Horizon job

Papering the heavy paint-stripping goop Christopher applied to the bottom of his boat kept the paste moist and enzymatic. Photo by Christopher Birch

Midwinter 2021

By Christopher Birch

In my daydream, I’m at the helm of a perfectly restored J-class yacht from yesteryear. Familiar faces dot the crew. Ted Turner is on the topping lift, and Dennis Conner is down below making sandwiches. It’s the final leg, and thousands of square feet of spinnaker cloth pull us toward the finish line just off palmy English Harbour, Antigua. We’re in 1st place, of course, with the lesser boats distant in our wake. The satisfaction of yet another horizon job settles over the yacht.

In reality, I’m crouched under my sailboat in East Boston scraping bottom paint on a bleak November day. The horizon is obscured from view. And nobody is making sandwiches.

How the mind does wander.

I’ve tackled one of the worst jobs I know of in the world of boat maintenance, which is removing decades-thick bottom paint. How much paint is there? Counting the layers like tree rings, I figured the problem on my boat, Sundance, a 36-foot Morris Justine, originated during the Clinton administration. Somewhere in that time window, a coat of green paint was applied atop a coat of older blue paint. The two failed to bond well and their feud has been actively simmering under all the additional coats of paint applied during the Bush, Obama and Trump years.

The project began the day before, when I troweled 20 gallons of heavy paint-stripping goop onto the bottom. The accompanying sheets of paper – or, at least the ones that didn’t blow away – I flattened into the paste in order to keep it moist and enzymatic. Now I was scraping it all off. The process works amazingly well, but it is brutal work and once done I always vow I’ll never do it again.

Of course, there are other methods for removing old bottom paint. Soda blasting is popular. It’s also known to be messy and isn’t permitted where Sundance is stored. Ditto for blasting with Black Beauty (a coal slag abrasive product), ground walnut shells, chipped ice or any other media you might think of.

Straightforward sanding would have gotten the job done . . . eventually. I worked down a sample square and did some extrapolation. The math had me squatting beneath the boat for months, not days. A variety of sharp and violent power tools claim to be capable of quickly removing bottom paint, but they all look far too sharp and violent to me.

Theoretically, I could have paid someone to do the job. But, since I’m the person people usually hire for this kind of work, I was pretty well boxed out of that option. Seven years of wishing away the paint had gone nowhere. After extensive research, head scratching and procrastination, I circled back to the tried-and-true, which is scraping after applying an industrial-grade paint stripper.

The green and blue paints applied during the Clinton administration may have been chemically incompatible from the start. Or their failure to bond may have been a result of inadequate paint prep with the sander. Perhaps a previous owner was hastily getting the boat ready for a Y2K escape mission and skipped the sanding altogether. Whatever the reason, the battle produced a bottom resembling the pocked surface of the moon. The flaking mess was heavy, slow and awful looking. Damning the Y2K hysteria with every pull of the scraper, I dug down through history determined to impeach and remove all the paint.

By the end of Sunday night my swollen hands were barely capable of steering me home from the boatyard. On the upside, my conscience was finally at ease. The boat deserved this work, and I was relieved to have finally started the project. My wrists burned from the chemical/paint-mix soup that had managed to sneak inside the cuffs of my rubber gloves. But I knew my relationship with the boat had turned a corner. Standing toe-to-keel for two days, the old girl and I had had a frank conversation about her past. And I had emerged from the tête-à-tête her gallant young Lochinvar.

The work I did wasn’t motivated by a desire to win races, an extra tenth of a knot of speed, or to impress fish. Instead, this project was about proud yacht husbandry. Only when a boat is properly cared for do I have confidence that she might return the favor in kind.

Next summer, we will once again sail well beyond the sight of land. I expect this bolstered confidence will help us enjoy the quiet bliss of a different kind of horizon job as dusk settles over the yacht.

Friend of the magazine Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years. He is also Points East’s newest monthly columnist.