Soul Man

Soul Man

A spirited conversation in the forums spraing up the other day led by wooden boat owner CharlieCobra, who was wondering if the race-oriented crowd that makes up the majority of Sailing Anarchy’s readers was "scared of wood."  It’s a worthwhile discussion, but few would dispute that wooden boat owners are some of the most passionate about their craft.  It’s great to see that kind of passion, and "John E" might have summed up wooden-boat ownership best of all with the post below.  Talk about it here.

I have a 40′ classic wooden boat designed in 1938 and built in 1958. I do all the work on it myself. I do not have much money, being a retired teacher, but I do have the skills and the time. I’ve owned her for 19 years and with one exception she has been in the water each summer. I agree that you need two of these three: money; skill; time. Fortunately, I’ve got two.

I also want to narrow the discussion here to cruising/racing boats and eliminate the sport/grand prix racing boats. If I wanted to race against the hot boats here in Maine, I’d certainly not race what I have now. But I don’t. However, If I wanted to sail OD small boats I’d certainly get into a class where wood is still competitive, like Lightening, or Thistle or 110 or 210.

We choose our boats for a number of reasons that are as varied as we are. I want a boat that sails well, is safe at sea, is relatively fast, can cruise the NE coast in comfort, that I can take offshore or go out for a few hours, race, looks gorgeous, will bring me home safely and, since I don’t have much money, that I can maintain myself. I’ve got all that!

I’ve kept my boat in a yard, next to a similar sized ‘glass boat, also well maintained, and the annual labor was the same.

Fall: Hauling, washing the bottom – same concerns. Decommissioning the engine and other mechanical systems – same. Cleaning the interior – same. All I add is a rough sand to the bottom and rolling on a coat of linseed oil.

Spring: Commissioning the engine and systems – same. Sanding and painting the bottom – same. Topsides. I sand, prime and paint, each year. Glass boat – strip wax, buff, rewax, polish. Same. All I have in addition is wood spars that get varnished indoors during the depths of winter. Launch? same.

Decades ago, WoodenBoat mag did a blind survey on the professionally maintained annual cost of equally aged wood and ‘glass boats in similar good condition and value kept in the same yard. The wood boat cost slightly more due to the varnish but was offset a bit by a reduced insurance premiums. (With sail, classic wood has the lowest premiums due to more experienced and careful owners, new, small ‘glass the highest due to lack of experience, obviously.)

I’d often cruise in company with a friend whose ‘glass boat was maintained for $thousands$ each year at a well know mid-coast yard and he said one year "I spend thousands every year and my boat looks like a well maintained old glass boat and yours looks brand new each year, and you do it yourself!"

OK, that’s the annual maintenance which is just about the same. Sure, my 51 year old boat has needed more restoration at times. I’ve replaced about 30 underwater planks, the horn timber, the gripe, 20 floor timbers, engine beds and many screws. I’ve also replaced the engine, the electrical system and the electronics, but even a 50 year old ‘glass boat will have had that done at some point recently. Having helped a friend prepare a composite boat for a major offshore race. I’ve become well versed in carbon technology, bagging, and all and I’d much rather work in wood than in that shit. I don’t have to don in a hermetically sealed suit, then take the waste to a toxic landfill. The oak and mahogany can simply be turned into the garden soil. I’ve also watched friends deal with delaminated decks, water filled encased ballast, and boat pox and I’d much rather deal with a punky plank.

The idea that we don’t sail our wood boats is another myth. (But there are some trophy boats out there that rarely get sailed, unfortunately.) I’ve sailed mine from Portland to the Caribbean twice, plus the original trip up from St. John in 1991. There’s something really satisfying about having restored a boat, then sailed it to the Caribbean, re-varnish, winning a prize (2x) at the Antigua Concors d’Elegance one day and three days later get a trophy for placing in class (again, 2x) at the Antigua Classic Regatta.

I’ve also got to admit that there’s something of an ego massage to sail into an anchorage, drop the hook, have guys on their plastic boats zip over in their rubber inflatables with 40 horses in back to comment on how nice my boat looks but they can’t imagine how anyone can have the time or money to keep a boat like mine. But then, glancing at their boats, I see they don’t take care of the boat they have so what’s the difference. ALL boats need maintenance if you want to keep them seaworthy. There is no such thing as a maintenance free boat!

All in all, I’d agree that a wood boat is a bit more of a challenge to maintain in a like-new condition but it can be done. But, it will last forever if maintained properly, which I’m not sure you could say about most ‘glass/balsa/poly boats. No one really knows how long even a well built glass boat will last.

The conclusion for me, and I will admit that this is for me, is that I want a boat that is knockout gorgeous to look at. To have that and one that sails better than she looks, well, I’ve got everything, don’t I?