My old nemesis, the mast step

Two faces have I: The scabby, untouched step (left) and its “new and improved” alter ego, ready for the scrutiny of sailors and non-sailors, alike. Photos by Bob Muggleston

Frequent readers may recall that my 1966 Pearson Commander, Good Buddy, was a bargain bin craigslist find; that I dragged her 60 miles to my home in Connecticut from Long Island. Because of the considerable distance between me and the boat (nearly 2 ½ hours by car), and her low-low price, I ended up buying Good Buddy sight-unseen.

For the most part, however, everything has worked out fine. Mainly because Good Buddy doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. The biggest pre-purchase item I worried about – soft spots in the deck – turned out to be a non-issue. Lifelines were an option on the Commander in 1966, and her original buyers either cheaped-out or decided the lines would detract from the boat’s aesthetics. Lifelines mean stanchion bases, and, well, especially over the long haul, we know how that sometimes ends.

Of all the aesthetic issues I was presented with upon my first inspection of Good Buddy, the one that bothered me the most was the mast step. The boat was like a time capsule from 1966. Absolutely nothing had been upgraded or improved in the nearly 50 years since she’d been built, which was sort of cool, in a way, but the flip side was that she looked a bit long in the tooth. Everything – her limited electronics, the sink with the brass fixture, the illegal head I’d have to remove – worked fine. All the rest could be polished and painted.

Except the mast step. Which was, you know, under the deck-stepped mast.

Visually, it looked pretty bad. I’d seen rotten deck core in pictures, and this is what the mast step looked like – a drilled-out sample of rotten deck core. As centrally located as it was, it was hard to miss. It gave an otherwise rock-solid boat a veneer of un-seaworthiness, which bothered me. Even non-sailors pointed at it, wondering aloud if it was safe.

Finally, last fall, I ponied up the cash to have the mast taken down as part of Good Buddy’s winter storage.

The mast step. My old nemesis. There it was when I went to check on the boat this spring, sitting on deck like a cow pie that had dried in the sun. I hadn’t brought tools, but, on a whim, decided to see if it would come off. Remarkably, with the aid of just a box wrench, it did. Five minutes – done.

I took the step home. The plan was to make a new one from one of the oddball pieces of exotic hardwood I had kicking around in my shop. I had a bunch, including some stuff a friend assured me was ironwood, left over from a commercial woodworking project. The builders at the Pearson yard 50 years ago had made Good Buddy’s original step out of an exotic hardwood laminate, likely to prevent checking issues, and they hadn’t messed around. The many layers that comprised the step were about 1/8” thick. I thought ironwood, if I could cut and drill the stuff, might be just the ticket.

However, when I examined the underside of the step, with its crossed-shaped relief pattern to accommodate hardware on the deck, it looked like it was still in perfect shape! I flipped it right side up and scraped off the scabby outermost layer of wood, which had so offended me over the years. Underneath, it was completely solid! I gave the whole thing a once-over with the orbital sander. The step was transformed. Clearly, it was worth saving. In my head, I’d already set aside many hours for the construction of a new one. Now, some of these hours could be dedicated elsewhere.

My “new” mast step is a sight to behold. Shiny and robust, with six coats of varnish, it’s so slick that when I went to re-install it the other day I realized that now, by comparison, the deck around it looked shabby.

One (mast) step forward, two steps back.

What all of this means is that I’ve reached a milestone in my ownership of Good Buddy: I’m nearing the bottom of her priority list.

In this season of spring commissioning, I hope you’re running down the items on your own priority lists.

And that, along the way, there’s at least one pleasant surprise.

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