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A Happy Obsession

When I adopted this derelict boat, it was impossible to ignore the possible. When I cleaned off the grime and cut away the old rigging, I couldn’t stop the triage.

June 2, 2020
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Widgeon
The first real sea trials in Newport Harbor on the newly-acquired and nameless O’Day Widgeon confirms the potential of this once neglected craft. For the cost of new ropes, two trailer wheels, and a few days of cleaning and epoxy work, there’s freedom in this “free” boat. Jen Brett

Someone wanted—or needed—it gone from their driveway. A neglected little red boat on a trailer, leaning on a cracked flat tire under the weight of a pile of decayed leaves in the cockpit. There’s a sheen of green algae spreading across its aluminum spars. For the owner, or whoever brought it home, it’s a daily reminder of a dream unfulfilled. That someone wanted the burden gone, so they called a friend to come take it away. That friend didn’t want it either, so they called me.

“I have a free boat for you, if you want it,” this friend said over the phone. “But the catch is, you have to decide right now, because we’re towing it, and we’re only moving it once.”

“Um…er…what kind of shape is it in?” I ask—as in how bad and how “free” is free.

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“I have no idea,” she answers, noting that her husband—in the driver’s seat and praying to himself that the tires don’t blow—had surveyed it as such: it looks worse than it probably is.”

What do I have to lose? If it was beyond refurb, I could part it out and junk it. And, besides, I could use another boat … (not really).

“OK. I’ll take it.”

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Twenty-minutes later, my friend pulls into my driveway, her husband pops out and unhitches the trailer with a big sigh of relief. His burden, too, is lifted. He rolls it onto the grass, drops it with a thud and wipes his hands as if to say, “It’s all yours now. Good luck, pal.”

And off they drive, leaving behind this 15-foot fire-engine red O’Day Widgeon. The deck is white and powder blue, and there’s years of streaky blue bottom paint flaking off.

“Cute,” I think to myself as I lean over the gunwale and am hit with a dank whiff of rotting leaves sluicing around in swampy stew of water and mud. The trailer is solid. The spar bits are in good shape, but all the wood elements are lichen covered, warped and splitting.

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In a plastic storage tub that comes with it are random parts to the boat, two tattered Dacron sails and a red-white-and-blue spinnaker so old and frail it feels like silk underwear. But there is a crisp sail bag from Neil Pryde, and inside it, a neatly folded mainsail and jib, fresh in their packaging, battens still taped together. It’s like finding an uncashed lottery ticket. New sails will make any pig pretty.

The timing of this new arrival to the family fleet, which now includes my wife’s beater Sunfish and my semi-retired Laser, is perfect though. The onset of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders gives me a pre-season window to dive into it—on the surface at least—one step at time. My plan is to clean it up, fix the wooden parts, replace all the dry-rotted ropes, start a work list and then sail it in the spring to see if it’s worth further labor.

With temperatures too cold for any outdoor hull repairs, I drag the spars and the rudder to the basement, strip the rig and make a rope shopping list. That’s easy. Next, a friend who works for TotalBoat delivers a sampler of their one-pump epoxy kit, and while I admit I’ve never been a master of the glue, always screwing up the ratios, that’s not the case with this magical stuff. After a few hours of sanding and three layers of the clear goo, the rudder head is a thing of beauty. Same with the flimsy original wooden tiller, now all shiny and new. I can’t stop playing with the epoxy, and find myself hunting the house for epoxy projects.

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Spring in Rhode Island finally breaks on a rare and beautifully hot early-May afternoon, so I pull out the ShopVac and suck away the leaf pile and paint flakes to get a closer look at what I’m dealing with. Not bad: One crack in the floor near the centerboard trunk; the mast step is a bit wobbly, and the plywood bulkhead is wet and rotting. I wasn’t necessarily intending to, but I pull it off the trailer, flip it over and assess the bottom-paint situation. Next thing I know, the orbital sander is out and I’m hammering away at decades of bottom paint on the hull and rudder. Hours later, I stop with one final lick of wet-sand paper and explain to my wife, that it’s ugly, but it’s fast. The rest of this remediation will have to wait for next winter, including the ugly red topside paint, clearly slapped on in a rush job by a previous owner.

harbor cruiser
The previous owner bought new sails, but never used them, which makes a tremendous difference in the handling of the boat. With the adaptation of modern ropes and bits of hardware borrowed from a Laser, the boat is easy to handle and lively. With a swing-up centerboard, it’s a great little harbor cruiser and couple’s beer can racer. Dave Reed

Once the stay-at-home order lifts in Rhode Island’s “Phase One,” I dash to my local West Marine’s beautiful wall of ropes and cash in on their 30-percent sail on New England Rope’s utilitarian Sta-Set collection. As the rigging shop attendee cuts my menu to length, I’m staring at the selection of slippery and more expensive Dyneema 12-strand stuff and add some to the order. I’ve been long meaning to learn how to make soft-shackles, but I never really had the time to sit and do it. Now I have time, and the Widgeon is about to get some jewelry.

That night, I poke around YouTube for tutorials and find one to my liking, and once I figure out how to master the critical diamond knot, I have a half-dozen sharp looking soft shackles to admire. If there is anything to come out of this project, it’s my new addiction to splicing. I start experimenting with strops and eyes, and whatever else I can find a tutorial that’s easy to follow.

With Memorial Day weekend on the near horizon, I commit to putting the boat into the water before I put another ounce of effort or cordage into it. I rig the boat in the yard first, hoisting the crisp new sails to make sure they fit, and do all I can to make the boat-ramp launch go smooth and easy. I even buy quick-pins for the shrouds so I don’t have to fuss with ring-dings and hold up the fishermen waiting to drop in and dash at the ramp. On the eve of Memorial Day, the Widgeon is as ready as it can possibly be.

Will it float? I have no idea.

Not having sailed since my frostbite sailing season was cut short in February, aching to go sailing is an understatement. So, on launch day, I pump up the trailer tires and fret about the cracks in the sidewalls, hoping for the best (I’d get new tires on my next West Marine run). My wife and I rush out the driveway, unsure how this adventure would unfold: Would it sink? Would the boat be fun to sail? What did I forget to do?

At the ramp, not far from our house, the rig goes up and is pinned in second. The gooseneck slides on, and…sails. Where’s the sails?

Dang it. In the rush to leave, I’d forgotten to retrieve them from the basement. So, while I continue to tinker, my wife rushes home to get them. Soon, they’re hoisted and flying in all their white glory, and into the water the Widgeon slides, wet at last after a long boring life dying a slow death on a trailer.

We short tack out of the marina and into the open bay for the first time in months. It feels so remarkable, so liberating, so energizing. My wife and I trade turns on the helm and trade bailing duties. Sea water is leaking in from the centerboard-pin gasket (that’s an easy fix). We FaceTime a friend to share in our joy, and our new-found happiness. Our little package of freedom. The winds are light, as is our mood. The beer tastes fine and I unceremoniously pour a little on the foredeck to bless our new little yacht. Such plans we have for it now; to explore new shallow waters near our home, to start some sort of informal dinghy race around small nearby islands. To be happy for our little escape pod and the adventures it will bring. I hope that particular someone who wanted it gone from their driveway will find happiness from our happiness, because his or her dream is still alive.

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