New life for old boats

Published on January 15th, 2023

Thistle sailor Ed John likes to be busy, which is good, because boats have been keeping him busy for the last 20 years. In addition to his active sailing season, one of Ed’s hobbies is to fix up older Thistles and then sell them to newer sailors as entry-level boats.

Call it a win-win-win situation—old boats that have maybe fallen into disrepair are kept out of the landfill and are given a new life as an affordable entry into sailing. The third win? Ed stays busy.

Jennifer Brett with Sailors for the Sea recently reached out to Ed to find out how he got his start rehabbing boats, and if he has any advice for someone who might be interested in doing something similar in their class.

What’s your sailing background and your involvement with the Thistle class, and fixing up boats? 
Once upon a time, a big-boat skipper that I crewed for suggested I purchase a Thistle, and we would race on Thursday nights. Not knowing what was involved, I said okay and started on a journey that has lasted 20 years and a dozen boats.

Sail GP

Having little experience with small boats, my first summer was spectacular. I went on to win an award for the most capsizes, even one capsize at the dock. That first Thistle was a good boat but did not sail fast. I struggled with boat speed and blamed the boat. I then embarked on the never-ending project of improving the boat—new rudder, new centerboard, new sails, etc.

How do you find the boats, and what projects do most of the boats need completed?

The boats found a foolish man. Having said that, I seriously look for a good project boat. There are plenty out there, some free to good homes. Searching on class association websites, in this case Thistle, comes to mind.

As for what the boats need, that varies, no rules of thumb. I would say the project usually ends up bigger than first thought. Projects for me are second nature. I need to be busy. Some boats needed lots of care. At one point, I bought three boats to rebuild and a few years later finished them. It took a long time, not because I’m slow. There were distractions; somehow, I acquired additional boats … not sure why.

What tips would you give someone who might want to try something similar for their class?

The scope of repairs varies, so find a project that you feel is achievable. Look for advice on how to restore the boat. Join a sailing club. Go sailing. Enlist a friend to help. Buy a lot of carpentry tools and many clamps. Don’t forget the epoxy—it’s cheaper to buy gallon size.

What happens to the boats when you’ve completed the work?

The original idea was fleet development. Hopes that younger sailors would be able to locate a boat ready to race that was affordable. The boat that I have recently sold was to a family with two young girls who are planning to race some and have family outings with the Thistle.

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