During the three months my little ship lay in Belfast, Maine, I had three friends. The first was a schooner bum I’d met sailing in Florida who now worked for the shipyard next door to where I had just bought my boat, Teal, a 1963 Tripp 29, sight unseen. He would hook me up with showers after days of dirty boat work.
The second was a captain with a 200-ton license who had singlehanded her 32ft Allied Seawind across the Atlantic and back and drove big ships for fun. She served as inspiration whenever I began seriously wondering if I would ever succeed in getting my own old boat seaworthy again.
The third was someone I can only describe as a quintessential Maine boatbuilder, a lifelong sailor who had constructed a special crane barge and a skiff to push it around with. This rig served all the area’s sailors whenever they needed to step or unstep their masts. He also used his barge to install and maintain their moorings. His name was Steve, and with his barge he helped me save the rig on Teal during yet another one of those moments when all seemed lost.
At the time I, along with everyone else who had kept their boats on the town dock for winter, was about to get kicked off for the season. This left only 14 days to do a thorough survey of my new purchase and prepare her for both living aboard and going to sea.
Two days into my survey, I decided it was time to see just how badly the boat’s sails set. I already knew they needed to be replaced. As I was raising the main, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes again at the old wire-to-rope halyards Teal was equipped with. These would be a top priority, as well. Same thing with the big old bronze halyard winch with the strange locking mechanism. After cranking the mainsail up until the luff was tight, I locked the winch to keep the sail up, as there was no way to cleat it off.
A short while later, after inspecting the main and confirming that, yes, it was indeed spent, I went to lower the main only to find the now locked winch wouldn’t budge. Leaning in for a closer look I tried wiggling the locking mechanism back and forth. Suddenly, it let go, and the winch handle that I’d failed to remove clocked me straight in the face. The area around one eye-socket took most of the blow, and it didn’t take long before I had the beginnings of one mean-looking shiner. I’d always thought a black eye might look cool, but this one definitely wasn’t worth the price. Stumbling down the dock in search of help, face throbbing, I saw someone working on a small barge crane a few slips down.
“Hi, I’m Emily,” I said. “I just bought that boat over there. Do you know anything about first aid?” Fortunately, it turned out Steve not only knew the boat, he knew its winches and knew my pain. He suggested I find some ice and agreed there was no way anyone was going up the mast to do the work that needed to be done on a winch that had already tried to kill me once!
Steve also hooked me up with a mooring as close to land as possible, which was a great help since, as the harbormaster had told me, long-term anchoring in the harbor was not really an option, given the way it was wide open to the relatively unprotected waters of Penobscot Bay to the southwest. Time was limited. All the moorings would be full come summer. In addition to helping me get a mooring Steve convinced the harbormaster to let me store my mast underneath a cherry tree alongside the waterfront. With Papa Steve, as I was now referring to him, and his crew nearby dropping masts, it proved to be the perfect spot if ever I needed any help. It was also free, all of it—the mooring, the crane, use of Steve’s shop and my continuing education in boat repair. Steve believed in my mission.
Steve’s crane-barge, Grommet, was designed by famed yacht designer William Atkins back in 1945, a time when the postwar boatbuilding boom was bringing a broader class of people to sailing, and yacht club moorings, as opposed to docks, were the rule. Atkins’ design, called the “Giant,” was intended to meet the demands of the many new clubs that were being formed. However, as marinas also quickly became ubiquitous, lifting rigs like Giant’s were no longer needed and Atkin’s design was never actually built—that is until Steve purchased the plans from one of Atkins’ relatives for $8 and built one to serve Belfast Harbor.
Equipped with my black eye and an already well-worn joke about how “you should see the winch handle,” I inspected the stick, now safely on the ground. As I was doing so, it didn’t take long to discover the wood riser underneath the luff track between the mast and the track itself was rotted. However, Steve said he had the perfect wood for the new riser, 200-year-old cypress! In addition to finding some new winches and running those new halyards, I also needed to install a block on the side of the mast to run a topping lift.
Finally, after taking delivery on my new mainsail (which I’d had built by Precision Sails, precisionsailloft.com; see Made to Measure in the Oct. 2021 issue of SAIL for details), I needed to install a new extruded Polyethylene sail track over the existing one.
Fortunately, the standing rigging was in generally good condition, and the chainplates were even better, although I did have to replace a couple of turnbuckles with some questionable threading. Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t find any used bronze pieces and had to settle for new chrome-plated.
Removing the bronze luff track was an ordeal, because it meant having to deal with bronze screws, metric of course, that were now fully corroded into the aluminum mast. Nonetheless, I duly set about removing the old screws with a screwdriver turned with vise grips, at the same time taking care not to strip any of the soft bronze flatheads. Miraculously, they all came out over the course of a couple days, although the tapped threads in more than a few of the holes were now shot. Luckily, we were able to cut fresh threads a size up with a tap and die.
After that, Steve used a table saw to shape the cypress and cut it into sections to match the existing track pattern. As he was doing so I also pre-drilled a set of oversized holes with a drill press. When the moment of truth came, things lined up pretty, aside from a few stray holes in the wood that needed to be routed out by hand.
There was also a bit of a problem with the new stainless steel machine screws Steve had ordered from McMaster-Carr (mcmaster.com), which had larger heads than the previous ones, meaning the mainsail would no longer slide over them. However, to solve the problem, Steve came up with the idea of chucking the shaft of each screw into a drill and then grinding the heads down against a large file. It worked perfectly, although the job was a tedious one.
With the mast track and its new riser painted and installed, the next step was to reeve my new rope halyards. After that, with the help of a block and line set up on the side of the mast, I rigged the topping lift, and we were pretty much ready to go back in the boat. All I needed now were some new winches.
As luck would have it, while working on the mast under its cherry tree, I’d had a chance to exchange pleasantries with a number of the local boatyard guys, who now directed me to a rotted wooden boat down a tick-infested path behind the yard workshop aboard which were a pair of matching Merriman bronze single-speed winches. They were little undersized for Teal’s main, but they would do for now. They also fit my now-infamous winch handle perfectly.
In all, it took just 10 days to get Teal’s mast back up again. However, my eye took several months to fully heal, and to this day there’s a small dent in the bone where the winch handle hit me. I swear I can feel it ache when the air pressure drops.
In retrospect, though, I suppose it’s only fair that Teal forever changed the shape of my skull, given the many ways in which I’d changed her. As for Teal’s mast, cypress has long been a symbol or longevity, or even eternal life, and I now like to think of my freshly refurbished rig as literally timeless.
Photos by Emily Greenberg