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From centerboarder to long keel

Oct 3, 2008

To the editor: We motored into Shelburne Harbour in Nova Scotia aboard our 72-foot ketch Dagny, happy to be at journey’s end. My Icelandic companion, Petur, and I had just completed a long, stormy passage from Florida. We had come to have Dagny (which means ‘new day’ in Icelandic) undergo a major modification: removing our massive centerboard and replacing it with a long keel.

We anchored outside the yacht club and went ashore to phone Canadian Customs. Wasting no time, we walked four kilometers to the industrial shipyard we had previously made arrangements with. When I’d phoned from Norfolk, the secretary had said, “Yes! We can handle any size! Come on!” However, when we got there, she said, “Oops, because of your great length, you are too heavy for the travel lift.” Gravely disappointed, Petur told the shipyard managers that we had no choice but to haul out, so after a quick conference with the foreman, they agreed to at least try.

We were almost too big. Hanging in the travel lift slings, the deck was nearly as high as the lifting sheaves, with not much air below. With the keel hanging straight down at an unnatural angle we had to sit perched in the lift for three days with the bow blocked ashore and the stern hanging over the water, while Petur labored at cutting off the centerboard. It was like a gigantic popsicle: 7 tons of stainless-steel-clad lead, 14-feet-long and 12 inches at its thickest, where the 4-inch pin went through. Inside, the entire saloon and galley were coated in white fiberglass dust from sawing through the centerboard trunk with a grinding wheel.

We blocked up the boat in a nearby yard with limited facilities for live-aboards, but with every kind of workshop requirement for ship repair. There we spent the next three months converting Dagny from centerboarder to long keel.

Petur kept us all busy while he planned his project and ordered his supplies. On Monday morning his black-iron pipe was delivered. It was 22 feet by 6 inches; he laid it under the boat in a shallow trench he dug. If the lift had been able to raise us higher, our keel would be deeper. Passing people discussed the project constantly, preventing work from continuing. As it was, Petur figured we’d have 7 feet draft. I confess I was a bit doubtful but had to trust Petur’s good judgment, as I hadn’t seen him do anything stupid yet.

While our crewman, Ambrose, spent his days grinding down to the bare fiberglass, Petur built fiberglass framing and glassed the iron pipe onto the bottom of the boat, layer by layer. Even I got involved in crucial moments when extra hands were needed to hold up the measures of woven glass-fiber cloth, using rollers dripping with blue resin, pressing air bubbles from the material with special steel rollers, and repeating the process for another layer until the new keel took shape. We used one hundred gallons of resin.

Meanwhile we enjoyed the northern beauty — tall pine and spruce trees, easy bike rides on gentle hills with cool breezes. We were welcomed into the yacht club for dinners, draft-beer parties and dances. Friendly folks invited us to their homes and one couple lent us a truck for a few days. People were very curious and constantly drove around the shipyard.

One man advised Petur that he had melted down his lead keel using a propane cooker, and lent Petur his old one. But before Petur could start melting the lead, he had to get the stainless steel skin off. Again, he succeeded using the cutting wheel of his grinder. When it was too rainy or foggy for fiberglassing, he stood beside the blocked up boat, where a crane had deposited the old monster, and aimed his propane torch onto the lead, with the propane cooker roaring below, until it heated enough to start dripping molten metal into special molds he’d made using pieces of his 6-inch iron pipe. Each mold made a 60-lb ingot.

We began to race the clock. Days were growing shorter and colder, leaves were turning red and orange, and fiberglass resin was taking longer to cure. Winter storms were on the way and we needed to hurry and head south. Life on the dry was getting old.

One day in mid-October there was too much frost for glassing, so Petur demonstrated more genius and showed us how to pack lead into a 22-foot-long pipe. Simple — you just poke the lead bars into one end! They slide deep into the pipe, with the help of a little leverage. He hooked his fisherman’s anchor into one end of the pipe, and cranked on the other end of the chain with a lever. My job was to bolt on pipe extensions as the bars slid deeper. It was fun and fast, working together in unison.

Mr. Buddy, our boatyard boss, dug out his big kerosene heater and Petur began to spend his afternoons and evenings drying the latest layer of resin with heat. He had to stay with it, monitoring the progress without overheating any one area. He got us busy with a hand-held heat gun too. It was even more boring than watching paint dry.

The boatyards surrounding us were filling with summer yachts hauling out for winter storage. With last-minute urgency, we took care of those other jobs one does while on the hard — replacing the steering cable, slapping on antifouling and the re-certification of the emergency life raft. Hectic days of getting the sails back on, putting the boat back together, spares and junk and supplies to be stowed. We invited two young men to sail with us, and I started to provision the boat in readiness for the 700-mile passage to Bermuda.

Finally the day came for launch. Before the final coat of paint was cured, the travel lift slings hoisted us up, smearing the antifouling paint around the waterline I had so carefully tried to perfect. We moved to a dock, ordered a cement truck, and poured 4 yards of cement through the pilothouse hatch, down the companionway on a plywood trough, and into the empty keel box. Ambrose was able to fit down there, packing layers of lead bars and jumping out while the next dump of cement came down. Three tons of concrete plus 5 tons of lead equals one heavy keel.

On sailing day, the concrete was not even fully hardened. It was the 3rd of November, and with ice floating in the harbor and little balls of snow sitting around, we hurried to fuel, interrupting the marina in the process of removing the floating docks. I foolishly tried to hose the ice off the deck, adding water that instantly froze. Dreaming of a few degrees south and warmer weather, I was immensely glad we had a dry pilothouse.

We raised sails in the harbor with well-wishers waving, and I could instantly feel the change in the boat. It moved differently. I grabbed the helm from one of the new boys and overcompensated, panicking a bit. It was daunting, heading out into the cold North Atlantic with an untried keel, but I trusted Petur and kept my worries to myself.

We soon learned that the keel was plenty heavy, but we could no longer set the sails, bungee cord off the steering wheel to lock the rudder, and let the boat do the driving. We had to steer, and there was a lot more stress on the steering. The boat seemed faster, though, and better at going upwind.

It’s been two years now, and we are still happy with the keel. We’ve sailed to Venezuela and back. We’ve replaced the steering cable. Now we have a new project: Either extend the bowsprit, so we can carry more, sail forward and return to hands-free steering, or else get an autopilot!

— Rhea Smith is a freelance writer who lives aboard the 72-foot ketch Dagny with her Icelandic partner.

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