Maintaining a schooner from another time
To the editor: One of the more interesting and frustrating aspects to owning a fairly large, old wooden vessel is finding parts that will fit the particular requirements of these old boats. The industry that once supported them the shipyards with legions of workers who were skilled at caulking, framing, planking, rigging and even repairing, and the companies that manufactured all their fastenings and hardware has all but disappeared. There are specialty shops, to be sure. There are high-end yacht yards that will do anything for the right price. But I'm referring to the basic, no-frills hardware, the items you bought off the shelf for pennies a hundred years ago. As a result, I often find myself improvising, attempting to strike the right balance between do-it-yourself and paying a skilled shop to perform custom work. I am a partner in Portland Schooner Co., a company that, since the summer of 2002, has been operating the 1924 Alden schooner Bagheera out of Portland, Maine. Admittedly, I am lucky to be in Maine; if I had to maintain this boat in just about any other state, I would not have the luxury of contact with the remaining people who understand the needs of old wooden boats.
When I had the boat hauled at the end of last season, I spent some time puzzling about how to remove the remaining foot or so of water that was left in the bilge. In the old days, I was told, a hole was drilled in the planking and then plugged with a dowel and bunged. This was done every time the boat was hauled out for any period of time. I think I'll haul the boat every year, which means I'll have a garboard plank riddled with holes if I drill a new drain each time, or a very worn hole that will get progressively larger over the years. I decided against this idea, despite the apparent simplicity.
And then there was the option of installing the silicon bronze garboard plug, a fairly common piece of hardware available at most marine retailers. I found that Hamilton Marine outfitters carried bronze garboard plugs of various sizes, but I didn't want to buy one until I could find out the thickness of the hull planking. So, I sponged out as much water as I could after the pumps reached their limit and drilled a small pilot hole, something that would allow me to drain the water and then determine the thickness of the hull. (Drilling a hole into the garboard of your boat is a counter-intuitive an act yet oddly satisfying when the water came dribbling out.)
I then poked a screwdriver into the hole from the inside and, climbing back outside, marked the shaft of the screwdriver flush with the hull with a permanent marker. I went back inside, pulled out the screwdriver and then measured the thickness: 1 1/2 inches. I repeated the measurement three or four times to be absolutely certain, and then I wandered over to Hamilton Marine, which is 300 yards away from where the boat was sitting. I spent a good 45 minutes in the through-hull section of the store, rummaging through the various plugs and working with the employees to find one that fit. It turned out that there was no garboard plug available anywhere in the country for a hull that is more than about 1 inch thick. I went home and searched the Internet, to no avail. I was told that numerous companies used to make standard garboard plugs for a boat my size, but I was on my own nowadays.
I considered purchasing a through-hull fitting and having the inside threaded, but I was worried that this would take off too much metal from an important fitting that is already pretty thin. Ultimately, I chose to purchase a basic through-hull fitting the standard one was too short, of course that was 6 inches long. I would drill a hole into the plank with a hole saw, slather the fitting with 5200, insert it into the hole, tighten the backing nut and then cap the through-hull fitting with a standard bronze pipe cap. I would have to cut the through-hull back to the right size, but it was the only option. When I install the cap in the spring, I will, of course, use Teflon tape on the cap and seal it with Boatlife or another similar goo.
While it took a bit longer than I expected, the project was a success and I even saved some money, since per-made, bronze garboard plugs run to more than $50, and the fittings I assembled were under $20.
Contributing Editor Twain Braden lives on Peaks Island in Maine.