On the Hard
Swell waits her turn in the boatyard marina tied to the dock alongside eight or ten other sailboats. We both feel like wild animals trapped in a corral after living free on the ocean for seven straight months. I pace about the cabin until the owner of the yard knocks sharply on the hull. “Weell be reedy for you at ten sirty,” he says with a thick French accent.
“Are you sure? I can wait until tomorrow if today is too busy ” I stammer from the foredeck, my body tensing in visceral denial of the impending changes to my life afloat.
“Non, non! On est pret pour toi aujourd’hui” (No, no! We’re ready for you today), he replies.
I look down at Swell and sigh; rust stains run over her bulwarks. As much as I’m dreading the haul out, my faithful little ship needs some love.
At half past ten, I turn over the engine, toss off her lines, and a hulking yard worker named Taputu climbs aboard, ready to fend off the neighboring boats. Swell reverses out of the slot and turns like a show horse as I crank the wheel to port. To compensate for the trades blowing perpendicular to the ramp, I over-steer slightly to windward toward the submerged cradle. She slides in, dead center.
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“Pas malpour une fille!” (Not bad for a girl!) Taputu says with a smile as we secure the lines.
Soon Swell is propped up with wooden blocks and metal stilts. A yard worker hands me the power washer to clean the algae from her hull. Its force shoves me backwards as I pull the trigger, but I hold tight and get to work.
Finished, dripping with sweat and spattered in algae, I stare up at the worn patches of paint around Swell’s waterline I don’t know where to begin. That evening I write out a list of everything that needs to be done: Besides fiberglassing over the skeg to stop the leak, I must remove and replace the cracked wooden base for the anchor bracket; fix the rotted-out galley sink, the saltwater foot-pump spigot, and the stuck drain thru-hull; replace the headstay and install the new roller furler; remove the bubbling old paint around the waterline; disassemble and grease the stuck throttle; rebuild the head pump; fix or replace the charge controller for the solar panels; refinish the cabin floor and fix the cracked middle floor board; glass-in the insulation for the fridge; seal the stanchion bases; clean and regrease the windlass; and sand and paint the hull with anti-fouling. I guess they don’t call it “the hard” for nothing.
This toxic pimple in paradise seems the same as other boatyards. Dreams sail in from near and far, a bit worn, to be plucked from the sea and stacked in still, neat rows. Yachties hurry to surmount land-bound obligations, climbing and descending their steel ladders spattered in paint, hands battered, hair sweat-matted, and backs tired. Weeds push out from under smashed rudders, rusted chain, exhausted steel cables, and used marine batteries. Boat owners and yard workers alike sand, grind, paint, glass, solder, patch, and upgrade from dawn to dusk. Toxic paint dust, thinners, and fiberglass fragments contaminate the earth below the boats. Scattered about, hardened paintbrushes, wads of masking tape, stiff paint rollers, discarded zincs, yellowed latex gloves, and used sanding discs tell stories of boat love and labor.
Just getting set up to live and work in the yard is a job in itself. I run my shorepower cord to connect Swell’s batteries to the electricity in the yard, but something isn’t right because I keep getting shocked when I touch the metal stanchions. Thankfully James, my electrician in Santa Barbara, convinced Barry and me that a 220-volt battery charger was a worthy investment, but I don’t think about the fact that I can’t use my 110-volt power tools with the yard’s 220-volt power until I plug in my mini vacuum the next day. It growls fiercely, lurches out of my hands, and plummets to its death on the cabin sole. The yard’s secretary is happy to rent me a transformer for an exorbitant price.
Being terrestrial makes everything harder. The mosquitoes bite day and night I often wear long pants despite the average eighty-degree heat. My little fans are not enough to deter the critters at night, so I mummify myself with a sheet to hide from their incessant biting. My refrigeration unit is water-cooled, so I can’t use it on land. There is one grimy bathroom and cold shower for all the boaters and workers. The secretary is the only person in the yard who speaks English and she seems to enjoy being cold and unhelpful.
Looking over the list again, I sigh. I’m gonna be here for a decade. I can’t call Dad again. This is my dream and I have to figure it out on my own. The only reasonable thing to do first is go surfing.
Courting a Land Mammal
I begin to make friends at a nearby break. Word travels quickly that there’s a new girl on the island, traveling alone on a sailboat, and soon various guys stop by, offering to show me around.
After a little over a week, I’m feeling a bit better about my situation. My suitors have come through with some of my basic necessities: Tehau loaned me a sander and a grinder, Alex dropped off a cooler, and Jean Paul showed up with a rusty old bike that’s yearning to be reborn.
I awake Monday morning feeling motivated, gather my little bucket of supplies and a change of clothes, and head for the shower. I turn around to step from the deck onto the first rung of the steel ladder, miss it entirely, and grab for the stanchion which gives me a powerful shock. I let out a howl and drop the bucket as I grab onto the ladder with my other hand. Dangling by one arm, I’m dazed and grateful not to be in a crumpled wad in the mud beside my shower supplies, ten feet down.
Just then the boatyard electrician passes below me on his way to the marina. “Bonjour,” I say. “When you have some time today, I seem to have a little electrical problem.”
He stares up at me suspiciously as if he doesn’t understand English, then cracks a smile. “Very nice acrobatique,” he chuckles. Later, he stops by and surmises that I need a different adaptor for proper grounding between my French and American extension cords. If only it could be as easy to put an adaptor between my English and all the French being spoken around me.
The work progresses agonizingly slowly. I dig into a reasonably straightforward task, only to find another three jobs or a mystery lurking within. Everywhere I turn, I run up against roadblocks. When I don’t have what I need for a project, tracking down supplies means learning their names in French, and hitching or biking to town to search for them on what generally turns into a full-day adventure. Sometimes I come up empty-handed, forced to order online and wait on the slow, uncertain mail system.
I miss having Barry near. And our lovely lunches. I can picture him in sharp nautical garb, listening attentively as I described each of the quickly multiplying problems during Swell’s refit. He always asked thoughtful questions and offered his advice, but being the devoted mentor that he was to hundreds of students, Barry left it up to me to choose how to proceed. After our meal, he’d order us two bowls of cappuccino ice cream and gaze out the window at the shiny channel waters; I knew he wished he could sail away too. We’d then discuss current affairs, environmental news, exotic destinations, or my love life.
When I called him last week, he got a kick out of hearing about my current courting situation.
Dating on a small island is tricky, any way you slice it, especially since fixing Swell is my first priority. Since they’re friends, my suitors always come alone, not wanting the other guys to know they are pursuing me. Randomly throughout the day, one will appear out of nowhere with a bag of mangos or a fresh baguette. I stop and explain whatever I’m doing. Once that guy leaves, I dive back into my project just in time for another to show up, and it starts all over again.
Finally, I ask one of them to help me remove the seized bolts that hold the cracked anchor cradle to the foredeck: I need one set of arms below and one set above deck. I hold the wrench on the deck bolts. My suitor groans, sweats, and curses squished inside the dirty little chain locker. That’s the last I see of him.
Another one takes a whole weekend to help me drop out the rudder. It’s a brutal two days of contortions, sweat, and miscommunication in a tiny workspace. I can’t understand which tool he needs, and then when I finally do, the handle of the wrench is too long to fit in the space or the nut we need to remove is frozen with corrosion. The elastic on the headlamp he’s using is worn out, so it keeps slipping down over his eyes. Once the rudder is out, we both decide we’re better off just as friends. Gradually the suitors’ numbers dwindle: nobody wants a girlfriend with a boat on the “hard.”