Voyaging with Velella: Meditation on Teak

By: American Sailing Association, Equipment, Sailboats, Social Media

Continuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, Prescott and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

If you are inclined towards boats in the least, you fall into one party of thought or another. Those in the first party are drawn, often romantically or with “old school” sensibility, to boats bedecked in teak. The other party will perhaps tolerate a bit of brightwork, but other than that, wants nothing to do with wood on their boat. You’re one or the other. People can move from one camp to the other, but you’ve gotta be in one of them.

Perhaps I have not spent enough years pouring elbow grease into my teak decks yet, but I am still firmly stuck in the former camp. My boat is laden with teak inside and out, and I won’t lie about how much work it is. It’s such a large job that I have to tackle it in constant stages–one weekend caulking, another day replacing bungs, another weekend sanding the combings, another day bleaching, another couple days oiling, and on and on. By the time I finish the whole thing, the deck seams need recaulking again.

Velella is a traditional Taiwanese design very similar to the Hans Christians and Tayanas. Unlike most of the boats in our design family, though, our large teak bulwarks (which run around the entire outside of the boat for non-yachtistas) are not varnished or Cetoled–they’re oiled. Lovingly, constantly oiled. It’s a job which takes hours and days to do, and it must be done almost monthly in the tropics, where the sun is strong enough to oxidize the oil almost black in just a few weeks.

Why on earth would one want such a penance? (Well, I was raised Irish Catholic as a kid. But that’s not the issue.) For one thing, well cared-for teak is a stunning sight. It’s surface is deep warm, not unlike a violin. Oiled teak is soft and tactile; it’s rich and handsome next to a light glassy varnish. For me, owning a boat is not just about being able put up the sails and move with the wind; it’s an aesthetically pleasing thing, it’s design and balance achieved, it’s gracefulness in the ever-harsh environment of the sea. So I’m a slave to it’s beauty.

To the man who walks by on the dock and snorts, “You shoulda bought a plastic boat!” I say, “Don’t you know pain is beauty?!?” Then I get back to work. It’s not just because it’s pretty that I do all this.

Velella works awfully hard keeping us safe day and night, so the least I can do is take a loving hand to her. My eyes know all the cracks and crannies and I have a mental log of every spot that will next need caulking. It’s a great way to bond with the boat–doing teak work. Anyway, all that wood has brought us on an incredible journey. And the wood took an equally incredible journey of its own before I ever laid a brush on it.

In a book I have in our onboard library*, the author excerpts a small history of teak, which is fascinating. Teak trees are absolutely enormous–up to 40 feet around and 150 feet tall–and they don’t grow in groves, but are found individually within monsoon rainforests. The wood, which grows in India, Burma, Thailand, and Java, has unique properties that those cultures have long known about (it was only more recently that Western navigators realized its superior benefits). Teak is an extremely dense hardwood that actually sinks in water when freshly felled–in fact it’s so hard that you can’t drive a nail into it (which is why screw holes are pre-bored and fitted with wood plugs.) It’s much stronger than most woods, resistant to mildew, insect attack, fungal decay, and all sorts of other wood-plaguing maladies. The grain will swell when it becomes wet, effectively making it self-sealing.

What’s most amazing to me is that the harvesting process for all this teak is done by elephants who are trained to haul the felled logs to the nearest waterway. They even lift and stack the logs using their trunks. I’m not making this up! Then, the timber is floated downstream, ending up in ports that ship to North America and Europe.

So to those of you in the second camp who say “to he$% with teak work, let’s go sailing already,” I can totally understand that. But for better or worse, I love the maintenance as much as I love the movement–the symphony of function and form that all come together to produce this little world that keeps us safe at sea. Sailing is an undeniably romantic art. So I leave you with a quote. Or perhaps a mantra.

“Art begins with resistance–at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” –Andre Gide

*If you want to learn more about caring for teak from someone really in love with the fine practice of woodworking, read Brightwork: The Art of Finishing Wood by Rebecca Wittman. The photographs alone are worth it.

Here’s where Velella is now!

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