Part 1: Stupid Ideas
This adventure started, as many bad ideas do, in the shop on a Friday afternoon with a blender and a gallon of take-out margarita mix (one good thing to come out of the pandemic).
The usual Friday night poo-slinging started with why was someone’s Moth STILL hanging around the shop (answer: waiting on the accuser to paint it), and then migrated to complaining about the general lack of high performance sailing in the area. An idea gradually emerged of how fun/cool it would be to come flying into some weeknight beer can race on an 18’ skiff, cause general distraction and disruption, then disappear just as quickly as we showed up, leaving more questions than answers.
After a quick inspection, it was clear the boat hadn’t seen much water in the last 25 years and was going to need some serious TLC. After a brief negotiation, the owner agreed to let it go, and we drove out of his yard with lighter wallets and huge grins on our faces.
Our next step was to pull everything out in the front yard and just take it all in. Slowly, the realization of the raw power of the machine we signed up to operate began to dawn on us. When you start pulling out the kite for an 18 foot boat and it’s got a 50+ foot luff tape, your butt cheeks just involuntarily start clenching.
As we started pulling the boat apart, it became apparent that it was a VERY good idea we hadn’t just thrown the thing in the water. While the hull was structurally sound, the rigs had 20+ years of Aluminum-on-Stainless corrosion waiting for us underneath the miles of electrical tape wrapping up all the spreaders. The things looked like a high school science experiment! While the shrouds were ostensibly being held in by screws, a good yank caused about half the spreader tips to explode in a cloud of blue powder.
As we started doing some exploratory grinding into a couple of cracks around the front wingbar joint on the hull, we found some interesting “engineering.” Clearly several repairs had been made on the boat in order to get it on the water 12 hours later and were never revisited to be properly addressed. Case in point – the wingbar had broken at the deck and was fixed by putting the buckled tube right back in place, slamming a sleeve into it, riveting the tubes together, and slapping a bunch of glass over the whole assembly. We found a similar repair job on two of the outer wing joints on the wings – the wing joint had cracked, so apparently the solution at the time was to just put in more rivets, wrap the whole thing in glass, and throw on a couple pipe clamps for good measure. (Steel pipe clamps on aluminum joints & tubes? What could go wrong?) In addition, the wing joints had been riveted together, and those rivets had ovaled themselves out so much that the rivet holes had gone from an initial 3/16” to about 3/8” for most of them. We didn’t even have to drill some of the rivets – they punched right out!
Sanding the hull revealed more of the lineage of the boat – underneath the “lifesaver 15+” green and white stripes were several interesting layers, including the remnants of a sticker for a courier service and what we believe is the neon color scheme from an Ella Bache boat. It seems the boat was brought over to the USA in the early 2000’s by Howie Hamlin and his team to use as a trainer boat. Our current best guess places the original build date at 1987-1989. A measurement sticker on a bowsprit from 1990 seems to confirm this.
The boat tried to kill us before it even hit the water. While inspecting one of the masts, one of us forgot how tall they were (#1 rig is 40+ feet tall!) and managed to hit a local power distribution line with it. They were the lucky recipient of 7,000 volts. Thankfully they escaped with nothing more than burns on the feet and a pair of vaporized socks.
With the boat mostly disassembled, the work order started to look something like this:
– Strip & sand hull, complete assorted spot repairs, repaint hull, install all new deck hardware.
– Strip & inspect rigs, replace all spreader tips (that’s 22 tips on 11 spreaders over 3 rigs!), anodize spreaders, paint rigs, replace standing & running rigging, reassemble.
– Fabricate a new fiberglass tip for the #3 rig (tip came broken with the boat from a prior owner)-Disassemble, map, design & rebuild wings
Then, and only then, can our evil master plan to terrorize unsuspecting day-sailors and beer can racers be put into action…
Part 2: Boat Project Hell
As we sunk our teeth into the various parts of the work order, we continued to be (un)pleasantly surprised at how many little weevils kept cropping up. We quickly discovered that not a single thing on the boat was a “production” part, and that the level of custom fabrication was going to be extremely high.
For its age, the bones of the boat were in surprisingly good shape. Still stiff and watertight, there were only a couple of days’ worth of composite repairs to be done once we got her stripped down (although that took quite a while as the last coat of paint to go on was some sort of oil-based house paint. It was faster in some areas to just chip the paint off rather than sand it, and it came off in flakes thick enough to dip in some salsa and crunch on).
One section of the deck had delaminated from the foam core, so we cut into that & peeled the skin back, relaminated it, slapped an extra layer of carbon over the cut for good measure and sealed it up again. One of the block mounting towers had been partially hole-sawed, so we created a new foam core and laid that into the hole, then glassed over the whole thing. The front wing bars were also a little questionable looking, so we dug out all the cracks and re-glassed & carboned over all the front wing tubes. Finally, the tail was chewed up and flaking apart, so we removed all the bad material and built up a lip from both sides, reinforcing the tail and leaving it looking brand new. Then went on a few layers of Awlgrip 545 primer to seal the hull and act as a moisture barrier. At this point we left the hull primer gray. We figured it would be best to make sure we can sail the thing before we invested a whole lot in paint. Lastly went on all the new fittings – ports, plugs, self-tacking jib track, mast base, and blocks.
The #3 mast was in the worst shape of the lot, given that we received it in pieces. The fiberglass tip had buckled at some point, and someone had hacksawed it into several pieces in an effort to remove it from the aluminum lower section. A replacement tip had been fabricated out of carbon but was too stiff to be useable, and ended up becoming a partial replacement for the #2 bowsprit. After seeking some advice from various composite manufacturers it was clear that a replacement would have to be built from fiberglass to match the intended dynamics of the rig – carbon would just be too stiff at that mast diameter no matter what fiber orientation was used. We eventually found a custom composite shop willing to take on the project and set to work building a custom mandrel for them to use in constructing the new tip. We needed a mandrel that started at 3” OD and tapered down to 1.25” OD over about 9 feet. The build for this section is still ongoing.
As soon as we began disassembling the #1 & #2 rigs, we knew they were going to give us trouble, the aforementioned spreader-tips-turned-science-experiment notwithstanding.
Once the rigs were apart, we put our heads together to come up with a solution for the spreader tips. The old tips were custom-made little pieces that were turned down to slide into the end of the spreader tubes, then had a groove cut into them to accept the shroud. Given that we didn’t have a lathe and that many of the spreader tube ends were significantly deteriorated, we decided to cut off about an inch on each spreader tube to get back to good metal. Then we machined new tips and butt-welded them straight to the ends of the spreader tubes.
The plan at this point was to anodize the spreaders (all 11 of them for 3 rigs) along with the rudder gantry, mast step, and various other bits – but when we dropped them at the anodizer, we were met with death glares. The original powder coating on all the parts was full of corrosion, and the anodizing company was afraid the process would turn some of our parts into a pile of dust. We switched to plan B, which was to wire wheel and sand blast off as much of the corrosion and old powder coating as we could, followed by several thick coats of Awlgrip 545 primer.
The boltrope sail tracks presented another problem. They were originally riveted on somehow, although to this day we have no idea how that feat was accomplished. The track groove is only about ¼” wide, and there is no rivet puller we are aware of with a nose small enough to fit into the track. We didn’t want to glue the track on, which left us with screws as the only option. When we tapped a few holes to take the smallest screw the rivet holes would accept however, we found a new problem – the screw heads were too big! The boltrope kept snagging on them and wouldn’t slide more than about 6 feet up before becoming completely stuck. Cue Helicoils to the rescue. Designed to save a screw hole with stripped threads, they are inserts that essentially down-size a hole to accept a smaller screw. They allowed us to fasten the track with screws small enough that they wouldn’t snag the boltrope.
Just as we’re patting ourselves on the back thinking we’re out of the woods with the track, we get another kick in the shins: there is so much prebend in the rigs that the mounting holes for the track on the fiberglass tip will only line up with the track itself once the rig is pre-bent!
The shrouds were an interesting hodge-podge of 1×19 wire and Dyform (similar to compact strand, Dyform as a product has not been available for 15+ years). It seems they were slapped together with whatever was laying around, as in some cases even the same wire was 1×19 on the port side and Dyform on the starboard side! Given the age of the boat, all new 1×19 wire was in store regardless. The standing rigging presented several interesting challenges, not the least of which was keeping it all straight – each rig has cap diamonds, lowers, mids, and primaries that consist of a V1, a V2/D3 and a D2. On a big boat, this wouldn’t be an uncommon setup – except the various wires would all terminate with each other at the spreader tip. That wasn’t feasible with the small size of our spreaders, so instead the primaries were connected with an aircraft eye on top of the V1 going into an aircraft fork at the bottom of the V2/D3, with a shroud plate adjuster sitting over all of that, all pinned together like one happy family. We were trying to convert pin boards to turnbuckles where possible, and in this case we kept the aircraft eye/fork connection and replaced the pinboard with a turnbuckle going to a modified headboard shackle pinned into the aircraft fork.
And just because nothing could be easy on this boat, the T-terminal/Gibb plates in the mast were in metric (which no one in the marine industry produces anymore). The 1/8” T-heads fit into the 3mm backing plates just fine, but the 3/16” T-heads did not like the 4mm backing plates. So each of the 15 3/16” T terminals used had to be ground down and polished to fit. (Why not replace the plates you ask? The 3/16” backing plates were too big to fit into some parts of the mast and would have interfered with other components).
The cap/diamond shrouds come from the top of the rig, down through 2 spreaders and are bolted to the mast just above the gooseneck. They come in at about a 30° angle to the mast, so the turnbuckle eyes wouldn’t sit properly on the bolt without being bent. Cue The Rigging Company’s newest offering, the Offset-Eye Turnbuckle! Production involves the highly technical use of a blowtorch, bench vice and extra-large pliers.
And to top it all off, the tops of the forestays were a custom fitting consisting of an eye welded onto a T terminal for the jib to shackle to, which meant fabricating our own eyes out of stainless plate & having them welded.
The last thing to sort with the rigs was the spinnaker halyards. The mast tips have a custom-made steel endcap that has cutouts for the cap shroud T-terminals and the halyard exit block. The mast tip diameter being only 1.25”, the end cap could only accommodate a small halyard exit block which had a maximum line diameter of 4mm. For kites in the size range of what came with the boat (the #1 kite is 400+ sq. feet), we wanted a halyard in the 10-12mm range for ease of handling purposes, but that wasn’t an option. We ended up going with a 6mm line which uses a 4mm Dyneema SK78 core and a 24 carrier braided polyester cover. This was strong enough to handle the load and got us down to the size we needed after stripping back the aloft portion.
The finished product is a sight to see – check out that prebend!
These turned into the biggest headache of the entire project. The more we took them apart, the more reasons we found to scrap them (see notes about pipe clamps above). Upon closer inspection, 6 of the 8 wing joints were cracked beyond repair, half the aluminum tubes comprising the wings had dents or cracks in them, both forward struts were cracked so badly we pulled them off by hand, the trampoline lashings were dry rotted so badly we snapped them apart with our fingers, and the cones that maintained the bowsprit wire connections were severely cracked with chunks missing. We went back and forth at least a dozen times on whether to rebuild them out of aluminum or to just scrap the whole thing and build new ones from scratch out of carbon. In the end we decided on aluminum, which replicated the original wings and was less work (although not much!) than using carbon.
The first order of business was finding a supplier who could procure metric-sized aluminum tubes in the sizes we needed (this was necessary because the tubes glassed into the boat were metric). We placed an order with MetricMetals.com (won the lottery with that domain name), and a few days later a giant box of aluminum tubes showed up. Building new joints was very much a trial-and-error process of cutting tubes to mate together at the right angles so everything would line up (the wings are swept rather than square – in a sort of trapezoid shape). We ended up having to re-make two joints after the first set didn’t quite line up. As we began to reassemble things, we found that the tolerances on the new tubes weren’t tight enough to slide into each other well, and ended up having to do a second tube order. That showed up, and the tolerances were even farther off! (Everything we received from MetricMetals was within their stated tolerance – it just came from two different batches and wasn’t close enough for what we needed). After much head scratching, hair pulling, a lot of machining, and a whole lot of blow torching and hammering, the wing frames finally started to take shape. Getting the tube lengths to line up with the angles of the tube joints, and also to line up in a way that allowed them to easily slot into the hull-mounted tubes, was a tedious exercise. It was a huge relief when the frames finally slid cleanly into the boat without any protest or use of the “persuader” (large rubber mallet with a 2-foot handle). 6 of the 8 joints, the fore and aft crossbeams, the forward support struts, and the hull inserts were all new metal by the time the wings were finished.
Once the frames were drilled, tapped and screwed together, it was all downhill from there. They were painted, new traction foam applied, cleats and fittings mounted, and netting lashed on. We had two new “nosecones” (cone-shaped inserts at the front of the outer wing tubes that anchor the horizontal bowsprit support wires) custom-machined by our friends at The Oyster Bay Boat Shop, and all the trapeze wires and wing support wires were replaced with Dyneema. The trapeze lines are secured with Dyneema-covered bungee from Robline, and all bungees and control lines are routed with lead rings.
Assorted other fixes
The bow of the boat has a bowsprit permanently built into it that allows the various sprits to be slid on and pinned in place depending on which rig is being sailed. This sprit ends in a sort of mouth that mates with the hull. The mouth was cracked almost all the way through and needed to be replaced – but a section of it was glassed in forward of the joint and wasn’t removable. We fabricated a new tube & “mouth” and machined a slot into it running the length of the replacement tube. When we cut out the old tube and installed the new one, we installed it with an internal sleeve tapped with a screw that rides in the slot on the outer tube. This allowed us to place the new tube in and slide the sleeve forward into place to be fastened.
The #1 bowsprit appeared to have been broken at some point and a new carbon section built to replace it. Seemed like a good idea, except someone decided that to join two 6 foot tubes, a C-shaped sleeve about 4 inches long was acceptable (hint: it is not!).We pulled it apart and replaced it with a much longer sleeve, having to taper one end to match the taper of the replacement carbon section.
The boom was its own little project as well. We considered just replacing it entirely after realizing the whole thing was bent like a bow, but after checking multiple sources we were unable to find any off-the-shelf 13-foot long high modulus carbon tubes available. With the cost of a custom tube being prohibitive to the project, we decided we could make do with the boom we had for now.
The mainsheet blocks were attached with big fabric straps which were all chewed up, so they were removed and Dyneema loop splices installed with pad eyes to fasten the three mainsheet blocks. The vang strap was in good shape, and was re-mounted with new fasteners and new holes. The female end of the gooseneck however was severely cracked and needed replacement. And lo and behold, the part was still being manufactured! …locally in Australia. Estimated shipping time: 2-3 months. Thankfully for once something was a standard size on the boat, and we were able to source a steel tube with the exact same ID as the male plug end of the gooseneck. We cut the metal tangs off the old piece and welded them to the new tube, and after adding a couple of reinforcement plates to the end of the boom, ended up with a gooseneck assembly we were at least mostly confident wouldn’t blow up on us.
With all that done, the boat began to come together. We had an assembly day where we bent on the cap diamonds, put the rig in the boat and tuned it. Man does this thing have a lot of pre-bend! Amazingly everything went together properly the first time. We declared victory and started watching the weather for our maiden voyage.
The day finally came and we rolled into the local state park ready to rip. After rigging and dressing we splashed the boat with the help of a few locals, hopped on and took off! Immediately we could feel the power of the boat – it was planning along doing windspeed in 8-10 knots with everyone sitting in on the wing not even trying. We managed to get through a few tacks, a couple of bearaways, and even a two-sail gybe or two without hurting anyone or breaking anything – other than the tiller extensions, which got stuck in the mud at one point. Our safety boat had us doing 16 knots upwind in 10 knots of breeze at one point, and we made it back to the beach mostly unscathed. We still have a steep learning curve ahead of us and spent a fair amount of that first day swimming – but above all, we can’t wait to get out on the water again and feel the power of that machine at work.