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Fitting out is best when you follow the 10 Caswellian Laws

2024 March 1

My dad was an executive for Douglas Aircraft and we lived in Tucson, Arizona, when I was a kid. As a young man, my father had run away to sea, shipping out on tankers and working his way up to navigator aboard Matson liners, so saltwater was in his blood. I grew up on his sea stories. 

This being the “fitting out” issue, I thought it might be useful if I shared some snippets of hard-won wisdom earned during my many decades of refreshing various boats for a new season. These are not mere snippets of tired advice but, rather, absolute cast-in-stone rules by which you must abide to survive The Dreaded Fitting Out Season. 

Let’s just call them Caswellian Laws, and consider them both immutable and well-proven. Fitting out can be a minefield for the unwary or incautious. Breach these laws at your own peril.

Caswellian Law No. 1: Have fun. Keep in mind that perfect summer day, warm breeze, puffy clouds, cold beer. This will keep you going when you are sanding a seemingly endless handrail for its new coat of varnish. Grin and sand on.

Caswellian Law No. 2: Blood will flow. Just as the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built on the blood of slaves and the Vikings launched their ships over that same slippery substance, you will quickly discover that any successful fitting out will involve the shedding of blood. 

I have reached a point in my life where I seem to have skin with the resilience of wet Kleenex, and just looking at anything sharpish seems to result in blood flow. While doing fitting out work, I now wear leather welder’s sleeves that fit loosely from wrist cuffs to sleeve. They protected my arms when I had the wild hair to take a welding class at my local college, where my instructor made the sotto voce comment as he passed, “Caswell, you can turn a piece of stainless steel into a puddle faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.” I don’t think it was a compliment. Nevertheless, I now gird myself for fitting out battle and I’m using far fewer Band-Aids as a result.

Caswellian Law No. 3: Be wary of the “might-as-wells.” There are times when you might think that, for just a little extra cost or effort, you can make an improvement. “Little” is never the operative word in that sentence. These are the “As-long-as-we’re-doing-this-we-might-as well-do-that” projects. One of my friends, while refitting a vintage 1970s fiberglass sloop, decided to replace the headliner. While thinking about it, he spoke the dreaded words: “We might as well change out the lighting too.” Older boats have (duh) older wiring, so all new wiring had to be pulled to power those nifty new LED cabin lights, and that meant new electrical panels, too. It was a cascading avalanche of added projects and costs, from switch panels to light bulbs to batteries.

Caswellian Law No. 4: Be prepared for breakage. You will discover, about 90 seconds into any fitting out project, that nuts, bolts and screws freeze solidly in place, usually on a critical engine or boat part. Getting parts loose, whether it’s a mast cleat or a deck vent, is more art than science. The corollary to Caswellian Law No. 4 is that brute force will always result in breaking something. Don’t go for a bigger wrench, don’t grab a hammer. You should be able to outthink a piece of metal, right? 

A second corollary to the fourth law is that the likelihood that you will break something is directly proportional to its value. The more expensive it is, the more fragile it is. Period. I would suggest that you might even inquire about the price of whatever it is that you’re trying to remove before you lay on the tools. You may find that what seemed like a simple rusted strut for the alternator is actually made of unobtanium and costs more than the entire engine.  

Caswellian Law No. 5: Expect the unexpected. Deciding to move the galley sink to a more usable position (I’ve done this twice, both ended badly) can unveil such delights as rotting wood, plumbing held together by nothing more than habit, and yet another cascading chain of issues from the sink pumps all the way to the water tank. Do nothing that you haven’t fully thought out. Just as they say about docking your boat: “Don’t go anywhere your brain hasn’t already been five minutes earlier”. 

Caswellian Law No. 6: Make lists. Unless you have a special reason to go to your local marine hardware store six times a day (it’s next to a Starbucks?), make lists of what you’re going to need, and this isn’t just the nuts and bolts of a project. What tools do you need to borrow from Fred, the skipper in your marina with his full tool box? Don’t find yourself with holes drilled for a new cleat, bolts ready, and no bedding compound. 

A second list should be made with two headings: “What I Want” and “What I Can Afford.” It only takes a bit of nudging to slide off the “want” side, and that’s how fitting out can burn your wallet. Just because you have the mast out doesn’t mean you can afford to add that oh-so-cool anemometer that practically selects the right sail for every condition. If you ever consider this, refer to above Laws 3, 4 and 5. 

Caswellian Law No. 7: Consider any long-term effects. I once varnished a lovely teak cockpit grating just because I love the look of varnished teak. A monumentally bad idea. Not only was it slippery but the varnish wore down quickly under the onslaught of my crew’s deck shoes (and dropped winch handles). Trust me on this: it’s a lot easier to lay varnish onto a complicated piece than it is to remove it. Lesson learned. 

Caswellian Law No. 8: Set a budget. This forces you to examine the scope of your project under a microscope. Do you really need new bunk cushions or would adding some inexpensive “eggcrate” mattress pads make everything better for another year? I asked the upholstery shop in our marina what it would cost to replace the bunk and saloon cushions on my 24-footer, and I thought he was making me an offer for my entire boat. I could have had a week of bareboat chartering in the British Virgin Islands for less. 

Caswellian Law No. 9: Plan to use what exists. Moving a bulkhead to get 2 inches more length in the forward berth is just stupid. I had a dock neighbor who made so many major changes (galley to the opposite side, shower replacing a locker) that it would have been easier and less expensive to jack up the masthead wind indicator and just put a new boat underneath.  

Caswellian Law No. 10: Remember to laugh. This is a boat that you are dealing with, and fitting out is always going to go a little sideways. So what? Have fun, giggle when the varnish sags, and laugh outright at the blotches of blue bottom paint you wear on your elbow to the dinner party.