December 15, 2008
“Wadda’ ‘ya doin’? You may as well write a schedule for ‘yur headaches. Are you out of ‘yer bloom’n mind?”
I continued scraping. I’m wearing an Australian bush hat, sun block, a tee shirt, worn out shorts, knee pads and old boat shoes. Maybe the guy’s right. My back does hurt. A normal mind should give in, maybe. That guy thinks I’m a nut. But others do this, I know. I’m not alone. I believe this harkens back to my youth and Rudder magazine and Joshua Slocum and Sam Rabl and Captain Nemo and the Water Rat. In those days everybody worked on their boats themselves, and in many cases they even built the boat. Boat designs then were seductive and drew a kid like me to their beauty. They lifted my spirits and stirred my imagination. Boats were all different, and they were made of wood. There was camaraderie amongst these friends as they preserved what was so beautiful. Before opening day of the sailing season, the harbor filled with owners bending on sails, scraping paint, varnishing and polishing brass, and that created fantasy in the mind of a youngster. While kids played on the dock, old and well-exaggerated sea stories were told by the old growlers.
“T’was ‘blowin way over 40 knots, yep. An’ she was work’n hard when the staysail was lost! Then we were pooped, and I had the little nipper aboard too. Yup.”
As these puffed up yarns rolled out of each old salt and armchair sailor it was best to subtract 15 knots from every wind velocity boast and ten feet from every brag about wave height. Some tales were way too serious and frightening to a kid.
“There were three aboard the little ketch that night when Bill went overboard. Old Al was at the helm and leaned over the rail to grab him. The boat pitched then rolled, and he fell overboard too. My brother came on deck and sailed the boat about ‘till dawn searching for those two. He returned to the harbor alone after three days.”
Boaters talked about doubling the angle on the bow and buying bronze screws by the gross. And a three strand splice and a constrictor knot and bagywrinkles. Holes were drilled with a brace and bit and hand drills. I helped my father scrape the varnish from the paneled side of “El Rue”. A job finished, I think, in October at the onset fall weather, well after the best sailing days on The Bay. “El Rue” was a 35 foot motorsailor made of solid teak ... decks, cabin, hull -- the whole thing was fastened with bronze screws. With dad’s help she became a great boat in Bristol condition, but we never went out sailing. Dad was a fixer, a builder. He just liked to work on boats. When the boat was fixed-up and pretty, he sold it. I wanted to stay aboard for a week up the delta and show off our brightwork. He sold “El Rue” after we had stayed aboard at anchor - just one night.
Here the warm sun settles west toward Mt. Tamalpais. Hunched over, I work on the rails of “Love of Liberty” still remembering “El Rue”. The music pours out of my iPod headset as I pass the heat gun over the old oily orange-brown stain on toerails, handrails and hatches. The heated air makes the old finish bubble up. At just the right amount of bubbling, and before the wood burns, I scrape and lift the old tung oil-resin coating off the wood. The old finish softens like clay and easily gives up. Buried in that old finish is seagull poop, dust, dirt and salt. Revealed beneath is the glory and beauty of this boat’s natural teak wood. Teak, the very product of nature on my boat that restores my belief that this is all worthwhile. I then level the wood with 150 grit sandpaper and smooth it with some 220 grit. I sweep up the scrapings and estimate how much I can do tomorrow. I am approaching 70 years. I can’t do as much as before, so I get the job done in smaller pieces.
The surface is clean, and the grain’s color mixing of black, deep brown and dark yellow shows clearly. The varnish finish can now be applied and begins with “sealing the wood.” I remain stoic as the harbormaster passes by. He shakes his head and grins. I apply three coats of Seafin oil with 15 minutes between coats ... plus or minus. After the third coat I get a slurry of soft oil sitting on the teak surfaces. Mix that slurry with fine sanding dust, rub it in and the softer grain is sealed. The dust comes from 400 grit wet-or-dry sandpaper that’s worked over all surfaces. Rub and buff and polish the sun warmed wood gently with this fine sandpaper and then buff gently with a dry rag. Do this again with another round of the oil-sanding dust slurry to gain the desired smoothness. Right then and there, that finish that would satisfy 99% of the boat owners in this harbor. So what. This is not an enduring finish for the wood, and it is not good enough. The real finishing process can start now. It is only the end of the beginning.
I approach what is the beginning of the end. What’s the ambient temperature? Best? Start in the morning and let the day’s sun evaporate the solvents from the varnish ... that is if there’s going to be adequate sun. A warm day with a few clouds is fine. A yellowish-hot midsummer overhead sun is too hot, the wood is hot and the varnish sets too fast with no fluid flow, no leveling; brush streaks show. You fail to get a mirror finish. If I look to the hills and see rolling billows of thick white fog, there will be an early onset of dew and a dull pocked varnish. Weather too cool, and the dull varnish runs and sags on the vertical surfaces and takes an eon to dry. Be good about things and you’ll get a gloss that reflects the brilliant sun to your squinting eyes. Sure, you can tinker with solvents, additives, flow enhancers, thinners and accelerators, but it is risky. Fiddle with the chemistry too much, and you increase the chance of a despicable outcome. Remember, this is an art form - a harmonious activity of your cerebral right brain, your aesthetic self, the environment and the liquid chemistry. All considered and compensated for, one should do one thing more to avoid damnation -- get a religious blessing.
I have filled the new half pint glass canning jar with 6 ounces or so of bubble free varnish, thinned a bit. Thinning the first coats have been done for a hundred years, it’s OK for a little chemical tinkering. With knee pads on I kneel down and lay on a thinned coat. The next day I lay on a less thinned coat after the slightest sanding. Four full coats from now will bring the process to the crescendo; I ready for the finale. I use the varnish as it is from the can. Then six more coats, sanding in between, full strength - with a day between for drying time. It takes eight coats or more. Eight! Eight! Anything less than eight and you may as well not do anything. Don’t even begin! The process will fail. You’ll have a bad back, scraped knees, raw sanded fingertips and criticism from everywhere. You’ll be a failure and friends will point to you as miscreant of some sort. Nine or ten coats? That’s good and better. Don’t let yourself care what someone thinks of all the effort it takes. (After ten or eleven coats though and you may be revealing a psychosis and need psychiatric help.) Rest assured you’re the only one around who’s making such a beautiful finish on such beautiful wood on such a romantic vessel. Those who have engaged in a lifetime of softness and security can’t understand such an effort as this. Everyone else knows nothing about it and cares less - UNTIL you’re done that is. UNTIL you are finished. The quiet ones, the critical ones, the other whispering curmudgeons are now ... just plain jealous.
Alluring boats have classic design, they tug at your heart strings, and they proudly show their well maintained wood parts. You will need more than a water hose and a scrub brush to maintain the “luster” of such a brilliant finish. This is not fiberglass. Herreschoff said describing one of his designs built in white fiberglass, “... (that) looks like frozen snot.” Once a year you will need some sunny days, sandpaper, a brush, a broad brimmed hat and a headset with music. Rest assured that you know you have continued your task, your joy of dragging something out from the underworld of ugliness.
Callahan’s Chiltered Varnish was a mysterious mixture in 1972. Zen varnishers are always ready for some new resin and oil combination described as the best varnish ever. Never mind that the basic varnish chemistry has existed for a hundred years - basically unchanged. Callahan’s Chiltered Varnish was new, and a neat sales pitch wheedled me into using it. They all said it was the best, the latest salubrious wood coating. Not many boaters knew about this, but the “in group” considered it to be comparable to the god's nectar. This resin-oil compound supposedly produced a depth of gloss, a protection and ease of application that was never before experienced. Just what would be the effect of cooled or “chiltered” varnish? It was a push at the edge of the envelope. You needed a pot half-filled with ice cubes, an expensive badger hair brush or more expensive badger-hair, skunk-hair, hog bristle brush and the necessary sunny day, fog free day, rain free day, wind free day. The varnisher was directed to pour the varnish into a container and then place the container inside the pot half filled with ice. The ice cooled the varnish and the “chiltered” varnish was applied in thick coats that would supposedly set quickly. The varnish coats were thick, but not that glossy. Ice cube cooling and the new chemistry didn’t make a real difference. It was a hassle and never really caught on. I no longer use badger hair brushes either, although I think they may have some good features ... maybe?
Here I am at age seventy enjoying simplicity in 2008 and avoiding what is normal. I am happy with what I have. I don’t want a bigger boat. I am nearing very old age and am becoming more anonymous. The opinions of my peers affect me less. They don’t limit my happiness or spoil my day. My old friends are like sunshine on my soul. I don’t want a cabin in the mountains. I don’t need a winter trip to Switzerland. To those others still searching for scraps of gold, I say raise your hand, ask just something basic. “For God’s sake! Sir, I have a question. Ahhh, I was just wondering ... What is worth my precious time?” Then simply, start your gambol by accepting a new dawn in your old age. Stop searching for material signs of success. Stop being a kleptomaniac. Do what fascinates you, and don’t do what is "normal". Be an usher at the opera? Travel aboard a cheap freighter that carries just 12 passengers and visit weird third world countries while it loads and unloads its cargo. Move to a condo in the center of the city. Build a boat or an airplane. Write a poem. Visit the Galapagos. Yesterday is gone, spent, but you have free rein, options for tomorrow. Most likely, you have already wasted too much time seeking “normal”.
Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.
Hurry up. Your body is deteriorating. Your friends are getting older. Arthritic joints, narrowing coronary arteries, bad vision, poor hearing, teeth problems are overtaking. Simplify. Absorb the joys that you have passed over in your work years. How many times have I seen a sunrise at sea? Five, ten maybe, yet as a child I thought it was going to be as many as I wished. The yearning continues, and miserable is that man who has not sunk his heart and soul into the making of a beautiful boat.