Zen and the Art of Sailboat Repair

Looking back on our time in the yard it was one of the most fun experiences we’ve ever had.  We ended up working  in the yard for close to three months, which was a little longer than we had planned.  We lived in our boat while we worked, which allowed us to be on the job site as soon as we were awake.  On only a couple of occasions did we have to sleep in the back of the car while paint and fiberglass fumes dissipated overnight.

Our boat has a draft of 6’4”, which means that our lowest point when we are in the water, is over 6’ below what you can see.  It is rather a deep draft for a boat our size, which means when it is on land it stands quite high off the ground.  Most sailboats are meant to be rested on their keel while on land, with supporting stanchions blocking up the sides at strategic locations.  It seems incredible sometimes that all that weight can be borne on the keel, but everybody does it and we’ve only heard of one problem.

The deck of the boat was a little more than 10’ off the ground and we ascended a ladder to get into our cockpit.  It was a bit like living in a treehouse.  On a couple of occasions, wind storms shook the boat badly and I woke up to check the stanchions that support the sides to find that a couple of them had come loose.  A few years ago, somebody’s boat had actually blown over.  Luckily nobody was hurt, but the remembrance of that story kept me on edge in big winds.  The wind also blew down our ladder and we had to prevail upon a passing fisherman in the morning to lift it back up to us before we could get off again.

To protect the areas of the deck that we were working on we erected a sort of Conestoga–style frame made from PVC conduit and tarps.  The PVC was attached to a lifeline stanchion on deck and bent over to attach to the opposing stanchion on the other side of the boat.  It’s rare that we get to live in such absurdist conditions and at the time we thought little of it.  It’s hard to appreciate something when we are deeply immersed in it.  It just feels like regular life.


The marina catered almost exclusively to fishermen.  The fishing life was a slice we had never really experienced before.  It’s a tough existence and it seemed life there was a fine line between profit and ruin.  One fisherman who befriended us had a wooden boat.  His insurance company wouldn’t let him go back in the water until he had stopped the massive leak in his hull.  He was angry because he was missing the beginning of the season and had some choice words for the insurance company.  I don’t think it ever occurred to him that a large leak was actually a problem.  He’d been doing it for 40 years so I guess he’d know.

We are comprised of contradictions and fishermen are no exception.  The café in the marina had a book swap in one corner that was stocked almost entirely with harlequin romances.  Over the course of three-months we saw most of the titles change once or twice.  It is endearing to think of these hard men riding out a storm on the ocean reading about how the only way for Rick to win back Savanna’s heart was to ride a wild stallion in the rodeo derby.  The other side to this sweet nature was the graffiti in the men’s washroom.  The inside of the cubicle was adorned with some of the most striking and arresting examples of racist, overtly sexual and homophobic graffiti I have ever seen, with a strong emphasis on phallic iconography.  After a few weeks of shutting my eyes, I decided to take it upon myself to bowdlerize the bathroom.  Y’s turn into g’s quite easily and often there is room to insert other letters, so phrases became “fraggle rock” and “gray wizard” or “gaggle of geese”.  Pictures of throbbing appendages became mountain scapes or swimming fish.  I had expected there to be some reaction to my changes, and there was, but not the negative one I thought.  Other people started doing the same thing.  Somebody added a snowboarder to a particular nice line down the slope and some one else turned a recently drawn, particularly veiny, specimen into the frame of a helicopter.  It’s amazing how many people go to the bathroom with indelible markers in their pockets.

But the yard wasn’t without its share of difficulties. One morning we decided to determine exactly the extent of soft spots or delamination in our deck core.  Our deck is constructed of a balsa core sandwiched between two layers of fibreglass.  It is common in such construction for moisture issues to develop over time and as our boat is nearing its 36th birthday, one would expect to find some areas of concern.

As we surveyed the deck by rapping on it with a small hammer and listening for the sound it made we came to understand that the areas of concern were larger and more frequent than we had originally supposed.  One of the areas came dangerously close to the chainplates (where the cable that holds the mast up is connected to the deck).  We did some searches online through various forums to determine what this could mean for our boat.  After reading some of the posts by guys who didn’t have boats, I was panic-strickenly checking online for other boats to purchase.  Fiona calmed me down, but we were stressed and wondering if this meant the end of the trip.

In the end we had some more experienced marine professionals take a look and they assured us that the deck was in reasonable condition and that the areas we had identified could be easily repaired.  From despair and destruction we went to hope and even joy; all over the course of about two hours.  While the gamut of emotions wasn’t pleasant it at least provided us with a learning opportunity.

First, the situation we were in was entirely of our own manufacturing.  Our reaction to the perceived threat of extensive deck moisture was emotional rather than rational.  We made conclusions based on very little information that we derived from the free-flowing opinions of the internet.  Our response was fight or flight.  Mine was mostly flight, hence the search for other ‘more suitable’ boats.

A philosophy that I find particularly attractive is Taoism.  One of the main tenets of Taoism is the principle of Wu-Wei, which can roughly be translated to ‘action without effort.’ The basic idea is that the universe is in harmony and that resistance to the unfolding of the universe is to be in disagreement with it.  Action that results from resistance is like trying to swim upstream; it is very difficult and essentially futile.

A quote I like from Alan Watts goes:

‘To have faith is to trust yourself in the water.  When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you did you will sink and drown.  Instead you relax, and float.’

The Western corollary to Taoism is Stoicism. Stoicism teaches the cultivation of self-control and a strong character to resist the destructive results of emotional extremes.  A Stoic believes in a deterministic universe; that is, events that occur whether we like it or not.  It is a similar viewpoint to Taoism.

The essential point of Stoicism is that people should maintain a will that is in accordance with Nature and that emotions should be controlled through the use of logic, reflection and concentration to produce a sense of inner calm.

In our crisis with the deck soft spots, we did not exercise either Taoist or Stoic principles.  We resisted entirely and freaked out.  We are going to encounter many such issues on this trip, and many more immediately dangerous situations, to which an emotional over-reaction will be detrimental.

A better way to approach the deck soft spots would have been to accept that the deck has soft spots.  It is what it is.  There is no right or wrong about it, there is no immediate danger, there is no real problem.  The world is unfolding as it should.  That doesn’t mean doing nothing about them, but there was a way to approach the situation from a place of inner calm, of logical reflection and a sense of harmony with our surroundings.  We will do what is required, that is all.  We are doing what we want to be doing and so we will remain content no matter what the situation is.  We will encounter storms with high winds and big seas.  There is no point in fighting it.

As the Stoic, Epictetus said, (also part of the motivation for our blog name)

“Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

That’s the mindset I would like to cultivate in our travels – one that is robust and flexible and doesn’t react strongly to adverse situations.  I know there will be a lot of opportunities to practice this and I’m both looking forward to and dreading them.  The next post will be about one of our first happy ‘opportunities.’

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  1. Zeno&Nadia
    September 23, 2015

    Awesome blog guys, I really enjoyed reading your adventures. Please keep it coming! Have a great sail down south!

  2. Ian
    September 23, 2015

    Love it! Thanks for the insights…here’s another take which I recently discovered – an extract from Stephen Mitchell’s foreword to his interpretation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tsu. (Additional comments in brackets are mine)
    “The misperception may arise from his (Lao-tzu’s) insistence on wei wu wei, literally “doing not-doing,” which has been seen as passivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good athlete (or sailor) can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.

    Less and less do you need to force things,
    until finally you arrive at non-action.
    When nothing is done,
    nothing is left undone.

    Nothing is done because the doer has wholeheartedly vanished into the deed; the fuel has been completely transformed into flame. This “nothing” is, in fact, everything. It happens when we trust the intelligence of the universe in the same way that an athlete or a dancer (or sailor, again!) trusts the superior intelligence of the body. Hence Lao-tzu’s emphasis on softness. Softness means the opposite of rigidity, and is synonymous with suppleness, adaptability, endurance. Anyone who has seen a t’ai chi or aikido master doing not-doing will know how powerful this softness is.”

  3. George McEwen
    September 25, 2015

    Blessed are they that are flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.

    • admin
      October 2, 2015

      Thanks George. Yes, that’s where the yoga comes in handy!

  4. Torrey
    September 26, 2015

    Siobhan and I are moving into a similar epression of Taoism set out for parents. It even comes with its own mini meditative mantra, CTFD.

    Cian got lice, “CTFD”, developing language fast enough, “CTFD”, peed on the floor, “CTFD”. You can even pass the mantra on, as in “Torrey, CTFD”.
    Yup, Calm The Fuck Down, Cian is normal and unfolding as he should and stressing the little stuff diminishes the experience for every one and only makes it worse. Swimming against the current.

    PS, I love the section on Ghandi Graffiti, that is, being the change in the can.

    • admin
      October 2, 2015

      Yes! So true, wish we’d had that little mantra in the yard. Now to CTFD our way to Mexico.

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