Bowsprit Repair Complete

25 September 2020

Every year The Swan Trust is grateful to our volunteers, who come together over the winter to help us maintain Swan. This consists of both the usual annual maintenance and one-off tasks. Over the past couple of years these have included re-caulking the coach roof and dismantling and overhauling the capstan. Here Swan Trust Trustee Brian Wishart, tells us about the big project this year, repairing the Bowsprit.

For several years now we have been aware of long splits in the bowsprit gradually getting deeper and more obvious the full length of the bowsprit, all 28 feet of it. This spar is a hefty 11 inches square at its inner end, tapering to 5 inches in the round at the forward end, and is of Oregon pine, as were all the Swan’s spars when renewed during her restoration in the early 1990s.

Longitudinal splits are never said to be of great concern in spars, but in this case the bowsprit is always horizontal and the splits were deep and were potential water traps, and to add to our doubts it felt suspiciously soft when a thin blade was inserted to the full depth – in some places nearly up to half the spar’s diameter. We feared rainwater had been lying in these recesses for years, causing unknown damage, which warranted further investigation.

We started on the bowsprit in January 2020, having completed all the other regular maintenance of varnishing blocks, oiling spars, checking and overhauling sails and cordage by Christmas, with our trusty group of volunteers who come from near and far across Shetland for the experience. We find a cup of coffee during the proceedings mid-forenoon has come to be an important and congenial pause on a cold winter’s day, and the camaraderie is always evident, and very welcome!

The bowsprit group was to be smaller, consisting of four individuals who had some background in timber work, especially spars, gained over the years - some from working on other Swan maintenance tasks, and some from wider experience of carpentry. The plan was to router out lengthwise as deeply as possible the splits in the spar, making them wide enough to take in the meanderings of the split grain and to divide these up where possible into the most clearly defined individual splits. In all there were five separate splits varying from about 7 feet to 3 feet in length, and from 2.5 inches wide to around an inch. The sides of these routered channels were tapered downwards and inwards to around half their maximum width, always at a constant angle to make the fillets more straightforward to produce.

The most difficult task turned out to be setting up the long timber guides for the router on the spar with its constantly changing diameter. All the routering was to a depth of 63 mm, the deepest bit we could access locally, and where splits were deeper than that we cleaned out the remainder by rasp and chisel without making a fresh cut. The good news was that the deepest recesses were not soft from decay but by years of linseed oil collecting and remaining soft, as a result of the liberal annual coatings applied. No actual decay was found anywhere, which gave us reassurance that the job was worth doing.

All the fillets were then cut and shaped (of Oregon pine with end grain orientated with the growth rings of the existing spar) and the ends of each fillet given scarf joints into the original spar to allow maximum evenness of bend when the spar flexes at sea. We have to keep in mind that even this powerful spar does readily bend under load and particularly in steep head seas.

We were now ready to start gluing. Although working on the Swan usually involves a range of traditional materials, applications and techniques, we have also used epoxy glue successfully now for many years for timber joining where strength and maintaining bending qualities are crucial, including for spar repairs. Although not a traditional material, we know that the alternative would usually be to replace with new, a very costly alternative and a much less ‘green ‘solution. However, great care must be taken when using epoxy resin during Shetland winters for temperature and moisture content to be kept safely within the required tolerances. Adhesion and strength of epoxy is recognised second to none, but only if application guidelines are strictly followed.

We were all ready to start this final gluing stage in mid-March when Covid-19 struck and our whole operation came to an immediate halt.

Eventually, at the start of August we were able to resume and quickly got back into our stride. Gluing went ahead in relatively balmy conditions – well, 16 degrees – near-tropical in our usually cold and draughty shed! In a week or so it was done, and ready for the finishing touches; the surface of the repaired area planed and sanded, then a magic potion applied to give the new timber a look to match the near-black of aged linseed oil which is the typical colour of these traditional spars. Finally, two coats of boiled linseed oil were applied to the whole spar and the job was over, ready to be loaded on board the Swan again next spring, when we hope to prepare her for next season.

As a Trustee, we value the part played by our volunteers. They help to maintain Swan to a consistently high standard - whilst contributing thousands of pounds worth of their time and expertise to the Trust annually. We are hugely grateful to them for this, as we could not continue to operate Swan without them. The bowsprit repair alone has reduced the cost of a new spar, which would have been over £5,000, to just a few hundred pounds for the materials used. Similar savings were made by the work on re-caulking and capstan repairs mentioned earlier.

One of the things I enjoy about taking part in the caring process for Swan, along with meeting friends old and new, is that we are always learning more about the traditional techniques needed for these tasks. Also, by bringing together people with varying amounts of experience for a given task, but always with a thought to sharing the experience, the Trust helps keep alive and even widen the pool of skills locally. The bowsprit was no exception and everyone agreed that it was a very interesting, absorbing and unusual task.

The Trust could not continue to care for Swan, and provide life-changing sail training opportunities, without its volunteers, as well as the donations made by individuals and organisations. If you would like to support the Trust please click on the links above or contact us.

Find out more about the history of Swan.


Want to get involved in maintaining and operating a traditional wooden sailing vessel? There are a number of different ways you can volunteer to safeguard, care for and sail this unique heritage asset.

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