Saving a Surf Boat -August 2012

by: Connor Wallace

photography by: Connor Wallace

The first thing that comes to mind when I see an old, broken-down wooden boat is, “We’ve got to get her up and running.” This is a thought that I’ve had quite a few times over the years and has seen me as the owner of many different boats of all ages and in various stages of disrepair.

One of the surfboats in use back in the day of the U.S. Lifesaving Service. One of the most historic rescues in one of these boats was of the H.P. Kirkham, wrecked 11 miles offshore on the Rose and Crown Shoal on January 20, 1892. Rescuers from the Coskata Life Saving Station responded in horrific conditions. Those who survived the harrowing feat, were recognized for their valor by the government.

It’s a blind love for an object capable of emptying your pockets and consuming all of your time, so why do I continue to pursue them? It’s a question that is often asked of
me and not so easily answerable.

So when I was asked to survey an old rowing boat on Nantucket and decide whether it was repairable, I knew the real question wasn’t whether it could be repaired, but how it would be repaired.

Last Fall, the Egan Maritime Institute, which heads up the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, purchased a 26-foot Monomoy surf boat from the 1940s on eBay. In its previous life it had been used off Kings Point, New York as a training vessel for the Merchant Marine. The history of these boats predates the Coast Guard, and its richness flows through me as I contemplate the work ahead.

Folks on Nantucket recognize these boats as the same ones used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service until it became the Coast Guard in 1915. They were launched into the surf from a horse-drawn trailer, and then rowed and sailed through the snow and crashing waves to rescue souls stranded on the outlying sandbars around the Cape and Islands. They were then used throughout World War II as training vessels for the Merchant Marine, providing a historic base for the most basic of seamanship skills.

I first looked at her last December. Most people declared the boat a loss. From the look of it, the wood seemed to be more like soil and the thought of the cost of fixing it was staggering. The surfboat showed its age.

Sixteen of its frames along the turn of the bilge had cracked, opening up the midsection of the boat and putting stress on the planks as it sat heavier on the rigid trailer bunkers. Indications of an impact on the starboard hull left one plank broken in half and many failed fasteners. All of the floor timbers were loose and every iron keel bolt had rusted and expanded, splitting the keelson and severing the bolts.

The centerboard was missing as well as all of the oars and most of the oar locks. There were no spars or sails to speak of and the tip of the rudder had broken off. The bronze thwarts that support the seats were separated from their bases and someone along the way decided that 5200 would be a good seam compound. If all this wasn’t enough to deter the intrepid boat-builder, a roof had also collapsed on the boat during its years stored on land and a family of rodents had taken up squatting rights.

But once the debris was cleared out and roofing materials were made separate from boat pieces, a new light began to shine on the potential of a boat with another life in its future. The wood in the boat was actually quite sound, the real problem stemming from years of hard use followed by years of neglect and shoddy repairs. It was my goal to spend the winter reversing as much damage as possible in order to get a working boat back into working condition.

Over the following months, this goal was realized with the unrelenting support, advice and help from Nantucket boat-builder, designer and sailor Alfred Sanford, who quickly assumed the position of project supervisor. With his help and the help of a couple volunteers, I was able to get some momentum going. Eric Holch, a member of the board of trustees at the Egan Maritime Institute, contributed by putting in equal hours behind a keyboard and telephone building up an arsenal of information and contacts, locating original spars, sails, oars and centerboards. It became a community effort.

Every boat project is unique, this one being a subtle mix of using modern materials alongside the same construction methods used in the 1940s. With the help of epoxy resins, I was able to quickly sister the broken frames and salvage the old centerboard box. I removed the broken keelson and tapped out all of the disintegrated keel bolts. New floor timbers were made out of white oak and screwed into place with silicone bronze fasteners, of which over 300 were used to refasten various planks around the hull. The broken bronze thwarts were brazed back into working condition by island blacksmith Ron Shepherd, who also fashioned new brass “L” brackets to tie in the frame ends to the centerboard box. The rudder was repaired with wooden dowels and thickened epoxy while new sole beams were cut out of pine. The boat was thoroughly scraped and sanded inside and prepped for the first coat of primer.

When the 12-foot boards of six-quarter mahogany arrived, I was a bit timid cutting into them. But after a precision jig was made to fit, the new keelson was in place with new stainless bolts secured into a thickened epoxy soup buried in the keel. The most significant piece of structure in the boat had been replaced with brand-new wood and steel and marked a turning point in the boat’s life.

From this point on, instead of removing things, things were added to sustain the boat’s integrity, and it felt good. But after a few months in a floor-heated shop, the cedar planks had shrunk over a quarter-inch, leaving a gap too wide to stuff with cotton to waterproof it.

The boat was launched for the first time in our hands on a bright April day just as many wooden boats had been launched before, with the sole purpose of letting her sink to wait while the wood absorbed the salt water and expand back to its original form. For a week we waited and watched with confirmed suspicions as the wood miraculously shapeshifted and the gaps between the planks became smaller and smaller.

It’s hard to not develop a relationship with an old boat like this and start to become intrigued by its history and lore. Ask any boat-builder about the boat he or she is working on and be prepared for a long answer. Part of the enjoyment from working on these old boats is the fulfillment that comes at the successful completion, but also the research process while working out the problems. Each boat that I’ve worked on has come with its own story and is stored away in the cabinets of my mind, and a new drawer has been opened for old surf boats. I am reluctant to let it shut too soon.

Connor Wallace is a sailor who enjoys boat building and restoration. He writes occasionally for Nantucket Today.

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