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Retrofitting your own boat makes the sailing sweeter and cheaper

2015 November 24

I am the poster boy for retrofits. While thinking about this issue, I realized that I’ve only owned two new boats in my entire life. The first, at age 12, was an 8-foot pram bought by my parents, so it doesn’t count as my purchase. The second, at age 15, was a Lido 14, also bought by my parents, but it was pointedly a bribe for me to get better grades. Unless hours of homework were the purchase price, well, I guess it doesn’t count either. All the rest of my boats have just followed me home.

Honest, Mom. Can I keep it?

In the ensuing half century, I have acquired a long and, if I do say so, quite distinguished list of “previously enjoyed” racing dinghies, boats and yachts. There have been so many it’s hard to tally them but here’s the thing: I can count those that arrived in good to great condition on one hand. Using half the fingers. 

The rest were saved, resurrected, revived, resuscitated and otherwise brought back from the dead. You think I jest? One of my favorites was found with a palm tree growing through it. Saved the boat but, sadly, the palm tree was a goner. 

She Who Must Be Obeyed has grown to understand, or at least endure, my passion for fixing up older boats—I think. She refers to them kindly as “yard monuments” when they reside in the driveway that she calls “our boatyard.”

I am lucky to have fat fingers. I know it. My parents knew it when I was a little kid and worried about it. And now you’re wondering where the heck is this going.

The fact is that I have fat, clever fingers. At age 5, I was a mini-MacGyver. My father was good with tools and passed that along to me, although he believed that he could fix watches, so we always had envelopes full of watch parts around. My Erector Set was nothing compared to playing with boats, however. I love messing around with older boats.

During high school, I worked for a boat dealership on weekends, where I discovered a really, really tired Cal 20 that had been a trade-in and was now moldering in a slip. My boss wanted it gone and made me a super-special employee deal, which exactly matched one month’s salary. I couldn’t resist, and I wish I had a tape recording of the convoluted explanation given to my parents over dinner that night.

But they were good sports and, after I talked a local boatyard into free space, we tackled the project. The first project was to get years of growth off the bottom. If you haven’t ever done that, I’m going to suggest you ask the yard to do it. I haven’t been able to eat mussels or clams since then, if that gives anything away.

We buffed the hull with several rubbing compounds to restore the finish, topped by a thick layer of wax. Let’s see: a Cal 20 has two sides, so you’re buffing about 40 feet each lap around. So how does a Cal 20 seem to be about 100-feet long by

If this sounds negative and anti-retrofit, it’s not. We made it great fun. We started early in the morning and by noon, we were spattered with either red bottom paint, grey rubbing compound, or amber globs of wax. Or all. Lunch looked like a gypsy encampment and, by that time, we knew most of the others retrofitting their boats and they would stop by for salty chips and handy tips. It was fun.

There have been a lot of other boats since then, but nothing really compared to that first launching, and then the summer evening sails around the harbor with just the main up. Sailing is great, but being aboard a boat that you have revived makes it even sweeter. 

My next lesson was buying a tired Flying Dutchman. Or, more importantly, a tired wooden Flying Dutchman. Buffing out a 20-foot fiberglass hull was nothing compared to stripping, sanding, staining, varnishing, sanding, varnishing, sanding, varnishing ... well, you get the point.

I would like to share one word I learned from this woodie. It could be taken from that classic scene in “The Graduate” and it is this: “Plastics.” When you’re considering a retrofit project, use a mental filter to include only fiberglass boats. They are, by and large, indestructible.

Oh, sure, I know about blisters and yucky wood cores and that kind of nightmare, but fiberglass is mostly good news. You don’t want some gnarled boatyard carpenter saying you have to replace the garboard planks, which basically means disassembling your entire wooden boat.

Fiberglass should always be used to preface the word retrofit. The skills you need are manageable: If you can follow the instructions for Betty Crocker cake mix, you can create fiberglass. And if it doesn’t look right, just grind it off and do it again. 

If you have the gift of gab (like Tom Sawyer), you can turn your retrofit into a fun event for your friends. Instead of whitewashing a fence, just say, “What?! You’ve never buffed out a hull? Well, c’mon down around nine on Saturday and we’ll show you how!”

Retrofits are a clear solution to the “boats are too expensive” lament. My friend Denny picked up a mostly original 28-foot Triton for $2,000, and he’s out on the water every weekend. He’s on the retrofit-as-you-go program, taking his time to fix and improve things that bother him. Another friend acquired a 40-year-old Catalina 30 for a song, and is having the time of his life.

Me? I’ve got a yard monument in the driveway that needs immediate fiberglass work (according to SWMBO), but I hear there’s a boat auction this weekend. It may be too humid for fiberglass work, anyway.