Longitude 39 Boom Repair

I scribbled away in the cockpit, jotting the moments I’d been too sick to record the days before. Relief from nausea, sunshine, the boat lumbering along downwind, bobbing side to side with a following swell. After days of sleeping, I had awoken this day, Thursday, July 27, well before my watch, ravenous and energized.

Our fifth crew member silently steered the boat. She deserves some recognition. A 40-year-old Aries wind vane given my father by a friend. Elegant with her paddles and long metal legs, smooth articulating gears and puppet-like strings that work the emergency tiller with firm tugs and corrections. Downwind is hard for her, but she seemed to be doing alright, except the occasional swell that swept the boat aside, causing her to yank it back on course to the wind.

The sails were splayed out. The mainsail pulled and prevented to starboard, and the “Rag” out to port with a spinnaker pole holding to the wind so it wouldn’t fold. The Rag is our third largest jib, old and fragile for lighter wind. Counting sails, we realized we had 7 jibs, and 10 sails total. “Well,” said Dad, “some men have bank accounts, and some have man piles.” Then after a while he added solemnly, after weeks of moaning about the cramped boat, “I guess now I know why there’s no room on this boat.

As the hour turned to 11, I folded up my journal and scooted from the cabinside to the helm, asking Dana about the wind and our course. Seems that wind shifts had been occurring daily right on schedule with my watch. At night I would often sit for an hour, trying to wait out the dying wind, before finally giving in and using the engine a couple of hours. Interesting that even so far out from land there would be regular wind shifts. Maybe just my luck!

“The Aries has been doing a pretty good job,” Dana explained, “We’re going pretty much dead downwind, you have to make sure you don’t sail by the lee.”

Sail by the lee? This was new for me, even after a 39 day downwind passage to Hawaii. (Although we had a spinnaker on that trip, we didn’t have a spinnaker pole, so not much wing on wing sailing.) We gazed at the vane at the top of the mast, the little arrow that points to where the wind is coming from, and Dana pointed out the vector slice at the back, marking the downwind range.


“If that arrow starts to reach the corner of the box, you want to head up.”

But with two sails out, I wasn’t sure which corner of the box she meant, and with the arrow behind, I wasn’t sure which way to head up. The wind shifted a bit and the arrow pointed straight back. “You see, that’s straight downwind, so you want to head up…I don’t know if the Aries should steer anymore…” Just then a strange swell curled under the hull, pointing us further downwind. The little arrow jerked to starboard as the wind swung behind the mainsail and the boom started the long jibe over to port.

I clenched my jaw, waiting for the loud slam of the boom. I’ve always hated jibes, they’re so violent, and the boom here was way out, with the longest way to go. It swung a couple of feet, but then stopped short, yanked by the preventer. The hollow wooden pole snapped in half like a broken bone, the flapping sail a gauze between two splintered ends. I sat stunned and horrified. What is a boat without a boom? What do you do next?


“Julien,” called Dana flatly. “The boom broke.”

Dad appeared in the companionway, a cloud of exhausted frustration blew over his face. Then without a word he climbed on deck and set to work dismantling the boom. Snapped to action by the calm assertion of the others, I downed the mainsail, while Dana steered and Dad worked to release the rest of the rigging. As we furled the sail, I thought through our options. Four days out from Newfoundland. I guess we would just motor back the way we came. Then what? Would they repair the boom? Would I stay? Would we still sail to Europe this year?

My mind was already weeks into a Life Plan B when I realized we hadn’t turned around. “Strange,” I thought, “Shouldn’t we start heading back?” But we sailed on. We pulled the big wooden pieces into the cockpit and I sat with my hand on them, as if soothing an injured animal. Poor Tiger, our old friend, crippled. Dad built that boom 33 years ago out of Sitka spruce shipped from Alaska, right before I was born and we moved onboard.
“You think you can fix it?” Asked Dana, as we passed the boom below.

“Well yeah, I can cobble something together,” said Dad. “I am a wood-worker supposedly.”

So opened Longitude 39 Boom Repair. Day one: the two pieces lay on the floor of the cabin, and Dad dug out his woodworking tools and box of epoxy. “So far I have needed every tool I’ve brought!” He declared cynically. Dana found the spare pine 2×4 buried in the v-berth, and Dad set to work shaving the corners round with a hand plane so it could slide into the curved hollow boom as a plug, to help align the fractures.

Meanwhile outside the tricky swells continued to build, and the breeze freshened. Dad smeared the splint with epoxy and stuck it in the long half of the boom, bracing and cursing against the dramatically rolling boat.

That evening brought 20-25 knot winds and 8 foot following seas (our first rough weather). We surfed through the night naked without our main, wearing only our second smallest jib, but still riding the waves at 6-8 knots. I actually felt safer without a big boom slamming around, and just a small sail. Downwind sailing became more pleasant with just jibs.


Day 2: the Boom Repair shop opened at midday, and although I was still on watch, I could see that Dad needed some help, so I commissioned Peter to take the helm early. When I came down in the cabin, he was holding his head, groaning, “I’m too old for this shit.” I took accountability for the situation, as I should have grabbed the helm 10 seconds earlier…but I wasn’t wracked with guilt, as I still wasn’t sure what it meant to sail by the lee, and I didn’t know a jibe could break a boom.

Still, I had created a problem that I couldn’t fix for him, another project to keep him from resting. All I could do was play to the best of my ability my role of helper. Sit by, hold things steady, grab sliding tools, wipe glue drips, offer clean paper towels, the occasion tactful joke or calming encouragement. Try to mitigate the accumulating aggravations of a woodshop-at-sea. Stay present and aware of arising needs, keep my own frustration at bay, know which tool comes next and have it ready, see the next obstacle stampeding towards him and throw an elbow out to try and block it.


That is my role here, as the child of a craftsman. To observe, help, and learn. Isn’t that how craft is passed down? The master works, the child watches, trying her hand at it in her own private moments. Then she starts to hold the pieces, work simple tools, and gradually take over the tasks the master is too tired to do anymore. At least that is how I imagine the inheritance of craft when craftmanship was still an honored profession.

Day 2 was the day to glue the splintered ends and somehow slide the puzzle back together. Dad aligned the jagged breaks and shoved the short end of the boom onto the pine plug projecting from the long, spreading the broken faces with generous amounts of thickened epoxy. Then together, on the count of three, we rammed the whole thing forward into the bulkhead, and the pieces came together, within 1/2 inch of meeting. Secured with our only wood clamp and two giant hose clamps, we tied the boom to the starboard berth and left it to dry.


“Well, the boom is back in one piece,” said Dad, beaming. Then to me, “Thank you for your help. Your presence was very calming.” I welled up at this gem of gratitude, snatched it out of his words and stashed it deep in the heart of my daughter pride secret box, wrapped in a little piece of velvet.

Day three: We helped lift the boom back out of the cabin and tied it on the dodger, while dad secured it again to the mast. Then he started chiseling out a notch for the scarf joint to bridge the break. (The plug inside the boom didn’t add strength, as most of the force is on the outside.) In the notch he would glue a triangular splint of pine, a Dutchman.


“Where did that Dutchman come from?” I asked.

“He made it this morning, before you were awake.”

He measured, and chiseled, and fit, and sawed, and planed, and fit again. “You can steal a man’s craft with your eyes,” he once told me, and I watched and learned. Finally it was time to glue, and clamp again. Added to the mix of miscelaneous clamps were strings wrapped and tightened like tourniquets (the Spanish Windlass), and a vice grips hanging in there somewhere. The Dutchman overfilled the scarf, awaiting planeing and shaping. It looked like homemade orthodontic headgear (Dad once offered to make me a retainer in high school). He bundled the package in a wool blanket with a pot of steaming water tied underneath to help the glue dry in the cold night. “We’re almost out of glue,” he said, “No more breaks!”


Day four: I awoke to the sound of the mainsail going up. The boom was back up and running. She smiled crookedly through her hose clamps and braces, but there she was, all scarfs and glue and glory. Dad even dared to put the vang back on, though well aft of the break, and only in light wind. He was all smiles. “The only bad thing about sailing like this is there’s nothing to bitch about,” he said, grabbing a clean plate to put away. Finding a buttery smudge left on the plate, he grumbled and started rubbing vigorously with a paper towel.
“There,” I teased, “You feel better.”

The weather stayed calm those days, and we motored or ambled along downwind. We ended up taking the mainsail back down shortly after its trial run to continue smoothly under jibs. “We respect you boom,” I said. “But we’ve learned we can do without you,” finished Dad.


I was reading the famous journey of Joshua Slocum, “Sailing Alone Around the World,” and he too broke his boom (outrunning pirates), and sailed 40 more days across the atlantic before fixing it in Brazil by shortening it four feet.

“His boom was solid, would have been fixed in two days with splints,” said Dad. “And I did mine at sea! Not bad for a 64 year old fart.”

I didn’t correct him that he was still 63.

We relaxed and coasted on, enjoying the smooth wind and the break from excitement, as a confused weather system fretfully stormed up behind us.

One thought on “Longitude 39 Boom Repair

  1. Sandy Johnston says:

    Julien. Unable to make a repair at sea? That would be a dire day indeed! I will never forget the Sunday morning Julien stopped by the Bottom’s Up boat yard (St Thomas) on his way to the airport many many years ago. He had his large canvas bag of tools and cut a big 3 layer scarf in my boat that had 2 broken stringers under the water line. That’s why I was there, hurricane damage. Then he lined me up with instructions on every thing I needed to finish his incredible work. He caught his plane at noon. All I had to do was get his bag of tools home.

    The boat yard workers showed up Monday morning and they had an hour meeting around my boat mesmerized by what had taken place on a Sunday morning. They were wanting to know “who” the craftsman was that had made such a beautiful repair. (and in less than 3 hours!). They actually showed the detailing to the younger workers there. “Now this is how you do that” I heard one of the older workers say. It was splayed open for them to see. The boat yard workers showed it off many times over the next couple of days until I got the patches (3 staggered precise layers) on. They were very, very impressed and I was very, very grateful. That help kept ‘Odyssey’ going years longer! Thanks again Julien!

    I love what you relayed in your story that your dad told you. “You can steal a man’s craft with your eyes.” Words of wisdom I will remember and wish I knew earlier in this life. Although there aren’t that many true craftsmen to learn from. I’ve only met one other. Happened to be his friend Jo Shear and he is into Bamboo. Jo cut the precision repair pieces out for me as to Julien’s detailed instructions. A perfect fit and then it was a downhill slide to getting her back in the water. I literally could not have done it without Julien.

    Michelle, You have a great view. Have a great trip! Love to you and yours! Sandy Johnston

    Like

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