Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fretwater Boatbuilding School

In April Fretwater Boatworks will be hosting two seminar / mini courses. I'm starting what I hope will become an erratic and unending series of low-cost short courses and seminars to help infect more victims with the incurable estoteric disease of wooden boats. Most boat schools cost well over $100 a day and are still a bargain. For these first two courses I'll be asking a per-day donation of around half that--maybe a little less if its just me instructing, more if we are bringing in talent to teach. Do what you can, and hopefully it will work out that we can continue to do these. These will be more informal courses than you might find at a "real" school, but also more flexible and personalized.

April 10-13
Oar tuning: making your oars not hate you

The classic, balanced, workingman's oar is a thing of the past. Modern wooden oars are almost without exception heavy, stiff, poorly balanced things that, when used commercially, lead to wrist, elbow, and shoulder fatigue and misery. The market seems to demand heavy bludgeons that are hard to break--but they end up breaking you. Oar authorities Pete Culler in 1978, and Andrew Steever in 1993, both bemoaned the fate of the oar market even then, saying it had been decades since a good rowing oar had been manufactured. It has not improved. A light, balanced oar with true dynamic flex just does not exist. As the years go by I have been tinkering with ways to make oars more user friendly, visiting oarmakers around the country and the world, and taking an oarmaking course from Clint Chase at WoodenBoat School. I've come up with several techniques and procedures to help you and your joints prolong your bad habit of rowing. Shaft and blade thinning, re-tapering, blade scalloping, mild handle counter weighting, ultra-light oar tip protection, minor shortening, and slick leather wraps. Coworkers on the river are gobsmacked with some of the oars I've been running the last couple years. So am I. We'll be working all these angles throughout the four-day course. Bad-ass surfboard shaper Greg Loehr will be on hand to help share the professional shaping aspects of blade work.

Before signing up you should let me know what sort of oars you are starting with and where you want to go with them. Not all oars are conductive to modification. My shop is big, but oars are long, so let me know now if you want a spot.
Here's a radio story Scott Thybony did on the Fretwater oar quest.

April 18-21
Boatbuilding Fundamentals with Wade Smith

For more than ten years Wade Smith was the Director of the John Gardner Small Boat Shop at Mystic Seaport, curating and documenting the coolest collection of small wooden boats anywhere, and teaching a wide variety of wooden boatbuilding courses. He now works as a professional wooden boatbuilder in Connecticut and teaches boatbuilding at WoodenBoat School in Maine each summer. Wade will be accompanying me on AzRA's Grand Canyon Dories and Stories trip, and has enthusiastically agreed to teach a short course on the fundamentals of boatbuilding before our river trip. We foresee this as a somewhat informal introduction to this age-old craft, with flexibility to move toward whatever the class needs. Since the Great American Desert is a poor place for traditional lapstrake plank-built boats, and since we have limited time, we plan to focus more on the plywood-on-frame style typical of Oregon Drift boats and dories of the mid-1900s.

From hallucinating a boat concept, to drawing it up and translating lines to wood to a boat, we'll be pretty busy. Boatbuilding is a continuous dance of problem solving. Expect to learn tricks and techniques that will be useful in far more applications than the precise thing we may be doing at the moment. If you've ever dreamed of building your own boat, this is an excellent place to start turning into your own private nightmare reality. We hope for a course size of ten to twenty, so let me know now if you want to hold a spot. I expect I will learn as much or more than anyone else.

June 13-27
The real deal, back in Maine

For those who realize four days is simply not sufficient to learn enough about boatbuilding, come on back to WoodenBoat School in Maine for Wade's two-week course in Fundamentals of Boatbuilding. This year he will have the world-famous proprietor of Fretwater Boatworks as his lovely assistant. That's me. We'll be going deep into all aspects of the craft. Your mind will be irrevocably twisted. Tell them that alumnus Brad Dimock is sending you and you'll get a 10% discount on tuition. You can also save a bit by camping, but be sure to sign up for the food—it's outrageous. Warning: WoodenBoat School is addictive. It is just about the funnest place I've ever been. Just thinking of it makes me twitch and giggle.

Just Kidding

I knew from the start that the surgery itself would be a big adventure, and that my rehabilitation would be an even bigger one. And it has been—the day-by-day painful progress, the occasional backslide and its consequent despair, the dance with the narcotic oxycodone. A big adventure to be sure.

Yet I knew there was going to be a third adventure as well--the financial dance between the doctors, providers, and clinic, and BlueCross BlueSheild of Arizona, and little old me. The adventure began on Saturday when I got a note from BlueCross. Mind you, I HAD called them before scheduling surgery to find out if my doctor was covered (he was) and if the procedure wa covered (it was). Even so, I expected some amount of charges that were somehow going to be not covered. I had looked up the true cost to see just how poorly things might go if something wasn't covered: MAKO Robotic Unicompartmental Knee Replacement @ SurgCenter GreaterPHX-implant included: $21,225." I figured $40,000 max, but more likely well under $10,000 with my insurance. So to be honest, I didn't really expect this. The gist of the letter was, "Just kidding, Brad. That wasn't really covered at all. Fooled you, huh?" And the surgical center forgot to check the doctor's website about the pricing.

Hmm. Patient owes $79,286.88 You know, that really kinda changes everything. I mean... I went into this in good faith. I had a newly upgraded insurance policy with a reputable company, had made a pre-check call to okay it, and had far more in the bank than my deductible, just in case. But not $79,286.88 more than my deductible.

And oh yeah: this is just for the first knee. With in-network and out-of-network deductibles I could be looking at maybe $175,000. Gosh darn it.

The bottom line on my IRS 1040 form has averaged $20,000 for the last five years. I run a pretty thin margin. That's why I have insurance. That's why I checked things out. Maybe if I paid them $100 a month until I am 250 years old? Turns out that even though the doctor and the procedure were fine, the surgical center was not "in network." That's handy. Didn't check that one. When I handed the nice receptionist at the surgical center my BlueCross card before surgery, did she say, "We don't work with BlueCross?" No. She smiled, xeroxed it, and handed it back. And turned away so I wouldn't see her blow coffee out her nose.

So I wandered into my insurance agent Carla's office, handed her the statement. She looked it over, let out a few expletives, and asked a few questions. She noted that several of the charges were double-billed, so only $60,000 was valid. Not that much help, really. We quickly agreed that it was flat out negligence for the surgical center not to inform me they weren't covered. And really dumb. I mean... how the hell do you stay in business? Nobody can pay that kind of dough if they are not insured.

Carla crossed her arms, put on a really scary, mean face, and punched up the surgical center on the speaker phone and leaned back.
"Are you covered by Blue Cross?"
"When a patient hands you a BlueCross card you you ever inform them?"
"Let me transfer you."

Things went better quickly. It turns out that there is some sort of deal between the noncovered surgical center and the covered doctor which does not show up on the BlueCross statement. According to the gal on the phone, I would be liable for just 20% of the "allowed amount" that BlueCross said they would cover ($1100), making my personal liability $220. Just kidding about the $79,286.88. Carla gave me a wonderful What The Fuck look, got the lady to repeat it, and hung up.

I gotta say, maybe that's not a big deal for some folks, but I sure like $220 a lot better than $79,286.88. Or $440 for the pair.


I have a sneaking hunch there may be a few more "Just kiddings" heading my way. Carla assured me we'll go to war if there are. But jeezuzfugginkryst. They didn't offer to cover the staining of my shorts when the first statement came through.

The adventure continues...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Lenny and Arnie: Knee surgery part 2

One of the things I kept wondering, as I laid on the gurney before each surgery is, "Why am I doing this? I can still walk..." But the deal is, it was starting to hurt real good most all the time and I was fast becoming bowlegged, as the interior parts of my knee rotted away with osteoarthritis. And the worse it gets, the less you walk or exercise, and the further you have to go with recovery, etc. etc. So at some point you gotta make a move. 

And of course, at this point, now that the surgery is all done, there's not that much point in revisiting the rationale. It's a done deal. Recovery is the thing now.

We upwrapped knee one, the left one, which I have named Lenny (le [ft]-knee) about two days out of surgery. Looks like a pretty clean job.

I wish I had had the wits to do a better documentation before the first surgery. But I didn't. Anyhow, here is a shot of Lenny (post surgery, and Arnie (R-knee) pre-surgery. You can see why I am doing both. If left with one crooked, shorter leg, my back would soon be toast.

There's not a lot to talk about during re-hab. Boring exercises that hurt like hell. But hey, look at that flex.

Two weeks later to the day I was back on the gurney for round two. And an hour or two later, back in the waah-bulance headed home.

 So now I get to do electrified leg lifts, with a zippy, zappy muscle re-education gizmo. Turns out my quadriceps forgot a lot of what they used to think was normal. A little shock therapy does wonders in reminding them how it all works.

  And the slow painful one: extended pole dancing for range of motion:

But nearly every day when I measure the flex with my goniometer (go-knee-ometer) I get rewarded with concrete signs of progress. Lenny broke 140 degrees yesterday. Amazing. Annie is already in the mid-120s. 

And some rubber band stretches.

A bit of biking. Ow.

And the post-stretch icing. My favorite part.

Two days out from the second surgery the comparison is re-assuring. Lenny is looking pretty clean, healed, and unsworn. Annie is a bit pissy but has a good path laid out ahead of him. 

And I ain't bowlegged no mo.

So now it is another month of the dance between exercise and recovery, stretching my limits and mitigating the swelling, pain and oxycodone, pushing it and backing off. Got say, it really does hurt a lot. But progress is so alarmingly visible each day that I remain pretty damned enthusiastic about the whole process. Unless you catch me at a bad moment.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Eddying out for structural repairs

For the last decade my knees have been sending me unpleasant nastygrams with increasing frequency as they slowly morphed into an old cowboy's bandy-legged profile. It seems the interior landing of both knees have been succumbing to a lifetime of playing hard, coupled with a pesky thing called osteoarthritis, which my parents gave me as a birthday present. The net result of all this is that my knees hurt pretty much full time, although sometimes even moreso.

But I just happened to stumble along at the right time. A fairly recent technology has come of age specifically for hapless victims like myself. It is a robotic surgery called MakoPlasty, and it replaces only the bits that have become defective, while realigning my anatomy to a straight-legged human. My old college pal Day tried it out two years ago and his enthusiasm sent me to investigate further. We tracked down a highly recommended surgeon down in Phoenix, Dr. Tarlow, and his robot Rio. The doc said I was a poster boy for this surgery. So I waited for the insurance calendar to begin a new deductible year and set sail for Phoenix.

Last week I got to go for a ride in the space age cat scan machine. It whirs and hisses as you slide in and out of the tube of power. They tell me it made a very accurate 3D map of my legs from hip to ankle. This data gets fed to Rio the Robot.

On Monday morning they gave me a handsome buttless gown, stuck some things in me and told me to say Good Night Brad.

Then they did some stuff. Here are some pictures of what they tell me happened next. First off, Dr. Tarlow and his friend Rio showed up. 

Then they screwed some antennae into my upper and lower leg and tuned them into Rio, so he (she?) would know very, very precisely where my anatomy was hovering in the space-time continuum. Then they sliced open my knee and, with a little grinder attached to Rio's arm, ground out the funky part of my joint and made an awesomely precise landing for some chunks of metal.

Here is a little four-part diagram. Upper left: My former left knee and current right knee. Meniscus worn out, bones sad and angry. Upper right: what would happen in a total knee replacement. We are not going there today. Lower left: Rio and Dr. Tarlow engraving my knee joint. Lower right: new metal and plastic gizmo epoxied in.

And it ends up something like this:

As recently as two years ago when Day got his MakoPlasty, it involved a hospital stay. But now it can be done as an outpatient procedure in a strip-mall surgi-center. They are now doing a smaller incision, have a lot more practice at it, but one of the main advances is an incredibly precise nerve-block, done with a long scary needle and a jazzed-up ultrasound outfit. Here is what they were looking at. I can't make head nor tail of it. But it enables them to turn off all sensation from knee to lower calf while leaving the entire leg, ankle, and foot fully operational.

As a result, when I woke up--in what seemed less than a nanosecond after watching them do the nerve block--I could get up and walk to the potty and pee. Fully weight bearing on my new magic knee. Without pain. With an audience of three.

Then it was time to get dressed and blast on back to Flagstaff. Lora is speeding us north in our slipshod waaaah-bulance.:

One of my great concerns was how do I, with a freshly rebuilt knee, get from my driveway up the long, muddy switchbacks, to my house? Wheelbarrow? Furniture dolly? I was over-thinking it. Get out of the car and walk up to the long, muddy switchbacks to my house.

And walk up the stairs, sit in my chair, and play my ukulele. I find this more than mind-boggling. At 7:30 a.m. I was lying on a gurney in the pre-op room in Phoenix, wondering if the surgery would happen soon. At 1p.m., 5-1/2 hours later, I was 135 miles north, sitting in my living room, able to walk around, with a partial knee replacement.

That was four days ago. The rest is not very exciting. It took the nerve block more than three days to fully subside, so I missed a lot of the quality pain I paid for and had every right to expect. A few days of mild discomfort, a few days that I could call minor pain. Lots of exercises and stretches, lots of friends being astonishingly kind to me, and a few walks around the house, down the street, and about the boatshop.

Physical Therapy starts in three days, staples out two days after that, and five days after that: a new right knee to match. Woohoo!

Gigantic thanks to my dear friends Lora (whose RN skills and kind words and actions  were invaluable) and Day (who came down from Utah to help guide me through this wonderland). I owe you big.

Postscript: Ow. On day five the nerve block finally wore off and I found out just how irritated my knee was about all this. Turns out it is hard to follow the "let-pain-be-your-guide" activity plan when you can't feel the pain. I think I overdid it. Days five and six were pretty painful. Today is day seven and I am on an oxycodone holiday and doing my exercises a lot more gingerly. I think I'll be back on track here pretty quick.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Down Und Oars

My fascination with oar-making got another infusion in New Zealand last fall. We made a short stop, on my way to build dories, at the Gull oar factory in Palmerston North. Gull oars are known for being are light, straight, and affordable--three things that are hard to find in a wood oar.  We met Bruce Woodfield (on the right) who runs the company and carved his first oar by hand back in 1967. At that time they were making ladders, cabinetry, and some small wood boats, and needed to make oars for the boats. Bruce soon began devising the machinery to make them en masse.

Peter (on the left), who had been running the machinery for about three decades, walked us through the factory. The first giant gizmo takes a piece of square stock and rounds in into a giant dowel. Really fast.

They have a wide array of cutters, so they can make just about any size shaft. Sadly (for me) this precludes the possibility of making tapered-shaft oars, which I have an addiction to. Luckily for Gull, this is not a universal malady among oarsmen.

This gizmo makes the blades out of flat boards, onto which it cuts a perfect concave edge which fits perfectly against the dowel shaft.

Next, this giant monster of a machine grabs the blade parts, glues them onto the shaft, clamps them, and zaps them with a radio frequency that instantly cooks the glue. 

That gizmo then hands it off the the next gizmo that cuts the taper into the blades. 

 And drops it in the basket for Peter. It is a loud and very impressive process.


Finally the hand of man (Peter) takes it over to the giant drum sander and quickly smoothes the blade.

The oars are then dip-varnished and allowed to drip dry.

 After which they are pushed into the handle-cutter.

And there you have it. A really straight, light oar. Peter said that when everything is running properly, he can produce 600-700 oars a day. Which makes them affordable. That's even better than my shop.