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Trawling the Chesapeake Bay in a Grand Banks Trawler | Bottom's Up

Slower and slower she went. As the months passed in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake, the boat speed of our 36-foot Grand Banks trawler, Ukiyo, continually went downward until we seriously considered renaming her, Three Legged Pig.

Haulouts are de rigueur for big displacement boaters; the old fun machine must be pulled out annually for a scrape and a fresh coat of ablative bottom paint. But you see, my wife and I, we’re parents, with careers and kids who run our lives. We barely have time to boat, let alone maintain our weekend fun machine. And so, like all the important things in life, we put it off—and put it off. For four years.

When I went down for the first dive of the spring, what I saw made me feel like a surgeon operating on a terminal cancer patient: the barnacles and algae were so pervasive that it looked more like a reef than a hull. Virtually every square inch was covered with something alive. Schools of playful fish swarmed and undulated as they hunted for dinner. Beautiful swimmers, large and small, battled for territory on the rudder. The shaft and prop were so inundated with crustaceans that they no longer appeared as metal. It was high time to get me and the boat out of the water for a bottom job.

I am the inveterate do-it-yourself type (read: cheap), and found such a yard a few miles south of our marina. After a quick conversation with the office manager, we set a date for the haulout. The last time I did this I dillydallied and lost over half the season on the hard, so, I also set the date for the relaunch in a fortnight. What follows is what happened over the next two frantic weeks as I labored to get my bottom back in shape.

Week One

The boat rises in the Travelift as the old salts at the yard gather round to see what life under the Chessie looks like. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty. One guy’s pipe drops out of his mouth and he gapes at my bottom. Two workers groan, light a cigarette, and grab the full-sized scrapers. I grab a cup and a seat; this is the only part I get to watch and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

The powerwash guy shakes his head and gives me a funny look as he hits her hard at point-blank range. A pungent mix of muck, bottom paint, and oxidized fiberglass stream down in rich torrents and form large puddles of gurry beneath the boat. Thankfully, no EPA inspectors are visiting today.

With putty knife and gloves, I go at the marble-sized barnacles the minute she hits the jackstands. They blink at me and cling like rust to metal. It is here that many hauled boats are discovered to be pockmarked with dozens of hull blisters, all of which must be grinded, dried, and gelcoated—an expensive, potentially season-ending job. To my extreme relief there are none, and the prop, shaft, and rudder are all sound. I scrape until dark, my wrists throb, and I slam down three Advil.

The employees and “contractors” of the yard adopt the old European custom of shedding their last names in favor of what they do there. I meet Bottom Job Dick, Diesel Dan, Travelift Paul, Electronic Ed, and my favorite, Gelcoat Charlie.

On day two at 9 a.m., though the sun was high, the yard was just coming to life. With the hull now at an upward angle the dings, dents, gouges, and oxidization of the gelcoat are now the prominent feature. I lack the patience and time to do it right, so I arrange for Gelcoat Charlie to come by later in the week. To do a proper color match he’ll need the hull to be clean, so I go at it with a scrubbing pad, hose, and a can of Bartender’s Friend. Big circular motions with this fine abrasive eventually remove the tea-colored coating that many affectionately call the “Waterway Moustache.” Slowly the boat returns to a reasonable facsimile of its former self in the early ’90s, but despite a sore elbow and a whole can of the white stuff, I fail to put on a shine. I quit when it’s too dark to see the ladder.

Without a doubt, the worst thing about a boatyard (besides the bill), is the airborne particulate matter that settles on every horizontal surface. Already the grime of the boatyard is accumulating topside, despite my care to wipe my feet on a ground-level carpet and remove dirty clothing in the cockpit.

Misery loves company: From every direction there is the sound of grinding, sanding, and polishing, which makes it easy to join the fray. Ryobi orbital sander in hand, I send clouds of old red paint billowing in my face and across the windy yard. The bottom paint is designed to dissuade marine organisms from attaching to it, so you can imagine what it does in contact with the human body. Though I have covered every inch of mine, I have unwisely chosen glasses instead of goggles. My eyes burn for 24 hours, and must be constantly doused with water.

The barnacles, even the removed ones, have cemented themselves to the hull and must be completely removed—all 20,000 of them. I discover barnacles inside the through-hulls, and a vigorous shaking with a long screwdriver dispatches them all.

Gelcoat Charlie rides up on a bike that looks like it was pulled out of a dumpster. He rubs his clean-shaven chin with one hand as he slowly runs the other along the waterline. I walk with him pointing out all the docking mishaps of the past few years, some of which are barely visible. “Hmm,” he thoughtfully mutters. “I figure I can do this in four hours if there’s no rain and it’s not too windy.” Before I can ask him when, he has re-mounted and speeds away. Well, I figure, the boat’s not going anywhere; he’ll get to it when he can.

Week Two

I pull on the old clothes that I saved for just this purpose. I pull out two of the most expensive gallons of paint (the very-worth-it Ameron Ablative) I will ever buy and pop the lid off the first. Last time I did this I made the classic rookie error of shaking the can, and then painting. To my disgust, I discovered a four-inch pile of copper sulfate at the bottom of the can that was supposed to go on the hull. This time, I borrow an electric mixer and slowly spin the bit until everything is mixed to a consistent syrup-like viscosity.

Long vertical strokes with a roller on an extension pole make this a short, if messy, job. At times, Charlie and I are literally on top of each other, he sanding gelcoat above, and me painting below. The paint dries quickly and makes a smooth, barnacle-busting surface. Before long the entire first coat is on. Unfortunately, the paint also dries quickly on my skin and I need a hard rub with mineral spirits to remove it.

In between painting and sanding, I happen to have a job. Five days a week they expect me there, toiling away with the other wage slaves, beating my keyboard and computer. They care not that I have a soiled bottom and a deadline, so every day at 6 p.m. I drive the 32 miles from the office to the yard in a race to beat the sunset. Today I brought tomorrow’s suit and tie, so I can stay the night aboard and get some morning work time.

In the morning, I very carefully apply the waterline tape. I have used two cans of paint and need more, so Bottom Job Dick sells me an opened can for half price. I have the jackstands moved to get at the hull area they covered. I use a special paint for the through-hulls and transponder. I also hose the dust off the topsides.

Charlie completes his work and has magically erased eight years of hard traveling off the boat. No question it was money well spent, letting a pro do the job that I would have had to grope my way through.

I arranged to have Ukiyo hung in the Travelift with jackstands removed at the end of two weeks. She gently sways as I scrape the last of the barnacles and paint the very bottom where she rested on the blocks. I fill the water tank and tidy things up for the relaunch in the morning. I spend a while with my paint-covered neighbors wishing them well. They are mildly amazed that I’m leaving so soon, and we exchange high-fives and email addresses. One last look over before I hit the sack. Wow, what a difference a fortnight of hard labor makes!

A Noticeable Change

Time to get wet! After I pay the bill, the yard guys come by and fire up the Travelift. Most at the yard are just rising and heading for coffee and a shower. They stop and look on with bemused expressions, clutching the morning paper and empty mugs. Gently she is lowered into the warm brown water and I am reminded to check the bilge for water coming aboard. The diesel starts on the first crank, the straps are lowered, and I’m on my way.

To starboard I spy an elderly skipper on an Island Packet waiting for me to pass. No doubt he is scheduled to be pulled for his own bottom job. I smile and wave, and shout that they took good care of me. He returns the smile, and curtly says something into the VHF as he puts it into gear.

It is here that I notice the incipient change: there is less wake, the helm is more responsive, and the GPS shows two additional knots at the same rpm. Like a contestant from the television show, The Biggest Loser, I have shed unwanted pounds and am basking in the light of the new me. Lighter and leaner, I set a course for home and promise myself never to let it get this bad again.