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The art, science and pure pleasure of puttering on boats

2016 April 1

Guys tell me they wish they had never sold their most-loved automobile, maybe a first-generation Pontiac GTO or a Mustang like Steve McQueen drove in the movie “Bullitt,” but instead stored it and pampered it so that today they would be able to show off a valuable classic.

I get that. I have my own regrets over parting with my 1963 Corvair Spyder convertible. With one of the first turbocharged engines ever in an American car and a manual four-on-the-floor transmission, it was a hoot to drive, and with white paint, white ragtop and red plastic interior, it was ultra-cool. 

I don’t feel the same about sailboats I’ve owned. Much as I loved most of them, I had no regrets about passing them on to new owners. My craving for the narcotic aroma of freshly molded fiberglass trumped loyalty. I do reserve a whiff of nostalgia, however, for my first “big” (big meaning not a dinghy) sailboat, a used 30-footer, because it taught me how to experience the joys of (cliché alert) messing about in boats. 

It is surely the most often quoted literary snippet in the English language referring to boats: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” 

The last four words have become a universally understood phrase to signify the pleasures of being around boats. It is so ingrained in the nautical lexicon that the word “messabout” has been coined to describe gatherings of people doing what the term describes. At least one organization exists that is devoted to fostering that activity. It is named the Southern California Small Boat Messabout Society. 

The phrase has gained currency ever since Kenneth Grahame wrote it in The Wind in the Willows 108 years ago. It deserves its popularity among sailors because the sentence it comes from, even though it is spoken by an animal character in a children’s fable, is perfectly true.   Grahame wasn’t referring merely to being out on the water in a boat. He was singing the praises of doing anything that involves boats. I think he mainly meant puttering.

We own sailboats in order to sail them, of course, but it is not that easy. Boats have to be made ready to sail. It is our sacred obligation to ensure that our vessels are shipshape and Bristol fashion. Since that is an ideal that can never be achieved to perfection, the need for puttering is endless. 

The first messing-about lesson I learned after closing the deal on my 1972-vintage Yankee 30 was that mundane chores that are boring or irritating at home are rewarding aboard one’s own sailboat. 

Take cleaning. There is a good reason more time in marinas is spent scrubbing boats than any other activity, including consuming cocktails: Cleaning is the most reliable excuse for puttering. 

I have to report here, with regret, that I’ve seen and heard—especially heard—sailors cleaning their boats with gasoline-powered pressure washers. This is not acceptable. The racket made by these machines has no place around the home berths of vessels that are inherently quiet. Besides, anyone who tries to speed the boat-chore process by mechanical means is missing the whole point of puttering.

I delighted in scrubbing the deck on hands and knees after each insult by birds, insects or airborne grit, a gratifyingly time-consuming task in the era before the invention of Soft Scrub. Then came the topsides, washed from a battered, seven-foot Sportyak dinghy I’d inherited. Fertile water made bottom-scrubbing something to be looked forward to every other week. In scuba gear, I rubbed off every speck of algae and spent what air was left in the tank sanding imperfections.

Cleaning was the default puttering outlet, but there was no dearth of other opportunities. I could not abide gray teak, so the long handrails on the cabintop had to come off to be scraped, sanded and coated many times with spar varnish.

Beyond cosmetics, evidence of slight fraying of the anchor rode eye splice was a call to cut it off and make new one. Rig tuning was an ongoing exercise in turnbuckle tweaking. A Windex that always seemed slightly askew was an excuse for trips up the mast.

Eventually I graduated to semiskilled puttering. The boat needed another set of cockpit winches. Paying a boatyard to install them, even at a time when BMW (boat maintenance worker) hourly rates were a fraction of today’s (which are north of what plumbers and marginal lawyers charge), was an unaffordable option. 

So mounting a pair of winches became a messabout project. By removing one of the existing winches, I learned the builder’s trick of drilling holes smaller than the winch fasteners so that the machine screws would self-tap into the fiberglass and core and be solidly tight even before washers and nuts were added.

Boat puttering is an unstructured activity, but there is one rule: Never let messing about get in the way of sailing. Dockside puttering is prologue to sailing. It’s enjoyable because we love our boats. We love our boats because we love sailing them. So when the breeze beckons, we drop our scrub brush or screwdriver and go sailing.

Even the author who gave us “messing about” understood that, as he made eloquently clear in another memorable line by his most famous character. In The Wind in the Willows, the water rat talks of the sailing vessel on which he plans to stow away. Says he: “We shall break out the jib and foresail. . . . As she forges toward the headland she will clothe herself in canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind.”