Ocean Wildcat – Merlin Rocket No 1728
Garry Rucklidge - Feb 2005
At 53 years of age and some 38 years since having sailed a dinghy I decided that it was about time that I should get back into sailing before age really caught up with me. I didn’t see myself in a Laser or equivalent, nor did I want to go out and take the easy option of buying a fibreglass boat off the shelf. I set myself a couple of parameters. I wanted wood. I wanted clinker. I wanted varnish. I wanted a project. I had remembered the Merlin Rocket from years back – I don’t know why – I had never seen one in the flesh – there was no internet to view one – I had just remembered and it must have pervaded the sub-conscious and so I went onto the Merlin Rocket site and was amazed at the prices for old boats.|
There was a restored boat for £575 on a road trailer – I offered a bit less than that and was beaten by someone offering the asking price. It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to do up a boat. I had no practical wood working skills to speak of just an instinct of what I would try to achieve and of course access to the world through the internet. So it started a hunt for an old boat. I looked at one boat but I was worried about the final cost it could turn out to be. Perhaps it needed less work than I ended up doing but I was not sure what might be involved and in the light of that it was too expensive. The Merlin site had 1728 adverised. I discussed with the owner and at the price took a flyer and bought it sight unseen. I will allow you to judge whether “cosmetic woodwork” was a fair description!!!
Ocean Wildcat is a Proctor IX design Merlin Rocket number 1728 was built by Bob Hoare in 1964. She was advertised through the Merlin website and bought from Somerton, Somerset on 20th April 2004. The boat had been obtained with the intention of restoring and sailing her but had hurt his back and was forced to sell her. I towed her to 31 King Street, Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire for restoration.
Most of the fittings appeared to be present and there were two mainsails, a jib and spinnaker. The sails all had the correct number. The mast is alloy and appeared to have all the shrouds and halyards present. There was a tiller and rudder with aluminium rudder stock. There was a full complement of buoyancy bags, none of which were inflated.
She seemed to have a basically sound hull although there was some varnish missing around the bow region and the exposed wood was discoloured grey. There seemed to be only a small amount of soft timber in the hog and this was confined to a small area near the transom and a small area forward of the mast under the large buoyancy bag under the foredeck. The brace between the transom and hog was loose.
The decks were in a sorry state. The side deck had delaminated and a previous semi-repair had been carried out by re-nailing with oval steel nails and bending them over at right angles. The foredeck had de-laminated areas and much of the varnish had gone. Generally the plywood was not well stuck down – I guess that the glue had perished in frost and weather over the years. The framing for the sidedecks also looked as if it had de-laminated. The cross member supporting the mast gate was rotten.
The rubbing strip had already been repaired on the starboard side but there was evidence of rot there. The strip had been fixed with screws and oval nails – again steel and very rusty.
The inner hull and top of the centreboard case was covered in fibreglass and painted blue. There was evidence that the centreboard case cover was screwed down with steel screws. The thwarts were full of old screw holes which had been filled. The transom traveller was loose and there was evidence that the transom sections had split as the traveller screws were loose. The forward anchorage points for the toestraps were loose. The buoyancy bags were deflated but attached to the hull with clips and straps.
The tiller looked OK but there was delamination of the rudder and the aluminium stock had developing cracks in the tiller housing.
The first job was to remove all the fittings but before doing so digital photos were taken to help with eventual reassembly. Once fittings were removed the next job (which proved to be one of the easiest in view of the poor state of the old glue) was to remove the decks. The foredecks were removed complete and kept to allow positioning of any rigging fixtures.
The side decks were a little more difficult due to the steel nails which I tried to remove as best as I could but many of them needed to be dug out of the underlying timber to prevent any future staining of new timber as well as preventing damage to chisels and planes. The removal of the decks revealed that there were more problems underneath.
There was rot around the through-deck bushes which had spread to the rubbing strips. The cross member clearly was beyond repair and the ply running from king post to the cross member below the foredeck was rotten where it attached to the cross member. The timber holding the mast gate was damaged beyond repair. All these pieces were retained to act as templates for the replacements.
The cover on the top of the centreboard and the centreboard itself was removed. The cover was held down with rusty woodscrews and these were removed by heating the heads with the heat gun which seemed to break the rust seal. As it turned out some of the screws had not actually lined up with the centreboard case and were attaching nothing!! The toestraps and all buoyancy bags were removed. The cross- and side thwarts were removed and retained for templates. All fixtures and fittings were placed into labelled plastic bags and tied to prevent loss of bits.
The next major job was to remove the fibreglass matting and blue paint from the bottom of the boat. The matting was heated using a blowlamp and the edge gripped with a pair of vice grips and pulled off gradually in a single sheet.
While this worked perfectly for one side the matting on the other side would only come away in pieces no bigger than a credit card with the result that it took almost a day and a half to remove while the other side took about an hour and a half. There was still quite a lot of residual resin left which would be removed later.
The internal frames for the side decks were unscrewed from the cross member. The cross member was removed along with the ply support (king pin to cross member). The screws holding the laminated inner deck support together were removed (brass) and the laminating joints opened up with softwood wedges and the joints cleaned free of old glue using a hacksaw blade and a Stanley knife.
The rotten rubbing strip and the through deck bush support were cut out. The inside of the boat and the transom were now scraped free of varnish using a mixture of nitromors, a scraper (old plane blade), a belt sander with fine paper and a Black and Decker orbital sander. The inner hull was taken down to bare wood.
At this point the boat was considered to be stripped to the point where the rebuild could actually start. Certain important decisions had to be made at that point.
After a lot of advice-seeking (on this and many issues) what follows regarding glue, wood, stain and varnish is a distillation of all the tips I was offered through the Merlin Rocket website/forum and private follow- ups and to all those who offered their opinions so freely I am very grateful, even though some of the suggestions were not taken up.
I plumped for West System epoxy glue with microballoons as the filler/matrix. I was tempted by microfibres but the brown/pink colour of the microballoons swayed the decision. Perhaps microfibres would be stronger and I hope never to find out! Certainly I found that the epoxy was easy to work with and with care would go a long way. The entire project (and you will see what this covered in due course was done with the 1kg pack of glue and a 200g tub of balloons. At the end there was a little left over but I was careful in measuring the amounts and only once did I ever make too much in a mix. I also found that it filled space well, set hard in 24hours and could be sanded with the same density as wood. An added bonus was that it seems to take Interstain well and this helps blend in the colour. I have no idea if microfibres will do this as apparently they are white at the start. So West System it was!!!
The first job was to re-glue the inner side deck support together. This was relatively easy – use softwood wedges cut from scrap to part the laminations, squeeze the glue into the joints forcing the glue down with strips of plastic cut from a 2litre milk container and screwing up from the inside with new brass screws. A tip here is to run masking tape down either side of the joint. This allows the excess glue to run out onto masking tape rather than the wood which would become stained by the epoxy. When almost dry the masking tape can be peeled off and the semi-hardened glue which is proud of the joint can be gently removed with a sharp chisel removing the need for excessive sanding later. Excess glue was always scraped off and the wood surface wiped with acetone – if you don’t do this you end up with stained timber. The top of the hull where it attaches to the gunwhales had also come adrift where the old glue had perished and was parted with wedges, cleaned and then glued and screwed together.
All the new timber (cross member, thwarts and centreboard cover were from mahogany obtained from Rembrand timber (based in Dundee)) and this put through a thicknesser at 12mm. This is probably not the best timber but transport costs from Robbins in Bristol (one of the best suppliers) to Aberdeen was off-putting and as you will see the correct staining does wonders for the final appearance. The new cross thwart was cut and placed in position “dry” screwed only to keep the boat shape as with all the stripping out she had become quite “floppy”. Using the old cross member as a template a new member was cut and planed to shape and glued and screwed into position across the boat and onto the side deck inner supports.
The mast recess which holds the mast gate was cut from mahogany using a jigsaw and screwed into position (important here to remember to fit the size of the slot to the corrrect position on the mast as I found later that I had to enlarge the slot as I took the dimensions roughly from the template and as it had broken in half (see photo) I made the slot too small and had to file it out at a much later stage – much easier to fit it to the mast at this point!!!)
At this stage I had to make sure that the hull planking was intact and in fact there were four planks which were split. I made a pile of softwood wedges, about 2cm wide and 4mm, thick from scrap and pushed them in between the planking to the point where the joint was OK and this opened them up by about 3mm – just enough to allow me to scrape out all the old glue with an old hacksaw blade. I drilled small 1.5mm holes through the overlap of the planks and then ladled the epoxy/microballoons into the gap pulling out the wedges one at a time ensuring where each wedge had come out more glue was pushed in. The planks were screwed together using short thick panhead screws long enough to hold the planks together but not right through the hull. The heads were large to prevent biting hard into the timber (I have been told that large washers are a good idea to help spread the load). Once set the screws were removed and the holes filled with epoxy/balloons.
The next job was to remove the steel screws which had been left in the centreboard casing when the heads had sheared off during unscrewing. I found that a great way of getting these screws shifted is to heat the head with a heat gun. You can really direct the heat with less risk of damaging the timber than with a naked flame – heat and then remove the gun to let the heat disperse then heat again. Once removed the old holes were filled with mahogany dowels tapped and glued into place and when set cut off flush. At the same time the opportunity was taken to fill the holes for the traveller and the gudgeon and pintle on the transom using mahogany dowels. Splits in the centreboard case were made good by opening the joints with wedges and gluing and clamping the case together and while clamped the centreboard case cover was cut to size and screwed and glued in position with oversize holes which were plugged later. The cross thwart was glued and screwed into place as were the short side thwarts.
The next job was to replace the gunwhales where they had rotted. This involved making a scarf joint with spruce and mahogany set in to match the rubbing strip being glued and nailed with copper nails. Various blocks of wood under the side decks were replaced where there was rot eg the through deck bushes for the shrouds. The holes for the bushes were drilled later.
Finally, at this point areas which showed any signs of rot were treated with clear Cuprinol which looked terrible to start with – very patchy but I left for holiday at this point so the whole treatment had two weeks to dry and when I returned the treated areas were the same colour as their surrounds.
The next job was to tackle the redecking. Before starting I ensured the the step on the gunwhales and on the inner deck support was cleaned and was cut low enough such that the ply decking would sit below this framing. Thus the final finish would be to remove some of the framing timber rather than shaving the plywood decking down to fit and exposing the inner layer. I used the old decks as a template and cut out the shapes roughly with a jigsaw. It was important to fix the ply sheet at two points – one I screwed into the block of wood at the join of fore- and side-deck ensuring that the screw went through the part of the wood which was to be scrapped when the two decks were joined on the angle. The other end went under the forestay attachment fitting.
Gradually I cut away the ply to size working very slowly and checking the fit every few centimetres. Use a plane first then a file and finally sandpaper to make a really snug fit. A centre strip of spruce was glued to the centre plywood on the foredeck as a decorative feature although I do think that it is easier to match a half foredeck to this straight line rather than to the other half of the deck. Using this technique the side decks were also cut and fitted and an angled joint made to join the two deck pieces together. This was all done “dry”.
The foredeck was glued into position first. The curved foredeck was held in position with a combination of clamps, timber blocks, ratchet straps, paving slabs and blocks – it is surprising how much tension there is in a curved deck and in fact I ended screwing the deck onto the aft cross member until set. I then covered these holes with a strip of spruce which looks decorative but has the added advantage of protecting the edge of the ply foredeck from rubbing and risk of delamination at some time in the future. When set the side decks were fitted into position (again using the masking tape trick either side of the joint) and when everything was dry the gunwhales and side deck supports were planed and sanded to the level of the deck – the small gap between the new ply and the deck being taken up with surplus epoxy and microballoons – a combination which was very easy to sand.
On reaching this stage it was time to start work on the outside of the hull. The boat was turned over onto a set of old tyres – thanks Alistair!!!
The keel band was removed along with the old centreboard slot gasket which was ripped and perished. The screw holes were filled with epoxied mahogany plugs. The old varnish was scraped off using the heat gun and finally removed with light belt sanding and orbital sanding back to bare wood. The grey colour of the bow section was brought back to mahogany very easily.
The hull was finished by hand with fine sandpaper and two coats of UCP from International applied allowing the true colour of the mahogany to be seen for the first time. The UCP was rolled on working fast and allowing a day between coats with a light wet and dry rub down between coats.
Again providing a wet and dry key the Blakes one coat polyurethane was applied the first two coats being applied thin (approximately 20% thinners) with foam roller and using a piece of foam/jennybrush to lightly brush the surface bringing the wet varnish from an orange peel surface to a shining gloss finish. Between coats the surface was rubbed down until a glass-like finish was obtained. This took about four coats (six in all with the UCP).
The keel band was straightened out (it was aluminium alloy) and screwed back into position using mylar sheet for the centreboard slot gasket (in retrospect I think I would use either a rubber or canvas type of gasket and I may replace the mylar with this the next time I have the boat upside down). The slot gasket was sealed with silicon. While the boat was upside down I lifted it up off the tyres with a sling over the garage roof joists to be able to seal and varnish the underneath of the new decks more easily. This saves working above your head in a confined space with the varnish running down your arm!! Again the UCP was followed by varnish although not so much care is needed to attain the perfect finish although it is vital that the wood is sealed 100%. After allowing a couple of days of curing the boat was again flipped over and the work started on the inside of the hull. The handles were cleaned and sanded and refitted and glued in position. Holes were drilled for the shrouds which go through the deck replacing the old Tufnol bushes with the stainless lined style. These were glued in and ensured a fit flush to the deck.
The new deck ply and cross member and thwarts were stained with a couple of coats of Interstain mahogany stain applied by cloth onto a smooth surface. Remember that between staining coats you cannot rub down the wood as you won’t manage to get an even colour so the wood must be smooth dry and clean (no grease). It was pleasing to see how well the epoxy and the microballoons took up the Interstain and this was a real bonus. The same protocol with UCP, Blakes and roller and foam approach was followed on the inside of the hull first until the sheen had been built up.
This is the critical area as, although a smooth hull aids performance, it is the internal varnishing which is seen and on display. The deck was then dealt with only rubbing down the deck after two coats of UCP and one coat of varnish so that there was no danger of cutting into the wood and changing the colour
I applied a total of 6 coats but this really is a couple of coats short of ideal on new wood and I will apply a couple more over the winter.
One difficulty I had was that Blakes stopped making the number 1 varnish during the project and I was concerned that, after I had finished all I had available, the Blakes replacement might react with the old varnish if it was not 100% cured (even after 2 months I can still smell new varnish fumes in the garage!!!). At this stage the bare hull was ready for the fittings to be replaced – the digital images of “what goes where” proved a Godsend as did much of the advice I obtained from the Merlin Rocket website attendees!! These fittings were all cleaned (many were covered with old varnish) before replacement.
The centreboard was rubbed down and a rough edge smoothed before painting with white polyurethane – three coats. The centreboard was refitted and this is not a perfect job – it really has to be removed over the winter and the pivot sorted out as it is slack and the board “wobbles” . the centreboard brake also needs to be tightened but for the moment it is OK.
The aluminium rudder stock had a couple of cracks which I had repaired at a local welding company. Not the prettiest job as old aluminium with oxidation is apparently tricky to weld neatly. However the result is stronger than before. The rudder blade was in a poor state of delamination with the up-haul rope having cut into the timber and removed one of the ply layers. I decided that rather than make a new rudder blade I would attempt a repair – as it turned out a very simple job. I prised the laminates apart and slipped coarse fibreglass matting down between the laminates. I then mixed up the liquid fibreglass resin and pouered it down the slot into the matting opening and closing the gap to let it soak into the mat.
Finally I cramped the blade together and let it set which it did in about 30 minutes. Then it was a simple matter of cutting off the surplus mat and shaping the top of the rudder into a semi-circular shape to take the up- and down-haul ropes, and drill the holes for the pivot and the ropes to be threaded through. Slack in the rudder stock/rudder was dealt with by cutting large round shims out of large plastic milk containers!! They are slippery and thin so they can be built up until there is a tight fit. The bolt was refitted and the positions of the cleats on the tiller for the hauls marked and the cleats fitted. The rudder was varnished and was ready for action.
Buoyancy bags were inflated and tested and repaired where necessary. Fortunately the large underdeck forward bag was OK as these are supposed to be difficult to get and they are expensive.
The mechanism for the kicking strap was broken and needed to be fixed as the bolt through the mast was broken – easily replaced and a new kicking strap wire fitted.
I filled the bottom of the boat with water and saw that the self bailers were leaking. An easy enough job to unclip the levers and push the fitting free to find that the seals which should be soft were in fact hardened with age. These were removed and any bends straightened and the seals cut from an old mouse mat – the neoprene style rubber was perfect for the job. The bailer was refitted and tested again with a smear of Vaseline on the seal to aid seating – perfect!!!
The boat now was essentially ready to sail – new battens for the sails and a few bits and pieces here and there. I still have the spinnaker fittings to deal with – as a past Enterprise sailor I have no experience of such equipment and I am reluctant to drill holes until I know exactly what I am doing. The old decking gives a few clues as there are cleats and holes all over the place. There were large holes for the spinnaker with a bag under the foredeck to contain it but I think that was where much of the original delamination problems started so I have no desire to go there again. I don’t want her to be a formula 1 racer so will put it back to the original and a viewing of the old boats at a vintage event might be the best idea before I make a start.
The whole job took two and a half months beginning to end working every evening for 4hours and all weekends. I have no idea of how many hours it took – a conservative estimate would be three hundred and fifty. I don’t seem to have too many bits and pieces left over so I am assuming that she has gone together properly.
It has been the greatest of fun, a sharp learning curve, I have made a lot of wonderful contacts through the internet and there have been many envious and nostalgic glances already on the few occasions she has been sailed (and capsized – yes she has passed that test!!). Hopefully I now have some wonderful years of sailing ahead and am further inspired to try something else.
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