Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mini-Heeler Part 1: There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Boat!

Welcome to Adventures in Heeling!

This blog is intended to be a chronicle of sailing adventure on the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas. It is written by your author, a novice sailor with a passion for sailing. It is named for the action of monohull sailboats under sail when they lean over in the wind. This is called "heeling". For those who have never sailed, it can be quite alarming but is perfectly normal. It represents the wonderful balance of forces that allow a sailboat to harness the wind and travel anywhere on the planet.

Plus... it's fun!

We will start our adventure small with a dinghy and some elbow grease. A boat we call the Mini-Heeler.


It is often said there is no such thing as a free boat. Yes, it does happen. When a free boat is offered, leave your blinders at home and be very honest with yourself. Free boats are free for a reason. Often because of neglect. Their owners acquired them with an intent to restore them and sail away around the world or off to the islands and their eyes and dreams blinded them to reality. Most free boats require so much work that you'll never get out of them what they are worth and the work and cost required is almost always much, much more than planned.

Unlike project boats, one step above free, most owners of free boats should be offering you money to haul them away. And even then, the only elbow grease they truly should see is a chainsaw and a sad, final trip to the landfill.

So when my wife received an e-mail for a free 11 foot sailboat in Rockville, MD, from Freecycle, I was curious. The ad was simple. The poster knew nothing about boats and the first person willing to haul it away could have it.

Now I had been making mention for some time while working on the "real" sailboat that I'd like a sailing dinghy to play around on in when alone or can't or don't want to take the big boat out. Something simple for opportunity sailing. So when this popped up, I was curious and wary.

My wife arranged for us to go see it that weekend. Whether there had been other interest in the boat I don't know. But on a nice Sunday morning we drove over about 10 minutes from our house to take a peek.

The forlorn boat was resting up against the house. Faded yellow hull covered in dirt and debris from years outside. That much was clear. When I rolled it over, it moved easily and came to rest on her bottom. Inside was a sail wrapped around some spars looking intact and a bunch of rotted wood.

The capacity plate on the small deck up front answered my first question of "What are you?". She was a Snark.

I knew nothing at the time about Snarks. But she was light and moved easily so she was light enough to be manageable without a need for a trailer. First good thing. With the couple's permission, I cut away the line that wrapped around the sail and spars. As I got it free, the spars fell open to reveal a dirty but intact yellow nylon sail attached to two spars (called the boom and gaff) and a mast. The mast fit snugly into its hole in the deck up front and I quickly figured out the rig. She was lateen rigged like a Sunfish, a common sailing dinghy which I initially believed this boat might be from the ad.

The rest of the inspection revealed the remains of a rudder and attached tiller and inside the trunk was the remains of the bottom of the daggerboard. The only reason that much survived was because it was in the trunk. The board had neatly rotted away like it had been cut by a saw where it had been exposed. The deck up front and rudder were both hopelessly delaminated from years of exposure, one piece of the transom was simply gone and the only reasonable wood on the boat was its opposite number on the inside.

We asked the couple what was the story behind it. They said they weren't sailors, knew nothing about boats and they had gotten it when they bought the house when the previous owners had left it behind. So they were giving it away.

My wife and I talked about it briefly. Being a foam hull and having spars and an intact sail meant the real work involved a good bath and making new wood parts from scratch. Inexpensive and straightforward since I had most of the originals to use as patterns. She asked what it would take to restore it and how much. I estimated perhaps $100 or so for wood and supplies based on what I saw. In the end we decided to take it. It would require some work but a good project in the backyard and a far cry from the months of fall, winter and spring commuting 45 miles practically every weekend to work on our Catalina 27.

An hour later, I was back at the house with the Snark tied to the top of my Jeep and hauled it into our backyard. Afterward, an hour with Google and had I learned a great deal about these boats.

Some Snark fun facts:
  • They are made of styrofoam and are pretty much unsinkable. Early versions have plain foam hulls. Later versions have an ABS plastic coating over the foam to improve durability. This Snark is a later model.
  • They've been in production for over 50 years. They are made and sold as a basic beginner's sailboat and great for kids.
  • The hull only weighs 50 pounds (albeit a bulky 50 pounds) which makes it easy to transport without a trailer on the top of a car.
  • Many of these boats were sold cheaply or given away as promotional items by a variety of companies in the 1970s such as Kool cigarettes, Orange Crush or Sears. An entire generation of young sailors learned to sail on these boats.
  • You can still get parts for them from the original builder via suppliers on the Internet. Parts are cheap and if you're on a budget, you can even get parts such as masts and spars from your local Lowe's or Home Depot!
  • It is estimated well over 400,000 of these boats have been made over the years making them one of the most-produced sailboat designs in history.
  • A current Snark retails for around $1000 plus shipping.
With our background complete, let's see what free looks like...

Cleaning and Evaluation

We started out with a bath. The Snark had been outside for who knows how long but based on her condition I estimated years. She was covered in a heavy layer of dirt and grime so after dragging her into the middle of the yard, we pulled out the hose, a hand scrub brush and some dish soap.

The dish soap wasn't my idea but it worked beautifully. Armed as such, we attacked the hull. But like any good restoration effort you need a supervisor. So with my wife helping, we called on our supervisor Foster to assist in cleaning the boat.

Here we are during the cleaning effort...

As you can see, the dirt was pretty impressive. Foster made short work of it, instructing us where to direct the water. Mostly onto him. He definitely feels this boat belongs to him. After all, it is named after him since he is a Queensland Red Heeler (Australian Cattle Dog).

With the muddy paw prints cleaned up and one wet dog removed from his toy, I got a clearer picture of my new acquisition. As the photos below show, a faded yellow ABS hull. The mast deck upfront is delaminated, you can see the neat remains of the bottom of the daggerboard and the likewise peeled open remains of the rudder. So all of these wood pieces will need new replacement. On the transom you can see where the rusted bolts come through the hull where the outside piece for the rudder mount is supposed to be. Completely rotted away and fallen off. Strangely, the interior piece is intact and in good condition.

As we travel down the hull we find several puncture holes including one large one amidship that will need to be filled with new material. Most are dents or small holes that can be repaired with filler and sanded smooth. Most of the holes are the smaller dents and partial punctures like those around the daggerboard trunk.

With our walkaround complete, we can see we have some work ahead, especially in the need to replace the wooden parts. But all is not lost as there is enough to show that this is indeed a sailboat when we attach the rig and raise the sail.

She definitely has potential.

In the next installment we begin our restoration effort with new wooden parts and hull repair.

1 comment:

  1. Really need to connect with you RE your Catalina 27 and your Yamaha T8. We're considering doing exactly The same repower and have some questions only you might be able to answer. Would love to chat. I can be reached at Hope to hear from you soon!