How I Fixed a Sinking Ship
“I think this boat has what we’re looking for,” Todd pointed out the ad to me. “And it’s just down in New London, it’s not far. Let’s go after work and check it out.”
It was 2002, Todd and I had owned two sailboats by that point. The first one was a 26-foot-long Pearson Commander that we bought off the Boy Scout Council in Vermont for $600. It was donated to the Scouts probably a decade before and was left to rot in a field on the southern tip of Lake Champlain. I remember when we drove over there to look at it, in 1998. It was filthy and infested with wasps—it didn’t have a rudder. “Isn’t it great?” Todd asked. Um…
But we went to Vermont every weekend to fix it up. He got rid of all the wasps. (I am terrified of wasps, irrationally so. He did a great job of eliminated every single nest.) I painted the interior, he made a rudder so we could actually steer the boat once we got it into the water.
We sailed that boat all over Champlain, and we knew we needed to get a bigger boat. The Pearson had zero privacy. It had 4 bunks and a toilet nestled under the bunks in the forward section of the boat. When we had guests aboard, we all had to exit the boat and close the cabin off to allow one person to pee in private. The shower was a solar shower—which consisted of a foil lined bag that would heat in the sun. I have a vivid memory of Todd “spraying” the soap off my body with the trickle of icy water that came from that bag that had been sitting in the sun all day. We needed better facilities.
In 2001 Todd found a 41’ Formosa on eBay. It was located near Charleston, South Carolina. Todd flew down to take a look at it. The owner had a long dock that extended behind his house into a creek off of the Intracoastal Waterway. He thought a boat would look nice at the end of that dock. He never used it, he just looked at it. As a result, it was in terrible shape after never having been maintained. So we thought “Sweet! A boat that’s in terrible shape that is in our price range. Let’s buy it!” So we did, and then we had it shipped up to Rhode Island from Charleston.
The boat was a gorgeous mess. There were leaks from the ceiling, rotting walls, the engine failed every time we tried to take it out. We replaced the diesel, replaced the water system, tiled the shower. But the wall over our bed was coming down. We knew we had bitten off more than we could chew with this boat. We couldn’t keep up with the rate it was deprecating.
Then Todd saw the listing for our current boat. It was the same style of boat, a ketch rig—which means it has 2 masts. But the cockpit of this boat was located in the center and not in the very back—this would make for a safer and more comfortable ride. The booms for the mast, which are the horizontal poles that extend from the masts, were also positioned higher on this boat. The ones on the Formosa were at chest height for me, which meant we were at constant risk of getting knocked overboard if the boom swung across the boat.
This boat is an Island Trader ketch. The interior of the boat was clean. No visible signs of leaking. The floor felt firm under our feet. We took it on a sea trial with the owner, which means that we took it for a spin in Long Island Sound, just off the coast of New London, Connecticut. The boat appeared to be in excellent shape, and we tried to contain our excitement as we negotiated the price.
But then we learned a thing or two.
While we were examining the boat, we had it pulled out of the water so we could check out what was going on under the water line. The owner said he’d just had the hull scraped free of slime and barnacles. As the lift slowly pulled the boat from the water, the hull became more visible inch by inch. There, scraped in the slime, was a greeting to the owner of the boat. The diver he had hired to scrape the bottom had scraped a giant “Fuck U” in the slime. At the time he laughed it off. “Oh, it’s a buddy of mine playing a joke.” But I wondered if it actually was a joke, or a bad business dealing with his vendor.
We christened the Island Trader Sabine after the character in the book Griffen and Sabine. We also named our first dog Griffen in the hopes that he’d fall in love with Sabine just like he did in the book. (And he totally did. Griff loved being aboard.) We took delivery just after the remnants of a late September hurricane swept through the area. The hurricane left behind 6 foot waves that tossed her 44,000 pounds like a bath tub toy. We didn’t feel the waves until we were out from behind Fisher Island and more exposed to the waves coming up the Atlantic from the south. Todd is prone to sea sickness, and the large waves wreaked havoc on his insides—he huddled on the aft end of the boat and “fed the fish” if you will. I sat at the wheel, a beer clamped between my knees, autopilot engaged, and knitting needles in my hands railing at the sky “Is this all you got” a la Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. I am not as prone to motion sickness.
Then we heard the familiar gurgling and sputtering from the engine room below. Sabine had the same kind of diesel engine that the Formosa had—a Perkins diesel that could only be described as craptacular. The roar of the engine ceased, and was quickly replaced by cussing. Todd managed to get it started again, and we limped along to Block Island, where we picked up a mooring at the tail end of the season. The next day we took the ferry home.
Todd sailed her home from Block Island by himself, as I had just started a new job. The engine limped along and hassled him every mile of the way. Block is 15 miles off shore, and then it’s another 15 or so to get the boat back to East Greenwich. It took him all day, from dawn to dark. He was exhausted and starving by the time he arrived home. Over the course of the trip he also assisted the Coast Guard in locating a disabled boat nearby despite the fact that he wasn’t much more seaworthy with that lousy Perkins.
Over the years we got to know our Sabine well. We have torn her apart more times than I can count over the course of restoring her. We didn’t plan to do much restoration, but we learned that the previous owner was a master of staging a boat for sale. The floors eventually sagged. When we took up the industrial carpet he’d laid down we learned they were rotted. He’d sprayed foam deep in the corners under the joists to give them the appearance of firmness. The fuel tank was riddled with sediment, which caused the diesel engine to fail. We ended up taking the brand new diesel off the Formosa and mounting it into Sabine. The wall paper on the wall covered the streaks caused by rain leaking in. We peeled away the wall paper and learned that when it rained outside it also rained inside. We replaced the potable water tanks, as we were both skeeved out at what he could have possibly done to those. We tiled the shower, we had a new fuel tank fabricated, we noticed that there was an excess of water in the bilge which was how we discovered there was a slow leak below the water line.
Over the years all these things were remedied. One at a time. We had her painted, as the paint job was peeling to the point where I called her a 90 mile boat, as in “She looks good from 90 miles away.” We replaced the rotting parquet floors with a teak and holly stripe. And we did 90% of this work ourselves. We put in nights, weekends, in the winters we ran propane heaters. We fell into bed exhausted. We rubbed our skin raw to clean off the paint, the oil, the adhesives and all the goo that comes with restoring a boat.
And now she looks pretty, she isn’t sinking, and it’s largely ceased raining inside the boat.
This is the interior, after we had the cushions redone. Todd had me wait outside while he put it all together, like I was on HGTV.
This is how she looks from behind. Nice ass, eh?
Sabine was built in Taiwan. Artisans would move aboard the boat to fit out the interior, all of our interior doors have these carvings on them.
Part of the restoration involved getting all new sails. This is our spinnaker sail, which is used in light wind.
Todd is replacing the floors in our stateroom. It's amazing how filthy the interior gets when we're working and how quickly we can get it back to functional and liveable (above) to be able to enjoy.
Todd had installed a track that went up the entire length of the main mast, to make hoisting the main sail easier. That was a long day.
But in the end it was all worth it.
added on 06.12.17