. When I install the cap in the spring, I will, of course, use Teflon tape on the cap and seal it with Boatlife or another similar goo.

While it took a bit longer than I expected, the project was a success — and I even saved some money, since per-made, bronze garboard plugs run to more than $50, and the fittings I assembled were under $20.

Contributing Editor Twain Braden lives on Peaks Island in Maine.

By Ocean Navigator