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

Fires and Fire Ants

We recently arrived at one of our favorite, idyllic anchor spots. It’s a spot that is sheltered from wind and has reliable stretches of warm dry weather–perfect for varnishing. Our arrival this year was about a week too soon because the temperatures have been way too hot (upper 90’s F with a couple days over 100F) for either sanding or varnishing. As a result, we have spent time on the computers interspersed with two or three leaps overboard into the very pleasant 78F water to cool off. Night time temperatures cool off nicely, but the ship’s cat has been a real complainer–her thick Norwegian Forrest cat fur being just too much for the local conditions and she has never been one for swimming.

The first sign of real trouble was a huge dragon fly that I had earlier admired on the fore-deck was later covered in and being consumed by ants. I threw the carcass overboard and hosed down the deck and regretted not taking a picture of the big dragon fly before its demise. Then Brenda noticed some ants down below one evening, and more the next evening. Brenda remarked that a visiting friend, Milly, had mentioned ant problems on their boat last year. The pieces were beginning to click together. We wondered where the ants could be coming from. In the light of day, there were no ants on any shore lines. Ants can’t swim, so we wondered if a few were dropping from the over hanging tree limbs or being carried by the wind.  We didn’t yet realize that the ants on Milly’s and our boat were no ordinary ants.

The two mile stretch of water on either side of where we anchor is a posted 5 mile-per-hour (mph) no wake zone to protect the embankments. It is one of just a few areas in the California Sacramento Delta that still has large trees lining the banks and excessive wakes erode the soil around tree roots and leads to fallen trees. During our varnish-fest stay here, we feel we are doing a great public service by giving speed boats another reason to slow down to something near the posted 5 mph limit; the drivers may not be literate because before and after passing us, many are going closer to 50 mph and throwing out huge wakes.  But, where the speed limit signs don’t work, a sense of courteous behavior sometimes does.

The waterway is a little wider where we anchor, but it is important to keep Mahdee near the embankment so that she is out of the way of passing boats. Further, to ensure that wind or wakes of law breaking boaters (without even a sense of what’s courteous) don’t throw Mahdee onto the rocky embankment, we usually have four lines holding us in position; the bow anchor, a stern anchor, a bow shore line and a stern shore line. It takes a little effort to get everything right, but with two of us on board we can get secured pretty fast and we sleep well at night.

Our friend Milly sails solo and so I volunteer to run the shore lines for her boat when she visits and anchors nearby. This year, when we were tying up Mahdee, I recognized the tree trunk from a previous visit, but initially thought it was a tree that I had once tied Mahdee to. The appearance of ants was a clue that perhaps this was the tree trunk that I had tied Milly to last year.

Then Brenda developed a nasty painful blistery welt and I remarked that I hadn’t seen such a welt since we lived in Texas and had fire ants in the yard and eventually the house too–a nightmare. We thought that fire ants couldn’t be this far north in California. I remembered seeing that they had been seen and reported in the LA/San Diego areas, but they couldn’t be this far north near San Francisco and Sacramento–could they?

Some online searching revealed that fire ants love a drought and that the current California drought has enabled the northward spread of these awful creatures.  California has classified fire ants as an invasive species and they are so destructive that some jurisdictions will quarantine an area, but fighting the spread of aggressive fire ants is a losing proposition. It was clear that not only were we once again in fire ant country, we had tied up right next to a big nest of them and they were in our virtual back yard–there goes the neighborhood.

In the video–a hint of things to come: I’m securing the shore line in entirely the wrong spot. The high crotch in a big tree seen towards the end of the video ultimately ended up being our safe-from-all shore anchor spot.

Shore anchor from Schooner People on Vimeo.

It was after dark and the cat’s water bowl was swarming with ants and she was clearly very distressed. I went outside with a flashlight and discovered that the bow shore-line was now twice its normal one inch diameter, thick and brown with an awe-inspiring invading army–now I was distressed too. We went to general quarters and locked down the boat. Our goal was to make it until morning when the ants would go into hiding from the heat and we could see well enough to reposition the shore line away from any fire ant nests.

Brenda prepared a bowl of boric acid and I sprayed and washed the deck and lines to knock off as many ants as possible. We left a dry segment of line where it came aboard the boat and coated that with powdered boric acid. We surrounded the water bowl with more powdered boric acid and put her food bowl in a moat using a baking pan of water. Poor kitty spent a miserable night in the heat and confused about how to flip her dry food out of the moated bowl and onto the floor which she does before eating each morsel. She whined and complained all night so that Brenda could hardly sleep and in the morning the moat around the food bowl was full of soggy uneatable cat food.  I was worried that while sleeping, I would roll over onto a string of these biting ants and be covered in painful welts. No one aboard Mahdee was happy.

First order of business the next morning was to relocate the bow shore line. Fortunately, the wind was blowing from Mahdee’s stern.  I untied Mahdee from the tree trunk and was very careful not to disturb the sleeping ants in the now obvious nest.  This stretch of slough has lots of trees to choose from so I picked the biggest tree and put the line way above ground level.

We are still left with a huge, but diminishing number of ants on the boat which are now cut off from their home nest. As we find them, we are killing and washing them overboard using the deck/anchor wash-down. With relaxed security measures, the ship’s cat is returning to her happy normal self and so are the humans.

In keeping with current events, I am now doing periodic “border patrols” to ensure our shore lines are not breached again and Brenda knows why Milly hasn’t been back to visit this year–she is reluctant to accept my misguided helpful actions of tying her boat up to a fire ant nest. The following morning, during a patrol I found the deck covered in black and white grit–another mysterious first. It turns out that a middle of the night wind-shift carried ash and soot from the devastating wildfires and coated our decks. We realized that the same drought that has enabled the fire ants to move here is also enabling horrific fires–a real double whammy for the area.

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…

Coats of Varnish

Finally I’ve gotten back to putting on some varnish pre-winter. The port covering board and toe rail aft of the break deck, and port cockpit combing are getting it now as well as the scuttle hatch and batten boards, starboard inner bulwark and covering board back to the break deck. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain–so today’s varnish will be the last of that “set” and will have to figure a way to get the remaining needed varnish on in the next weeks. There are also a few little spots of hull that managed to pop a bit of paint off during the sail North from SoCal. I can’t really get to them as they’re on the side of the boat away from the dock here (always something!) but perhaps we’ll turn the boat or launch the dingy to get me the needed access.

I scraped, sanded and have gotten a coat of mid-brown “honeycomb” colored paint on the substantial framing around the chart house windows (external). I last did it in mid-2009 and the paint was beginning to flake away from the underlying wood (teak which doesn’t hold paint very well). I need another coat of paint there and then I can sand the chart house sides and corners sealing up the various construction seams and give it a bright white coat of paint. Unfortunately, I’ve scraped off much of the old sealant and…the rains are coming tomorrow…so we’ll be (maybe not?) seeping just a little tomorrow.

It has been exceedingly calm for the past several days but late last night/early this morning the wind howled and the lazy jacks slapped noisily against the mast until David (bless him) went out and dealt with them at something like 4 am.

Today the boat is tilting a bit from the gusts of winds but it is bright and sunny with low clouds skittering across the sky. Very pretty.

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