Sunlight III Repairs

Once again Mike Vlahovich and his organization, the Coastal Heritage Alliance, came up and did the repair. To accomplish this daunting task in just a week’s time, he brought two apprentices, Simon and Nellie, a young husband-and-wife team that had been working with him on skipjack restoration projects in St. Michaels, Md.

Mike V. and I traveled on the same day, Sunday, May 25, up to Naknek, Alaska. Upon our arrival we discovered the bunkhouse room had been ransacked by squirrels over the long winter, and empty peanut and chip wrappers were strewn all over the room. Simon and Nellie came up a couple days later, and my crew guys Anthony and Dave came up around the 28th, with Edward showing up on June 1.

The project consisted of removing the back deck; taking out the fuel tanks; cutting, prying, and chiseling out the existing damaged sister frames and the old original frames, which has since rotted through. We had to remove the old frames because they occupied the space in which we would lay the new ones. After the frames were removed every screw had to be backed out, then the holes plugged with wooden plugs. There were so many plugs sticking out of the hull of the Sunlight III’s stern it looked like a porcupine.

The new frames were cut from a piece of fairly green oak I shipped up especially for the occasion. We boiled them in a steel pipe, took them out of the boiler steaming hot, clamped the inboard end to the bottom of the boat with a boat jack, then pushed upward with sheer human strength with the assistance of ropes, levers, wedges, and more boat-jacks. A few of the frames split in the process, but there were still enough to do the job.

After they cooled in place we removed them from their jig, which was bottom of the boat, and placed them inside the hull above where the frame had just memorized its shape. Even with this steam-bending trick, they still had to be through-bolted to the planks to pull them down tight to the planking, and then they were screwed through the planks and into the frames with wood screws, just as they should be.

That was a lot easier to write down than it was to accomplish in real life. And I must say, I did just a fraction of the work. Mike V. is a grinder, and his apprentices know they are not there to dilly-dally; everyone worked a full day, and everyone had good reason to unwind and relax with a glass of whiskey or two (or three sometimes) at the day’s end.

The funnest part of the job was when we poured the pitch in the bottom of the boat to displace any water that would puddle on the uphill side of the frames. This was a material I neglected to ship up for the job, so I ordered a keg of roofing tar from Anchorage, which cost less than $50 for the material, but the express shipping cost another $100. The guy thought I was crazy, but he didn’t have a wood boat to get ready for the season.

We cooked the tar up in the fish-smoking shack, using my propane cook stove from the Sunlight III. When it was molten hot, Mike took the pot and carefully ran up the ladder to the newly installed frames, started in the highest part of the stern, and poured it in. It found its own way into all the low spots, then overflowed to the next set of frames, filling in all the “puddles” and replacing it with a solid chunk of impermeable tar.

It didn’t take much to refit the fuel tanks and reassemble the deck, and we were pretty much done with everything on Friday, May 30. It took Mike and his CHA team a full work week, and I can guarantee it would have taken me and a couple of helpers more than two full weeks, and it really wouldn’t have been done right. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without Mike V. and the CHA.


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