The adventures of the merry band of misfits who call Dock Six in Port Dover their summer home. Boat repair, boat maintenance, boat building, boat cruises, boat philosophy, boat recipes and just plain boats are the focus, fueled by good food, good friends and cheap booze. Welcome!
Thursday, 18 December 2014
A Winter's Ponderings
"You'd be well on your way, if you could only set sail..." -Kenny Loggins
Long nights, short days, water too hard to
sail in, and an off-season maintenance punchlist with an emphasis on sanding,
sanding, more sanding and refinishing leaves me with lots of time to think.
(I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing-
I sand cockpit grates, cockpit tables and companionway doors preparatory to their
semi-annual renewal coat of varnish, and consider new projects that will turn
big pieces of wood into smaller pieces of wood and large piles of sawdust, I find myself pondering:
Why do I do this, this varnishing thing?
Why don’t I use that newfangled synthetic, fast-drying, easy to apply,
orangey-looking stuff that so many sailors swear by, that requires only two
coats, and a lot less sanding? It would
take so much less time, and it works almost as well, and it looks almost the
…and it ain’t right.
As I was laying down the finish coat,
watching the varnish bring the grain to life, I realized that there
is something zen about varnish. The
smell, the feel , the magic as it goes on, the connection to dozens of
generations of boatkeepers who have gone before , doing the same off-season refinishing job, and
likely asking themselves “Why?”
Varnish is about keeping the fire.
To me, that is a big part of the appeal of
keeping the fire.
But that fire grows a little dimmer, every
Here’s what I mean:
For millennia, sailing vessels were
constructed of wood, with sails and lines of natural fibre, caulked and sealed
with vile tarrish concoctions boiled over a fire from ingredients fit for
neither man nor beast. Legend says that
any brew too thin to seal wooden boats was re-marketed to the pub trade under
the brand name Guinness, and any goop too thick to caulk a hull was jarred and
sold as Marmite.
(Hey, watch it! I like Marmite! – ed.)
For centuries the traditions were handed
down, from wright to wright and boatswain to boatswain, and while there was
advancement in design, materials and construction methods stayed pretty much the
same. A 15th century boatbuilder would
have gotten along pretty well in an early 20th century boatyard,
since the tools and techniques hadn’t changed much.
Aboard, the same pattern held true. Lanterns and lamps dimly lit the way for
centuries, flags were the only option for communication beyond range of voice
and navigation was an arcane art of sun shots and celestial scrutiny.
The fire was kept, the torch passed,
from one generation to the next.
Then, in a span of less than five decades, the
world of small boats saw more technological advancement than had been seen in
the entirety of the past five millennia.
Within the last half of the 20th
century, fiberglass had virtually replaced wood as the material of choice for
production boat building. Aluminum had
virtually replaced wood for construction of spars, electric lighting had
virtually replaced lanterns and lamps, radio had virtually replaced signal
flags and Loran, and then chartplotters, virtually replaced the sextant and dead
great naval architect L. Francis Herreshoff might have denigrated
fiberglass as “frozen snot,” …but it turned out to be very successful snot
Thanks to snot, boats could be built
faster, with less skilled labour, requiring less maintenance.
The upside was that sailing became a more
accessible option for the everyman.
The downside was that the fire dimmed.
Skills that had been passed down for
generations, from sailor to sailor, became, first, quaint,…
… and then forgotten.
Quick, how many of us carry a full
complement of signal flags aboard? How
many of us have caulking irons and mallets in our tool bags?
How many of us know what caulking irons are?
don’t get me wrong- I love the reduced maintenance and longer lifespan of fiberglass
hulls and alloy spars and synthetic sails, and I think my radio and
chartplotter are wonderful tools to have aboard. I appreciate that I DON’T
have to keep caulking irons and mallets in my toolbag…
… however, I draw the line at slathering
the wood on my craft with some synthetic that is cheaper, and easier, and
faster and almost the same, if you squint.
See, I figure there is magic in boat work,
a purity of process, an adventure of design and construction that envelopes the
senses- the sound of the saw, the sight of brightwork glistening, the smell of
varnish... it is poetry.
maybe it’s just fumes.
Whatever it is, it ain’t much, but I’m
keeping the flame, as best I can. "Talk the Dock!"