Fiberglass Core Repairs, Part One

If you are considering buying an older fiberglass boat that your marine surveyor has indicated has water in the hull, don’t be put off– this is fairly common and can be easily remedied. Boat hulls and decks built with fiberglass skins sandwiched around a core are lighter and typically stronger than boats built with the same thickness of solid fiberglass.  For this reason, sandwich core construction is a popular method of building fiberglass boats. However, water intrusion can rot wood cores or delaminate the sandwich structure and weaken the hull, posing a potential problem with this type of boat. Some builders have compromised by building the section of the hull below the water line with solid glass, while taking advantage of sandwich core building techniques above the water line and in decks to minimize the problem. In some boats, such as race boats where weight and strength are still paramount, sandwich core construction prevails throughout.

Foam Core is serated on the left to conform to curves while on the right is the material on the backside that holds the sheet together. End Grain Balsa core also comes in flexible sheets

Core material can range from different types of foam to lightweight processed woods, such as end-grain balsa or plywood, and even in some applications, aluminum honeycomb.  In this blog, I’ll explain how core damage can happen and in future blogs I’ll explain how to repair minor core damage with the more common core materials, foam or wood.

Water can enter the core around through-hull fittings like speedos and depth transducers and more typically through deck fittings like chain-plates, winches, and stanchions–basically, anyplace you drill a hole in order to mount hardware.  Builders have different techniques for sealing cores around hardware, but none of them can prevent damage to the core from collision or accident after the boat is built. Even when bedded with caulk, fittings for anchor windlasses and such tend to rock under load; the caulk breaks down and eventually water gets in.  This water intrusion is what marine surveyors are looking for when they use moisture meters.

With popular lightweight wood cores such as balsa, once the water gets in, the biggest problem is rot.  The second problem is freezing and the separation of the laminate sandwich. Either problem will ultimately cause the loss of structural integrity.  Even with foam cores, such as Klegecell or Airex, plywood inserts are often used under high-load areas like winches for increased compression strength, leading to the same wood/rot delam problems.  Of course, if your boat’s core is wicking up water, the boat is far heavier than it should be, even before any structural breakdown happens.

Cutting away the fiberglass skin exposes rotten balsa core. Note all the test holes drilled to determine the extent of the problem

The simple solution to core breakdown is to open up the affected area, remove any water, rotted or delaminated core, and epoxy in a replacement core that re-establishes the laminate strength and structure.  The more advanced solution is to do it in such a way that the problem does not return by also sealing the core from future water intrusion. For more on these procedures, see Rotten to the Core: Fiberglass Core Repair, Part 2.

Cover Frames for the DIY Boater

If you follow my blogs, you’ll have read that I’m a big believer in covering your boat during the off-season (see “5 Winter Lay-up Tips for Your Boat“. In this week’s blog, I’ll give you some tips on building a sturdy frame that should last for seasons to come. Whether you choose to cover the frame with shrinkwrap or an inexpensive plastic tarp is up to you.

I’ve built frames from wood, galvanized conduit used for wiring, and PVC pipe. In a pinch, I’ve even built a simple strongback for a sailboat out of sawhorses and the boat’s mast laid fore-n-aft. The key to building any frame is to create a strongback or central ridge that will not only support the cover but also withstand wind and snow loads.

Wood frames are the easiest; some two-by-fours,  strapping, a little plywood, wood screws, clothesline, a few scraps of rug, some duct tape, and a screw gun and voila, you can build a frame in an afternoon. If you mark it carefully and take some care when removing it, you should get 3 or more seasons out of it.

Frames don't have to be pretty. This one being installed on my current project boat is an adaptation from a much bigger boat's frame and a fancy Fairclough Sailmakers cover. Notice the generous space over the cockpit.

The nicest frame I ever built was made from 3/4” galvanized electrical conduit known as EMT. I bought the standard length pipe, a pipe cutter, hand bender, and some flexible connectors known as Kover Klamps that are easily found on the web. That frame  not only lasted many years, but also was a customized enhancement and it increased the value of the boat when I sold it.  The unique part of that frame was how I connected it to the boat by removing the lifelines and using the boat’s stanchions as supports. Rather than the more common method of lashing the legs of the frame to the stanchions with line, l was able to slide the EMT right over the tapered stanchions. I used a little rigging tape to keep from scratching the stanchions and to take up some space on the tapered end so the frame sat tight—easy to install and remove.

You can also build a sturdy long-lasting frame from PVC. If you simply dry-fit the pieces together without glue, you’ll be able to disassemble this frame easily for storage when not in use. However, this type of frame doesn’t stay together as securely as screwed wood or clamped metal frames do. On boats with very high cabins or hardtops, it is sometimes possible to simply build the strongback and not build side ribs since the sides are already so steep that snow and ice can’t collect there if the cover is tight enough. On lowprofile boats, like sailboats, it will be necessary to build ribs from the strongback to the rail every couple of feet on either side—strapping or line can be used to fill any big gaps. I also recommend you build the strongback high enough that it will not only shed snow easily, but will also allow you to stand up in the boat’s cockpit for better winter work access.

Carefully mark the frame with colored rigging tape or permanent marker once it’s built, so you know how to quickly and easily reassemble the frame for next season.  Use carpet squares to keep the cover from tearing or rubbing excessively on the frame.  I like to secure the frame to the boat’s rails but not secure the cover to the frame. Instead secure the cover to or around the hull. Good luck building your new cover frame and feel free to contact me with any questions about your project.

Fixing a Used Boat

I’ve owned more boats than I have fingers and all of them have been used. In fact, I’ve never owned a brand new boat. Oh, I commissioned dozens of new boats during my yard management days, but I don’t covet a new boat. Given depreciation and added equipment, you can usually get a better value for a lightly used boat. You might even be looking for the proverbial fixer-upper.

Not too far from my house is one of those boat and car donation centers where people donate their old beaters to charity. I can’t help myself; every time I pass by, I’m checking out the inventory. It’s weird, I DO covet a brand-new luxury car but not a boat—give me a boat with a problem and I’m motivated.

Boatyards often have abandoned boats for the cost of yard expenses; boat-donation programs like these pictured above are also a good source of economical fixers.

Of course, I only have a few friends who understand my pride in fixing a used boat. I’ve given it life, a second chance…but don’t tell my wife I’ve got another one. Fixer-upper boats usually have more than one problem, and they take time and money to repair—no matter how handy you are. So it might sit awhile in your driveway while you search for parts, and the energy to dive in.

I have my favorite parts stores and internet sites to find what I need, along with boat-owning friends who enjoy telling me how they replaced some holding tank or solved some other boat maintenance problem.  You probably won’t make any extra money taking on a fixer-upper, but you should enjoy sailing it after it is re-launched or you’re not really getting the idea of it—it is about overcoming adversity, a challenge, or attaining a goal, and how that makes you feel—pride of ownership.

Here are my rules for a fixer-upper:

  • Have a convenient place to store your boat for free while you work on it
  • Know what it would cost to fix the problem(s) in a professional boatyard
  • Empty it, clean it, and cover it before starting work
  • Make to-do lists of projects and parts needed to help visualize the project
  • Never sell your boat until it floats again

Here’s the good news about parting with a fixed-up boat. You’ll know it is time to sell when you start peeking into the donation lot to check the inventory.

Engine Starter Woes or Click, Click, Nothing!

It is the middle of the night, and we’ve been sailboat racing offshore for 14 hours so the batteries are draining down. We decide to start the engine to charge them up—click, click, click, uh oh!  That dazed feeling that you might be in trouble begins to set in, and you try to figure out what is wrong.  It’s just two of us aboard in this year’s annual double-handed distance race out of Newport, Rhode Island—the Solo/Twin.  We are in the open Atlantic Ocean, miles east of Block Island.  Fortunately, this is a sailboat, so we aren’t marooned, but we do need batteries for all our navigational instruments and running lights, and we don’t have much juice left.

Small diesel engines like this Yanmar are often found in cramped quarters on sailboats, making access the biggest deterrent to maintenance or repair.

I stay on deck and continue to sail while my buddy Jeff pops below.  “Try it again,” he shouts—click, click, nothing.  We start shutting down all the non-essential electronics, just like Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, until only the masthead running light is left working off the backup battery.  We can hear the click and see the lights dim when I hit the starter button, so we’re thinking it’s either too low a battery, a bad solenoid, or maybe even a fried starter.

Out comes the battery jumper pack, nothing. We open the compression valves on the engine and spin it by hand, so we know the engine isn’t frozen, but still we can’t get it started.  I’m remembering all those horror stories of people breaking an arm trying to start a diesel by hand as the handle spins out of control, especially in our cramped sardine-can-sized engine compartment, and I’m thinking how much worse this might be if one of us were injured on top of our present dilemma. Jeff starts banging on the starter with a winch handle as I try the starter button again.

We finish the race about dawn, still with no engine, so we sail the boat right to the mooring and tie up.  Exhausted, we try to think through all the possibilities of the engine problem once again.  We had spark but were afraid of trying the age-old solution of touching a screw driver across the contacts of the solenoid, due to the confined space and having a hand in the engine compartment if it did decide to fire.  So we go ashore in search of a new starter and solenoid, sure that one is the answer.

After a shower and a short nap we return with a brand new starter/solenoid and install it, click, click nothing.  But we’ve also brought a jumper wire from Jeff’s basement that sparks enough for him to pull his hand out of the engine compartment super-quick.  The problem turns out to be the contact starter switch.  A $9 part at the local Auto Zone.  We re-install the old starter and return the unused new starter before picking up the contact switch.

Jeff has since admitted that he had been having problems with the switch for over a year; previously you had to push it just right to start the engine. It was making contact, just not enough to kick the starter over. Ah engine maintenance! Left alone, a simple $9 switch will wait to cause trouble only when it can create an adventure for you.

How to Paint the Bottom of Your Boat

In order to maintain the durability and appearance of your boat, occasionally the bottom of your boat will require a new paint job.  While the prospect of doing so may seem somewhat daunting, here are some helpful tips to make the process of painting the bottom of your boat as smooth as possible.

While your boat is still wet, use a biodegradable boat cleaner like Boat Wash from Wise Solutions.  Follow this with a pressure washer to further clean the bottom of your boat.  If there appears to be any paint chipping, ensure that the area is pressure washed thoroughly enough to remove any loose paint flakes.

The next step is to strip the old paint from your boat’s bottom; Molecular-Tech Coatings Inc. of Canada manufactures an eco-friendly marine paint stripper called EFS-2500.  As always, read all manufacturers’ instructions thoroughly before proceeding.

Once you’ve stripped the paint, the next step is to sand the bottom of your boat using an 80-grit paper – a random orbital sander won’t cause the damage that a standard belt sander could.  If you don’t have a vacuum hose connector to remove the dust, consider using a length of flexible plastic tubing, which can attach to the sander’s dust bag mount and then can be directed into a shop type vacuum.  Be sure to wear proper safety equipment including a respirator, gloves, and earplugs during the process.

Once you’ve finished sanding, it’s time to wash your boat once again with an environmentally friendly cleaner.  This will ensure that any remaining paint chips and the dust from sanding will be removed.

Before you begin painting your boat bottom, you will need to choose an appropriate color.  A great tip is to choose a different color from which your boat bottom is already painted so that it will be easy to recognize when it’s time to paint again.  A variety of eco-friendly anti-fouling, copper-free and solvent-free bottom paint is available for purchase in today’s market.

Be sure to check the weather forecasts before you begin painting; you don’t want wind (dust) or rains to wreak havoc as you’re trying to paint.  It’s also a good idea to have extra paint rollers on hand, just in case you need them.

After taping off the waterline, use a paint shaker before applying the paint.  Use a short-napped roller with an optional extension handle to apply the paint to help ensure being able to reach the boat’s entire bottom surface.  Try to work quickly as many bottom paints dry fast.  Check the paint specifications to see if a second coat is required.

At one point, you’ll need to remove the stands underneath the boat to paint the spots the stands were covering.  You will need to ask assistance with this portion of the process.  A boatyard manager would be able to assist you.

Be patient and follow the paint manufacturer’s instructions as to how long your new coat of paint needs to dry before you can place her back in the water.  Drying times will vary with outside temperatures and could be as short at 12 hours or up 24 hours to dry.

Wise Solutions
Molecular-Tech Coatings Inc.
Bottom Paint Store

Diesel or Outboard Engine Maintenance

I was aboard a friend’s boat the other day when suddenly his small inboard diesel starting sending up plumes of white exhaust. We looked over the side and saw that there wasn’t any cooling water coming out of the exhaust. Clearly the engine was overheating, but why? Once we shut it down, my buddy checked the sea strainer to see if it was blocked by debris. It had some debris in it, but not too bad. After cleaning it out, we restarted the engine again and this time slightly more cooling water was exhausted, but it still wasn’t normal. We suspected that either the through-hull intake was blocked or the impeller on the water pump was broken. Not having diving equipment or the courage to pull the hose off from the through-hull and risk sinking the boat while we poked around, we opted to check the impeller first. To my amazement, he admitted it hadn’t been changed since he purchased the boat 6 years ago. His philosophy was that it was working fine, why mess with it. Granted he had tools and spare parts onboard, but I was dumbstruck by the laissez-fair attitude toward engine maintenance.

Whether your boat has twin turbo diesels, an inboard kicker, or outboard engines, there are simple maintenance tasks that you can do to help keep your engine(s) dependable, your costs down, and your time adrift to a minimum. I recommend that you become familiar with your engine by referring to the owner’s manual. If you are a bit more adventurous, purchase and review the shop manual. Either will give you the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance tips while orienting you to where and what things are. Even if you have a pro maintain your engine, the basic knowledge in these publications will serve you well when talking to your mechanic.

My suggestions toward engine maintenance are straightforward and proactive. Keep the engine and engine compartment clean so you can see if you have any obvious leaks. Keep appropriate tools and spare parts aboard. Visually check your engine for clean and tight battery connections, cracked hoses, worn belts, rusty fittings or other signs of age. Keep your fuel clean and check your Racor or other fuel filters regularly. Check the engine oil level and ensure that coolant water is exhausting in proper quantities before leaving the dock.

My preference and a practice we followed in the boatyard when laying a boat up for any extended period is to run fuel stabilizer through the engine and top up fuel tanks to reduce condensation. Flush coolant water and replace with anti-freeze in cold climes. Change oil, filters, zincs, and yes, water pump impellers, annually and follow manufacturer’s recommendations on the rest. Unlike my friend, an ounce of prevention will keep you from being adrift at the worst possible moment.

Boat Maintenance Essentials

Think about the freedom and enjoyment you derive from boating, spending care-free time on the water with friends and family for just a moment.  Now take a deep breath. None of that happens unless you maintain your vessel. Whether you rely on a professional boat yard or do it yourself, maintenance is an essential part of boating.

For most of us, the boating season is short and we’ll do all that is necessary to keep the “me time” or family vacations uninterrupted by embarrassing breakdowns.  Normally, a pre-launch commissioning list, to make sure things work; an in season routine–checking the bilge, oil levels, batteries etc… before every trip; and a haul out / winterizing and repair list will keep maintenance easy and organized.

Boat maintenance is essential to keep your boat running
Boat maintenance is essential to keep your boat running

Keeping your boat going and yourself out of trouble is just common sense.  It doesn’t have to be a chore; I like to visualize myself doing all that care-free boating when dealing with maintenance items—after all, doesn’t part of that worry-free bliss come from feeling prepared?

Get to know your boat— it is all that’s between you, your family and the deep blue sea. Take care of your boat first and it will be available for the good times.  The boatyard manager and guy at the parts department counter would much rather deal with “routine maintenance” at the appropriate time than the histrionics of emergency repair when everyone should be happy afloat.

Proactive maintenance should also mean less costly repair bills.  So, for a good time of care-free boating, maintenance is just part of boat ownership leading to ultimate enjoyment.  I’ll be dedicating some future blogs to specific maintenance issues and I’d also be happy to answer any of your boat maintenance questions.

Annual Outboard Engine Service – Do It Or Don’t?

A Florida Sport Fishing Staff Report

It’s no surprise that outboard engine maintenance is a hot topic. Who wants to be stranded offshore or deep in the backcountry with a mechanical issue that could have easily been avoided with only a bit of preventative maintenance? With just a little TLC and responsible practices you can keep your outboard engine(s) running reliably and smoothly for many years to come.

If you’ve recently purchased a new outboard motor—for approximately the same price you could have purchased a new car—it’s in your best interest to make it last. Although pricey, the benefit of new-age outboard engines is that they offer technologically advanced designs and feature cutting-edge engineering, ensuring they will perform as expected for the term of your vessel ownership—if not longer. However, one downside to modern engineering is that the latest electronically controlled systems are quite complex and if you neglect them in any way, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

With the latest and greatest outboard engines, manufacturers have employed a wide variety of technologies and design features in an effort to improve performance and reliability, while simultaneously increasing fuel economy and lowering emissions. You can count on one thing—whether it’s an electronic fuel injected four-stroke, carbureted four-stroke, single-point fuel injected two-stroke, low pressure direct injection or high pressure direct injection two-stroke, modern outboard motors are not designed for owner maintenance. If you’re not a certified, factory trained technician, it is in your best interest to leave the tough task of performing annual service to someone with years of experience.

To get the inside scoop as to what’s involved in annual outboard servicing, we contacted Mike Lund of Outboard Specialties ( in Pompano Beach. Lund tells us for many boaters around the country winterizing is a hot topic, but for those who ply their craft in the temperate, sub-tropical climate of Florida, it’s clear that the boating and fishing season never ends. With that being said, it’s still best to perform your annual maintenance during the winter season. This is due to the fact that boatyards and mechanics won’t be as busy and any issues that arise during your annual service can be handled promptly.

While many boaters follow the “When it breaks, I’ll fix it” mentality, this is not a good idea and will surely reduce the reliability and efficiency of your outboard(s). According to Lund, approximately 50-percent of damaged motors that come through his shop are a result of lack of maintenance. Talk to distinguished mechanics around the state and they will likely sing you the same song. Regardless of the hours accumulated, annual service should never be neglected. Many boaters think that an annual service and 100-hour service are interchangeable terms, but this is far from the truth. Contact your manufacturer or local mechanic and see what service plan is best for you.

While you may think of yourself as handy and slightly educated in outboards, that’s fine and dandy, but professional technicians will be able to locate and troubleshoot certain components and aspects that could lead to trouble down the road if not taken care of immediately. If you’re confident in your abilities, changing your own oil will certainly cut costs when it comes to annual service, however, replacing an impeller or checking a thermostat is a different story altogether. Lets say for example your thermostat is stuck half-open. This will cause your engine to idle a bit cooler, but that’s pretty much the only warning signal you’ll receive. You will have no idea that your engine is running richer, effectively diminishing your outboard’s overall efficiency. Another component you may visually inspect and come to the conclusion that everything is okay is your sacrificial zinc anode. While a seasoned zinc and a brand new zinc may look the same, the used zinc will weigh significantly less and lack the integrity to perform effectively.

When it comes to outboard maintenance with today’s technologically advanced motors one thing is for certain; seasons of neglect will lead to major expenses. The bottom line is that you should have your outboard(s) serviced annually by a certified technician. Don’t find yourself saying, “If I only would have…”

Annual Service Checklist

  • Perform Compression Test
  • Replace Spark Plug(s)
  • Inspect Thermostat
  • Replace Fuel Filters
  • Replace Engine Oil Filter
  • Replace Lower Unit Oil & Inspect For Water in Lower Unit
  • Pressure Test Lower Unit
  • Install New Water Pump
  • Remove Prop & Inspect Seal
  • Replace Zincs
  • Grease Fittings, Prop Shaft, Drive Shaft, Trim Steering
  • Inspect Popit Valves
  • Protect w/ CRC Corrosion Block
  • Perform Vital Systems Check
  • Inspect Steering Components

Source: Florida Sport Fishing

Arid Bilge Systems’ Series 4 Keeps Boats Dry

Photo Credit: Arid Bilge Systems

After pumping the bilge, there’s usually still some water left behind, resulting in odors, mildew and damage from the condensation. Now owners can stop worrying and relax in a boat that doesn’t smell like a boat. Arid Bilge Systems’ patented Series 4 automatically maintains a dry bilge at all times.

Eliminating wet vacs and bilge diapers, small, customized pickups are placed throughout the different bilge compartments where they act like the perfect crew member an owner never had. All the residual water will be gone in a matter of hours, maintaining the bilges bone dry.

Featuring single-point discharge, the Series 4 can be T-connected to an existing overboard thru-hull. Alkon push-lock fittings and Mazzer polyethylene tubing are used to attach the central unit to the remote pickups.

Source: Arid Bilge Systems

Gen II 3 Series Lights Offer Double The Output

Photo Credit: Aqualuma Underwater Lighting

Aqualuma Underwater Lighting offers its Gen II 3 Series Lights, aking the boating experience more illuminating and colorful.

According to Aqualuma Underwater Lighting, innovations from the Gen II range include more than double the light output for the 3 Series.

Another upgrade is Aqualuma’s exclusive one-piece, non-corrosive housing, which now features a new tint for enhanced clarity and is resistant to chemicals. This housing enables Gen II lights to be fitted with any sealant approved for below water applications.

Photo Credit: Aqualuma Underwater Lighting

The lights are offered with a standard beam of 12? or a wide-angle, elliptical beam of 12? x 50?. They draw less than 0.5 amps at 12V or less than 0.3 amps at 24V. If necessary, the exclusive one-piece housing allows the three LEDs’ driver and LEDs to be serviced without hauling out the vessel.

Available in Ultra Blue, Ultra Green or Brilliant White, Aqualuma’s Gen II 3 Series Lights come with 12′ of tinned cable and a three-year warranty.

Source: Aqualuma Underwater Lighting