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Forget Bristol condition, wash-and-wear boats are more fun

2014 March 1

Like the movie "The Perfect Storm," several events joined together recently to create a moment I might once have called inspiration, but now label as "wisdom."

The first came because She Who Must Be Obeyed told me that our gardeners were going to wade into the junglelike undergrowth behind our shed and cut it back. They are braver men than I, because vines, palms and other weird flora grow unbelievably fast here in Florida, and this area reminds me of pictures I've seen of World War II jungle combat in the South Pacific.

SWMBO also pointedly said, "And the Broken Boat goes too." The Broken Boat is my cherished rowing wherry that I toted on top of our moving van all the way from California. When a hurricane loomed within months of our arrival in Florida, I thought about how to protect it, and reasoned that it would be safe if I tied it very securely to a huge pine tree on our property.

The tree, of course, fell on my boat.

It broke one rail, which could be repaired, but I postponed the project for so long that it has now disappeared into the Guadalcanal behind our shed. Coincidentally, I had been thinking about patching the Broken Boat and had even been dallying with the idea of putting a super-glossy coat of dark blue epoxy on the repaired hull.

The Perfect Storm moment No. 2 came when I visited a friend passing through Florida on his trawler yacht. He'd been a serious racing sailor for decades in small and large boats, but age, arthritis, and (he admits) sheer laziness encouraged him to trade some gorgeous ocean racers for a trawler.

Walking out the dock, I was stunned. I had expected an impeccable Awlgrip finish on a mirrorlike hull, accented by deep coats of varnished teak. Instead, his trawler was more Bronx-style than Bristol fashion.

The topsides looked as though they'd been painted with a 49-cent roller from Home Depot and, later, I found out I'd been wrong: he buys the cheapest six-for-a-buck rollers. The welds in the hull looked like the joints I'd done in my first week of welding class, when my instructor said I could turn metal into a puddle faster than anyone he'd ever seen, murmuring something that sounded like "hopeless" as he turned away.

There wasn't a single piece-not one inch-of varnished wood on the trawler, nor was there any polished brass or bronze. This was the original no-maintenance yacht. Wash and wear. Drip dry.

My friend was candid. "I've spent thousands of bucks on those fancy paints and even fancier shipyard painters to get that mirror-finish on my previous boats. And then I worried constantly about whether the dinghy was going to ding the hull, or that my fender would come loose next to a rough dock. Raft up with friends? Never."

I knew from whence he came. I'd once had a gorgeous Flying Dutchman that was completely varnished inside and out. It was as close to a floating Steinway piano as you could get. But could I just leave it at the dock after a race while I had a beer and told lies on the yacht club patio? Never, because some cretin might tie up close enough to scuff my beautiful but delicate varnished hull. No, I gave up beers and tall tales to get the boat safely onto the trailer, washed down and protected by a cover.

I thought about my boats that have been the most fun and, well, they'd all been lacking in spit-and-polish. One racing dinghy had paint peeling from the floorboards, which worked surprisingly well as a non-slip surface. Another centerboarder was often loaded with half a dozen friends and roughly beached on sandy shores for picnics. It didn't do much for the bottom, but it was fun and I never stayed awake worrying about the finish.

The third item in my Perfect Storm was when a friend sent me a link to a short video that seemed to tie together the Broken Boat, my friend's "user-friendly" trawler, and my newfound wisdom about boats I'd once owned.

The "No-Fuss Boat Maintenance" video is on YouTube, and it's about Brian Larkin, job boss at Brooklin Boatyard in Maine and a man who's forgotten more about quality yacht finishes than all the experts put together. It neatly sums up my newfound Perfect Storm wisdom about hull finishes.

I know the editors of this magazine, having welcomed me back with open arms, are now gritting their teeth and rethinking their decision, because I'm sure the rest of this issue is devoted to knowledgeable and well-written stories about getting that flawless hull finish or applying a lustrous coat of varnish. And I have a short suggestion for you.


Don't worry about the hull, because you know you're going to tag the dock occasionally, and dinghies are meant to be run ashore on gravelly beaches so kids can run and shout. Trust me on this: It's going to be OK.

Think about what is important. Wind, spray, sun, fun. There are no Topsides Police who are going to give you a summons for having a scuff on the hull. Really. It's all in your mind.

Read all the stories in this issue about fitting out, and take them with a grain of salt. Imagine not worrying if your guests drop a potato chip with onion dip on your flawless teak deck. About not spending sleepless nights fretting about oily pilings against your perfect hull. About a dock line chafing across eight coats of varnished rail.

Me? No royal blue for the Broken Boat. I'm going to fix the hull, borrow one of Dave's rollers, and slap on a coat of cheap paint.

Then I can have fun without fear.