Maintenance and Preparation

Requisite care for your vessel

Welcome to the sixth installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, a series looking at the fantasy and the reality of being a sailor in the modern age. Today we’ll be examining the maintenance and preparation of a tall ship.

In this column I’ll be talking about what happens to a ship when she goes in for maintenance, along with all the sundry things required to keep a tall ship sailing.

No matter what type of ship you’re talking about, it requires lots of maintenance. That’s true of all boats, whether they’re made of wood, fiberglass, steel, or any combination thereof. 

The ship I work on is mainly made of Corten steel [ 1 ]. One of the major benefits of having a steel ship is that you don’t have to worry about worms or rot the way sailors in the golden age did. The downside, of course, is that you must watch out for rust, and heat management when the deck gets hot. Another thing which can be a problem on wooden and fiberglass ships but is always a problem on steel ships is traction, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Early in the season, in this case in February and March, while the boat is on the hard (meaning out of the water) and up on stanchions in dry dock [ 2 ], we check the boat for rust spots as well as places where the hull needs to be shored up. With wooden ships, you might nail on more wood. With a steel ship, we’d shore it up by welding on metal plates. 

We don’t just check the bottom of the ship when it’s in dry dock though. We check the rigging to see if any of it has frayed or worn portions, or otherwise needs to be replaced. We also check the sails to see if any of those need to be replaced. 

Speaking of Sails

We were lucky this year, in that we got an entirely new set of sails from the company that’s leasing the boat from the captain. That means that instead of trying to see if we can make the old sails work, or replacing a few while leaving the others, we started fresh with a whole new set. That’s excellent since we’d been using the original Dacron sails installed on the boat when it was new back in 2000. 

As seen in Winslow Homer’s piece for Harper’s Weekly (1869), the regulatory maintenance has been a part of public awareness for some time.

They go through a process called tanbarking, where they dip the sails in different solutions to slow down sun damage as well as filling in the gaps in the weave so it will catch the wind better. Historically, tanbarking of canvas sails has been done with several different solutions, including tea mixed with the dissolved barks of a few different trees. 

Since the sails came out dyed by the tannins in the tea and bark, and the mixture contained bark, hence the name. And even though the sails used to be canvas instead of Dacron, and the mixes were tea and bark instead of modern chemicals, that doesn’t mean they didn’t do the same job. 

All fibers, especially natural ones, have holes in them, from microscopic holes to larger gaps. Tanbarking solutions make those fibers expand to fill in both types of gaps as well as making them stick together once they’ve expanded. With fewer holes for wind to go through, as well as fewer loose edges to fray, the sails last far, far longer than they otherwise would. They also provide a lot more power to move the ship, since the wind has to push the sails instead of sneaking through the holes [ 3 ].

Since the golden Age of Sail, the way the sails are rigged to the ship determines what type of ship it is, although obviously some hulls and masts are more suited to some kinds of rigging. The Formidable, for example, is a brigantine [ 4 ]. Its mainmast has fore and aft sails that run along the length of the keel. The forward mast has square sails, not referring to the shape of the sails, but noting that they’re rigged at a square angle to the keel of the ship. 

The Formidable also has three head sails or jib sails: the flying jib, the inner jib, and the forward staysail. Those three are technically fore and aft rigged, but they are classified differently because they don’t have a boom.

In the golden Age of Sail, when sails were worn but new sails couldn’t be found, the old sails would be patched with material from an old sail that was too worn to be used any longer. That method is still used when the owner of the ship would rather patch than replace his sail, or if appropriate new sails can’t be purchased or made.

Checking the Hull

Once we’ve made sure the sails and rigging are okay, we head back to the hull. Any rust spots that weren’t so bad they needed patching still have to be dealt with. 

First, we sand away the rust down to the clean steel. This stage is where the ships of the Age of Sail would have done their careening, or scraping off barnacles and other sea life which had attached to the hull. We don’t have to worry about that very much because we don’t go out in the open sea, and we don’t let the boat sit still for long periods of time. We haven’t had to sandblast down to bare metal yet on the Formidable, but that is something that needs to be done on occasion. 

Next, we apply a coat of primer, then we put a layer of tar on the primer to waterproof the ship. While the layer of tar is still tacky, we apply the topcoat. Traditionally, most boats have a different type and color of paint that reaches just above the waterline. In our case, we use a type of paint called non-ablative paint for that part of the ship. That’s another reason we don’t have to worry about barnacles, because the texture doesn’t let them attach to the boat easily and reduces their growth. 

There are even more high-tech solutions being researched by the U.S. Navy based on the skins of sharks, but that’s a little beyond what we do to the Formidable. While that sounds expensive—creating synthetic sharkskin for their ships’ hulls—it could save tens of millions of dollars in careening every year [ 5 ]

The realities of maintenance is neither glamorous nor ‘lighthearted.’ It’s deeply necessary work, as seen here performed by crew members on a ship in Gloucester, UK.

While we’re working on the bottom of the boat, there’s one more bit of metal we have to take care of—the propeller. It’s made of brass, so we take a brass wheel to it if it needs it, and a while back we painted it with a special black prop paint which has protected it since.

Once we’ve finished painting the bottom half, we start painting the top half. In our case, the lower hull is non-ablative red, and the upper half of the hull is black marine paint. 

Our deck is painted beige or tan, mixed with a texturing material so the deck has a non-slip surface. The paint doesn’t come mixed, so we have to mix that into the paint ourselves. While we don’t allow passengers on all our decks, like the foredeck which doesn’t have tall enough railing, we still need traction in those areas, although not as much so we don’t mix in as much of the texturing material. 

The weatherdeck, where most of the passengers stay, gets two layers. One problem with that textured paint is that all the nooks and crannies, while they’re great for traction, are terrible for getting clean. One thing we clean off frequently is black powder residue, which takes a while scrubbing with cleanser and a stiff bristled brush. The worst thing I’ve personally ever cleaned off, however, has to be Play-Doh; that stuff got into the texturing and took days to get rid of. For days we had a bright blue-green spot on our otherwise pristine beige deck. Some foods are tough to get out, like cake, brownies, and chocolate chips, but nothing really compares to Play-Doh, except maybe gum.

One final bit we take care of is the brightwork [ 6 ]. That’s the woodwork on a boat like ours. While we’re in dry dock, we check the condition of the brightwork, especially anywhere the sheets get tied up on the pins. While there is a metal-clad area on one side of the wood, the other side has no protection beyond the layers of polyurethane. When it gets worn, we’ll sand things down and add on multiple layers of polyurethane to protect the wood. You have to scuff up the polyurethane before adding new layers, otherwise the new layers have nothing to grab onto.

Everything Else

There are a lot of other minor details taken care of in dry dock as well. For example, we have rubber mats on the below decks; the decks are made of metal, so we need them for traction. We remove all the rubber mats while we’re in dry dock, clean and, if need be, resurface the metal, and clean the mats before we return them. 

There’s a lot of brightwork belowdecks as well, since we try to give the appearance of a wooden vessel whenever possible. All of that brightwork has to be checked, and, just like the wood above decks, if it’s worn, we need to sand it down and put a few coats of paint or polyurethane on it. We inflate our fenders and make sure they’re able to hold air, and patch them if they don’t, and replace them if they can’t be patched.

While we’re in dry dock, we’ll also take stock of replacement parts we might need while we’re out on the water. Anything we’re low on gets restocked. Finally, there’s the tradition of keeping any old items we replaced around as “chafing gear.” It’s a running joke by this point, where if we have anything that’s too worn to use but too good to throw away, it gets put in the fo’c’sle as “chafing gear.”

I recall on my first day working on the Formidable, a day in March. On that day I met the bosun. On our ship the bosun is sort of a cross between an engineer and a maintenance man [ 7 ]. He does some work on the engine along with everything else. 

He handed me an angle grinder, which I’d never used before. I fired it up and put the business end to the boat. After 10 to 15 minutes using the 10-pound tool to grind at a 45-degree angle, my arms were getting tired, and it was kicking out on me a bit. 

At one point it kicked out toward me completely; I stepped away but didn’t realize the cord to the grinder was in the way. I nearly sheared it clean through and there were sparks everywhere. I dropped the machine and started swearing, which brought the bosun and captain over to see what happened. Luckily, the bosun fixed the cord on the brand-new angle grinder, so my career lasted longer than a day.

Once everything that needs to be done in dry dock is completed, we pull up a vehicle called a boat lift that looks like a giant metal cube with a pair of slings on it. In a process that’s the reverse of us getting it out of the water, we put the slings under the boat, the vehicle winches it up until it can carry it forward toward the dock, where there is a special U-shaped section. 

One of the boat lift’s wheels goes on either side of that section, it pulls forward, then lowers the ship gently into the water. Once the boat is in the water, we slowly pull forward until we’re clear of the slings, and then we’re back in the water.

At any rate, at the end of a long day working the boat over in dry dock, we’ll hit the Crow’s Nest in Gloucester, MA. We’d work all day, leave for dinner and a drink, then return to the boat to sleep, except on those occasions when the captain would rent a hotel room for us to get showered up.

So, there you have the dry dock maintenance of a tall ship, from the bottom of the hull to the top of the sails. Be sure to sail by next time when we talk about proper etiquette and chain of command aboard a tall ship in the Age of Sail!


  1. “As seen in Winslow Homer’s piece for Harper’s Weekly (1869), the regulatory maintenance has been a part of public awareness for some time.” Source:
  2. “The realities of maintenance is neither glamorous nor ‘lighthearted.’ It’s deeply necessary work, as seen here performed by crew members on a ship in Gloucester, UK.“ Source:

Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.


  1. “What Is Corten Steel?”,
  2. “Dry Dock.” Britannica, Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
  3. Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.
  4. “Brigantine Sailing Ship.” Britannica, Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
  5. “Careen.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
  6. “Spring Prep: Wood Care and Brightwork.” West Marine, Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
  7. Bhattacharjee, Shilavadra. “Duties of A Bosun (Boatswain) on a Ship.” Marine Insight, 27 Sept. 2021,