Rebuilding the Wharf—Old School Style!

Prior to 2010 I pretty much left the maintenance of our wharf to other people. Herb Rafuse had long been our go-to person to repair storm and age-related damage, and had probably rebuilt the entire wharf three or four times during the 50 or so years it had been in our family. He also took care of the annual Fall/Spring haul out/hook up of our two floating docks.

He was old school, used minimal equipment for all tasks, and did a reasonable job at a reasonable price. He and whichever brothers, cousins and sons might be helping with a particular job, could completely build by hand and small power tool a sturdy 40-foot long wharf with a 20-foot ell for under $10,000. The same job done by a “professional” company using barged-in pile driver and other “heavy” equipment would cost $25,000 minimum, and likely a whole lot more should the client happen to be one of those “new summer people.”

Many might argue that those professionally built wharves are far more robust than those built by hand; however, I’ve seen plenty of professionally built ones get taken out by storms and winter ice. I also know of some hand-built ones in the area that are approaching their 20th year without needing any major work.

Herb retired in the Fall of 2010, which pretty much marked the end of this area’s old school dock builder. That winter proved especially tough, with several storms and heavy icing over the harbor, both of which took out their fury on our wharf. While most of the crib work survived intact, the planking on the ell was destroyed and two sections traversing the three cribs almost impassable—not a complete rebuild, but a major overhaul.

Given Herb’s retirement I was forced to seek repair quotes from the professionals. Not only were the estimates absurdly priced, but the companies were so busy that my wharf likely wouldn’t be useable until late in the season.

So, I decided to do the job myself, which represented a tall order. I’ve got a bit of mechanical know-how with diesel engines, and have done a bit of carpentry, but I am not an engineer. And this job would need some engineering expertise to ensure that people wouldn’t be scared of walking on it, or of approaching the structure by water.

Fortunately, a contractor friend of mine was between jobs and agreed to serve as chief engineer and “foreman” for the job. “I sure am going to enjoy ordering you around,” was Jean’s first comment upon accepting the challenge.

Jean’s first idea was to raise the entire deck work by a foot and a half. I objected because I was looking for a “quick fix” and didn’t like the idea of spending more money than I had to. However, Jean talked me into it by pointing out that the extra height might keep the decking above any potential heavy ice floe breakage, and that there was no sense in keeping any of the salvageable decking because it was so old.

He also talked me into replacing and repairing much of the crib work. Again I balked, conscious of the extra costs, and not relishing the idea of many hours—three days—of manhandling heavy 8×8 beams…sometimes while standing thigh to waist high in freezing water. Again he prevailed, after pointing out several areas in the crib work where the structural integrity was definitely compromised.

And, in fixing the crib work, he insisted that we connect the beams by heavy nuts and bolts rather than the usual method of pounding spikes. Yes, I balked, but he won me over by pointing out how spikes can bend and pull out over time.

All in all, we spent a hard week and a half on the project, with a cost of about $3,000 for the lumber and hardware. Given his brilliant ideas and engineering, Jean was an absolute bargain. He also taught me a lot about engineering and gave me new skills which I’ve since had to use to make repairs on the floating docks. But that’s another story.

M.J. Moye

M.J. Moye

M.J. Moye is an editorial consultant and sailor who lives in Chester, Nova Scotia.
M.J. Moye

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