Wednesday, January 04, 2006

When I turned 50 a few years ago my internist announced I needed a stress test to measure the condition of my heart. Great news when you are standing in your underwear and expecting an all clear from your doctor. I asked a worried “Why?” And he said he had not detected a problem but wanted to be sure I was OK. So I got wired to a special treadmill and ran up hill until my pulse reached 190 (the doctor said it would either reach that number of I’d have a heart attack somewhere below it—more great news). The outcome was I reached the number and kept on running, while he admired the short peaked blips on the printout from the plotter my wires connected to. Everything fine, we’ll do another in 10 years.
Last night I did open heart surgery on the Bristol. I removed her starboard main chainplate, installed at the yard 36 years ago, just to make sure she was OK. I have put Sally B through some deliberately harsh stress tests over the years, and like running stairs when you are 50-plus, the condition of her chainplates and main shrouds are a constant, murmuring worry at the back of your mind. The chainplates attach the shrouds to the hull and keep the mast from falling over. They are the main aorta, the central element that keeps the boat alive. And, like the heart, they are buried inside the boat, just their tips exposed through the decks. If not bedded correctly, rainwater will seep down them causing crevice corrosion to the stainless steel and quickly rotting the wood knees they bolt to--the equivalent of clogged arteries that can happen at any time.
So I removed the starboard chainplate, the nuts painted over long ago, cracking open for the first time as the socket bit and turned the nut. the ratched working in the cramped space under the side deck. The bolts had to be driven out with a hammer--a good sign. Finally the three bolts were out. Expecting the worst, I found, like my internist found with me, that things were fine. There were some rust stains, but no rot and no fractures of the metal. She could have sailed with those old chainplates for many years to come. But I will give her new ones, stronger than the old metal; chainplates that will take her safely across the seas. Standing there in the cabin, looking at the strip of metal in my hand I can’t help thinking how long it has kept me safe and secure as the Bristol beat through heavy seas, heeled too far over from me not reefing early enough, strained at her sheets and still brought me safely home.