Mend and Make Do


Surely there was more imminence in the second coming of Christ than in the acquisition of new Selden spreaders from the lower forty-eight. So, on Thursday morning I began shopping around town for a mend-and-make-do solution, opinions on which, I found, were as easy to come by as a cup of coffee in Seattle.

Mike Stockburger in the Homer Boat Yard office tapped the defective tubes with an index finger and thought awhile.

“Your boat been in high latitudes much?” he asked.

I explained she’d rarely been elsewhere.

“See that slight bulge around the cracking? I think water has got trapped in the spreader ends and froze.” Mike continued to ponder. “I think they’ll be OK though. It’s all compression load they get. No evidence of corrosion. I might not sail them into the Southern Ocean, but…” He could see I found this unsatisfying. “Or you might weld a patch over the top. Ask the guys at Bay Weld.”

Bay Weld has a vast workshop and up to six, aluminum fishing boats in build at any given time, but the foreman had no praise for the patch-weld solution. The welds would be strong, he said, but could weaken the surrounding extrusion. He recommended simply welding the crack closed, which would keep the metal failure from spreading but wouldn’t add back much in strength.

“I disagree,” said Walt, a welder building a 20 ton trailer behind Homer Boat Yard, a stone’s throw from Gjoa’s current berth. “Welding over the crack will pull the tube back together as the weld cools and contracts. That’s what I’d do.”

“Randall, we don’t usually weld anodized, extruded aluminum,” warned my friend Gerd, a metal boat builder and surveyor back home. “And your idea of wire wrap or hose clamps would be strong, but then you’ve got dissimilar metal issues. Ugly too. Only OK for a jury rig.”

Each successive bit of advice sounded as good and reasonable as the bit most previous, except that it was contradictory. And thus, Thursday ended without a clear way forward.

But overnight I had an idea and on Friday morning I stopped into Sloth Boats, a fiberglass boat building shop. “Yes,” said Eric Sloth, “Epoxy resins adhere very well to aluminum, and doing a full length wrap, a kind of splint, with heavy tape would add tremendous strength. Don’t quote me if your mast comes down mid Pacific, but I like the solution.”

Back at Homer Boat Yard, I floated this by Mike. “Probably unnecessary repair,” he said. “But sometimes a repair is meant to make us feel better. Do the fiberglassing by all means.”


Homerians are a mend-and-make-do people. If you need it, you build it; if it breaks, you fix it. If you can’t do either, you move back to Anchorage.

But key to success is assessing how much improvement is in a given fix. In Alaska, getting good at this requires surviving some rather grand failures.

Mike Stockburger told this exemplary tale.

One spring, we flew the Piper Cub out to my cabin to do some hunting, just my buddy and me.  Cabin’s in a valley on the other side of that range there (Mike waves towards the mountains across Kachemak Bay) and about 70 miles back.

I’d talked to the NOAA guys in town and thought I’d understood there’d only be a few inches of snow. The plane had those big, fat tires made for rough surface landings. I knew they could take some snow. But when I was making my approach, I realized, too late, that snow levels were more like two feet. I tried to drift the Cub in nice and easy, but it didn’t matter. The wheels dug in and tipped the plane over on her nose. Bent the ends of all three propeller blades to right angles.

Valley’s pretty deep, no radio signal, and no cell phone; didn’t have one anyway. We hiked the propeller up to the cabin and spent the next three days super-heating the wood stove, inserting the blades one at a time, and slowly pounding them back to shape with the blunt end of a hatchet. I got them pretty fair too. Tested them on the plane up to 2000 rpms, my foot jammed hard on the brake. Not too much vibration. Pretty proud of my work. I got my buddy in and taxied to the end of the valley.

Just then I heard a buzzing and saw a plane overhead. First plane I’d ever seen back there. Radioed up with my situation and the pilot said, ‘Under no circumstances should you take off with that prop. The heating can weaken the aluminum. If the straightened-tips fly apart at speed, which is likely, the imbalance will pull the engine right out of the plane. Happened to my nephew once. Once, god rest him. We only found a few pieces of his plane.’

I had the pilot call back to Homer; they flew out my spare prop next day.


Generosity is another effect of Homer’s mend-and-make-do culture, and without giving it a second thought, Eric Sloth lent a corner of his shop to a total stranger for the weekend. By Monday I’d repaired the spreaders, and bolstered my confidence, for the price of materials.


sloth boatworks shed

Situated across from Northern Enterprises, Sloth Boats’ big shed can handle boats 70 feet in length and with masts 40 feet off the deck.


Eric Sloth and Adam Morris of Sloth Boats.


The retail store.


The metal shop.


The woodworking shop.


The glass shop.


The shed allows work on big boats indoors. Here Sloth is just finishing up the addition of a tophouse to Star Wind.


I begin work on the spreaders by troweling fairing compound into the open spaces that will be under the wrap.


Cutting heavy tape into 3 inch by 6 foot sections.


Each strut gets two wraps that are one half lapped.


Sanded smooth and wrapped for painting.


Ready to be re-installed on the mast.

IMG_3727 (1280x960)

Spreaders back on and the mast is ready to be stepped.

2 Comments on “Mend and Make Do

  1. If the spreader damage was caused by freezing water remember your new fix must have strategic placed weep-holes else you have compounded the problem and it is bound to repeat,.

  2. A good point. I hadn’t really anticipated flying this jury rig much past summer. Once I get the boat home (San Francisco), I can do a more careful refit over the winter, which will include a more permanent spreader solution.

    Re the initial freezing, and assuming this analysis is correct, what appears to have occurred is that light, dissimilar metal corrosion between the SS end fitting and the aluminum strut has blocked the drainage space between these two pieces, causing water to pool around the end fitting.

    A weep hole seems a good idea even with new extrusions.

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