Sand. . .sand. . .sand my boat. . .I mean wherry

sandingI’m at the stage in my wherry building project where it is now, for the most part, all about sanding.  And because I’m not only interested in building a wherry that is functional, but something that is also beautiful to look at and a joy to row, I’m taking extra care.

Up to this point, using my orbital sander has helped speed along the process, but it hasn’t improved the experience. They’re noisy, generate a lot of dust, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to remove too much material, something I’ve inadvertently done on more than one occasion.

So now I’m back to sanding by hand.  I use a sanding block, or wrap the sandpaper around a dowel for the seams in between the planks.  It’s time consuming, tedious, and not “fun” or “entertaining” in a way that would appeal to most people, but I kind of like it nonetheless. It must be something about the focused attention. The 2 or 3 hours I spend sanding between each coat tends to quiet the incessant chatter in my mind and in a strange way provides a wonderful vacation away from myself. There’s also this sensory reward that comes from running the tips of your fingers or the palm of your hand across the surface of something as smooth as whalebone, and knowing that the reason it is so smooth is because of your efforts.

So, here’s what I have left to do:  sand the exterior hull and then apply 4 coats of exterior paint with sanding between each coat, apply one  more coat of epoxy to the interior and then 4 or 5 coats of varnish with sanding between each of those coats.  Let’s say 3 hours of sanding per coat.  That gives me about 30 hours of vacation time to look forward to.

Lucky me!

I am a hack, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.

Ncleatotice anything wrong with the curved piece of wood on the left distinguishable by the two small holes on either side?

Me neither.

Not for three months, and
certainly not when I initially glued it and four others just like it — they’re called seat cleats —  onto the face of the bulkheads of the wherry I’m building.

But last night, I stepped into the garage to take a look at how the second coat of epoxy was drying, and, yes, I’ll admit, admire my work.  That’s when I spotted a problem. Why I hadn’t noticed it before, I’ll never know. The wide part of each cleat was facing toward the stern…they should have been facing up.

Uh oh.

I didn’t need to look at the instructions for confirmation. I’d screwed up. But I was determined not to wallow in self pity and move quickly through however many stages of grief I was going to need.  A Black Butte Porter would have helped, but I was fresh out. I made it to stage five and decided any more would be self-indulgent. The best way to start feeling better was to figure out a hack.  Or as my grandfather would have said, “suck it up.”

First, a little background on seat cleats.  They aren’t just a decoration but serve an important structural function. They provide places to attach the drop-in rowing units to the hull while at the same time, strengthening the bulkheads.

One of my hacker mantras is to do no harm, either to the thing I’m trying to fix with one of my hacks, or to myself.  Little danger of the latter in this instance, unlike some of my other hacks that involved electricity. In this particular case, I  needed to add a modification that would provide a secure place to attach the rowing units without damaging the bulkhead, or weakening the cleats in the process.

Also, whatever solution I came up with couldn’t look stupid.

My child of the depression dad was a fairly talented hacker.  After he hurt his back working as a logger, he returned to school, received his degree,  then worked in the mortgage banking field for a time, and from there, went on to work in real estate and finally owned his own real estate development and investment company.  Until he went bankrupt, but that’s a story for another time. At his heart, I think, he was always a blue collar guy faking it in the white collar world.   And nowhere was that more apparent than when something around the house had to be built, painted, or repaired.  Why pay money for something he  could do?  He didn’t see it as a chore; it was entertainment, for him, as relaxing as watching ball game on the TV.  His final results weren’t always pretty. For example, he was a rotten painter.  But they usually worked.

I’ve  inherited the same do-it-yourself tendencies, though I’m more sensitive to aesthetics than my old man ever was.  I’m a decent carpenter, know how to tile, can fix most plumbing problems, and can paint better than most professionals.

And unlike my dad, it’s not only important to fix something right, but make it look right in the process.

No where was that going to be more important than with my wherry.    I was building something that was not only going to be functional and fun to row, but I was hoping it was beautiful, too.

The first step in my hack was to assess the extent of the problem. If the wood along the top of the cleat was wide enough, maybe all I would need to do is re-drill the holes from the top. It would leave an ugly blemish exposed, but it would be the simplest solution.

As it turned out, the wood wasn’t wide enough for that option.  That was just as well.  If I’d gone that route, the blemishes on the exposed surface of the cleats would have bugged me until I died.

On to considering option two. This would involve cutting the cleat from the bulkhead and reinstalling it in the correct position.  If I was really careful, and used a super thin blade, I wouldn’t nick or cut into the bulkhead or take off too much wood from the cleat.  Once I was done,  I’d need to redrill some holes, sand and prep the bulkhead, and the rough side of the cleat, and then reattach the cleat.

It was tempting. But I wasn’t confident I could cut  away the cleat without cutting into the bulkhead and affecting its integrity.

That led to option three. It would involve leaving the cleats as is, and gluing pieces of identically shaped mahogany to their faces. These additions would serve two functions: 1) provide the extra width I needed to re-drill the hole used to attached the rowing unit to the bulkhead, and 2) cover up the old holes.   Even better, it wouldn’t put the bulkheads at risk, and I was fairly confident I could replicate the shape of the original cleats so it would look like my fix was part of the original design (albeit installed wrong), and not one of my hacks.

So, that’s the solution.  Instead of making my own replacement cleats, I bought perfect matches from Chesapeake Light Craft.  $30 plus shipping seemed like a good deal.

Here’s how the fix looked before I glued it in place:

hack fix
By the way, Sandy doesn’t think anyone will notice my hack, and the other blemishes I pointed out to her.  As usual, she’s probably right.

Why “Gracie”

20150810_152651Here’s why.

Prep work for fiberglassing the interior of my wherry was slow and tedious. But I wanted to do it right, so I didn’t mind. I was extra careful vacuuming the interior, making sure I captured every bit of dust and debris.  The instructions were clear about the best way to lay the fiberglass out, so I grabbed Sandy, we went upstairs, stretched out the cloth on the carpet, and then I carefully rolled it up into a long tube.  Then it was back downstairs into the garage. I snaked the cloth through the bulkhead openings, and sliced the cloth so it could lay on either side of the bulkheads. Once I was done, the cloth hugged the bottom of my boat like a pair of yoga tights.

Perfect. Ready for glassing.

I mixed up the epoxy, made sure my spreaders were handy, and started at the bow.  Everything was progressing just like I expected, but as the cloth began to turn opaque to completely clear, I noticed something that made me curse under my breath. There it was, starkly visible against the beautiful mahogany-colored grain of the Okume wood.  A black dog hair.


By now, my gloves were sticky, so I pulled on a new pair, grabbed needle nose pliers, gingerly lifted up the cloth, and snagged that nefarious hair.  Mission accomplished. I smoothed the cloth back in place, resumed spreading epoxy, and then stopped once again, cursing more loudly this time.

Another dog hair!

I repeated my previous actions, wondering what I’d done wrong. I’d been so careful to vacuum the interior. How in the heck did dog hair get inside???. . . oh, crap.  It hit me like a rotten apple in the face. I was a complete moron. We picked up the dog hairs when we spread the cloth on the carpet upstairs.  And that had certain implications that made me feel sick to my stomach.  I wasn’t dealing with just one or two random hairs, but hundreds…thousands….

I took a deep breath, peeled off my gloves, fired up the shop vac, and proceeded to vacuum the cloth and the interior of the wherry once again.  It was all I could think to do.  Once I was done, I resumed fiberglassing.  I came across more dog hairs, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I got the ones I could; left the ones I couldn’t get at.

And by now, I was even kind of laughing about it.

I love our black barrio dog, Gracie. Sandy saved her from certain death, and she’s been the best dog, best friend I could ever imagine.  And someday in the not too distant future, she’s going to die. But she won’t be forgotten.  Not by me. Every time I hop into my wherry for a row, and notice a black dog hair forever preserved beneath clear varnish and epoxy, I’m going to think of our Gracie girl.  And who knows, a million years from now, some distant ancestor may dig up my fossilized wherry, and discover black dog hair forever preserved, like a mosquito in amber, and wonder how the heck a canine with no hands managed to build and row that boat.

So, it was fate.

My wherry just had to be named after our black dog, Gracie.





Back working on Gracie

Finally, wherrythe temperatures have warmed up enough to begin working on my wherry again.  I finished sanding the first coat of epoxy on the interior last Sunday.  Except for adding the rails, my wherry is complete (I’ll buy the Piantedosi sliding seat rig separately and it will just bolt in place).  Now it is just a matter of finding the time to apply three coats of epoxy, at least three coats of varnish, and then primer and at least three coats of paint to the exterior hull.  There will be sanding in between each coats, so I’m probably 9 weekends away from being done. Not that I’m complaining As weird as it sounds, I am enjoying the detail work, sanding the nooks and crannies as smooth as I can get them, running my fingers along the surfaces to check how everything feels, while imagining those moments soon to be when I’ll be out on skimming over water smooth as glass.

Do-It-Yourself mini-greenhouse

I typically start a few plants from seed in the early spring: squash, broccoli and cauliflower, cabbage, sunflowers, corn, basil, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Because I don’t have a dedicated greenhouse, it’s always a bit of scramble to find warm, sunny and safe spaces for my seeds to germinate.

costco container

This year, I’m going to use recycled Costco roasted chicken containers as mini-greenhouses.  I should be able to crowd five or six compressed peat pots into each one, and because they containers are fairly portable, it’ll be easy to move them around, as needed.

I’ll let you know how it works out.


A Communist and a Christian Were Sitting in a Sauna

saunaThis will sound like the opening line to a joke, but this was no joke.

I was sitting in the sauna with a Communist and a Christian on the shortest day of the year.

And I was feeling a bit peeved.

Typically, the sauna at the health club where I do my noon workouts is deserted, and on the rare occasions I’m forced to share it, everyone tends to keep to themselves.  It is a place of heat and quiet, a refuge from the demands of work and pernicious personal electronic devices. On this particular day, however, not only  did I not have the sauna to myself, the two guys already there were arguing about something completely inane: the meaning of Christmas.

I nearly got up and left.

Not because I think Christmas is unimportant or inane, but because I find most arguments about its meaning incredibly tedious. If you’re a serious Christian, it’s an important religious holiday, but the “religious” aspect has very little interest to anyone else.  For them, the emphasis is on “holiday,” an occasion for celebrating with family and friends, enjoying good company, and good food, that has become increasingly co-opted by what C. S. Lewis calls the “commercial racket.” Nowadays, all that make it distinct from any of the other commercial holidays is the types of advertising we’re bombarded with, the decorations and the amount spent on merrymaking and gifts. But how one chooses to celebrate Christmas, and what meaning they decided to assign to it, is entirely up to them.  Because I’m a Christian, I view it as more than just an occasion to exchange gifts and eat and drink more than usual, but that’s just me. I don’t expect anyone else to share my beliefs and don’t particularly want to be bothered by their opinions, and I expect they’d rather not be bothered with mine.

Back to my two fellow sauna goers.

The Christian was easy to identify based on his questions.  But it was clear he wasn’t making any headway. The other fellow said he enjoyed the holiday and that was as meaningful as it was going to get for him.  God. Jesus. Virgin birth. Three wise men. And all the rest of it.  Just quaint elements to a story that had no relevance to him.

By the time he was done, I think the Christian realized he wasn’t getting anywhere.  So he switched the another inane topic where I assume he thought they might find some areas of agreement: climate change.

Bingo.  Remarkably (or not), both thought climate change was a bad thing, and both thought the Toyota Prius (and other hybrid cars) were a step in the right direction.

I sighed.

And that’s when I decided to jump into the fray. I couldn’t help myself.

I’m not climate change skeptic, and I certainly think finding and switching to better ways to produce energy are a really good thing. But Earth’s climate is always changing. It isn’t static. Are humans affecting it?  Of course we are. So do farting cows, volcanoes, and sunspots.  Are we affecting it in a bad way by increasing temperatures?  Sure. But what I find head scratching is the idea that the world can unite and do anything about a problem as complex as the human impact on climate.  Our track record is bleak with much easier problems: nuclear weapons proliferation, poverty, the mess in the Middle East, the budget deficit, public schools in Newark, New Jersey, the common cold, and so on. So, I don’t get too worked up about climate change. Other than our fearless leaders and their minions using it to get people riled up and fearful, and then using that fear to manipulate them into behaving and thinking the way they think they should, I don’t think anything of substance will be done from the top down.

In fact, what I’m really worried about is CRISPR technology and for all the reasons that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, expressed before congress recently.  We’re talking about something that allows scientists god-like power to easily tinker with and change those very things that make every living thing with genes and DNA unique and distinct.  Proponents tout the benefits.  End diseases, fix congenital defects, etc.  Critics point to using it as a WMD or worse (Sci-Fi authors have been writing and speculating on this subject for years).  And because I’m a firm believer in the power of unintended consequences and our own inability to manage a technology that empowers the very evil and venal in our world, I fear the worse will happen.

But I digress.

So, I interjected myself into the conversation by telling a joke: “What’s more environmentally friendly. . .ordering a brand new Prius from Toyota or buying a used Dodge Dart?

They both looked at me like I was a goofball (I didn’t think it was that obvious).

I smiled at them. “The Dodge Dart Why? Because it is already built. . . you know, the energy to create it has already been expended. . .and it doesn’t contain any rare earth metals. . . ”

They stared blankly at me. The Christian made a couple of comments, gave me a look I couldn’t decipher, excused himself and left.

Another sigh.

Now it was just me and the Communist. Of course, I still didn’t know he was a communist, but what was hidden behind door number three was about to be revealed.

He made a comment about a book he’d written a few years ago, interjecting that he was a retired professor from the local state university.

I made appropriate noises in response.

He went on to mention the evils of capitalism, big corporations, and summarized the plot of his book.

“What’s it called?” I asked.

He told me again.

We sweated in silence for a few minutes and then he made a comment about there not being much use for old Communists anymore.

I chuckled out loud.  A Christian and a Communist meet in a sauna. . ..

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Nothing.”  I couldn’t help another chuckle.

I wasn’t feeling peeved anymore. There really was nothing to be said. I was just feeling tired and a bit sad. For some strange reason, he reminded me of my dad who died a few years ago. And if he was anything like him,  there’s nothing more intractable than an old <fill in the blank>.

So I wished him a good day and headed for the showers on the shortest day of the year. I haven’t seen either of them in the sauna since then.



The Real Alaskan Bush People

bushIt’s a popular show on the Discovery Channel and I’ll admit to checking in every now to see their latest antics.

For the uninitiated, “Alaskan Bush People” follows the travails of the Brown family as they attempt to survive in America’s “last wilderness.”

Of course, it’s all done with a wink and a nod. Omnipresent cameras also means a helicopter, satellite phones, and modern medical facilities are handy if something drastic comes up or one of the Browns needs to visit the dentist.

What cracks me up is the way the family dresses. No wilderness garb for this bunch. They look like regular Costco shoppers, damn the snow and the cold.

I wonder if they ever heard of Cabellas?

Or hypothermia?

I know what moniker my grandpa would have used for them…tenderfeet. And not very smart ones, at that. But I suppose chronic stupidity is what provides some of the entertainment value.

As yet another show packaged as “reality,” it is benign enough and certainly more entertaining than the more hardcore freak shows that make up most of reality TV nowadays. But as you can see, it’s hard for me to take seriously. I’ve already noted some obvious reasons. Here’s some personal ones. . .

The Brown family homestead is on Chichigof Island in southeast Alaska. Most people have never heard of the place. I’m an exception. In fact, I visited Chichagof Island a few decades ago with my brother, dad, and grandfather.  We spent a week exploring the 40 acre parcel along Icy Straits that my great-grandfather homesteaded in the early 1900s.  Yeah, this “wilderness” is where my Grandpa Mick grew up. . . a 100 years ago. 

Back then an Apple was really an “apple” and inventions that we take for granted like antibiotics, plastic tarp, and a reliable outboard motor weren’t even gleams in anyone’s eye.  And unlike the Brown “boys”, who range in age from early 20s to early 30s and still can’t seem to do anything without their father’s help and advice, my grandfather was on his own by the age of 12, kicked out of the house (along with his two other brothers) by his father’s new wife.  Mick spent the next decade living and working in lumber camps from southern Alaska to the northern Oregon coast.

So, when it comes to “Alaskan Bush People,” I’m calling them out and calling it Bush league.