April 8, 2011

To Caulk Or Not To Caulk


Sometimes I think Laser sailors have no imagination at all.

A while back, Tillerman was lamenting having too many regattas and not enough weekends to fit them all in. He asked his readers to come up with excuses for not sailing so he'd have some time for other things.

Frankly, I think the pressure to free up some weekends was coming from another member of his household, but that's just my own theory. And please, don't ask how I arrived at that theory.

But how vast is the sea that separates Laser sailors from those of us with keelboats!

For a keelboat sailor, finding excuses for not going sailing is as easy as falling off a Laser. I have a keelboat, and, because of that boat, I hardly ever go sailing.

In fact, there are some keelboat sailors who never sail at all. They are on the dock every weekend working on one thing or another that needs either fixing or 'preventative' maintenance.

Before I got a boat I thought 'preventative maintenance' meant work you do to keep stuff from breaking. Now I know the only thing it prevents is me from sailing.

The problem is I'm outnumbered. Fighting on the side of good, it's just me. But my enemies are many - an evil axis of rust, corrosion, UV damage, delamination, electrolysis, metal fatigue, and all sorts of other gnarly things with fangs and teeth that go drip in the night.

For many in my position, maintaining a keelboat in itself becomes the primary focus of life. They become gurus - not of sail trim or boatspeed or racing tactics, but of plumbing, electronics tinkering, rig tuning, and diesel engine karma.

Eventually, a hierarchy develops on the docks among those who never sail - the novices (like me), the journeymen, and the masters. But above them - at the very top -  is the most holy and sanctified dock yoda of all, the ultimate high priest of boat maintenance - the Varnish Master.

Every dock has its resident Varnish Master. He is aloof and deigns not speak with the unwashed (guess who). He bestrides the dock like a colossus. His gait is measured and steady. His gaze straight ahead.

Like any other high priest, the Varnish Master is generally a quiet, contemplative individual of few words, closely in touch with both his inner conciousness and the spiritual world. Certain practices of his art may be performed only during specific phases of the moon and alignment of the planets.

Did you know, for example, that critical stages of the varnishing process may commence only two hours after sunrise on days when the relative humidity is below 40 per cent, the temperature below 80 degrees, and the wind not above eight knots and out of the east - the traditional direction of the Epifanes factory?

Varnish Masters serve an elaborate apprenticeship, progressing through ever finer levels of varnish awareness, which are curiously analogous to the grades of wet and dry sandpaper that most of us laymen find so unfathomable.

Eventually, the Varnish Master enters a transcendant state wherein he is at last able to hear the sound of 800-grit sanding.

I realized long ago that I do not have the rigorous mental discipline that is required of a Varnish Master. I have accepted my lot and am content with annual applications of Cetol. But, please, do not reveal this to anyone. I suffer enough humiliation in life as it is.

My Cetol  requires no special gift or intellectual refinement to apply, no incantation of holy texts, no cultivation of sacred brushes, no careful meterological observation, no selfless dedication to a life of endless labor and spartan deprivation. To the Varnish Master, my Cetol is the symbol of all that is base, rotten, uncultured, and morally bankrupt in life.

But in the harsh marine environment, I cling to it for survival.

In a way, Cetol is the touchstone of my slipshod approach to boat maintenenance. I'm just trying to get by - to put off the inevitable for another season. I still hold onto hopes, however slim, of sailing occasionally. And that makes me feel guilty whenever I do manage to sail. I know that somewhere, in the deep recesses of my boat, rust is winning another battle. And it is like any mortal battle - the weak and the unprepared and the uncaulked shall perish.

But unlike the unfortunate Laser sailor, I, at least, can find an excuse to not go sailing whenever I wish.



  1. Do you do bathrooms? What are your rates?

  2. Yes, Anonymous, I do 'bathrooms' as you call them.

    One quickly learns that the most important thing to keep properly maintained on a keelboat is the 'bathroom'. It's one of the few chores on a boat I'm any good at.

  3. The 'bathroom' on my boat always smells like poop. Or Mr. Clean. But being able to 'poop' on your boat?: Priceless

  4. We have a no-poop policy on our boat - one of the luxuries a marina slip affords.

    It's actually a poop-only-in-an-emergency policy, but still makes for easier breathing aboard.

    Isn't it curious, how when discussing keelboat maintenance, the conversation so often turns to poop?

  5. Lets get this topic back on track. As with any spiritual attainment, varnish is not so difficult once you've mastered it.

    I am aware of the contradiction.

    The Varnish Master has probably suffered years of abuse both by self and others and finally come to that peaceful shore where all is harmony and light, where Varnish lasts so much longer than Cetol that the latter is not worth the time, nor effort.

  6. It's always an "emergency" according to those who frequently have them. Something to do with the motion of the boat?

    Doryman, you are a craftsman and perfectionist. I use Cetol.

  7. Baydog, Doryman is more than a craftsman - he is a magician. I fear him.

    I look at the pictures he posts to his blog and I just rub my eyes in wonder.

    He says things like, " so I just set in a few new planks and good as new, again," as if 'setting in planks' (probably the wrong term for what one does with planks) is an everyday activity for mortal men.

    I look at the piles of raw lumber and what supposedly was hewn from them and have serious doubts that mere tools were involved in the process.

  8. If god had meant us to make boats from trees, she would never have invented fiberglass.

  9. I don't dislike wooden boats. In fact, I love them.

    But, they terrify me.

    They're alive. They breathe. They move.

    I suspect that some of them are smarter than I am. The most wily among them have managed to survive longer than I ever will.

    But living with one must be like dating a prom queen. She requires constant attention and, should you turn away for a moment, her beauty fades, her joints weaken, and you're left holding hands with a weeping, old wreck.

    It takes a more devoted man than I - or a magician.

  10. O Docker, sorry to once again stray from the main topic (how unusual), but we have facilities at our marina as well. However, it seems that we actually leave the slip a few more times than you do in the course of a season (wait, your season never ends - now I've confused myself), and there comes a time when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one person to relieve one's self at sea. Hence the "emergency."

    And yes, I love wooden boats too. I think the first boat I sailed by myself was wooden (Sailfish - a wretched boat)

  11. Baydog, for some reason I thought your boat was on a mooring during the season - must have you mixed up with Adam, I guess.

    And, now that I think of it, the first sailboat I was ever on was a Sailfish, too - in Barnegat Bay, of all places, when I was about 12.

    Three of us piled on a rental one afternoon. I think that must have put me off sailboats for about 25 years. I'm pretty sure it was FG, though.

  12. It may have been fiberglass as well, although I didn't think fiberglass was invented in 1967. I remember half of the time out that first day I was thrilled. I'm pretty sure I cried the rest of the time.

  13. Cliff Clavin4/9/11, 10:55 AM

    Fiberglass boats were around long before 1967. The first fiberglass Sailfish came out in 1959.

  14. As many of us know, Epifanes would have languished in relative obscurity and would probably remain there today had it not been brushed to perfection by an enterprising and dedicated San Francisco varnish master and then brought to the world's attention by a passionate San Francisco blogger.

  15. Well it felt like wood.