Dec 192012
This is an old photo of me on my very first schooner! These cabin tops were finished with Deks Olje, a two-part finishing product that doesn't fall into any of the categories mentioned here.

This is an old photo of me on my very first schooner! These cabin-tops were finished with Deks Olje, a two-part oil product that doesn’t fall into any of the categories mentioned here.

Recently I finished editing Clearwater’s maintenance manual. The original is an amazing document that was created in the late 70′s, and has provided invaluable information to bosuns over the years. I highly recommend maintenance manuals and logs to everyone out there maintaining any kind of boat. Even if it’s just you and your own little dinghy, you’d be amazed at the little things you forget, and how helpful a full and detailed record can be for proper, long-term maintenance.

What follows is an excerpt from one of my additions to the manual. I have cared for brightwork here and there over the years, but by no means am I an expert. As I’ve gone from ship to ship, I’ve often been curious and confused about the very specific wood-finishing choices that are vehemently touted by each one. Everyone has their favorite, and their reasons why.

With a manual containing 30 years worth of mixtures and instructions, I was frustrated by the lack of explanations for LTV here, varnish there, and simply Penetrol in other places. I did a little research, and found that there are few places that give fact-based, comprehensive explanations on the differences and advantages of each one. I did my best to compile that research here.

Note, there are many types of finishes not mentioned here. I am only writing about the types used on Clearwater. Also, I have no references! At some point I may write a more in-depth article on this topic that will include other finishes, and…references.

Varnish (in all its lustre and glory) requires mindful preperation, a skilled hand, many thin coats, and ample time to dry and cure.

Varnish (in all its luster and glory) requires mindful preparation, a skilled hand, many thin coats, and ample time to dry and cure.


Varnish is made from a combination of resin (either plant-derived or synthetic), drying oils (most often tung or linseed), solvents (turpentine, etc.), UV protectors, and sometimes driers. Traditional knowledge says that varnishes give superior UV protection to wood that gets sun exposure, and a relatively long-lasting, flexible finish. Varnish’s flexibility makes it ideal for moving parts which might cause other harder finishes to crack, allowing moisture to damage the wood.

A proper varnish job requires a somewhat experienced hand, not only for a nice-looking finish, but also to ensure that the finish takes. If done improperly, varnish can crack, peel, delaminate, bubble, or never fully harden. Varnishing also requires a somewhat dust-free environment, nice weather, and lots of time to apply many coats. For our purposes on Clearwater, we tend only to use varnish on exterior wood that has a low likelihood of getting banged or chafed, such as hatch covers, since touch-ups are somewhat challenging and time consuming. Someone who knows what they are doing should scuff and apply a top coat of varnish once per season.

Greying in wood can be caused by sun damage when no UV-protective coating is used, or by a fungus. Some varnishes contain fungicide to prevent this.

Greying in wood can be caused by sun damage when no UV-protective coating is used, or by a fungus. Some varnishes contain fungicide to prevent this.


Penetrol is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Varnish. It has no UV protective qualities, and is even rumored to cause greying or darkening of the wood when not removed and reapplied regularly, due to the linseed oil content. Although it keeps wood from drying out by helping to restore its natural oils, it doesn’t last long and needs frequent (almost weekly) applications. It’s nice because it is very quick and easy for anyone to apply, very easy to touch up chafed spots, kicks quickly, and doesn’t leave a tacky residue.


Polyurethane is a finish/sealant that has a very similar application and appearance to varnish, and therefore the two are often used interchangeably. Polyurethane differs from varnish in many ways that don’t matter to us very much, namely the way it is made, and the chemical process it goes through to “kick”. What IS relevant to us is that a polyurethane finish tends to be MUCH harder than varnish, meaning it holds up much better under certain circumstances. The down side is that it also tends to be less flexible, which means that it will crack much more easily on pieces that flex.

A point about UV protection: I’ve always been told that the difference between varnish and poly is that varnish protects against UV damage and poly doesn’t. From what I gather, this isn’t fully true, at least anymore. Both varnish and poly CAN contain UV protective additives, but from what I’ve read, over the long haul, the UV filters in polyurethane break down faster than those in varnish. I have not myself worked on the same piece of half-varnished and half-polyurethaned wood for 10 years, so I can’t speak from personal experience.

Wood Oil:

Everyone disagrees about protective coatings for blocks. Some say paint offers superior UV protection, others say it hides damage that should be addressed. Some oil, some poly. What do you do with your blocks?

Everyone disagrees about protective coatings for blocks. Some say paint offers superior UV protection, others say it hides damage that should be addressed. Some oil regularly, some poly. What do you do with your blocks?

There are a few different wood oil recipes (also known to boaters as “boat soup”) that have been used over the years. It is generally a mixture of two to four of the following in varying quantities: varnish, boiled linseed oil, turpentine, Penetrol, and Japan Drier. Boiled linseed oil is a plant-based oil that can help restore wood’s natural oils and keep it from drying out, but blackens wood quickly without frequent applications (more expensive tung oil can be used instead to eliminate this problem). Varnish gives some UV protection and a harder finish, but slows kicking time. Turpentine thins the mixture, allowing it to be absorbed better and dry more quickly. Penetrol is a brushing agent that both thins and contains oils that can be protective. Japan Drier speeds up the drying process, but too much causes discoloration.

Boat soup” is relatively easy to apply and can give great results, but depending on ratios, you can end up with a tacky finish that never hardens, or a weird color. It also takes some time to dry, and requires regular reapplication. The recipe we’re currently using is listed below, but if it’s giving you trouble, ask some old salt and you’ll get some good advice. Or do some experiments of your own and you can name the new mixture after your favorite Aunt.

May 162012

It’s almost exactly two months away from my return to the States! That’s still a loooong time, but the part of me that loves to plan has already started scheming my next adventure. I’ve been haunting the sail-training and yacht crew websites for some time now, and shining up my resume.

This has been my desktop lately:

My desktop as of late

You can see my list of potential employers. Some of them are new to the list — the Oliver Hazard Perry is a new and still uncompleted build that will be Rhode Island’s flagship — and others have been on my list for years now. SEA (The Sea Education Association) does scientific research and sail-training aboard tall ships in the open ocean with college students, and have been my dream employer for a long time (although all of this sea-sickness has me second-guessing a bit). Employment with SEA is pretty competitive, but once you’re in, it seems like dependable seasonal work year after year, with good benefits. They’ll be hearing from me again this year, but until I have licensing, my chances with them are small.

My availability this season is somewhat limiting for work in New England– August 1 through the holidays — but I’m confident that something will work out. My favorite picks right now are the Isaac H. Evans in Penobscot Bay Maine, the Clearwater on the Hudson River, and Sultana in the Chesapeake Bay. And then who knows, maybe the Caribbean or back to Australia in the new year!

Jan 062012

After I published my post about getting started sailing on tall-ships, my friend Jeremiah suggested that I write about how I got where I am now, aboard a boat halfway around the world. My first response was “But what got me here is networking, not a process you can really give instructions for,” but he thought this was exactly the kind of thing someone “starting out” should know. So…

041_Australia Day 2011 Flotilla & Darling FireworksNot all adventures require a purpose, but this one did. I have a Grandmother who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and she wanted me to visit. Deciding to go wasn’t tough once the opportunity came up, and deciding to prolong my stay was easier. Why travel to the other side of the world and only stay for two weeks?

One of the great advantages to working on boats, besides the fresh salt air and gorgeous views, is the built-in flexibility in employment with regards to length, location and type. It seemed immediately obvious to me that if I wanted to stay for a few months, I should find a tall-ship to work on while I was in Tasmania. Even if I couldn’t get paid work, I’d be compensated with room and board. Fine by me.

Tall ship (1/20)I began researching tall-ships in Australia about a year ago, when I decided to take this trip. This was as simple as Googling “tall-ship Australia”, but keep in mind that many boats escape detection with these seemingly all-inclusive keywords.  If you’re looking for a boat, especially if it’s in a specific place, don’t assume your first search will turn up every single one. In fact, the boat I ultimately joined didn’t appear on any of my searches. Some other good search terms include: sailing, cruising, sail-training, schooner, square-rigger, windjammer, traditional ship, wooden boat, traditional rig, sailing crew, deckhand, etc. As well, Tall Ships America and Sail Training International have vessel member lists/databases. Be sure to check these out too, but again, don’t assume that they cover everyone.

Of course having an up-to-date resume on hand is essential, and being an obsessive The Leeuwin sailing ship, from the Endeavourresume updater myself, I have a lot of tips on that which I’ll save for another article. Go ahead and just send your resume out with a cover letter to everyone you come across, even if they’re not advertising openings. It can’t hurt. I sent off my resume to the half-dozen tall-ships I came across online, and didn’t get any replies. No worries. Not surprisingly, Captains are often offline for days or weeks at a time. If you are persistent, you’ll find your ship.

A quick note about resumes: Don’t think that just because you’re applying to be a “sailor” that a well-written resume isn’t important.  Many of these boats have an educational mission, and a professional resume tells your potential captain that you can communicate well, and understand the importance of presentation. (Believe it or not this might make you stand out as an applicant…)

What finally got me my position aboard Windeward Bound was, of course, networking. Once you decide upon your adventure, don’t ever pass up an opportunity to mention it to someone who has even the slightest potential of taking an interest. You never know where the connection will come from. Mine came from my Captain on the Bill of Rights, Stephen Taylor, who just happened to have a friend that does business in Tasmania, and loves tall-ships. I sent this man my resume, and honestly within two days he’d written me that he found me my boat, and had already contacted the Captain on my behalf. From there it was just a few emails back and forth between the Captain and I, and my position was settled.

Now that I’m in Tassie, I’m beginning to work towards my new goal of finding a boat toEnterprize take me home to the States via the Pacific. This brings me to my final bit of advice for today. There are a million boats out there, and just because they’ve invited you to join, doesn’t mean you should. Different sailors have different standards for safety on the water. Find out what yours is, and don’t settle for a situation that makes you uncomfortable. When I’m looking for a boat to join, I’m evaluating the disposition and experience of the Captain and crew, the type of equipment on board, the state of the gear, and even how tidy their galley is. The smallest detail can tell you a lot about your potential crew-mates and future home. And for my first ocean crossing, I’m happy to wait until I find the right situation.

Endeavour & Sydney