Hotel California Dinghy
01 June 2020
My bed is like a little boat;
Nurse helps me in when I embark;
She girds me in my sailor's coat
And starts me in the dark.
At night I go on board and say
Good-night to all my friends on shore;
I shut my eyes and sail away
And see and hear no more.
Robert Louis Stevenson
(recited to me by Grandma Whitford as she tucked me in)
The Covid 19 pandemic emerged as Lisa and I had sailed Uproar from Moorea into Papeete, Tahiti. We anchored inside the reef, near the airport. This is our favorite anchorage in Tahiti. The airport is not that busy, there are sandy spots to anchor and coral reefs to snorkel.
French Polynesia, like most of the world, put in place some tight quarantine restrictions. We could go to shore, only for essential groceries or medical needs and must carry a form signed and dated for that day and destination. We were only allowed to swim around our boats. We felt lucky for this as cruisers in the Marquesas, FP were not allowed to swim, even to clean their boat bottom. About 40 boats anchored in this anchorage. We knew many of them from our two years cruising French Polynesia. We got to know many more as we started the Hotel California net, every morning at 9:00 on VHF, ch 68.
We and all cruisers in Hotel California hung on the world news daily. Our futures remained uncertain. Sure, we were in an idyllic place but we were virtually prisoners in a gilded cage. Airline flights were suspended. Other countries in the South Pacific would not accept cruisers. We could check out but we could not go anywhere else! The range of emotions changed daily. At least we were safe in an area with very few cases of the virus. We had each other, plenty of food and friends nearby but social distancing.
We also had a nice stack of local mahogany in the quarter berth. Our daughter was pregnant again, due in August. I had always wanted to build a dinghy cradle and a new grandchild gave me the incentive. The Warren Jordan Baby Cradle caught my eye and I ordered the plans. Mail delivery ceased to FP but Warren kindly sent me PDFs of the plans. I was able to scale up the mold formers and transom which is all I needed for the general shape. The lapstrake, copper riveted construction was going to be too difficult for me, building the dinghy on Uproar. I planned to use strip plank construction.
A private sawmill in Moorea supplied the wood. I like to do simple wood projects on Uproar and seek out local sources for beautiful, tropical woods. Michel's father planted 6,000 mahogany trees on Moorea, many years ago. He sold me a rough plank to check out the qualities of the wood. I hand planed it and sawed it into the uprights of the dinghy davits. It was beautiful wood but pretty hard for strip planking. Lisa and I made another trip to Michel's and selected some other planks. After some coaxing, Michel agreed to plane it and rip to the sizes I needed. When I saw his elaborate wood shop, I asked him to rip all of the 1/4" strips I would need to plank the dinghy. Access to someone with these tools is quite limited and I believe I took advantage of Michel. I told him I should have brought glue and let him build the boat!
Michel drove us back down the hill in his pick-up truck with a bundle of wood in back. Lisa and I dinghied it back to Uproar. The project had begun. A local building supply store had the sheet of plywood we needed for the mold. We brought the Japanese rip saw with us and cut the 4' x 8' sheet into strips we could use and get into our dinghy. Everything disappeared into our quarter berth along with three cases of beer we bought just because we were near the grocery store. Little did we know alcohol sales would soon be curtailed in FP.
We sailed to Tahiti because we were expecting a shipment from the US with a new Mercury 20 HP, EFI outboard (love it) and bicycles from our son Steve's shop, South Shore Cyclery in Milwaukee. Right after we received the shipment, quarantine rules came into play. We would not be allowed to ride the bikes. We were able to go to the big Carrefour store and re-fill our wine locker. We had spent the past six months in the remote Tuamotus. Days later, alcohol sales were banned. Our timing was spot on!
Working with wood on a sailboat has its challenges. There is not one flat and level surface except for the cockpit floor. I made a small work surface with vice to put over our cockpit snack table. To cut, plane or sand a piece of wood, I had to find a place to anchor it in place by sitting on it and not damage the cockpit of Uproar. Sawing was particularly challenging because the wood was always held at an angle. We do have a 110 volt inverter but the only power tools I have are a sander, cordless drill and jig saw. The jig saw was used only for curves. Hand, Japanese pull saws work great for straight cuts but are slow and tiring. No problem, I had all the time in the world. Good thing, I ran out of strips and had to hand rip them from 1 1/2"thick planks, then saw again to 1/4" thickness.
The mold was completed and strip planking came next. I was worried that the mahogany would be quite stiff for planking. It was! The strips would bend without breaking but strips need to bend in two planes and twist to conform to the mold. Light cedar does this perfectly, hard mahogany fights back! But again, time was of no concern and with a lot of cutting and fitting, the boat shell was completed. It was a special day when I was able to pull it off the mold. Now we had a real, little boat.
The design of the frame or davits came partly from the plans and partly my own design. I wanted to make all joinery self-locking without metal fasteners. I did install threaded rods to hold the davit feet in place but the feet fit quite tightly on the uprights. The horizontal stretcher is mortise and tenoned into the uprights and held with Rosewood, tapered wedges. I had scrounged some scraps of hard, Black Coconut wood and pearl oyster shells I used for the inlay in the stem. I needed a rabet plane to size the tenons so I made one, using an old chisel as the iron.
The stretcher was a massive plank, way out of proportion to the rest of the project. I used some ship's curves I had to draw the waves. It lightened the plank and added some interest. Planing, sanding and finishing completed the project. We assembled the parts on our deck and hung the dinghy with some vintage-looking line. Several dinghies came by to admire the work. Those close to us had heard lots of pounding, sawing and perhaps a smattering of the King's English coming from Uproar. Not all of it was from me. Lisa had to endure quite a mess for the entire month. Not only was sawdust everywhere but the tanins in the mahogany stained the gelcoat like strong tea. Lisa would take over when I was exhausted from a days work and bucket out the sawdust. When the project was completed, she bleached the gelcoat back to white. Thanks, Lisa for hanging in there with me.
There is nothing like the anticipation of a new life to bring hope and joy. Lisa asked me why the dinghy was hung, sailing into the waves. I hadn't planned it that way but told her it is a metaphor for life. Life involves a lot of sailing upwind but with proper guidance one can sail through the storms into calm waters. We are certain Liz and Victor will provide that guidance for our new grandchild. The dinghy will be christened, "Miss Sylvia" after my mom. We are confident the world will return enough to normal to allow us to visit our new grandchild this fall, in her little boat.