May 012012


In 2010 and 2011, I had the pleasure of overseeing a deck restoration project on the Bill of Rights. The deck was original, making it forty years old. About twenty years into its life, it had started showing signs of deterioration, so the operators at the time decided to cover it with a material called Arabol to prevent leaks.

Twenty years later, the Arabol was far beyond the end of its life, and the deck beneath it was rotten and leaky. The rot was almost entirely caused by and surrounding the rusty steel bolts used to fasten the planks to the deck beams, so scarfing clean pieces in wasn’t a viable solution. We had to replace entire sections of the deck.

Complicating factors: I had limited carpentry skills and no prior experience with such a project, and it was my job to see that the deck got fixed; if you imagine the smallest budget you can, ours was far smaller; the deck had to be usable at the end of each week so that we could do weekend public sails.

So how did we manage? We had a whole team of old salty-dog volunteer boat-builders, carpenters and machinists who generously shared incredible amounts of time and knowledge with us. Add an enthusiastic and committed team of staff and volunteers, and a bunch of donated equipment and supplies, and we were half-way there.

At the end of it all not only did we have a leak-free deck, but I’d gained a level of knowledge and experience in the repair and maintenance of wooden decks beyond anything I’d dreamed.

Here is some photo-documentation of the project, with a few notes about process, materials, and lessons learned.

Removing the old worn-out airball deck covering.




1. Removing the old, worn-out Arabol, anxious to see how much of the deck was salvageable. A note about Arabol or similar coverings: this can only be used as a stop-gap measure to stop leaks until a proper deck repair or full replacement can be made. The Arabol WILL leak, allowing water in, but not out, and causing the deck to rot further.






After 40 years, all of the steel spikes had rusted, causing the wood around them to rot.


2. The steel spikes originally used to fasten the decks beams had rusted over the years, causing the wood around it to rot. Because they were rusty (and 6″ long), these spikes were painfully difficult to remove without shearing them off, and left gaping holes in the deck beams when you did.





Some of the planks were a little difficult to remove.


3. Removing planks was a multi-step process. First we drilled several holes large enough to fit the blade of a jig-saw, and cut the planks into sections, being very careful not to come anywhere near wiring below. Then small sections either fell away, or were removed by pounding them out with a sledge-hammer, as seen here. The hardest bits were around the spikes, where we basically had to see-saw the pieces out.




Hole in the deck!


4. Here is a portion of the deck with all planks removed, and one new plank already installed from the test-run repair we’d done in the fall.  We chose to use the pre-existing holes from the steel spikes for our new fasteners where possible to avoid turning the deck beams into Swiss cheese. This was a great idea in theory, but ended up creating a lot of challenges later on in the process.




Each plank went through the jointer, the table saw or band saw, and the chop saw to bring it close to its final dimensions.


5. Each plank went through the jointer, band saw or table saw, thickness planer, and finally the chop to bring it to rough dimensions before it was brought down to the boat. Before its final fitting, we put a bevel around the top of each plank, which would later form the seams between the planks.





Final dimensioning was done by hand for a perfect fit.




6. Final dimensioning was done with a hand plane to ensure as tight a fit as was possible.








1/2" x 4" zinc-plated hex-head lag screws were used to fasten the new planks, re-using the holes from the original spikes.

7. We used 1/2″ by 4″ zinc-plated hex-head lags to fasten the new deck planks. 1/2″ was overkill, but necessary to grab into the existing spike holes. Pre-drilling the planks in the exact right spot to match the pre-existing holes was nearly impossible, and led to many lags that became cock-eyed as they were driven in. In turn, this meant that our bung-holes had to be reamed out so the socket could fit at an angle. In the future, I would epoxy dowels of the same timber (in this case, white oak) into the existing holes, put the new fasteners elsewhere, and just accept that the beams will be less than whole.




With bungs cut and glued, the only step left before caulking, tarring and oiling is to trim the bungs.


8. Lags have been driven in, and bungs have been cut and glued in. Trimming  the bungs (a more delicate task than you might think) is the last step before oiling the new planks, and caulking and tarring the seams.








Finally, the planks have been oiled and the seams have been caulked with cotton and oakum and then filled with tar!

9. Finally, seams have been caulked with cotton and oakum, and filled with tar. We went a less than traditional route and used plain old roofers tar that works just fine. We were lucky enough to get a design for a really handy paying pitcher from a friend which we had custom-made by a local machine shop. The tool is basically a large cone with a hole in the end, a handle, and a piece of steel rod down the center that can be used to plug the hole when you come to the end of a seam. It seriously increases efficiency, and makes a normally messy process quite a bit neater.



Feb 182012

It’s amazing how time flies. We have worked our way through our 10 day maintenance period, and finally have a couple of days off. Yay! As promised, here is a little explanation about what we’ve been doing to our yard and foot-ropes over the last several days.

The yard extends from both sides of the mast, with a foot-rope hanging from each "arm"The yard extends from both sides of the mast; a foot-rope hangs from each “arm”

First off, a yard is a horizontal piece of wood that holds up a square-sail, and a foot-rope is a piece of steel cable that is attached at both ends of the yard, and hangs down from it. While sailors work aloft, we “stand” and balance on the foot-ropes.

As you might guess, that steel cable could become vulnerable to oxidation, being out in the elements all of the time. In order to prevent them from rusting, sailors have been worming, parceling and serving those cables (which also happen to be used for shrouds, stays and other standing rigging) for generations.

Down-rigged foot-ropes with intact servingsDown-rigged foot-ropes with intact servings

For this project, we did not worm, which is the process of laying tarred nylon line into the grooves between strands for the length of the cable in order to keep out moisture. We did, however, parcel and serve. Parceling is simply tightly wrapping the cable in greased cloth, again, to keep out moisture. The next (and funnest!) step is servicing. The end result of servicing is a steel cable with twine so tightly wrapped around it that it creates a barrier to the elements.

Our process, from beginning to end, went like this (some repeat photos in here):

1. Unwind old serving and parceling1. Unwind the old, brittle serving, and remove the dried out denzo tape (parceling) to expose the cable
Greasy denzo tape (used for parceling) and tarred nylon line is removed to expose the cable, which is inspected for rust and cleaned with a wire brush2. Inspect the cable for rust and clean it with a wire brush
3. Wrap the cable with greasy denzo tape. Be sure to wrap with the lay of the cable, and overlap each round by a third.3. Wrap the cable with greasy denzo tape. Be sure to wrap with the lay of the cable, and overlap each round by a third.
A "serving mallet" is used to aid the process of winding the twine as tightly as possible. The mallet is bound to the cable by the serving twine, and regulates tension as it rotates around the cable, paying out twine as it goes..4. Serve. A “serving mallet” is used to aid the process of winding the twine as tightly as possible. The mallet is bound to the cable by the serving twine, and regulates tension as it rotates around the cable, paying out twine as it goes.
"Worm and parcel with the lay; turn and serve the other way"“Worm and parcel with the lay; turn and serve the other way”
The mallet can be rotated by hand, or if you're good, you can get it to turn itself by swinging the cable like a jump-rope!The mallet can be rotated by hand, or if you’re good, you can get it to turn itself by swinging the cable like a jump-rope!
Fully served and ready to tarFully served and ready to tar
5. Paint the serving with a mixture of roofing tar, black paint and varnish5. Paint the serving with a mixture of roofing tar, black paint and varnish
6. Allow one day for the tar to dry and apply a second coat. Enjoy your newly parceled, served and tarred foot-ropes!6. Allow one day for the tar to dry and apply a second coat. Enjoy your newly parceled, served and tarred foot-ropes!

Check out these posts for more photos and explanations:


Feb 052012

The other day some of my crew took apart our Furuno radar for repairs. I’d never seen the inside of a radar before, and couldn’t even imagine what might be screwed and soldered together inside beyond some kind of arm rotating about an axle. My blurry guess was mostly correct: there is a surface that rotates. The rest, the part that does the “talking”, is strangely silent and still, all gears and computer chips. I don’t know what I was imagining, besides the “how radar works” explanation I usually give kids, which involves a man forever spinning in a circle, emitting a continuous, loud “Ahhhh!” with one hand cupped to his ear, listening for his own echo. It wasn’t like that. There was no man. But there was some good light…

Feb 032012

Windeward Bound has at least 13 sails that could potentially be flown, but most of the time we fly four or five at most. People ask when and why we would ever put up the rest, or why we don’t, and I tell them it all depends on the wind.

Most sailboats have at least three possible combinations of sails they could use. The most common rig, the sloop, which has just a mainsail and jib, can fly with just the jib, just the main, or both main and jib. Choosing which depends on both wind strength and direction. In lighter winds, you’d want to have as much sail area up as possible to make the most out of it. In stronger winds, you’d want to reduce sail area to keep the boat at a safe speed and heel. Sailing close-hauled (into the wind) in strong winds, you’d probably fly just your jib, which is a smaller sail with better ability to sail into the wind.

Yesterday, we were in light enough airs that we put out all of our square sails for the first time since I’ve been there. That’s (from the bottom up) the course, lower topsail, upper topsail, and top-gallant (pronounced “t’gallant”). It was exciting to see so much canvas out, so I decided to bring my camera up aloft for the first time to see what kind of shots I could get!

Square-sails from deck

Square-sails from deck

Dead-eye aloft

Dead-eye aloft

Lower topsail from aloft

Lower topsail from aloft

Main cross-trees, view from aloft

Main cross-trees, view from aloft

Jan 312012

The other day out on the water, my crew-mate Alex and I were standing bow-watch together. We were looking out at the waves, and Alex asked what wind force I guessed it was. “I think seventeen knots. Twenty at most,” I said. He ran back to the helm where we have an anemometer, a wind gauge. “The anemometer says twenty-three but our speed downwind is 5. That makes it eighteen knots!”

When I was First Mate on the Bill of Rights, I used to quiz my crew (and myself) on wind force. There’s a guide called the Beaufort Scale which allows you to estimate wind speed based on sea-state. Zero knots is “surface like a mirror”. Force one, or 1-3 knots, shows ripples. Force two, or 4-6 knots, ripples begin to form crests. Force three, or 7-10 knots, crests begin to break…you get the picture.


A scale that relates wind speed to psychological stateI remember one time we found a “Psychological Beaufort Scale” which I thought at first was a joke. It’s not a joke, but I think it may be better for judging your own sanity than the wind speed.

It’s important to be able to estimate wind speed by observing the state of the ocean. We decide how much sail area is safe to carry based on wind speed, and being able to judge that without running over to the anemometer could help you out someday. GPS isn’t the only bit of technology one which the modern sailor has become too reliant. Here’s a clip of the full Beaufort Scale. Note that sea state is also affected by any nearby landmasses, and the length of the storm.

A scale that relates wind speed with sea state