The Minimalist Sailor

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New friends and canvaswork

Hi everybody! Feels like I haven’t posted anything for years but we’ve been soooo busy!

I remember when I had just moved in and started writing, the main concern some of you had about living on a boat was how to make money once you unplugged. I mentioned a few things then but now I can tell you more about it. Work on Splendid is clearly divided into three things: boat restoration (we do not get paid but increase the price of our sailboat), chartering and canvaswork.

Many boats charter but there are different ways in which people do it. Some bring backpackers from one place to the other (like the route Panama-Colombia which cannot be done by land because of the jungle). They make quite a lot of money at once, but the experience is usually not very enjoyable: the passengers spend a lot of the trip seasick and complaining, your boat gets beat up pretty badly and you must cook for others while at sea, which can be tricky. Others have a “charter business” and dedicate to it entirely, which can be challenging too because having people in your home all the time is not an easy thing, no matter how big your boat is, it is still a boat, which means that you are confined (especially is the weather is not the best) to a small space for most of the day. It takes some getting used to. And your job ends up boiling down to cooking and cleaning and then cooking and cleaning some more. It’s just the way it is, people eat at least four times a day. You either hire somebody, sharing your space with one more stranger still, or you do it yourself. But when you charter only once in a while, then the experience is completely different because you actually enjoy the company for a change. Our life is not all that social, we spend a lot of time on our own, and then having a charter now and then is very refreshing and the experience becomes much more personal.

I cannot start to describe how beautiful some of our charters have been, we’ve met the most amazing people and had such a great time with them. Just to mention a few: Chuck was really generous with us and he shared so much; Bruce made us laugh everyday with his stories and was a fellow seaman; Peter and Kathy were so similar to us it was totally weird; and Curtis was a total breath of fresh air, such a kind, free spirit. They all brought us amazing presents too, it was like Christmas every time. Curtis brought me the most delicious toffee and liquorice, which was a total mistake because now I DREAM about them all the time!! Anyway, what I am trying to say is that work for us is not like going to the office. Work is very creative (we are making a boat pretty) or very spiritual (we spend a few days chatting, sharing meals and snorkeling with amazing people).

And, last but not least, talking of creativity, canvaswork has been a revelation to me.

In his book “Canvaswork and Sail Repair”, Dan Casey describes it like this: “Canvas has had a long tradition on the water, equal in importance to wood and rope in the construction and operation of ships and boats for at least the last 2,500 years. Lashed to spars, canvas provided propulsion. Spread above deck, it provided respite from the elements. Tacked down and painted, canvas waterproofed decks. Spread between bulkheads, it cradled off-duty sailors. It continues to serve all those functions today, and more.
Despite this long history, many modern sailors tend to hold canvaswork at arm’s length as a skill somehow beyond their grasp. This reluctance is especially surprising when you consider that an inexpertly fashioned canvas project doesn’t put the boat at risk; the materials cost of even the most ambitious canvaswork project is likely to be less than an application of bottom paint; and for the time and money invested, canvas items offer the greatest benefit in appearance, convenience, or protection of virtually any boat improvement.
Learning to do your own canvaswork opens the door to scores of possibilities for inexpensively enhancing your boat and the pleasure of using it. Only a few simple skills are required to do journeyman canvaswork; anyone capable of sailing should have little difficulty mastering them.”

If you get good at it, wherever you go, canvaswork is your ticket. The work is entertaining, clean and creative and the demand for canvas workers is just CRAZY. And I’m not just saying that.

When I came to live on Splendid a little over a year ago, I had never sewn anything other than to fix my clothes when they did not fit very well. I had absolutely no experience with canvas or upholstery and did not know the first thing about sailing or boats for that matter.

I loved Splendid right away, its design is still my favorite of all the boats I’ve seen, but the state of our canvas was pretty bad: we had a lovely new black main sail cover but we had pacific blue sacrificial Sunbrella on our jib (which was already falling apart) and a destroyed blue main sail cover wrapped around our mizzen. We only had four of the five cushions in the cockpit (one had flown away) with their original two-hundred-year-old gray covers (ripped and stained all over). In the saloon, the settee cushions were open in different places, exposing its stained moldy foam. The covers for the V-birth cushions had a pretty horrible faded and stained pattern. And around our lovely queen-sized bed in the aft cabin, the foam had no covers to speak of, it was covered with old sarongs gathering dust and mold in every wrinkle.

Now, as you all know, Alex has been working for years repairing everything else: he’s a captain, a mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a painter and a fisherman apart from being a movie-maker, a writer, a boyfriend and a chef. If he was to hire somebody to do all this canvas work it would have cost him a fortune.

So I started slowly. I began by making simple things with scrap material and it looked pretty straight forward. My first project was a couple of little pillows for the cockpit, that is how I got my first notions of what to do first, how to hide or do decorative stitching, etc. And after that I went straight to the V-birth’s beveled cushions, which was a bit of a nightmare because the top and bottom have different dimensions due to the curve of the hull. I did not know at the time that one could have “alignment notches” as a guide. So I learned it the hard way but I still did a pretty decent job, I was really happy with the outcome.

Roman, a good friend of ours and the most amazing canvasworker we know, lent me two books which opened my eyes to a whole realm of new possibilities and easy solutions to the problems I had encountered, so I ordered them online (“Canvaswork and Sail Repair” by Don Casey and “The Complete Canvasworker’s Guide” by Jim Grant).

With those two and a little patience you can really do anything. Also, since we had a Sailrite machine on board, whenever I had a problem I contacted the company and man, did they surprise me, they have the most amazing customer service and tech support I have ever come across. I have never used another sewing machine of this kind, so I can’t really compare our machine to any other. But the manual is very clear and has lots of answers and, on top of that, the machine comes with two DVDs that explain absolutely everything, even how to sew certain things like piping. If you still have doubts or concerns, you can call them on the phone or send them an email and they contact you right back with a simple answer or send you links to more videos which explain exactly what you need to know. They’re so nice and helpful on the phone as well, it’s really amazing. And their catalogs give you great ideas, they offer everything you might need from all kinds of thread and fabrics to D-rings, webbing and velcro, lots of cool accessories for the machine that make your sewing a lot easier and even sail kits that only need assembling.

The good thing about sewing is that if you mess something up, you can generally undo it and do it again. If you made a mistake while cutting the material, you can even put some decorative patch, change the design with some other color or something. It’s never as black-and-white as working with wood or metal for example. It takes time to do a project right and it’s crucial that you measure and calculate everything thoroughly because there is a lot of geometry involved (most things are not square on a boat and you are working with volume and tension) but it is a good challenge and with very little money you can make your boat look brand new.

I had told Alex that I wanted to do everything on our boat first, to get some experience, and that I would start working for other boats later. Some friends of ours asked if I could make them a fitted tablecloth though and I said OK, it seemed like something I could do easy enough, so I did it. TWO DAYS LATER we were contacted by a really cool Italian couple on a pretty expensive yacht who needed to have their dodger and bimini fixed, plus they wanted their cockpit cushions redone and covers for their huge settee. I was overwhelmed at first, I thought I was no-where-near ready but Alex encouraged me to give it a try. I began by re-stitching the dodger and bimini while getting used to the machine, and then accepted the cockpit job. Calculating how much fabric to get took me quite a while, it’s not so easy because you need to visualize all the pieces that you’ll need to cut and how they’ll fit in the size the fabric comes in. But I did it and finished the job and they were happy with it. Now, in the middle of that job, without having ever asked for work or advertised, I was approached by another couple who needed a lot of work done on their boat. I said no because I needed to do our own cockpit cushions and sail covers before our next charters. I still made some winch covers for my first “customers” later on and fixed their outside chairs.

We came back to Linton and during the first two days of having arrived I was asked to do three jobs. I turned down the first two, but said yes to the third: a trimaran needed some covers made for the windows. It looked like a pretty straight-forward, easy to handle job. And I really enjoyed it.

The money from these jobs allowed me to buy accessories for the machine, the materials needed to tackle our own projects (we now have a brim to keep our front window open, new cushions, sail covers, soon a new settee and dinghy cover) and to buy lots of fresh fruit, veggies and sweets. I still have never advertised. The need for canvasworkers is huge. As Don Casey says, captains do lots of work on their boats but don’t seem to be too keen on using the sewing machine. So there you go.

You move aboard and your bills basically come down to your grocery shopping and boat maintenance. It’s not so hard to make ends meet. And the work can be really rewarding. If you still live on land, you can start by making chairs or dodgers for your garden, fixing old upholstery inside or creating fun lazy chairs for your living room. Give it a go!

Published in Carla Dorsey
Updated: November 30, -0001 — 00:00


  1. Hi Carla, Thanks for the words of encouragement. So glad it is working out for you. Maybe someday soon for me. Appreciate your views. Wade


    Great blog. Thank you darling. I will bump the Sailrite sewing machine higher on the “must buy” list.

  3. Hey Chuck!! Long time no see! How’s life? Are you overseas still? Lovely to hear from you ; )

    Wade, thanks so much for the good vibes!! Hope things work out for you even better than in your dreams! Keep us posted.


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