Call For a Tow

Doing Hard Time in Malta


By Tom Morkin

Unlike normal people, for some strange reason Liz and I don’t mind living on our boat while it’s lying high and dry in a boatyard. In fact, elements of boatyard living are downright pleasurable. Take for example our last yards: Boat Lagoon in Thailand and Rebak in Malaysia. Both boatyards were situated in resorts, complete with swimming pools, restaurants, TV room, internet access, and lovely shower facilities. Of course yards like those are exceptions, while the Malta yard, Manoel Island Yacht Yard, is, well, a real boatyard. Yep, no restaurant, no internet, and certainly no swimming pool.

Manoel Island Yacht Yard, with seven slipways, is one of the oldest established yacht repair yards in the Mediterranean.

But even without the luxurious amenities of a resort, and even with the noise, grit and grime of boatyard life, there’s something strangely satisfying about taking your boat out of the water and placing her on a pedestal of sorts, where one can inspect and treat all those inaccessible or difficult-to-work-on areas while afloat: cutlass-shaft bearing, through-hull fittings, stuffing boxes, sea cocks, zinc anodes — clearly not items of glamour, but certainly items that need to be well maintained to keep your boat afloat.

In our case this time, Feel Free was hauled out because we returned to Canada for five months. We could’ve left her floating in a secure marina, but because we needed to haul her upon our return to Malta anyway, we opted to haul before we left. Not only will she not sink while in a boatyard, her metal parts aren’t as corrodible while sitting high and dry, and finally, a water-permeable fiberglass hull stops absorbing water into its very being and may even delay or slow down the osmotic blistering process.

The Manoel Island Yacht Yard neighborhood is picturesque and pleasant and shops are easily accessible by foot or bicycle.
So what’s involved in parking a boat on the ground and leaving her for five months? A lot more than you’d probably expect. Liz and I usually take about five days to ready the boat. I know what you’re thinking: FIVE DAYS? You must be joking! What do you do that takes five days? Here’s a list of some of the jobs:

  • Remove, rinse, fold, and stow all sails (there goes the better part of a day).
  • Remove headstay so Travelift can lift boat.

    Folding, rinsing and stowing the sails is just one of a multitude of jobs to be done when “putting the boat to bed.”

  • Once out of the water, waterblast the hull to remove growth.
  • Flush engine with freshwater by running water into engine-cooling intake and running engine for a couple of minutes.
  • Ensure boat is level when it’s secured in her resting spot so rainwater drains from the deck.
  • Slack rigging.
  • Plug all orifices such as boom, mast, dorades, and through hulls with rags. Otherwise, they’re attractive nesting sites for birds, and entry points for crawly things. For those through-hulls that drain the cockpit or deck, use wire mesh (old Brillo pads work well).
  • Set up tarp over main boom to cover cockpit.
  • Cover all winches with specially designed winch covers or tape plastic bags to cover them.
  •  Deflate and stow dinghy.
  •  Flush outboard with fresh water.
  • Remove all electronics and remove from easy view.
  • Empty water tank.
  • Turn off propane.
  • Disconnect batteries.
  • Tape aluminum foil to ports.
  • Lower anchor and all chain onto a pallet on the ground (why have all that weight stressing the hull?).
  • Change motor oil.
  • Disconnect three of the four solar panels. The output of one panel is enough to keep the batteries fully charged.
  • Remove all food items that might rot in your absence and attract all manner of bug life.
  • Pour a 50/50 mixture of oil and vinegar into heads. Dry flush so some remains in the hoses. Seal the toilet bowls with plastic wrap.
  • Lock the boat, hide the key, try not to think about everything you forgot to do, and leave.

In the Mediterranean, it is common practice to lower anchor and chain onto a pallet while the boat lies in a yard.

Feel Free sits high and dry, propped up by logs, Mediterranean style, amongst hundreds of other vessels

Upon our return five months later, except for the incredible amount of dust everywhere, the boat was in good shape. Only one wrinkle — I’d hidden all the valuable electronics, radar, GPS, SSB radio, VHF radio, autopilot, printer, and binoculars so well it took over 10 days to find them all! Next time I’ll record where I stash the goodies. 
Aside from the standard boatyard tasks such as sanding, cleaning, and painting the bottom, we also replaced zincs on the keel, propeller shaft, and shaft strut. We were happy to see that the cutlass-shaft bearing was still in good shape and didn’t need replacing.

Life in the boat yard is a full time job

We checked integrity of all through-hull fittings and seacocks. This entailed sanding the through hull down to bare metal and checking for corrosion. Any pitting was grounds for removal and replacement. They all checked out fine.   Unfortunately, we didn’t fair so well with the bronze seacocks; two were so stiff I broke the bronze valve stems while trying to open and close them. Lesson learned: lubricate the ball valves before the boat is left unused for five months, not after.
After carrying an assortment of large wooden bungs in a bag on the boat for 14 years, we finally decided to do the right thing and actually tie the appropriate bung to each seacock so in the event of a seacock failing, and the boat filling with water, we won’t have to run around panic-stricken trying to find the correct bung for the job. I know what you are thinking – it took 14 years to get around to doing that? What can I say, I was too busy making beer? Anyway, better late than never.
To our surprise, none of the bungs was properly sanded and didn’t seal well when tested. So out came the sandpaper and seven bungs were sanded smooth until they produced a watertight seal.

I sanded seven bungs, one for each through hull so that they’d fit securely if ever they were needed. Each bung was then placed next to its appropriate through-hull for easy accessibility.

At each haulout we turn anchor chain end for end and remark it. We have 300 feet of 3/8-inch high-tensile-strength chain. It’s now 14 years old and has been regalvanized twice, once in Mexico (1998) and once in Australia (2003).  Although it would be nice to do it again, there is no facility in Malta so it will have to wait. We use wire ties and different colors of polypropylene line, woven through the chain links, to mark different lengths of chain. Painting the chain never worked very well for us. It looked nice until we started to put it in the water and drag it over sand, rock, coral, and mud. Within no time, we couldn’t read the paint marks anymore.

We weave strands of colored polypropylene line into our 300 ft. of 3/8” chain to mark lengths eg. 1 short red line marks 50 ft.

I can’t end this talk of chain until I talk about the end of the chain itself, and how it is secured to the boat. In fact, how the bitter end of the chain is secured to the boat may be as important as how the front end of the chain is attached to the hook.  Stories abound of lost ground tackle resulting from the bitter end of the chain not being tied to the boat. Although we needn’t confess to such a blunder we have had just the opposite problem — not being able to jettison the ground tackle when we needed to escape an anchorage in an emergency.
In Thailand shortly after the Indian Ocean tsunami there was another tsunami alarm posted when we were in an anchorage that had been totally decimated by the big tsunami just two months earlier. We frantically tried to up anchor and get to deep water fast, but as luck would have it, the anchor was fouled on the bottom. Naturally, this was at night. After repeated attempts to get the hook unhooked, it was still stuck as we watched the 50 other boats parading out of the potentially deadly anchorage. After a short heated discussion about leaving $2,500 worth of ground tackle on the bottom or risking our lives in what we thought was to be the second killer Indian Ocean tsunami, we unanimously voted to dump the gear and “get out of Dodge.”

Some of the wreckage we encountered after the dreadful 2004 tsunami in Thailand.

Easy, right? Well sort of. The bitter end of our chain was tied to a 15-foot section of 3/8-inch nylon line that was tied to the bulkhead in the anchor locker. When we eased the windlass clutch, the chain paid out of the anchor locker. All to plan, until the final link of the chain that was attached to the line by a bowline snagged in the windlass hawser. Eventually it came free and the chain was free to go once we cut the line with a sharp knife. We planned to return to the scene of the crime to retrieve our chain and anchor, so we’d tied fenders on the chain links before making the cut. Once cut we were on our way to the safety of deeper water.
We soon learned the warning was a false alarm. There was indeed an earthquake in the neighborhood but it didn’t generate a tsunami.
Cool, now let’s go back and get the anchor chain, pick it up, go back to bed, and worry about freeing the hook in the morning. The only problem was we couldn’t find the fenders or chain. The weight of the chain was enough to drag down the fenders below the surface of the water. Try as we did we couldn’t find the fenders until the light of dawn.
Now, we have at least 75 feet of 3/8-inch line connecting the chain to the boat. The line is woven through the last 10 links so it won’t jam when we pay it out and near the end of the line we have tied loops in the line so we can tie fenders to the loops. When we dump the ground tackle, the fenders will remain on the surface and easy to find. Let’s hope we won’t have to test the new system anytime soon.
Our time on the hard went by surprisingly fast. We were in no great hurry to splash, so we weren’t rushed in our jobs and could simply drop our tools and get away to explore the two main islands by bus or bicycle. We never worried about dragging anchors, sinking, or crashing into other boats. We got things done that could only be done out of the water, and feel we got a good look at parts of the boat you can only see out of the water and can say the ol’ girl still looks healthy and good for a couple more miles. All in all, our “hard time in Malta” wasn’t that hard after all.