The Foulness of Fairing

Our intrepid builder tackles a chore he loathes more than any other: fairing the topsides. "Hands-On Sailor" from our December 2009 issue

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Fairing compound applied by a skillful local drywall finisher helped ease the pain of fairing the topsides for the Warrior.Danialle Zartman

In the course of finishing our Cape George 31 cutter, I try to limit my calls for help only to those times when I can't do something on my own, and I knew, as soon as I saw my first lumpy application of fairing compound, that I was going to need some help. The topsides needed to be faired.

I didn't really want to do this tedious, backbreaking work, but when your wife allows you to spend all her savings on a kit boat and to put all of your income toward finishing it, she must have her say in the results. And when her ideas of what's good enough differ radically from yours, you must bend to her will. It's only fair.

I knew all this when I showed Danielle the newly glassed topsides, and I knew, too, that my efforts to mask the inevitable bumps and hollows would likely be in vain, but I still harbored the faint hope that maybe she'd let me out of fairing the whole thing. I've faired altogether too much already, and I know two things for sure: one, that I detest fairing above all other boat-related activities; and two, I'm not very good at it. On our last boat, we spent six months fairing the topsides, and still Danielle would sigh and shake her head as she squinted along the almost perfectly smooth deck.

To me, the topsides and deck were already beautiful: seamlessly glassed over, with deep coamings around every hatch and built-in cockpit lockers. What more could a person want?

"I want this all smooth," said Danielle, her critical eye unmoved by the strength and practicality of it all. "How can you stand looking at this?"

"It'll look much better once we get all the hardware installed and we put in the portholes," I suggested hopefully. "It really isn't all that uneven. It's just that the pattern of the fiberglass mat shows through."

She doesn't-bless her heart-put her foot down often, but this time she did, and I knew it was fruitless to argue. Even though summer was coming and it would soon be over a 100 F, the topsides and deck must be made smooth. So I rounded up the materials: some gelcoat, a 36-pound sack of microballoons, and a variety of sander belts. The belts were cheaper than a fairing board-I simply cut a piece of plywood that slipped inside the belt, wedged it tight with a wooden block on the back side, and had my inexpensive yet formidable fairing board.

It was the first application of fairing compound that sent me scurrying for help. But who knows anything about fairing topsides in the California foothills? Half these people have never even seen an oceangoing boat.

"John Worden's a drywall finisher," suggested Danielle. "Maybe he can give you some pointers."

It was a dynamite idea. Not only did John give me pointers; he did most of the compound smearing for me-which saved lots of time, since one or two skillful passes of his spatula would leave large sections of deck almost perfectly smooth.

There was still much sanding to be done, but Danielle would rise before dawn and toil away for an hour or two before breakfast, and I'd sand till the sun became too hot. With the three of us working, the topsides and deck were done in less than four months. The four most horrible months of my life, to be sure, but at last, the job is done. The gelcoat and nonskid didn't take long, and as I surveyed the finished product, I had to admit that Danielle was right. The boat sure looks good.

"Now we can bolt hardware on," said my wife with satisfaction, "and it'll hide the unevenness that's left."
I almost said, "Provided that I can put it all on straight," but I didn't. It's best to leave well enough alone.

Ben Zartman continues to knock vile endeavors-like fairing the topsides-off his to-do list and will file another progress report in due time.