Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Appreciating the Zen of Boat Maintenance

Everyone accepts that maintenance is a part of boat ownership, a necessary evil for most of us. The questions for a boat owner are what kind of maintenance is required and how much time, blood, and money it will demand.

The character of boat maintenance spans a very wide spectrum. For newer boats, maintenance is mostly about shininess with fiberglass polish, varnish, and wax. For old beaters, maintenance is disaster mitigation and control, an exercise in emergency medicine and triage. The right tools are often unavailable and correct parts unobtainable. MacGyver-like solutions allow the sailors and boats to survive an “incident”, but leave the boat needing at least as much corrective repair as before.

I have been at both ends of the spectrum and found little satisfaction at either one. Even with my new laser, I’m falling short. There is a kid at the club who keeps his 8 year old boat shinier than mine. He wet sands and polishes seemingly every time he uncovers the boat, and somehow the sand that finds its way into every little corner of my boat is magically repelled from his.

Most of my high school coaching tenure has been spent at the other end of the spectrum. Our program began by using four very old (30 years, give or take a decade), battered, leaky Tech Dinghies borrowed from a local college with an on again, but mostly off again, sailing program. They were held together by a mishmash of hardware, duct tape, and habit, and the repeated breakdowns were repaired with whatever parts were on hand at the local hardware store. The boats were an embarrassment and a source of endless frustration.

Boat maintenance can seem to be a losing battle against entropy, the physics word for the tendency for the universe to move toward disorder and degradation. No matter what you do, the boats are going to steadily become at least a little worse than they used to be.

At some point, however, there is an opportunity to overcome entropy and actually make the boat better. After the gloss is off the fiberglass, the rigging is well used, the lines are sun faded and worn, and the blades or keels are nicked, there lies an opportunity for redemption. Big boaters who spend more time at the dock messing with their boats than sailing them understand this. It involves a certain intimacy with the boat and a reverence for the function and value of each part. It requires an understanding that each part contributes to the whole and the whole depends on each part. And an important part of that whole is the guy who labors to keep it all working and in balance. The person who does the maintenance can be at one with the boat, and a little piece of Zen-like happiness is possible.

For me, this started to happen after our sailing team acquired a second batch of boats to grow the program to 12 one-design boats. I started noticing the different style vangs and the many subtle variations in the way the boats were rigged and, in some cases, the way they were built. The anal instincts in me craved some consistency, and my competitive side demanded equal boats. We found enough money to buy necessary hardware and new lines. We installed interchangeable parts where the exiting ones were no longer quite interchangeable. We repaired fiberglass scars and defects, especially the broken rear corners that are an inevitable part of a 420 used in competition by junior sailors. We made the boats better, and those of us involved, made ourselves better.

Now that we are again replacing one of our sets of six boats with newer used boats, we are going through another round of upgrades. This time, all boats are getting revarnished tillers, matching tiller extensions, refurbished pivot bolts and bushings, fiberglass damage on the blades repaired, and new downhaul and tie down lines. All control lines will be brand new and identically colored-coded. It is really satisfying to breathe new life into older boats. Life is good.

Aside: Every year, there are one or two kids who spend a lot of time doing this. For some, this is the best part of their sailing experience. Seems like a very good thing when kids in this throw away culture learn to take care of something.

In the first few years as I was losing the battle with entropy, my goal was just to spend less time on boat maintenance. I am finally realizing that the goal should be to spend the allotted time dedicated to preventative and restorative maintenance. Kaizen. Old boats are not my enemy; they are my opportunity to make improvements. Old boats have always created opportunities for kids (and adults) to learn to love sailing and for their keepers to discover the rewards of maintenance. Always will, I suspect.


  1. Come and help us. We have a lot of happiness waiting.

  2. Doing boat maintenance is surely a huge requirement to prolong and enhance its performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a couple of years old or brand new. It’s all about how you take care of it and how you maintain the quality of each piece it has.

    Douglass Blanchard