Failure and Humiliation

August 24, 2012

The green line was my planned route. The red line is what I actually did. Read on to hear my tale of woe.

My new home of Ithaca is freshwater sailor’s paradise. Sitting on the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, there are at least three marinas within city limits. But finding my own path to the water was surprisingly difficult.

Here’s the problem: All of Ithaca’s marinas are located along a narrow, mile-long inlet—a partially manmade channel, as far as I can tell–that extends from the southern end of the lake and into the western edge of the city. It’s a bustling waterway; sailboats line docks, rented canoes and kayaks wander about with aimless enthusiasm, and a large tour boat embarks on regularly scheduled trips into the lake.  But when I started calling marinas, looking for a place to park my trailer and launch my boat, I was turned away. The inlet, I was told, was too narrow to sail and the lake was too far away to paddle. Because I didn’t have a motor, I would have to take my boat elsewhere.

I continued to make calls and eventually reached the very friendly owner of one the town’s scruffier boatyards. He listened to my dilemma and suggested that I try launching from a state-owned marina near the mouth of the lake. The park’s boat ramps were still in the inlet, he explained, but closer to open water; maybe I could sail out from there.  As for storing the boat, he had space in one of his open sided sheds and would give me a late season discount. I gratefully accepted his offer, checked this problem off my moving to do list, and continued packing up our Pennsylvania home.

We moved like Okies. My wife drove our good car with two vomiting cats, my oldest son drove the unreliable Subaru station wagon, and I followed in the U-Haul—with the sailboat hitched behind. We moved slowly and stopped often, but arrived safely.

By our second day in Ithaca I had the boat tucked away at the boatyard and for the next two or three weeks I was fully occupied by the excitement of exploring our new town. Even outings for the most prosaic reasons—groceries, gas, shower curtains—were infused with a sense of adventure. With road map in hand, we would find our way to the supermarket, the hardware store, the downtown shopping district, exclaiming like tourists in a foreign land as we explored each.

But once our furniture was arranged and our suitcases unpacked, I began to think about the boat. I knew that I should sail. Summer was nearly over and the long New York winter would soon begin; it would be wrong to let the season pass. Yet I hesitated. Publicly, I blamed my delay on work or the weather. Privately, I acknowledged that I was intimidated by my new homeport.

Sailing on Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon was like playing in the little leagues; we were all amateurs and the lake was small. But this was the big time. Lake Cayuga felt massive and many of the boats docked around town represented the “A” list of America’s nautical heritage. In Pennsylvania, I received accolades simply because I was the only wooden boat on the water, but here I competed with ocean going keelboats, restored Chris-Craft cabin cruisers, elegant cat boats, and a half dozen other vessels ready for the cover of Wood Boat magazine. I suddenly felt like a country kid coming into town with a torn suitcase and straw in my hair—hot stuff back home, but an object of derision in the big city. All of my insecurities emerged and I worried about launching my boat in front of people with years of real sailing experience.

But I couldn’t delay forever so I picked a sunny day with light winds. With my teenage twins, I picked up the boat, towed it a mile to the state marine park and surveyed the scene. Because it was also a weekday, I had hoped for an empty boat ramp and no witnesses. But to my dismay, the waterfront was a hive of activity. Several ramps were occupied with arriving or embarking powerboats as onlookers sat on the grass and park benches. My heart sank as I realized that my launching would be a public event.

Small problems cropped up right away. Not until I started raising the mast—a task I complete while the boat is still on the trailer—did I realize that a turnbuckle was missing. It probably unwound itself and fell off during the drive to New York, but it had to be replaced before I could secure the mast and get underway. While the kids waited by the boat, I drove to a nearby hardware store (making a few wrong turns down unfamiliar streets) and bought a new one. Back at the boat, it took at least half an hour to put it all together.

By now it was a hot, cloudless day. Jumping on and off the boat from the steaming parking lot exhausted me and by the time the mast was finally raised, I was covered in sweat. Already tired, I backed the trailer—somewhat inelegantly—down the ramp and, with help from my kids, quickly pushed the boat into the water. After parking the trailer, I jumped aboard and announced that we were ready to go.

That’s when the second problem became obvious. In my rush to get going, I forgot to install the rudder, which I had removed from the transom before the move. While the boat started drifting away from the dock, I threw myself into the cabin, pulled out the rudder and pounded it into place while leaning so far out of the boat I nearly tumbled into the water. Even under ideal conditions, I often struggle to attach the rudder and normally use a hammer to fit the pins into the homemade hinges. Without tools, I accomplished the task with a bare fist and adrenaline. I collapsed into the boat with a sore hand and a shaking arm.

Still, there was no time to rest; we were in open water and I needed to raise the sail. So with my son at the tiller, I stepped forward and started hauling up the halyard and gaff lines as quickly as possible. And here, inevitably, was where the third problem emerged. Working too quickly, I let lines get tangled around pulleys at the top of the mast. The sail went up, but not quite all the way; it looked sloppy and the one real features of my boat—cool gaff rigging—was marred by the mistake. But I didn’t have time to drop the sail and straighten out the lines because the final and, ultimately, most serious problem was now becoming apparent: The wind had died and we were adrift.

Before setting off, my plan—such as it was—assumed that I could sail up the channel and into the lake proper, nearly a quarter mile away. At the time, I was not worried about the amount of wind, only it’s direction. Because I needed to head north, straight into the prevailing wind, I would have to complete a series of very short tacks, crisscrossing the inlet while heading upwind, like this:

 I had never done this before, but I felt it was possible. I had read stories about sailboats much larger than mine “short tacking” their way up rivers and narrow waterways. But without wind, tacking–or any other form of controlled movement–now existed in the realm of idle speculation.

Waiting for the wind to pick up was not a solution either. Once we were on the water, I ruefully acknowledged that the inlet was probably too narrow for tacking in my boat and that I would be a hazard to navigation if I tried. With so many powerboats heading in both directions, any attempt to zig zag up the inlet while under sail would be like driving a very slow car back and forth across four lanes of Interstate traffic. As a plan, it was both impractical and dangerous.

By now, we had more or less drifted to the opposite bank. With my kids at the tiller, I grabbed a paddle with the immediate goal of avoiding the shore and the possible long term goal of paddling all the way to the lake. I don’t know why I thought this was possible; I was hot, thirsty, drenched in sweat, and a little bit sunburned. Clearly, I didn’t have the energy required to accomplish such an Olympian task. But I think I was motivated by a strong desire to get away from the boat ramp which, after all this time and effort, was still just a stone’s throw away. I imagined that a dozen eyes were watching our hapless struggle.

Digging into the water with my little paddle, the boat moved as if through glue. Time slowed and passing boats became an indistinguishable blur of movement. And this was when I hit the low point of my day—and of my sailing career to date. Amid my struggles, the captain of a passing motor boat hailed me from a short distance away and, pointing to my mast, said something that my brain could not properly process, but was definitely not a complement. In a tone of reproach, it sounded like “Your luff is loose,” or maybe, “Your halyard is hashed,” but in either case I knew what he was driving at and the note of judgment was clear enough.  Because I was beyond rational thought and coherent communication, I simply paused in my paddling and offered him a weary shrug in reply. Inexplicably, he shrugged back and roared off.

I took this as a sign from God that it was time to give up. Having achieved both failure and humiliation—the twin horsemen of my nautical nightmares—I told my kids that it we should go home. Slowing, publicly, I paddled us back to the launch we had left only a short time before. Our total journey on our very first outing was about 200 nautical feet—and we never even reached Lake Cayuga.

I pulled the boat out of the water and solemnly drove it back its storage space in the nearby boatyard. I closed the cabin hatch, locked the trailer to a post, and drove away. And there it stayed until the following spring.


A New Home Port

August 20, 2012

A nineteenth century view of Lake Cayuga. Remarkably, it still looks like this in some places.

I started building my boat because, to be honest, I was unhappy. And one cause of my unhappiness was our home. Ten years ago we bought a 200-year-old stone house in a semi-rural corner of eastern Pennsylvania, charmed by the exposed beams, pine floors and deep window wells. Smitten by the house, we were tone deaf to the culture of the surrounding community. While I lived by the rules of suburban conventionality (be quiet, be tidy, be polite), my neighbors surprised me by, for example, firing guns from their back porches after a night of heavy drinking and idling Harley motorcycles in their front yards.

Most were friendly, but none could figure us out. I worked at home and, as one neighbor summarized, “did something with computers.” We could chat about the weather, but wisely avoided religion, politics and professional sports (about which I know absolutely nothing). I was starved for intellectual companionship, but found none. To buck up my spirits, I made frequent trips to distant cities, just to sit in cafes, browse bookstores, and see people who shared a similar set of life experiences.

Because I disliked our community, I grew resentful of our house. In previous homes, I was always mister fix-it, eager to paint, patch, build and garden. But our ancient, crumbling home defeated me. I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm needed to keep up with the weeds, the peeling paint, the rotting windowsills, or the leaky roof and I resented every dollar spent on antique septic systems, faulty electrical wiring, and crumbing stucco.  Yet leaving didn’t feel like an option. Because the real estate market was dead in our blue collar community, we felt trapped.

Sailing was, in this way, more than a psychological escape. It was, to some extent, the dream of physical escape. As I worked in my garage, I felt like an inmate at Alcatraz, secretly building my raft to freedom. These dreams of serenely gliding to Bora Bora grew more vivid every time the local Harley bike club roared by– twenty, thirty, forty bikes at a time—violating every municipal noise ordinance devised in the Western world.  And I redoubled my efforts when reminded that the “grand dragon” of the local KKK lived just down the road.

And then, one day, I finished building my boat. I loaded it on a trailer, drove it to a lake, sailed around, and then…came home. A few hours had passed—I was tan and happy—but nothing fundamental had changed. A small boat on an inland lake was, quite obviously, not going to take me away from my house. And a few trips on the Chesapeake wouldn’t magically heal a leaky roof, or produce a neighbor eager to chat about art, history, or philosophy.

The boat was a kind of therapy when I needed hope and a distraction. But it was not a real solution to my problems. Obviously, the only real way to get away was to leave in a more conventional manner: Put up a for sale sign, pack boxes, rent a U-Haul truck and drive off. And two months after I finished the boat, that’s what we did. The market was still bad, but we no longer cared. Life is short and we were miserable.

I sometimes wonder what role, if any, my boat building project really had on the timing of our move. Did the effort and emotional energy devoted to building the boat delay the day of reckoning and keep us tied to Pennsylvania longer than necessary? Possibly. But I think the opposite is true. I believe that building a boat helped me imagine a richer life and articulate my values and my dreams. It could not be the means of my physical escape, but it nurtured the emotional fortitude needed to make a change that was complex and financially unwise.

On the rebound, we decided to find a town that was, to the greatest extent possible, the exact opposite of everything we experienced in rural Pennsylvania. After many exploratory trips—Asheville, North Carolina; Bisbee, Arizona; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Portland, Oregon—we settled on Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell University and a well-known outpost of progressive thought. How much cooler is Ithaca? Well, it has four bookstores within four square blocks and actually supports a multiplex art movie house.  I can go to a different café every day of the week– and agonize over which one makes the better cappuccino.

And, oh, yes, it happens to sit on the shore of Lake Cayuga, the largest of New York’s famed Finger Lakes. Only a few miles wide, but 38 miles long, it is filled with dozens of sailboats, both large and small, on breezy summer days. Officially, the lake was not a factor in our decision-making, but, unofficially, I was consulting charts even before we found a house to rent.

And that’s when I discovered that the lake is also connected to the famed Erie Canal, which meant—get this!–that I could embark from my home and sail, unimpeded, all the way to the Great Lakes or the Atlantic and destinations beyond. My mind reeled at the possibilities:  Montreal, New Orleans, and Bimini were all there for the taking, requiring only a right turn or left turn once I reached the top of my lake. My dream of sailing away was rekindled and burned bright.

The move was hard and stressful. Our Pennsylvania house didn’t sell and when it finally did, nine months after we left, it went for a firesale price. But we never regretted the decision to leave, or our choice of destinations. For the first six months, I walked around town with a goofy “pinch-me” smile and drank up the artsy-bookish culture like a man who had nearly died of thirst. I marveled that people related to my work as writer and we found ourselves in the disorienting position of not being the most liberal people in the county. My kids liked their new school and my wife started making connections that would lead to rewarding employment.

All was right with the world—except for one thing: I had not yet sailed my boat. And accomplishing this goal turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult and, initially, humiliating task.

On the trailer and out of the garage

June 2, 2011

It’s late and I’m tired, but it was a productive day. I’ll fill in the details later, but here are the highlights:

I bought the trailer a few days ago and spent a couple of days making necessary modifications. I needed to fabricate a slot to support the Pocket Cruiser’s distinctive keel, elevate the bunkers, and move the axels a foot forward in order to lower the tongue weight. (I learned a great deal about trailers this week. The salesman explained that most trailers are built for power boats, which carry their weight in the back. In contrast, sailboats carry most of their weight in the front. To balance the weight more evenly, it is generally necessary to move the wheels forward.)

Getting the boat on the trailer was a nerve wracking task, although it was, in the end, relatively easy. With help from my kids, I was able to lever the front end onto the trailer, elevate the back on five gallon buckets, and winch it forward. What a relief it was to see it safely settled on the trailer!

A couple of days later, after completing most of the rigging, I hitched the boat to the car and pulled it out of the garage. This was a moment’s work, but it felt momentous. After all, this was the first time the boat had left the garage. My kids’ first response: “That’s a small boat.” And they were right. Outside, the boat seemed to shrink. “It will look even smaller on the Chesapeake Bay,” I predicted.

Once outside, I was able to raise the mast and attach the stays—wire rope used to support the mast. Once in place, I raised the sail to the top for the first time and guess what? It worked. By golly, the gaff rose with only minimal effort and took the full sail along for the ride. A puff of wind started yanking at the sail and I quickly dropped it back down, but I felt satisfied. Aside from some tinkering and final lashing, I’m just about ready to sail.

I learned the hard way to not make predictions, but my plan is to take the boat to the water in the coming week. More work remains (the jib isn’t finished), but it’s ready for a quick test run. At last, I’ll finally learn if this thing will actually float.

Cheers to my daughter, who documented the whole process with her camera.

Cleaning up after the party

January 7, 2011

Do you know how you feel after eating a large meal when the sight of food—the very thought of food—becomes repellant?

That’s how I started feeling about boat building in November.

Let’s review 2010. Between March and October I spent nearly every free minute working on my Pocket Cruiser. In the process, I ignored important household repairs, watched weeds take over my garden, and—as the crowning touch–developed a serious and worrisome allergic reaction to marine epoxy. I coughed for weeks like a smoker with emphysema. Half of my wardrobe was spattered with glue or paint.

When autumn arrived and I realized that my boat would not be ready to launch before cold weather hit, I suddenly shifted tactics and in less than a month built a plywood canoe, just so that I could say that I had finished something. Working against the clock, I painted the hull in near freezing temperatures and raced to a nearby lake with a couple of crudely built paddles, hours ahead of a cold snap. I paddled around the lake a maniac, barely noticing how spritely the canoe handled.

The canoe hit the water in late October. It was a beautiful day and my twins had a great time trying not to capsize. It moved gracefully and didn't have a single leak, but I was so frazzled that I hardly paused to celebrate.

I am at last posting some pictures of the canoe on its launch day. The day was beautiful and the kids had a good time, but I was exhausted and the event felt like just another item to check off my to do list. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the lake at the time.

I had worked all summer like a man possessed, and not in a good way. The boat had become more than a hobby. It was no longer my mid-life therapy. And amid the frustrations and self imposed deadlines my enthusiasm waned and my original motivations seemed, at best, distant and unclear. Why did I every think it would be fun to sail down the Chesapeake? Why did I think it was important to fulfill this particular fantasy? Standing in a garage that looked like a woodworker’s war zone—wood scraps, debris, and disorganized boxes filled every corner—I really wanted it all to just go away. I closed the door on the garage and ignored my blog.

And so December passed and the new year arrived.

A Christmas snowstorm provided cover for my ennui. I couldn’t work on the boat even if I wanted to. But a few days ago temperatures climbed into the high 40’s. I wandered outside to refill the bird feeders and started sweeping out our basement. That made me feel better about life, so the next day, I decided to confront some of the chaos in the garage. Not all of it; just one corner. A few hours later I had cleared out piles of old lumber and other junk, sorting it all into neat “donate” and “throw away” piles.

At first I ignored the boat. But as I swept the floor and created new vistas of open space, I finally paused to inspect the Pocket Cruiser. It still seemed dusty and forlorn; an unfinished homemade boat in a dirty garage can, under gloomy florescent lights on a grey winter day, look too much like a crudely assembled plywood box. But as my cleaning progressed, my mood improved, especially after the clouds parted and, for a few minutes, rays of sunlight streamed through the open doorway. For the first time in months, I walked around the boat and thought about what it would take to finish by spring. A bit of my old enthusiasm returned.

So maybe I’ll finish the boat after all and maybe I’ll get around to buying a trailer and—who knows—I might even fulfill my original plan and sail down the Chesapeake. I’m hopeful. But in the meantime, I still need to finish cleaning the garage.

The Final Countdown

August 6, 2010

After turning the boat back over about a month ago, I set to work on a long list of small tasks. Every day or two I would check off an item and move on to the next. No single task seemed especially newsworthy. But I now realize that a great deal has changed and that—dare I say it?—the boat might be finished in as little as a month if I can keep up the current pace.

But before I start the final sprint, here is a quick overview of the progress to date, presented in no particular order of importance:

Bilge Boards Completed

One of two bilgeboards

Edge view

There are two bilge boards, which act as off-center centerboards. I had never heard of bilge boards before starting this project, but they are a very nice feature of the boat since they sit on either side of the hull and don’t break up cabin space.

My instructions told me to build the boards from ¾ inch pine or fir, but I chose instead to laminate two 3/8 inch pieces of plywood, which is the method recommended by most other builders. The laminated plywood is considerably stronger than a single pine board and less inclined to crack or break when it hits something.

I’m not an engineer so I don’t fully understand all of the technical aspects of their shape and performance, but I knew it is necessary to round the front edge of the boards and gently feather the back ends. My instructions were hazy on the details, but I found detailed instructions for the proper curvature from Jim Michalak’s book, Boat Building for Beginners and Beyond. His similarly shaped leeboards look somewhat like airplane wings and I followed his measurements. I started with my hand plane and finished up with a belt sander.

I then added a cherry cap to hold it in place on the deck and did a quick and dirty ‘glassing job. In this photo, the board is freshly glassed but not yet sanded. To finish this project, I will varnish the cherry and paint the boards.

Rubrails Fabricated and Installed

Front view. The blue painters tape is protecting the hull while I varnish the rails.

And here's a side view.

The rubrails were the next item on my list. Both are made from humble pine. I suppose cherry or oak would be more durable, but I am in a rush and don’t want to spend the money on hardwood. The instructions told me to use one inch half-round molding, but I ripped the pieces from boards in my shop and rounded the edges with my router. Both were attached with epoxy and screws, which seemed logical at the time, but I later read postings from builders who suggested using bedding compound (such as caulking) so that the rails could be more easily removed and replaced when they wear out. Apparently rubrails are meant to be replaced and are considered “consumable”. But I just followed directions and glued them down tight. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the world’s best sailor and will never hit a dock or piling.

I was going to paint the rails, but decided to varnish them instead. To protect the pine, I coated the rails with epoxy and three layers of marine varnish (I’m using a brand called Last n Last). In this picture, you can see the blue painter’s tape I’m using to keep varnish off the hull.

Portholes Assembled

One of four portholes, ready for installation.

A side view, showing the plexiglass and brass bolt.

Around this time I also assembled the boat’s four portholes. Many people buy ready made portholes, but I decided to fabricate mine from ¼ inch plywood and plexiglass, according to the Stevenson’s instructions. The oval porthole frame is protected with two coats of epoxy and three coats of varnish. I don’t know how well it will hold up over time, but new frames can be easily made later on. The plexiglass was easily cut with a fine-toothed blade on my jigsaw. The whole assembly will be held in place with four small brass bolts and made watertight with silicone caulking.

Cockpit Seats and Floor Fiberglassed

The floor and seat bottoms are fiberglassed.

I have grown wary of epoxy. Rashes and persistent respiratory problems suggest that I am developing a strong allergic reaction to the harsh chemicals (symptoms listed on the West Systems Web site describe my conditions perfectly). Fortunately, I was able to finish glassing the hull and decks before my condition worsened. But I still had to work on the cockpit. Taking a minimalist approach I decided to only ‘glass the cockpit floor and the seat bottoms, which are the most exposed and wettest parts of the cockpit. This means I am not ‘glassing the seatbacks or cabin bulkhead; they will simply be painted.

I also view this as an experiment. I repeatedly hear that exterior grade plywood will check if not fiberglassed. But I also hear about exterior grade plywood boats that have been sailing for years with nothing more than paint for protection. So I want to know how quickly and how badly plywood will check. If the answers are “not soon” and “not much” then I will take an even more casual attitude toward fiberglassing in future projects.

Sliding Hatch and Handrails Installed

I built the hatch cover nearly six months ago as a winter project, but it was time to get it installed. I added some edging around the opening in the cabin roof so that the hatch can slide back and forth like a train on a track. The edging, I assume, will also keep out water and rain.

The handrails double as a guide for the sliding hatch. I shaped them with a router and secured them to th roof with bolts.

A front view of the handrail and hatch, showing the sliding rails.

The handrails were especially fun to finish. I rough cut both from cherry some months ago, but I still needed to round the edges with a router. I also added quarter round molding (also made from my cherry) to hold the sliding hatch in place. Finally, I drilled three ¼inch holes down the top of each rail and inserted four inch stainless steel bolts, which go through the cabin roof and hold the rails in place. In this picture, the rails are temporarily bolted in place, but won’t be securely set until the cabin and sliding hatch are painted.

There are still many unchecked items on my to do list. I need to build the mast (probably within a week or two), make the sails, finish painting and…well, you get the idea. When it’s time to sail, you’ll be the first to know.

Epoxy Reconsidered

July 17, 2010

My last post was, I admit, a bit negative and, frankly, not really in character. Any essay titled “Why I Hate Boatbuilding” requires further explanation.

This is sawdust, not epoxy, but you get the idea. I'm smiling here, but I wasn't so happy after sanding the epoxy.

You may recall that I was reacting to a day spent sanding (or “fairing” to use the appropriate terminology) the epoxy-coated hull. Grinding away the uneven surface with a belt sander exposed me to a nasty cloud of epoxy dust, which is both unpleasant and unhealthy. I kept reassuring myself that I was taking extra precaution by using a respirator, but I still developed a persistent cough that lasted for several days.

I was ready to swear off epoxy and fiberglass forever and even now I am aggressively investigating building techniques that limit the use of epoxy. Who knows, my next boat might be a traditionally planked cruiser. More likely, it will simply be another plywood boat, but one that is held together with non-toxic glue, such as Titebond III, and no more fiberglass than necessary to cover the seams.

But I still need to finish this boat, which means that I need to make at least temporary peace with epoxy. Happily, I discovered several strategies that significantly lessen the amount of dust in the air.

First, and most obviously, I needed to get the dust out of the garage. I moved the boat closer to the double garage doors and positioned a fan behind the boat so that, in theory, dust would blow out and disappear. This helped, at least psychologically, as did my decision to keep the respirator on even after I finished sanding. I didn’t want to breathe in particles that lingered in the air.

But what most helped were changes in how I applied epoxy and how I sanded it down. New to the process of fiberglassing, I applied thick and uneven coats to the underside, which simply ended up as dust when I ground it down with the belt sander. But as my skills improved, I learned to apply thin, even coats that require less sanding. That was a major step forward.

Finally, and most recently, I discovered the advantages of wet sanding. This is not really part of my repertoire as a woodworker (you don’t wet sand a cherry table, for example), but a passing reference to this technique by an online correspondent made me curious and I immediately went to the garage, dipped some 80 grit sandpaper in water and discovered that it’s possible to fair the hull without making any dust at all. The disadvantage is that I need to sand by hand (for god’s sake, don’t dunk your belt sander in a bucket), but that’s small price to pay for peace of mind and, besides, I don’t like belt sanders anyway.

So the end of the story is that I no longer worry so much about epoxy and I think I can finish the project without having a visit by the EPA. But I still feel that epoxy and fiberglass—which are treated as necessary and magical ingredients in boat building—deserve to be treated with caution and used sparingly. Time and time again, I see builders deride old or nontoxic techniques for assembling and waterproofing boats. “Don’t use [fill in the blank]; epoxy is better!” is the common refrain. And in some ways, they are right. It’s the strongest, most waterproof adhesive available, as far as I know. But there are always other factors worth considering when choosing glues and coverings—ranging from cost (epoxy is more expensive than other kinds of glues) to environmental considerations (why do I recycle plastic bags in the house, but build a plastic-covered boat in the garage?) to justifiable worries about health (people can develop allergic reactions to uncured epoxy and dust is bad for the lungs).

And, finally, there are aesthetic considerations. At the very least, it’s an unpleasant substance to work with—a material to be tolerated more than enjoyed as it fills the air with acrid fumes and sticks to the skin with irritating tenacity. And anything that takes joy away from a hobby deserves scrutiny.

Finally Fiberglassing

July 4, 2010

The day I dreaded for more than a year arrived earlier this week. After two weeks of sanding, I was finally ready to fiberglass.

Six ounce cloth, pinned into place. The fabic has a nice drape and wrinkles are not a problem.

A close-up of the fabric showing how it meets the edge of the keel.

Applying the first coat.

Now you see it, now you don't. The fabric on the left side turned transparent after the first coat of epoxy.

You might recall that I began preparing for this day nearly six months ago when I practiced fiberglassing the hatch cover and rudder. I quickly learned that fiberglassing, despite its reputation as an alchemist’s art, is relatively straightforward. It is simply the process of adhering a white cloth-like material to plywood with several coats marine epoxy. I am told that this step protects wood with a waterproof membrane, adds some strength, and prevents unsightly checking of douglas fir plywood.

Before beginning work on the hull, I reviewed a wonderfully helpful two minute instructional video produced by West Systems, one of the major epoxy manufacturers. The online video reminded me to place the fiberglass cloth over the bare wood, pour some unthickened epoxy in the center, the gently spread the syrup-like substance over the surface with a rubber paddle, pushing the epoxy toward the edges. The cloth turns nearly transparent as epoxy fills the weave.

In nearly every case, additional coats are recommended to fully fill the weave and leave a smooth surface. It’s possible to wait for the first coat to harden, and then apply a second coat after sanding. That was my strategy with the hatch cover. But the video told me that I could apply the second and third coats after each preceding coat turned about as tacky as masking tape. This produces a stronger bond and eliminates the need for sanding—a real advantage, in my opinion. I hate sanding epoxy. So I set aside the entire day and decided that, come sundown, I would have a fully ‘glassed boat bottom.

Boat builders are an ornery bunch and they can argue over anything and there is an ongoing battle over best weight of fiberglass. It’s possible to buy cloth as thin as fine silk (two or three oz by weight) or as thick as canvas (eight or ten oz). The thinner cloth is lighter and needs less epoxy. However, the heavier fiberglass produces a stronger, more rugged hull. So priorities must be established. Some of us want to build butterflies—spare and elemental; others want tanks—impenetrable and protecting. I can’t help but believe that deeper values and worldviews are being expressed by our choice of cloth.

My choice? In keeping with my personality, I looked for the middle ground and followed the advice of people I know and trust. Chuck Leinweber, editor of Duckworks magazine and merchant of economical boat building supplies, advised me in a series of emails to go as light as possible but add some strength where it counts. His recommendation was six ounce cloth for the bottom, and four ounce cloth for the sides, deck and cockpit. I dutifully complied.
On the appointed day, I began by unrolling fourteen feet of the six ounce fiberglass, laying it along the port side of the boat’s bottom and holding it in place with pushpins spaced every two or three feet. I then trimmed the fabric along the outside edge of the boat, letting it drape over the sides by a couple of inches. I mixed a double batch of epoxy (four squirts of the epoxy, two squirts of hardener) and began the methodical process of adhering the fabric, taking long, firm sweeps across the fabric with my paddle. The goal is to saturate the cloth and avoid bubbles. It sounds tricky, but it’s actually easy work.

When the first coat is finished—five batches in all—I repeated the process on the starboard side. An hour later, I returned to the port side and applied the second coat. This took even less less time and used about half the amount of epoxy. Once again I walked around the boat and did the same thing to the starboard half. Back and forth I went until, by mid afternoon, I had three full coats on both sides.

One part that is not fiberglassed is the boat’s keel. If there is any consensus within the Stevenson boat building community, it is this: Don’t fiberglass the keel, no matter how much you may want to! New builders like the idea of encasing the softwood keel. It makes sense to protect a part of the boat that takes the most abrasion. But experienced builders insist that this actually promotes rot. Water will seep in eventually, get trapped by the fiberglass and do its dirty work. I did paint a thin coat of epoxy over the wood (I couldn’t help myself), but I forced myself to follow the advice of fellow builders and fiberglassed up to, but not over, the keel board.

The only challenge to fiberglassing, as far as I can tell, is learning to apply even coats and avoid drips. In this regard, my skills are poor but improving. The trick, I am learning, is to apply thin coasts. It’s temping to pour on the epoxy in order to get a quick buildup, but this approach almost guarantees a lumpy, uneven finish. The port side was the most uneven; the starboard side was a little better, reflecting the slow evolution of my skills.

I had better luck with the hull sides, which I glassed a couple of days later. For these vertical sides, I couldn’t pour the epoxy over the fabric, so I decided to use a small paint roller. I found that the foam roller easily saturated the cloth, but prevented unnecessary buildup. Each coat went on quickly and, by the end of the day, I felt like an old pro. I hung around for and extra half hour, smoothing out a few drips and sags, but the end result was a surprisingly even finish.

So the step I most feared turned out to be not so bad after all.