Stripping it back

The thing about wooden boats is they’re wooden boats. They start rotting from the time the first bit of water touches the wood after the sap has stopped flowing. But they’re still a million miles better than floating Tupperware, because you can fix them.

Something odd has happened to this Folkboat of mine some time in the past. There is a hairline crack in the side of the cabin roof that lets water in and where water stays in it starts rotting, so I have to fix that. There’s another patch where someone has drilled a hole through the roof to secure the grab rail that makes going forward from the cockpit not quite so perilous, given there are no rails at the sides and it’s a nice eight foot drop to the ground that I really don’t want to do. The water is getting under the wooden grab rail because there’s nothing to stop it. Taking the rail off, putting a dob of Silkaflex (a kind of putty that never really dries out completely) and put the rail back on should fix that, and there are a couple of other joins that need filling in with the stuff too.

A little imperial relic, from the days when you could sail away somewhere out East, cut the trees down and paint your ship with the juice. Obviously get the natives to do it for you and burn thier huts if they won't. British foreign policy hasn't changed in many ways.
A little imperial relic.

Yesterday and today I spent scraping off old varnish. You can see where it needs to come off because although it’s still glossy it’s a yellowy white colour, which tells you air or water or both has got in under the varnish. This is one of the reasons I hate yacht varnish. It sits on top of the wood as a hard impermeable layer, like concrete and just like concrete, while it keeps water out it’s great and when it doesn’t it’s a nightmare, because it traps the water underneath the varnish where it starts eating your boat. I don’t know why more people don’t use Tonkinoise. It’s French, it’s been around for a hundred years or more and it goes into the wood rather than sitting on top of it. You can see the advantage straight away. The disadvantage is all the old varnish has to come off first. Which means getting the scrapers and the heat gun out.

I sat there for six hours yesterday and three and a half today, in a wooly hat, four layers of clothing, safety boots, gloves and a PVC smock, heating up old varnish in one hand and scraping it off with the other. I froze. I’m writing this sitting on my sofa at home ninety minutes later and I’m still cold, with the heating on, a cup of tea and a disgusting shop-bought so second-hand biscuit, not really able to think straight yet because I’m so cold. But it’s getting done.

I’m getting the feel of the boat, finding out what needs to be done. There’s an electrical thing in the battery compartment which got rained on for six months and that’s going to need bypassing or replacing. At the moment bypassing looks the best option because I don’t know what it is, but I might revise my opinion on that. Really, all it needs apart from the electrical thing, whatever it is (and it’s metal with fins on and one wire goes into it and about four wires come out of it if that makes any difference), all it needs is doing it. Just scraping and sanding and painting. Wooden boat stuff.

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Making a start. The deck looks like teak but the varnish on the edges hasn’t worn well. I think someone just varnished over varnish, without taking the old stuff off first. Task One.

Practical meditation. It sends me into almost a trance state. It’s a great way to calm down and think. Except when it’s cold, when it stops you thinking long after you should have thought that it’s too cold to keep on doing this.

I spent six hours scraping old varnish off yesterday and another three and a half today. I’m getting better at it and it’s one of those things that improves with practice. I’d done just about a third of the deck now, and treated the wet rot around the windows inside. I have all the paint I need, the white paint for the hull and the black anti-foul and the Tonkinoise arrives on Tuesday. I have the brushes and the thinners and about enough sandpaper and all of this week to get this boat ready, if it doesn’t rain.

Years ago when I was learning to sail (me and Mr Dana, out of San Diego, obviously) I read one of those stupid folksy maybe-traditional sayings carved and burned into a plaque above a yacht club bar. It was empty, as they always are in the afternoon. A fly was buzzing at a window. The air was full of the scent of damp cotton drying in the sun with that special smell faded sailing it always has.

It was just a stupid motto:

A day spent sailing is not counted as part of your allotted span.

It was just a little sailing club on a lake by a dual carriageway. The woman at the next table finished organising her children. She looked at the sign, then at me, then she looked away across the lake as she said ‘A day on the water – sometimes it all feels like starting again.’

She didn’t mean learning. I knew exactly what she meant. Just that timeless thing about wooden boats and the water. Maybe it’s not part of your allotted span. Or maybe just days when you have the space to be on your own, doing something that needs doing that you can do, something you can work at and see the difference and think at the end of the day that maybe it isn’t completely fixed but you can finish it tomorrow, that you’re on top of this by just working at it, that you can work this out, maybe that’s what feels out of time.

Summer’s coming soon. And summer on the water is a special thing.

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