The Dory Shop

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Stories from the The Dory Shop

The CALANOVA Chronicles Chapter 4 - Caulking, Mysterious Caulking

Caulking the Amazing Schooner CALANOVA

Here’s the deal. You gotta caulk wooden boats. Most of them anyway. Think about it. You take all these pieces of wood, tie them together somehow and you got a boat? Almost.  Looks like a boat, but it ain’t no boat until ya caulk ‘em. That’s the deal - If you don’t caulk wooden boats they fill up with water. And ya don’t want that. Makes your sandwiches soggy. And other stuff too, not good. So you caulk ‘em up. Well, not all wooden boats. Dugout canoes don’t usually need caulking, seeing as how they are made from one piece of wood, a tree usually, so have no holes in the wood. So, no need to caulk them unless they split up a little maybe from drying out too much in the sun while pulled up on the beach or something. Lapstrake boats don’t need much caulking apart from the garboard seams. Until they get way old. Also, it seems that CONCORDIA Yawls, mahogany-built in Germany for the Concordia Boat Yard in Padanarum, Massachusetts under Waldo Howland’s esteemed supervision, these vessels were built without much caulking. They had very tight-fitting seams and let water swelling the planks do the job. 103 Concordias were built in the 1950-60s. 102 are still with us. Pretty amazing for a wooden yacht class. 60 years is a damn good run. Then fiberglass got in on the scene with a bang and that was that. Fiberglass boats may stink, cause cancer, global warming, world hunger, volatile commodity markets and then live forever in landfills with half-lives of a million years, or in wrecks here and there, and offend the soul - but fiberglass boats don’t leak. Unless you put a hole in them. Then they leak. I suppose old fiberglass boats turned upside down on land might make reasonable roofs for a shed or funny long houses. But they might still stink. Or maybe you could tar them? Stockholm Tar is good for everything.

Caulking. This is about caulking. The Amazing Schooner CALANOVA is all built there at Mader’s Cove. But she’s gotta get caulked before she can hit the drink or she will sink - blub, blub, blub… the owners will not be cool with that. Nope, you can be sure of this. Bad for getting the next customer, and such like.

Caulking is a broad term for filling the seams between planks, or any pieces of wood on wooden vessels so as to make them watertight. Or mostly watertight. “Water resistant” might be a better term. Anyway, you want your boat pretty close to watertight as you can make she. CALANOVA by the way, is tight as a drum. There is a steel ship and tub caulking story too, but not here, not today.

You might think that ‘filling the seams’ is no big deal. Just go to Home Depot, get your caulk in a tube and one of those guns, and spoo it all up, a little putty maybe, job done. Well, as with most things it ain’t that easy. There are lots of different ways and methods to caulk boats and ships around the world but it all boils down to two basic approaches. One for ships and one for boats. With boats you have to be a bit firm but gentle. You can easily damage a boat by caulking it too hard. On the other hand, when caulking a wooden ship or heavy built work boat ya gotta give her. Pretty much can’t caulk ‘em too hard. You got 4” oak planking? Well, wail away till it hurts. Hurts you, cuz it won’t hurt the vessel. When you read about that sound of ringing across the harbour, that’s the ring of the mallets setting up the oakum hard, and I mean hard. They don’t write about the ‘thuds’ of caulking a wooden ship but the RINGING IN THE SHIPYARD of the mesquite mallets on shiny mushroomed-over caulking irons against oakum hawsed-in hard, as hard as can be. IF IT AINT RINGIN’, YOU AINT CAULKIN’.

In either case, you work in some fiber firmly into the seam between the planks until that’s pretty tight then, then ya seal it up and putty it over with something, usually (not always???). In boats you do this gently and lightly, in larger vessels with the vigor of Thor. There are a million YouTube videos on caulking so I will leave that part out here. You will get the idea. But caulking is a skill and there is no app for this. I am not sure what an ‘app’ is but I thought this sounded good.

Caulking is a skill. If you are caulking big vessels on a regular basis for a living it will give you a vice-like grip, Popeye arms and ears like a rock ‘n roll roadie. And you just might go off your rocker too. Shipyards like Smith & Rhuland and the big shipyards of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine and Massachusetts all had caulking gangs and that’s mostly all they did, caulk like madmen until they were. Can you imagine what it took to caulk the 350 foot long 6-masted schooner WYOMING or huge packet ship MARCO POLO?

Steve Slauenwhite designer and builder of The Amazing CALANOVA knew how to caulk perfectly. Once she be all caulked you paint her up and launch her. Best to do that at high tide. Should always do this when there is enough water anyway. Good practical safety tip this….

Wooden boat and ship caulking has all sorts of cool tools too. Caulking mallets, all kinds of caulking irons, reefing irons, beetles, hawsing irons and olde tyme materials like oakum, cotton, tar, pitch, Portland cement, seam putty – new materials like 5200 and SIKAFLEX, SlickSeam and so on. And when you are in damage control mode it is amazing what you can use for caulking. But that’s another story…

By the way, caulking the vessel isn’t just to keep the water out, caulking stiffens up the entire vessel. Its kind of structural that way. Caulking is important. You that heard here first.

Caulking tools from the Great Age Of Sail

More super shiny tools for caulking. They will never look this good again!!!! Oakum, cotton and thin cotton for boats and seriously shiny irons. Who polishes them things???

Caulking the bottom of CALANOVA while listening to Bob Marley – or Andre Segovia, not sure….

Recaulking CALANOVA before racing the GERTRUDE L. THEOBAUD or maybe the HALIGONIAN, not sure which.

Caulking a CALANOVA sistership a couple weeks ago…