About our masts: it’s varnishing time

Our boat, in fact, has masts, in spite of the impression some might have been getting lately. It has two wooden masts (but it’s a yawl, so that’s one and a half, really). We lowered them to varnish them, six months back, and hold-ups happened and snows came. This was a problem in that varnish doesn’t set in such low temperatures. So we were mastless through the wintertime (we’d likely have been stuck here anyway). Did reduce the wind-in-the-rigging noise.

The masts have been in the travel-lift shed of the Puerto Williams fishing port since we took them down in May. This shed is often rented for boat repairs to the Chilean navy; we were eventually permitted to work there simultaneously. Since when we’ve had much interest from the navy’s mechanics in our activity.

Masts of our yacht Space Oddity

Space Oddity’s hull is a steel one, for those who weren’t aware. Wooden masts, steel hull; it’s something few seem to have seen before, though something on which most take strong views immediately. Wood’s not as weak as some assume, if weaker than the hull of course. Seldom do steel boats have steel masts, as they’re pretty weighty obviously (who wants their hull to break first anyway?). Most boats have aluminium masts, similar to wood strength/weight-wise. (Our masts are a hollow box instead of some sort of single tree.)

Sanding wooden masts of our yawl Space Oddity
Masts’ surface is first sanded bare

The real drawback with wooden masts is the maintenance, and this applies to varnished masts especially – the work we’re doing now is major maintenance, but there’ll be smaller work each year or two maybe. We softened the old varnish with heat and then stripped it with scrapers, then sanded finally. Somebody had screwed the fittings in directly, so the screws were loosening from water entry. The screws should have been bedded in filler, and we did fill their holes belatedly. After this preparation (and after waiting all winter…) it was then varnishing time. We’re doing ten layers (each takes two days to dry).

Varnishing wooden mainmast of Space Oddity

What I will say for varnished masts is that, on a classic boat like Space Oddity, they look lovely. Maintenance vs appearance; in terms of wood it tends to come to that really.

First coat of varnish on the spruce
The masts are made from spruce

When we’re done with the varnishing, and with attaching the fittings, we’ll be a boat with masts once more. After the project of raising the masts and tuning the rigging, of course…

Sailing dog Zibby watches our rig maintenance
Between layers, masts are sanded lightly
There's a lot of sanding in wooden mast maintenance
There’s lots of sanding in mast maintenance!
Ship's dog Zibby having a dull day
‘Aren’t we done already…?’
Varnish soaks into spruce
Varnish on spruce

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