Back in January, Australasian Amateur Boatbuilder & Kitboats (issue #104) published my story Cutter. This was a rollicking tale of boat restoration and how three blokes could work together to make their first moves into owning something that floats.
The feedback I’ve had from that article has been mostly positive, but more than a few folks have suggested that I ‘gilded the lily’ to some degree. Now I’ve never been accused of letting the truth get in the way of a good story, but perhaps I tended toward the ‘bright side’, and in retrospect, maybe I didn’t tell the whole truth. Perhaps I left out a few pieces of information that would serve as a warning to the uninitiated. I may have sentimentalised, I may have romanticised.
So I’ll set the record straight. In this brave new world, where ‘fake news’ prevails and every Instagram and Facebook post tells a story of impossible awesomeness, let this stand as my testimony to boat restoration and what it really means to leap headlong into the world of bilges, ballast and barnacles.
Spending time on water craft when your family members aren’t completely committed is pretty much the same as cheating. You might think that being open and honest about ‘heading down the boat’ is all you need to do to keep the waters calm, but you would be wrong. If you think you can come home and regale the tribe with your walk-through of ‘a day on the hardstand’ you are off your trolley. Making sense of ‘who loves boats’ in your clan is your first and most important assignment.
The problem is basically centered around the stuff you could be doing. Even with this in mind, there is no amount of lawn mowing, bed-making or dish washing will ever make up for the ‘opportunity cost’ of boat ownership. So suck it up, live with it, build a bridge.
Don’t think you can modify your boat to accommodate your perception of what others want either. I don’t know why, but placing a small chemical toilet in a cramped cabin with no ventilation does not immediately make a vessel ‘family friendly’. A 12V portable washing machine on the back deck does not make a boat a home-away-from-home. An off-take hose from the heat exchanger is not a shower, no matter what hand-piece you put on the end. Crazy right?
Once you accept that it’s only you and a couple of mates who are interested in your boat, you are well on your way to finding some kind of ‘normal’.
Getting in the pen on launch day.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY
One of my first ‘proper’ jobs, back in the 1980’s was on a mine site out in the wilds of the WA. I remember asking the boss for some safety gloves for a routine task, and immediately my manliness was questioned. I even earned the nickname ‘Gluvvie’ which stuck for the rest of my time in the dirt and flies of the goldfields. We had no idea of PPE back then ... as long as you wore a hardhat you were safe.
Fast forward to the present day, good luck if you can make it past 9am without a ‘safety-share’, JHA or a ‘take-5 for safety’. We might have gone a little over the top with this stuff (and the cynic in me says it’s all about insurance premiums) but somewhere along the line, the safety message must have rubbed off on me (regardless of getting my fingers burnt early). Despite being upside down with an antique grinder and a flap disc spinning around at 8000rpm (shaving three years of gunk off the hull), I was somehow inspired to wear gloves, hearing protection, safety glasses and a dust mask. What had I become? I don’t know how, but even with long pants, long-sleeved shirt, hat and a scarf thingy, I still managed to get shell grit and antifoul dust up my nose, in my ears and eyes and every other crack, crevice and curve that I possessed. I’m most thankful for the gloves though, when a grinder kicks back and wants to bite you, it usually does a pretty good job. Even though it got the better of me this time, it could have been a lot worse.
I bribed my young fella (10 years of age) into helping me with the bum-scrape. His effort lasted long enough to get a mouthful of barnacle squirt into his gob. If he ever ventures back under a boat with a scraper, I reckon he’ll keep his dust mask on like his dad told him to.
YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FRIENDS
In the last edition I mentioned Ally, the Yoda-like guru of the Maylands Amateur Boat Yard. He gave us great advice and tinkered with our motor and bits and pieces and gave a guiding hand on launch-day, marshalling Cutter into the water, using his dinghy to push her into her pen. We started about 10am on a Friday which I figured would give me plenty of time to get to a 2pm meeting down on the other side of town. The crane was late, but still we made good time and got Cutter onto the slipway cradle and into the water with enough time for me to have a shower, get changed and head off to the meeting.
There was something nagging at me though ... what had my mate (and co-owner) Gibbo said not to forget? I could picture him waving his hands around and saying words like ‘important’ and ‘critical’ and ‘ABSOLUTELY DO NOT FORGET’, but I just couldn’t remember what it was that I was meant to ‘not forget’. I put it to the back of my mind, surely I’d remembered everything, Gibbo is a bit of a worrier in any case, what could possibly go wrong?
The meeting went pretty well, but I had several missed calls and a couple of voice-mail messages to catch up on when I got back to the car. “Jeeze, I’m important,” I thought to myself.
Just for reference at this point, its essential that you know what a seacock is. Also known as a sea valve and sometimes a Kingston valve, the seacock is a valve that allows water (from the sea or river or whatever your boat is floating on) to flow into a vessel through the bottom of the hull. The seacock on Cutter was designed to allow water into the cooling system for the motor, so normally it wouldn’t matter too much if it was left open, so long as it was actually hooked up to the cooling system. Because we’d been running up the motor on the hardstand, our cooling water was by way of a garden hose. The hose to the seacock was disconnected, and for some reason (best known Gibbo) left open.
I’m pretty up-to-date with technology. Using ‘hands free’ in the car to check phone messages is a great way to multi-task right? I love technology. Friday, driving up the freeway, beautiful day, heading to the boat, checking my messages, just about beer o’clock ... Turns out the boat was sinking – the kind of message that brings you back to earth pretty quickly.
There are only four people north of Busselton who know where the seacock on Cutter is located: Me (45 minutes away), Gibbo (at work, 20 minutes away), Justin (working remotely, four hours away) and Ally.
We were unbelievably lucky. Cutter had taken on maybe a ton of water, she was listing badly and front cabin flooded. The Swan River was licking our starter motor, well and truly above the engine sump and halfway up the gearbox. Ally, expecting to catch up with us around 3pm looked over to Cutter and immediately knew what was going on. By all accounts he was on it like a flash. In a blur, he grabbed a submersible pump off the yard guys, flew onto Cutter and reached into the black abyss of our engine bay, twisted and contorted underneath the battery bank, shoulder-deep in water and shut off the seacock. We were maybe 5-10 minutes away from total disaster. The only guy who knew what to do, was in absolutely the right place at the absolutely the right time. With my stomach in my mouth, I arrived back at the yard to find a puddle of water in the cabin, a bit of wet carpet and a whole bunch of salty yard folks pointing and laughing.
I’ve learned a lot about seacocks.
KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS
It seemed like a good idea to jump in our little dinghy and hoon around checking our ropes. Cutter was a month in the water, and I thought that meant I was now a seasoned hand at all things nautical. Funny how over-confidence has a way of biting you in the backside.
Sitting on the stern gunwale of a dinghy (when there are real seats to sit on) is a great way to end up in the drink. Upside down, motor drowned is bad enough, surfacing to find your neighbours guffawing just takes the cake.
Fortunately for me, Gibbo and Justin capsized the canoe in the middle of the river not long after. Seeing this renewed my faith in Karma (and gave me a belly-laugh to boot) I wish I’d had my phone on me to capture the moment (alas, I’d dropped it off the jetty the week before).
The 4236 engine is an under-rated beast of a motor that first came into service world-wide in the 60’s. Ours blew up in the first months of 2019 (not a bad run really for what is basically a tractor motor). Drifting aimlessly in the upper reaches of the Swan River, we looked dodgy enough for some crabbers to motor up to check if we were the reason they were pulling empty nets. Fortunately they were good-hearted river people and towed us up to a casual mooring in one of the richest suburbs this side of Point Piper.
Once again, Ally to the rescue, with his self-built imagining of a Leigh-on-Sea cockle boat (more like an ice-breaking all-seas tug to me, but then again, I know nothing). If we could owe this bloke more cartons of tinnies I’d really like to know how. I’d also like to know how he can be up-and-at-em, towing a boat like ours in the early morning on Valentine’s Day and still feel safe returning home. February in Perth is normally pretty warm, but it was decidedly frosty at my place after ruining Wednesday ‘girls night’.
Restoring a boat is a pretty simple exercise. You measure, you cut, you install. Bog and sand, epoxy, rub and paint well enough and you are going to end up with something that looks pretty reasonable. You might even have a dream run where everything goes to plan. But boat ownership is a fragile existence that will rip your heart out when you least expect it, and make you feel like an absolute fool in the process. If I’d been given this advice before embarking on this project I probably would still have taken it on – some things just get in your head (and heart) ... you know? But it has been pointed out to me that folks don’t learn a thing worth learning from their successes. The only stuff you really learn comes from your defeats and your failures. Thank the Great Albatross above for boats then eh?