The Boater’s Eye: Breezing Up

Spring brings many good things to the life of a sailor. One is the near end of snow and cold. I say “near end,” because some years I have found myself dusting snow off my moored boat in mid-April.

Snow or no snow, getting a boat in shape for the season produces a wonderful, warm feeling. This year the feeling is even warmer and more wonderful, as I no longer own a sailboat. Instead, I am being paid to “get it together” for a mostly absent owner.

The tools of my trade until I am on the water. Photo/Thaddeus B. Kubis

When the bottom needs work—and you can bet it does—the job I would normally be doing for free is supplemented by cash. The burden of cleaning the bilge is lightened by the promise of financial reward. The 30 or 40 times I will climb up and down the ladder, washing the deck, polishing the chrome and prepping the teak are no longer looked upon as excessive. They are now looked upon as—a career!

Don’t get me wrong: I would not do this stuff if I did not love the work—becoming one with the fiberglass, the bottom paint and the smelly, dirty bilge. Love is an important part of the equation, as without love it would just be work—work without passion, work with the only payoff being greenbacks in my pocket at the end of the week. A half-filled cup.

Greenbacks are not a bad thing; indeed, many a new keel has been laid with the money earned around a boatyard. My next boat has been conceived in a boatyard, on a bed of—you guessed it—greenbacks, paint spray and dirty rags.

Yes, boat-prep work is one of the great rites of spring, and it produces great stories, many of them amusing.

This prop has seen better days, off she goes and a new one will be installed. Photo/Thaddeus B. Kubis

When I was running a boat business on Long Island, New York, spring always brought an unexpected level of work borne of too many needs and never enough hands. So off I went to the local high school and posted Help Wanted signs. Within a day I had received multiple responses, and the interviews began. I finally hired a guy named Bennie (not his real name). Bennie was a great beast of guy and very strong, but a bit light on the brains.

One Saturday, Bennie was dropped off at the yard and instructed to start on one of the boats. His job was to wash the decks, polish the topsides, varnish the teak, clean the interior and exterior and be ready for pick up at 5:30 p.m.

At the end of the day I arrived at the yard with a group of friends to check on Bennie’s work. To my dismay, I found his boat untouched, the buckets dry and the hose disconnected. I stormed up the ladder, ready to kill, but there was no Bennie to be found.

It seemed Bennie had split, cut a rug, gone south. I was now the back-up plan, and Sunday, it seemed, was not to be my day of rest.

As I prepared to exit the cockpit, I heard a muffled sound, a tap and a scream. I looked around, but I couldn’t figure out the source.

Then I spied a lone piece of rope lying on the deck and began to follow it. It led to the cockpit sail locker. Pulling on the line, the hatch popped open and there was Bennie—scared and shocked. He rose from the compartment like Dracula from his coffin, then quickly descended the ladder and ran off, never to be seen again.

Upon assessing the situation, my friends jumped out of the truck and began to wash, polish and prep the boat. My Sunday was salvaged!

I later learned that I was lucky. Bennie’s past jobs had resulted in a wrecked car, a burned shed, a lost dog and more. I had gotten off cheap, was the main theme.

So each time I get ready to paint a bottom, wash a deck or clean a bilge, I realize it could be worse: Bennie could be here, helping me, sharing in my spoils, or providing more work for me to worry about.

Now it’s just me and a boat, and I’m getting paid for doing something I love. But the real payoff is that I will be sailing soon, very soon.

And as I sail, as I tack, I briefly, very briefly will remember the work that was put into the boat to get her ready. Sometimes while sailing I think of the bottom paint as it’s sloughed away by the movement of the boat. I wonder what happens to the skin that is lost to sailing. Is there a bottom paint heaven, a place where all good and well-applied bottom paint goes?

In any case, the sun has now reached point in the sky that means sailing is close at hand. Spring arrived on Tuesday, March 20, while I was on the hard, teaching 2 college-level classes in graphic and print communication. On my desk sits my iPad, upon which Active Captain software is running. I look to see where I will be sailing in a few short weeks, realizing that all my sweat, all my greenbacks and all my love would have, as if like magic, transported me from the hard to the soft, wonderful world of the sea.

Happy Spring!

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