Setting up to sail off again after three years away

ON BOATING

Boating

May 18, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

Three years is a long time to leave a boat high and dry.

But until the other day, that is how long my 31-foot Westerly sailboat was out of the water. She rested on stilts, shrink-wrapped against the elements, in the long-term storage yard at Backyard Boats on the West River, south of Annapolis.

She had been stripped of her sails, which were cleaned, carefully folded and safely stored in a drier place. Her interior was emptied to the bare fiberglass. All her lockers were opened to allow the circulation of as much air as could find its way in.

The trusty green Volvo Penta 23-horsepower diesel engine that had taken me so often from her berth on the Rhode River to the wider waters of Chesapeake Bay was prepped for its long stillness with fresh oil and a new filter.

The teak that had soaked up so much of my sweat during the annual sandings was left newly oiled to a fine gloss.

It was something of an irony that she had never looked better than when I left her, in 1997, for assignment 9,000 miles away in South Africa.

Although half a world away, she stayed close to my thoughts. Like a concerned relative, I called the yard from Johannesburg occasionally to check on her well-being. The staff always was reassuring and helpful, even to suggesting after one particularly hard winter that she could do with a new plastic coat. She got one.

Now I was back home. As I drove through the spring-greened countryside on the western shore of the Bay toward Shady Side to take a right onto the beckoningly-named Snug Harbor Road, I wondered what our reunion would bring.

How had she weathered? Would the fiberglass be stained and dulled? Would mildew have spawned in her danker corners? Would the teak have turned gray? Would the spiders have webbed her interior?

Had I made a mistake to leave her alone for so long?

Some years back, in advance of an earlier foreign posting, I sold another boat. Certainly, that was a mistake.

When I returned from that assignment five years later, I was boatless and stayed so for a deprived decade. Then, one spring day I saw the tip of a solitary mast peeping over the rampart of the fly-over bridge at Kent Narrows. Intrigued, I turned off the highway to find the Westerly waiting for a new owner.

The marina selling her specialized in power boats. The salesman was clearly anxious to be rid of this wind-driven orphan, about which he knew little.

Sitting squarely on her unusual twin bilge keels, she was a strange creature among the neighboring sleek speedsters and cabin cruisers. To many local sailors, familiar with the almost universal single-fin keel on American yachts, she must also have seemed something of an ugly duckling.

In her native Britain, the twin keels, set on each side of the hull, allow a boat to settle squarely instead of keeling over on the sand or mud harbor floor when the tide ebbs.

One thing is for sure, if ever the tide goes right out of the Bay, my boat will come into her own, standing proud and upright while almost all about her lie on their sides on the soft bottom.

Locally, where the tide is not an issue, the twin keels have a different but equally distinct benefit - they lower the draft, the depth of water a boat requires to sail in. The Westerly draws only 3 feet, 9 inches of water, allowing her to go where many single-fin 31-footers would run aground.

Topside, her boxy cabin, with its hidden blessing of headroom, speaks openly of comfort rather than speed.

To my mind, she is the perfect Bay boat - small enough for two to handle easily, big enough to overnight aboard comfortably or accommodate several day guests, solid enough for the summer squalls that can always catch you on the Bay. She may not win any races, but she promises to get you where you want to go safely.

So, on being posted to South Africa, I decided to keep her, and now I was about to find out whether it was a wise decision.

My first sight was reassuring. The plastic cover was off, and the hull seemed to have retained a residual gloss, albeit along with some staining. The teak was patched but not too weathered.

I popped the hatch and looked inside. Again, she was much as left - virtually spotless. There was no mildew, even in the two restricted places most likely to attract it - the pipe berths, which extend toward the stern of the boat under the cockpit seats, and the head, as the cramped toilet on a boat is known. There was not a single spider's web.

In the bilge, where any leaks or condensation eventually trickle, only the deepest point contained the tiniest puddle. The engine compartment beneath the cockpit floor was as dry as it was dark when I removed the cabin steps to peer inside.

At first glance, it seemed that all it would take to get her shipshape would be a lick of anti-fouling bottom paint, a dab of fiberglass polish, and a drop more teak oil.

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