Putting Pia back together again: Part 2

Pia is undergoing an extensive restoration by her owner, Aho'i Mench, after almost being lost in a storm on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2010. Photos courtesy of Aho'i Mench.

Editor’s note: In September 2010 the crews of two boats were rescued after a fierce storm blew in over the Strait of Juan de Fuca (read Three Sheets NW’s story here). The captain of one of those boats, Pia, details below the year of work he’s done to restore his badly damaged boat. You can read his previous story about the restoration, written two months after the storm, here.

Not across the seven seas or even over the Cascades, my epic journey has taken place within the confines of Libby Road in Olympia.

September 3rd has come and gone, an anniversary, a year since I have begun the work to repair my lovely Pia. It has been epic. Not legendary — many others have done the same — but this has been a personal odyssey, a year with daily, no, chronic challenges, stunning breath-stopping problems, endless contingency chains and moments of exhausted elation over incremental victories.

By the third week in October, I had finished the woodwork phase of building a new mast, actually spliced 26 feet to the bottom 20 feet, built a 50-foot temporary shed over the whole works and put on 14 coats of varnish. And in spite of having started a number of fires with great ribbons of them already, the end-to-end shavings remain thick underfoot.

Layout tools used in Pia's restoration.

As I put away my old jointer planes, a long one and a longer one, at 64 I wonder when I’ll be getting them out again. Made in the 1800s and used by generations of woodworkers before me, sensing their hands and their devotion, whistling sharp and wax-slick they are a pleasure to use but are confined to specific work — planking and mast-making, for example.

There are other tools: my father’s adzes, all my hand planes — jack, scrub, block, high and low angle, spoke shave, box shaves — and my slick, all old friends, all boatbuilding tools. There are special lay-out and measuring tools and jigs I’ve made.

The work isn’t over, but since I decided to give up relaunching Pia in late summer I can relax, maybe, just a little. Dream on.

Last Sept. 3, sailing across the Juan de Fuca Strait in our 73-three-year-old, 26-foot Danish Spidsgatter, Pia, and within sight of Watmough Bay, my son and I were caught in a sudden storm and overwhelmed in the deep, bank-littered hole between Smith and Lopez islands and ultimately rescued out of a raging sea at night by a crack Coast Guard helicopter team. 

A photo taken in the weeks after the storm shows the damage to Pia's starboard side.

Pia went up on the north side of the spit between Smith and Minor islands and was driven over the top. Her starboard side stove in, she sunk on the southeast side of the spit.

Through the amazing skills of Capt. Roger Slade and his Vessel Assist team and the help of numerous friends and strangers, Pia was salvaged and I had her trucked home to Olympia, where a friend, John, has allowed me to work on her in his barn. That has made all the difference.

The barn is not heated but it is mostly dry, and I was able to work every evening and weekend through the long winter, in snow and freeze and rain, and including vacation time averaged 30 hours over and above my full-time job. Pia has a chance to swim again. Thank you, John. Thank you.

An old fisherman friend of mine who lost his father and uncle when he was young and many acquaintances amongst the brotherhood of fishermen over the years sent me an album by Liam Clancy with the song “Home From the Sea” and the words on the envelope, “You’ve had good luck this year.” And so it is. 

The whiskey plank faired

The planking was completed in January and the graving pieces, or “Dutchmen” — closely fitted patches which now litter the hull — were finished in February. All of this is just journeyman stuff and included pulling and replacing more than 300 plank-to-frame boat nails, frame-to-floor bolts, the smashed cockpit combing, cracked cabin sides, torn canvas cabin top, chimney fairing block and broken grab rails; I also scarfed new wood on the bottom of the rudder and made a new tiller because the old one was lost in the storm.

The tedious repair of the interior of the interior proceeded apace, not without setbacks and hours and hours in the cold winter months. The cockpit combing, for example, was a stunning piece of work. A careful job, to be sure, it was finished in March, the cabin cracks repaired and the whole thing varnished with eight coats.

A last look outward

Much refastening has been accomplished, particularly in the way of butts, garboards and lower area of the frames. Because the garboard butt was slightly sprung and had spit out some of the cotton caulking I discovered that it, and five above it, are fastened to the grown floor timbers which, Danish style, extend up the hull and bolt to the sawn frames. Most butts on Pia are copper riveted to butt blocks.

The fastenings to the floors are iron, and out of eight on the first butt I was able to extract only two, and they were barely pins. The rest were just rust-clad holes that I was able to poke my ice pick all the way into without resistance. This was true of four other butts in planks above the garboard (the plank closest to the keel).

What held her together that night will forever remain a mystery. It is referred to as “memory,” but what does that mean?

The wizard and the rebuilt Yanmar, now running

These boats were marvelously built. By May, the interior bulkheads and the furnishings were repaired and refit, installed and varnished.

Meanwhile, I completely rewired the boat and completed the long, dirty job of rebuilding my old Yanmar, every nut, bolt and washer. This is the only place I’ve had more than occasional help. My friend Scott is one of two wizards I have had the pleasure of knowing in my life. He’s the complete mechanical wizard, the kind who sees the unknowable. He walked me through every detail of the rebuild and we did a bang-up, first-class job of it. My 2QM15 now starts in less than a single revolution of the flywheel.

The keel bolts have been treacherous, by far the most difficult and time-consuming job on the boat. In early April, I removed the first four, which range from 20 to 30 inches, in a straightforward way that took less than three hours each. I spent the entire following week trying to remove #6 and #7, the two longest keel bolts, but made no progress. None.

The completed mast shed

I started driving #6 with my trusty 12-pound sledge, and it moved so I quickly climbed out of the boat and down the ladder (okay, not as quickly as all that, man, I’m a 64-year-old noodle in there) to see if it moved on the bottom. It hadn’t. Bad sign. The bolt sheared at the apple-core.

So I set up my wedges, blocks, jacks and 2×2 heavy angle iron with a 13/16” hole in it (like a washer with the nut on top) and set the jacks under and pumped. Just drilling the 13/16” hole in the angle iron to jack against took me two hours, what with finding a buddy with a bit that big and all.

And then the blocking — that one word might sound easy, but it required cutting wedge shapes because the keel slopes there and is quite narrow. Back and forth, in and out of cramped quarters I went and finally got the stack high enough, but you know what they say about location, location, location.

Well, these are located in a space that required me to be 3’2” tall and 35 pounds with the strength of a cage fighter. Noodle city, baby. I was cramped and out of position like you wouldn’t believe, and I’m already old and stiff and abused by too much of the very thing I was doing. I’ll spare the details of the ensuing battle and just say it was time-consuming and very tough.

The ballast keel removed

Hours and hours over months and numerous jigs, failed ideas and attempts later, I finally gave in to sailmaker Sean Rankins’ suggestion to remove the ballast keel, and with help from friends David and Mark it came out nicely on Sunday, Oct. 4. Sometimes the hard way is the easy way. I spent at least 80 hours trying to do it the easy way. If nothing else, I’m hard-headed. I’ll be able to sand blast, prime, fair and coal tar it before bedding and bolting it on again.

Well, as it turns out, the hard way isn’t necessarily the easy way, either. Many hours of labor, numerous fabricated tools and jigs later, as of Halloween, two of the longest bolts remain in the wood.

Late one evening a few months ago I wrote on a scrap of wood, “Easy is nice but there ain’t much of it.”

The exclusive focus is strange that way and begets the question of what drives us, but there is also the question of why. I think of the famous furniture maker James Krenov, who titled his book “The Impractical Cabinetmaker.”

Notes about the mast

The work I’m doing on Pia makes no economic sense and in the end, what do I have? What if it’s the last thing I do? If I knew it would be, would I choose to spend my time this way?

Last night I had a dream in which I woke up to discover my boat had fallen over and broken all its ribs and planks. This is unlikely since the bashing she took that night was far, far greater than simply falling over, and although she broke ribs and planks the damage was repairable. But in my dream it was not, and I said to my mom (who for some reason was young in my dream and I don’t even know why she was there, “Now I can’t go where I want to go.”

Numerous details remain. Working through the winter, I hope to launch Pia in spring.

I want to awaken with you every day,
I must wait, and the waiting is good.
I feel the tang of the moments,
the aching miracle of the months,
and wait upon you as I wait upon God.
Isn’t this what we were meant to do,
as the salmon empties into new life,
purpose accomplished, dies, and is still?

Our own waiting is the same
moving towards our destiny,
as Swimmer threads the stream,
and Wolf moves through the valley,
and Raven goes to the mountain,
we will also move towards the place
all of our intentions compel us to.

(Note: “Swimmer” is the translation of the Klingit word for salmon.)


8 Responses to Putting Pia back together again: Part 2

  1. Lani K. Ka'awaloa February 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    As your sister, who grew up with you, picking up your wet towels, doing your laundry, and cooking your meals, I never dreamed that you would turn out to be such an awsome, creative, talented, boat builder,boat repairer, and writer. And I bet that not many people know your a fine artist, home decorator and miticulas house keeper, you can even cook. Your boat Pia is an example of you fortitude, and a fine job.
    Your ever loving sister Lani.

  2. Sherie December 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    God bless you, Aho’i, as He has blessed beautiful Pia when you found her, and as you bless all those who have known your care and devotion. Pia will sail again, and for a long long time, thanks to that care and devotion.

  3. Jain December 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Your ship will live past you. And quite fittingly it appears.
    Very compelling intentions.

  4. john wayne taylor December 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm #


    When the day comes when you no longer toil over wooden boats, please consider writing. Write about whatever life has taught you and about whatever dreams you harbor. Your life’s experiences, along with your artful writing, will send-out goodness for generations to come.

    You are much respected and loved,
    john wayne taylor

  5. Lin A. Beitner November 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm #


    Your dedication to your craft and to one love of your life, Pia, is phenomenal. There are not so many today that would continue to hold true to such a feat. Many would crumble in defeat just with the recognition of the time investment that it would take to bring Pia back to life. Then when one takes into account the cost to your own body, the abuse to sinew, bone, and muscle, as well as on mind, heart and spirit, and so many seemingly impossible challenges faced with this endeavor, it is nothing short of miraculous. I applaud you, my friend. To say, “Congratulations” is simply not enough. I have to agree with Gary Shinn. “You are amazing and I’m proud to know you.” Bravo! Bravo!

  6. Gary Shinn November 9, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Aho’i, my 66 year-old back aches just reading about all the work you’ve done saving Pia. You’re amazing and I’m proud to know you. — Gary Shinn, 1933 MV Wander

    • Ahoi November 9, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

      Ditto Gary. I really appreciate your kind words. My back is an issue. Sunday after three hours I managed to get the aft most keel bolt to move 1 3/4″. I felt exhilarated and energized. At a price; Monday it took two hours before I was able to stand up straight without wincing. The weekend before I had spent six hours and gained not a sixteenth of an inch. That was discouraging. And my back hurt like heck anyway…

      • Ron Cunningham June 18, 2012 at 10:44 am #

        Ahoy Aho’i,

        You were at my house to celebrate Dennis Duncan’s 70 birthday a month after the great storm. I love telling your story to friends who sail. I was sailing on the straight of Juan de Fuca when the coast guard was looking for you and to have you in my living room telling your stories a month later was astounding.

        I’m very happyto see the progress you are making and to know Pia will rule the seas once again. Will you be at the boat show this fall? We plan to cruise up to Victoria the first of September this year.

        Good luck with the launch!

        Ron Cunningham

Leave a Reply