Read an Excerpt
Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual
By Don Casey
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2006 International Marine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneInspecting the Aging Sailboat
"There aren't many experiences more ripe with promise than buying a boat."
Surveying a Boat for Purchase Determining the Needs of Your Own Boat
Fair and True? Signs of Stress or Trauma Delamination Gelcoat Problems Blisters Moisture Content Keel Rudder Cutless Bearing and Propeller Through-Hull Fittings
Hull-to-Deck Joint Surface Damage Nonskid Core Problems Hatches Portlights Deck Hardware Canvas
Mast and Boom Step Cap Spreaders Goosenecks, Sheets, and Vangs Stays and Shrouds Roller Furling Sails
Bulkhead Attachment Stringers and Floors Interior Pans Distortion Signs of Leakage Tankage Head Galley Seacocks Bilge Pumps Comfort and Safety Decor
Engine and Steering
Engine Access Visual Clues Mounting and Alignment Stuffing Box Exhaust Smoke Running the Engine Oil Steering Gear
Battery Breaker Panel Wire and Connectors Alternator Pumps and Motors Lights Electronics
Design Reputation Performance Accommodations Equipment Value
Boat-Buyer's 30-Minute Survey
Hull Deck Rig Below Impression
Appendix: Hiring a Professional
There are a few well-cared-for yachts into their second century of service, but most boats built 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, are long gone—a pile of gray ash in the bottom of a boatyard stove or a punky skeleton buried in the mud of some creek or canal. Neglect is fatal to wooden boats.
In noticeable contrast, almost every sailboat larger than a skiff and built in the last 35 years, unless lost to violent weather or navigational mishap, is still around. Most see regular service. Even those sitting dirt-covered along the back fence of a boatyard are rarely beyond redemption. The reason for this new immortality is a change in the construction material.
In the late 1940s a handful of boat manufacturers abandoned the practice of constructing hulls from wood in favor of molding hulls from a war-developed synthetic polymer, reinforcing this plastic with glass fibers. Within a dozen years, virtually all production boats were being constructed of glass-reinforced plastic. Because the word "plastic" had become synonymous in 1950s America with "cheap and inferior," boat manufacturers sought to avoid this taint by calling their new construction material "fiberglass."
Plastic boats were cheaper, mostly because simplified construction techniques allowed for mass production. This made boat ownership affordable for millions who were previously excluded. As for being inferior, the ability of plastic boats to tolerate slipshod maintenance soon became legendary. Whether the addition of millions of undistinguished and poorly maintained boats to the shorelines and waterways represented a social good is certainly debatable, but for the individual, cheaper and more durable boats were surely better.
Fiberglass boats aren't completely impervious to neglect, and they can be damaged. Moreover, a boat is more than simply a hull; many of the assembled components offer less durability. Wood used to reinforce and stiffen is subject to rot. Metal parts corrode or fatigue. Fabrics tear and mildew. Machinery wears out. While these conditions are rarely fatal—a fiberglass boat in almost any condition can be restored—the issue is value. Is making needed repairs economically sound? The answer to this question will vary according to who is considering it. A boat that should be avoided by an owner who leaves all repairs to the yard could be a bargain for the skilled do-it-yourselfer.
SURVEYING A BOAT FOR PURCHASE
There aren't many experiences more ripe with promise than buying a boat. When you find the very craft you have been dreaming about sulking impatiently on a cradle or shifting restlessly in a slip, perfect days on the water suddenly play through your mind. You step aboard and run your fingers over her in a lover's caress. Look how perfect she is. This is the one! You stand at the helm, gripping the wheel, feeling the wind through your hair, the sun on your back, the motion of ...
SNAP OUT OF IT!
Are those cracks in the gelcoat? Should the deck crackle like that? Are those rivets in the rubrail, and why are they loose? Why doesn't the head door close? Why are there brown streaks beneath the portlights? Are those water marks inside the galley cabinets? Should there be rust on the keel bolts? What is that bulge in the hull?
If any of these indicate real trouble (and some of them do), it is about to become your trouble. It is going to be your money paying for the repair or, God forbid, your feet treading water. So be still your beating heart; shopping for a boat is about looking for the warts.
But where do you look? And what do you look for? And when you find something, how do you know what it means? That's what this book is all about.
Wait a minute. Isn't finding a boat's problems the job of the surveyor, a real surveyor? Absolutely. If your dream boat is going to cost a substantial (by your definition) amount, a professional survey is essential. A seller is far more likely to make financial concessions based on the findings of a formal survey than on your whining about the very same things. If you plan to finance or insure the boat, a survey will be required anyway. And an experienced surveyor brings a depth of knowledge that is likely to result in findings you might overlook. So why would you want to bother with any of this if you're going to hire a pro?
Consider this. The cost to have a boat professionally surveyed runs about $10 to $15 per foot, plus travel and expenses. Haulout costs can add $3 or $4 per foot, and if you want an engine evaluated, tack on another $300 or more. You want to invest this much money only once in a boat you don't yet own, meaning that before you commission a survey, you want to be 99 percent certain that it isn't going to reveal any defects serious enough to send you looking for a different boat.
If you don't plan to hire a surveyor—a common course of action where the cost of the boat is relatively low—then you need to be 100 percent sure of the boat's condition. In either case, if you are shopping for a boat, you need to be able to look at the various candidates with a critical eye and understand the implications of what you see.
DETERMINING THE NEEDS OF YOUR OWN BOAT
That a potential buyer needs to carefully determine a boat's overall condition is obvious, but why would an owner want to survey his or her own boat? The most important reason is safety. A single cracked wire terminal can drop the rig in a heartbeat. Unbacked cleats under load can tear free of the deck and whip through the air with potentially deadly consequences. Serious delamination reduces actual hull strength to a fraction of what is required. Chafed wire insulation can leave you treading water while your boat burns to the waterline.
The second reason is economy. Backing up cleats is sure to be cheaper than salvaging a boat released from her mooring in a blow. Caulking stanchion bases is cheaper than the major surgery of deck-core replacement. A single terminal fitting is a fraction of the cost of a whole new rig. By replacing a corroded through-hull, you could avoid rebuilding a submerged engine.
The third reason is pride. Part of the reward of owning a boat is keeping her in nice condition. An essential part of this is recognizing problems and understanding their ramifications. Most boatowners keep a weather eye open for anything irregular, but boat problems are often hidden from casual view until they become obvious in some spectacular or disheartening way. Periodic stem-to-stern surveys can reveal attention-needing conditions well before they get out of hand.
Catching potential problems early, before they have a chance to work their mischief, requires a thorough and focused examination and a discerning eye. There is nothing particularly difficult about assessing the condition of a boat; it is an essential skill for every boatowner, though too often neglected. In the pages that follow, you will learn where to look and what to look for. Take the time to develop this skill and you will save money, the occasional skipped heartbeat, and perhaps even disaster.
The hull is the most important component of any boat. It keeps the water out and the boat afloat, and it provides the foundation for all other components. A condemned mast, engine, or deck can be replaced, but a condemned hull dooms the boat. Always start your survey with the hull.
A fair number of wood hulls are still around, but the number gets smaller every year. While well-cared-for wood hulls are remarkably long lived, such care is sadly rare. An aging wood hull is infinitely more likely to have serious problems than one constructed of fiberglass. Effectively surveying a wood hull requires specialized techniques not covered here, but some guidance in probing wood for rot can be found in "Interior."
Metal is primarily a custom boat material in the United States, but a number of European production boats have been constructed of steel or aluminum. The main risk with metal hulls is corrosion. Determining their condition essentially requires examining every square inch for telltale signs—pitting and scaling, bubbled paint, or a powdery coating. A surveyor will bang suspicious spots vigorously with a hammer.
Fiberglass is the construction material of virtually all production sailboats built in the United States. If you own a sailboat or are looking to buy one less than 35 years old, there is an overwhelming likelihood that the boat's hull will be fiberglass. Unlike wood or metal, the troubles found in fiberglass hulls are rarely natural decomposition. More often they stem from poor construction techniques or impact damage.
Determining with a high degree of certainty the condition of a fiberglass hull requires little more than good observation skills and a basic understanding of the conditions you're looking for. Laboratory tests to determine the internal condition of the laminate are rarely employed, even by professional surveyors, because they rarely reveal conditions inconsistent with the surveyor's field observations.
Look, listen, and wonder. Sharp eyes, sensitive ears, and a deductive mind are the most important tools in the fiberglass-boat surveyor's kit.
FAIR AND TRUE?
Fair means smooth and regular—without humps or flat spots. True means accurately shaped—true to her designed lines. Both are good indicators of quality and may also reveal repairs.
Standing at the stern, position your eye near the hull, then slowly move sideways so you see more and more of the hull. Concentrate on the "horizon" of the hull, watching for it to jump or dip instead of move away smoothly. Glossy hulls are more revealing; wet the hull if it is dull, but don't confuse waves in the layer of water with irregularities in the hull. A flexible batten can help you position a flaw precisely.
Hard spots. Hard spots reveal themselves as bumps or ridges in the hull. Inside the boat you will generally find a bulkhead or other structural member at the hard spot. The hard spot is caused by the hull flexing over the rigid member. Most boats reveal hard spots to the observant eye, but if the bump is pronounced, the hinging may have broken the glass fibers. Suspect some weakening of the hull.
Flat spots. Because thin fiberglass depends upon curvature to make it stiff, designed flat areas of the hull will be thicker and/or stiffened to compensate. Flat spots in the curved parts of a hull indicate trouble. They occasionally occur because the manufacturer removed the hull from the mold too soon, but more often they indicate weakness, damage, or a poorly executed repair. Rigging tension can dimple a flimsy hull around the chainplate attachment points. A weak hull may permanently deflect if stored in a cradle or supported by screw stands for a long time. Any impact that flattens the hull has broken or delaminated the fiberglass. Amateur repairs often "bridge" a hole rather than matching the original contour of the hull. All of these require corrective measures.
Print-through. Often the weave of the underlying fabric is visible in the surface of the hull, especially if the gelcoat still has its gloss. Dark colors show print-through more. A light print-through is probably not serious, but anything more than that suggests poor layup technique. Hull construction begins with a layer of gelcoat sprayed into the polished mold, then one or two layers of chopped-strand mat (CSM) begins the laminate schedule. Mat is important because it is the most watertight fabric and it provides the best foundation for a strong gelcoat bond. That it also yields the smoothest surface is an ancillary benefit, so if you see significant print-through, the manufacturer failed to put sufficient mat between the woven fabric and the gelcoat. Premature gelcoat failure is a likely consequence.
Walk (or row) away from the hull, then circle it slowly, looking at the shape of the hull.
Symmetry. From directly forward and astern, the hull should appear symmetrical and the keel perpendicular to the deck. Sighting the hull through the gridwork of a plastic plotter simplifies this determination. Any detectable difference from one side to the other suggests major trouble.
Distortion. From either side, look for any change in the flow of the sheer. Overtight stays can permanently distort the hull, revealed by a break in the sheerline, usually at the mast station. Improper support during storage can also cause permanent hull distortion.
Older fiberglass hulls are generally of consistent thickness, but hulls built in the last 15 years are likely to be thinner above the waterline than below. This lowers costs and may improve performance, but it makes a weaker hull. Current models may be more than 1 inch thick near the keel and less than ¼ that at the rail. Whether or not the loss in strength matters depends on how the boat will be used.
Without special equipment, you need a hole in the hull to determine its thickness. Any through-bolted hardware on the hull provides an opportunity to observe the hull thickness because you can extract a bolt. You can measure the thickness at through-hull fittings by dismantling just the hose connection. Hulls sometimes have extra thickness at through-hull locations, but you should be able to determine this by examining the inside of the hull around the through-hull. Except in extreme cases, determining the hull thickness has limited absolute value, but comparative hull thicknesses can be useful in evaluating boats from different manufacturers.
SIGNS OF STRESS OR TRAUMA
Fiberglass generally reveals stress problems with cracks in the gelcoat. The cracks can be very fine and hard to see; get close to the hull and lay your finger against the spot you are examining to ensure that your eyes focus properly. A dye penetrant such as Spot Check (available from auto-parts suppliers) can highlight hairline cracks.
Don't confuse stress cracks with surface crazing; crazing is a random pattern of cracks—something like the tapped shell of a boiled egg just before you peel it—that occurs over large areas of the boat. Stress cracks are localized and generally have an identifiable pattern to the discerning eye.
A collision serious enough to damage the hull usually leaves a scar, but sometimes the only visible record of the event is a pattern of concentric cracks in the gelcoat. Impact with a sharp object, like the corner of a dock, leaves a bull's-eye pattern. Impact with a flat object, like a piling or a seawall, tends to put the stressed area in parentheses. Tap the hull with a plastic mallet or a screwdriver handle in the area of the impact and listen for any dull-sounding areas, which indicate delamination. Examine the hull inside for signs that the impact fractured the glass.
Panting occurs when poorly supported sections of the hull flex as the boat drives through the waves. This problem is also called oilcanning, taking its name from the domed bottom you push in and let spring back on a small oilcan. Panting usually occurs in relatively flat areas of the hull near the bow, but it may also occur in flat bilge areas and unreinforced quarters. The classic sign is a series of near-parallel cracks, sometimes crescent shaped, in the gelcoat. If you can move any portion of the hull by pushing on it, the hull lacks adequate stiffness. Left unchecked, panting can result in fatigue damage to the laminate and eventually a hinge crack all the way through the hull.
An impact on one side of a boat often results in damage to the opposite side as the force is transferred by some rigid member or just by the box effect—push on one corner of a box and all corners are distorted. Because hulls are designed to resist outside assault, the damage to the nonimpacted side—where the stress is applied from inside the hull—is often greater than to the impacted side. When you find any evidence of impact damage, always check the opposite side of the boat for collateral damage.
Any spot on the hull that remains damp more than a few hours after the boat is hauled indicates water has penetrated the surface of the hull. Scrape away paint and you are likely to find a crack that requires repair. Weeping from an encapsulated keel can indicate a serious problem if the ballast is iron; water incursion causes the iron to rust and swell, distorting and even bursting the fiberglass. Examine the bottom of the keel and the rudder most carefully for signs of weeping.
Done well, a repair is almost impossible to detect, but this is not a concern because a proper repair will be just as strong as the original laminate. Inferior repairs are generally easier to detect. We have already mentioned flat spots. Also look for variations in the color and texture of the hull surface. It is hard to match gelcoat exactly, and careful observation will usually reveal any patching. Gelcoat paste used in a repair can also develop a porous look compared to the billiard-ball smoothness of the original gelcoat. If the hull has been painted, look for a crescent-shaped ridge that will mark a less-than-perfectly-sanded patch.
Excerpted from Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual by Don Casey Copyright © 2006 by International Marine. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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