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HomeFear of Drilling

Fear of Drilling

by Joel Thurtell

(Appeared in the October/November, 2000 Flashes)
So there I was cruising the Interstate, happy thoughts in my head with tree limbs swaying in the wind. We were going sailing, there was breeze, and all was right with the world. Even better, I'd made great progress that morning on my current obsession, the rigging of my wooden Lightning known as Plug Nickel.

I admit it.  I was gloating a bit, patting myself on the back for the wonderful craftsmanship I'd imposed on the stern of that woodie as I sweated under the morning sun drilling holes, slapping hardware and cranking screws.

A picture floated into my mind's eye—a picture of the changes I'd made in the boat. Then another picture intruded—a picture of the stern of another boat I'd studied earlier in our boat club parking lot.

Suddenly, I was yelling.

"I screwed up! Oh, no! I blew it!"

From the seat next to me, my wife looked at me curiously. In the back seat, my 17-year-old son said nothing.

They're used to this.

My worst nightmare had happened.

This was the day when I'd taken my own independent steps towards finishing Plug Nickel. Finally, I had overcome the phobia which for roughly a year stopped me from rigging my beloved wooden Lightning that was built 35 years ago and never launched. Last fall, I'd delivered the boat to its original builder, Dave Nickels of Nickels Boat Works in Fenton, Mich. Newly refinished inside and out, the boat was back in Fenton for Dave to install hardware and make it ready to sail.  
We were going to work on it together, but after our schedules conflicted a couple times I decided to do it myself.  In August, nearly a year later, I hauled the boat back to my place.

Putting hardware on a sailboat can't be that big a deal, I told myself.

As he helped tighten the trailer straps, Dave's brother, George Nickels, opined that, "Rigging a Lightning is a complicated job." Maybe so, I thought, but I can do it!

Still, I had this problem: I had this boat that was real pretty, but its deck was just so pristine. What if I measured wrong or misunderstood or somehow basically screwed up—as I am wont to do—and wound up disfiguring or even wrecking the boat?

It helped earlier in the summer to watch Dave cut the slots for the chainplates. He'd simply drilled overlapping holes until he had four neat slots in the deck, two on either side. Those were the first cuts in that deck, and the moment seemed matter of fact, not at all climactic. At home, I installed the chainplates through those slots. But that didn't call for making new holes in the deck. All I had to do was make sure my stainless steel screws were 5/8-inch long—or rather, 5/8 inch short, so they would not pierce the hull from the inside out.

And oh, by the way, don't let that drill bit go all the way through, either!

I carefully measured and measured again to mount my gudgeons, and those were now nice and level and centered correctly. I knew they were right because I'd mounted my trusty kick-up rudder in them and it swung back and forth just fine.

Chainplates - the first cuts in the virgin deck were make in June by Dave Nickels.

More holes drilled, and the rudder works great in the parking lot.

Lightning 6279.  Some consider it not a good idea.

Perhaps my gudgeon success made me overconfident.

Maybe I just got overwhelmed by the big picture and failed to tend to details. Conceptual details.

"Rigging a Lightning is a complicated job."

Oh, yes.

Just installing the backstay is complicated. Here's how it works. The steel backstay cable from the mast attaches by shackle to a block which runs along a nylon cord. The cord makes an inverted V over the transom of the boat. One end of the cord passes through a fairlead under the deck and attaches to the inside by a gudgeon bolt. The other leg of the V passes through the deck via a deck-mounted turning block and goes forward about a foot or so where it is tied by bowline to a double turning block. Three cheek blocks mounted under the forward end of the stern deck direct the backstay control rope back to and through the double block. The control rope makes that trip twice. The outer two cheek blocks point each end of the control rope to starboard and port turning blocks which make roughly right angles, passing the control rope to additional blocks which angle the rope to cam cleats on either side of the deck about midway along the cockpit.

Got it?

Why, it sounded so simple that when the plan blew away, I didn't get upset.  Later that day, as we drove along the freeway, I reviewed what I'd done that morning. That memory of another Lightning with what had to be the correct mounting of the backstay block juxtaposed with my mind's picture of how I'd done it.

The two pictures did not agree.

The blocks I installed were off by 90 degrees.


Why I mounted the backstay turning block pointed port and starboard instead of fore and aft, I can't explain.

Maybe I was so preoccupied with the big picture that I lost my grasp of the details.

But, oh, man!

Despite my fears, my extra care, I'd done it. Messed up my boat.

Why, in the first place, was I so afraid to do it?

Fear of making a mistake.

Fear of drilling: Here was a classic boat, built according to traditional wooden boat techniques by a pro, Dave Nickels of what was then Nickels & Holman. In the mid-1960s, N & H was a leading manufacturer of Lightning sailboats. Now the boat—used by its original maker as a mold for making glass Lightnings—belongs to me. It is my responsibility to restore it without somehow crippling it.

And who am I to do this job?
The wrong guy, maybe. Not a trained boat builder. Just a writer, a guy who lives a lot of his life in his mind, nurturing fantasies about boats. Oh yes, I worked in a wood shop briefly as a belt sander, so I know a very little bit about power tools. Very little. I spend most of my days on the phone or pounding a keyboard for my job as a newspaper reporter.

That drill gaffe occurred on Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. I had planned to make lots of progress with the hardware in those three days. Instead, I spent a good deal of Sunday fixing my error. In fact, I was still fixing it the following weekend.

Fortunately, I had not yet cut the rectangular hole to seat the block. I am left with three small holes which serve no purpose. 

What to do?

I will fill them.

I will paint the filler white like the rest of the deck.

I will do my best to hide them.

If only I could stop myself moaning about it!

Slowly, I am adjusting to my mistake.

First, I've come to understand it was not so bad. Three wrong holes, no big deal.


Second, I am coaching myself to go even slower, think things through again and again. Remember, I tell myself, you are not a boatbuilder. You are a writer. You have to take extra care.

Slowly, with lots of reflection, I'm finishing the backstay installation, pondering if it will interact (hopefully not) with the boom bridle which I've now decided to put in.

I'm giving lots of thought to the forestay fitting, because that oddity really calls for some fancy drilling right through the deck and into the stem.

While it makes me nervous, I'm excited about doing the work.

Despite my goofs, I'm enjoying this business of putting hardware on my Lightning.

It is worth getting scared and excited about.

When I'm done, I will have rigged a Lightning.

And that is a complicated job.

Joel Thurtell
11803 Priscilla Lane
Plymouth, MI 48170
1-734-454-1890 1-734-454-4666

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