I think I finally ‘groked’ something that had been eluding me for the past several years. ’Grok’ if you are not familiar with it, comes from Robert Heinline’s classic sci-fi novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. It means ‘to understand something at the deepest level’.
My realization came while stripping the paint and varnish off of the gaff spar of my traditional sail boat. This is a slow and painful process which can take days and days to complete.
On a wooden spar, they typically paint the ends of the spar with white paint, and varnish the center part. I noticed that the varnish in the middle part had failed badly and that the wood was discolored and somewhat damaged by water incursion. The sections that were covered by white paint were pristine. Oh, there had been a few cracks in the paint, but very little water had gotten in, and the wood is in very good shape.
They paint the ends of the spars with white paint for precisely this reason… the paint holds up better, and longer, to protect the wood. So, they put paint on the very ends of the spars, where the end grain could act like straws and suck up moisture, inducing the spar to rot from within.
So, why not paint the whole spar white? Wouldn’t this protect the wood best? Yes! The answer, though, is vanity. Nothing looks prettier than a large varnished chunk of wood. If you have a boat with large wooden spars, masts, hand-holds, toe rails, hatch covers, a boomkin or a bowsprit, you want to show them off! And so you spend hundreds of hours (or thousands of dollars) applying coat after coat of clear varnish, so that people can see the beauty of the wood underneath.
The problem is that varnish is short-lived. Every six months or so, you have to touch it up and re-apply a few new coats. And, if you don’t, then within a year or two at most, it will totally fail, making it necessary for you to take the piece back to the bare wood (which requires the painful stripping process referenced above) and start all over again.
Unless you have deep pockets, you end up doing most of this work yourself. And given the amount of time it takes per year, it comes out to roughly ALL THE FREE SAILING TIME YOU HAVE. So, either, you spend all season keeping your boat looking nice, or, you actually get to take it out sailing once in a while, but then it suffers from the elements.
All for what? Vanity. All because varnished wood looks so much better. It’s not better for the wood, or the boat, or your pocketbook, or your social calendar… but for the people standing around looking at your boat; for the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ coming from the assembled masses, and from yourself!
Vanity is one of the Seven Deadly Sins to the Catholics among us, and in Buddhism, it is recognized as a form of attachment, which ultimately brings pain and suffering. Bingo! If I were planning to keep my boat for a long time, I think I would paint every piece of varnished wood. Then sail the boat for a couple of years without having to worry about it. Touching up paint is a breeze, so I might not ever have to take the piece back to the bare wood again!
However, I’m planning on selling it… so, I won’t. Some fresh varnish might appeal to someone else’s vanity, sigh.