Spring Fit-Out: Captains Incorrigible
It's 6:30 p.m. and Captain Noah Barnes has just arrived at his Rockland home. Today is Cinco de Mayo, and Barnes is throwing an impromptu party for his crew. In the kitchen, the Schooner Sisters mix up a batch of margaritas while Barnes takes a seat at the table. Despite another long day of fit-out, the captain is bright-eyed and energetic. The Stephen Taber captain is a comfortable and entertaining speaker; while so many of us speak in rough drafts, Barnes presents a finished product. This isn't to say he's rehearsed; he just thinks well on his feet. He's one part monologist and one part pugilist. If you're not careful, he'll sock you with a bon mot.
Today, Barnes is talking a blue streak.
"All this frantic expressiveness is due to the fact that during fit-out, I feel like I'm losing my mind," Barnes says. "There are so many things to keep straight, and so many little jobs to do. Spring fit-out is like opening a new restaurant, but we do it every year. And, in our case, it's worse. A restaurant can go out of business, but it can't sink. Your chances of killing people in a restaurant are very limited. It's different on a boat. If you don't rig correctly, or if you don't have a well-functioning crew…let's just say the stakes are high."
So what exactly is spring fit-out? Why is it necessary? What makes it so difficult? And, if it is so difficult, why do people put up with it year after year?
"Fit-out is a hugely complex, multi-variant problem," says Barnes. "Certain things have to happen in a particular order. People with varying skills are showing up to work in that particular order. In the meantime, the weather can do whatever the hell it wants to do. A week of rain, or rain on the wrong day, can mess up your whole week. It can throw off your schedule such that people aren't arriving on the right day and the jobs aren't getting done."
Putting away the cover.
"The basic fit-out routine is the same: you sand and paint," says Garth Wells, captain of the Lewis R. French. "You generally start on April 1. You sand and paint everything on deck, take off the cover, haul out the boat, paint the hull, put the boat back in the water, then continue painting on nice days or rig on wet days. Then, during the week before our first trip in late May, the crew bends on the sails, cleans the cabins, and cleans the galley. But there are always other projects going on throughout fit-out. One of the jobs I'm doing this spring - which I'm not looking forward to - is cleaning out the holding tank. I'm going to stick my arm into the tank and scrape out calcified poop with a giant spoon." Wells shakes his head and sighs. "I really wish I had a robot."
Along with the routine maintenance, most special projects are known in advance and planned for, but some crop up without warning.
"You'll find one big surprise every year," says Wells. "Someone will be sanding along and say, 'Hey, can you take a look at this? The paint is really peeling over here.' It usually turns out to be some rotting wood. So, yeah, there's always some sort of surprise, but so far we haven't needed to fix anything major."
"Two years ago, we were nine days away from sailing and I realized I needed a new bowsprit," says Barnes. "A bowsprit is a 35-foot long 16x16; it is a tapered, beveled, rounded, pointed, ironwork-laden piece of wood that has to be very specifically shaped. I made it in seven days, but it took me every daylight hour to do it. And it took me away from doing everything else."
Barnes takes a deep breath, takes a sip of his strong margarita, and shrugs his shoulders.
"Fit-out is difficult for me to wrap my head around," he says, "but this is coming from someone who's been in the business for five years as opposed to fifteen or twenty. What I tend to do is work very hard for two straight months and try to finish everything in time for us to go sailing. It'd be great if I knew how to do it better than that. If I did, I wouldn't get nauseous on Mother's Day. Mother's Day, for me, is usually when the panic sets in."
"We've got it down," says Barry King, captain of the Mary Day. King is oddly relaxed for a schooner captain at this time of year, but he admits it wasn't always this way. "Sixteen years ago, during our first year on the boat, we did all of fit-out in six weeks. All of it. In six weeks. That's what the times could afford, and we had the energy for it back then. Nowadays we keep an employee going all winter long at our home. He's sanding, painting, and varnishing boat parts. If something on the boat isn't bolted down - and even if it is - it goes back to our house, and we spend the winter refinishing it."
That isn't to say the Mary Day crew is sitting idle this spring.
"These people are working their keisters off," King says of his crew. "It's hard work."
"It's been a while since I've done manual labor," says Rob Millebrandt, the Mary Day's messmate who, until recently, was a computer programmer in Denver. "I knew I'd be doing a lot of sanding and painting, but it's still a slight adjustment from, you know, keywords."
"I'm always counting the days until I'm sailing," says Meg Patterson, messmate on the Victory Chimes. "I mean there's definitely a virtue to doing all this maintenance, but you always keep a weather eye to the day you're going to be out on the water."
"By the time the season rolls around and we actually have to go to work, the sailing seems like vacation," says Barnes. "And that's great, because if you haven't broken the spirits of your crew, they're going to be too resilient. If you haven't crushed them beneath your filthy, marine mung-encrusted heel by then, maybe they have the wherewithal to stand up to your continued verbal and emotional abuse," he says with a coy smile. "And maybe by then they've forged into a team. Maybe the common misery has banded them together and they'll like each other despite the fact that they're going to be living in a collective space that's smaller than an SUV, and they won't be any farther apart than 68 feet. This process forges your crew."
"Fit-out was probably my least favorite part of the season," says Alex Fee, "but the social aspect of fit-out was a lot of fun. Once you start sailing, you rarely see your friends whether they're on land or other boats. Schedules are all over the place. Plus, when you're out there sailing you have to be on the ball; you're under a constant state of heightened awareness. During fit-out you're working hard, but you're also hanging out with good people and you get to go to the bar after work and spend most of your paycheck Monday through, well, Monday. Fit-out is fun for that reason. But I'm not really a big fan of painting. Sanding and painting day in and day out is not fun."
"Fit-out is not my favorite part of the year," says Barnes, "but it is exciting and it gets me emotionally ready for the season."
Barnes leans back in his chair, takes another quick sip from his glass, and nods.
"All of us want to start the season with schooners that are in terrific shape. There's no such thing as a captain who doesn't take pride in his or her vessel. If we didn't care how our boats looked, fit-out wouldn't be at all difficult. Instead we want to look at our boats with satisfaction and pride. We want to sigh and chuck ourselves on the chin and say, 'good job.'"
Up next: The North End Shipyard