Trials with the F Word

The author and his wife, Molly, prepare for the Valiant’s renaming ceremonies – from Lantana to Chanticleer — which called for champagne and a live rooster. Photo courtesy Jeff Bolster.

March 2013

By Jeff Bolster
For Points East

For 14 years my wife Molly and I owned the prettiest boat in New England, a product of the coupled genius of K. Aage Nielsen and Paul E. Luke. Magic’s exquisite double-planked hull floated for the first time in East Boothbay on a cold spring day in 1961. She had acres of varnish and a clean, sweet sheer.

We never tired of pausing on the oars as we pulled away from the mooring. Just one more look. One afternoon at Luke’s, Paul’s widow strolled by and remarked matter-of-factly, “Aage sure could draw a pretty boat.”

Magic saw us through squalls-with-attitude, through the tornado that ripped apart the Hog Island Audubon camp in 1999, through foggy nights east of ’Tit Manan and the Reversing Falls at Saint John, New Brunswick. She earned compliments at every turn. It was impossible to sail that boat and not feel like a million bucks.

We logged about 750 days under way. No one counted days I spent re-fastening, caulking, painting, varnishing, rigging and fixing, in addition to fine work by Paul E. Luke’s and, later, Kittery Point Yacht Yard. Magic’s hull was so fair that most people thought she was fiberglass – at least until the bilge pump switched on.

Our Magic was not as bulletproof as she was beautiful. Well-built, her scantlings weren’t heavy. She’d been a racing boat. And she had been sailed hard. Magic may have looked like the same boat that had slid down the ways on her first launching day, but we knew that “to everything, there is a season.” And her season for going offshore had passed.

By the time offshore thoughts began to gel, and it seemed like there might be another boat in our future, I had spent a lifetime around the water, including a decade as a young guy running big schooners between Newfoundland and Latin America. My wife worked at Mystic Seaport when I met her. Better yet, she owned a Herreshoff Fish Class sloop, built in 1907. We knew what sang to us, what pleased our eye, and how we needed to feel connected to mariners past. Friends with different histories and newer boats needled us about being stuck in our ways.

Confronting Magic’s limitations – including never entirely keeping the ocean on the outside – we traditionalists with offshore stirrings were beginning to entertain the idea of a boat whose hull had been constructed in one piece, precisely to keep the water out. That meant the “f-word” – fiberglass. Provided, of course, we could find the right owner to take on an aging classic.

Being a traditionalist meant I had never paid attention to boats younger than my wife. My eye began to wander right after the bittersweet day Magic’s new owner took over. Armed with a well-worn copy of Charlie Doane’s “The Modern Cruising Sailboat: A Complete Guide to its Design, Construction, and Outfitting,” we began searching for a bulletproof classic to venture offshore.

Bob Perry’s Valiant 40 was promoted as the first “performance cruiser.” Radical in its day, it is regarded now (40 years later) as somewhat staid, almost traditional. That worked for us, though I wasn’t sure any boat with multi-colored rope could be called “traditional.” But the Valiants’ reputation was well earned, not least by carrying solo sailors around the world via the great capes.

One of my friends, Bill Pinkney, had sailed a larger cousin, the Valiant 47, on just that route. He raved about the boat. And Perry had borrowed the Valiant 40’s canoe stern from Holgar Danske, Aage Nielsen’s most famous (and favorite) design. Something about that connection to Aage made it feel right, like we were still among family. Not to mention the beckoning promise of maintenance-lite sailing.

We first saw Lantana, as she was known, well up Florida’s St. Lucie River, languishing far from the ocean. A blue-water boat in a ripple-free marina, separated from the sea by rusty lift-bridges, ominous shallows, and miles of brackish water without the room to ease a sheet: it didn’t seem right.

Her power and seakindliness were apparent, even at the dock. She had more frills than we wanted – air conditioning, for instance, and a TV that would be pitched straight away. But in a far-from-clean world, she seemed close to pure. This boat could be pushed. Despite her muscle, she looked forgiving, like a boat that would bring her crew home without too much fuss.

The Port St. Lucie River is 1,600 miles from Portsmouth, N.H., where we live. An offshore trip would test the surveyor’s report. As he saw it, most everything on the 22-year-old boat was “good.” Volvo Penta engine? “Good” It had been recently painted, a stately dark green. Running rigging? “Good” What about that relentless Florida sun? Dodger, bimini, and other canvas work? “Good” Anyone could see that wasn’t true. What other gremlins might be lurking on this almost-modern fiberglass boat?

Mack Sails in Stuart, Fla., replaced the lifelines and reinforced the head of the genoa. A local mechanic blessed the main engine and generator. We got the fire extinguishers serviced. But arranging for tradesmen from 1,600 miles away cannot be called “best practice.” We had to get the boat home.

Accustomed as I was to sailing with my wife, I knew she couldn’t leave her job for a long ride aboard an untested boat. So I rounded up three comrades from former adventures: a birdwatcher, a sailor, and a guy-who-could-fix-stuff.

Things went fine for the first 45 minutes. The diver hired to scrub the bottom had neglected to clean out the seawater intake, an issue not apparent idling at the dock. Under load, the thirsty Volvo Penta overheated. We shut down just past a rusty lift-bridge and dove on the problem. Under way again, it became obvious that the shaft seal on the raw water pump had a pronounced leak, too pronounced for 1,600 miles. Back to the dock we went.

I understand project-management. Problems crop up and need to be addressed. But we were running out of time. The sailor and the guy-who-could-fix-stuff suffered from Overloaded Calendar Syndrome. I had advertised a boat ride, not a yard period. If we couldn’t sort things out, I was going to lose my crew.

We finally got to sea through the Fort Pierce Inlet a few days later, bound for Annapolis, ecstatic to be freed from the shore. Under mainsail, staysail and genoa, the boat settled in to a light easterly, steered by an elderly autopilot whose curled control cord might have come off a Ma Bell rotary phone. We were easing into “modern” gradually.

The Gulf Stream is always Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Filling in from the north-northeast that night, the breeze intensified. We reefed the main and partially rolled up the genoa. By the time we tucked in the second reef, and stowed the genoa entirely, the Stream was in a nasty mood. The guy-who-could-fix-stuff – by now known respectfully as “Chief Engineer” – had sailed with me in Magic. He agreed the Stream that night might have been her undoing. The Valiant took it in stride.

Sort of. The bilge kept filling. Not enough to sink us, at least not straight away, but enough to make us pump every watch. Meanwhile, the interior of the boat was a swamp. Magic’s hull had leaked when we drove her, but her decks and cabin-top had always been tight. I like dry bunks. And I don’t like soggy charts. The gods were testing me. Here I was aboard my new “f-word boat” in a bit of a blow, and the portholes and hatches were leaking like sieves. In fact, every rubber gasket, neoprene seal, Dacron rope, and bit of canvas susceptible to sun damage was showing its age.

And the water in the basement kept coming.

It wasn’t the sea-cocks or the shaft stuffing box. We finally arrived at the rudder-post packing, inconveniently located in that lovely canoe-stern. Every time she pitched in a cranky Gulf Stream sea, Old Faithful erupted around the rudder post. We kept pumping.

Within 60 miles of Annapolis, on a steamy evening, the Volvo Penta overheated. With Chesapeake Bay’s temperature hovering near that of the air, a cool 90 degrees F, memories of Gulf Stream headwinds seemed refreshing. We added coolant to the Green Monster and got her going again.

The boat was growing on me, despite her aggravations. She handled the Stream in its moods, and footed briskly in the lightest of zephyrs. Some things might need maintenance, but Perry had gotten the essentials right. Life was good.

The Green Monster overheated the second time between Annapolis and Baltimore. By then the crew was down to two – me and the birdwatcher. We short-tacked the boat into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, wrestling the genoa through the staysail slot in light airs at every tack. A few days later, a highly recommended local mechanic explained that the very expensive turbocharger was pooched, allowing coolant to mix with the lube oil. It wouldn’t be an easy fix.

Had we been in Norfolk, at the foot of the bay, I might have chanced an outside trip under sail to New Hampshire, the sort of flyer that appealed to my old-timey romantic sensibility. But we were 150 miles up the largest estuary in the U.S., a wind-free summer environment. This boat wasn’t getting home without an engine.

The up-side was that my wife could join me in Baltimore for the next leg. We planned to sail north in the bay, motor through the C & D Canal, and head for New England via New York City. What could go wrong? Luckily, we had a good supply of Marine Tex and Perma Gasket. One of the raw-water connections on the Volvo Penta began to spew seawater shortly after we left – lots of sea-water. On the theory that we would not run out of ocean, I decided to keep going.

The Jersey shore provided a welcome change from Delaware Bay’s hellish heat and biting flies. Pilot whales and dolphins caught our stride that night, as wispy fog came and went. And we timed the flood for New York Harbor perfectly, catching a lift all the way from Sandy Hook through the lower harbor and into Long Island Sound. Thankfully, we got through the East River and Hell Gate without incident.

Because, that afternoon, the grinding noise coming out of the engine room sounded like fingernails on a blackboard, expensive fingernails. The only good news is that we were near my old stomping grounds, Rowayton, Conn. From the security of a mooring at the Norwalk Yacht Club, with Sheffield Island and its high-school memories as backdrop, I confronted a fatally cracked bell housing on the Volvo Penta. The engine was a dead man walking.

Days passed. Dollars changed hands. Finally, with the Green Monster on life support, the last leg of our star-crossed delivery got under way. We romped up Long Island Sound in a fresh sou’westerly, shot through The Race after midnight at 10 knots, and motored serenely through the Cape Cod Canal. Then the spinnaker halyard parted, only 40 miles from Portsmouth, delaying our triumphal homecoming.

With the delivery done and the summer half gone, dreams of winter in the West Indies were still alive. It wouldn’t be easy. Our affection for the boat had grown, but so had the punch-list. She needed a new engine, new running rigging, new hatches and portlight gaskets, new wind instruments, new bottom paint, and new canvas, not to mention repacking the rudder post. We wanted to install a Monitor self-steering gear. And the headsail furler, sea-cocks and reefer all wanted service.

Magic had been simple. I enjoyed doing much of the work myself. The Valiant is only four feet longer, and she has one less mast. But her systems are more daunting. And time was of the essence.

Kittery Point Yacht Yard had come through for us before with several projects on Magic, and generously donated valuable services to the Gundalow Company, the non-profit organization that my wife directs. KPYY had installed the new gundalow’s main engine in 2011 without a hitch. The crew was friendly and capable. With punch-list in hand, and his trademark wry smile, General Manager John Glessner said one month on the hard should suffice.

KPYY delivered on time and within budget. Vic and Dana squeezed a shiny red Westerbeke into the engine room with little fanfare, despite having to engineer a new raw-water system and muffler. Bob installed the Monitor and new Lewmar hatches. Vic attacked the rudder-post stuffing box, and when flax packing didn’t work, found a synthetic replacement to solve that nagging problem. John and Jason upgraded the rig with hard work and thoughtful suggestions. Ike brought out the luster in the topsides and sheer stripe. At every step of the way, the guys at KPYY asked thoughtful questions and made useful suggestions. We were in good hands.

Launch day called for cake, champagne and a live rooster. Blood sacrifice was not in the offing, despite my familiarity with launching rituals for schooners built in Bequia and Carriacou, where we hoped to go. Roosters are our family totem, and the boat was to be re-christened Chanticleer, after the sassy rooster in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The champagne flowed, the rooster crowed, and then, in the presence of witnesses, we asked the gods of sea and wind to bless this reborn vessel, and grant her safe passage.

Boats are never easy. We traded brazen beauty for bulletproof, and we got what we wanted. By Christmas we were in the Virgin Islands; by mid-January in Guadeloupe, courtesy of Chanticleer. She’s a damn fine boat. She’ll never be as breathtakingly beautiful as Magic, but she is reassuringly strong and oh-so-seakindly. Pounding to weather in the Anegada Passage on the way to Saba, Montserrat and Guadeloupe, with the Monitor steering and the ocean staying outside, neither Molly nor I wished we were back in Magic.

Of course, Chanticleer is still a boat. Off the wind, everything is rosy. Driving hard to windward, she leaks from above, probably through the mast boot or mast collar. I don’t like wet bunks or wet charts any more than I used to. After our passage to Guadeloupe, we dropped the overhead panel from around the mast and found a previous owner’s attempted fix – goop applied from inside. That will need an upgrade. Maybe I’ll ask advice from my buddies who pitched fiberglass boats as maintenance-lite.

Jeff Bolster, a licensed master mariner, has sailed tens of thousands of ocean miles in addition to endless summers coastwise, and been in virtually everything that floats, from eight-oared shells and Piscataqua wherries to 300-ton schooners and tramp coasters in Scandinavia. Chanticleer’s passage from Kittery to Guadeloupe was his 15th trip between New England and the West Indies.