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The Lowly Boat Pole

A bronze ball-and-hook boat pole end will last virtually forever.
A new list of recommended boating equipment from a major catalog house recently landed on my desk. The "Anchoring and Docking" section was replete with the normal suggested inventory of dock lines, fenders, chafe gear, and their ilk. What was missing from this particular roll call, however, was a boat hook or boat pole.

Pity the poor, under-utilized boat pole. While it has great potential as one of the most useful tools on deck, it has gone out of vogue with today's sailors. For pushing off a piling, pulling onto a dock, grabbing a mooring pennant, snagging a wayward hat, or retrieving a mis-thrown line, nothing is more practical than a good, long boat hook. And yet, we rarely see a practical one anymore.

In days gone by, every boat carried a great, stout boat hook. A wide variety of steel and bronze ends were available, some with sharp points, many with one point and one hook, and a few with dual hooks. Almost all of these patterns are now found only in musty old archives.

Most of these antiquated boat hooks had a tapered handle of solid ash or hickory that was nearly as strong as iron. They weathered to a non-slip finish that darkened with age and seemed virtually indestructible. Their one disadvantage was that these hardwoods were heavy, and a sailor needed muscles like Popeye's after a can of spinach to hold one at arms length.

Try this with a wimpy six-foot pole—taking lines off a floating dock cleat.
When we needed a new boat hook for Sojourner's deck gear, we were amazed and dismayed to find that a good, solid model was no longer readily available. Our first problem was with the typical six-to-seven-foot length, which is far too short for many uses. With a six-foot pole, we would have to literally lie prone on the foredeck to pick up a mooring pennant. Ten feet seemed more like it. The few that were longer were all made to telescope, and we have found in the past that telescoping aluminum left on a salty deck does not telescope very long without constant maintenance.

Most of the boat poles we did find on the market were constructed of thin-walled aluminum with a plastic tip—not very confidence-inspiring from a strength standpoint. They certainly didn't look capable of pulling a 25,000-pound boat upwind, and they had the added disadvantage that they float horizontally in the water if dropped, making them hard to pick up. Unless the aluminum tube is packed with foam, an overboard hook will eventually fill with water and sink. One fiberglass model looked slightly better from a strength standpoint, but was still too short and would sink like a rock if it accidentally slipped into Neptune's world.

Having been forced into making a new boat pole, the process turned out to be a good deal easier than we had first envisioned. First, an adequate bronze hook end proved to be very easy to find in the SailNet Store, and the price of the ABI 2260BR casting came in at a surprising $16. The hardest part of buying this hook end was that it had such a highly polished surface that it was difficult to put it in the salt water where it would surely turn green.

The handle was the part that I had dreaded. Even if I had wanted the traditional hardwood handle, it would have been difficult to find and very expensive. Most of all, I didn't want the weight. So on an exploratory trip to Home Depot I found a full selection of doweling in 1-1/4-inch sizes was racked up in lengths as long as 20 feet, much to my great amazement. Granted, many of them were unacceptable for my purpose—warps, bends, splits, and knots were inspected and set aside, although I have to admit flirting momentarily with the thought of finding one with a curvature that would feel comfortable being stored against Sojourner's handrails. That idea rejected on grounds of temporary insanity, I sorted the rack until I found a ten footer with no blemishes and a straight, clear grain.

There is no doubt that this softwood is not as strong and hearty as a piece of oak or ash. But the bonuses were less than half the weight and the fact that it was much easier to work. In fact, a small block plane, wood rasp, and coarse sandpaper brought the raw piece of wood to a finished shape in a matter of a few hours. The handle end was lightly tapered and rounded and a hole drilled for a lanyard. This not only makes the hand grip more comfortable, but removes weight from the handle end—an important detail as Sojourner's new boat pole will float vertically with the handle and lanyard standing about three feet out of the water for easy retrieval when it is dropped overboard.

It floats, it measures, it pushesm and pulls—and, it's easy to build.
Once shaped, the stick was given three coats of epoxy and two coats of a hard enamel paint in a color that matches Sojourner's deck. The hook end was well bedded in 3M's 5200 and the two small keeper screws were added.

After the mess was cleaned up, one last feature was added to the new hook, affectionately known aboard as Captain. Measuring up from the spike end, a mark was put on the handle every foot starting at the three-foot level and continuing up to nine feet. These were taped off in a 3/8-inch band and painted an eye-catching scarlet with a numeral showing the feet up from the spike in the same color.

This gigantic measuring stick serves many purposes on board. New sheets or other lines are easily laid out on the deck. Measuring the depth of the water, either dockside or from the dinghy becomes child's play, and finding a passage through a reef with the dinghy, the boat pole, and the GPS to mark the waypoints is just downright fun. But most of all, the measuring bands make Sojourner's valuable new tool instantly recognizable in the event that some envious sailor tries to make off with Captain Hook.

Suggested Reading:

Docking with Grace and Skill by Michelle Potter

Mediterranean Mooring by John Kretschmer

Boat Hooks

Tom Wood is offline  
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