Masts and Chocolate for the DIY-er

Trader Joe's Chocolate Cube Varnish Container
What do these two have in common?  Very little except those masts need “refreshing” aka repainting or at a minimum a good buff and wax and the chocolates are essential to successful application of paint and varnish.  See the connection? I’ll admit it’s pretty slim.  The masts get touched up with paint, buffed, and waxed next weekend since I completed the varnishing last week.

Now about the chocolate, you see, we tend to buy our chocolate in various forms from Trader Joe’s.  In these seemingly identical clear plastic cubes throughout the year.  If you don’t buy the chocolate, you don’t get the cubes. I keep the cubes because they make a great varnish container.  This one, from last year, reminds me that Trader Joe’s no longer sells the lovely Orange Sticks.  It was our favorite: orange jelly center covered with dark chocolate.  They tell us they’ll have it again someday.  We don’t believe them since it’s been a year now.

Actually, those cubes will give you pretty much a perfect varnish container if you take a couple Popsicle sticks…ummm…let’s digress a little bit more about where the sticks come from:  you get the Popsicle sticks in the summertime when it’s hot and you’ve just got to have a lime-bar.  You save the summertime Popsicle sticks for the fall varnish-fest.  You also save the plastic cubes that your Trader Joe’s chocolate came in for the same varnish-fest.  This really doesn’t take much space–even aboard a boat–just a tiny little spot in my project bin where the cubes can stack and the sticks can stand next to them.

Then, in the fall, you pull these things out because you’re ready for your paint and varnish-fest to protect all the exterior woodwork through a winter of rain or worse inclement weather.  You grab a cube and take a thin plastic baggie–of the sort that nobody buys because it doesn’t ziplock but somehow you’ve got a hundred of them and you’re not throwing them away–and line your cube with it.  After lining, you push the Popsicle sticks into the groove that once held the lid of the cube keeping the chocolate fresh.  The sticks make a press fit–and that’s the ticket to creating a wonderful self-locking-in-place drip edge that you can wipe a paint or varnish brush against as you work.  You’ll feel really clever that you found a purpose for your Trader Joe’s cubes, Popsicle sticks, and those non-zipping plastic bags that you really have no other use for but can’t seem to throw away.

At the end of the day, you let your cube sit so the varnish hardens in the plastic baggie.  In the morning, your Popsicle sticks will have a dry layer of varnish on them so you’ll remove them, replace the baggie with a clean one, push the sticks back in place on top and put your new varnish in your cube for the next day’s work.  Believe it or not, you can do this for days–or weeks in my case–as you work your way around the boat putting on your layers and layers of varnish.  No real cleaning required, either. If you’re really good, you only use one or two of your cubes and 4 to 8 Popsicle sticks.  If you’re a little messy, you might go through twice or thrice the quantity.  If you’re careless and you’ve been eating a lot of chocolate and lime-bars, well, it’s not that big of a deal to go through many, many more.  The baggie is the key to it all though.  A daily baggie keeps everything clean.  During my varnish-fest, I usually don’t clean my brushes but instead I store daily in a container of turpentine.  At the end of the -fest, I can do a cleanup of it or if I’ve been using an inexpensive chip-brush, I can throw it out. For painting, I tend to clean it or throw it out daily.

masts in the sky

Pictures of Helper Tools: Freebag Pro

One thing leads to another it seems, for example, last summer while I was linking the Schooner Chandlery’s Freebag store page to the video of their yachting product, I discovered the Freebag Pro on their Norwegian site. As I read all about it, I became excited by the product. Really excited. The original Freebag was developed by Norwegian yachtsmen to increase comfort and endurance on long voyages in rough waters. Out of that development came the Freebag for Yachting and the smaller Freebag Pro for Industrial Use.

Over the years, use of this Freebag has been explored by a wide range of groups, ranging from archaeologists spending days on their knees, photographers seeking the best image in an awkward situation, and welders often working in cramped uncomfortable positions. I watched the video with guys using the Freebag while kneeling on rebar and then using the Freebag in a pool of water.  I saw it used to cushion the worker’s shoulder while carrying pipes and knees while setting floor tile.  I thought “I want one of THOSE Freebags!” David and I, like most other DIY boaters have spent countless hours and days on our knees or even contorted into uncomfortable places with stringers and bits and pieces of the boat jabbing us in the side, back, and chest as we try to get something done in an awkward place.

Both David and I thought “Oh, if we’d only had this while doing Mahdee’s rebuild — wouldn’t that have been nice!” We still have our crawl around and contortion jobs — from cleaning the bilges to replacing the raw water impeller on the engine — so there are still numerous opportunities to be jabbed by hard and sharp bits of Mahdee.

While I was working with Freebag to arrange for the yachting Freebag to be imported, I chatted with the Freebag company telling them how excited I was about the industrial product and I learned that, in Norway, the industrial Freebag is sold by a chain of tool stores and pretty much every archaeologist there has one too. The company sent me a few of the industrial Freebags for US DIY boaters, boatwrights, and yard workers to test out. Of course, the first thing I did was check out the product for my own varnishing contortions on Mahdee’s foredeck. David also made use of the Freebag while cramming himself into the lazarette for a project. The lazarette door has an uncomfortable 3″ threshold that jabs you in the ribs, back, or whatever part of you that spans it.  Unfortunately we have reason to work in that tiny space with some frequency.

As Mahdee readers know, I’m the varnish person aboard. But I wanted to get some photos.  So David demonstrated the Freebag Pro as we have used it so far on Mahdee: kneeling and laying on it to varnish. I also took a quick picture while David was using the Freebag in the lazarette. All-in-all, a great product for our use during DIY projects aboard Mahdee.

Below:  The Danforth Anchor blocking includes some very pointy bronze hardware that gets in the way when varnishing the foredeck.

danforth anchor brackets

It is much more comfortable to lay on the Freebag than on the pointy bronze hardware!


The perimeter of the boat includes a lot of covering boards and bulwarks that lead to many hours of on-knee time while varnishing. I dislike knee pads and so the Freebag is perfect for my use when kneeling.

kneeling with Freebag for industrial use

This Freebag Pro is smaller than the yachting Freebag and while it is big enough to sit on, it is small enough to hook to your belt to carry it around a worksite.

Belt carry of the Freebag for Industrial Use

Freebag for Industrial Use

The lazarette threshold is over 3″ tall and about 1″ wide with sharp corners that dig into your back as you’re halfway in the space to lubricate the worm gear steering, rearrange the mooring lines, work on the engine exhaust or, on the port side, to open and close the generator exhaust thru-hull each time the diesel generator is used.

lazarette threshold

This Freebag isolates your body from the threshold.


The Freebag also cushions the rest of you because it’s just long enough for the length of an average size person’s torso.

cushion with Freebag for Industrial use

We’ll be putting more information online over in the Schooner Chandlery about Freebags — and the Freebag company will be taking pre-orders for the product here in the USA soon. In the meanwhile, David and I will continue to be among the few lucky DIY boaters who have a Freebag Pro!

The Busy Person’s Photo-Essay

I’ve been too busy to write about a variety of events, adventures, and the ordinary daily-grind activities aboard Mahdee. So, here are some photos taken in the last 2 weeks. More to come.

Beryl played the role of the bored kitty while we were busy with all our activities.

While we were in the Georgiana Slough, I continued onward with the varnishing. This time, I did the three 24″x24″ butterfly hatches and and associated hatch openings on the deck midships. David was threatening me with more sanding dust (see sander in hand?) and enjoying the chaotic deck with wet varnish everywhere in this pic:

Every night we’ve had lovely sunsets and moon risings to enjoy.

My favorite case of the Raspberry Pi, the Pibow, finally came out in wood! So, I ordered one and assembled it around our Pi. I really like it, and so does David. It matches the wood interior and I got a nifty VESA mounting back so it can be mounted to a monitor back or it can be screwed onto a wall, bulkhead, or somewhere “discreet” …

Among all the her days of boredom and lazing about while we’re busy, Beryl has also become very good at stealing my favorite afghan for her own lounging pleasure.

The entire time we were anchored in Georgiana Slough we knew we’d caught a snag with the main anchor. Since we were tied off to so many trees ashore and had the stern anchor out, we weren’t worried about going anywhere by accident, though. What we didn’t know is that we actually caught a tree. When the fateful morning came to raise anchor(s) and leave, we were attached to something heavy that was raising bubbles 50 ft in front of the bow as we pulled at the chain entering the water directly below us. A few running starts (in reverse) and we would find Mahdee’s bow dipping low in the water and then would hear/feel the breaking of a big branch while bubbles would rise up far in front of the boat. This happened three times and finally we were free of all except a lone branch (admittedly 6″ to 8″ diameter across at its widest point and maybe 20 ft long…) that David had to untangle from the chain before we could move on.

After spending a day in Walnut Grove, we headed down the Steamboat Slough and were thankful for the Interphase FLS. With the system set up to look ahead 50 ft we could avoid sandbars and underwater obstructions — although at times like this, it seemed that the entire slough was too shallow for us to travel. Where there is a will, there is a way, and we always made it through.

For those of you who know about my love of blue and white china and in particular my Spode collection, you can understand why I was thrilled to recently see a melamine tray with a Spode Blue Room pattern on it! I tracked down the product and ordered it. With no more elegant food aboard, we enjoyed eating junk food (Hansen’s Raspberry Soda and Oreos) served on my new tray.

We’ve seen a lot of birds in the last few weeks–and sometimes we startle them from their comfy perches.

We did enjoy two nights in Horseshoe Bend behind Decker Island. We took Beryl for a dingy ride and met some nice folks aboard a CT anchored there. That’s a story for another day.

I’m out of time and pics are now uploaded. More later.

Another Beautiful Day on the Water

A good day for outside projects and soaking up the sunshine. Lots of activities on the docks this morning. Normally, it’s quiet at our end of the dock–just neighboring cruisers aboard Chrokeva doing their projects and walking the dogs but not a whole lot of other activities. The liveaboard residents of Pete’s are usually off and away–at work, or doing other things related to their lives here in the area. This morning, industry is all around us as people wash their boats, put away stacks of things that have been sitting on their decks, doing all they can to make their boats more presentable. Some boats are going on the market, others are being primped so that photos may be taken and the boat presented to the management of different area marinas. We’ve heard that a nearby marina owner is walking the docks at Pete’s because he’s received a stack of applications from tenants here.

In any case, there’s a lot more than the typical activity happening right now at Pete’s Harbor. Buttercup, sitting in the parking lot, seems to know that something’s amiss. I’ll post an update on Buttercup’s desires to remain the center of attention at another time. For David and me, Buttercup’s woes are on hold while we focus on getting the insides of Mahdee’s foredeck bulwarks covered in a few more coats of varnish before the cooler fall weather sets in. This was supposed to be my task of the last week–but high winds and chilly days made varnishing a bit too risky an activity. This week is supposed to be wonderfully perfect: not to cold, not too warm, and just the right amount of sunshine here in Redwood City. Onwards.

Varnish Time Yet Again

It seems like along about the end of August, every year INCLUDING when we were rebuilding the boat and in the boatyard, once we put caprails on the boat (uh, that would be during 2008) we’ve been varnishing right about NOW. End of August. Sure, we’ve varnished in the spring and at other times. The “big varnish job” always seems to come along in late summer. It goes from high gloss to less high gloss and we know–get some more on there! I don’t wait for the varnish to fail, I just go for it. This August, in search of varnish inspiration, I turned to others who have written about it on their sailing blogs. All sailors seem to have a “varnish position” similar to a political statement. The bare wood vs oiled wood vs Cetol vs high gloss–they’ve all their bit staked out and they do surely OPINE about it. There’s a great post about all the varnish opinions here on another sailor’s blog: Varnish Insanity

I learned from taking care of our house that you really need to stay ahead of things while keeping it all simple. Simple says to me to put on some varnish and do the upkeep. Don’t think about it, don’t worry about it, just DO IT. So, since those fateful decision days in 2008 when I decided what to do, I’ve been varnishing a bit here and there several times a year and then having a big varnish ‘fest in late summer. David and I agreed that we’d keep up the varnish and if it got to be too much, we’d selectively paint things. So far, the expanses of woodwork remain shiny varnished.

Lots of things to varnish aboard Mahdee…

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