Sunday, September 18, 2011


- A lesson in orientation.

My nephews Nick and Alex Kleeman and their friend Dave Green left on September 18th to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat they have christened Saltbreaker.  When they were in Chicago for their local going away party this summer I was looking for something meaningful to send along. While “Stumbling” on the internet I came across a symbol called a Vegvísir.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Vegvísir (Icelandic 'sign post') is an Icelandic magical stave intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather. The symbol is attested in the Huld Manuscript, collected in Iceland by Geir Vigfusson in 1880 (but consisting of material of earlier origin). A leaf of the manuscript provides an image of the vegvísir, gives its name, and, in prose, declares that

 "if this sign is carried, one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known".

Seemed damned  appropriate to me, but I had no way of presenting something to them on short notice, so I gave them a printout of the symbol and offered to inlay it into a plaque that they could hang in the cabin of the boat.

Within minutes the two of them came back and asked if they could FedEx me the center panel from the hatch of Saltbreaker to inlay the symbol into. A much cooler idea  - and thus began the wanderings of their hatch, without boat or water.

The first 2100 miles of the hatches journey would have been pleasant and uneventful had I not given Alex the wrong address. When he emailed me the tracking info I looked it up and saw that it had been delivered, just not at my house. Luckily the wrong address I gave him was only across the street at a neighbor whom I know, unfortunately they were out of town that week, fortunately someone was picking up their mail, and unfortunately the FedEx package wasn’t a part of what they had picked up.

A day later panicked and despondent I was sitting on my porch and looked across the street to see a brown package with a FedEx logo sitting on my neighbor’s porch.

Apparently even with only the intention of inlaying the Vegvísir “one will never lose one's way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known".

After collecting the materials I needed I set about inlaying the pattern.

The brass I purchased was manufactured by K and S Engineering in Chicago, Its readily available at most hobby and craft shops. But did not come in a size (8” x 8”) that would allow me to cut the symbol from one solid sheet… so I bought several smaller sheets that would allow me to cut each trident individually.  This would present a problem at the center – but I had an idea.

The brass as purchased is way too tempered to allow cutting with a standard jeweler saw so I needed to anneal the material before cutting the pattern. I heated each section as evenly as possible to almost red hot and allowed them to air cool back to room temperature.

However after setting up my scroll saw and trying a few test cuts it became apparent that it would take an impossible amount of time to cut out the details.

On a whim I tried a 1/8” scroll blade in my newly upgraded band saw. The new Carter rollers held the blade flawlessly and enabled me to accurately cut out the pattern.

With all of the pieces cut,  I set about hand chasing the edges to remove the saw marks and correct any irregularities.

This proved to be a larger task then I had expected but went forward without a hitch.

Now that the pieces were done and ready for inlay I need to decide how to pull all of the individual sections together at the center. My first instinct was a simple brass circle, but while scrounging through my collection of inlay materials,  I found a large Victorian Mother of Pearl button that I had purchased over 30 years ago. Mother of pearl would be more than fitting as a center but this was Black Pearl. Typical rose and white hues at most angles but jet black from oblique.

 Black Pearl!

Cleaned and true, I spot tacked the all of the sections in place with cyanoacrylate. 


Secured to the groundwork,  I traced along all of the edges with a hand sharpened blue spring needle and the repeated the process with a micro scalpel. With the outline scribed as close to the pieces as possible I removed them from the surface.

Taking plain white chalk, I highlighted the pattern I had incised and began the process of inlaying the brass.


After setting the router depth to within a 32nd of the thickness of the brass, I used an eighth inch down cut spiral router bit to remove the waste as close to the chalk line as possible. 

Using several micro chisels I cleaned up the remaining incisions.

With the entire pattern completed, I washed the surface of the hatch and all of the brass with acetone to remove the surface oil and glued all of the sections in place with West System Epoxy.  

When the inlay was dry the clamps were removed. The surface was first filed to flush and then sanded through 100 to 220 grit.

A final coat of varnish and we were set!

Orientation Orientation Orientation

I sat back and admired my handwork, but something was speaking to me and I couldn't quite place it. I looked at Alex's note marking this end up on the hatch and it struck me.  I had printed out the talisman with what I saw as the prominent symbol at the top, assuming the dominant character to be North. Given my rather weak knowledge of Icelandic iconography, my assumption was...well... 180 degrees wrong.

So an upside-down compass and good luck charm on a sailboat leaving to circumnavigate the globe?

I don't think so.

What followed was painful and essentially a duplication of the proceeding procedure.

This is what Monday feels like

The last 2100 miles were courtesy of my Sister Lisa, Nick and Alex's Aunt. She took the hatch back to them in her suitcase, for the cutting of the bowlines.  4200 miles before even setting sail. 

In reflecting upon my minor adventure with the hatch and the Vegvísir,  it occurs to me that despite the misdirection at the start, the hatch still found its way to me. And after I thought I had completed the task, the hatch told me otherwise. Now truly complete and pointing properly North the hatch has returned to its berth, to serve its true purpose. 

Never underestimate the wisdom of the wood.

As of this post they have traveled some 40 miles down the coast of California with months and miles and adventures ahead of them. I wish them all and more, and envy the future they have cast and own.

Photo: Jay Kleeman

To quote their Mother Sara, who was herself quoting Mark Twain:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. "

--Mark Twain

Photo: Ben Kalina

Second star to the right... straight on till morning

Follow their progress

If you have Google Earth installed you  download their path here

Rob's Vegsivir guides us past Point Conception.

Point Conception
October 23 2011

"We rounded the point at midnight. Midnight is supposed to be the calmest time to round, but we weren’t having such luck. The weather station registered a gust at 40 kts (sustained was in the upper 20′s). Main sail down, and jib furled (rolled) to the size of a twin bed but we were still going close to max speed. Imagine holding your bed sheet up from three corners and having enough wind to pull 12 tons of boat through the water at 7mph."

December 14, 2013
Two Years and three months at sea ....

"It's still looking good! Thought about polishing it ... but the weather wear suits it well."