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Old 04-30-2002
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Bruce Caldwell is on a distinguished road
The Spring Launch

This article was originally published in May, 2000 at SailNet.


One of the great pleasures after a long, non-sailing winter is that first trip out of the boatyard. Here the author enjoys the fruits of his labor.
Over the past month, I had come to believe that the best part of all the work involved in readying my catboat Kirsten for the coming season was watching pale, bare wood darken to a reddish gold and gleam with a lustrous finish as my brush layered on the varnish. But I was wrong. After the long, cold winter and hours and hours of sanding and varnishing, the best part was pulling on the new throat and peak halyards I'd reeved and watching the sail I'd painstakingly lashed onto the spars rise high above me into the evening twilight. Still, the sound of the one-cylinder diesel engine chugging to life and putt-putting steadily was a close second. And the ratcheting clicks as I pulled the mainsheet through its Harken gear were in hot contention as well. 

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).


A few of the implements the author has grown to know well during the off season and his recent spring commissioning.

The cost of spring commissioning is one thing I don't savor. I am sure that I did more than my share of flinching, wincing, and cringing at the cash register. On one of my trips to the marine supply store for some expensive teak cleaning and finishing materials, some more sandpaper, tacking cloth, disposable gloves, and other odds and ends, I noticed the young sales clerk was grinning. "What?" I asked. "When I ring up the total," she explained, "it's fun to watch your expression."

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.

"As spring approached, the ice melted, and the tides rushed in and out, deeper and faster than in the summer."
I was glad for the chances to get out there. There were rare sights, as in January, when the entire bay froze over with eight inches of ice. As the ice rose and fell with the tide, pilings caught in its grip were jacked out and toppled over. As spring approached, the ice melted, and the tides rushed in and out, deeper and faster than in the summer. Soon, the marina's forklift and trailer got busy, and other boat owners began appearing.

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.


In stepping Kirsten's mast, the author was halfway to his goal of having a functional, floating vessel.
Most of the hours were for sanding and varnishing the spars. This is work that, by its nature, breaks down into two-hour stints separated by at least a full day. The most challenging aspects of this work were caring for the parts of the spars that had to rest on something while they were being varnished and judging the windows of opportunity presented by the weather. If it was too cold and wet, the varnish would turn cloudy and need to be scraped, sanded, and reapplied. If it was too windy, the spars quickly collected dozens of unfortunate flying insects. I vowed to do this in the garage the following year.

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.

"Timing and communications are important...the boatyard painted the bottom and launched the boat before I'd washed and waxed the topsides."
Timing and communications are important in commissioning. Through a mix-up on my part, the marina painted the bottom and launched the boat before I had washed and waxed the topsides. The wash and wax should be done before the bottom painting and before any varnishing, since the wax can drip down onto the bottom paint and create ugly smears and it can also protect the gelcoat from the varnish and thinner. Then, for weeks I had to nag the sail cleaning and repair service to get my sail and sail coverówhich had been picked up in Decemberóback to me by mid-April.

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.


With the spring commissioning now over, Kirsten stands ready to depart the dock at any time. What more could an owner want?
As I worked alone on the boat, the sun beat down and the temperature rose to 70 humid degrees. A young cormorant dove, surfaced, looked around, and submerged again. The muskrats swam to their nearby nest. The evening breeze began, flocks of swallows began darting about, and the sail, now attached to the partly raised gaff, provided shade from the setting sun as I laced the foot of the sail to the boom. I then grabbed the new halyards, hauled, and the sail rose up, towering above me in the twilight.

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

Length Overall: 20 feet, plus 3-foot bowsprit
Beam: 8 feet
Draft: centerboard up, 2 feet, 2 inches; centerboard down, 4 feet, 2 inches
Spars : Spruce mast (23 feet, 6 inches), gaff (14 feet, 10 inches), and boom (20 feet); boom crutch, mast hoops, and parrel beads
Metal: Bronze anchor roller, cleats, rode leads, running lights, forestay turnbuckle; brass portholes, ship's bell; stainless steel gooseneck fittings, traveler
Engine: Yanmar 1GM inboard diesel
Electric: Two 12-volt batteries for engine, lights, bilge pump, and radio

To do before stepping the mast:

Inspect anchor and running lights on mast
Make sure blocks run freely
Varnish mast, gaff, boom, mast hoops, blocks
Inspect/replace halyards, forestay, chafing gear

To do before launch:

Remove tape from through-hulls
Make gelcoat repairs
Clean and wax topsides
Replace zinc anode on propeller shaft
Inspect centerboard and centerboard pennant
Sand and paint bottom

To do before sailing:

Clean and finish teak
Charge batteries
Replace/clean engine oil, fuel, and water filters
Check water pump impeller
Inspect/repair wiring
Inspect/replace/upgrade safety gear
Clean and polish metal
Clean and refresh Porta-Potty
Rig sail

Brightwork Materials:

Epiphane varnish and thinner
Sikkens teak finish
Two-part teak cleaner
Sandpaper
Scotch-BriteTM Ultra Fine Hand Pads
Tack cloths
Paint brushes
Paper paint buckets
Disposable gloves

Cleaning Materials:

Acetone
Boat wash and wax
Metal polish cloths and pastes
Rags

Repair and Maintenance Materials:

Epoxy
Leather
Sail twine
Plastic tape
200 feet of 3/8-inch, three-strand rigging line
Gelcoat repair kit
Waterproof silicone sealant
Engine lubricant
Oil and diesel fuel filters
Oil absorbent bilge pads
Diesel fuel additive for fungus and moisture
Zinc anodes for engine and propeller shaft
Plastic spiral-wrap for wire straps on mast
12-volt deep cycle battery
Electrical connectors
Engine hatch cover noise insulation

TOTALS:

Labor: 55 hours
Materials: $600
Marina charges: $500 for mast wiring, bottom painting, stepping mast, and engine maintenance




Suggested Reading:

The Coming Season by Bruce Caldwell

Quick Rig and Deck Check by Tom Wood

Working in a Bosun's Chair by Sue & Larry


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