"My next boat won’t have a single piece of wood on deck."
For 20 years I have been hearing this refrain from sailors exhausted with the tyranny of brightwork. Boat manufacturers have heard it as well, and on many of today’s boats, cockpit coamings are molded fiberglass, toe rails are aluminum, and handrails are stainless steel. Not even the companionway drop boards are finished bright. Exterior wood seems to be going the way of mast hoops.
Is this a good thing? I don’t think so.
A sailboat is arguably man’s finest creation. It can transport us and all our possessions over seven-tenths of the globe without consuming any resources. It doesn’t require tracks or roads, signal lights or gas stations. A sailboat leaves behind not the slightest trace of its passage.
And it is not just the planet that is spared insult. So are our senses. Can there be a more soothing pastime than riding a gentle breeze across smooth waters? The insistent roar of shoreside anxieties dissolves in the gurgle of the bow wave.
Sailboats also have an aesthetic appeal that is universal. The curvature of sails affects us in much the same way as flowers. Blooming white or red or multicolored in a field of blue, sails capture our eyes and please our souls. The graceful sweep of sails has inspired artists through the ages.
The wonder is that even with its wings folded, the sailboat remains a thing of beauty. It seems to barely kiss the water, yet magically its tall mast stands erect. As a floating sailboat pirouettes to wind and tide, it treats us to ever-changing looks, not unlike a model in front of a camera.
Up close, however, an inordinate number of modern sailboats lose their charm. They may be swift and/or commodious—enough perhaps when you are aboard—but from the dock they have all the charm of a motor home.
Does this matter? Perhaps not, but the joy of owning a sailboat need not be limited to sailing it. To overlook this is to lessen the pleasure your boat is capable of providing. If you want a boat that you will enjoy even when you cannot be aboard—which is the majority of the time for most of us—select one that makes your heart sing.
I lament the decline in the importance of beauty in sailboat design. The omission of brightwork is just one factor. Wood trim does not make a boat sail any better, but it can have a huge impact on the boat’s appearance.
I acknowledge that nonessential wood on a boat is a matter of taste. There is nothing inherently wrong with stainless-steel hand rails. On the contrary, they are admirable for their strength. And maybe you like the way they look. But I think of steel handrails on a "yacht" as a response to those who want a boat to be "maintenance free," or as nearly so as possible. The motivation is noble enough, but given the true nature of sailboats, we would do well to ponder the ultimate cost.
All non-sailors love brightwork on a sailboat. Sailors, however, can be divided into two groups—those who find brightwork attractive and those who find it superfluous. Sailors who revere brightwork can also be divided into two groups, those who think it is worth the effort, and those who don’t. Some in this last category hire others to maintain their wood. Others neglect the brightwork, paint it, or own boats with little or no exterior wood.
Those who think the beauty of brightwork is worth the demands take pleasure in the way wood enhances their boats. Many also find rewards in caring for and beautifying the wood. Varnishing is a traditional seaman’s art. All that is required for a spectacular finish, especially with today’s formulations, is a little practice. The multicoat requirement of varnish inevitably gives you the opportunity for that.
The potential for combining two things—wood and varnish—to create something greater than their sum can be enormously satisfying. The transformation a coat of varnish makes on raw wood is something every sailor should experience firsthand at least once. Many are surprised to discover that the process is as rewarding as the result.
I like to varnish. I find the process therapeutic—an orderly task in a disorderly world. The reward is immediate and I am invariably bowled over by the beauty of the result. But even if I hated to varnish I would still do it because, more than anything, I like the effect it has on the appearance of my boat.
There is no question that owning a boat that you think is beautiful adds immeasurably to the experience. I cannot make this point strongly enough. It is the difference between having a working relationship and being in love—in love is better.
If you are attracted to the beauty of wood, don’t be too quick to accept contemporary wisdom that keeping it up is not worth the effort. Some of my exterior brightwork hasn’t seen a brush in five years. Snap-on canvas covers protect it from its primary nemesis, the sun. But even if your brightwork is exposed 24-7, a fresh coat twice a year extends its life indefinitely. I find it ironic that many of those who disdain brightwork for its upkeep requirement spend hours a week during the sailing season on lawn maintenance. Keeping your car clean takes more time than maintaining a modest amount of varnished brightwork.
Don’t let a salesman or a well-meaning friend talk you out of external wood. It is a choice that you should only make from experience. To the extent that varnished wood adds to the beauty of the boat in your eyes, it also adds to your sailing experience. And to the extent that it adds to the beauty in the eyes of others, it enhances the appeal of sailing. Is this important? I think so. Every time a new boater chooses sail over power, it is easier on the planet, and life on the water is one tick more tranquil for all of us.