Spring Prep ~ Mast and Rudder

Working by the fire.


We’ve had the wood stove going all week, followed by another windy and cold weekend. Another hard freeze this morning. Last weekend we could see smudge pots flickering in the orchards up the hillsides at night, trying to keep the buds from freezing. Last Monday morning, on the way to work, I passed the smoldering remains of bonfires that had burned through the night in the vineyards. Big fans blew smoke down the rows, where it puddled like grey water in hollows and creek beds. The damage was done, though; none were burning last night.

And wind. A near constant wind storm going on two weeks now. Yesterday gusting to over 40, today to over 25. It blows for two days, pauses to catch its breath and blows some more.

Hard to get anything done outside when it’s like that, but I managed to do some prep work and planning. The annual Chesapeake Float is coming up in about four weeks. The location this year will be closer for me, which is nice – leaving out of Freeport Landing on the Piankatank. Home waters. I’d really like to take the Lightning if I can, but have a fair amount of work to do before that can happen. Not to mention actually trying to sail it before then.

John, the previous owner, had to rebuild the rudder at some point, and tried to make a kickup rudder using what he could of the existing parts. It didn’t work out, so he ended up screwing the various parts in place. Not pretty, but it worked.


Existing rudder.


Here’s the problem: The boat, with the centerboard up, only draws 5 or 6 inches. Great! Perfect for the kind of frequent shallow water cruising I do. However, the rudder – the most fragile underwater part of the boat – draws nearly two feet. Not much good if you are fond of shooting over sandbars, which tend to block the mouths of every creek and cove on the Chesapeake Bay. No problem at all for the Melonseeds, which can scoot across with just 3 inches of water, but for this boat it will be a serious issue.

I took the rudder apart to see what could be salvaged and found the decay that John repaired had progressed further. It will need work. And I could not see how to use what’s left and not have the rudder still extend well below the skeg – which kind of defeats the purpose of a kickup rudder. If I unscrew the blade and let it pivot on the existing pin, it still draws a foot and a half.


Rudder stock in place.




Existing config, with the black aluminum plates removed.


Scratching my head for a few hours, drawing out plans and diagrams, I came to the conclusion there was nothing to do but suck it up and rebuild the whole thing from scratch. But given the lateness of the season I’m not sure there’s time with everything else that needs doing. There’s one possibility for making it work. I played with it a little more, and ordered some stainless steel parts. It’s a bit unconventional, but might work. If it does, as a bonus I can preserve the patina of the old rudder stock. More on that later.

The other thing that needs attention is a soft spot on the mast. John pointed this out to me in Edenton, saying I would need to address it soon. With the mast on sawhorses on the porch I decided to take a look.


Mast on porch.


Removing the tangs around the spreaders, and poking at the punky wood with a pocket knife, I had a moment of panic. My knife went in almost to the hilt. I removed the rotten stuff and found I could poke my finger all the way inside the mast. Arrgh!


Dark hole of despair.


It felt strangely clean and geomentric inside, though. Hmmm. I pulled out the set of old plans John had given me and, low and behold, these old wooden masts were built hollow.


Lightning plans showing hollow mast.


There’s a block inside which is still solid, near the fittings for strength. There’s just a small section of the middle casing strip that’s rotten, the rest is sound. Looks like water has been getting in around the open screw holes and spreader bars. Just needs a patch job. I’ll fill the gap with a plug and seal it all up with thickened epoxy, and she should be good to go.

On another topic: Thinking ahead, I will need a place to sleep on board. John said he found it cramped, and ended up removing one of the thwart seats so he could lay in the bottom. He’s right: the side benches are too narrow for sleeping.

When I tore out the old jacuzzi, I removed a really nice board of 3/4″ spruce, 1 foot wide and 7 feet long, now thirty years old. Hard to come by these days, and in really good shape. I dug it out of the refuse pile, removed the bead board and moulding, and it was just the right length and width. It can be lashed on top of the side bench until needed, then will slide over to double the width of the bench, supported at the ends by the center and aft thwarts. I even gave it a try. Perfect, for a temporary fix.

If it works out, I may make a nice varnished pair with cushions on top for each side. Will make side bunks for two, and they only need go along for camping trips.


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