Boatyard: The Rites of Spring

Boatyard: The Rites of Spring

Mike Smith lays out the family benefits of putting the kids to work getting the boat summer-ready. Give that kid a wrench!

Fitting-out season was once a time to re-connect with family and friends while learning about boats. Make it that way again.

Before the IRS intervened, April was my favorite month. It was when the cover came off the boat and springtime fitting-out began—a respite from the long, cold New England winter, enjoyed in a muddy, damp boatyard scattered with lingering piles of dirty snow. (There was always a mini-drift under the boat, and my first job was to shovel it out of the way.) All around the yard, men and boys, and a few girls, freshly aroused from winter hibernation, rolled up in pickups loaded with the implements necessary to get the boat ready for summer. T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” because it makes promises that summer cannot keep—but in my memory, April never failed me: Summer days spent on board made April’s labor well worthwhile.

Some of my best boating memories are of working with Dad, and sometimes Mom, too, on the boat. I learned a lot during those first warm days, about boats, about work ethic, about taking pride in doing even menial jobs properly, and about adults, both good and bad. I grew up when most folks were still sanding and painting wooden topsides and bottoms every year; we didn’t get a fiberglass boat until I was a teenager.

At first, I got the crap jobs suitable for a kid with limited manual skills. Dad favored lapstrake boats, and sanding the underside of the laps without rounding the edges and/or removing too much existing paint made me think Sisyphus had it easy. Dad put me to work where my errors wouldn’t show (and where I fit better than an adult would), so I spent a lot of time lying under the boat with a scraper, sandpaper and paint brush, showered with various toxic materials—sanding dust and bottom paint. Dad’s preferred antifouling was called “Red Hand,” which is what you had at the end of the day, among other copper-toned body parts. Today, some busybody would notify the authorities if they saw a 10-year-old doing what I did every spring. (If you forced me to brush on a coat of Red Hand today, I’d wear a hazmat suit.)

Leave Toxins for the Professionals

Boats are a lot different today—most don’t need annual repainting, and I don’t recommend sprinkling your progeny with poisonous antifouling dust; leave that for the yard, and they’re welcome to it. But there are other, safer projects on deck and below that require not much skill and won’t make much difference if not done to perfection. In other words, ideal jobs that kids, if they’re at all into boats, will enjoy. Start when they’re young, too small to argue, and you still have control of their electronic gadgets.

For instance, maintaining gelcoat requires little skill, and uses fairly harmless materials. I wouldn’t turn a 10-year-old loose with a buffer, or force him/her to balance on shaky staging, but decks, cockpits and cabins need love, too. Give the child a sponge, a bucket of soapy water and a pile of microfiber cloths and turn ‘em loose, promising that when they’re finished cleaning, they can do the really fun work: waxing. (Think Tom Sawyer.) It’s the modern equivalent of painting, producing lots of shine with a minimum of work. Be sure to say what a great job they did, without mentioning it will have to be done again in midsummer.

A corollary to waxing is polishing the metal, even easier but too niggly for most people. I went through about a hundred cans of Brasso before I was old enough to drive, and now I just let my metal assume its natural tarnish. (Heck, I’m gonna use galvanized fittings on my next boat, so nobody can criticize my boatkeeping skills.) But it’s another good job for a kid: stainless steel can shine like silver while freshly polished brass gleams like gold—too bad today’s boats don’t have more of it. Warn the kid to keep an eye open for rust stains, which can indicate corroded fastenings. If he—or she—finds any, they’ve earned their keep. And think of the fun they’ll have cleaning the deck around the fittings, where they’ve been sloppy with the polish. They’ll be more careful next time.

There are few spring chores as satisfying as laying on a fresh layer of paint. Special, RIB-specific bottom paint can be a game-changer. 

After last season, don’t your docklines look grubby? Here’s another chore for your offspring: Fill a bucket with water and maybe a little soap, soak each dockline for a few minutes, then stretch it out and hose it off. Some people scrub them with a brush—why? They’re just docklines. All you want is to wash off dried salt and loose grime, which will accelerate chafing. You should pull the anchor rode out of the locker and wash it, too. This is an easy job, and your kid will have fun spraying you accidentally with the hose. When the lines are dry and clean, or at least as clean as they’ll ever be, teach how to coil and stow them. If your anchor line shows chafe at the chain end, reverse it; if you’re not skilled in making the rope/chain connection, hire the yard rigger to do it. Or buy your kid a copy of The Ashley Book of Knots and let the kid give it a try.

Who Teaches Kids Today?

Wooden-boat maintenance is labor-intensive, so getting the boat ready for launch back in the day took a few weekends. The adults enjoyed frequent breaks to soak up the vernal sun, while we kids kept working. Lots of cigarettes were smoked, and occasionally carbonated beverages were enjoyed, too. Most of the men were World War II veterans, guys with blue-collar trades who knew their way around a toolbox. Nothing fazed them—no project was so daunting that they wouldn’t tackle it themselves. While none of them could do everything (although a few claimed otherwise), in the aggregate they could do anything: replace a plank, fix some rot, rebuild an engine, splice wire for sailboat stays, straighten a shaft or whack a propeller back into shape—you name it. The benefit to me was, frequently somebody needed a slave helper, and Dad would often volunteer my services; I didn’t care—it got me out from under our boat, and I almost always learned something new. (I also heard a lot of good stories, few of them suitable for this magazine.) Over several Aprils, I learned enough that I was able to work at the yard and make a few bucks doing what I used to do for free. Most of my pay went to gas for my own boat, and for boating books and magazines, many of which I still have.

Where do you find guys like Dad’s friends today, who can teach a boat-crazy kid the various skills necessary to maintain a modern vessel, and will take the time to do so? Few boatyards welcome DIY’ers: The yard needs to make enough profit to stave off the condo developers, and do-it-yourselfers don’t spend much money. Both the federal and state governments require adherence to a stack of rules and regulations—most of them environmental—that few DIY’ers recognize, but whose violation results in a stiff fine. Kids roaming through the yard, asking questions and getting in the way, are no longer tolerated—and they give the insurance agent palpitations.

Editor-in-Chief Dan Harding’s son stretches to his tippy toes to clean off all the spots his dad missed. Start ‘em young folks!

If you want your kids to enjoy the rites of spring getting the boat ready for another summer, find a yard that’s DIY-friendly. There are still yards that let you do your own work, or at least most of it, and there you’ll find folks who can do it all. The skills are different than they were six decades ago, but then most of us don’t need those wooden-boat skills. Today’s kids need to learn to repair damaged laminates, re-gelcoat areas where you hit the dock last summer, maintain modern electronic engines and figure out why the electrics aren’t working and the shaft zincs last only two weeks. In the modern DIY yard, you’ll meet folks who can do these things, and unless your kids are demons from Hades, or can’t be pried away from their electronic gizmos, it’s likely somebody will need an unskilled hand, and in return will show them how it’s done. You might not simply turn your kids loose like my parents did—times are different now—but maybe you’d like to meet new people, and learn new skills, yourself. It can’t hurt.

So, what are you doing this April? Why don’t you pack up the kids and do some DIY’ing on your boat, and maybe on other people’s boats, too? It’ll pay off now and in the future, when you’re in that anchorage in the sky but your kids still remember joyful springtime days working on the boat, like I do. Make the rites of spring a family tradition.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


Boat Lyfe