Projects – A Study in Safety

By Chris Edmonson

In the last two years I bought another sailboat. The purchase was not about finding a boat in perfect condition where everything worked already. What I wanted was a project. This project needed some elements of difficulty that I had not yet tackled in the upkeep of a boat but it could not be a ground up build or I would never complete it.

Most of the boats I saw were closer to the latter category of complexity than they were to a completed boat. Finally a project boat of the right sort passed in front of me. At least things seemed to come together in the right proportions of grief and promise. I had, sometime before, come across a project boat that had the important ingredient of coming with a trailer. I contemplated the bare hull for a while as my future project but the list of parts and sub-projects was so long that I quickly decided that the acquisition of the trailer was the important thing. I kept looking for a boat to put on the trailer. In the meantime I did a little work on the hull and eventually found someone wanting to take the hull without the trailer.
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Then there on EBay was a boat pictured afloat in San Diego bay and the phone number was for someone in Tucson. I watched the ad for a couple of days and nothing happened. I wrote an e-mail saying that if no sale occurred that I might be interested but would first want to see the boat in person. Sure enough the boat, a 1969 Columbia 26 Mk II, did not sell and I got a return e-mail from the owner, Tom. The next thing I knew I had made arrangements to meet Tom in San Diego and visit the boat.

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The boat’s story was that Tom was not a sailor. He had used the boat for a few years as a place to stay in San Diego and liked staying on the Laurel street mooring out in the bay. Almost nothing worked as I made the rounds inspecting every part of the boat. The rigging was tired; there was water in the bilge and the keel bolt showed as a rusty mess, the electrical system was hopelessly corroded; woodwork and topsides worn and deteriorated; the bottom paint chipped and the bottom foul; in other words, perfect.
Lots of projects here but the basic boat seemed intact and in 1969 they were not building a very Tupperware sort of craft.

We came to an agreement on price quickly because he did not want to have to go through the inspection process to renew his mooring certificate that was currently over due. This annual necessity meant this increasingly dysfunctional yacht would eventually be declared unfit junk and no longer allowed access to the mooring. This is a part of the rules that keeps derelict boats out of San Diego anchorages although it can take years to force a boat off the bay.

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To condense the story some let’s just say that after a few months I got the boat on a trailer and towed it home. There had been a few weeks when I still had the old hull on the trailer and had not found anyone who might want that project. It caused me some moments of doubt but that story is for another time.

Back in Tucson with my new old boat I started making lists of prioritized sub-elements of what needed to be done. On the surface of things I wanted to start on the cosmetic features right away but realized that the underlying mechanical/safety challenges had to have my immediate focus. I had temporarily dealt with the foul bottom while still in San Diego so I started with the standing rigging and tracing the electrical system. The navigation lights were the standard old 10 watt bulb type that had burned through the plastic lenses. The single battery sat in an unsecured place under the settee. The electrical panel was corroded and the fuse holders were broken and non-functioning. The running rigging was frayed and well past being on its last sail. The standing rigging was just old, and with bronze fittings, not to be trusted. The sails, if one could truly call them that, were a dingy, ill fitting set of rags. Miraculously the VHF worked but the antenna, low on the stern, would not have much range. The life lines were okay but their bases were leaky and needed to be re-bedded. The list was so long that by the time I got to the cosmetics portion of the list I was wondering if I would ever get through the maze of work to be done to get that far.

While I organized the projects in terms of materials needed and the absolute necessity of completion before launching I also organized them so that I would mix them with visible signs of progress between projects that would not show much progress. This would help keep the motivation alive in continuing to do the work. It would be slow going and I knew it from the start.

Things like badly deteriorated tiller showed early promise as items that could be restored. In fact, most of the wood working issues could be interspersed with heavy projects. I sought help on the rebuilding of the forward hatch cover because it wasn’t just a matter of sanding, oiling and varnishing. John Eichelberger helped me overcome the wood butcher in me long enough to take the old teak frame apart and make it as good as new.

Some of the projects were where combinations of the list came together. The stove, for instance, posed a combined set of problems. When I investigated the old pressure alcohol stove it was sure to burn the boat down to the waterline. I took the old stove out of the boat and set it up on a work bench that I had pulled out of the shop. When I lit it flames came from everywhere. Since there was a lot of unused space under and behind the counter where the stove fit in it looked like a good place for the main casing of the shortwave (SSB) radio to go. I needed a new propane stove to go where the leaky old stove had been and it all meant that new plumbing and electrical installations were required. The cut out for the new stove was smaller than for the old stove so the dominoes began to mount. That is, two simple changes started to make for several other related changes.

It is the nature of small boats that everything is interconnected. You cannot change one thing without affecting at least one other thing. The safety quotient is exceeded when half the boat is on the ground outside the boat and you forget what project you started with. What was the goal? The old saw about draining the swamp being hard to remember when you are up to your rear in alligators comes to mind.

One of the potentially most difficult issues I bumped into came about when I looked closely at the keel bolts and knew that my initial impression had been correct but only partially understood. That is, the bolts were corroded and would have to be replaced but I had not counted on one of them breaking off when I tried to get it out. From the internet I had gotten construction drawings of the keel fastening system used on this boat and had a pretty good idea how it was put together. When I took the bolts out I was not totally surprised that salt water came bubbling to the top of the bolt hole. It took several weeks of wicking the water out and coming to ways to fix this problem that made sense. I had vacillated between radical solutions like separating the hull away from the keel to trying to drill out the old bolt or similar solutions. That’s when Rex Weedon saved me from my indecision. We had been talking around the problem for a few months whenever we got together I would explain my latest theory. Then Rex came over and we sawed out a hole around the intransigent stud and with a little penetrating oil out it came.

This solution really lit a fire under me to complete the projects and get the boat in the water. I was much more certain of the good outcome I envisioned when I bought the boat.

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It may be that you have inspected your rigging recently and you are satisfied that nothing will unravel anytime soon. It the case of this boat it was obvious that the rigging (both running and standing) was shot. The, “let’s replace the whole mess,” thought was the only way out. The rigger’s shop I know in San Diego is very reasonable but added into the overall time line of getting the boat done. That’s the other issue you get into. You want to go sailing NOW but the list says it will be a while. There is no room for impatience. Getting to the finish line is about taking whatever spins of the clock it takes to get to the end of the check list.

So, be ready, be safe and take your time to get there. Until next time… have a great month with your already ready boat!

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