www.dexdomini.com: S&S Sailboat Restoration

S&S Sailboat Restoration

I was introduced to boating over a decade ago in the Andaman Sea, and I loved it: blessed with a warm, tropical climate and countless islands to explore -- both inhabited and not -- pristine, undisturbed paradises await the capable mariner in that part of the world. Obviously younger, I was also thinner and far more carefree then, so between stints volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia I'd bum rides on friends' boats. With islands being so abundant there, the runs between them are relatively short and you spend little time at sea. That means extended periods at anchor and my job, if you can call it that, pretty much entailed sitting on the bow in a skimpy bikini, fetching drinks for the captain and other shipmates and the occasional backflip off the bowspirit.

The all-new bamboo galley with Danfoss BD-35 compressor fridge; the original wood rotted and had to be completely gutted. A custom spice rack is attached above the radio

Looking forward from the companionway, hundreds of hours went into pulling rusted staples, sanding toxic old foam insulation/headliner and striping, sanding and making old things look new new and shiny

First experiences always impart a deep, formative impact, and seem especially so for us middle-aged people that already have opinions on life, the universe and everything; I'd grown up in the mountainous East Coast where rivers and the Jersey shore were the only aquatic fun, both usually too polluted to dive into. Indeed, I still have vivid, horrific memories of Montezuma-like sicknesses from swimming in American oceans, both East and West coast, the latter because I'd missed the "unhealthy conditions" notice off the Redondo Beach shore (where I lived for 14 years) due to so-called 'overflows' from the nearby El Segundo, CA waste treatment plant. Nasty! That was my learned response to water sports, and I was initially reluctant to even board a boat. Combine that with extreme self-guilt from my previous life as a motorsports editor -- the amount of gasoline, oil, tires, diesel from the vehicle transports, and kerosene from jetting myself and those that worked for me around the world to press introductions for modern, motorized toys was dizzying.

Is there a gas tax to get into Heaven? Or would I be punted down the consumption pipe to roast for eternity? Or is that in Eternity? Work at a Catholic orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world long enough and you'll think nutty thoughts like this. Especially after the Catholic priest/headmaster invites you to his wedding, and asks for a bridal dowry to boot. Combine that lifestyle with floating on the open ocean where the entire world seems a watery, wavy wasteland -- standing on the deck with your eyes about 10 feet off the water imparts a visibility radius of only a bit over four miles, it's easy to feel isolated -- and people get weird. Or weirder, as those of us drawn to the ocean seem an odd sort to begin with. Adrift for 76 days, Steve Callahan unrepentantly finds divinity in most things ocean, especially surrounding the dorados he was spearing to eat, raw. Pretty sure he was talking to them, too. Word to the wise: Never read that book before a big sailing adventure. Regardless, good thing I'm an Atheist and the solution was simple: swear off powerboats. Even the most curmudgeonly of us will admit there's something transcendent about sailing, something greater than the evident sum of the parts -- sail, wind, waves -- it's more beautiful than words on screen can impart. Add all these experiences up and, once I got over my aversion to the ocean, I quickly gained a dislike of powerboats -- especially the big ones that guzzle gallons per nautical mile -- and a love of sailing. With some Callahanian wisdom in mind, well, I figured just don't get a sailboat that wants to kill you. Sailing good. Drowning bad.

When it came time to refinish the interior, I couldn't wait to get rid of the 1970s disco styling you see in so many boats: brightly colored velour cushions, gloss white paint, garish tartan patterns (think: Scottish Kilt). Most believe plaids and bright, contrasting lines inside the cabin contribute to sea sickness -- apparently, they make the disorientation worse. Here, local business owner Alicia Wood covered all the new, dual-density foam cushions with Scotchgaurd-treated tan Sunbrella on the tops and marine vinyl underneath. A great -- albiet expensive -- investment, I think: sitting/sleeping on wet cushions sucks. Alicia also replaced the mainsail sliders, repaired the mainsail's top lift and helped me double insulate the vberth.

Ah, the classic lines of a Bermuda-rigged masthead sloop -- it's a thing of beauty, if you know what we're referring to. Get ready for a whole new jargon when you buy a sailboat. Much of it is customary nonsense -- "galley" for kitchen, "head" for bathroom -- but most of it is critical, and necessary. For instance, there are no "ropes" on a sailboat. The "halyard" is the rope that raises the mainsail, a jib halyard hoists the foresail, the mainsheet holds the clew at the back of the mainsail. Facing forward, port is left and starboard is right -- easy to remember because the word "right" is longer than "left". Starboard is always to the right of the fore end, even if you, personally, are facing backwards (so it'd be on your left). In time-critical situations, you need to understand things such as: "Hard to port! Luff sails!" Turn sharply left and release (ease) the ropes (sheets) holding the bottom, back-end of the sails to de-power the boat.

I fell in love with the upswept bow of my boat the minute I saw it: it can cut through large waves and has extra boyancy in the front, and it kinda gives it a sinister look

So I began to pay attention to boats, and the people who owned and operated them. Patience, plus the willingness and knowledge to constantly work on your vessel all seemed paramount. Sailors, especially those who have stuck with it (and survived) long enough to make it to the Andaman Sea are a resourceful bunch, they can and do fix major breakdowns while at sea. A troublesome one is chainplates that pass through the deck and bolt to an athwartships bulkhead. Under a beam reach -- or an unbraked boom that swings, violently, around with the wind -- the mast will eventually strain the glued-in bulkhead enough to beat it loose. Out comes the fiberglass and resin, on goes the respirator -- grind the broken bits off and lay up new supports. Not fun under the best of conditions, a smelly mess while at anchor. The solution: Get a boat with chainplates directly into the side of the hull, reinforced with proper backing plates. In English, the cables supporting both sides of the mast (which transfers thrust from the sails to the boat, and boats are far heavier than you'd think) must securely attach to the boat's frame, and doing that by bolting them via a supporting brace (chainplate) to plywood that's glued in perpendicular (which is, obviously, in line with the load from the cables on the sides of the mast) to the hull is a bad idea. Why not run them an extra foot to attach to the hull itself? Because a lot of hulls are not thick/strong enough to sustain the load, that's why. Bad idea all around -- remember, "drowning bad."

Sailboats are heavier than they appear because the keel -- the deep "V" under the centerline of the boat -- should be full of tons of lead. Sometimes, as a cost-saving measure, it's full of concrete, which eventually swells from moisture and has to be jackhammered out and replaced. Whatever the ballast material, one cost-cutting method to attach a heavy keel is to raise it up under a finished hull and bolt them together. Thus, you have so-called "keel bolts" that literally hold the whole thing together. A thinner layer of fiberglass is usually then placed over the entire outside. Over time, all things metal rust on sailboats, quicker so on "blue water" or ocean-going saltwater boats than freshwater lake ones. Still, all keel bolts will eventually rust through. Then the keel falls off, the boat is no longer self-righting -- sailboats will usually "knock down" onto their sides if you mess up with too much sail power, and then right themselves. If the keel drops off, it capsizes and stays and you have to swim out "under" it to get free. The week after I bought my boat, two people died when the keel feel off their boat in San Diego bay.

My mental list of "don'ts" was growing as time went on. Back in America for a brief stint in 2005, a friend of mine was kind enough to let me stay on his sailboat in Redondo Beach, California. I always called him "dirty", and the nickname fit because he had a filthy mind and if he knew and liked you, an equally perverted vernacular. But, he was a meticulously clean person, especially so for a guy, and quite handy to boot. So I was surprised at the pervasive diesel smell in his boat. He seemed equally infuriated with wrenching on a leaky engine in cramped, tight spaces. In Asia, I'd grown increasingly disillusioned with inboard diesels -- they're loud, always stink, when it's pouring outside you can't sit inside with the engine running and hold a conversation. Mental note to self: get a boat small enough to be powered by an outboard, with enough battery power to run everything you need in bad weather for two days without starting the engine. Most modern outboards have power take-offs, my Honda BF8A has a five-amp one. It's quiet enough you can barely hear it shut inside. Better yet, life is far easier when you don't use much power at all, and recharge the batteries without fossil fuels.

Local welder Bill Geary made a dual-ladder style stainless steel mount to hold a Kyocera 120-watt panel with an ingenious tilt system that can be faced at an optimal azimuth. This is all wired to a 15-amp MPPT controller and three 105 amp/hour group 29 deep cycle batteries. In short, cold beer for several days without any sunlight. But, you can't open the fridge and dawdle or it runs more (drawing more power) -- quickly open the fridge lid, grab what you want and dash.

The longer I spend outdoors -- I've been on the go nearly continuously since 2002 -- the harder it gets to return to city life. At first you get used to the deprivation but, gradually, you adapt and feel free from the encumbrances of "civilized" life. Out at sea, for instance, brushing your teeth with saltwater is initially horrible, but it's better for your mouth and you get used to -- and even come to appreciate -- the crystal-clear, clean ocean. Toothpaste tastes funny with the salt, though...

From walking thousands of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to living in the shadows of Angkor Wat, I've spent a lot of time living a minimalist, off-grid lifestyle. It's amazing how little we need to live well, and how much happier most people become when we're not drowning in proverbial stuff. You learn the line between sun-soaked fun or a heat-stroke nightmare can be pretty thin: something as simple as ice-cold drinks. Think frigid iced tea on a hot summer's day, a 34-degree beer after a pick-up game, and the seemginly simple ability to make ice and cold things. This all seems so ubiquitous to Americans, but is a great challenge without the power grid feeding modern appliances. Especially so on cramped, space-challenged sailboats, and the math of battery-backed solar systems is fuzzy and fudged -- with a short answer being you need double the calculated capacity of both storage and charge watts. Triple is better -- it's not always sunny. The strange math starts with batteries' "amp-hour" rating, which should be a 20-hour rate, so a 105 amp-hour deep cycle should be able to deliver 5.25 amps for each of those 20 hours before dropping to 10.5 volts, at which point it's considered dead. But you should never discharge your battery below 50 percent or it'll shorten it's lifecycle. So you're down to a theoretical 2.13 usable amps per hour over 20 hours. Like all wishful thinking, that rate doesn't translate to reality. Resistance, thermal loss, batteries lose some capacity with each charge cycle, the faster you draw down a battery the fewer amp-hours you'll get... the list goes on.

And once you have a fancy system, we all tend to start plugging more and more into it: computers to watch movies at night, FM radios -- my West Marine unit draws a whopping 10 amps at 12v, as does the Thinkpad laptop I'm typing this on -- lights, spreader lights, cell phones, tablets. You get the idea. The headaches don't stop there. An example; the duty cycle of the Danfoss fridge at 80 degrees is about 30% of the time at a draw of 3.5 amps, meaning it runs a total of eight hours a day drawing 3.5 amps. In the amp-hour way of figuring things, that's 28 per day. The panel delivers 10 amps via an multi-power-point-tracking controller in full sunlight, so in a perfect world (at the equator) it needs roughly 2.8 hours per day to cover the draw from the fridge and fully charge the battery bank. The rest of the day's sunshine is wasted, so, again, you don't reach your full charging potential. Thus, after the batteries are brought back up to full charge, I plug in the AA battery charger -- all lights inside the cabin run off AA batteries -- the laptop charger to replenish three extended-life computer batteries (so you can watch movies at night unplugged from the boat's "house" batteries) and the Ryobi portable tool battery charger for the mobile radio/mp3 player I use at night. If it's not sunny out for an extended period of inclement weather, yes, you get stuck inside reading via oil lamp. Or talking with friends and neighbors anchoring nearby. For me, the latter is more fun -- interesting people abound, you just have to find them.

Few things in life will test your patience like installing marine systems can -- nothing fits the first time, even when Shipwright "Fabulous" Phil Dupree precisely measured everything, twice. Here's the compressor fridge going in, the actual cooling unit shown sitting on top was bent back and up to fit inside the weatherdeck, port and aft of the paper towel roll. The two compartments against the port hull are boxed off, accessible from panels behind the galley's mirror sliders and their bottoms can't be seen from the galley bottom storage access door. With the galley shelves full of jars, plates and whatnot, the top panels can't be seen

Smooth sailing ended for me in mid-2008 when I barely survived a drunk SUV driver/bicycle collision that broke my back, tried to shove my right shoulder through and out the other side and saddled me with typhus and a slew of other tropical diseases. The bastard didn't even stop -- not like there's tort law in Cambodia, the least he could've done was fish me out of the ditch he'd knocked me, thankfully unconscious by then, into. A year of bed rest later -- my God, was I bored! -- and I find a 1979 Lancer that seemed to be calling to me: Glassed-in keel, proper chainplates, inboard engine never installed, this boat must have come out of the bankrupt Valdez's Columbia/Lancer/Endeavor shipyard unfinished. Perfect! Be careful what you wish for would've been more apt, as the boat was a complete mess. Someone had cut a giant chunk out of the transom that I jokingly referred to as 'the water inlet to the bilge', the gas tank dripped fuel into the bilge -- thankfully, the latter didn't work as it was a brown wire twisted to an orange one wire nutted to a purple one and somewhere in that mess, the pump wasn't powered. The list went on: all hatches and ports leaked furiously so the cushions were saltwater mush, saltwater inlets to the electrical panel had been drilled into the cockpit so the fuse panel was blown and nothing worked, the water tank also leaked and of course the toilet was both full and broken. What else? The headliner was ripped down and if you slammed the head door flakes of the old, rotten foam insulation would snow down from the cabin top.

Restoration Slideshow

Boats are incredibly expensive to work on an maintain. And it seems the cost goes up with the square of the length -- only 30 feet long, but this boat was about $25,000 to retore, plus over a thousand hours of work -- much of it mine. Left to do: replace the standing rigging, buff and polish the topside and a coat of bottom paint.

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