Stew Sill Jr. as I remember it… part IV by Bill VanGee

Katlynn Marine didn’t always look like it does today. When I first began working here in the summer of 1971, it was Sill’s Marina and was considered more of a boat yard than a marina. Stew Sill was a hands-on type of guy and everyday was a new adventure. One never knew what type of job might come through the door and he was willing to take on most anything that was boat related. The equipment available to complete those jobs was a far sight from the ever expanding machinery list of today’s marina. We had the Koehring 1005 crane that still works here to this day, a small ford bucket tractor with a yard built trailer and the ever present “Susane S” tug boat. Sail BoatLater on Stew obtained a used Caterpillar loader that went a far way towards lightening our daily load. The buildings consisted of a small shop, office and ships store in one location and in what is now Katlynn’s shop, was what little inside storage the yard had, unheated and poorly lit. The outside storage area consisted of all the real-estate along the highway next to the crane, down what is now “E” pier and some limited storage at the top of the driveway where we were able to store some smaller boats that could be moved with the yard trailer. Boat hauling and launching was accomplished primarily with the Koehring crane that Stew walked up and down the length of the water front. Boats were launched or stored from where they could easily be reached with the boom of the crane and ranged in size from 20-50 feet in length. It’s strange looking back, but even then, Sill’s Marina was considered the big marina on this side of the lake with the exception of Shumway Marine in Rochester.

Early on, because of Stew’s success with the rebuilding and racing of his own 39′ “R” class sail boat, Sill’s Marina became known for its expertise in wooden boat repair. Jobs came in from one end of Lake Ontario to the other. Everyone was clamoring for Stew’s special touch at making his boat go fast. A large portion of our work load was from Toronto and we probably at one time or the other worked on nearly every “R” and 8 Meter class boat on the lake. He not only took on the special maintenance and repairs required by these large wooden boats, but also agreed to take on the major “redo’s” as drawn up by some of the more prominent naval architects of the day. For those not familiar with sail boat racing, let me point out that much of a sail boat’s speed is largely determined by the shape of its underside and keel, and yacht designers have always used that fact as a design element they could work with and sell to their ever more competitive customers. As the demand built for this type of retrofit, there were very few yards capable or willing to take this work on and at some point Stew decided to try his hand at pouring his own keel and he read every article and book he could find about foundry work.

Having always wanted to build his own complete boat, he commissioned a deal with naval architect Bruce Kirby to draw up a design for a ½ ton class racing sloop (30 footer). The boat would be built on speculation that he would later find a buyer for the completed vessel. Cost would be a big factor in the construction and as he would need a keel for the finished boat, Stew decided that this was the perfect opportunity to build a keel. Step one was to build a wooden mock-up of the keel design, basically a fully scale wood keel. This was no problem for Stew and he soon had the “plug” competed. Step two was to make sure that the wood form was perfectly sanded and highly polished so as to ensure that it would release from the mould. From there, a large re-enforced wood box was built and the keel plug was suspended inside. A ceramic furnace refractory material, much like Portland cement was then mixed with water and poured around the keel plug and allowed to dry for several days. When it was finally determined that the refractory mix was thoroughly dry, Stew decided he could pull the plug from the mould. Remember, this was his first keel and when he went to pull the “plug” from the form, it wouldn’t budge. We pried, beat and lifted on the form to no avail and in the end, spent a couple of weeks, literally chiseling it from the form. Ultimately, Stew figured out that the plug being built from wood had absorbed so much water from the refractory mix that it swelled to the point of making it impossible to remove. He learned this lesson well and the next keels he built were encased in several layers of waterproof epoxy.

Once the form was built, the next step was to procure the needed lead for the keel pour. Stew had a couple salvaged keels from small boats that had gone to see their maker and decided to cut them up for material to melt down. The real issue here was to get pieces small enough to be able to actually lift them into a melting pot and somewhere in his reading, it was suggested that because lead is such a soft metal that it could be cut with a chain saw. If you have ever been shot with buck shot, you’ll know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a chain saw cutting lead. Man it hurt! We all took turns and eventually were able to get enough pieces cut into 100 lb chunks so that we could handle them. We needed around 5500 lb of material and it had to be carefully weighed to ensure that we had the right amount as this needed to be done in one continuous pour. Stew didn’t know how long that it would take to melt this much lead, but he did know that it had to be a perfectly dry day and that everything had to be in place at the time of the pour. We built a big steel box on an elevated base, welded a long pipe with a shut off valve and on the designated day, dug a hole in the drive way to set the keel form in so that we could keep the pour as low as possible. Remember that we planned on having a 5500 lb pot of molten lead and really didn’t know what we were doing. To melt the lead, Stew found two old kerosene weed burners to supplement a rather significant charcoal fire that he had started under the melting pot. He knew that once we were able to get a small pool of molten lead started that it would become simpler to melt the remaining chunks. The only problem we faced here was how to actually toss in the 100 lb pieces without creating a life threatening splash of molten lead. With a little thought and ingenuity, he was able to produce an old pair of ice tongs which he rigged to a long steel pole and fastened to the bucket of the tractor. This allowed us to lift the lead pieces with the ice tongs and then use the tractor to carefully set them in our boiling pot. This was a hot tedious process, but after several hours we had melted all of our preweighed lead pieces and carefully opened the valve of the tank and began the slow, continuous pour of the lead into our mould. At the end of this process, Stew placed a preassembled stainless steel frame containing the keel bolts into the molten lead at the top of the mold. These would later be used to attach the keel to the finished boat. After a long day, the pouring process was complete, and with 2-3 days of cooling, Stew carefully lifted the keel from the mould with the tractor and was relieved to find a near perfect keel casting. All that remained was to finish building the boat to hang it from.

I realize that his has been a rather long tale even though I’ve left out a lot of what actually took place. What I’m really trying to get across was the story of the kind of person Stew Sill was. Even though he might not have had all the equipment or initial knowledge he needed for a job, he was always willing to find what he needed and to give it a try. Kind of nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the end, he always got the job done. Over the next couple of years, he went on to build three more keels ranging in weight from 8,000 lb to 20,000 lb before deciding to end his keel building career. It was kind of “been there, done that” and he had proven to himself and everyone around him that he could indeed accomplish whatever he set out to do.