Chasing A Dream
Chase's arrival at The Landing School in Kennebunk, Maine, was inauspicious. The boat had a rather stodgy, Formica-class appearance while carrying, as unwanted baggage, the detritus of several owners and their schemes, whims and shortcuts. Like thousands of other production fiberglass boats, time was no friend to the Swan 40. After 30 years, her fine Sparkman & Stephens design pedigree and careful Swan construction had gone a bit long in the tooth.
The electrical panel was a rat's nest; half a quart of oil sloshed around in the bilge, and a veritable maze of water and fuel lines brought to mind copulating snakes. Through-hulls speckled below the waterline like BB shots; a small, worn paddle hung off the stern, calling itself a rudder; the deck hatches were crummy, and two mammoth winches that could raft a tug hogged the deck amidships. Nothing really wrong and not a lot really right, like someone mashed the conveniences of an AirStream into an old Volvo wagon. The boat's laundry list of shortcomings, though, would be pretty chancy on the deep.
Chase begged the question that confronts so many far-horizon sailors with resources sufficient to only handle an older boat, one safe enough to cruise the coast but not bulletproof for offshore gales. Is she worth the overhaul cost necessary to bring her back to blue water safely?
To explore an answer, we'll look at how one older boat is making the land voyage that will float her again, ready for any seas between the ice caps. In this issue, the fundamentals are on deck. What's absolutely necessary, and how does one owner tackle the retrofit, logistically and financially? In another article later this summer we'll look at Chase as she goes back in the water, using the project's cost/benefit evaluation as a template that other owners or dreamers can apply to their representative in the aging flotilla.
Chase is textbook quality for a rehab project: sound, rugged, leaky and technically antiquated. But age does have its advantages. They made them solid 30 years ago, and her hull looks like granite compared to today's lightweight laminates that can shudder and flex in a contrary Gulf Stream sea. The keel is deep; she'll track hard to windward; and her layout is for offshore, with narrow berths, tight quarters and plenty of handholds. Chase is that basic, sound instrument, which, if given good strings and is well-tuned, will play nicely despite the rigors of the road.
"I wanted something for extended cruising, a boat that I could make bluewater ready," Peter Stoops, one of the boat's owners, explained. "A good SSB, autopilot, adequate tankage, reliable systems, a refrigeration unit sufficient for the tropics."
When he purchased Chase, Stoops envisioned a voyage to Europe and back via the tropics. Getting the boat ready for those ocean passages would be a compromise between time and money. Stoops felt the spread between purchase price and her Bristol-shape value would cover the rehab cost, but he didn't want to get financially upside down in a depreciating asset. His decision criteria for which projects to tackle eventually boiled down to simplicity.
"Doing everything right is a huge job, and it gets old working by yourself in the cold," he said. "The long-term plan was to fix as we go on the do-it-yourself, extended time plan, but the 80/20 rule became a problem. Figure out everything that needs to be done, chuck 20 percent and concentrate on the 80. Except that by the time you reach the end, the first things have to be re-done and the old 20 percent becomes part of the new 80 percent. After always chipping away at things, I learned the compromise: Is it a prerequisite for safe sailing?"
Even after several years of skilled puttering, Stoops knew he would have to devote several concentrated months to a complete retrofit if he wanted to see Ireland. To help defray costs and share the load, he found partners to buy shares in the boat, and one of them had an idea. Alex Agnew, publisher of this magazine, wondered if Roger Hellyar-Brook would be interested in a project. All agreed that Chase would become the Landing School's next project boat.
Within their budget the Chase owners divided "necessary" into three categories: 1) Absolutely Necessary, 2) Preferred and 3) Wouldn't It Be Nice?
A good, new autopilot system was essential. The boat needed rewiring with a simplified schematic that incorporated low-voltage lighting and new instrumentation; a refrigeration system adequate for tropical anchorages needed to be designed and installed ýithout resorting to humongous battery banks or excessive engine time requirements. Stoops was clear about accepting the trade-off between simplicity and cost. For example, is hard ice cream necessary in Anguilla? The answer was no. All standing riggingýneeded inspection and replacement as necessary. The hatches and portholes were old, leaky and unsafe in an ocean storm. Bearings, seals, fittings, bushings and chainplates had to be checked and refurbished as appropriate. The plumbing, steering, propane, GPS and alarm system all needed overhauls.
Stoops began the iterations of a one-page work-list spreadsheet and ballparked the numbers attached to each item. These went to Hellyar-Brook's staff, who turned the "what" into "how," producing a work list that broke the project into systems and then detailed each specific task against a draft schedule. The work list reduced the total, mind-numbing complexity to something doable, an item at a time. Viewed in this way, one could argue that any skipper going offshore should be able to do any of these tasks, the importance of each item being judged by a simple question: What if it breaks at 40° N by 40° W?
Eighteen yacht novices with varying degrees of mechanical skills and book smarts surveyed the boat and then started dismantling. Everything coming off was tagged and stored. Through-hulls were disassembled, and the huge winches came out, leaving ugly holes that looked like empty tooth sockets. The rudder came off, revealing a stock with significant signs of crevice corrosion beneath the bearings. Cracks in the rubber seals of the cutlass bearing forced its retirement. The hatches departed, and every floorboard was removed and replaced with a temporary plywood cutout that made the entire bilge accessible. The engine was pulled and transferred to a bench mount in the shop, while in the yard outside, every fitting came off the mast. Galvanic corrosion once again became evident where dielectric shields had broken down on steel winches and fittings fit snugly to the aluminum mast.
The boat had nearly been turned inside out like a pocket, leaving a hull with deck and bulkheads. On a winter morning, Stoops surveyed the scene ruefully. "Chase looks like she's having an autopsy," he said.
He put a fudge factor in the budget for surprises and received his just desserts. The mast revealed a nasty crack just above the deck boot that traversed 130° of the circumference, probably the result of sporadic use of the baby stay. The Sparkman & Stephens design had eliminated the two fore and aft lower stays on either beam in favor of one amidships and the baby stay coming forward off the lower mast quadrant. When running off the wind, the baby stay could be disconnected to use the spinnaker pole, but on the wind, its connection prevented the mast from pumping. Over time, the inadvertent neglect to reattach the baby stay allowed the mast to flex beyond its capacity. The crack looked like something that would probably only fail on a moonless, Force 8 night 1,000 miles offshore.
The hull — aside from being peppered with redundant holes — seemed in moderately good shape, though multiple layers of bottom paint had debonded, and the tell-tale goosebumps of dry fiber blisters called for grinding down to the laminate and refinishingù Water was leaking out from a couple of laminate cracks that begged investigation. Grounding dynaplates nearly crumbled as they were removed from the hull, prompting some of the more curious to wonder if the boat had once been struck by lightning.
When the rudder came off, its size and condition occasioned a good deal of debate. The stock presented a fairly straightforward choice of either re-tooling or replacing. In the oxygen-starved bearing sleeve, the stainless-steel stock had become locally anodic, starting a slow immolation of galvanic corrosion that compromised the 2-inch, precision-machined steel. A new, custom-milled stock would vacuum much of the miscellaneous category in Stoops' budget, but Hellyar-Brook simply shrugged: "Next to knowledge, the rudder's the most important thing on the boat," he said. The rudder's size was more ambiguous. But just looking at it did not give anyone a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Chase's factory-designed rudder was one of the first completely skeg-hung models with no leading edge. For the helmsman holding course in a high, following sea, a little counterbalance makes a large difference and could be critical to keep the boat from slewing sideways as she surfs down a breaking crest. Running downwind, Chase tends to get overwhelmed and understeer. To mitigate that tendency, a larger rudder would seem necessary, but as the rudder gets deeper and wider, a corresponding increase in loads, both vertical and lateral, can challenge the stock's bending moment. That conundrum would require some creative engineering, stress analysis and design work so that any change occurred within inherent parameters of the boat.
Moving below deck, the mayhem was quite advanced and could be best addressed by the simple expedient of ripping it all out. The installation of an AC refrigeration system had required a generator, which someone thought to mount above the engine, in the process making the shaft bearing inaccessible.
The mad scientist who routinely visits so many boats had been at the electrical panel. Lines were doubled and tripled on breakers, while some led out of the box to another terminal junction panel cleverly hidden from either view or access. Chase's whole electrical system was degrading to the point of overload, short-circuit or the insidious and diabolical prospect of stray current sneaking around for a point of galvanic discharge, destroying metal, molecule by molecule.
Oil sludge had long been ensconced in the bilge, courtesy of seal degradation on the 46-hp Westerbeke diesel. The serpentine water and fuel-line runs had cluttered access below.
Stains on one of the bulkheads indicated a deck leak. Hellyar-Brook took one look and said, "Ash plywood wicks somethin' ferocious; get it out!" Two pints of rank, funky water lay behind the bulkhead. Between this nose-wrinkling trough and the gray-water-impregnated waste hoses, Chase became an olfactory pigpen for a few days. Everyone thought it an opportune time to let the boat breathe deep while the humans assessed.Choices
With the boat dismantled, a few things proved imperative. The mast had to be repaired, most likely entailing a fabricated sleeve bolted inside before welding the crack solid again. Additionally, a new boom gooseneck needed to be installed, and the rudder shaft was found to be shot. Now, within budgetary constraints, the choices could be made that would bring her back together. Of course, the best-laid plans don't succeed without a little dust-up now and again.
Discussions around the refrigeration system seemed like a verbal match of buzkashi, the Afghan game where all the riders are yanking at the same headless goat. Refrigerate what, how much and where? Cold beer at sea, frozen steaks for a week, ice cubes on demand? How much engine time is too much? Create more space for batteries or install a separate generator? Engine-driven or independent? Stoops kept muttering, "Just keep it simple," but there is an inevitable tension — most often positive and creative — between professionals who are dedicated to state-of-the-art quality and an owner who is trying to be the financially prudent clerk of the works. Stoops could feel his heels dragging, and the final mix will probably entail an engine-driven system with a DC pony compressor.
The rudder was far more amenable. Steve Dalzell, Yacht Design Program Manager at the Landing School analyzed flow patterns of the hull and recommended a 20 percent increase in size. The bottom part of the skeg was cut off, and through a nifty piece of craftsmanship, Landing School students cut back the rudder laminate and scooped out enough of the foam core to provide a male/female joint. Then they fashioned and rabbetted a mahogany filler on the leading edge and laid it in an epoxy bed before laminating the new addition into the whole and glassing the entire rudder. With the final result, students could defy an observer to determine the rudder wasn't original.
Remembering the putrid bulkhead water, Agnew chimed in with the admonition that any new interior installation needed to be accessible and, specifically, that all screws should have washers. Decorative bungs would be banished to the classy yachts with a nice yearly yard budget. Additionally, floorboard latches would be fitted to secure the sole while affording easy access to water, fuel, icebox and refrigeration lines.
By late winter, the project nadir had been turned, and Chase gradually lost the look of a third-world strip search. Rebuilding began, and Stoops looked on with appreciation.
"They've done things absolutely right," he said. "I don't know that I'd have had the time; there's a lot of places you don't want to go in a boat — too ugly, smelly, complicated — until something breaks. It's only essential when it's broken. But there are no secrets in her anymore, not a system that hasn't been taken apart. And now I'm really comfortable with how those systems work." Offshore, that comfort is what helps a skipper sleep.
In this summer's issue of American Yacht Review [due out in late August], we'll revisit Chase for the reckoning, evaluating the result with a series of sea trials. Ultimately, every owner of an older boat and modest means has to decide if the dream of an ocean voyage is realistic. The determination, planning and hard work in Kennebunk will likely mean a happy ending to this tale.
[Editor's note: No parts or services were accepted for this project without due compensation.]
Laurence Eubank reported on losing his boat to the rocks in a channel near Woods Hole, Mass., in the Jan./Feb. 2002 issue of Ocean Navigator. He lives in South Portland, Maine.