A LEAD ON LEAD

March 7, 2021

Back before we had started construction, while waiting for our marine plywood to arrive to the shop we decided to make ourselves useful and start our hunt for eight thousand pounds of lead for Burnett's ballast. Why do we need that much lead and what is ballast? And how were we going to acquire it?  The answer to the first question lies in the fundamentals of how a sailboat works, and the second, well, that is a little trickier to answer.

Ballast and Keels

The graceful, sweeping lines of a sailboat above the waterline tend to overshadow the hard-working and functional part of the boat below the water - the keel. Nearly all boats - power or sail - have some form of keel. A keel, put simply, is a structural appendage on the bottom of a boat that runs parallel to the length of the boat. On non-sailing boats, keels are plates attached to the hull that provide added directional control and stability. On sailboats, keels - whether a full keel, centreboard, or daggerboard - help to keep the boat from sliding sideways in the wind, and to hold the ballast. Ballast is heavy material (in our case lead) that is put down low in a vessel to keep the hull's lateral forces in check. When a boat heels (tips over to one side from the force of the wind in the sails) the ballast stops it from completely tipping over. 

Burnett's keel will be roughly 4' deep, and will give her a draft of just under 6'.

 Our designer believes that the best material for ballast is a combination of scrap lead shot and large chunks of solid lead mixed with epoxy and stirred into the keel, creating a dense, perfectly molded ballast. The keel box will be constructed of marine plywood and attached to the hull with the lead poured into it during one of the final stages of construction. Burnett will require roughly eight thousand pounds to be properly ballasted. 

So there's the skinny on the "why?", now for the "how?".

Whispers of Lead

 

Our research told us that scrap lead wasn't necessarily hard to come by, but it came with a hefty price tag of $1.50 - $2.00 a pound. For those of you reaching for the calculator, that would be between $12,000 and $16,000 for all the lead we would need for Burnett. Other options included buying old, wrecked sailboats and cutting the lead off their keels, finding old elevator counterweights, digging around shooting ranges, or asking tire shops for wheel weights. We decided the best strategy was to mention to anyone we talk to that we were looking for lead, and lots of it, and see where that got us. As might be expected, not many people we knew had a line on large quantities of lead, but after one particular work shift during the summer, our strategy paid off. Eric came back with the exciting news that one of his coworkers knew of a man named Jim that lived on Saturna Island - a southern Gulf Island - who had converted an old sailboat into a workboat, chopping off the lead keel in the process. The coworker didn't know if Jim still had the keel, or if he'd be willing to sell it to us, but Eric took Jim's information and we decided to give him a call. 

Various forms of lead that will go in Burnett's Keel. (Clockwise from top left) Bullets, fishing weights, large ingots, and free diving weights. 

We couldn't get through to Jim, but we decided to make a trip to Vancouver Island anyways. We would visit some friends and conduct some important hydrodynamic research pertaining to Burnett's hull (i.e., go surfing), and we figured that while we were there it would be a quick ferry over to Saturna Island if we could get a hold of Jim. We packed up our gear and headed to the coast.

After a few days on the island we were losing hope as our attempts to reach Jim continued to be unsuccessful. Did we have the right number? Did Jim and his lead even exist? As luck would have it, the Lead Gods shone down on us and, the day before we were scheduled to leave, we finally got through. The service was spotty which made the conversation difficult, and after a short minute the line went dead. What little information we did get from the call was enough to get us excited. He had the lead - an 8' long by 10" wide old keel weighing roughly 1300 lbs - and he was willing to sell it to us. Unfortunately, we were unable to get some important details like an address or confirmation that he would be around the next day when we wanted to come, and for some reason we couldn't get a hold of him again. We decided we would give it a shot and head to Saturna the next day anyways. Our next problem was figuring out how we would get this massive piece of lead into the back of our truck. 

The solution: a beautiful piece of Swedish engineering.

Donuts & Two-stroke Smoke

1300 lbs were a tad heavy for the two of us to wrestle into the truck, but a quick Google search on "how to cut lead" gave us hope. It turned out the preferred way to make large pieces of lead smaller was to blast into it with a power saw. Lead is soft relative to the steel links that make up a power saw chain, so the saw can cut through the lead without doing damage to the chain. 

 

That night, we took to the online classifieds of Victoria and searched for a suitable saw for the job. We knew we needed a saw with ample power and sex appeal, so naturally we gravitated towards a Husqvarna. Within the hour we had found a great-looking saw and arranged to meet to make the deal that night. Everything seemed to be coming together as we hopped in the truck and made our way to the rendezvous - a Tim Horton's parking lot.

 

We rolled in around 7:30 pm and quickly spotted the black Dodge we were meeting. We pulled up beside him and within seconds of turning the truck off and opening our doors we were greeted by the high pitch, visceral sound of a Husqvarna 365 revving at full throttle. Shocked (and amazed) we watched spell-bound as the man stood in a power stance behind his truck, throttle wide open, staring us straight in the eyes. We held back laughter while bystanders outside of the Tim Horton's fled in horror. After nearly a minute, he hit the kill switch, threw it on his tail gate and said something along the lines of "This is the saw for you boys!". This man knew how to make a sale. After a display like that there was no way we weren't going to buy the saw, so we looked at it for a minute or two pretending like we knew something about saws, then handed the man his well-earned money.  

With the still-hot saw in the box of the truck, we rolled through the drive-thru for a few celebratory donuts, ready to head to Saturna the following morning to cut some lead.

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Ferry landing at Saturna Island, a mountainous island in the Southern Gulf Islands chain of BC.

Cutting Lead & Canterbury Dark Milds

The next day we took the hour-and-a-half long ferry to Saturna Island from Victoria with our new Husky and a jerry can full of mixed gas. We had a general idea of where Jim lived, but we didn't have an address. When we arrived on the island we passed the old pub and pulled into the general store to grab a coffee and ask if anyone knew Jim. No luck. Was this going to be a waste of time? We figured if we couldn't find him, we would at least play a round at the local disc golf course before heading back to Victoria and the trip wouldn't be a total loss. 

 

It was early November and without the summer tourists busying the roads we cruised around the quiet island passing art studios and humble abodes nestled amongst large, coastal timber. Luckily the island was small, and we learned of Jim's address after knocking on a few doors and asking around. 

We pulled into his driveway and knocked on the door, optimistic that we might just have found ourselves some lead.

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Eric and our new friend Jim assessing the situation after towing the old keel up the driveway.

The door opened and a man with a bushy white beard answered the door. We had found Jim - and his lead - and he was happy to see us. After a minute of bartering we landed on $0.75/lb ($975), and headed to the yard.

 

The keel was sitting half-buried in the mud beside the old boat off of which he had chopped it, which unfortunately looked like it had never made it back into the water after it's conversion. One man's trash is another man's keel, as they say, so we hooked it up to Jim's old one-ton diesel and towed it out of the mud. The old truck seemed like it hadn't worked in ages, and groaned and grunted as it pulled the 1300 lb piece up the driveway to flatter ground for cutting. With the easy part out of the way, we fuelled up our Husky, donned our "safety glasses" and were ready to dog into it. 

Above: The first cut. With a tarp down we were able to collect the lead "chips" made from cutting so we didn't waste any lead. 

Below: Salvaged chips - they all add up!

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Eric acting as a human backboard to stop the flying lead chips. And don't worry, there weren't any toxic fumes from cutting into the lead. 

We found out quickly that our new-to-us saw had an exceptionally dull chain, but thankfully the Husky charged through it - albeit a little hot - and we successfully made multiple cuts, turning the large old keel into "manageable" sized pieces that we could lift into the back of the truck. Still weighing in at about 300 lbs each, getting these pieces into the truck was probably the hardest part of the whole adventure, but eventually we muscled each one into the box without injury. The Tacoma was fully loaded - we were over the recommended payload for the truck (whoops!) - but we were thrilled to have the lead and Jim was happy to have some cash in his pocket.

 

We had a few hours to kill before the ferry left, so when Jim offered to buy us a beer at the pub to celebrate the transaction, we happily accepted. Unfortunately the pub was closed, so we stopped in at the general store where Jim grabbed a six pack of his favourite beer (Canterbury Dark Mild, one of BC's oldest craft beers first brewed over 30 years ago) and a bag of chips before heading to the beach for a good ol' fashioned chin wag. 

Enjoying a few cold ones while shootin' the breeze with Jim.

We chatted with Jim and he told us about his life and how he ended up living on Saturna. He was happy to have some new faces to talk to, and we were happy to hear his story. Later on Jim took off, and Eric and I snuck in a round of disc golf before heading to the ferry. As we limped the Tacoma onto the ferry under the weight of the old keel, we felt grateful to have found some lead, met a new friend, and gotten a good story out of it all. Burnett was taking us to new places without even being on the water yet.

 

Only 5,700 lbs to go..