Last month, we confronted a dilemma. The wooden utility barge used for ferrying supplies to the Lighthouse was in critical condition. The bow was hopelessly sagging. Lacking support, the deck undulated with every wave. One day over the summer, Styrofoam floatation material escaped out of a breach, prompting emergency repairs. I beached the barge and quickly tacked on some brackets and screws before the tide changed. Within a few weeks, those repairs failed, and the bow planks flopped open once more.
After resorting to tying on the loose planks with a length of rope, I decided to discuss the situation with the chair of the Lighthouse Conservancy’s dock committee, the aptly named Dock Shuter. Perhaps the time had come to retire the barge from service. We started shopping around for a used pontoon boat and even drove to Lake George to look at a promising candidate.
That was before Chris O’Reilly came to town. He had just finished working with a team of shipwrights in dry dock in Waterford repairing the Lois McClure (a sailing canal barge) and the Lehigh Valley No. 79 (a wooden railroad barge). He had a few days before starting repair work on the sloop Clearwater on the Rondout, and he offered to take a look at our long-suffering barge.
The vessel was never much to look at. Boxy by design, it lacked the graceful lines of most watercraft. Sure, it could haul heavy loads, but it was not exactly hydrodynamic and never moved fast through the water. Basically, the boat was a floating dock with an outboard motor. It was originally built 30 years ago for the purpose of delivering building materials for the renovation of the Lighthouse, load after load of lumber, brick, sand and mortar. It’s doubtful that it was ever intended to remain in service for so long, yet it has stayed afloat, barely. Reminiscent of a river raft from a Mark Twain novel, it was dubbed the Yuck Finn by a previous keeper. The “yuck” part came from the fact that it is notoriously used to haul the stinky Porta-Potty to get pumped out. Motoring along the creek with the green portable toilet on its deck, the Yuck Finn inspired numerous unoriginal jokes. In its derelict state, the barge could barely perform this unsavory chore. Except for comedic value, no sentimentality was lavished on this beast of a boat. So, why save it? Chris’s attitude was, ‘Why not?’
We imposed ourselves on Casey Curry at Saugerties Marina to haul the barge from the water using his hydraulic boat trailer. As the craft emerged from the water atop the trailer, chunks of Styrofoam encrusted with zebra mussels dropped from the underside, and caches of water chestnuts spilled out like black confetti strewn from a moribund parade float. Further inspection merely confirmed our worst suspicions; most of the wood below the waterline was rotten. The repairs from the summer failed because the new screws pulled loose from the old deteriorated wood. Moreover, it appeared that a family of muskrats had converted the interior to their winter home, tunneling through the blue Styrofoam floatation material to make a well-insulated dwelling. Their pantry contained an ample supply of water chestnuts.
This was certainly a discouraging sight. A sensible person would say the barge was beyond fixing. Plenty was said along these lines as we stood in the boat yard examining the corpse of the watercraft. Let the muskrats have it, I thought. Chris, however, was undeterred. “It’s wood, isn’t it? Wood can be fixed,” he said. His quiet confidence swayed the skeptics. With a few two-by-fours and two-by-eights and a box of screws, the barge could be resuscitated.
Chris didn’t waste any time in getting to work, and Dock provided an extra set of hands when needed. Together, they methodically replaced one rotten plank after another. I was able to scrounge up enough Styrofoam floatation material to replace what the muskrats had chewed up, and Chris enclosed the bottom of the barge to make it rodent-proof. After three days, the barge was back in the water, floating higher than it had in years. Left behind onshore was a waterlogged heap of rotten boards and chewed up Styrofoam that, when hauled away, measured a half-ton on the scales at the county transfer station.
Now, the Yuck Finn was half new and wholly improved. All expenses tallied, repairing was still cheaper than buying a used aluminum pontoon boat. In many ways, an old patched-up wooden barge was more useful insofar as it was not as precious and could handle the rough treatment suffered by a work boat. Maybe I’m actually more sentimental about the Yuck Finn than I’m willing to admit. Now, since repairing rather than replacing the Yuck Finn, a more confounding question emerged, a paradox contemplated since the philosophers of antiquity: Plutarch wondered whether a boat remained the same boat after replacing every one of its wooden parts. The answer, I’ve learned, depends upon whether you’ve hired a top-notch shipwright to do the work.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse keeper. His column appears monthly.