Mistakes made and lessons learned

Warm and sunny with a gentle yet salty breeze blowing off the bay, it was a perfect weekend by New England standards. Sailors took to the water like a swarm of locusts. While Schooners and Lasers were out swapping wakes, I was impatiently prepping my mast hardware for installation. While I was physically in a dark shed counting screws and straightening my bent bronze track my mind was on a mooring in Jamestown.

It was this restlessness that prompted me to put a 10th coat of varnish on an already finished mast. There were a couple sags and few pesky drips that called to me.  I hastily answered that call. Leaving the garage door open, the sun shining with a slight breeze, along with some loud country music made this chore a near pleasant experience. Other shop workers came and went providing a steady stream of company and conversation.

The next day I strolled up to the shop to reorganize my mast hardware and take a minute to step back and admire my finished mast…or so I thought. The runs in my mast varnish previously were weekend joggers compared to the Kenyan marathoners that now danced across the shiny Spruce. To make matters worse a fine layer of dust and dirt had settled into the mast.

It was as disheartening and frustrating a moment that I’ve had since my original mast broke apart, this time, I had no one to blame but myself. My ego got in my way and I didn’t do the prep work necessary to varnish a mast, let alone adhere the final coat. It was a mistake I would not make twice.

Closing the garage door, I hosed down the floor, re-sanded the mast and even changed my dust-covered clothes. In a much more monk-like atmosphere, I was able to put a smooth-as-glass final layer of varnish on the mast, one that I felt proud of when I took a step back.

There is no place for an oversized ego when it comes to boating and boat restoration. I hope keeping that in mind will help me join my boating brethren soon.

I love the smell of Varnish in the morning (and night)

Driving over the Pell Bridge between Newport and Jamestown , I couldn’t help but notice more and more boats out on the water. The sailboats gliding across the bay were so close yet so far away. Though it was impossible to see, I imagined the sailors had smiles as full as their sails, laughing at the commuters above them. I was jealous but I know (/hope) I will be joining them soon and tonight was a big step. I showed up to the shop after work to give my mast one last sanding with 300 grit paper and hopefully apply the first coat of varnish. After a light final sanding, Jim inspected it.

“I’m happy with it. I think it’s ready for varnish,” I said, more asking than telling.

“Knock yourself out,” said Jim who reminded me to shut off the lights when I was done.

Armed with a foam bursh, some paint thinner and a quart of Epifanes high gloss clear varnish, I took to it. Cracking the fresh can of varnish after nearly seven months of working on the mast was a great feeling. It smelled like victory.

ImageCarefully mixing eight ounces of thinner with eight ounces of varnish, I stirred up my first batch. The 1:1 ratio is used for the first two coats to seal the wood. Later rounds of varnish will be done with a ratio closer to seven parts varnish one part thinner and will be done with a badger hair bursh and will require almost an artists patience and smooth hand to ensure a high-shine finish. The only one in the shop that night, I took the liberty of blasting some of my favorite country songs from my phone and started coating the mast. The work was easy, and dare I even say, fun. Seeing an immediate change, is not something I’ve been accustomed to with this project so watching the bare wood take on a shine, as slight as it may be, was a rewarding experience. Then entire mast took less than an hour to coat.


I was so excited to be varnishing and to have the run of the shop that despite the fact that 9 o’clock was pressing upon me, I decided to hit my favorite bench grinder to clean up my winch handle, which would complete the set of winches I had in a box of hardware.

Tonight was a small victory but I have learned, when it comes to boat restoration, you need to celebrate those too.

The Big Glue

Before today, when people would ask to see a picture of the mast that has been taking up many weekends I sheepishly passed them a shot on my phone of the four long pieces of wood stacked neatly on top one another.

“Oh, cool” was the standard-polite answer, said through disappointed and surprised eyes.

I looked forward to putting that behind me as it was finally time for Jim and I to glue the mast together. To accomplish something like this Jim explained that we were going to need clamps, and a lot of them.

No problem, I thought as I looked around the carpentry shop that had clamps lying everywhere.

As if reading my mind, Jim said, “no, not those clamps. We are gunna have to make some,” without putting any emphasis on the word we. I would spend the day scouring the shop for scraps of wood to stick threaded pipe through to make 35 homemade mast clamps. These cheap clamps would end up being much better than small metal clamps because you didn’t have to worry about the glue damaging the tools.


When we were ready to glue all four sides together Jim enlisted the help of a couple of his employees. Together the four of us slathered West Epoxy on 140-feet of wood. I wish I could say this was done is a clean assembly line like format, no this was very much a free for all. Running from one end to the other cover making sure we didn’t miss a spot. Working together, we clamped the sides of the mast to the sides of the blocking and then placed the top piece down.


The hand made clamps would be put into place and tightened just like the blocking, with a little pressure being adding to the clamps one at a time. With each turn glue would ooze from the seems, dripping down the mast until they either landed on the clamps or the floor below.

Before this process began I donned a pair of disposable gloves which, didn’t do one bit of good. My hands were so sticky it felt as if I can finger-paint the glue onto the mast. From my Sperry’s to my hair (epoxy works as one tough hair gel) I was covered in the super-strong glue.


I began to wipe up the glue covered mast when Jim suggested that I “just leave it, it’ll keep dripping like that for a while.” If this sounds familiar to you, like a similar situation had happened in my last blog post, than you are a quicker learner than I am.

Block Head

The sun had yet to creep over the horizon and greet the sleepy seaside town of Newport when my cell phone/alarm clock began blaring music and vibrating next to my brain. Looking out the window onto the silent street below my apartment, I swear you could tell just by looking that it was going to be a cold day.

Is there anybody else working on their boat today, I wondered as I dragged myself into my car (waited for it to heat up) and began making my way to Mount Hope. I thought we would be gluing the four sides of the mast together today.

After chatting about our goals for the day, our breathe visible in the air, Jim told me that today’s project was to build the blocking for the mast. I learned that the mast would basically be hollow except for the three places (in my case) where it needs the most support, the bottom, about two-thirds of the way up where the spreaders are and the masthead (the top).  It didn’t sound too difficult but I swear Jim can make launching the space shuttle seem as simple as tying your shoes . The blocking couldn’t just be drilled into their places, we would need to glue tracks to the inside of the mast for it to rest and be glued to. This meant another full round of measurements.

Also, building the precise blocking we needed  required gluing four to six spare pieces of Spruce together.


Once we had the measurements we needed, I glued the Spruce boards together by applying West Epoxy to both faces and them clamped them together. Jim explained, the best way  to clamp  together something like this is to start with the corners, so they don’t slide on you, then add clamps every few inches around the perimeter. You’ll want to tighten a clamp on one side then tighten the clamp opposite just like if you were tightening the lug nuts on a tire.

Keep in mind that a lot of the glue you just put on will leak out the sides when you do this, essentially gluing the blocking to the bench you’re working on. Jim told me to just glue it up and not worry about gluing it to the bench. (He would later be telling me where he kept his spare heat gun and chisels.)

Finally prying my crucial mast supports from a stubborn bench, Jim introduced me to a machine known as the jointer. This large machine would rip the faces of the blocking and ensure that they had perfect 90-degree angles. As we cleaned off and set up the jointer, Jim shared one of his famous stories about how that same machine ripped the fingers from the hand of his high school classmate and how they were never seen again.

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I decided to graciously let Jim handle the jointing, nice guy that I am. Once jointed up and sanded we drilled a hole in the blocking for the antennae and masthead light to pass through.


Recently I’ve been telling some locals sailors that I’ve met about the new mast project, which is typically met with rolled eyes, deep exhales and looks as though I’m crazy and there are times driving in the snow to work on a mast when I think they might be right. But if I didn’t have the opportunity to work alongside Jim on this project, I would never have known about the inner workings of a mast and why things like blocking are important. Not knowing any of that is what sounds crazy to me.

A handshake a prayer

Going into a business agreement with Jim Titus, is unlike going into business with anyone else. There are no signatures on a formal document. There are no estimates, timetables or schedules of anysort. No, with Jim, all decisions end with the handshake from a hand callused from a life of marine carpentry.

A native New Yorker, who is typically slow to trust, I started to sweat my nonchalant, contract free agreement, especially at first. For weeks after the wood arrived at Jim’s shop, a dozen calls and a half dozen emails to the shop owner went unanswered. Mount Hope seemed an appropriate business name as the pressure was mounting, and all I had was the hope that I could trust a local carpenter who told me he would give me a good deal.

I drove by his shop one afternoon to see if I could catch him. Sure enough he saw me, gave me a wave and asked me how I was doing. I went on to ask him 21 questions about getting started on the mast. The full WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and especially HOW. Jim just smiled, explained that he was just finishing up some other projects but assured me that we would get started soon enough. And with that he went back to work. As I was leaving I spotted a young guy carrying some tools from the shop. After exhcnaging pleasentries the journalist in me began asking him what he thought about Jim and Mount Hope.

“You see these tools,” the young man asked gesturing to the power tools in his arms.

I told him that I did.

“I left these tools in the shop before I went over to Afghanistan,” he said. He explained that in a business where tools are often misplaced or walk off, every tool he left there before being deployed was waiting for him when he returned.

It seemed like a small thing, holding on to someone’s tools but to this soldier it meant a whole lot.

“You’ve come to the right place. Jim will take care of you,” said the soldier. “He takes care of everyone around here. He’s sort of like Newport’s big brother.”

He picked up the rest of his tools, wished me luck and strolled off, taking with him all of my earlier concerns.

Sealing the Deal

A few days after verbally agreeing to hire Jim Titus to build a wooden mast for me, it was time to as they say, put my money where my mouth is. I had to pay Jim for the wood needed for the construction. I assumed this process would include a trip to our local Home Depot and a pair of flat carts.

“We’ll want to go will some nice Sitka Spruce from up in Maine,” explained Jim. He would take a long pause, long enough for me to visual in horror the road trip with my new friend in his aging work van to Maine. “There is a place outside Boston that should have some.”

Ohh thank god. It wasn’t down the block but it wasn’t across the country either.

He told me he would pick it up in another week or two and I could just pay him for it later. This struck me as unorthodox coming from a business owner but I agreed.

In the meantime, Jim instructed me to cut my old mast in half so we could throw it in his truck and bring it to the shop, there it would serve as an on-scene template.

Eager to get the process started, I borrowed a sawzall and buzzed down to where my mast lay broken. I ran a few extension cords and found the center of the mast and prepared to rip into it.

Now at this point there has been multiple occasions since buying the boat where I second-guessed myself but this one was stays vivid in my mind. Once in two pieces no amount of opoxy, clamps and hope would rebuild my water logged mast.

After a few deep breathes and a lot of mumbling to myself (which surely concerned the marinas employees who looked on) I took a leap of faith and dug the blade into the heart of a mast that was more than half a century old. I wish I could say I felt relieved when after the mast was cut, like I finally had commited to building a new one, not the case.

A few days would pass before the mast was brought over the Mount Hope and even longer before a fresh pile of 20-foot long Sitka Spruce planks would arrive (the cost of the wood was $700). The broken mast lying next to pile of planks were in sharp contrast to each other. The past and present, a long winter and myriad of lessons lay before me. Looking at the two, I had more questions than I had answers. The only thing I did know, was there was no turning back now.