The unvarnished truth about the 10 percent rule

We have owned our wooden sloop Aloft for over 15 years. During that time, we have rebuilt the engine, replaced framing, planks and port lights, renewed decks with Dynel and epoxy, painted the topsides at least every other year, and performed countless other tasks and upgrades necessary to keep a 50-year old wooden boat going strong.

This winter she is again in the shop at Warren Pond Boatworks in South Berwick, Maine, for some upgrades by Bob Eger and his crew. These old wooden yachts are a lot of work when compared to modern designs built from other materials. But if one is willing to adopt one of these classics, and commit to her care, the rewards will be economic, aesthetic, personal and great.

I have heard that the rule-of-thumb for maintenance of a wooden boat suggests a budget of 10 percent of the boat’s value per year of ownership. Our first wooden boat, purchased in 1986, was a 1957 Hinckley Pilot sloop we named Hopestill. We owned Hopestill for about 10 years. At that time, she, too, was in need of refastening. She also had some frames that required reinforcement, and some soft planks down by the garboard.

The work was completed that spring at Jim Foley’s shop, out past Chauncey Creek (a young Bob Eger was on the crew) on Kittery Point. She was launched soon after at Dion’s Yacht Yard at Kittery Point. With purchase price and repair costs combined, our initial investment came to about $30,000. By comparison, an older fiberglass version of the same boat cost more than twice that amount at the time. I kept pretty good records on the other work we did over the years, and the grand total for maintenance and repair came to another $30,000 or so.

I still remember the thrill of that first launch on a brisk and clear spring afternoon in May 1986. But Central Casting would not have chosen me to play the part of classic yacht owner. At just 31 years old, I was a house carpenter in paint-stained jeans as I worked with the rest of the crew to prepare for the launch. The old crane swung the rigged spruce mast off the horses and into the partners, while Elmer Dion – the stern, old-school yard owner in his Topsiders, starched khakis and white Oxford-cloth shirt – scanned his waterfront domain from the office door.

Elmer combined a depth of knowledge and appreciation of classic boats with a keen sense of opportunity for profits at the yard. He was likely eager that day for the chance to make the acquaintance of what should have been a properly proud old-money owner of this aging classic sloop – a boat with the potential for a Bristol finish and a long relationship with the yard. I overheard Elmer comment that the shiny black paint job (a first attempt by a really good house painter from my crew) wasn’t too bad, and that a boat like that could look really fine after a few winters in his shop.

When the tide was all the way up, and the boat was set to launch, the yard foreman called over to Elmer (who just happened to be standing next to me as I checked the set screws on the shaft zinc). “All set to go overboard, sir?”

“Not until the owner gets here. No cash, no splash,” was the sharp reply, in response to which the unlikely owner stepped out from under the transom, wiped his hands on his dirty jeans, and introduced himself to the obvious disappointment of Mr. Dion.

We sailed that pretty little boat from Cape Cod to Maine. But, somewhere in our 10th summer of owning her, the demands of a growing family and a lack of free time began to chafe against the demands of the boat. On Labor Day 1995, as we came alongside the float at Pepperrell Cove, a smiling middle-aged man took our lines and remarked at how lovely she was. I agreed, and casually asked him if he’d like to buy her.

“I think I just might,“ was the quick reply. We sold her to him that November, for the same $30,000 we had paid in 1986. We got our money back in full – provided you don’t count maintenance costs of 10 percent per year over the 10 years.
We went out on the water for the next few years in a variety of small powerboats, and occasional sailing with friends. But as the years went on, I gradually began to scan the classifieds and brokers’ pages more seriously in search of another wooden classic, perhaps a little larger and faster than our little Hopestill.

We came close to buying the near-derelict centerboard yawl Delight, owned by historian/explorer Wright Britton. She sat, a neglected and forgotten beauty, on a float in Long Island, with dried-up food in the galley and a five-year-old Sunday “New York Times” lying open on the settee. She needed a lot of work, and I was afraid to pull the trigger.

Wooden-boat broker Jim Payne eventually led me to a shed high in the hills west of Camden one snowy spring morning. I was immediately taken by the profile, sweet curves and overall classic lines of the aging Ted Hood sloop inside. Similar to Delight, but a bit more rugged, I liked this boat a lot. She looked more or less ready to sail. But a survey revealed some rot at the mast step and serious corrosion of the aluminum spar.

After a wild sea trial in Rockland Harbor, with winds over 30 knots, and some protracted negotiation, we purchased Eight Bells in August 2001. We purchased her from the grand-nephew of Winslow Homer, who promptly informed us that the boat’s name was part of his family legacy and had to be changed with new ownership.

My wife, younger son and I shortly set out for a week’s cruise on Penobscot Bay, compiling a long list of boat names on a legal pad as we sailed. At week’s end, we shared our list with our older son upon his proud return from his first Outward Bound sailing experience. He brushed the list aside, declaring with newfound wisdom that the sloop’s new name could not possibly be on the list.

When asked how he could be so certain, without even looking, he replied that if we had actually found the right name, it would have been obvious, and we wouldn’t have had to put it on a list. “Alright then,” I challenged. “What should we call her then?”

He gazed calmly upward along the towering mast and replied simply, “Aloft.” And so she is.
Aloft went to Bob Eger’s first boatshop, high in the South Berwick hills late that fall. Bob singlehandedly took care of everything on the repair list, including excavating a hole under the shop to allow him to drop the centerboard and the 8,000-pound iron-ballast keel. Friends at Shoals Marine Canvas helped us find a used spar that more or less fit, and rebuilt the dodger. By the next summer we were sailing again. Despite (Mr. Hood would say, because of) her relatively high displacement and towering rig, the boat is light on her feet, fast and a real joy to sail.

A year or so ago I asked Bob Eger to look the boat over and give his unvarnished opinion (come to think of it, that’s the only kind he gives) regarding the overall condition of our nearly 55 year-old friend. I had a nagging suspicion that it might be time to face the relentless truth of the 10 percent rule once again. I was prepared for the worst – discovery of some fundamental failure that would outstrip reason to repair, and force me to let her go – but all he could find was routine: wasted fastenings, a few soft planks, some minor leaks, and some weakness in the cockpit sole. And the mast had serious corrosion at the partners. Oh, well.

As of this writing at the end of February, the bottom is refastened, freshly caulked and primed. The cockpit and coamings are nearly rebuilt. The leaks are sealed. The original fuel tank has been replaced. Thanks go to Star Island carpentry alumnus John Bickford, who did much of the heavy lifting under Bob’s guidance, and who is now either on his way to becoming a boat builder or forever disabused of that curious notion.

A new aluminum mast and standing rigging are on the way from Paul Giroux’s rigging shop. I plan to sand and paint the topsides when the skiing isn’t so good, and, with a little luck, we’ll be back in Gosport Harbor by June.

Seat-of-the pants accounting verifies the continuing validity of the 10 percent rule. You can’t take it with you, as my grandmother used to say. And I still love the boat shops, the process, and especially the people who do this work. I am proud to call them all my friends. Thanks to them, and the forbearance of my wise and patient wife, our beautiful, old classic is once again set to turn heads in the harbors for at least another 10 years. And I’m still happily married.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack will focus on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront. “Lots more fun,” he says.

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