Thursday, January 04, 2007

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

The word to describe a marina on a sunny day is “blinding.” The water is blinding. The sky is blinding. The boats are blinding. Everything is bright and shiny. In fact, boat owners refer to the trim on their boats which facilitate this property of blinding as “brightwork.” Brightwork is defined as any piece of wood trim or polished metal on a vessel.

Brightwork sucks for the very simple reason that bright is work. If you want to make it bright, you have to polish it. Or you have to sand and varnish it. In either case, every little turnbuckle, fiddle, or chrome plated navigational aide that makes your boat a showroom stunner increases your aesthetic maintenance time by a factor of one hour per square inch per month.

Nobody wants to talk about this when you are buying the boat. In fact, the opposite is true. The broker walks you around discussing the stunning teak deck, the shining handrails, the gleaming toe rails, wooden helm panel, and beautifully chromed dodger. Brightwork makes the boat feel richer, more powerful, more sleek... as if the polish and varnish and gleam will slide you more swiftly through the water. The boat speaks to you with its simple elegance and old world touches. And behind this beautiful candidate boat is an army of teenagers, most likely children of the owner or broker, who are paying off their first car by enslaving themselves to sand paper and brushes every weekend and all summer until the boat sells. After which, they'll be handed WD40, sandpaper, and chrome polish to start work on the next boat.

Maintaining brightwork is a Sisyphean effort comparable to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. A labor of love that starts every spring, proceeds all summer and isn't done until fall. You'll have two weeks of gorgeous Indian summer weather during which you attempt to invite every human being you know to visit the boat for cocktails or whatever. It's a brief window of singular beauty as your boat slices through the autumn chill, gleaming in the afternoon light like the sun kissed waves themselves.

Then the winter weather sets in. You winterize the boat and walk away, proud of a season well spent in improving the beauty and appeal of your floating investment. Six months later you uncover the boat to discover that all the varnish is peeled, all the chrome is pitted, and the fine teak decks are faded to a dull, dreary gray. Rather than spend the summer realizing those winter dreams of sailing around on a high performance work of art, you instead start planning, purchasing, and scheduling the annual maintenance ritual.

Or you don't.

An alternative is to buy a boat with no brightwork. We did. There are precisely three pieces of wood on the outside of our boat -- two toe rails and a very small teak fiddle on the helm. There is no getting around the cleaning, polishing, and sealing required of your exposed metal, but even there you can take the philosophy that “less is more.” We ignore our wood. It turns out that if you simply ignore it long enough, all the varnish peels off, the entire thing dulls to an even gray, and then there is no bright to work.

The fly in the ointment of this otherwise (un)brilliant solution to brightwork is that our boat is white. By not purchasing a boat with teak decks, we instead took possession of a white boat. A friend once told me that we have a French – production – plastic -- catamaran. It was my distinct impression that as a long term, old-school monohull sailor, he found it difficult to prioritize which of those four words was the most offensive. For the purpose of today's subject, let's take a look just at the plastic part. The white plastic part. Or actually, the entire white plastic boat.

White gleams and glows in the dark. It also looks great on the dock when you see boat after boat lined up. The truly blinding part of a marina is the glare off the hundreds of white hulls. I tried to search Google for the answer to the question: Why are boat hulls white? And came up with nothing. Nadda. There must be a reason. I'm sure it has something to do with making the fiberglass last longer. Also, I really can't imagine how hot the deck would get if it were a lovely chocolate brown or navy blue.

In any case, white is the most goddamn unforgiving color. You can see everything on it. I swear my girls just look at that big white hull and the thing starts to look like hell. Spots of mustard and spots of mud. Spots of pink diesel and tan engine oil. There are whorls and swirls of little girl hair and large chunky male foot prints. A fine slough of sand dusts the cockpit and peanut butter fingerprints rim the port hatch. Air pollution wafts down from the Seattle skyline, drifts on to our boat, and then runs in gray stains down the sides, while a more natural form of pollution in the form of large green and red (yes RED!) bird doo lands in great splats like an avian Pollack at work on the canvas of our deck.

Grime and dirt collect in pockets at the door which cannot be reached with sponge, brush or cloth. Fruit punch in a bewildering variety of artificial flavors and colors speckles the cockpit seats, combined with the richer reds of Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz.

You can't clean it. Or you can try, but it doesn't stay clean. All the water in the world can't wash off all the grime. Hours of effort on hands and knees can reduce the sheer volume of dots, spots, and blemishes, but no one but the aforementioned army of indigent teenagers can actually get all of it. And this is one case where two hulls is actually a distinct disadvantage. I find that no sooner have I managed to whiten, brighten, and seal one hull, then I turn around to find the other side covered in lunch, Popsicle drips, engine rags, and crab guts.

The solution is, like the brightwork, simple. Give up. Take a pump and blast sea water over the deck and throughout the cockpit every other day to remove the basically unsanitary dead things and let the devil take the rest of it. What's wrong with floating around looking like the poor white trash of the cruising community? And unlike your home, it’s unlikely your mother is going to show up armed with a disappointed look and 40 some odd years of making you feel like a four- year old. You’ve already tipped her over just buying it. Who cares about the brightwork?


Anonymous said...

[applause on several counts]
I agree wholeheartedly with the "less is more" approach to brightWORK! Oh and I don't think Jamie has a problem with plastic per se...but the other 3... ;-) Now about that South African aluminum monohull we were shopping...

Awesome article T!

Unknown said...