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Futility, Thy Name is Varnish

Finally shamed into a life where masking and scuffing and sanding have a place, she finds herself surprised at what a little gloss can do

Close-up image of a vessel steering wheel with a dark varnish and large compass.

Photo: Getty Images/Lebenmax

Have I mentioned how I loathe varnishing? It’s a Sisyphean folly. You spend precious hours – days! weeks! – of your finite life perfecting something that the daily march of a relentless sun begins destroying with a vengeance as soon as you’ve laid on the final coat. If this is your cup of tea, great. I respect that. Really. As for me, I’ll never get involved with such a futile enterprise with so many better ways to spend my time.

Or so that’s what I thought before I crossed paths with a boat named Ithaka. Somehow, Douglas and I ended up with a beauteous vessel above our lowly station in life – a thoroughbred who, if the disdainful looks from other more fastidious boaters were any indication, deserved to have her trim glistening. She shouldn’t have been prancing around the course ungroomed and wild-looking, which is exactly how she looked under our stewardship. That is, until one fateful year.

Inspired (all right, shamed) by friends who keep their boats in Bristol condition – wowed by sitting in Simba’s blindingly bright cockpit, for instance, and by countless times stepping in awe over Zia Lucia’s shiny toerail, where I could see my pathetic self in the reflection – I finally broke down and decided, after hearing for the hundredth time from these friends how easy it is and what a Zen-like labor of love it becomes, that, alrightalready, I’d dabble in a teensy-weensy bit of varnishing myself.

Adult sanding a rail on the boat.

Photo: Mark Corke/Archive

As a humble start, I selected four spots of trim in the cockpit and the eyebrow that runs around the cabin house. Not overly ambitious, granted – they were all straight lines – but I worried that this was a slippery slope, so I trod lightly.

In a quiet cove in Florida one winter, I took my first baby steps, gave the eyebrows a scrub with fresh, soapy water, rinsed them off well with fresh water, and let them dry. Then, using the familiar blue tape I’d never used for anything more refined than bottom painting, I masked off the eyebrows, hand sanded, then rubbed off the smooth wood with an alcohol tack rag, applied a couple of coats of a penetrating wood sealer, let it dry overnight, then lightly scuffed it with a scrubby and applied my first coat of high-gloss varnish. Seeing that first sparkle resulted in a disproportionately huge moment of giddiness, making me forget momentarily how dreary I’d already begun to think this whole enterprise was becoming.

All during this process, a peculiar and unexpected phenomenon occurred. Dinghies puttering by would slow down and come closer. The man driving would smile widely, wave, and call out something encouraging, such as “Hey, hey, she’s looking good!” or “Way to go!” The woman in the dinghy invariably looked at me with contempt.

“Thanks,” I’d gush back, always surprised by the attention, and lift my gloved paw and brush in grateful acknowledgment. “But honestly, it’s the first thing I’ve ever varnished in my entire life!”

I tended to make light of these moments, but the truth is that they made me feel elevated on the boat-keeping food chain. Finally, I was in the game. I’m well into my conversion and now know some things I didn’t know before involving myself in this madness. I’ve learned that blue tape around a bit of sanded teak acts as a kind of silent dog whistle in the boating world, alerting competitive varnishers that there’s new blood in town, and drawing them toward the marked-off teak, whereupon they commence acknowledging and encouraging one another. But let’s face it: What they’re really doing is propagating their species.

When I first started my little varnishing dalliance back in Florida, I thought of it as an occasionally gratifying walk-on part in the overall theater of my boating life. But, to be quite honest, it’s a monotonous job, a minor spear-carrying role in its tedium and repetitiveness. Yet having committed myself, I can’t now bow out from the performance. And to make matters worse, the slightest compliment on my brightwork from a passerby now acts for this two-bit actor as a standing ovation, invigorating me, renewing a love for the limelight, and inspiring me to varnish more and more!

Since those first halcyon varnishing days back in Florida, I added a few more coats, and began eyeing those handrails. I mean, really, it’s so easy, such a Zen-like labor of love

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Bernadette Bernon

Editorial Director, BoatUS Magazine

Winner of many national feature-writing and leadership awards, BoatUS Magazine Editorial Director Bernadette Bernon has steered America’s top boating publication to numerous high honors. She's on the BoatUS Foundation board, co-founded the Safety at Sea Institute with US SAILING, is a feature writer for national travel and boating publications, co-authored the international best-selling book Maiden Voyage, and is the former Editorial Director of Cruising World and Sailing World magazines. Bernadette and her husband went cruising for six years on their 39-foot cutter Ithaka, have chartered boats in the top sailing destinations of the world, and now have a 24-foot Seaway lobster boat.