Thursday, November 10, 2011


We just finished caulking the quarterdeck of the brigantine Irving Johnson.

The first step in this job is cleaning out the old pitch and oakum from the seams. This is called reefing. (I didn't get a photo of the reefing tools, but there are some nice ones here.) Beneath the oakum is a layer of cotton, which you only need to replace if it's wet.

Oakum is a kind of loose fibrous stuff which is hand-tarred and rolled into usable lengths. (Wikipedia notes that "Oakum was at one time recycled from old tarry ropes and cordage, which were painstakingly unraveled and taken apart into fiber; this task of picking and preparation was a common penal occupation in prisons and workhouses.") We've been referring to it as dreadlocks, due to its resemblance to light brown hair that hasn't been washed in several months.

Once you get the hang of it, reefing is all right. When the pitch is out of the way, the oakum tends to pull out in huge long strands, making you feel like you're really getting something done. All right!

Then you put in new oakum, using a mallet and a couple of caulking irons:

One iron has a fine edge (single crease), for tacking the oakum into place, and the other has a broad edge (double crease), for smashing it all down flat. This is the most labor-intensive part of the job. Getting enough oakum pounded down into that seam requires a lot of hammering, and if you've overestimated the amount, it may have to be torn out and redone. This is excruciating because it's already taking for-ev-er aughh whyyyy.

Then you melt down your pitch (well, traditionally it was pitch, and we still called it that, although we used Jeffery's Marine Glue). We did this on the dock, with a fire extinguisher handy.

While you're waiting for it to liquefy, you can blue-tape all the seams. This step isn't traditional, but it sure does make the deck look cleaner immediately after application. (Ultimately, all the pitch that isn't in a seam will get worn away, so it's not absolutely necessary, but it will make you feel better when you slosh pitch all over the place.)

Then you pour the ultra-super-hot pitch into this pyramid-shaped iron device with a spout on the end, and you use it to apply the pitch to the seams.

A diagram on this page tells me it's called a "pitch ladle," although we referred to it as the "pitch gun." Whatever you call it, be sure you're wearing welding gloves, because that thing has no insulation whatsoever.

The blowtorch is useful because the pitch cools very rapidly and must be heated up again every minute or two. Through the entire process, I was curious to know: what on earth did they do in the Age of Sail, when there were no blowtorches? I spoke to a sailor who worked on another deck caulking project, and he said they didn't have a pyramidal applicator like we do; they used a pitch pot, which they heated right on deck and poured directly into the seams. When it started to harden it up, they put it back on the burner. Then they used seaming irons to smooth out the seams. We didn't have seaming irons, but blowtorches were probably more fun anyway.

Before the seams cool completely, you go back over them with chisels and remove the excess pitch. (If the seam is already cool, you can use the blowtorch to heat the chisel or the seam to make it more pliable.)

Then all you have to do is remove the blue tape and scrub down the deck. Here's an old seam and a new seam for comparison. (We left the old seam because it was in perfectly good condition.)

Voila! It sounds so easy, doesn't it? But only if you know what you're doing, which we didn't when we started. And only if it stops raining long enough for you to get the work done. And only if you have enough people show up to make the work go quickly. So, yeah, not really easy. But we did it. Only 2/3 of the deck to go!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I'm on a Boat

It's been a rollercoaster of a month.  I came to the LA area with the intent of volunteering as crew on the schooner Tole Mour, but (to make a long story short) that didn't pan out. My interactions with Tole Mour's crew, some of whom are old shipmates from my days aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, led to connections with the crew of the twin brigantines Irving and Exy Johnson and, ultimately, an invitation to come down to those boats in San Pedro and volunteer.

So I commuted to LA Maritime Institute in San Pedro for several days from the place I was staying in Long Beach, and helped out on the Exy Johnson. I let it be known that I'd prefer to be a liveaboard volunteer, and the crew was enthusiastic in their support of this idea. There were four liveaboards on Exy at that time, all coming up on the end of their contracts and all more than ready to have another experienced deckhand aboard to share the work.

But the crew doesn't run the organization, and those who do dragged their feet.  It began to look like the paper-pushing end of LAMI might not make up their minds what to do with me until about the time I was ready to leave the LA area. Whether or not I wound up living aboard in an unofficial capacity in the meantime, dear reader, I leave as an exercise to your imagination.

Ultimately the office gave me the okay, but until that point, I was unsure what I could blog about my current living status that might not be rendered inaccurate within the next 24 hours. Also, life on a tall ship keeps you pretty busy, and also, the boat doesn't have internet access. Thus the radio silence.

In a further plot twist, on October 31, a week before I planned to leave town, the crew coordinator came down to the dock and offered me a contract as a paid deckhand through the end of the year.  This was completely out of the blue.  After some consideration, I decided to sign on through November.  Income, even in eensy quantities, is most welcome, but I promised my family I'd be home for Christmas this year.

The height of sailing season is past now, and the boats are in maintenance mode, only venturing outside the harbor once or twice a week.  Here's the view from the quarterdeck of the Exy on one such day.

We recently hauled out Exy.  My prior experience with haulout has involved weeks of labor and numerous expensive setbacks.  Because this is a newish boat (launched in 2003), and because haulout was done at a boatyard that doesn't let you do any of the work yourself, this was a very different affair.  We were essentially only needed for the Coast Guard inspection (this involved crawling around in bilges, opening and closing stubborn through-hull valves).  And the end date was only extended by a few days.  In the meantime, we joined the crew of the Irving in living aboard their vessel.

This is how the Exy looked immediately after being hauled out of the water:

She is much cleaner and prettier now.

In the meantime, while not on a boat, I've been staying in Long Beach with old friends. One of them was born the day before I was, and we've been friends ever since. Here's a photo of us, Back in the Day. (My mom made the dresses.)

We've mostly had to be long-distance friends, so it's been very satisfying to have time to catch up, get to know each other as adults (or some reasonable facsimile), and discover how much we still have in common (quite a bit).  Last weekend we went for a hot-air balloon ride together.  It was lovely.

I still have a lot more to say about Tassajara, as well as boat stories to tell.  I'm hoping to carve out more time this month for blogging, but I make no guarantees.