Boat maintenance requires steady attention


Boats -- whether dink or gold-plater -- hold an attraction for many of us, whether they allow a short run to the fishing grounds or a seaborne adventure.

It is that fascinating business of going down to the sea for whatever.

But along with the excitement of being under way comes the drudgery of ensuring that the boat gets you there and back with a minimum of inconvenience and holds its value.

Over the short haul, today's fiberglass boats serve that purpose admirably. Over the long haul, however, even fiberglass will weep and crack and rot if it is not maintained properly.

"When you think of what we are asking of our boats," said Ted Downey, president of Seaside Boatworks in Annapolis, "it shouldn't come as a surprise that, over time, even fiberglass will break down.

"We are asking them to go out there and give us a great day and then we leave them out in salt water, salt air, spray and sunlight. Leave them to sit out there and bake."

On those days while the boat sits dockside, evil things can begin to happen. Ultraviolet light works on the gelcoat, rainwater seeps into unfilled cracks and beneath improperly bedded fittings and instruments, and water is continually searching for ways to break through.

The most common problem below the waterline is blistering, the separation of layers joined while building the hull.

"Blistering can be a manufacturing problem," said Downey, whose specialty is fiberglass and whose firm has repaired, refitted and refurbished thousands of boats. "And it is a natural chemical phenomenon. You take fiberglass and submerge it in water, it is going to blister."

The reason, Downey said, is that there are at least 15 water-soluble compounds used in fiberglass construction, and quality control during manufacture determines to large extent whether an efficient seal against water penetration can exist.

"There are ways of alleviating the blistering effect by putting non-permeable membrane in between the [water and the fiberglass] -- providing the boat is chemically stable," Downey said. "That the glass is properly mixed, cured and built with quality control. Outside of that, all the modern materials in the world won't prevent a boat from blistering."

On new boats, Downey recommends that the traditional sanding of the bottom in preparation for painting be avoided because that removes "millage of the gelcoat, which is supposedly the non-permeable membrane" and increases the possibility of blistering.

There are a couple of reasons, Downey said. One is that a lot of manufacturers are stipulating in their warranties exactly what you can and can't do to the bottom of the boat, including preparation for bottom painting. Stepping outside the guidelines could void the warranty.

So, call the manufacturer and get a recommendation on perhaps installing a barrier-coat system with epoxies or vinylester resins or go with one of the new, self-etching primer systems so that bTC you don't actually have to sand the bottom.

On older boats, the damage may already have been done and blisters will have to be ground out, refilled and refinished at considerable expense.

Above the waterline, many of the problems are more pedestrian and can be eliminated or avoided by timely maintenance, Downey said. The problem begins with the nature of the gelcoat, which is extremely porous.

"On some boats that aren't properly maintained, you can leave your fingerprints on it after touching it, just from the oil in your skin," Downey said. "If you drop a potato chip on the deck, it leaves a major imprint from the greases and the oils. What that is telling you is that the substrate is very dry and it needs treatment."

Gelcoat requires the use of a very fine compound to cut the surface with a fine tooth and reduce porosity through polishing. Then a good coat of wax will seal it.

Compounding should be done once a year, and waxing should be done as often as possible. It is virtually impossible to over-wax a gelcoat.

"Have the topsides done professionally while the boat is hauled out," Downey said. "But the deck and whatnot can be done by crew members or the captain when the boat is out being used, anchored out or whatever."

As you use the boat, do a small section and keep a logbook of what has been done and when the work was completed. Next time out, do another section. Anyone who has managed to keep the brightwork varnished or the teak oiled knows the drill.

A frequent and usually minor problem with fiberglass boats is the cracking or crazing of the gelcoat, those spider webs or narrow fissures that seem to occur where cabin sides meet the deck or at the corners of the cockpit.

Usually, Downey said, those small cracks are superficial and the result of the gelcoat being more brittle than the underlying fiberglass.

If the crack does not extend to where the layers of fiberglass cloth are exposed, then the crazing may be sealed with a repair kit, which probably will involve some grinding and color matching.

"When the gouge or crack doesn't go to the fibers of the laminate, it is more of a cosmetic condition than a structural condition," Downey said. "Any gouge that goes to the laminate itself should be professionally repaired and inspected."

The problem of exposed laminate fibers is capillary action, which will draw moisture into the layers of the hull, where water will begin to break down the resins that hold the hull together.

In a worst-case scenario, Downey said, hulls or decks that are improperly built will contain areas that were not thoroughly impregnated with resins or even voids, where relatively large areas of fiberglass will be reduced to so much rot. In such cases, a small leak can turn into a big problem in about three months.

On powerboats, one of the frequent trouble areas is the transom, where cockpit drains may be improperly sealed or bolts through the hull for outboard brackets or mounting the stern drive may have been wrenched down too tightly and cracked the gelcoat.

On sailboats, chain plates, winch and cleat seats, through-bolts for travelers, turning blocks, stanchions and so on often may represent potential problems because of operational stress and different rates of expansion and contraction for metal and fiberglass.

"It is the leaks that you can't see that are doing the most damage," Downey said. "If you have a cored deck -- cored with balsa, for example -- and there is a liner inside the cabin, there really is no easy way to trace a leak.

"But in the meantime, you are sucking moisture into your dry core and causing extensive damage. The routine approach to that is to try every two years to rebed all the equipment and all the hardware."

The key here is to select the proper sealant. On non-plastic materials above the waterline use a non-permanent sealer, such as Boatlife 101. Below the waterline, use a permanent, adhesive sealer such as 3M brands 5200. Around plastics such as instrument mountings and Plexiglas ports, use either a good latex caulk or a premium-grade silicone seal.

"The key to maintenance is not to let it frustrate you," Downey said. "If you have a 40-footer or a 16-footer, don't try to do it all in one day. Keep it at a comfortable level. But get it done; it will pay off in the long run."

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