Refit or Replace?

Simple upgrades can go a long way toward making an old boat new again.

March 28, 2011

Cal 39 Refit

New upholstery breathes life into Red Skye’s dated interior, and the slimmer table makes moving around the settee much easier. Barbara Warren

The time finally came in our lives when we could cruise more frequently and for longer periods than we had in the past, and now we had a choice to make. Our 1979 Cal 39, Red Skye, which we’d owned for 14 years, is a great sailing boat, but she was dated down below and lacked many of the features that new boats have, such as a roller-furling main or a second cabin, things that make sailing and living aboard more comfortable or easier. So we went to the boat show in Newport, Rhode Island, to shop for a new boat. But after boarding many models, we came to feel that our Cal was stronger and had better lines than many of the boats we saw. So we chose to refit rather than replace. We’d actually already started. Over the previous years, we’d done work on the engine, replaced the through-hulls, soda-blasted and barrier-coated the bottom, and installed a new rudder and shaft and a new stuffing box and strut bearing. We’d also added a holding tank, refrigeration, a Balmar high-output alternator with a smart voltage regulator, and upgraded electronics. Now we needed to make her more comfortable.

After we committed to keeping Red Skye, we replaced the old heavy main with a fully battened main and a StackPack from Doyle. We decided that we wanted the extra performance that a fully battened main provides (instead of installing a rolling-furling system), and we added a Lewmar 46 self-tailing electric winch to make raising, reefing, and lowering the main easier. We now call it our “geriatric system.”

Then we went down below. We took ideas we’d seen on some newer models and applied them to our boat. First, we needed new upholstery and better sleeping cushions. At the Newport show, we found Susan Lennox of Nautical Needles, based in Westport, Connecticut. She guided us to a great upholstery choice, one that blends with and wears well with our golden retriever, Savannah. Susan’s best idea, probably, was to add memory foam to the V-berth cushions. The extra 4 inches of this magic foam provided incredible nights of sleep on our 28 days of cruising last summer.


We also wanted more room and organization below. The original saloon table made it difficult to sit on the port settee and restricted access to the cabinets and shelves on the port side. Barbara also hated how the quarter berth ended up being a storage dump for tool boxes and the like; she felt that she always seemed to end up headfirst in the disorganized pile trying to find what she needed. We also had a desire to kill the blue Formica that the previous owner used to cover the caning on the cabinet doors.

The Internet helped us connect with Pete from Thai Teak Marine. We emailed him measurements and pictures, and he provided us with custom louvers for four doors and four new sliding teak galley doors. To solve the problem of our quarter-berth abyss, we closed in the area under the chart table with shelves to organize all the tools and spare parts behind new teak doors. “Thailand Pete,” as we now call him, made the teak frame and doors that blended well with nearby woodwork. But best of all, he helped us redesign our saloon table. Instead of the old 20-inch-wide table with a single large flip-over extension, we now have a 10-inch-wide table with two smaller flip-up leaves. We can still seat seven for dinner and have more room to get to the port shelves.

Last and most challenging on our list of renovations was to replace the four opening ports with new stainless-steel ports from Newfound Metals . One port leaked, and some were brittle and obviously needed to be replaced. This was the scariest project because it involved cutting and sanding the port openings, but by following the clear directions and Newfound Metals’ very patient coaching over the phone, the installation was a great success. It was the dirtiest part of the refit, and a few times we thought we might be in over our heads, but we succeeded. Now we have easy-to-open ports that provide more light below.


We couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Red Skye took us all around Narragansett Bay, Cape Cod, and Buzzards Bay last summer. Next year, we hope to cruise the harbors of Maine, where our new radar will come in handy. We’re now thinking about replacing the remaining fixed ports with opening ports for even more light and fresh air below. Red Skye celebrated her 31st birthday last season, and we look forward to many more years of cruising aboard our beautiful boat.

Barbara Warren and Jim Preston live on Shelter Island, New York, and keep Red Skye at the Shelter Island Yacht Club.


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