This article was originally published in May, 2000 at SailNet.
The gleam of fresh varnish is only part of spring commissioning. But with the sounds of the engine and the Harken gear and the vision of the billowing sail, I effectively crossed over into summer.
This was my first spring commissioning. When we acquired Kirsten the summer before, she was in excellent condition, needing only the replacement of a few corroded hoses on her engine. Aside from washing her down after sailing and restoring the varnish on her hatch cover after months in the sun had faded it, she was a maintenance-free sailing vessel. (OK, nearly maintenance-free.)
Last season came to a reluctant end in mid-December, when the water to the docks was shut off. Kirsten was hauled out, her mast, gaff, and boom were tied down on cradles, her sail was sent out for cleaning and repairs, the engine was winterized, and the tarp was secured over her from stem to stern. The long months without sailing loomed ahead.
At first, my ideas for launching her again in the spring were fairly simple. Do a few maintenance chores on the engine, step her mast, and go sailing. But over the winter, my to-do list grew and grew, and grew even more as the work got underway. When the past month of work culminated with bending on the sails, there were still a few chores to do, as well as a list of things to do differently next time (see sidebar).
But the labor of getting a boat ready is entirely something else. The hours involved were filled with pleasure for me. Working outdoors in bright sunlight and salty breezes leaves me satisfyingly tired, and going to the marina is always a treat. Kirsten is kept in a small neck of a bay that's surrounded by salt marshes, where the marina is filled with life. Swans, egrets, cormorants, and ducks glide, stalk, dive, and paddle by. A rooster crows from the shore throughout the early morning hours, and barn swallows swoop by as the evening twilight descends. The marina's dog greets me and begs for a ball to be thrown. A large fish splashes tantalizingly between the empty floating docks while muskrats swim back and forth from shore to shore and roil the surface as they come and go from their nest inside the floating dock.
Over the winter, my visits to the marina didn't stop once Kirsten was hauled out. The tarp covering her was old and deteriorating. It needed patching when it chafed against parts of the boat and mast cradle, shaking when snow and ice covered it, and re-fastening when winds kicked up above 30 knots.
Finally, in mid-March, a forecast of several dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 50s promised good varnishing weather. I walked into the marine supply store for the first time in months, and left with cans of varnish and thinner, sheaves of sandpaper, paper buckets, disposable gloves, brushes, and rags. The tarp came off, the spars were lowered to the ground and propped up, and the scraping and sanding began.
Over the next several weeks, my to-do lists took me to the marina more than a dozen times. I divided my list into three parts, based upon things that must be done before the mast gets stepped, before the boat gets launched, and before any sailing takes place. A fourth list also evolved, but I'd leave that for later. Metal polishing fell largely into that category.
The most unpleasant aspect of readying the boat for its splashdown was all the toxic chemicals involved. In addition to varnish and thinner, there were fumes from acetone, expoxy, metal polish, engine lubricant, diesel fuel, fuel additive, and teak cleaner and finish. The back of my van would have qualified as a superfund site, and there were mornings when, despite the use of disposable gloves, my hands were swollen, red, and stiff. Judging that I had reached my own tolerance limits for toxic materials, I asked the marina to sand and paint the boat's bottom.
Toxic materials shouldn't be part of sailing. While the worst anti-fouling paints have been banned and paint manufacturers are ongoingly developing safer and cleaner materials, there still seems to be much progress to be made with respect to all the materials used to maintain boats.
And I have yet to make much progress in knowing how to do the work involved in maintaining Kirsten. Despite my repeated efforts to do the best job possible, after seven coats of varnish the mast was raised and the spars were attached with drip lines of varnish and cloudy patches here and there. Plus, the few simple engine maintenance chores I had done had created problems that the marina had to fix. I hadn't refastened the filters tightly enough, and air got into the fuel and water-cooling systems.
When the sail came back, I found myself sitting glumly inside my van in the marina lot as rain poured down, the mast still on its supports on land. It looked like that weekend, too, would pass without completing the commissioning. But the marina manager came over and told me that as soon as the forklift was available, they would help me step the mast. Shortly afterward, despite the continuing rain, all hands were busy moving Kirsten from her slip to the launch area, where the mast was suspended from the forklift. Another boat owner saw what was happening and helped push and pull Kirsten, whose engine was not yet running, past the line of finger piers, bowsprits, and outboard propellers.
After the mast was stepped and Kirsten was back at her slip, the marina manager made the final adjustments to the engine. The rain died away, and the sun came out as I tugged the sail out of its bag. I began lacing it on. I pushed the quarter-inch line through the grommets, brought the line around the gaff and then over and under itself before leading it to the next grommet, and went back over it to tighten it up along its length.
I looked out to the darkening bay, and considered. The breeze had died, leaving a mirror smooth surface. I was dead tired. I lowered the sail and fastened its cover on. Later that night, back home, it hit me. Kirsten was finally ready. The sailing season was here.
Sore Muscles, Empty Checkbook, Full Heart
My spring commissioning with Kirsten began in mid-March and ended in mid-April. I went through my ordinary list, which includes checking the rigging, cleaning and repairing the sails, electrical and engine maintenance, bottom painting, minor repairs to gelcoat, and cleaning and waxing the topsides. I also did a few things I only expect to do once, like pulling the CB radio antenna cable out of mast and replacing it with a VHF cable.At the suggestion of some dockside critics, I added varnishing the teak (hatch boards, coaming, etc.) to my list for the first time. Previously, the wood had been left natural, which created deep furrows between the grain in some places. The following is a look at how I broke down my work list to prepare Kirsten for a season of recreational sailing, including costs and materials used.
Kirsten's Relevant Specifications
To do before stepping the mast:
To do before launch:
To do before sailing:
Repair and Maintenance Materials:
The Coming Season by Bruce Caldwell
Quick Rig and Deck Check by Tom Wood
Line and Rope Sale