The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

Pampering the Old Lady

Some of you may remember references to my father's old sailing dinghy, Swift Willow. Built around two decades ago to Percy Blandford's plans for the Goblin (now available from Clarkcraft)
she has done sterling work over the years carrying a growing family on day trips in Scotland and the Cumbrian Lakes. She has taught a generation of Waseys to row and sail and has attained something of the character of an ageing family dog: slow to anger, always careful of her load and quick to wag her foaming tail at the opportunity for a new adventure.

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The author rowing Swift Willow up the River Derwent amidst the breathtaking Cumbrian scenery.

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Like an old family dog, she also had not been groomed for many a year. The fibreglass covering her keel showed ominously dark, the varnish was threateningly light-coloured and flaky and she was showing her age. Eventually she made it into my workshop - an old farm building that I sub-let from a dealer in wooden rowing boats: a dusty creaking building without light, heat or running water, with power provided by my tiny and occasionally obstreperous 650W generator. In it's musty warmth she was to have the patina of the years removed and replaced by a new finish, fit to keep her sailing for another twenty years.

The first job, which I handed to my father was to strip the fibreglass from the keel, in which I was reasonably convinced that there was rot. This was a horrible job, the fibreglass having an unexpected tenacity in the face of chisel and hammer until after some hours labour the whole keel lay open to inspection. Happily we found nothing other than a little water in the keel, which in itself made the effort worth while: we knew we were working on a sound foundation.

I dreamed of stripping the whole hull, extensively covered with fibreglass, back to bare wood. The generator was started, ear protectors, mask and goggles donned, and the belt sander with a 60 grit belt (the most aggressive I have) applied to the exterior of the hull. Dust clouds flew (extraction is impractical, I rely on a stiff breeze blowing through the building to keep dust levels safe) and varnish peeled from the fibreglass, whipping with a stinging force against any exposed skin. After an hour's work, taking a break to drink some water and de-fog my goggles, it was clear that I needed a tactical re-think if I was to have her finished for the deadline of the family holiday in Cumbria.

Derwentwater looking North towards Keswick and the slumbering mountain of Skiddaw.

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I decided that as the boat had been built as a family boat, it made sense to reflect this. Given the matured state of the exterior it made most sense to knock the worst of the old varnish back to make a good, solid base for a new coating and neaten up the glassfibre and nicks and gouges that 20 years' rocks had caused. I worked for several more days sanding, filling, sanding some more, NS smoothing out the keel before I was happy with the results.

I discussed the re-finishing options with my Father. We both wanted a bright finished boat, but the mixture of fibreglass and the sun had rendered the exterior a curious hotch-potch of bleached wood and darkened polyester. With reluctance Dad agreed to painting the hull white, although I wanted to save the appealing mahogany of the transoms. I had seen a similar colour scheme for many years: family friends who holiday with my parents had built a Siren - the larger sister of the Goblin - after being inspired by seeing and sailing Swift Willow. Descended from a boatbuilder they made an excellent job of Captain Pugwash, built light for speed and a truly beautiful boat.

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Captain Pugwash piloted across Derwentwater by family friends with Dilan the dog on lookout. Catbells and the western shore lie behind them.

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I rubbed Swift Willow down thoroughly and treated all the exposed wood with a wood preserver. The transoms and gunwales were gingerly masked, a skill I have yet to truly master; and a thick white undercoat rolled on. The transoms and gunwales were left unsanded at this point, because I knew that in the event of my masking failing it would be easy to wipe or scrape paint off without leaving any in scratch marks to mar the varnish finish.

Two top coats later and I had a pleasing gloss "workboat" finish. Up close she was honest: the years of love showed; but from a distance she looked neat, clean and well-cared for. The paint was allowed to dry for a couple of days before my Father was drafted in again to help roll the hull.

She rolled easily and was blocked up on polystyrene in an attempt to avoid marring the fresh paint. The inside of the boat had fared better than out and the powersander was dispensed with. I followed the same hand-sanding schedule as I had on the exterior. 80 grit was used for an initial bite and to take out the worst blemishes. A number of corners, for example the edges of the rowing thwart, were radiused to help the varnish adhere well. Once I was happy with the boat I worked up through 120, 180 and 240 grit. I find that beyond 240 grit my brush marks show more than the sanding marks, so it's not worth worrying too much. The masking had been removed and the transoms and gunwales were given a similar treatment.

Swift Willow lies at the limit of my navigation of the river.

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There then transpired an almost unheard-of event: I bought a new litre tin of varnish! I'm usually terrible for scraping the last bits out of the bottoms of tins to do small projects, but for once I had a large varnishing project and I intended to thoroughly enjoy doing it. In the open areas of the boat it was a real pleasure to roll out the quality International varnish with a foam roller, and smooth it out with a good quality brush. The ground round the boat was soaked with water in an attempt to limit the dust in the finish, and after two lovingly applied coats I was very pleased with what I'd achieved. There were a couple of small areas that wanted another coat of varnish, but with only a day's drying time before the boat would be racked on top of Dad's car I accepted defeat and satisfied myself with a hasty coat of varnish on tiller, rudder and daggerboard.

Returning two days later, I was initially disappointed with how much dust was in the finish, but the light in the shed falls oddly and highlights all the imperfections: on carrying the boat into the open air the sun hit the new varnish and the boat gleamed as she had not gleamed for many years. We rolled her upside down again and hastily screwed a new carpet-grip rubbing strip to the boat. I had tried to get galvanised keelband, but my supplier was sold out and not expecting another order for months, so we made do, knowing the boat would only be out in the weather for a few weeks. She was hoisted to the roof of the car and securely lashed ready for her journey to the lakes.

I only managed to make it to the lakes for two brief weekends, but managed to get two excellent sails and a row in that time, the fourth day being taken up with a circumnavigation of the lake by canoe. I hadn't sailed her for two years, but jumping in to the old girl was like coming home. I'm much taller and two stones heavier than when I last sailed her so the boom was less forgiving, and in the flukey winds of the lakes I had to be careful about trimming, which she amply rewarded by screaming around the lake, romping to windward and fairly flying of the wind. She's not a planing boat, at least not with my weight in her, but given the right wind in the right place she enjoys kicking up her heels. I thoroughly enjoyed re-aquainting myself with her. Perhaps the greatest moment was when the cloud parted over the western hills in the evening and a mild golden light left the fresh varnish and mahogany of the foredeck beam to flush and gleam.

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A scene almost straight from a Ransome novel, Swift Willow lies drawn-up on the shores of Derwent Water.

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The parents had a great time with her, although they rely on more sedate methods of propulsion. With Dad's bad back and two small dogs they prefer an elderly two-horsepower yamaha, which fails on them far more frequently and disastrously than the wind ever fails on me! They particularly liked the new metal keel runner as it allowed them to drag the boat up the slate beach without damaging either the paintwork or any ageing muscles.

When the boat returned from it's three-week holiday I was pleased to see how well the finish had held up. We had not extended the keel band either side of the daggerboard slot as we were struggling for time and didn't want to make a mess of the trickier fitting that this entailed, so the paint there had taken a bit of a beating. Elsewhere there were only two blisters where old varnish which had proved annoyingly unyielding when attacked with a sander had fallen prey to the elements.

I enjoyed the whole process so much I'm tempted to do it all again next year and correct the few mistakes I made: another layer of varnish will keep her sparkling; the blisters want investigating and refinishing, and the keel wants the proper protective strip on it...

...but then, these jobs are never quite done are they?

Take Care

Alistair Wasey