Building Custom Careening Poles

custom careening poles

The name of the game around here is freedom. To add to ours, Tom decided we had to have the ability to work on the bottom of the boat in a way that left us free of the expense of hauling her every time we needed to paint, repair, remove or install something that lives below the waterline. Like a stuffing box.

 This article is part of a three part series:

Intentional Grounding
Building Custom Careening Poles
How We Replaced Our Stuffing Box

7 Ways Boaters Get to the Bottom of Things

We have masks, fins, snorkels and wet suits aboard. And diving suffices for such jobs as wiping weeds off the hull, removing a bit of line from the prop shaft, replacing a zinc.

But for many jobs, you have to separate the hull from the water, or risk it becoming a permanent part of the sea floor. At these times, most folks just take the boat to the nearest travel lift.

However, there are some tried, true and low cost alternatives for exposing the bottom of a boat to the air: careening, beaching, tying to a piling, bilge keels and careening poles.

Image of boats at low tide lower fishguard wales

I’d been to Britain the year before we bought Sunshine and happened to come back with some pictures of boats high and dry in a Welsh bay that emptied entirely at low tide.

Inspired by those photos, Tom took to Google Earth, flew over coastal villages in England and Wales, found boats sitting on the beach, then came in level with them to see what held them up. Some with flat bottoms were just beached, some were tied to a piling, others stood upright on bilge keels and careening poles. Careening poles would work for Sunshine.

Custom Careening Poles: The Design Phase

Research and Development

Progressing to online research, Tom found Yacht Legs, an English company that makes beautiful, but bloody expensive, careening poles. He next went searching for alternatives and found careening poles of different kinds mentioned on several sites including Wooden Boat Forum.

hull dimensions sketch

With ideas percolating, he referred to measurements of
Sunshine’s hull and draft that he’d done before we launched,looked at photos to get the position of her keel, and began sketching preliminary designs for a set of custom careening poles to fit Sunshine.

Several times I caught him walking the rather industrial shoreline around our marina staring at the ground. I thought he was going through some existential crisis until I finally asked what he was up to and he said he was scoping out the beaches for a stable place for the boat to stand.

chosen site

He took his notebooks full of sketches to Jesse K, his boat tinkering cohort. A project manager for an environmental engineering firm, Jesse was the perfect critic and devil’s advocate for Tom’s idea. They spent many a cold evening debating whether the various ideas would work and refining the design.

At first, to be truthful, Jesse was not diggin’ the idea. He personally would not go to such lengths to avoid hauling his boat. He did it every year anyway.

Undaunted, Tom brought design after design to him and the two of them bashed at each other for hours. How to attach legs to hull? How to keep them stable? Aluminum legs? Wood legs? One pole each side? Two poles each side? (I weighed in on this one. I wanted a total of four legs, thank you very much.)

I mostly stayed out of the process. Listening with half an ear for harebrained ideas that would get us killed or leave us homeless, I waited to be invited to give opinions on the final design. I remember worrying about whether Sunshine’s keel was strong enough, then realizing, “Well duh, she’s been standing on her keel in the storage yard every winter for 27 years. It should be up to one more day.” (So glad I didn’t voice that notion aloud. Oh, I did? So embarrassed.)

Stacey, Jesse’s wife, thought we were all insane. And as you’ll see in my post about the grounding, she was absolutely correct. But she kept smiling each time we showed up at their house with another iteration, and rarely laughed out loud at us.

Procuring Materials

The Legs

The ultimate design for the legs called for aluminum tubes of graduated size. They would telescope out to various lengths, retract for storage and be relatively light. Alas, aluminum tubing turned out to be a difficult material to find. There was no local source, what was available was quite expensive or had to be purchased in bulk, shipping was prohibitive. It became clear that for the same price we could buy the ready made legs from the UK.

And so the design was modified one more time to use readily available 2 x 4s for the legs. Plywood feet would keep the poles from drilling into the substrate.

The Attachments

sketch of grounding leg plate

Aluminum plates would serve as the base for the brackets that held the legs to our toe rail. Surprisingly, plate material turned out to be just as difficult to find as tubing. We scoured the local boat junkyard and found nothing suitable. Then for weeks we researched various businesses that might sell or use metal plate. We called recyclers, industrial scrap companies, manufacturers. No one would sell us aluminum plate in the small quantity we needed. We were getting discouraged.

Then one day we were shooting the breeze with the dock master who had already been helpful a time or two when Tom needed more prosaic items like nuts and bolts.

mafia drive by

This guy knew everything. He worked in the sanitation industry. He had um, connections. If you know what I mean. This being Boston. Wink wink. One day an old friend of his stopped by. Nothing to see here. Though the driver of that SUV was reportedly a really good fella.

Anyway, Tom happened to mention how much trouble he was having getting aluminum plate material.

“Hell,” said Dockmaster, “just cut the plates off the dock.”

cut plates off dock

We both looked at him blankly, then laughed, sure he was joking. When we got back to the dock we looked around and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. He actually had to come down and point them out to us. Sure enough, plain as day, each finger pier was lined with a row of aluminum plates. We’d been carefully steering our inflatable dinghy away from their sharp edges for months. Intended to hold a type of float that the marina was never going to use, they were entirely superfluous to the marina. They were perfect for our brackets.

“Cut them all off if you want.”

Tom refrained. He only needed four.


Problem: Setting the legs in the right place required a way to strongly press the feet into the ground.
Answer: Block and tackle.

Problem: Keeping the adjusted legs in place required a way to firmly fasten them to the bracket. But we’d need to be able to release them quickly when the job was done, and just in case for other eventualities.
Answer: a line with a quick release knot.

bracket in use

Assembling the Hardware

Image of hardware and parts for assembling careening poles

Parts List

  • Brackets
  • U bolts
  • Eye bolts
  • Bolts, nuts and washers
  • 1/4” plywood for spacers
  • 1/2″ plywood for feet
  • Screws
  • 2x4s
  • Rope
  • Clamps

Helpful Guidelines for Putting it All Together

  • Have a van full of tools.
  • Turn whatever’s available into a workbench. In the Boston area, that’s likely to be a block of granite.
  • Pirate electricity

Next stop, Sunshine on the Beach!

to the boat

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  1. Mike, the boat felt wobbly and there were moments as we were setting the legs when it seemed we might not get them right and the whole thing would come crashing down. So yes, the concerns are real. Proper planning is vital. If you’ve got an engineer friend to help you with the plans, you’ll be more confident.

    Our connections to the boat were the strongest part of the whole thing, the toe rail is stout. The spindly two by fours and the placement of the feet for weight distribution were much more important.

    Your idea of doing this in a slip is interesting. My first question is – have you seen the bottom under your boat? What kind of substrate is down there. I’d assume it’s pretty silty or muddy and that the feet would sink far into the mud.

    But you could find a dock where the tide goes out completely and careen your boat against the pilings. That’s a method used in many areas. We just didn’t have a dock where the bottom wasn’t complete mush or we might have tried that.

    Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

  2. As always you guys are my heroes !! Great idea with a little bit more luck and it all works out. Lot’s of love from the SF bay area.

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