Finding Gremlins

Every time a boat is dry docked, you’ll find little nasty secrets that need repair. I spitefully call them “Gremlins”, because they come out of the dark recesses of the boat and bite you in the back.  Sabrina and I cranked away at the first 5 days of work before any Gremlins popped up their ugly faces. 


“Pray that it is sunny,” I told Sabrina. Our repairs need sunshine – so that wood could dry, fiberglass could adhere, and paint could be applied. This was a tall order given that the Marquesas had experienced five straight months of the rainiest weather locals have seen. Cruisers we talked to were horrified it was dumping rain non-stop during the supposedly “dry” months of January to May. And now we were in the “wet” months of June-August!  Luckily, the weather flipped a switch and the rain stopped the week we entered the boatyard. This was nothing short of a miracle.


Despite the unprecedented sunshine, the wood on the port ama (the location of the major delamination under the boat’s wing) refused to dry properly. We had been working haaaard, 5am to 9pm everyday, powered on coffee and baguettes, grinding and sanding the whole boat. After several of sunshine, the wood looked dry and ready to glass as planned, until suddenly as if a faucet turned on, the wood looked wet again!  What??  How does the dry wood suddenly get wet, without any water getting on it? 

We scratched our heads. We borrowed a heater to dry the wood, pulled everything out of the ama to dry it out from the inside. Two hours after drying the wood completely, it would start glistening with moisture again. It was driving us crazy! 

Enter Armindo, a.k.a. ‘trail angel’ of the Hiva Oa Boatyard. This sailor from the Azores (an island off Portugal) is cruising the world with his wife and two kids. The impressive thing is that Armindo loves to fix boats; he works late into the night on his Lagoon catamaran, but during the day he spends hours helping out people around the boatyard. The most notable example was a crew of young Danish sailors (who we met in Galapagos, and had been stuck in the Hiva Oa boatyard for a month). They were trying to build an entire new rudder, as their old rudder failed upon arrival in Marquesas (the stainless steel mount cracked, and the rudder was a bit rotten). Unfortunately, there is only one competent fiberglass/boat builder in the island, so they might be waiting two months for the guy to do this job. Armindo guided them through the entire process and the 24 year old Danes built themselves a new rudder within 10 days. It was incredible.

The kind, high-energy Armindo took us under his wing. We told him about the vexing problem we were experiencing with the mysterious wet wood. He touched the wood with his finger and tasted it. “Salty!” he exclaimed. “You must wash this wood very well with fresh water, and I mean soak it, scrub it strong, then it will dry.”  A counter-intuitive solution indeed: to dry it, you must first wet it.  

What was happening? The salt trapped in the wood was sucking moisture out of the air. Every time the humidity would rise to a certain level, water was condensing in the wood. We recalled this was the area where our damaged fiberglass was 10 inches underwater, so all the ocean saltwater had permeated into the wood. We scrubbed the wood with fresh water from inside the ama and outside, and just as Armindo said, it dried out. 


There are many young people “hitchhiking” on sailboats around the world via websites like “Find-a-Crew”. Boat owners post their trip, request crew, and pick who they like from all the responses they receive. Naturally, after a month or more at sea with strangers, almost all the hitchhikers were looking to jump their ships and find new boats! A massive shuffle was occurring in Hiva Oa: people swapping boats, all heading west to Tuamotos and Tahiti (hey, even Spencer managed to get a piece of that action). 

That is how we met Durant and Fabian, young German and French guys who were hitchhiking on different boats, and now were stuck in the boatyard waiting for their host boats to get re-launched and carry on the voyage. We offered these guys bottles of rum (our main exchange currency in the South Pacific… we purchased a few cases at $6/bottle in Ecuador, and traded for $30/bottle in French Polynesia) and they kindly spent hours sanding Aldebaran’s three hulls. 


Step 1. Once you’re done being in denial and experiencing existential panic, conclude that the soggy wood must be replaced, like it or not.


Step 2. Stop being sad about your old boat giving you problems (every boat has problems) then mercilessly draw out a proper rectangle and take the saw to it.

During one of these sanding marathons, Durant found a soft spot in an otherwise perfect looking part of the hull. I dug my screwdriver into the soft spot. Uh-oh. Every bad fiberglass on the boat must be removed, so I took the Exacto-Knife and ripped it out. Underneath, we found a massive Gremlin: a two foot tall area of rotten wood needed to be replaced on the outer port bow. (As if we didn’t have enough on our plates to repair!)


Step 3. Screw new plywood into the cavity, then add filler for all the gaps, then fiberglass it– ideally not when it starts drizzling at sunset, if so, try to keep a tarp handy.


Step 4. Realize you were a fool and fiberglassed too soon, and now the repair needs more wood to smooth out the curve, unless you want your boat to look like a muscle dystrophy victim.


Step 4. Add more wood with yet more epoxy and and yet more screws, then once it cures take a grinder to sculpt it into a little more of a nice curve for the boat. Then fiberglass again, cause you blew it on the first time.


  This job required a Skill-saw to cut away a big panel in the side of the boat that we jokingly called our “new window”. The process of re-building the giant hole took lots of plywood and epoxy over the course of a week. After I was done with the initial wood installation, the repair area resembled a severe case of muscle dystrophy. It looked awful. I found more wood to fill in the gaps and kept at it, sculpting wood and epoxy onto the side of the boat until it looked relatively smooth again. 

“Hump Day” is the other name for Wednesday, the mid-week energetic hump that you need to go over before finishing the work week. Every endeavor has a hump, a “test” shall we say,  and for our 2 weeks at the boatyard, we struggled with the two Gremlins on Days 5-7, taking three steps forward and two steps back. Doubts and uncertainties grew as our massive repairs remained unsealed, exposed to the rains that threatened everyday. We became like bulldogs, refusing to let go and pushing, pushing, until our perseverance got us past the demoralizing energetic hump of the Gremlins…. battered but victorious, we got through it with time to fiberglass and seal the boat, in itself a job that was fairly beyond our heads. 

The miracle of cowboy coffee was discovered during the boatyard. Instead of throwing away the used grounds from our first morning cup of coffee (french press, drip, or whatever) , we began saving them in a pot with water. We can reheat this for the afternoon or next day, even two days later. We poured the coffee through a metal strainer, and it tasted perfectly fine. We are now flabbergasted at the amount of coffee that is wasted by throwing away the grounds after one use. Coffee can steep overnight in water and extract excellent flavor. To make it sound fancier for the fresh coffee fanatics, we like to call it “cold-press cowboy coffee”. Then again, we were running on coffee fumes the last week at the boatyard so anything would probably taste wonderful…

7 thoughts on “Finding Gremlins

  1. Old houses, old cars, old boats… all the same… you start digging in, you will find stuff to fix!!
    So lucky with the weather though !!!
    But I want to see the result of all this amazing effort you guys went through!
    Aldebaran all pretty and finally ready to go !!

  2. Congratulations on completing an incredible job. Especially in an incredible place to do it in.

    “Cold Press Cowboy Coffee” Barbarian-Chic Brewing Methodology. Love it!

  3. Seems really fortunate that the delam happened when you were fairly near the and so could dry-dock her and discover and fix all the gremlins, averting potential disaster at sea. You’ll no doubt leave the Marquesas with a thoroughly seaworthy vessel — and a mammoth supply of peace of mind. Those holes and areas of rotted would were gnarly.

    • Hey James! You’d be surprised how many boats have large areas of rot and keep sailing. In particular that rot on the port bow would not have been debilitating because it was on plywood (not structural beams) and it was in the collision bulkhead, an area on all three bows designed to break upon severe impact to save the remainder of the boat’s integrity. That being said, rot is a cancer on wood that keeps spreading so I’m very glad we found it and tackled it. Possibly the most “lucky” aspect of being forced upon this haul out was a repair we haven’t even talked about: our rudder was getting terribly loose after the last 5000 miles. Not something to play with, after seeing how many boats got debilitated by broken rudders after their Pacific passage! So indeed we are very glad to have repaired it.

  4. You, Kristian and Sabrina, are inspirational! The problems (gremlins) you have confronted would paralyze most ordinary people. But you have attacked them head-on armed with every weapon at your disposal. (it’s hard to believe you had such an armory on board). And the fight was no simple skirmish. It has been all-out multi day warfare with its long daily exhausting battles. You are true warriors!
    Congratulations. We normal folk are inspired.

    • It is indeed paralyzing at times – and exasperating to see things stall out, move backwards. I consider all those years I hauled Aldebaran in California for repairs I did myself as training for this Marquesas repair. Without that experience it would have been hard to have the tools in the quiver to get it done in a timely fashion, otherwise we would have had to cancel on our friends coming on the next leg of the journey…

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