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On Offshore Lumber Yards

“For gosh sakes,” Carolyn said in disgust, “that’s enough wood to brace ten water tanks!”

“You think?” I asked idly. I waved the tip of my tape measure over the project as if it were a magic wand. “Just a few more longitudinal braces, pretty please?”

Our 43 foot ketch had come with five inflatable tanks. About every thousand ocean miles, one would develop a leak from the constant motion. It wasn’t just a simple chafe problem—leaks developed around the stressed/unstressed fittings as well. The first time this happened, I thought it was an isolated incident. However, by the third or fourth occurrence, I concluded—inflatable tanks have no place aboard Ganesh.

Our watermaker was spending as much time filling our bilges as quenching our thirst.

Offshore, fresh water is life.

Thus, as soon as we hit New Zealand, I ordered four new tanks—and tossed away the old. I could not, of course, afford custom-made tanks. Thus, I had to brace in these oddly shaped, not-quite-fitting tank units with a motley collection of salvaged lumber.

“…cut me two more 2x4s and six more 1x3s, please,” I said again. “And that should do it.”

“That’s ridiculous, Fatty,” Carolyn started to sputter, but I cut her off with a smile and two simple words: “Lumber Yard!”

She stopped. She glanced down at the superfluous bracing, noting how easy it would be to remove if/when needed.

“Ah,” she said, “why didn’t you say so?”

“A magician never reveals his tricks,” I mused.

“You, sir, are a clever dog!” she said.

“…you’re right about the dog,” I said, my eyes following her as she moved sensuously about the cabin.

The truth is we carry a lumber yard aboard our vessel. We do this because we are poor. If you have a new boat and an inclination to have ‘experts’ work on it—then fine, all you need is a bloated credit card and a bulging checkbook. But we have no credit card nor do we like to discover just how ‘expert’ the local experts are. (Often, not very!)

We prefer to do all of our own work. Why?

  1. For one thing, it is about one-tenth the cost.
  2. Two, we learn.
  3. Three, we have fun.
  4. Four, we know it is done right.
  5. Five, fixing it (ten years down the road) is easy.

So our M.O. is simple: we buy cheap dock queens, and turn them into ocean going greyhounds—for pennies on the dollar. New Zealand is a perfect place to do this—Kiwis are still very ‘can-do’ people and everyone still works on their own boats here.

The town of Whangarei (our regular summer headquarters while cruising the southwest Pacific) has a number of cabinet makers, kitchen remodelers, and furniture makers—by all of whom we have been befriended enough to have ‘exclusive dumpster diving privileges’ during working hours. “We only lock our dumpsters to prevent people from adding stuff, not taking stuff, Fatty. You’re saving us money!”

Of course, we are always neat and tidy, and sincerely say “Tanks, mon!” in our best island accents.

So, the problem isn’t getting lumber for our little future projects but rather how and where to stow it.

The solution is simple; lightly attach additional bracing and plywood panels as you rehab/rebuild your vessel—and then remove them as needed.

Example: we built a hanging locker—and tossed in some additional corner bracing. In addition, we cut three precisely-measured plywood floors, sides and backs, and only attached one each. The other two are just ‘press’ fit. This only takes up an additional inch of space in the locker and yet gives us (sliced up, but still) almost an entire sheet of half inch marine grade mahogany plywood for later use.

Ditto, bunk tops on forecastle vee berths. True, some of the pieces you cut will be oddly shaped—but so what? The weight is negligible. With these two simple tricks, most boats in the 35+ foot range can ‘invisibly’ carry all the lumber they need.

Ditto, PVC pipe and rubber hose.  We cut the PVC pipe into 4 foot sections which fit easily into our ‘long locker,’ and place the pipes inside each other for compactness. Our thread rods, long drill bits, welding rods, drain pokers, extra-long wire ties, and similarly shaped long objects stow inside these pipes as well.

When we’re flush with cash, we buy reinforced vinyl hose and exhaust hose—and stow it in a similar fashion.

Sure, we recycle our plastic bottles by using them in the bilge to stow our rice, sugar, flour, salt, etc.

This can save a lot of money—buying items where they are cheap and assembling them where they are expensive and/or just finding them as flotsam and jettison.

Carolyn does exactly the same thing with her sewing supplies: we don’t have to go ashore to make a new sailcover, rain-catch, or towing drogue. We just haul our trusty Pfaff 230 sewing machine out of the bilge, perfume it with WD-40, and sew up what we need on-the-spot. (Carolyn even occasionally sews up dollar bills with it!)

Our idea is simple: Jah (Lady Luck, to phrase it another way) will give you everything you need—but not necessarily at the precise time you need it. Thus, a ‘shallowly funded’ vessel has to carry a much larger inventory of spare parts and tools than a ‘fully funded’ goldplater—which can just buy what it wants regardless of the local price.

Part of our joy in living aboard for 54 years is being independent and self-sufficient. We like to be totally off-the-grid. Thus we seldom tie up to a marina, never plug in, and often live a higher quality of life using the easily-repaired cast-off products of the use-and-toss dirt dwellers.

This just requires a small amount of forethought and a tiny amount of energy—no money and very little time. (I want to spend my time relaxing at sea.)

It is no secret that rudders are susceptible to damage. For example, in the Famous Fastnet Disaster, as many vessels lost their rudders as their rigs.

Of course, carrying a spare rig is impossible. But a spare emergency rudder could be carried… but where?

Our solution on Carlotta, a 36 foot ketch we built in Boston in 1971, was to pre-mount our emergency gudgeons on the transom, carry our spare pintels (with bolts, nuts, and lock washers attached), and then faintly draw (inside, unseen) all the parts of our preplanned emergency rudder in the plywood bulkheads and bunk sides as we built the boat.

This doesn’t cost anything extra nor add weight—and if we need a rudder someday, we just turn on our 110 volt inverter, and Sabre Saw out the pre-drawn rudder parts, assemble/drill the carefully pre-marked pintles, and sail-on!

Why not? What’s the downside?

There is no reason a sailor with empty pockets can’t be better prepared to survive a severe gale at sea than the multi-million dollar cattlemaran in the next slip over—not if he thinks and acts in advance.

It doesn’t take a genius to increase the size of your lifelines and add a couple of extra fittings to the wire so that—should you need an upper or lower shroud or backstay/inner forestay—you have one pre-measured if not preassembled. (Boats are increasingly carrying Dyneema ultra low-stretch braid for this purpose—which works fine if/when you can get the initial stretch out of it. (Hint: tighten/retighten shrouds on leeward side.)

The basic tools required are inexpensive—hell, most of the stuff I use daily is thrown away because it is ‘old fashioned’ and non-electric. But hand saws work wonderfully well—and are ‘multi-voltage’ to boot. Ditto, drills and braces. Plus, when Carolyn gets compliments on how gracefully she moves while ashore, I just wink and say, “…she has a relentless, very dedicated personal trainer!”

Like most boats, we carry a selection of fastenings: wood screws, self-tapping bronze nails, machine screws, bolts, etc.

But occasionally bigger stuff is required—so why not double up on continuously threaded bolts over four inches in length in the sizes of 1/4, 5/16, 3/8, and 1/2 inch?

Large wire ties can be used as quick emergency lashing during a gale—we keep a handful in cockpit.

While it is best to always replace old rigging wire with new—I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you that I have occasionally used ‘hand me downs’ in my rig. Often, the potential failure point on the wire is at the swage or the Stay Loc—thus my shortened forestay can become my inner forestay, my backstay my forestay, etc. (Sure, replace old-with-new if you can—but if you can’t and are careful, this ‘hand me down’ idea will get you a couple more thousand miles downwind—and perhaps into a better financial climate where work can be found.)

Of course, if you’re rich and free spending—you don’t have to do any of the above. But I find being frugal part of the fun of being a notorious international sea gypsy.

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