My memory of the first time I did my own boat work was in the middle ‘60s. The work was fiberglass taping. The boat in question was my Sabot. A hard chine, plywood, garage-built boat Dad had bought to act as a tender for the big boat and to get me sailing on my lonesome. The amount of lonesome sailing I put on the boat ultimately caused some leaking through the chines. Your boat, your fix was the theme.
I had been fixing dings in my surfboards for a while, but they were small beans in comparison. And no one cared what they looked like. The repairs to the chines my Sabot, named Adios, needed were much more visible, so I was a little nervous about the job. I thought about the process for much longer than it took me to do and when it was complete, it looked pretty OK. I was happy, if not proud. Nonetheless, it was the forerunner of a problem I have had ever since.
This particular problem, Beautiful Work Fetish, of mine is I have been around way too many boats of all types built by the best in the world, and I know what the best in the world boat building looks like. The root of the problem is I cannot duplicate it when I am building something. My first few forays into building bits for my Mini had me with a pot of WEST epoxy in one hand and the Gougeon book on boat building in the other. Well, my epoxy use skills have advanced in the intervening 26 years. Carpentry, not so much.
I am driven to remark on such matters for this column because of my recent experiences building a set of stairs. The Coopers had our Ranger 33 to move from Hinckley to the Simmons Terrace Boat and Dream Building Yard, aka the side yard of our house. Brilliantly done by the Brownell guys, I might add. I am going to be working on her for a few months and the idea of scrambling up and down the ladder ten feet up to the deck had just too many whiskers on it. So, I decided to build a set of treads to go up the side of the boat. Should be pretty straightforward, eh? Well, kinda.
I did the Google thing, found the stringers in various lengths, and located a calculator to determine how many treads I’d need to get the 10-foot height and so on. Due to delivery issues with sourcing the actual length of stringer I needed (15 feet), I bought four shorter lengths with the idea I would splice a couple together and bingo, have what I needed. I even laid one pair of stringers, overlapped where I would splice them, out on the floor at Home Depot. Satisfied I had all I the measurements I needed and armed with the four sides and a box of suitable bolts, I drove home and had at it. Well, not so fast, bucko.
Somehow, and I still don’t know how I managed it, though crummy math is a prime candidate, I ended up being five feet, four treads short. Back to the store and home again with an extra two sides. Total now three pieces per side. These stringers were overlapped, glued, and thru-bolted. Now here is where builder measuring and supplier measuring clash.
There was a nodding acquaintance between each tread and riser being actually square and of the same measurements, to even a sixteenth of an inch of each other. If I was able to get a pair of stringers of the length I needed, fifteen feet, less of a problem. BUT when you start splicing different lengths to each other, things start to get a bit, very wiggly.
We may remember our geometry, Pythagoras, the right triangle? Turns out if the 90-degree angle is 89 degrees and the sides are 4 and 5, the hypotenuse is not 6, rather 6.3. Assuming the corner is 90 degrees is thus a bad idea.
The readings on the tape can be the same, but the accuracy of the ends and where the treads and stairs are cut into each stringer play a role in how square, or not, these cuts are and so how square and accurate one can get the combined lengths of spliced stringers. Anyway, we are building a set of stairs to work on my boat, not a work of art. But then again here is where the Beautiful Work Fetish rears its beautiful head.
I had hauled the stringers outside, the bolting having been conducted in the workshop, once a garage. I laid them on the ground and as I have taught, am still teaching myself in fact, to do, I wait for a minute or five and just study the work…Zen and the Art of Stair Building, perhaps. Scrutinize the job; think about the next step, as it were.
This next step was joining the stringers together with the treads and erecting the whole alongside the boat. Turns out the timber used in the stringers is way rougher than you originally anticipate. And the combination of the three pieces all bolted together accentuates the warped-ness of each stringer. A warpedness of one times three makes a warped-ness of the whole, three…pretty warped. All of which makes getting the treads screwed on square, well, awkward and unbeautiful.
And because the wood from which the stringers are made, has cracked all the way through in some locations the final structure has Band-Aids, glued and bolted across sections where needed. These are not particularly attractive. Actually nothing is, because nothing on this timber is square. So almost every cut in this structure is a bit skew-iff. “Well, no one is going to see this” I keep telling myself, with an increasingly firm grimace.
I am having Fetish Flashbacks, looking at the inside of Kip Stone’s McConaghy Boats-built Kevlar Open 50 twenty years ago. It was literally a work of art. No paint on the inside so every piece, cut edge, tapered bit of material was visible through the clear epoxy. She could have been in the Museum of Modern Art, so beautiful was she. My stairs? Not so much.
Back to the future, installation of the vertical bits, to keep the stairs up. Fortunately, I had a pile of timber left over from the fence we pulled down to build the parking space we planned to put the boat on. Six eight-foot long 4 X 4s to be, well almost, exact. Just the pair of stringers and only a couple of treads, weigh in at, I reckoned a least a hundred pounds. Now, how to get them up in the air to install the struts to hold the whole mess up? Block and tackle, of course.
I scrounged in the blocks bins and found the right pair of fiddle blocks with beckets, and matching line from the cordage bins and rigged up a 4:1 tackle. The bottom part of this fall I lashed around the stringers, including one of the three or four treads I had attached to keep the whole woodpile from wiggling around too much.
I lashed to top block to the deck. Finally, a couple of lengths of 2 X 4 with padding lashed around them were secured to the boat side of this structure. It was awfully close to the hull, so as to minimize dings when being erected. I wandered around, made some more powdered Gatorade, studied the set up for some minutes more, making a few adjustments on the way, and chanted a few more Ommms.
I tailed on the tackle, and slowly the stair structure arose. I felt like I was at an Amish barn raising, except an Amish barn would’ve been much closer to a McConaghy Open 50 than my treads were to a basic barn in level of building skill.
But the tackle attached to the boat caused the stair structure to close into the boat the higher up it got. Huh. More Gatorade, thinking and Ommms.
I stood a folding, freestanding ladder upright immediately against what would be the top step. Securing this so it was stable, and deploying another tackle, from the top of the ladder to the stringers, and tailing on THIS (4:1) fall, intermittently easing the one on the boat, I got the top up level with the gunnel. Success!!! The treads were up. All I had to do now was the verticals to keep them up without the tackle. This entire project took the bulk of three weekends and to present in detail here, about the same time to write about it. Almost.
I finally have the steps rigged secured, handrails on and all but OSHA-certified. I was thinking about putting Christmas lights on the handrails, but they are hidden from the street, so I put them on the boat’s up street lifelines, visible as one drives down the street. It looks pretty sweet.
It is remarkable that the number of people who have seen them, just a few, everyone is kind in their remarks about how good they look. I smile, am gracious and thank them. But I know they just do not measure up. I keep seeing McConaghy artwork in my mind’s eye. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.