Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A proper sailor's knife with some history

My rigging knife has served me well for more than a quarter century.
A friend asked me yesterday what I thought made a good rigging knife. The question took me back 25 years ago when I was working on the tall ship Lady Washington. I worked in the office pimping the project but I stole out to the shipyard often to talk to the shipwrights and riggers. Ostensibly, it was for information that I could use in the articles and news releases I wrote to promote the Washington State Centennial project, but really it was to learn as much as I could for my own selfish ends.

I was a hopeless fan boy when it came to the riggers. Those guys were just cool! And they carried a knife everywhere, all the time. This knife wasn't like the knives you saw in chandleries that catered to weekend sailors and yachties. This knife was made for serious work. It was almost always in their hands. I looked for one like theirs, but couldn't find anything close, so I had a friend make me one.

Ken Adamson also worked on the Lady Washington at the same time I did. We were friends for some years before. It was he who encouraged me to leave my job at the newspaper to work for the fledgling Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, which was building the Lady Washington.
That's me at the right, in a costume my wife sewed. Ken is the guy with grey hair and glasses in the back row second from the right.

Ken was an all around craftsman. A former high school industrial arts teacher, there weren't many crafts he wasn't familiar with, if not already an expert in. His woodworking skills were legendary in the shipyard. When there was a problem that needed solving Ken was the go-to guy. He also made pots, jewelry and knives in his home studio.

I told Ken of my fruitless quest to find a proper rigger's knife and asked if he would make me one. He watched the riggers closely too and knew just what was needed. I had complete faith in his skills as a craftsman and left the details of the knifemaking to him. Several weeks later he told me my knife was finished and I went to his studio to pick it up.

It was everything I wanted and more. The wood scales were of African kingwood and the handle fit my hand perfectly. The blade had a thick spine to take whacks from a mallet to drive it through rope. Ken ground down the blade to give it a little hollow and bring it to a sharp edge. He crafted, almost inconspicuously, a small eye in the back of the handle to take a lanyard. But perhaps the most elegant feature of the knife was its drop point. It looked just right.

Most "rigging knives" sold at chandleries had a sheep-foot point - maybe end is a better term because a sheep-foot point is not pointy at all. In the sailing ship days when a sailor would come aboard for a cruise he would hand over his knife to the bosun's mate. The bosun's mate would stab the point in the ship's rail, break it off and hand it back to the sailor. Fights in the fo'c's'le were less lethal with pointless knives.

Unfortunately, these disabled knives became associated with sailor's knives and the tradition created a whole crop of knives without a point. Having a point on a rigging knife is a handy thing, and not just when your shipmate gets a little feisty.

Ken made the blade of high-carbon steel. It holds an edge like nobody's business. I've never had a problem with rust on the blade; care and use keeps the rust away. Stainless knives are for late-night cooking shows; just like stainless boat anchors are for marina queens - not real voyaging boats.
Some of the other tools in my ditty bag. Note how deep the knife is in its sheath.

I made my own sheath for my knife out of harness leather with a turks' head knot at the top for reinforcement and to keep the opening's shape. The sheath is deep, so the knife is secure. Ken approved of the sheath and especially liked the turk's head.

When I'm on deck, or especially aloft, I attach a longer lanyard to the leather thong that's always on the knife. The lanyard hooks the knife to my belt and keeps me from losing it overboard or becoming a missile when dropped from aloft.

The knife Ken made me may not be the best rigging knife for everyone - maybe not for my friend who asked me about rigging knives, but for me it's perfect. Ken died a couple of years ago. I miss him. The knife he made me is still warm with the labor, skill and love he put into it. I think of him each time I use it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Winches aboard Oceanus: Barient, Barlow, Wilkie and Winchmate

Some of the 12 winches aboard Oceanus from the largest to the smallest.
Columbia Yachts built Oceanus in 1971 as a racing boat and the winches show it. The big two-speed Barlow and Wilkie Number 30 primary winches and the Barient 22 two-speed secondary winches in the cockpit are impressive and expensive pieces of equipment. In all, there are a dozen winches on the boat: two 30s, two 24s, two 22s, four 16s, and two small reefing winches on the boom that I think are 12s. They are from a mix of makers: Barient made in the U.S.A., Wilkie made in New Zealand, and Barlow made in Australia.

None of these makers are in business anymore. Lewmar gobbled them up and shut their doors. That would be really bad for us old boat owners with all this glittering hardware if we couldn't get the little springs and pawls that need to be replaced from time to time. But bless their little black heart, Lewmar continues to make and sell those two items. Hutton-Arco Yacht Winches in Australia acquired the tooling from Barlow and sells other spare parts for these old winches as well.

The machined stainless steel drum on the Barient winches
 is still beautiful after 45 years.
I've been thinking a lot about winches over the last few weeks as I've serviced each one of them. For most of the winches it takes about an hour to take apart, clean and lubricate the parts, replace the springs and put them back together. For the big number 30s it takes closer to four hours, just because of the many parts and their size. It's a job I've grown to enjoy and something that gives me time to reflect on the yachting scene of the time Oceanus was made.

Back then Columbia Yachts was the largest manufacturer of sailboats in the world. They also made the largest production sailboat at the time, the Columbia 57. The 57 and the 43 were the company's flagship race boats. Both were designed by Bill Tripp, the hottest racing-yacht designer of the time. Both boats regularly won their classes in the premier ocean races of the day like the TransPac, Ensenada and Bermuda races. The company's advertising featured these wins, which helped Columbia sell all the boats in their line.
From 1969 to 1973 Columbia built the Tripp-designed 57 and 43 to win big ocean racers. 

But I digress, back to winches. Being the biggest builder of sailboats in the world meant Columbia had to buy a lot of winches to put on those boats. The winch manufacturers put out a fairly uniform product regardless of whether they were made in the U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia or England. The designs largely came from the America's Cup boats, which had to be built - even the hardware, like winches - in the country the represented. (Don't get me started on the current state of the America's Cup. Let's just say I yearn for the 12-meter days.)

The consequence was that these winches, regardless of the manufacturer or country are nearly identical. Some have drums machined from bronze and some models and manufacturers have machined stainless steel drums. But the parts themselves are pretty much interchangeable. They are all incredibly well made and built to last. There is not a speck of plastic anywhere inside or out. The stainless steel needle bearings gleam inside their bronze cages nearly a half century after they were made. The drums, spindles, pawls, gears and other parts are finely machined and a joy to look at and handle. These are finely-made machines that will easily last another 50 years with a little care.

My big Wilkie number 30 cleaned and ready for some grease. There are a lot of parts, but they go together easily.
I've worked on newer wiches with too few needle bearings set in plastic cages. They do not inspire the same feeling. That's why I enjoy servicing the wonderful old winches. I get a sense of the pride and craftsmanship the builders put in their work all those years ago. It makes me feel privileged to own such a fine thing. I want to take care of it. I also want them to work well and not fail when they are under a heavy load.

My guess is that the winches on Oceanus have not been serviced for a dozen years because that's how long it's been since she's been sailed. Lucky for me, the grease used by the last guy who serviced them held up. None of the parts are frozen or corroded. It also helps that everything is either marine bronze or stainless, which play pretty well with one another. Winches with aluminum drums and other parts may not have held up as well.

According to the manufacturer's instructions, winches should be serviced at least once a year. More often if they are raced hard or if they have aluminum parts. In fact, they recommend aluminum winches be serviced once a month! You can find original manuals and other helpful information here and here. I'm not an expert on servicing winches, but here are a few thoughts and observations that might be helpful.


Lewmar and Harken, two current winch makers, both put out nice tubes of winch grease. Both seem pretty expensive for what they are, but I like them. The greenish amber Lewmar grease seems a little heavier of the two and reminds me of the waterproof bicycle grease used on wheel bearings. The Harken grease is a translucent white and reminds me a lot of Vaseline. I like to use the heavier Lewmar grease on the gears, needle bearings and adjacent surfaces and the lighter Harken grease on the ends of the pawls and the surfaces they contact. It seems to me that you want to keep the heavier (and stickier) grease away from the pawls so they don't get gummed up.

I also use 3-In-1 Oil on the springs and pawl pivots so they move freely. Some people recommend using spray lubricants like WD-40, but I don't think they are heavy enough. The original directions recommend a 30-weight oil. I think 3-In-1 is a little lighter, but close enough. I like to use WD-40 when I'm cleaning the winch, in concert with a soup can filled with mineral spirits, but I don't think WD-40 is heavy enough for the long-term lubrication the pawls need.

I also use my trusty old can of waterproof lithium grease for all screw threads so things come apart easily the next time. Lithium grease wouldn't be a bad choice for lubing the entire winch. It certainly would be cheaper than the spendy little tubes of grease from Harkin and Lewmar, but I thought I'd go with winch-specific grease - at least until I get more confidence. Interestingly, the old Barlow instructions for servicing their winches recommend their grease (of course), which is no longer available, but in a pinch they say you can use Vaseline.

The grease I found inside Oceanus's winches looked like green axle grease. It is much heavier and stickier than should be inside a winch because it slows the action and can cause the prawls to stick and not work properly. But, the heavy grease did a great job preserving the innards of the winches. The bottom line is this: what you use to lubricate your winches is less important than keeping them lubricated.

Directions on servicing winches all caution against getting the stickier bearing grease on the pawls since it could cause them to stick in place. That is true and good advice. But the maker of one YouTube video I watched took this so much to heart that he was stingy with the grease he put on his aluminum winch parts. I think that's a mistake, especially on an aluminum winch. Every surface inside a winch should be covered with a light film of grease or oil.

Pawls and Springs

Pawls and the little springs associated with them are what keep winches rotating in only one direction. If they fail it could be bad. I can think of several scenarios where someone could be severely hurt if these little fellows failed. I bet you can too. So it was distressing when I serviced one of the spinnaker halyard winches (yes, Oceanus has two) and found only one of the four pawls was working. Yikes!

I found several pawl-spring assemblies in my other winches where one leg of the spring was broken or corroded off. These springs are small. It wouldn't take much corrosion or metal fatigue to cause them to break. They need to be replaced regularly. As I mentioned, Lewmar still sells springs and pawls to fit Barient, Barlow and Wilkie winches. I found them at West Marine. Keep a supply on the boat and change them when you lube your winches. Don't wait for them to break.

On my big two-speed number 30s the pawls have larger coil springs that fit into a dedicated hole. I suspect they will be good for the life of the winch if they are kept oiled.


Barlow 30 with the Winchmate self-tailing conversion installed. The Pepsi is for scale.

Speaking of the big 30s, the owner of the other Columbia 43 in my marina, Alcyone, retrofitted his 30s with Wichmate self-tailing conversion. I wanted some for Oceanus.

These are well-made self-tailing conversion kit for larger sized winches of the Barient-Barlow-Wilkie design. It fits numbers 27, 28, 30 and 32 right out of the box. The larger sized #33 through #36 winches can be retrofitted after modifying the drum, according to Winchmate.com.

At $550 or more per winch (depending on the model), these are not cheap, but they are still a good value. They are a high-quality product. Compare replacing a winch the size of a number 30 with a new self-tailing winch and you won't balk at the price. They are also a great value because of the personal service Dave, who makes the Winchmates, gives. Here's my story.

Stripper arm at 8 o'clock.
My number 30s are nearly identical even though one is a Barlow and the other is a Wilkie. When you get them apart, however, the Wilkie seems to have a higher polish on the machined parts. After cleaning and servicing them I fitted the Winchmate self-tailing device on the Barlow. It worked great. Then I tried to do the same on the Wilkie, but the drum wouldn't slide over the spindle extension. I called Dave and told him my story. After a few questions he agreed with me that the spindle extension needed to be turned down a bit in a metal lathe. He said he'd send me a new one. And he did. I got it in about a week and it fit and worked perfectly. The service was absolutely top notch.

If you get the Winchmate self-tailing conversion, place the striper arm at the 8 o'clock position while you are facing it and looking abeam. That way the stripper arm deposits the line in the cockpit and not over the side of the boat where you don't want it.

I'm no expert

If there's one thing I hate about the internet, it's folks passing themselves off as experts when they are not. Let me say this flat out: I'm not an expert on servicing winches. If I have something wrong, please tell me in the comments. I will fix it. I don't want to perpetuate bad information on the web; it seems to get repeated and eventually gains gospel status. Maybe in a year or two I'll review this post and update it as my experience dictates.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Driving for sails

Kevin and Virginia at the helm of Skylark on San Diego Bay.
Virginia and I had a great week driving for sails. We went from Newport, Ore., to Newport Beach, Calif., with side trips to San Diego and the Napa Valley Marina; around 1,800 miles total in our little Ford Ranger without air conditioning.

Ostensibly, we went to the legendary Minney's Yacht Surplus to get some used sails and other used equipment to finish outfitting our Columbia 43. But really we just wanted a road trip. My wife loves to drive and I like being a passenger so I can look around.
Kevin's beautiful Skylark, a Columbia 50.

The highlight of the trip, by far, was sailing with a virtual friend that became a real friend. Kevin and I started corresponding while he developed his web site dedicated to Columbia 50s. It is truly a labor of love engendered by his beautiful Columbia 50 Skylark, which he keeps on a mooring in San Diego Bay.

We met around 1 p.m., about the time the afternoon breeze starts up on San Diego Bay. Kevin and his friend Blair moved Skylark from her mooring to the dock before we arrived. Even sitting at the dock a Columbia 50 looks fast. Most sailors agree that the 50 was the most beautiful of all the boats produced by Columbia and one of the most beautiful production sailboats ever. Seeing her at the dock while Kevin and Blair prepped the boat for sailing really got my heart pumping.

We went down to the dock and Kevin put us to work taking off sail covers and reeving lines. Kevin's daughter, Lisa, joined us on the sail too. She was home from UC Berkeley on spring break and was a pure delight as well as an enthusiastic winch grinder.
Approaching the Coronado Bridge.

Kevin assigned me the first trick at the helm so I got to work the big sloop upwind under the Coronado Bridge and past downtown. Kevin and Blair kept up a discussion on sailing priorities. It ended with the decision that you could be stupid as long as you didn't make the boat and her crew look stupid. I'm proud to say that, while I wasn't a great helmsman, at least I didn't make the boat and crew look stupid.
The Star of India with the San Diego skyline in the background.

There was plenty to see on San Diego Bay. Beautiful boats and ships, from aircraft carriers and the square-rigged Star of India to other boats sailing on the bay, all held my attention. We even sailed past a Columbia 43 on her mooring. The San Diego skyline and waterfront was beautiful from the water with big buildings, a waterfront park with an enormous statue of a sailor kissing a nurse. Past downtown the buildings and commercial waterfront gave way to moored yachts and Navy vessels.
Virginia at the helm.

At the mouth of the bay we turned back. Kevin assigned Virginia the wheel and went below to make sandwiches with Lisa. Just then, pod of dolphins surfaced within a few feet of the boat. I was the first to spot them and, thinking the San Diego folks saw this all the time, I tried to be casual when I announced their appearance. Lisa was out of the cabin like a shot. "We never see dolphins in the bay!"  she said, "only sometimes in the ocean."
Lisa and Kevin making sandwiches down below in Skylark.

Virginia had the most challenging trick at the wheel sailing downwind. Sometimes the course dictated that she sail dead downwind with the sails wing-and-wing. Blair sometimes served as a human whisker pole until he got bored. We returned to Fiddler's Cove Marina when the sun was low on the horizon. Kevin is a great teacher and we learned a lot about sailing and docking the boat and the best way to fold sails at the dock.

Skylark is a beautiful boat and Kevin has her dialed in for sure. We plan on staying in San Diego Bay for about a month this fall. I'm eager to get to know Kevin, his family and bay better.

On the way back to our hotel, every comment Virginia and I made about the day ended with "wasn't that great!"

We spent the next day at Disneyland We were in line before 8 a.m. staying nearly to the midnight closing. Lest you think we have amazing endurance, I must admit we went back to our hotel for a two-hour mid-day nap.

Thursday was Minney's Yacht Surplus day. We found a very crispy 135-percent genoa and a like-new storm staysail. I couldn't resist the symmetrical spinnaker made for a Columbia 43. It was old, but in perfect shape. We were hoping to buy an asymmetrical cruising spinnaker, but they didn't have one the right size for our boat at the time. I also found a winch that fit the base of the missing winch on our mast. We combed the store and found a few other needed items. It would have been easy to go nuts; the store really has a lot of great stuff at good prices.

I surprised myself because I was anxious to the point of stomach upset over the transactions. (We had a couple sails and a winch to trade in addition to our purchases.) I needn't have worried, Mr. Minney and his three crew members were friendly, patient and helpful. We felt good about the whole experience, which took the better part of a day.

While at Minney's, we also picked up a mainsail and genoa for Harry James, who is restoring a Columbia 38 in the Napa Valley Marina. After a quick visit and overnight stay with a cousin in the Bay Area, we met Harry in the flesh after years of reading each other's postings about boat restoration.

Harry's boat, Sheer, on the hard at the Napa Valley Marina.
Harry has long been an admirer of the Columbia 38 and finally bought one three years ago with the intent of restoring it over one winter. As I said, that was three years ago. But the work Harry has accomplished is top notch and the boat, Sheer, is a beauty. You can read about his adventures here. His plan is to truck the boat to Port Townsend this summer, do the final commissioning there and then sail it home to Alaska.

After leaving Harry, we wound our way to Highway 101 through the Napa Valley wine country. We decided to take the long way home and see the redwoods stopping the night at Eureka. The next day we checked out marinas at Eureka, Crescent City and Brookings for future reference.

It was a great trip with a great traveling companion. The experience made us look forward with even more enthusiasm to when we will be traveling full time on our sailboat.