An old boat gets a new waterline

Guest perspective/Hank Garfield

We didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was that the waterline on my Cape Dory 25, Planet Waves, was terribly wrong.

You can see it in the photos: her stern is apparently thrust upward like a duck’s, making her look bow-heavy. But nothing was wrong with the way the boat sat in the water. If you ignored the paint job, Planet Waves looked just fine. Pretty, in fact. Cape Dories have “lines,” as they say.

The boat has been modified over its 40 years. It’s been rigged for single-handing, with all halyards and sheets fed back to the cockpit through added deck hardware, apparently by a lefty like me (all the important stuff is on the port side). The original well for the outboard motor at the rear of the cockpit has been fiberglassed over, replaced by a bracket off the stern.

I’ve had her since 2010, and though I found time to go sailing each summer, the repainting of the waterline – which didn’t affect the boat’s performance – loomed low on the priority list. Also, I had no idea how to do it.

But, when an accident ended the 2015 sailing season the day after it began, Lisa, my partner and shipmate, said we should take advantage of the lost summer and change the waterline. “It’s always bothered me,” she said, and I had to agree.

We had often speculated on why the waterline had been painted the way it was. What could possibly have made the stern float so low? There wasn’t an outboard big enough to put on the stern that would have made the boat float like that. I had two anchors in the stern compartment that was once the well. What sort of contraband gets smuggled into Maine that’s heavy enough to weigh down a 25-foot sailboat? We had no ready answers.

Planet Waves has a white hull, a red waterline stripe, and a blue bottom. Forty years have left their scars. When I bought her, she had another name plastered across the sides of the hull. It’s supposed to be bad luck to change a boat’s name, and I’ve had a little, for which I accept full responsibility.

The first task was to determine the location of the real waterline. When the boat was hauled out, the line to which she had floated was clearly visible on the hull. We marked this off; later, we would take careful measurements along the boat’s length to ensure that both sides matched.

Our best estimation of the real waterline left a solid swath of blue paint above it, including an acre or so on and underneath the stern, where the glassed-in well was. All that blue paint would have to be stripped off.

The good people at Hamilton Marine in Searsport and Hamlin’s Marina in Hampden, where the boat lives in the off-season, were generous with advice and help. Bottom paint is toxic, as is the goop that’s used to remove it, and we would have to gather it and dispose of it ourselves. It was still early enough in the summer for boats to be emerging from their shrink-wrap, which was saved for us to spread out beneath our boat as we scraped and the globs fell.

It was messy, tedious work. The stripper came in big metal cans and had the look and consistency of snot. We wore old clothes and rubber gloves. Working with one section of the hull at a time, we smeared the stuff on, let it sit for an hour while the chemicals did their thing, and then scraped it off with a pair of putty knives, along with whatever paint it picked up, onto the sheets of shrink-wrap. We then carefully rolled the shrink-wrap into large garbage bags and loaded it them into Lisa’s car. It soon became apparent that we would have to do this several times.

We slathered and scraped for months, it seemed. But by the onset of winter we had a mostly bare hull above the new waterline, though shadows and specks of the old paint remained. We discovered remnants of an old waterline, also inaccurate, made with red tape and painted over many times since.

With the boat repaired and ready for the 2016 sailing season, we did the best we could to make our paintjob-in-progress look decent. We swapped scrapers for sandpaper, of progressively finer grades. Even then, we were unable to remove all traces of the old paint, especially under the stern by the glassed-in motor well. The area was rough like a washboard, and though we did our best to smooth it out, it isn’t perfect, and never will be.

We did not paint a new red stripe that year. We had a fairly straight boundary, in about the right place, between the bottom of the boat and the sides of the hull. But we wanted to see the boat float again. By the end of the summer, Planet Waves sported a rim of marine growth above the blue bottom paint. But it was even all the way around. When we hauled her out that fall, the true waterline was evident – and close to the one we’d drawn.

Finally, in June 2017, two years after we started, I taped off the bottom below and the white hull above, and applied two coats of fire-red paint to the demarcated strip. I let out one sigh of relief when the tape came off and the line looked straight. But the bigger sigh came a few days later, on the summer solstice, when Planet Waves eased off the end of the truck into the Penobscot River and settled in next to the dock. We tied the lines and watched as she evened out in the water, the little lapping waves just barely brushing the bottom of the new red waterline.

Later, Lisa and I stood on the shore and admired our handiwork. The boat looks good from a distance. It looks perfectly balanced, ready to sail. The lines are in the right places. Up close, you can see the imperfections. We might paint the hull next year. That’s the thing about boats: there’s always more to do.

Hank Garfield is the author of five novels and numerous magazine features and short stories. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Maine and sails his 1976 Cape Dory 25, Planet Waves, out of Rockland in the summers.