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Getaway Tinkering

Like good books, some DIY projects make a weekend aboard the boat even better.

I am an insatiable reader who feels naked without at least one or two spy novels in my sea bag. I once started a mystery bookstore just because I couldn’t find enough books to take on flights, but that’s a story for another time.

My problem is that, if I find a book I want to read, I want to read it right away. There’s no stashing it away for a few weeks; I want instant gratification, and I have only marginal self-control.

It is exactly the same problem I have with projects on the boat.

One type of work demands my immediate attention, just as a new Robert Parker mystery won’t last past tonight. The boat may not sink immediately, but its problem is going to be more expensive, more difficult or both if I don’t deal with it promptly.

The second sort of boat project is not as pressing, so I can save it for a weekend away. I’ve found that, while messing about on my boat is pleasant enough in the marina, getting things accomplished while sitting at anchor adds immensely to the enjoyment of the weekend. But only certain projects are right for my sort of “getaway tinkering,” and there are strict rules that must be met.

First, the project can require no power other than batteries in a portable tool or from my boat’s electrical system. That means I’m not going to buff the cabin sides or do anything equally power intensive. I can plug in all the power tools I need at the dock, but not at anchor.

Second, the project can’t require any large tools because there’s no place to put them. I’ve humped my table saw down to the dock to do serious woodwork, but it’s obviously not going cruising with me.

Nor can the project require anything that forces me to get off the boat. In the slip, I can sit on the dock if I’m putting on a new rubrail, for example, but doing that from a dinghy is just dumb.

The project also can’t involve anything that disables the boat, because I must get home at the end of the weekend. Even if I’m absolutely, positively sure that I can get everything back together without any problems, I will always be absolutely, positively wrong. This rule eliminates any engine work, of course. My father, bless him, always thought he could take a watch apart and repair it. After he died, my wife and I found a drawer packed with broken watches and envelopes full of watch parts. Enough said.

The task can involve nothing that requires disposal, because everything that goes out must come back with me, so that means no oil changes (that old gunk is sure to spill into a locker from any guaranteed spill-proof container).

Noise is a consideration for my neighbors at anchor, too. There aren’t many projects on a boat that require a chain saw or a leaf blower, but there are plenty of other noisy tasks that can irritate the living hell out of someone trying to doze in his cockpit. I don’t want to be the Bob Vila version of a circling Jet Ski.

The project can’t require too many parts, either, because of the certainty that some of them will add to the problem. When did you ever accomplish anything without having to go back to the hardware store to get a couple of bolts that were a quarter of an inch longer, a part number 5115-B instead of 5115-A, or simply a replacement for that item last seen disappearing into the greenish gloom after bouncing twice before going over the rail?

With all of that said, there’s a whole world of projects just perfect for sorting out at anchor.

For example, there was that cabin light that flickered off and on for seemingly no reason. The task needed only simple tools, no major parts, didn’t keep me from getting home and, aside from one blast of swearing, was quiet. Best of all, it was an irritating problem that didn’t need to be done immediately, so I put it aside.

That weekend, there was something deliciously languorous about knowing that I had a project, and yet still sleeping late and then rowing ashore for a paper, which I leisurely read in the cockpit.

Folding the sports section, I went below and took the light apart. There was nothing wrong with the fixture or the bulb, so the problem was in the wiring. This wasn’t bad news, though, because having a weekend project is no fun if you can solve the problem in 20 seconds by putting in a new light bulb.

Using my electrical test meter, I hooked up and quickly discovered that I had a lack of continuity, something often said about me by my wife.

I went back to the electrical panel to check the switch for the lights, but the problem was clearly somewhere in the black hole of the overhead. This was going to require some thought, and there’s no better place to solve electrical problems than floating on your back in the water of a calm anchorage, watching the clouds drift overhead.

After the swim, lunch got in the way, and it was midafternoon before I got back to the project. Since I had a 50-50 chance of being right, I decided to replace one of the wires as a starting point. I taped the new wire to the old one securely, and then carefully pulled it through right to the exact middle, where my secure splice suddenly went insecure. This situation required another swim to consider my escalating problem.

Dried off, I tried to fish out the stray wire with a coat hanger and tape, to no avail. At that point, there was a hail from outside the boat and a couple of friends in a dinghy arrived. Cocktail hour, with more friends arriving, became a discussion of wiring tactics. As dusk fell along with the rum level in the bottles, the suggested solutions became more bizarre. I finally tuned out when sawing downward through the cabin top was proposed.

The next morning, after breakfast and the Sunday paper, I grabbed the problem by the horns and attached two wires to the lone survivor. Carefully, inch by inch, I teased the wire through, knowing that if I failed there might, indeed, be a use for a chain saw aboard my boat.

But, voila, the two new wires made it all the way through the maze. In minutes, I had the new wires connected at both ends, and flipped on the power. The light burned bright and strong. It was the end to a perfect weekend project, and I was soon underway for home.

Like the mystery novels to which I’m addicted, this problem wasn’t too easy to solve. It lasted just long enough to hold my interest, and I didn’t feel cheated at the end. Back at the dock, my neighbor asked how the weekend had been.

“Terrific,” I said. “Fixed that cabin light, too.”

“Great,” he said with zero interest and even less sincerity.

Some people just don’t know how to enjoy projects.