Sweet as Tupelo Honey

All boats, new or used, require a certain amount of maintenance

Boats are money pits. Everyone knows that. I’ve got a couple, both river craft. I bought my 14-foot inflatable to run the whitewater of the Middle Fork. The frame is an NRS, and if you’re into river boats you know NRS frames are modular. So every spring I add bits and pieces.

Eventually, I’ll get it rigged up just the way I want it.

The other boat is my wood river dory. I’ve bragged before about building it myself. Originally, I got it in my head that building my own drift boat would be cheaper than buying. That’s certainly the case if you’re comparing a DIY drifter to a brand new Adipose or Clackacraft, but not so much if you’re willing to shop around for a semi-worn fiberglass or aluminum dory.

All boats, new or used, require a certain amount of maintenance. That’s where the budgetary damage starts to add up. The assumption is that wood boats require a lot of upkeep, and that can be the case. If you’re thinking of buying a classic wood motorboat with an equally classic outboard motor, and if you’ve got a spouse, be sure to add the cost of marriage counseling to the hefty budget you should plan for repairs and upkeep.

Some of the older wood drift boats are similar. Classic drifters formed with internal ribs are beautiful, in the territory of fine furniture when crafted by the right set of hands. But they require regular, constant attention from their owners.

My wood boat is a hybrid, combining wood with modern materials such as marine epoxy and fiberglass, from which these so called “composite” boats get their strength. Marine epoxy is remarkable stuff. It glues, seals, protects, fills, laminates, all while remaining flexible once cured. It has only a couple drawbacks.

The first is that it’s nasty stuff. Exposure to epoxy can result in the user developing allergic-like reactions. I mixed up a small pot the other day to make a repair on one of the seats on my boat, filling in some splintered gaps where the wood broke. I was around the stuff for maybe a half hour and didn’t get any on my skin. Still, I have a light rash on the forearm that held the pot as I worked.

The reaction grows worse with repeated exposures. I’ve heard of folks driven from boatbuilding altogether as their symptoms grew more dire each time they mixed up a pot. And by dire I mean life-threatening.

Fortunately, I only have one more boat build in my future, if that. Still, I need to take serious the precautions necessary to limit my exposure to even just epoxy fumes. You always need to be able to make repairs, even with a low-maintenance composite boat.

One bit of maintenance you can never avoid with a wood boat, however, is varnishing. Epoxy is strong, durable stuff, but its other flaw is that it is vulnerable to UV radiation. Leave it unprotected and the sun quickly breaks it down. So all wood boats get multiple layers of spar varnish before they’re ready for the water.

I left the boat out in the sun a little too much last summer and paid the price. Varnish peeled on the gunnels so I gave them a light sanding to remove the loose stuff, and then laid down a couple fresh coats.

Varnish elevates wood boats from the utilitarian to objects of desire. Paint, frankly, does a better job fending off UV rays, but varnish gives the wood an amber glow that makes my drifter look like it was dipped in honey.

It’s that sweet amber finish that inspires lust in the hearts of all who see her. Trust me on this: no one has ever lusted in their heart for a serviceable, but well-used aluminum dory.

No one. Ever.