Dodging a Doddering Bureaucracy

Our time in Scotland was ebbing.  This was not due to any seasonal constraints but to the fact we were, possibly, illegal immigrants on a boat that was, possibly, smuggled into the country; it was making me more nervous the longer we got away with it…if indeed, we were getting away with anything.

David and Kris on Taipan reveal the secrets of the Australian beach BBQ in Scotland.

We always do our best to follow the rules, but getting a handle on Europe’s deep drifts of laws was like excavating an ancient archeological midden of bureaucratic effluent.  Enforcement by individual countries seemed to consist of border agents periodically scooping up a handful, throwing it around, and then checking what got stuck to whom. With six months left in the tropical hurricane season and at least five months of boat projects to prepare for crossing the Atlantic, we decided the best way forward was to keep a low profile and head for the most remote part of the country that seemed to care least: Ireland.

Kara engaged the newly-functional steering vane just outside Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay.  We sailed into the waters of Northern Ireland (also, somewhat reluctantly, part of the UK) and then across the ostensibly “open” border into Ireland proper; a neat little international sleight-of-hand which, I hoped, might excuse our lack im- and emigration documentation.

Lonely anchorages.

The run across the top and down Ireland’s West Coast was marked by tall cliffs, deep sea caves, a refreshing absence of laws, light breezes, excellent anchorages with free guest moorings, and, most memorably, a perplexing lack of opportunities to dispose of refuse.  Kara was–as is her inalienable right–buying the occasional six-pack of tomatoes which always came nestled in styrofoam, wrapped in cling-film, and further buckled into cardboard. No problem, I thought, but neither inside nor outside the stores were there rubbish bins.  Ditto around town, on the beach, or at the harbor. After hours of walking the streets in search, the baby had soiled two disposable diapers which, suddenly, did not seem particularly disposable in Ireland.

Beach fires.

We finally found a phallic green plastic container hose-clamped to a sign post at a tourist overlook, but it was capped with a shiny domed hat which suggested that the diameter of an acceptable article of refuse be no larger than a cigarette butt.  Kara had just knocked the cap off with an elbow–oops!–and was stuffing in the diapers when passing locals protested quite strenuously. “Use yer own bins, damn it! It’s a paid service!” But their only suggestion was a landfill 30 miles inland (“it’s rather difficult to find, too–say, where’s your car?”)  After similar experiences in a series of small towns, we were soon nostalgically enjoying the aroma of roasted garbage over driftwood beach fire for the first time since Alaska.

Sloppy sailing on the West Coast

As we neared the Southwest corner of Ireland, three startling things came to a head all in the same week.  First, Ireland ran out of water. While we’d been enjoying an unheard-of multi-week run of sunny weather, the Irish reservoirs–really just a membrane of peat draped over rocky outcrops that oozes water into small creeks–had been baking dry.  Once I knew what to look for, it was apparent that the spongy grassy/root mixture that makes up most of Ireland’s greenery had shriveled, pulling away from the stones and leaving them sitting in wells just like melting snow. The unfavorable surface area to volume ratio of this watershed meant that supply had gone from comfortable to critical in days.

Second, about the time I was sounding Sentijn’s water tanks and wondering how Baby Dean’s bedtime routine might go without the bathing element, my parents flew in.  This storm had been brewing for quite some time; they hadn’t seen their grandson in a year, I’d been reminded regularly. And given that Baby Dean was only a year old, I suppose I can see why they might have been impatient.   

My dad wasted no time in pointing out the shortcomings of my little 4-stroke outboard–which were many, I had to admit. Each time it failed to start, or the carburetor needed cleaning, or the fuel needed to be drained and exchanged for fresh, he would start with “You know, back when I was a boy I had this Johnson…” His Johnson, I was informed, was larger and much more reliable than mine. It was a two stroke, and it was always ready to go; in fact, it would start even if you just looked at the starter cord. And while it was only eight horsepower, it could tow four water skiers simultaneously and went forty knots on smooth water. He’d take it fifty miles from land for deep-sea fishing because it never failed, nor did it ever require maintenance or repair. Twenty years, he’d had that outboard, and now that you mention it, his old Johnson never seemed to need any fuel either.

Ruins everywhere.

Third, we were boarded by the Irish border police. Twice. We’d sailed at least half of the country’s coast without seeing a single figure of authority. Suddenly, as we rounded Dunmore Head, we found an angry swarm of matte-black attack RIBs buzzing angrily in the smooth waters of Dingle Bay.  One peeled out of formation, paralleled our course, and no fewer than five armed agents leapt aboard. It was an intimidating display of staff, equipment, and skill (even if applied to the border rather unevenly).  Now quite nervous, I dusted off our unstamped passports and engaged my most harmless smile. The head agent glanced at the stack of passports, judged it to be about the right height for the number of people on board, slapped me on the back and welcomed us to Ireland.   

Then we all took some selfies.



Still being effectively banned from mainland Europe by the Schengen Agreement, we decided to turn left at the river mouth and head for Scotland.  In the North Sea, my hasty installation of the rudder bushings came back to haunt us–as I should have known it would.  The bushing internal diameter measurement was a fraction of a millimeter too small, which caused enough binding to disable the trim-tab self-steering.


Dodging windfarms with seasick Dean.

Handsteering would have been bad enough, except baby Dean was seasick and wanted full time care.  The traffic was dense; the fish pots were dense, the wind farms were dense.

The tidal currents rushed around in some incomprehensible pattern, following some enigmatic schedule that had me lost in tables and graphs; the local sailors seem to understand it intuitively.   The few times I’d asked local sailing wizard James Tomlinson when the current might be fair, it had all seemed so easy.  His eyes would roll up for a moment as he scanned some internal tide table.  He’d tap on the barometer, frown for a moment to apply an offset for atmospheric pressure, and then turn with a squint to the masthead.  There’d be a slight pause to account for wind direction and speed, then a wistful, relaxed sigh as his mind lovingly ran along the memorized contours of each swatchway, gatway, spit, swale, ness, ooze, salting, and sandbar to determine the tide’s route along the coast.  He’d finally say something like: “It’s springs, so if you can scrape down the Medusa by 3:04, you’ll catch the ebb past the Gunfleet through the Wallet, cut across the Rays’n, find that eddy down by the Mouse–you know the one–and hit slack past the overfalls, you’ll ride the flood up the Medway no problem!”


Brisk English sailing.

But now we were on our own, and I was chained to the helm and Kara was chained to Dean.  The nights were cold, 4℃ / 38℉ and the watches very long.  Wind and tide were fickle, and we were not in physical sailing shape.  I wore my Swedish fisherman’s suit for days on end, grasping the tiller nervously between wind farms and the fierce North Sea traffic.  Anchorages were scarce and the few marinas extravagantly, prohibitively expensive.


Dinner on the Scottish border.

And then, after four days of difficult sailing, something wonderful happened.  The land rose up in green cliffs and sent out tendrils of rocky land–points, bays, islands…anchorages.  The ship traffic tailed off; freighters with names like Global Conquest XII and Strategic Takeover IIII were replaced by small steel fishing boats called Safe Harbor and Annie Marie.  Scotland.

We tucked up in the coziest anchorage available and had a long think about the rudder bushings.  One of the big advantages of a transom-hung rudder is the ability–at least in theory–to easily unship the rudder even while afloat.


To Kara, it seemed more likely that it would come off just fine but aligning and re-hanging the rudder could be a different matter: we’d be stuck in the Scottish highlands with no steering and a dwindling supply of haggis, which was, at the time, about the only thing Dean would eat.

Reckless and regardless, I removed the retaining pintle, looped a halyard through the rudderhead and winched the rudder up on deck.  I spent some hours with fine sandpaper to enlarge the bushings by a few tenths of a millimeter.  Then we lowered the rudder roughly into place, with a halyard taking the weight and lines to several winches pulling the rudder roughly into position.  I checked the alignment with a chilly dive to the bottom of the keel, and then Kara cast off the halyard.


The sweet, sweet thunk of the rudder falling onto its pins rippled through Sentijn.  I touched the tiller with a finger and it slid from my touch, the rudder swinging easy and free.  No longer were we slaves to steering.


Scottish sailing

A Winter’s Workload

In preparation for the blasting, I’d removed just about every on-deck moving part and bagged and taped the rest in a feeble attempt to save exposure to the abrasive, pervasive blasting grit.  Now out of the boatyard, but with winter approaching, we were looking at at nearly two weeks of work to re-commission the boat for sailing: re-reave all the running rigging, rebuild 6 gritty winches, and overhaul two sandy furlers, bend on all the sails…not to mention the sorry state of the decks.  We had to face facts; Sentijn wasn’t going anywhere for quite some time. Ipswich became, inevitably, our overwintering spot.

P_20180218_124636Baby Dean got a membership to the local swimming pool and was soon a regular in the public library.  I became a regular customer at Suffolk Fasteners and Fox’s Chandlery. We racked up a four-figures of Ebay, Amazon, and other assorted online invoices.  The scrap yard was just a stone’s throw from our berth. East Anglia Bearings could source a set of seals or a bulk box of bushings in an hour. And, most importantly, the marina staff did not seem to notice the plume of grinder dust and carbide scraper shavings that trailed from Sentijn for the first half of winter as I finished removing the paint from every nook and cranny of the deck.

The overhaul continued into December with the 40-year old Lewmar winches, which were still providing good service; we removed, disassembled, cleaned, greased, and re-installed.  Sentijn’s 1970’s vintage Hassler trim-tab steering vane had worked well during the North Sea crossing; I took it apart, checked it over, re-bushed the vane, replaced some fasteners, and reinstalled it.  The old 1977 Bukh seemed to run just fine; I rewired the starter, changed the oil, filters, zincs, and impellers The 30-year old Profurl furlers came apart with some coaxing from the impact driver; we reassembled with magic goop and reinstalled.  Sentijn’s main pumps–some venerable Henderson Mk V’s–could be overhauled and repaired almost indefinitely.


Hiding from the drizzle.  Photo Miles McBreen

By January I was noticing that the gear purchased in the last 10 years seemed to have been engineered with a different philosophy.  The liferaft could not be serviced by anyone on the planet–complete replacement was required. Sentijn’s chartplotter, a Garmin unit just four years old, was no longer supported.  Neither could the charts could be updated. Garmin customer relations recommended re-purchase of the charts (cost: ~ $1,000) and urged replacement of the entire system. I decided to abandon Garmin.

Early in February Kara decreed that the old stove was dead, and ordered a new Force 10.  The sink leaked, and there was insufficient lighting in the galley. The gas system needed work.  The battery compartment required rewiring with larger bus bars, overload protection, and longer cables. The radar display crapped itself.  We needed a solar array and charge controllers for the coming summer months at anchor…plus a battery monitor. The windlass needed an overhaul.  Whichever pieces of deck hardware not welded down needed re-bedding in the constant onslaught of insipid drizzle. Many of the portlights required resealing after the cabin sides were grit blasted.  February ground towards to March.

P_20180216_144735 (1)The mast was still blistering happily; through the fall paint chips fell just like the leaves.  We decided to remove the mast for an serious overhaul and booked a crane. With the mast blocked up a hip-height, carbide scraper and 60-grit sandpaper in hand, I peeled all the paint off during a week-long cold snap.  My fingers cracked and bled, but each day’s progress up the extrusion was it’s own reward. Kara unrove the running rigging, daisy-chained, and washed it all in an industrial washing machine.P_20180222_095749  I ran new wires to the nav-lights–a tricky operation using a drawstring inside a tight conduit that had me alternately cursing with frustration and then dancing ridiculously through snow drifts in the deserted boatyard.  The tri-color, a wildly expensive Lopolight just outside of warranty, was full of rainwater and had to be replaced. We measured carefully and then cut new stainless steel cable to length for replacement standing rigging. My hands ached with the cold.

Then, fingers crossed, we booked the crane and re-stepped the mast.  While everything fit well, there were still a number of jobs aloft to finalize the re-rig and when the rain turned back to snow I donned my Swedish commercial fisherman’s survival suit and spent most of a day atop the masthead.

The bugbear on the todo list–the decks–we were able ignore until the weather moderated in April.  But the more I ignored it the more the scope of the project kept increasing, and with it my dread and frustration.

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Primer going onto the foredeck; photo SV Taipan.

 I’d made a mistake; no doubt about it. When we’d had Sentijn surveyed, I’d asked the surveyor to ultrasound the hull, where I’d expected greatest risk of corrosion, never dreaming that anyone would be silly enough to apply stainless steel-fastened teak decks over aluminum.  It hadn’t even occurred to me; the visible fasteners in the cap rails and deck prisms were sensibly selected aircraft-grade aluminum. But, for the first 15 years of Sentijn’s use, seawater had stewed under teak boards, mingled with steel machine screws, and in an gleeful dissimilar-metals-in-an-electrolyte orgy, had eaten pits into the plating on the fore- and side-decks.


Get the goop on fast!

Worst case scenario: I’d have to remove the interior headliner, scrape out the insulation, become a welder and re-plate sections of deck.  For now, we cleaned thoroughly, sanded aggressively, and faired with epoxy. I’d done some test patches in the fall, and they seemed to be holding up well so we did the entire deck.  We used every available hour on every single day where dewpoint and temperature were within spec. A successful day was measured as preparing and bogging one square meter within the tight time constraints imposed by the nature of aluminum.  Baby Dean spent many long afternoons being entertained by friends around the marina as we spread thickened epoxy. Particular thanks to David and Kris on Taipan, Phil and Maree on Red Roo, and James on Talisker 1.  


As soon as we had two coats of primer on the deck, we left.  It was May, it was spring. It was sailing season.


Sentijn leaving Ipswich.  Photo: James and Talisker 1

Going Grey


Arguably, the biggest issue with Sentijn was non-functional: paint.  Although the previous owner had managed to nurse it along for the last decade, the 40-year old topsides were well past prime, and the odd remaining shiny patch had not weathered my early docking attempts very well.

Re-painting aluminum is, by all accounts, an expensive and time consuming project that we could easily do without.   I suppose every prospective buyer of Sentijn had been thinking exactly the same thing. And then, casting their eyes aloft, they would have seen 18 meters of mast with a similar scabrous affliction.  Kara had, I vaguely recall, expressed some concern over the scale of this looming project. Now as we stood on the dock surveying the sheer surface area–most of it in a terribly inconvenient working orientation–I could read “I told you so” all over her face.

No problem, I thought.  We loaded up on beer, chocolate, and diapers for new baby Dean and set off across the North Sea towards Ipswich, in England.  This town, if the internet could be believed, was a bit of a dirty secret, environmentally, and thus featured as a quick-and-easy venue for the black magic of grit blasting.  According to my brief research, a couple of days in the blasting bay and Sentjin would be clean as a new whistle, just bare aluminum and we’d never have to worry about paint again!  Kara was dubious but I swore up, down, fore, aft, and athwartships on a stack of Nigel Calder books that we’d be back in the water in no time.

We pulled the boat out of the water a few miles up the Orwell River and the Master Blaster (a glamorous job title for a very loud, scary, and dirty occupation) stopped by the next day.  I explained what I wanted and he explained, mincing no words, that I hadn’t any idea what I was talking about. Kara hitched Dean further up her hip and rolled her eyes.


“Manual” fairing compound removal begins on the starboard side.

“First, you can’t, or shouldn’t, shot- or sandblast aluminum, particularly if you’re going to leave it bare.  You’ll want something softer, so as you don’t erode the hull plating, and finer, so as you get a smooth finish.  A light olivine would do yous, but it’s not going to be aggressive enough to remove this,” he said, whipping out a knife and stabbing it into Sentijn’s hull, where it sank nearly two centimeters into fairing compound.  “And the same goes for that cabin top. And who knows what she’ll look like under all this–could have a bad case of hungry horse, with her ribcage showing! Call me when you’ve got 95% of this rubbish off here and I’ll take another look.”



After a few experiments, I realized there was no easy way forward.  Nothing short of a small jackhammer would budge the hull bog. I figured I’d have to remove the transom hung rudder to get at the stern…and I might as well replace the rudder bushings, which were on their last gasp anyway, since the rudder was off…and I really ought to replace the cutlass bearing while I was at it…but that meant wrestling the prop shaft out of a frighteningly flexible coupling, and then the flex coupling from the transmission…  I estimated three weeks, and Kara booked a flight out the very next day–extended boatyard living is not something she tolerates anymore.

After two weeks of hard labor, there was a small hull-shaped berm of paint chips on the gravel around Sentijn’s cradle.  After so many 18-hour days, I was sporting some strangely over-developed muscle groups that matched the heft of my now-familiar Makita STS hammer drill, and my favorite chisel bit had worn down to a nub from constant re-sharpening.  Sentijn looked awful, and a pass with belt sander did not improve her appearance. Lurking second thoughts haunted my sleep. I called the blaster.P_20171024_172023

This time, he arrived towing his RV-sized blasting trailer and wearing what looked decidedly like a space suit.  He gave a terse nod of approval, and over the course of about 8 hours transformed my mess of scalloped chips and scored primer into a soft uniform finish.  

When he left, the deck was a mess of grit, with drifts and dunes piled against the cabin and bulwarks. Some of the Treadmaster decking had blown loose, and I resigned myself to overhauling the decks this winter–but that could be done in the water.  The bare aluminum, immediately after blasting, was a deep grey-purple and I scrambled to get the boot-top line painted before it oxidized.


Press fitting the cutlass bearing using a threaded rod.

Like magic, the cutlass bearing arrived shortly after, quickly followed by the rebalanced prop, zincs, shaft seals, and a set of freshly machined acetal rudder bushings.  I applied three coats of antifoul, narrowly skirting the dew point requirements in the imminent English winter. The cutlass bearing was press-fit, and required a frightening amount of force to insert.  The rudder bushings were a bit tight, but by the time I got the hugely heavy rudder re-hung using a wildly elaborate system of halyards, blocks, winches, wedges, and a sledgehammer it was almost midnight, with an 8 a.m. launch scheduled the following morning.  I was exhausted.


Rushing to get the boot stripe painted on freshly blasted surface.

The next morning as we puttered out of the slipway, I revisited my to-do list.  A bunch of projects that weren’t even present had cropped up, so I added them and then immediately crossed them off with ceremonial flourish.  Then my eyes drifted down to the “Treadmaster/decks” and “mast overhaul” items.


Ominous state of the Treadmaster

Needless to say, the celebration was short lived.


The finished hull — a grey matte finish that darkened over time.


Learning the Boat

So began our quest to learn Sentijn.  Getting to know a boat, on the intimate level that is prudent if going offshore, is not something that can be done in a day.  Looking back, it took 3 years to get to full enlightenment with Orca–and she was small and simply outfitted.  There are three levels in this journey.


Calibrating ‘Normal’


Free berthing on the Veerse Meer removed financial pressure while going over the boat’s gear.

At first, all noises are new.  The engine sounds different than Orca’s because it has more cylinders (or do we need to run it at higher RPMs?).  The rigging sounds different in 20 knots because the stays are longer, thicker, and tighter (are they too tight?).  The sails are harder to hoist because they are larger and heavier (or are the halyard sheaves binding?)  Was that water stain on the interior joinery there before (or is there a leak that needs attention)?  Is there usually any water in the bilge (or is she sinking)?  

This phase can be managed largely at the dock with some day sails.  Living aboard helps; so does talking to the previous owner.  We did both, with Sentijn, and it took about 4 months.

Reverse Engineering


Cleaning and greasing winches is a good time to check for wear or corrosion.

Once a good reference point has been established, I began tracing hoses and wires.  I loved finding unused wire & pipe runs (or whole vestigial systems) and ripping them out; Sentijn was full of them.  We begun replacing worn pipes or cracked wires, and then verifying that systems are at least back to Normal (or, hopefully, better-than-Normal).  Deferred maintenance–servicing winches, windlass, engine, batteries–was an opportunity to take those apart, figure out how they work, and then trying to identify weak points.  When a component needs replacement, I bought two, if possible.  Building up a compliment of spares is essential.


I suspect every used boat on the market has the usual head de-calcification job deferred.

The same can be said for tools, even though it hurts the wallet.  I fooled myself with a mind game:  “How much would it cost to call in the professional for this?”  Purchasing a specialist tool almost always seems cheap after that haunting thought.  After all, one of the big reasons we bought a larger boat was for tool capacity.

On Sentijn, I noticed a lot of the wire runs were twin conductor and about AWG 14.  Though I had no specific job in mind, I bought a spool on principle, plus large amounts of assorted connectors.  Ditto for the 20mm PVC pipe she favors for plumbing.  Everything breaks sooner or later.


A few parts of Sentijn were too complex to fit into my head; for example, the space behind the switch panel seemed more like spaghetti than any sort of electrical system.  I approached this one wire at a time.  I chose a wire, and followed it in both directions to figure it out.  I became intimate with that one single wire.  Then, for each wire, the question: “Is it part of a critical system?”  If an area of the boat is too hard to figure out with stable platform, warm and dry, with good lighting while everything is Normal and all systems nominal, then it will be impossible to troubleshoot when something inevitably goes haywire at sea.  If the answer to that question was ever “no”, then I uninstalled the component and removed the wire(s).

At first, I was only able to trace a few wires each day.  Each wire inevitably dissapeared behind paneling, into PVC conduit, or behind a locker–all of which had to be removed or unpacked.  But, as we excised more complexity, the remaining mysteries became easier to unravel.  At one point, Sentijn was down to GPS, VHF, and paper charts.  But, after simplifying, organizing, and familiarizing, re-installing desired components was relatively easy.

We’re still deep in this phase with Sentijn, and I expect it to continue for another year or two.

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Take everything out of the lazarette–again–to trace that pipe.

Full Enlightenment

We had reached this stage on Orca, and it was bliss.  We had arrived above the knowledge-and-maintenance inflection point where the learning curve levels off to near flat.  Small, easy, and well-scheduled preventative maintenance jobs are the norm and failures are rare.  On the off chance we were caught out, the conversation usually went like this:

“Honey, the water pump is making that slight gurgling again.  Is it what I think it is?”

“Yes, dear.  I should have replaced the diaphragm last month; they really only last two years, you know.”

“But you were drinking beer instead, I noticed…”

“We can do it now. The spare diaphragms are forward and, as I recall, the machine screws are pozi head and take an 8mm socket for the nuts.  I know nothing is frozen because I used the magic goop last time and, according to my notes, the hose is 12mm ID and the hose clamps take a 6mm socket–both should be in excellent condition (as we replaced them recently), although inventory indicates we have both hose and clamps in stock if necessary.”  

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Ahh, nirvana.


First Sail



The dyke that separates the harbor from the sea is massive.

We’d executed the whole boat-buying deal with a great deal of trust in the fundamental honesty and goodness of humanity.  This is probably not be a procedure for dealing with anyone who has not sailed offshore, long-distance.  But for those who have, the world becomes very simple: humanity against nature’s indifference.  We had; we’d been to that lonely place where money is no object because no amount of it can save you–only a good boat, steadfast crew, and loyal friends.  Kara, I, and Sentijn’s owner Jaap (and most of his family) had been to this frightening place.  Business was a handshake between comrades and friends.


Getting familiar with the masthead before Mosseltocht.

We arrived to Vlissingen by public train; Japp and his wife Antoinette were there to meet us.  I’d picked up something nasty on the plane and was sick; feverish.  Antoinette tucked me into her berth aboard.  Jaap, with limited English, struggled to show Kara what we needed to know to work the boat at the dock; lights, stove, fans.  All the labels and manuals were in Dutch, of course.

It was a week later when I tumbled out of my berth in a fug of sweat and feverish slime.  Plane travel is tough, I have to admit; I hadn’t been that sick in decades.  While sailing, I’d always looked above us at the occasional contrail with a little disdain mixed with jealously–but no longer.

Jaap returned to knock on Sentijn’s hull as soon as he saw that we’d emerged from below deck–his house overlooked the marina, which was only natural in this small town.  I’m not sure we projected the best of Americans…debilitated and unconscious in bed for a week after a modest twelve-hour plane passage.  He happened to “drop by”, and we were grateful; I had quite a few questions for him.  How does the handstart engine crank work?  Which circuit does this ammeter monitor?  Are  there only three seacocks, or are there any I’ve missed? (There was one.)


Tight maneuvering.

Jaap also mentioned, as he was leaving, that he’d signed us up for the harbor’s local Mosseltocht Rally.   I remembered something about this, as a fever dream.  Some nice man named Guus, whose name–despite the fairly approachable spelling–was almost unpronounceable by my California tongue, had invited us to sail with the rest of the boats in the harbor to a port thirty miles away, across what I think is the busiest shipping corridor in the worldinto a sandbar-guarded marina of an uncharted depth.  This was all in the name of chips, an unlimited number of steamed mussels, and God knows how much beer.  I remembered mumbling something positive in response to the idea of cold beer–and we were committed.


Just before things got out of hand.

With a scrap of sail up outside the Vlissingen storm barrier, Sentijn went like she’d been hit by an avalanche–bloody fast, but heeled over at 50 degrees and beyond control.  Her lee rail was fathoms underwater, the sea was boiling over just about everything and she was screeching past everything with sail up and most of the powerboats as well.

We arrived outside Blankenburg with our hair blown straight back, eyes red, cheeks raw, eyebrows scoured smooth, and Sentijn looking like it was all in a day’s work–she’d sailed herself, without self-steering, for hours.   Kara’d finally managed to get a hand on the tiller, but there seemed to be some sort of strange helm tendency.  It wasn’t weather helm, and certainly not lee helm.  Sentijn seemed to have a bad case of ocean helm; after hours of easy sailing it seemed to require an inordinate amount of effort  to wrest her into a turn to port, towards the shore and harbor.  I suspect now that she was simply not interested in the vagaries of another shallow harbor; she wanted to go to sea.

It all made sense a few minutes after; Sentijn is not a very good boat for Dutch or Belgian waters.  She draws 210 cm–nearly 7 feet.  The average harbor in such parts considers such draft an outrageous waste of water and so we were instantly and irrevocably hard aground; deep into soft mud.  The harbormaster sighed, wiped his hand dramatically across his brow (apparently the previous owner and had similar difficulties) and we all settled in to wait for the water to rise and  for Sentijn to uncork the harbor.


Aground in Blankenberge.


The exchange rate improved.  Jaap, as he put it, “sharpened his pencil” to refine his asking price.  The wily old man also sent some brief video clips of himself singlehanding Sentijn across the North Sea at what must have been 9 knots just the week before.  I watched them often.

Then there was a scramble to identify a marine surveyor in the Netherlands.  It was summer time, and they were all off sailing.  Finally, we made arrangements and I sent special instructions for a thorough hull unltrasound to check for any wasting from electrolysis.  The result, as we’d expected, were that Sentijn was  impressive but needed whole barrels of elbow grease and sported a 5-figure maintenance backlog.  We’d sworn up and down that we would not buy a project boat; if Sentijn wasn’t a project boat, she was damn close.

We bought her anyway.

It was a calculated risk.  A lot of the things that made Sentijn a yachty yacht–the paint, teak, etc–were in tough shape and would cost a small fortune to replace (see the terrifying price curves on the Koopmans website here.)  The space under the paint curve suggests a cost of fifty thousand euros–not including removal of old coatings.  Even worse, the gap for joinery expands into the 100,000 euro range for a 12 meter yacht.  This greatly discouraged other potential buyers, allowing us to drive a hard bargain–assuming we could find a way to deal with such aspects more economically.  I had a few ideas; after all, we weren’t really looking for a yachtsman’s yacht anyway.  We were after a cruising home.

It was time to see how much trouble we’d gotten ourselves into.  We flew to Holland, cast of the dock lines, and ran hard aground.


Full speed ahead.

A Tale of Steel and Aluminum

Naturally, I made Kara buy the least expensive plane ticket.  This necessitated several layovers of impressive duration far from the optimal great circle route.  I shaved a few more pennies by routing her to the Brussels airport which, having just been devastated by terrorist bombing, was a marginally cheaper destination than Amsterdam even accounting for the brutal series of train connections into the Netherlands.  Total travel time was measured in days–she was not pleased.


Sentijn  is “Te Koop” (for sale)

Kara rented a room above a Chinese restaurant overlooking Sentijn and the Vlissingen yacht harbor.  Breakfast was provided: buttered toast dusted with brown chocolate-cake sprinkles.  She also rented a bicycle because, simply put, its impossible to function in Dutch society without one.

Kara found Sentijn in rougher condition than we’d hoped.  She’d clearly been tested in every conceivable manner: stanchions were bent, teak was gouged, sails were worn,  engine was rusty, pipes were leaky, bilge was dirty, and every painted surface from waterline to masthead was chipped and flaking.  Beneath this veneer of hard use and age, however, there were a few clues indicating something potentially quite special.  The structural members were closely spaced and very thick, the welds regular and continuous.  Bulwarks and rubstrakes, despite circumstantial evidence of many encounters with the harsh concrete of dutch lock walls, had retained their perfectly fair curves without wiggle or dent.

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Though dirty, Sentijn’s structural aspects still inspire respect.

Where chips and and scratches revealed the hull’s aluminum, there appeared to be scant use of faring compound or filler.  And everywhere, beneath aged and cracked varnish, was solid, spare-no-expense teak and elaborate joinery.

Functionally, Sentijn was better off than appearances suggested. She’d been sailed regularly, which surely helped.  The working sails, though faded and patched, had no tears, and the fearfully rusty engine started immediately and ran well.  Clearly, paint had not been a priority but that was understandable; on aluminum, paint is for appearance.  The bilge, on closer inspection, was not so much dirty or muddy as extremely dusty; there were even a few cobwebs.


Pur Sang’s immaculate paint

Thanking the owner for his time (and the inspection had taken quite a lot of it), Kara trained to northern Holland.  Pur Sang, at nearly twice the price and in steel, proved to be the opposite of Sentijn in almost every way.  She was a quarter of Sentijn’s age, and showed no sign of heavy use.  The sails were immaculate, the electrics beautiful to behold.  The engine was fit to cook on, and the paint was a layer of unbroken gloss from stem to stern.  The interior varnish was thick, clear, and smooth; the wood appeared to be coated in honey.  Kara was smitten, and wandered around the boat dazed.  She arranged to return the next day, hoping to evaluate the boat with a clearer head.



midshipscleat.jpgThe next day was all business; testing electrical, inspecting plumbing, estimating insulation thickness, and checking seals–and that was when she found it.  Down by  the prop shaft seal, around a turn of angle iron and underneath the member that both starboard motor mount brackets bolted to: rust.  Not yet enough for structural effects but very difficult to reach and, consequently, almost impossible to repair.  And looking closely by flashlight, little flecks of rust elsewhere as well, all in tough-to-reach,  hard-to-see places where water might sit, insidiously, looking for any microscopic breach in the paint.  All we could think was: If this nearly-new, nearly-unused, $130,000 boat is already beginning the inevitable battle with rust…

I thought back to the photo Kara had sent of the aluminum around Sentijn’s motor mounting points: flaking paint, dirty, dusty, and greasy.  But after some vigorous wire brushing, the aluminum had shown bright and shiny and a full inch thick, unperturbed by 40 years of service.

Kara packed up her gear, deep in thought, caught the first of three trains toward Brussels, and boarded her 30 hour, four-layover flight back to San Francisco.


A few flecks of rust in hard-to-reach areas on “Pur Sang” and the other steel boats we’d looked at trigger some serious soul-searching.

Europe Bound

It was clear we were finally looking in the right place; each boat was more interesting than the last.  Fully half of the boats were metal; steel and aluminum were standard construction materials.  The expertise of Europe’s shipwrights was obvious in smooth, chineless hulls and an indefinable quality that I can only describe as rightness.  The boats just plain looked good; I was salivating.

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A Folkboat’s sweet lines.

There are certain ratios, particular gradients of curve that make a boat look natural in the water.  They are the same lines on a fish or a whale; wonderful examples of convergent evolution where both organism and naval architect strive to maximize volume but minimize turbulence-inducing drag.  In the States, mass-produced fiberglass boats from a carefully crafted mold can achieve such shape, but the difficulty in bending flat metal plate to an even compound curve is huge. In Europe, where shipwrights have been competing for a thousand years, no concessions are made to the stubborn nature of plate.

Starting through the 120 hits from our search, we got picky again – selection breeds selectiveness.  Plus, even if we flew to Europe for a month, it needed to be a surgical strike.  I typically spend at least three hours at each boat I look at—a fact that drives brokers bonkers. (Except one time, after prying up bilge covers for a few hours, Kara mentioned off-hand to the broker that a 50’ ketch he was showing seemed to be filling with water and was in danger of sinking at the dock.)  Add in three days of travel, a day or two for jet-lag, two overland travel days per boat…

Most of the boats we liked were designed by a multi-generational naval architecture family named Koopmans (pronounced cope-mans), and were berthed in the Netherlands.  After going through hundred listings, I realized I should have just searched for “Koopmans” and our hit-list would have been generated almost automatically.  I also realized that Koopmans’ designs looked a lot like those from the guy who drew OrcaCarl Alberg—except they were optimized for steel or aluminum.


Pur Sang, in steel.

We narrowed it down to one boat: Pur Sang, a steel 2003 Koopmans 39’. Even though the boat was way over our budget ($120,000), I took it as a sign—we had found one!  And she was on the market right now, in real time—not years ago on an old sailing blog or historical Google index.  However, owing to my thrifty nature, I quickly came up with a new truism:

One boat a trip to Europe does not make. 

 We decided to wait for at least one more listing to appear before flying over.

For six months, each morning when arriving in my cubicle, I checked the search criteria both in the US and, now, overseas.  And each morning there were a few new listings—although nothing we liked.  I started sending out a Boat of the Day email to interested parties; my dad seemed to have rustled up several people intrigued by my epic, and quite possibly fruitless, multi-year endeavor.


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One day, though, there was a new listing—one I liked.  In aluminum, no less. Close to our price range, notably.  With a long track-record of successful passages.  Still fully outfitted from her last voyage to the island Svalbard, at an impressive 78 degrees North….

Sentijn seemed to draw heavily from the Nordic Folkboat tradition.  Such designs are well regarded for their simplicity, seaworthiness, and a long laundry list of notable singlehanded offshore passages; it’s no coincidence that the self-steering vane was conceived and prototyped aboard a Folkboat.  On the downside, they’re notorious for a rather small foretriangle, which makes for slow sailing in light air.

Reading further, the listing admitted that Sentijn had been dismasted, fairly recently, in a gale deep in the Southern Ocean well below the Cape of Good Hope.  Her re-rig in Cape Town had included a redesign of her sail plan by the Koopmans firm, including conversion to masthead cutter.  Studying the pictures closely, I could see that the rig was, quite frankly, massive.  They’d retained the long boom of the fractional folkboat rig, but had increased the height of the mast to 18 meters and added a third foresail.

Now we had two boats on our list; Kara booked herself a plane ticket and boarded her jet to Amsterdam.


Sentijn, listed on YachtWorld

Goldilocks at Sailboat Scale

We’re all familiar with the children’s tale of the little girl wandering about a cabin in the woods, choosing food and furniture.  Her choices are manageable; she always has three options, and in each case one of the three turns out to be the right choice.


This steel Colvin (I think) schooner was for sale just a few moorings over from Orca.

There are 13,156 sailboats currently showing on  A nationwide search of “sailboat” on returns just under 17,000 hits.  While those sites are not the most reliable, I’m confident that most or all of the 26,564 paid sail listings on are legitimate.  If Kara and I spent four hours looking at each boat, never paused to eat or sleep, and were magically transported instantaneously between marinas, it would take us 25 years to taste each bowl of porridge.

No problem, I thought.  With the great power of an internet search comes the great responsibility to filter the results.  I’d spent enough time thinking about my criteria on long night watches that I didn’t hesitate:

  • Hull material: Aluminum.
  • Length: 34-39 feet.
  • Location: North America
  • Keel: Full
  • Price: $0 – $60,000

Unsure how to filter for pretty boats, I decided to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis.  I clicked the YachtWorld search button with a self-satisfied flourish, eagerly waiting for the internet to give us the first look at our new boat.

  Sorry, no matches were found for your search.

How could this be?  I’d gone directly from a scenario of too many choices to a world in which every bowl of porridge in the western hemisphere was either too hot or too cold.   Clearly, I was being ridiculously picky.  Or I needed to be patient, and wait for new boats to be listed.  Or, likely, both.


This Bruce Roberts has an impressive, battle-tank practicality for which we couldn’t quite generate enthusiasm.

I widened my criteria to include steel and aluminum boats up to 45 feet..and beyond.  We increased the price window to the unimaginable, eye-watering sum of $80,000.  Since I needed to work for another year or two in California to cover this rapidly heightening price window, I decided we could not widen the geographic search area–yet.  Then, we waited…

For two years.

Boats were listed and sold.  Backyard builds of Bruce Roberts, George Buehers, and Thomas Colvins came and went.  We were briefly captivated by the Brent Swain origami boats, having been aboard a homebuilt 36′ in Western Australia.  The hulls of these boats are cleverly shaped from steel plate so that they can be coaxed into shape by gradual bending; a process like taking a two dimensional piece of cardboard and rolling it into a three dimensional paper party hat.  These hulls turn out impressively fair, with a limited number of chines, using low tech tools available on most farms in the Pacific Northwest or the Australian Outback.


Quadra Island, BC

In ignorance, I wondered about the expertise of the builders, and the quality of materials and workmanship in a home build.  I’d talked to a number of cruisers who’d built their own boats from varying materials–wood, steel, aluminum, even cement–and they’d all half-jokingly espoused some variation of the same sentiment:  “If you want to build a boat for offshore sailing, you really need to build at least two–the first for is making all the mistakes, and the second (or third) will be the real boat.”

The boats I was looking at, all from steel, made me uncomfortably aware of how little I knew about boat building.  Were the scantlings sufficient?  Was the plating thick enough? Was that weld contaminated?  Should that member have been an I beam or angle iron?  Or maybe the other type with the T-shaped cross section?  The fact was inescapable; in my ignorance, I really wanted a traditionally-shaped aluminum boat designed, engineered, and built by people with the right equipment, best materials, and decades of experience.  Such boats were extremely rare in North America;  the only one I knew of had been snatched up by Randall Reeves before it was even listed.  He’s attempting a solo, single-season circumnavigation of the Americas and Antarctica, so I tried to take it as an affirmation of my search criteria, but mostly I was just jealous.

After two years of searching, during which time I managed to accrue some money in an office cubicle, we were finally ready to expand the search.  For Kara and I, expanding the search outside North America was a big step; it meant that if we found the right boat, we would drop everything — jobs, family, Orca — travel to evaluate her, and if everything worked out, we’d move aboard and begin the next voyage.  Looking overseas was a little like casting off the dock lines and casting off a life savings, all in one easy motion.  But how different could the boat market be, overseas?

I dialed in my search criteria, expanding the geography to include Europe:

Showing boats 1-25 of 118

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Sunset, a thousand from land.  Europe seems easily accessible in contrast…