Rip Rap June 1, 1999 Issue

Measure Twice, Mix Once?

We decided to paint our masts ourselves. Why not? How hard could it be? My friend Bill and I had done virtually everything else to our boats; we enjoyed it (mostly) and saved money in the process (sometimes).

A few years back, when the mast of Bill’s Pearson 323 needed attention, I told him to get a few cans of flat black Rustoleum and be done with it. But then a few things happened to my boat. First, I had it painted. Imron. Dark blue. I spent many hours taking the teak down to bare wood and applying 10 coats of varnish. She looked nice, really nice. All except that mast. Something I had hardly paid attention to before suddenly looked, well…really bad.

I quickly checked with my local yard. How much to have the mast painted? How many thousand was that? Yeah, I know, remove the hardware, lots of work. Can’t be that hard, I thought.

I called Bill. We’d start in the winter, get all of the hardware removed and have the surface prep done before spring. Paint at the first light of spring. Hardware on, boats back in the water by May. With the money saved, we could cruise to the Caribbean.

I moved my mast to Bill’s backyard before the winter haul-out. His wife wasn’t too happy but we explained that the grass had stopped growing anyway and that the masts would be gone way before she’d hear the sound of mowers. I began work in the fall, pulling the halyards out. Then it began to get cold. Bill’s mast was already down to a hollow tube but I could always catch up in the spring.

The snow fell. Bill began to read product brochures and seek technical advice. He wanted to have a thorough understanding of the paint before the actual process began. He asked me about cancer. Sure, I’m a doctor, I know you have to be careful and wear respiratory protection. But listen, it’s only two masts, not like we’d be spending 20 years doing this. His neighbors? Well, maybe they could go out for lunch. Eventually, I got the message. Bill wasn’t keen on doing this in his backyard. No problem. We’d do it at my house. I live on the water. No neighbors at all to the south. If we get a light north wind we can spray right on the dock. Never mind that the odds of a north wind (without rain) are one in 20, and the odds of Bill and me getting the same day off from work are one in 140.

Fortunately, fate intervened. We casually mentioned our plans to a friend. “Hey guys,” he said, “I just bought a warehouse for my business; we haven’t done anything with it yet. You can spray your masts there. You won’t be in the way and no one will bother you.”

Perfect. Except there were still a few things attached to my mast which had to be removed. Penetrating oil, screwdriver, penetrating oil, impact wrench, penetrating oil, heat; penetrating oil, screwdriver, blowtorch, fire extinguisher. Hacksaw, drill, tap. I had a deadline to meet. After a long apprenticeship in metals corrosion my mast looked about as clean and ready as Bill’s.

The next step was to rig up a trailer to carry two 50-foot masts without catching the eye of the highway patrol. Good thing Bill is an engineer. With the snow still falling, we eventually had both masts hanging from the rafters of the warehouse. Way ahead of the weatherman. Now work could begin in earnest. We thought we had most of the work done but the paint company’s product insert mentioned sanding and etching and alodyne and sanding again. We spent a few evenings at the warehouse. Music from the car stereo, Coors Light from 7 Eleven and many hours later we were ready to paint. I had written the “prescription” for respirator equipment and all the lights were in place. Visions of the inclinometer at 20° and sunshine reflecting from a shiny white mast were dancing through my head.

At about this time, I received word that a project due next fall instead would be due July 1. Ouch! Less time in the warehouse, more time at the hospital.

The reaction of my sailing friends was sympathetic. Well, not sympathetic actually. More like amused. More like rolling on the floor laughing. And when I tried to explain the situation to my non-seafaring colleagues, they said, “You’re doing what? Isn’t there someone you can pay to do this for you?” The best line I heard was, “So you have to do this every year?”

I explained the situation to Bill. No stranger to hard work, he understood that our warehouse availability was limited; with little help from me, he would paint the masts himself. It was more involved than it sounds because we chose different shades of white. And we still had to wait for decent weather because the warehouse was decommissioned and without heat. Cover one, spray one. Wait to dry, reverse the process. We had a good day for applying the primer and got both masts done at one time. But all the prep work had taken longer than expected. At the boatyard, boats were being launched. Worse, our friend was making diplomatic comments about wanting his warehouse back.

After what seemed like an eternity, top coat day was at hand. The warehouse doors were opened wide as the sun rose clear and bright. I had barely an hour before I had to run off but that was enough time to mix paint, duct tape Bill’s exposure suit and wish him good luck.

Late in the day, I couldn’t resist stopping at the warehouse to look at the shine on Bill’s mast, a preview of what was to come for me. I was somewhat surprised to see the doors still open and Bill ripping the last shreds of duct tape from his sweat-drenched clothes.

“Wow, that took a while”, I said.

Bill’s expression didn’t change.

“Well,” I added, “at least you’re done with your mast now.”

Still no acknowledgment from Bill.

“Looks great,” I said from outside the warehouse door.

Still no response.

I went inside. The closer I got the less pronounced was the shine. Virtually non-existent in spots. And there was ugly stuff on it.

Seems that just as the last cloud of paint escaped from the spray gun, a flock of birds flew into the warehouse and had a party on the rafters above the masts. Bill’s mast wasn’t exactly tarred and feathered, it was painted and feathered. Plus all sorts of other particles which had settled onto the rafters over the years.

Disgust turned to dismay, which eventually turned to resolve.

“I have an idea”, Bill said. “We suspend some plastic (acres of plastic actually) above the masts and then paint again…after sanding, of course.”

That wasn’t the way I had planned to spend my evening but there was no way I could refuse. I drove to Home Depot, cleaned them out of plastic sheeting and clothesline, and returned to the warehouse. The moon came and went and eventually we had our crud-protection in place.

Another day of sanding feathers and prepping and Bill was ready to paint again. No complications this time. A fine job. He was pleased. I was anxious to get my mast done. The next Saturday was rather chilly and damp. Damp? Wet is a better word. The monsoon outside was reduced to a chilly, windy fog inside the “spray booth.” No problem, I thought. That’s where the “accelerator” comes in. When the temperature is low, just add some accelerator to the paint and your problems will be cured (no pun intended). I measured twice, mixed once and Bill was zipped back into his suit. By the end of the day things were looking better. Nice shine, no runs, no primer shine-through. Bill had learned to use the spray gun well. My mast became the masterpiece. A couple of days to dry and to the boat yard it would go.

As my deadline at work approached, I began spending nights in the office; the boat would have to wait. I moved the mast onto some sawhorses along a wall of the warehouse until I had time to reinstall the hardware and new rigging. Several weeks passed. I watched Bill’s boat sail by out in the bay, looking fine indeed.

The July 4th weekend behind me, and still employed, I finally had time to transport the mast over to the boatyard. Strange thing. The spots where it had been resting on the sawhorses were textured like terry cloth. Maybe I taken the mast down too soon. No, I wasn’t going to repaint. I was going sailing. A quick sanding, wipe with thinner and touch up with the brush. Lucky me, I had some paint left over.

Then another strange thing happened. The thinner not only cleaned the spots, it took off the paint, too. Everything! Right to the primer. I dared not, but I did it anyway and checked with my fingernail. The paint was still soft. How could that be after two months?

I still don’t have an explanation. Either I hadn’t added enough converter (maybe I should have measured once, mixed twice?) or the temperature was simply too cold. My choices were to either attach the rigging and hardware to a wet mast (which would never dry) or do it over again. My patience had given out.

I talked to the boatyard owner and struck a deal. Wipe it all with thinner. Wipe it again and then paint it. Hurry. I need to go sailing!

—Kai Sturmann

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