Decking the Boat, Decking the Halls

Travelogue - December 22, 2007

Western Wonderland

Greetings boat-folk, friends and family.

We had a wonderful summer in Wyoming. We gave our mountain bikes, hiking boots, garden tools and knapsacks a good workout and spent lots of quality time with friends (Hi everyone!). We visited Pat's parents in Lincoln City, Oregon and her aunt and cousins in Cheyenne. And we enjoyed the results of our hard labors in the garden.

Miss Goldie gave the field mice a run for their money. She even cornered a garter snake and a chipmunk, both of which we rescued in time.

While Rick wasn't scaling mountain peaks or cruising the trails on his mountain bike, he was working diligently for his clients. In what little remained in the way of spare time, he designed and built a water level gauge and an anchor alarm for Sea Gator! Click on the links to see how he did it, and be amazed.

In Memorium

We flew to Florida on Thursday, November 29, with mixed feelings: already missing our friends in Wyoming, eager to see Sea Gator - and uneasy about facing a winter without Don. In Punta Gorda that night we opened Rick parents' house for the season and walked through an empty house ringing with memories.

Don and Lu, April 2006 As you may know, Don passed away suddenly, peacefully, at home in Rhode Island on June 2, 2007, to the great shock and sorrow of his family and many friends.

Don was a devoted husband, father, father-in-law, mon Oncle, friend and Pépère. He was also dockmaster of the family Marina, and Sea Gator's biggest fan and most enthusiastic supporter. His strength, humor and enthusiasm will be missed.

Today, the house is haunted. Not by a presence, but by an absence. Maybe that's what a ghost is: the hollow space where a person used to be.

Boat Works

Well, if Don were here he'd admonish us to not sit around moping, but to get to the work that needs doing. So we began the processes of opening the house and getting Sea Gator back on the water.

Donald and Rick Rick's oldest brother Donald accompanied his mom to Florida. He and Rick de-summer-ized the house (is that a word?). Left, they remove the hurricane screens. Here's what the hurricane screen salesman didn't reveal about screen removal: you perform the job with one hand holding a screwdriver and the other holding a can of quick-acting bug terminator. Yeep!

Donald did a lot of work around the house, played a round of golf with Don's buddies, and paid a visit to his Uncle Arthur's family to celebrate the first birthday of second-cousin Sophie who apparently has the whole family wrapped around her tiny finger.

And he came out to visit Sea Gator on her stilts one day. Thank goodness, for his help was invaluable. "Visit" included wrestling Bump Head up onto his platform and waxing the port-side hull.

Thanks, Donald!

Jay and Sea Gator A few days later, our friend Jay K. came to see us. This brave soul had joined us on our very First Cruise from Marinatown to Bimini Basin - what a trooper! This year, Jay had been visiting his dad in Ft. Myers and we were really happy that he could break free to visit with us. His "visit" included waxing Sea Gator's transom and offering moral support and flashlight duty when Rick realized that the primary bilge pump had fried and died.

Thanks, Jay!

It was great to be with such a long-time friend in our new surroundings.

That was also the day they launched Sea Gator, as you can see in the photo, right. Jay was as fascinated by the process as we were. Even the hired laborer on the nearby sailboat came along to watch. You can see the big lift in play on our first season's last travelogue and second season's first travelogue.

In the well Sea Gator's engines hacked up a hairball (or its diesel equivalent) then purred to life. No water gushed in, and we motored easily to tie up alongside All American Boat Storage's long dock to await the next high tide.

Across Charlotte Harbor

Bright and early on Friday, December 7, we caught a ride from Lu back to the dock. We spent the morning puttering calmly until a test of the electronics proved that the upper helm's remote display of the depth sounder was on the fritz. What?! OK, new pre-launch checklist item: Test and verify all electronics.

No problem. Two hours before high tide we cast off, waved to All American, and puttered on down the canal. At the tricky spots I ran down to the lower helm station to the primary display, which was functioning just fine, and yelled depths up to Rick: "4.5!" "4.0!" "Still 4.0!" "4.0!". We had no problems.

At high tide we arrived at the South Gulf Cove lock and found that it has been improved and simplified from the way we'd encountered it previously. The County has updated the controls, so folks who own homes "above" the lock can open the gates remotely, which is cool for them; and transients like us can operate the controls from our decks. Which saves a lot of scary running and leaping.

Calm harbor A minute later it was back to the lower helm to call out depths as we negotiated the shallows which caught us last time. Yep, we remembered exactly where we ran aground last year (see travelogue Return to the Sea). No problems, and we breezed on through! (Amapola must have come fetched his skeg, that's why we didn't get hung up). Relieved, we wiped the sweat from our brows and cruised into the Harbor.

We wished Donald could have stayed an extra day and made the crossing with us. It was a great cruise on a beautiful day as you can see from the photo.

In fact it was so calm, easy and uneventful that one of our crew members (it was me) fell asleep less than half-way across the Harbor, and didn't come to until we'd already traveled several long legs of the PGI canal system. Fortunately, Rick was piloting at the time.

We arrived at La Marina right on schedule at 4:30 p.m., and tied up securely about 30 minutes before the wind kicked up. Goldie, who had stayed at the house, was happy to see us.

Deck Repairs

We couldn't put it off any longer. There have been a couple of soft spots on the sun deck from day one. We've been keeping a wary eye on them, now was the time to fix them. Rick decided to tackle the mid-sized and most easily accessible spot first.

Rick resting What a process! The first task was to cut through the fiberglass skin and remove it in careful slabs, preserving the non-skid panels in the process. That took nerves of steel! Rick did it with a circular saw, dremel tool and a router.

He found that the core itself was originally balsa plywood (see the darker, wet areas in the photo, right), sandwiched between two fiberglass skins. Part of the problem area also included a previous poor attempt at repair (in the far right corner of the photo) where someone had epoxied in pieces of rigid foam.

Here, Rick takes a well-earned break to chat on the cell phone with Gary W. from Little Mick. Gary commiserated, he and Rick talked and laughed, and Gary offered some practical suggestions which proved to be very effective.

Also on the advice front: the folks at WestMarine recommended Tribal Boatworks Inc, so we gave them a call. We learned that Tribal's proprietor and our hero, Marvin, had decided that four years of college and a decade in front of a computer screen was just not doing it for him. So he abandoned software engineering in favor of his first love: boatbuilding. He was friendly, sincere and extremely knowledgeable. Check him out at

Early in our process Marvin paid a house call on Sea Gator. He observed the situation and helped Rick outline the plan, then made us a shopping list and ordered the materials for us. Then he waved a cheerful "good luck to all!" and vanished into the night. Like Santa Clause. Only it was day.

Skinned deck With a clear course laid out, Rick scraped and scoured and sanded and grinded away the unsound deck "core" materials from the backs of the skins and from the deck itself. He had to carefully remove every bit of the balsa and foam and the epoxy holding it, all without dinging the fiberglass beneath (which forms the ceiling of our stateroom below). Did he accomplish this fragile task? Of course he did.

Here is a view of the project taken from the side deck. The junk has been cleaned out (a task of several days). Sound balsa was left in place as it will provide a firmer connection to the undisturbed fiberglass at the top of the steps. The light-colored area is a thin fiberglass fabric mat - it had a few old tears which explains some dripping during a downpour last winter - which lies atop the rigid ceiling of our stateroom. Rick taped plastic sheeting securely over the project area to protect it because, of course, it rained that very night.

Meanwhile, as Marvin had recommended, we trekked to Sarasota to buy our supplies at Fiberglass Services Inc.: semi-rigid plastic honey-combed core, fiberglass cloth, polyester resin and hardener, epoxy resin and catalyst. Ryan Bales ("Sales and Service") was helpful and knowledgeable. You can find a plethora of fiberglass and deck supplies at

Dry-fitting the new core Back to La Marina des shipyard:

"Measure twice, cut once." We cut a thin, plastic film pattern to fit the project area, and dry fitted it; then we transferred the pattern to a sheet of cardboard, and cut and dry-fitted that. Finally, we carefully cut the semi-rigid honey-combed core. Here, Rick dry fits the core.

Fiberglass Like a Pro

Even though you don't want to. Here are Marvin's helpful tips for self-preservation while working with fiberglass:

Suiting up Wear goggles and rubber gloves and a respirator or mask, of course, never mind it's 85 degrees. And cover your skin with baby powder, to keep the fibers from entering your pores. When you're done, take a very cool shower so your pores stay closed to keep out the fibers; shower normally then rinse again with very cool water. We can attest that it helps!

We used our cardboard pattern to cut four full-area sheets of fiberglass cloth, plus bits and pieces to fill in low spots below the core. We dry-fit the whole package again to be sure the finished deck would be level.

Then it was all fumes, fibers and fun.

We prepped several paper buckets of polyester resin in advance, so we could add catalyst quickly when we were ready. As Marvin suggested, we didn't dip and dab: we poured out straight from the bucket then pushed and spread the polyester around as fast as we could with brushes. We could feel the heat through the bottom of the bucket as the curing process began kicking in.

Applying the resin We made a thick sloppy base of resin, then layered in the fiberglass pieces and covered each one completely with more resin. See the dark mess behind Rick's elbow: that's well-saturated fiberglass cloth. We pieced in the low spots as you can see, then placed and soaked two complete layers of fiber. Right, Rick gloobs a thick layer of resin atop the final fiberglass mat. Then we set the rigid core on top.

We covered the whole thing with thin plastic - visqueen won't stick to resin if there were places that overflowed - and weighted it all down with our water jugs and with several dozen paint cans that we found in the garage.

After lunch we suited up again. We set aside the weights and plastic - all was well with the morning's work. We mixed and applied a thick layer of resin atop the core and mushed in the final full sheet of fiberglass. We sealed it with a final layer of resin, wetted the backs of the original deck skins with resin then carefully put the skins in place, and weighted the whole thing down again. Crossed our fingers, cleaned the boat and took our cold showers.

Finishing the Deck...

The whole thing cured and set - it's the best spot on the deck. Rick used the dremmel to create groves along the seams and filled them with epoxy fairing. He found that areas in the shade did not harden, so he chipped the gummy stuff out and filled them with a new mix. After he'd cleaned everything up and was in the shower, he realized that HEAT was the key to curing. So he ran outside and put the heat gun to the new fill. It set! Once it was all cured he sanded it smooth and then refinished the gelcoat. It looks better than ever. "It's just like autobody work," he says. Rick is a perfectionist.

Prior to and throughout this process we've been wracking our brains to discover where the leak originated that has compromised the deck core? Marvin's suspicion: Unfinished screw holes at the stanchions, cleats and Bump Head's boat deck supports. Ah HA! If this is the case, the solution is (relatively) simple: back out all the screws, fill their holes with 3M's magic 5200 adhesive to seal any exposed material inside the screw holes, and re-fit the screws.

...And Decking the Halls

Throughout this process, we've been Christmas shopping and getting in the spirit:

Light show With Lu's cousin, Joanne, and Joanne's daughter Dawn who were visiting from out of town, we drove to see a house with a computerized light display. The newspaper reported that there were 200,000 lights, synchronized in time to music broadcast from speakers mounted on the eaves and a specific station on your car radio. The choreography of lights was different for each song, and the cycle repeated every 45 minutes. It was a lot of fun for those of us who do not live next door. The article also revealed that it takes the family nearly two months just to set the thing up in the yard and run all the cables and wires (see below, left). It was quite an event. We hope to have time to take Lu's grandkids out there next week.

CAUTION Do Not Enter We listened to Josh Groban's excellent new Christmas CD, and - to his dismay, I'm sure - sang along.

Lu and I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah, which was wonderful wonderful, and meanwhile she and Rick assembled the Christmas tree.

In anticipation of the arrival of small and not-so-small children we strung colored lights along the sea wall, and I placed a row of lighted snowmen to illuminate the path to Sea Gator, wrapped the front yard's palm trees with lights and installed Lu's cheerful inflatable Santa Clause. The scary photo at left belongs to the computerized light show house, not this house. We hung a few Winnie the Pooh tree ornaments, Lu wrapped a few bazillion presents, and in general we made ready for the arrival of 2-year old Mark and his entourage.

Boca Grande Interlude

We were unable to make our now-traditional December pilgrimmage/shake-down cruise to Boca Grande. Too bad because this year Gary and Mickey are anchored in the bayou aboard Little Mick. Last year we'd had the pleasure of anchoring next to Don and Gillian aboard Jazz ("Christmas in the Subtropics") in the Bayou and it was a wonderful pre-Christmas excursion.

Mickey, Gary, Pat, Rick Still, we were happy to get away from the fiberglass for a day and drive out to Gasparilla Island.

We were even more happy to rendezvous with Gary and Mickey at the Pink Elephant dock overlooking the Bayou. The four of us walked through that pleasant town to Two Loons on a Limb for breakfast. Then we continued our stroll to do a bit of shopping at Boca Bargains (Gillian, you should have been here). They showed us a museum we hadn't seen, and we showed them this lovely little vest-pocket park (Gary really enjoyed the fountain - guess why his shoes are wet?).

We visited and laughed and our hearts were lifted.

Mickey and Gary and Little Mick We had to call it a short visit, unfortunately, so Rick could get back to his boat projects. We returned to the dock and exchanged Christmas gifts (Mickey's home-made toffee for us; Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander for them), and bid them farewell. Left, they return to Little Mick to prepare for the next leg of their trip. They are planning to cruise down to Everglades City and tie up at the mystery condo dock (Small Towns and Everglades) where a family of children and grandchildren will soon arrive to spend Christmas on the boat.

We plan to rendezvous with them further south in a few months.

Merry Christmas to All

Meanwhile, we are working away. In and among all the projects above, Rick has repaired a leak at Sea Gator's lower helm by replacing the seals and subsequently bleeding and recharging the hydraulic steering system, and he repaired and reinstalled the depth sounder's remote display (it was corrosion, as Gary and Fee suggested).

He's also taken on all of the house projects. The house and boat were ship-shape and perfect when we left last spring, but this fall a plethora of electronics and stuff has just gone haywire. Things are spontaneously combusting, one after another. I think Don is laughing, trying to keep Rick on his toes. If so, it's working: Under emergency conditions Rick has installed a new garbage disposal, new circuit board in the garage door opener and new kitchen faucet. And our bikes which are sidelined because nearly half the spokes on one wheel just twang!ed into pieces, it must have sounded like a harp when it went.

As for me, I've had my hands full with lightbulbs, batteries, lawn ornaments, owner's manuals for everything in the house, and intuitively reconstructing Don's methodology for outdoor holiday lighting.

I've also completed a couple of client projects, oiled and buffed Sea Gator's interior of teak panelling, sent Christmas cards and begun repacking the boat for cruising. The best news yet: Just a 30-minute walk away from La Marina I can sit down for a quiet hour with a group of friendly strangers to discuss common problems and common solutions. They meet every day, and on Sunday morning they meet on the beach.

Goldie singing As for Goldie, she takes everything in her stride. "Tree in the house? It must be for me."

Having made herself right at home beneath the Christmas tree, she sings, joyfully:




And so I would sing to you, if I had the nerve. Let's just say, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy Hanukkah, and all glad tidings be yours today and throughout the new year.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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