The Zen of Wood Butchery

An Indian Ocean storm leads to an enlightened cockpit redesign. From "Makeovers and Refits" from our May 2009 issue

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Cap'n Fatty enjoys his new cockpit arrangement.Carolyn Goodlander

I consider myself more of a romantic than a scientist, but I've always been intrigued by the movement of water molecules, particularly in large numbers. Which brings me to the collection we encountered in the middle of the Indian Ocean, one measuring 20 feet high and moving fast. Picture a liquid mountain rushing toward you, and you'll begin to understand the bladder-releasing reality of it. It sounded like a wet, berserk freight train.

Our bow went down, and our transom up. Wild Card, our 38-foot S&S-designed sloop, traversed the face of the breaking wave like a seven-ton surfboard. At the helm, my arms were seriously cramping up, but I realized I had to keep her dead downwind or we'd broach-assuming that we didn't pitchpole in the trough.

"Having fun yet?" Carolyn, my wife, called up from the nav station, her voice muffled behind the closed and latched companionway. This is what she says when she thinks my "macho/stupid" approach has once again gotten us into danger. I didn't bother to respond.

Wild Card attempted to carve to starboard, and it took all my strength to wrench the tiller and haul her back on course. Now I was dead downwind, and we actually seemed to be flying. There was a hissing sound in the foam. The bow itself was pointing into empty air. My rudder jerked with aeration. Sweat was pouring off me. I tried not to whimper.

"We got 12.3," said Carolyn as she called off the boat speed, "Now 13.6. Sheesh, 14.4 knots!" I knew, of course, that we shouldn't be going this fast and that we should be towing a warp or our Galerider, but I couldn't leave the helm for a nanosecond. Then I realized: Here It comes!

The crest of the breaking wave was tumbling, hissing, and seething. Then bam! It was like getting rammed heavily, yet softly, not unlike being rear-ended by an unstoppable foam-rubber truck. Water exploded all around, and I did some cockpit swimming for a dazed moment as I regained my feet.

Suddenly, Wild Card was tons heavier. It was a sickening feeling. The bow arced and flinched in pain. The transom dragged like a sagging balloon. The tiller felt like it was in oatmeal. Then the floundering Wild Card rolled, mercifully, and flicked some of the water overboard. Then she dipped the other way, and more water poured overboard. She was like a big dog shaking herself after a bath. I felt a sudden surge of happiness as our large cockpit scuppers vacuum-sucked the rest away. But my cheerfulness lasted but a moment, for the next wave was already approaching.

The waves, in fact, stretched from horizon to horizon. I'd been consumed by this exercise for hours on end, and I'd be doing so, Lord willing, for many more. I had plenty of time to carefully observe how the waves slopped aboard each time we were pooped. Endless time.

I was dead-dog tired. I was scared. But I felt electric and alive. There's rare air out there, and I was breathing it. Few men do. "Hell's own roller coaster," I muttered, as the next wave broke into the cockpit.

Now bear with me, for I'm about to get to the point of this tale. My hours at the helm in the Indian Ocean tempest ultimately led to the creation of one of the best, most useful refit projects we've undertaken aboard Wild Card: a cockpit table/stowage area/lounging platform that maximizes the available space and makes the boat safer and more seaworthy, too.

Let's get one thing clear. I'm not a shipwright; I'm a wood butcher. I don't do yacht-quality work-I consider my technique "workboat fancy." Before the Indian Ocean adventure, I'd already constructed five different cockpit tables for Wild Card, each of which was a complete failure. One was too long and almost impossible to stow. Another had a springy stainless-steel wire that would launch plates and drinks high into the air every time somebody got up from the table. The following table had wobbly, easily dislodged legs that unceremoniously dumped stuff into our laps.

It was a vexing problem. Indeed, most cockpit tables are too flimsy and require too much time to set up. I wanted something we could use instantly at sea or at anchor, and it had to be solid enough that even our dumbest guest (an ongoing contest) couldn't upset it.

Then there was the matter of jerricans for fuel and water. I agree with Jimmy Cornell on this matter: They don't belong on deck. The problem is that in places where you can't go to the fuel dock because there isn't one, we need at least two fuel jugs and two water jugs to ferry our liquids out to the boat. We couldn't toss them overboard, but they're very difficult, very bulky things to live with.

And so it was that not long after that Indian Ocean pooping, I gave the cockpit dilemma a long and thorough think. Actually, just as I was bounding into the cockpit to top off our water tanks while daydreaming about an outside snack table, I was suddenly goosed by the rangy, ever-present tiller. And suddenly, like a lightbulb flashing overhead, it all became crystal clear. I jumped back below and gushed to Carolyn, "Hey, I just had a great idea!"

"Oh, dear," she said, frowning. "Any chance of unthinking it? I mean, you yourself often say, 'The problem with a good idea is that if you aren't careful, it can turn into work!'" But I was a man possessed. I'd come to a solution that answered all my needs.

The total cost of the cockpit-refit project was $200, mostly for a sheet of marine-grade plywood and two small planks of local wood dressed to my specs. As with most good ideas, it was simple: We built an arch across the cockpit and raised the rudderhead. This allowed us to cover our unsightly empty fuel and water jugs, significantly lessen the amount of blue water we take when pooped, fold our steering tiller backward onto our Monitor aft-facing stationary tiller, gain a flat meditation area in port (already dubbed "Buddhaville" in Fat-speak), and enjoy a sturdy, cool, folding cockpit table that needs neither legs nor springs to hold it up securely.

We did it all at anchor, mostly with hand tools, though for certain tasks we also used an electric saber saw, a 3/8-inch drill, a sander, and a router. Sawing the lumber by hand wasn't too bad-I considered it a Zenlike test of patience. I simply allowed my saw blade to "fall" through the wood as I stroked it. (I'll admit, however, that by the end of the week my right arm looked like Popeye's).

The most difficult part was machining the stainless-steel and aluminum parts with a hacksaw, a rusty file, and a cheap drill. I worried that this might be impossible, spending hours upon hours machining each crude part. But it wasn't. I was working with the most beautiful, sensuous partner imaginable. We were in paradise.

At one point, I gave Carolyn one of my lectures on how to measure something accurately. Then I spent two hours carefully sawing by hand a piece which turned out to be one inch too short.

"Oh, brilliant!" Carolyn laughed. "Perhaps we can epoxy some sawdust onto each end?"

"I didn't want to make the joint so tight that we couldn't use our gallon of wood-filler," I said lamely. "A gallon of wood-filler doth not a shipwright make," she intoned, adding something about men's proclivity to always see things bigger than they are.

And so, my friends, always remember: The trick isn't to avoid work but to embrace it! I'd rather spend five days butchering wood with Carolyn than attend all the parties in Hollywood. Why would I allow other people to work on my boat when it's the second most enjoyable thing my wife and I do together?

So now we have a glorious cockpit table. Our pesky tiller can be folded completely out of the way. Our unsightly jugs are out of sight. I believe that in a blow, less water will flood the cockpit because much of it will dash in and flow overboard. And we have a new, flat, shaded spot from which to contemplate the mysteries of the universe.
"How's it work?" Carolyn wondered from the galley after my half an hour in the lotus position.

"Oh, super well!" I reported with a beatific, gurulike smile. "I mean, I could feel the enlightenment just gushing into me, turbocharged with ancient wisdom as if I had a gigantic cosmic funnel atop my spongy brain."

"Do you think I believe a word you say?" she asked with a dismissive wave of her dishrag.

"I bet I can make you laugh," I parried.

"Besides that," she giggled.

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander is a CW editor at large.