Sit'n Back

<< Back to Writing

I was bored.

I had recently closed a business, Mike's Handyman Services I think. I had always wanted to live on a boat, preferably a sailboat. When I lived in Whitehorse YT, and was living on my own after a nervous breakdown (another chapter in this book), I dreamed of building a houseboat and living on the Yukon river and Marsh Lake which is the head of the Yukon River. There is a lift lock at the head of the river and I planned on building the boat to fit through that lock, and thinking about ways to fit a sail to it.

So, I was bored and thinking about this house/sailboat. Living in Brewster NY, it was a short 1 hour drive to the Connecticut coast just north east of New York City. My favorite scrap metal place was in Stanford so I started there. Following the coastal roads, I drove past marina after marina. Some were primarily power boats and some were primarily sailboats. Stopping at all the sail boat marinas I looked through the fence at all the sailboats imagining what it would be like to have one. After a couple of hours I passed a power boat marina with a small sailboat in the parking lot.

This piqued my curiosity. After a quick look at the boat, which was obviously in rough shape, I went into the office. It was after hours and there was only one salesman there. I asked who owned the boat and the salesman said, "I do". "How much do you want for it?" "$500.00".

The boat was a 'Columbia 21', an open cockpit sloop. 21', 8" long, 7' 7" beam, 234 sq ft sail area and 1,500 pounds including a 750 pound lead keel.

I had no plans of buying a boat. It didn't even cross my mind. But after barely a few seconds I said "Give me a bit to go to the bank".

After giving him the $500 the real work began. The boat and trailer were in similar condition. Bad. We had to take the boat off the trailer and put it on blocks. I then took the trailer home. On the way home I was chased down by a Connecticut highway assistance truck. Apparently one of the 4 tires on the trailer had fallen off on the highway and ended up in the ditch. A tire traveling down the road at 60MPH on it's own, very dangerous.

Anyway, the tire fortunately didn't hit anyone and I doubled back and collected it. I took the trailer home and welded on the appropriate material to make it road worthy.

Fixing the trailer was easy and fortunately took only a couple hours. I am an Alberta first class journeyman welder specializing in MIG, proficient in gas, TIG, stick and B-Pressure sub-arc. I had a substantial shop with carpentry/art/machining upstairs and welding/acid wash (artistic ventures) and other related trades downstairs.

After fixing the trailer I went back to Norwalk to get the boat. In the mean time, the previous owner located all the parts and brought them together with the trailer. We loaded the boat on the trailer, strapped the boom, mast, box of parts and sails onto the boat and trailer.

Taking the boat home was uneventful and I parked it in front of my shop offside of the driveway.

There is a couple things you need to know at this point. #1. I have never stepped foot on a sailboat before. I didn't have a clue how this box of parts, mast, boom, sails, went together. #2. I had been working all day to pull this together. The boat was in the driveway and it was our routine for me to pick up Eileen from the train and take her home. Coming home and seeing a sailboat in front of the shop was quite the surprise to say the least. I think it went well. I didn't have to sleep in the sailboat.

So, how does someone who knows nothing about sailboats restore a sailboat? The same way I built Mike's Handyman Services. "I know where to find that book". Two books actually - 'Sailing for Dummies' and 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sailing'. Between these two there was enough information to figure out what all these parts are used for and where they go.

However, there was one thing that neither of these books were very clear on. "Learn to sail on a small boat first" they both said. Unfortunately neither said what a small boat is. Is my Columbia 21 considered small? Or do they mean something like a dinghy sized boat? I didn't know and at the time I had no one to ask. What I did have was a 17' fiberglass canoe. So, using the books, I built an outrigger for the canoe. This consisted of two oak beams that clamped onto the gunnels and extended over the left side by about 2.5', a pontoon made of two 10' cedar 4x4's and 12' mast made from a selectively chosen fir 2x4. The centerboard and rudder were made from 3/4" marine plywood, the sail cut from a 6'x12' tarp and the lines from whatever rope I had lying around.

This was quite the rig and this is what I learned to sail in. I learned a lot, including the fact that placing the mast in the middle of the canoe (close to the front) and the centerboard and rudder off to one side (in the space between the boat and pontoon) was a bad idea. When tacking in one direction it would go like "a-bat-outa-hell". Tacking the other direction, not so much. Definitely a learning experience.

Anyway, back to the main project.

The keel was in two sections - the lower section was 750 lbs. of solid lead held on by steel lag bolts, except the steel bolts were rusted off and the holes in the lead plugged with their dead remains. The upper section was hollow fiberglass in which was supposed to be two plywood ribs. The fiberglass web that held the ribs was there, but no wood.

First, the fiberglass webbing had to be removed to give clear access to the bottom of the bilge. Then pilot holes were drilled for the lag bolts.

After cleaning (a lot of grinding) the lead and fiberglass surfaces were fitted together. The 750 lbs. of lead was lifted into place using a combination of timbers, come-a-longs and jacks. The lead was slowly lifted into place and the pilot holes were used to drill into the lead. The lead was then lowered about 2" and the holes in the bilge floor were drilled large enough to accommodate the 3/8" lag bolts.

The next step was to attach it. All of the bolts were started into the lead to be sure they lined up. I added one step that perhaps was the wrong thing to do but I wanted to be sure it never fell off again. I used epoxy (the same kind used for fiberglassing. See the chapter on building a cedar strip canoe in this book.) to glue the two pieces together. Slow hardener at the temperature at the time and the thickness of the application would give me about 20-30 minutes of working time. The lead was raised to less than an inch, lag bolts tightened to just snug, epoxy applied and then lag bolts tightened. Worked perfectly.

Now the ribs.

Marine plywood is expensive! About three times the price of regular plywood not to mention having to drive almost an hour to a place that carries it compared to ten minutes to Home Depot. And I only needed about 1/3 of a sheet for the ribs. Oh well, that gave me plenty of material for the centerboard and rudder for the canoe outrigger still with 1/2 sheet left over.

From the beginning I made sure the deck of the boat was level in both directions. This made it easier to determine the shape of the ribs by allowing the use of a level to help determine the position of the template. The template was a piece of cardboard placed inside the space with the edge perfectly vertical. Using a large drawing compass (that I had to make because I didn't have one that big) and a small level the profile of the keel body was transferred to the cardboard. That combined with measurements from the bottom and top of the keel were used to make a template for each rib. After ensuring the cardboard templates fit, plywood ribs were cut. Minor adjustments had to be made to ensure perfect fit, but it worked out just fine. Using heavy fiberglass and epoxy the ribs were fashioned into place. Epoxy was also painted onto all surfaces of the ribs before installation to ensure protection.

Yeah, I know, I tend to do overkill on things. Now on to the next step.

The hull
There were dozens of dings on the hull, especially around the cockpit. A mixture of fast curing epoxy and fiberglass took care of these. Kind of a high quality Bondo. A familiarity with repairing drywall and also building a cedar strip canoe helped with this. After sanding I was left with a smooth, paintable surface.

There were several anti-skid surfaces on the boat. Most of which were worn beyond use. Carefully painting these surfaces with primer (coloring within the lines), then sprinkling with course sand, sweeping off the excess sand after the primer dried then covering with a marine paint successfully restored the non-slip surfaces. Not the pretty diamond pattern that was originally there, but still looked good and worked perfectly.

Other than that, the hull was intact.

The books that I bought gave me a clear indication of where the various pulleys (blocks), clamps (cleats), and lines (sheets, halyards, etc.). When I patched all the dings I intentionally did not patch the previous screw holes, unless they really needed it. This gave me a clearer picture of where things go. Worked like a charm.

They say it's bad luck to change the name of a boat. But the name printed on the stern was unreadable and I had to paint the entire hull anyway. I named it 'Hardly Workin''.

Mooring and Storage
Once the boat was done it needed to go in the water and start sailing. Dock slips are expensive unless you go way up the coast, far away from New York City. That leaves a mooring, which I could get for $40.00/year in Norwalk harbor, plus the cost of the hardware.

An exciting and nerve racking day. After 2 months working about 11-12 hours a day, 5 days a week and some on weekends as well as over $2,000.00 in material, the day came to make the journey down to the coast and launch. I had a friend help me with this part. Being a sailing instructor, Bart was used to launching sailboats, which was a great load off my mind. This was almost an all day affair so after taking her out for the first time for a couple hours we were done.

Secured to the mooring we headed back to shore in the canoe (sans outrigger). That was a great day!

During the rest of that summer I went out for a sail almost every weekend. Initially I would motor out of the harbor into Long Island Sound, far away from any other boats before I would put up the main sail. After a few weeks I would get braver and braver, using the motor less and less. By the end of the summer I was sailing on and off the mooring. Felt good. Made me wonder how I would do if I actually had some lessons.

I also learned something at that point. The mooring was about a mile from the only beach from which I could launch the canoe. The only time it's good for sailing is when it's windy. Have you ever tried to paddle a freighter canoe by yourself in the wind? I was worn out before I got to the boat!

I had just one problem while in the NW harbor. During a storm the tide was unusually low. Hardly Workin' was self bailing as well as having all of the walls and seats stuffed with Styrofoam so the rain wasn't a problem. The problem was with the combination of extra low tide, shallow harbor, flat bottom keel and rocking from the wind. The keel worked it's way into the muddy bottom and when the tide came back up it was like trying to pull a rubber boot straight out of the mud. It stayed on the bottom. The coast guard pulled it off the bottom, tied it to the public dock and called me to come get it. It took me a while to figure out how it could possibly sink given the Styrofoam and self bailing. I simply paddled it back to the mooring and tied it back up. I had to manually bail the bilge because the battery was dead and also the motor was ruined. Other than that she was fine. I'm sure it would have eventually floated back up.

The next year I was making a little more money so I decided to splurge and find a dock up the coast a ways. The further away from New York City the better the price. Bridgeport Connecticut was only perhaps an extra fifteen minutes from my house and was about 25 to 50% less than Norwalk for a dock slip.

The harbor where this dock was located was much smaller than the Norwalk harbor so I started the same way I started in Norwalk. Motor out of the bay first and then put up the sails. After much practice I managed to sail on and off the dock, as long as the wind was co-operative. That was a great feeling of accomplishment.

In the fall, as part of the $2k/year dock fee, the marina would haul the boat out of the water, pressure wash the hull and store the boat on blocks for the winter. It was actually a pretty good deal. I managed this for 2 seasons before I ran out of money and had to give up the boat for dock fees. Oh well. It was a great 3 years and I learned a lot.

On the subject of sailing, my sailing instructor friend Bart often banked time with his boss in lieu of wages. Every fall his boss would take his largest boat down to St. Thomas to rent it out during the winter, usually hiring Bart to do it. This enabled Bart to rent this boat for a week or more. The boat sleeps six so he would always invite friends to come with. He invited us to go twice, seven days the first year and ten the second. All we had to do was get ourselves to St. Thomas and share in the cost of supplies. The rest was free. We weren't about to pass up an offer like that! We would just sail around to different islands, living on the boat and snorkeling any time we liked. That was the experience of a life time.