Standing on the frost encased pier planks, they creak and pop with my shifting weight. A light northerly breeze finds the seams in my fleece jacket and reminds me that I’ve been in the open for too long. Eddie jumps and barks in the early morning darkness, begging me to follow his rapid flashing collar light down the dock. He barks again as a flock of hand size white crested wood ducks scatter in panic. Eddie loses his patience with me, lifts a leg and blasts my nearest dock line with a geyser of concentrated yellow madness.
I can’t stop gazing at the first touches of dawn, at the dark blue wavelets that begin to appear with the early light, and at Jupiter and Venus hanging with the Antares nebula. The wind blows again, and Eddie barks while the ever-affable Hammy cries out a long meow from the shoreline. She’s hungry and somehow knows that there are a few chunks of last night’s strip steak with me that have her name on them.
Minus the lack of fresh water, winter months at the dock are among the most beautiful; often delivering clear cold nights where the stars remind me of offshore passages when we stare into oblivion and think of how our little blue planet is hurtling through outer space.
The New Year arrives and we are confronted with overly optimistic Facebook resolutions and impending effects to S/V Caprica. The onset of winter halts any real maintenance progress, and we just exist on the boat living our day to day lives entrenched in familiar routines: walk the dog, feed the cat, cook dinner, clean up, read, bed, wake up, eat, walk the dog, feed the cat, go to work, hit the gym, pick up the kid and repeat. This routine of mundane simplicity is traumatically altered as spring approaches and the maintenance cycle begins.
It starts as a thorough inspection of equipment and systems that translates to late nights at the computer, Excel spreadsheets, cost analysis, man-hour estimates, and finally, scheduling timetables. Although as the sticky note on my laptop continually reminds me, “A plan is the first point of deviation,” or as I tell my younger teachers, “No plan survives contact.” This is especially true as we begin to prep for the spring haul out. Heavy weather, cold weather, fog, and general boat work do not coexist with hard deadlines and departure dates but with a lack of sleep and the right amount of stress, anything is possible.
This year’s maintenance cycle will take place throughout two weeks causing us to delay our annual trip north by 5 to 7 days. Typically, I use a week in April to install new systems and complete the bottom work. That week is dreaded, miserable and consistent with the work practices of the Siberian prison system under Stalin. Usually, during the April refit, Alison and Eleanor head to Michigan. They escape the madness to visit family, and somehow I manage to pull everything together just before they get home. Caprica is a little cleaner, smells like fresh antifreeze and hull wax, and there is nothing to suggest that 100 plus hours of blood, sweat, and frustration went into making Caprica ready for her next offshore passage.
Beginning April 13th and ending April 21st, the first replacements, installations, and fluid changes will occur. Caprica will get new main and jib halyards. These lifting ropes are the vertical control lines for our sails and are beginning to show signs of wear. Preventative maintenance is key to successful passages especially when you are far away from home and help. We are also replacing the outhaul, a critical control line for the mainsail. To complete these three line changes, we will have to lower the sails and remove the mainsail from the in-mast furling position. This is a tedious, cumbersome exercise that requires removal and the installation of specialized parts. A dropped tool, sheered pin or metal shard can lead to hours of engineering and frustration. The forward jib is our main working sail and is also the favorite to use in heavy weather conditions. She is starting to show signs of age and will need a series of repairs that our new sewing machine can easily accomplish – a project that I’m looking forward to. While the sail is down, it will be an excellent opportunity to inspect and repair any damage to the forward rig.
Other projects will include replacing an RJ45 connection for the data transmission radar cable, replace all fuel filters, replace transmission fluid, flush the air-conditioning system, clean the bilge, leak check all hatched and reseal where necessary, clean the cockpit lockers, inspect and exercise the dripless shaft, inspect/lubricate the rudder and steering assembly, rebuild the deck jug storage system, install our new battery charger and replace the lifelines and lifeline netting. There is a strong possibility that we will add two 300 plus watt solar panels to Caprica during that week which will require structural and electrical modifications to the existing setup.
During the week of June 17th, we will haul Caprica, sand the bottom and add new anti-fouling paint along with zinc anodes. The keel, rudder, and propeller will need some attention. Moreover, a significant forward thru-hull will need to be replaced which, in the best case scenario, will be a nightmarish job.
It’s usually when I’m crouched in a tiny compartment enduring a sporadic back spasm when my wrench slips off of a frozen bolt and my knuckles rip across some sort of cast iron housing that I ask myself if all of the maintenance is really necessary. From bow to stern, there are dozens of complex interlinked systems that are critical is every application. Each system requires careful inspection, disassembly and a rebuild of surrounding hardware or panels to access. Twenty-minute jobs turn into three-day circuses with multiple trips to the assorted stores for hunting/gathering improvised engineering projects. Sometimes projects slip through the cracks, lost between other major installations or rebuilds. Then, suddenly I’m 1,000 miles from home port, and my little project lost between the “major” tasks becomes an emergency.
I think about prepping to run the Cape May Inlet after a 16-hour passage, and a steering failure or the anchor windlass spins aimlessly when I need to drop several hundred pounds of ground tackle against a reversing tide. Then there is the strange transmission noise that appeared after a 14-hour Gulf of Maine crossing; the list of little irritants that turned into real situations is endless, and they are always a solid reminder as to why the projects must get done on time and done well. I must have absolute certainty that my halyards won’t fail when we are beating to windward offshore during a gale. I have to trust that my equipment will work and function properly every time and that Caprica’s systems are not only in good working order but will also withstand the environment in which we live.
But for now, I lean into a hard gust as the wind howls through the few sailboats left between A and E Docks. A large tree limb creeks then pops sending the sound of an agonizing jarring crunching crack echoing through our little parking area. Last night, a gale moved in ahead of a cold front that could bring a decent snow event to our now sparsely populated republic of G Dock. Eddie lifts his snout towards the wind and snorts. He wants to go for a real walk this morning into the dead boatyard.
“Okay. Let’s go,” I say and watch his blinking collar light dart off across the field, randomly zipping left or right after a scent trail. I imagine a beeping noise with every burst of light. A minute later, I follow Eddie between rows of forgotten derelict boats; remnants of dreams and old adventures. We pass between the bow and stern of classic workboats stacked in the back of the yard and move towards an old excavator. Eddie sniffs at a dirt-caked tread and circles around a dark patch of mud where leaking hydraulic fluid stained the ground. The bucket rests on top of a dead boat, a torn ripped hull with a few remnants of cabinetry strew throughout. A small stainless steel sink grabs my attention, a sheen of silver against a back ground of muted colors. Ahead is another boat, resting on her side. She was once proud, graceful but now a relic of another life; someone’s fantasy left too long without care.
Eddie and I make eye contact. “Okay. Let’s go home.” My body is getting cold, and I crave the penetrating warmth of our diesel heater. I should probably change those fuel filters too, I think. And I will. Spring is coming.