Quick fixes put us in the same boat

April 20, 2002|By ROB KASPER

YESTERDAY, as Fredrik Nylof hurried around his Inner Harbor workshop, he could have passed for a local homeowner starting his routine weekend chores.

He tracked down a missing screwdriver. He checked the ammunition in his caulk gun. He talked to himself, reminding himself to pick up a pair of Vise-Grip pliers before setting out on his rounds.

But the object of Nylof's ministrations was not a house, a shed or a car. It was a 64-foot yacht, the ASSA ABLOY, one of eight ocean racing vessels that sailed into Baltimore this week, completing one leg of the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World. With three legs of the race remaining, the ASSA ABLOY from Sweden is in second place, trailing the illbruck from Germany.

Nylof is a boatbuilder and a member of the ASSA ABLOY's shore crew, a cadre of workers - including a sail-maker, a rigger and an information-technology type - whose job it is to make the race boat, and its myriad parts, run smoothly as it slides across the sea.

Shortly after the ASSA ABLOY and the other racers tied up in Baltimore's Inner Harbor this week, their shore crews descended upon them, performing routine maintenance, looking for defects.

A shore crew's initial inspection of what the racing team has done to the yacht reminded me of the routine a father goes through after his teen-ager brings the car home from a Saturday night outing. You give it the hairy eyeball, making sure all the parts are working and that there is no fresh damage.

Nylof, a native of Sweden who, at 31, more closely resembles a fresh-faced teen-ager than a frowning father, laughed at my comparison, but agreed with it.

After spending a couple of days watching Nylof, I kept searching for similarities between a guy like him, who maintains an ocean racing vessel, and a guy like me, who putters around the house. Most of the time, any comparison was a stretch.

Take, for instance, our respective workshops. Like a lot of landlubbers, my workshop is a permanent fixture in my basement. His just arrived from Rio de Janeiro, and sits inside a 40-foot-long metal cargo container. It sports workbenches, shelves, pegboards, mountains of tools and several serious-looking vises. When this leg of the race is over, the workshop container will be buttoned up and put on a freighter bound for a future stopover on the race.

Since freighters move around the world more slowly than ocean racing sailboats, Nylof has not one, but two cargo containers that function as his workshop. These containers "leapfrog" one another to racing stopovers around the world, explained Neil Graham, who, as ASSA ABLOY's shore manager, oversees the job of caring for craft and crew. The Baltimore workshop will be shipped out to Goteborg, Sweden. Meanwhile the workshop that sat in Miami, the stop before Baltimore, is on its way to La Rochelle, France.

I decided to see if I could pick up any maintenance tips from Nylof. Again it was a stretch. He works on a year-old vessel made of high-tech foam covered with "skins" of a fabric called Kevlar. I work on a 100-plus-year-old house made of horsehair plaster and post-Civil War wood.

At each stopover, Nylof tests the soundness of the craft by giving it the "coin test." He taps the body of the boat with a coin or metal wrench. If the test yields a "ping," the boat is OK. If it produces a "thump," or hollow sound, he knows that air has seeped under the Kevlar skins and repair work is needed.

I guess the homeowner's equivalent of a "coin test" would be to thump the walls with a hammer. But when you own an old home, you never walk around blithely thumping things with a hammer. If you thump, you end up with broken house parts.

Nylof did have another method of trouble-shooting that appealed to me. At each stopover, he goes below deck and looks for patches of daylight peeking through the craft. If he sees any, he knows he has a hole that has to be patched.

That "hunt-for-daylight" method could be a good way to inspect my roof.

When Nylof took me below the deck of ASSA ABLOY, I found some common ground between us. Despite all the complex machinery and logistics involved in maintaining an ocean racer, part of Nylof's workload is created by simple human error. He fixes what other people have broken.

While working out kinks in the boat's engine, for instance, he pried open a fuel tank and looked inside. There he found a piece of plastic tubing that had been accidentally dropped in the tank by his older brother, Klas, a member of the ASSA ABLOY's racing crew. Klas had been using the tubing to check the fuel level when the boat pitched. In Baltimore, the younger Nylof fished the plastic tube from the fuel tank, and while he was at it, sealed an air leak in the engine's ignition system.

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