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Fatty doing a fiberglass repair on Wild Card
Fatty doing a fiberglass repair on Wild Card

Dried Snot, Fiberglass, and Other Sad Boatbuilding Materials

Buying a used fiberglass boat isn’t easy. Many are as weak as my morals. A few are like my wife – looks good, but rotten to the core! Get a little closer and you’ll see the drooping transom, sagging rigging and wobbly bits.

…but enough about my wife. Let’s refocus on fiberglass recreational watercraft.

Many of the plastic boats I recently surveyed looked like offshore vessels but weren’t — not any longer. Mast steps were the most common problem. Then there were the rotten stainless steel chainplate webs that were weaker than guitar strings; grinning keels; water-logged rudders; and finally, most common of all, squishy cored-decks.

The truth of it is balsa core sucks. Totally. Forget the ‘even if it gets moisture inside it wouldn’t migrate’ excuse. That is a blatant lie. A total lie. Water migrates in balsa core. It never stops.

Yet hundreds of builders are still using balsa in their decks. Why? Because it is fast, easy, and relatively cheap.

While all balsa decks older than 20 years have problems, few younger than eight years show any exterior signs of it. And most owners of small sailing craft don’t own them forever, they’re hanging on to them for four to six years. So balsa core is a good deal for the builder and the original owner. It’s just a devil’s bargain for everyone else.

Show me a 20 year old balsa-cored deck that hasn’t absorbed some water and begun to deteriorate and I’ll eat my hat. Ditto to a traditional carvel-planked wooden boat 20 years old that doesn’t have rot (look under the galley and in the head). I’ve been saying this for the last 50 years or so, and I still have all my hats.

Let me add an aside: the two things most terrible for boats are use and disuse. If you use them hard and don’t maintain them well, they fall apart. But they fall apart even faster if you don’t use them. Why? Because moisture is the enemy. Disuse means mechanical things don’t get lubed and warmed and dried and moved. If your boat is idle, its starter motor, auxiliary engine and dinghy outboard motor are corroding faster than when in use.

Ask any ‘trailer sailor’ or fisherman who keeps his fishing rig in the driveway how long his outboard lasts. The answer is half the engine hours that a regularly used, in-water outboard lasts between rebuilds. You may as well just think of your electronics as dry boxes that begin to fail as soon as the first molecule of salt-laden air hits their exterior.

Another noteworthy aside: fiberglass is a miracle material that can be strongly, solidly repaired no matter how badly damaged, but it almost never is. Why? Ignorance, human nature, and greed are the three main reasons.

Let’s say Sailor Sam takes out his Fancy ‘42 and ‘touches’ the bottom on a Sunday sail. By ‘touches’ I mean he hit a rock at top speed, got stuck as the tide fell, and had to be rescued by Sea Tow — but whatever!

Let’s say the ‘touch’ happened to crush the fiberglass at the turn of the starboard bilge and Sailor Sam wants to fix it and sell the boat to buy a bigger one — hey, maybe the wifey will come out sailing if there’s a watermaker and hot showers aboard!

He brings it to two fiberglass repairmen, Slick and Slow.

Slick looks at the damage and says, “$10,000 bucks!”

If Sam gulps and says OK, Slick will hit the area with a grinder until all the surface cracking is gone. He’ll toss on one layer of thin cloth (so the cracks don’t immediately bleed back), smear the whole area with polyester filler, and then spend the rest of his time prepping the vessel for the new Awlgrip. Slick takes $6,000 in profit and whistles a merry tune.

When Sam comes down the next weekend, he’ll be amazed and delighted because his vessel looks like new. It will sell immediately and everyone will be happy. For a while, at least.

Now, if Slow comes down to bid the job as well, he’ll note the crushed area, of course, but also the grinning keel. He’ll be forced to look into the bilge where, just as he suspected, the keel pan which was smundered down with 5200 (that’s right, not glassed, just casually squished down into goop) has severe stress cracks.

It’s gonna be a big, complicated job.

Slow goes to the Sailor Sam and turns down the job. “Whaddaya mean you’ll pass?” says Sam in outrage. “It was just a little touch!”

Slow has two kids in school and needs money. He reconsiders. “$25,000,” he says.

Sailor Sam goes ballistic. He knows he’s being ripped off. “You think I’m stupid? There’s a kid down the block who’d jump at the chance to do this job for $10,000 — but he’s all stacked up right now. How ‘bout 15 grand, cash, under the table?”

Slow reluctantly agrees, and accepts $3,000 in cash as ‘good faith’ money.

The first thing he does, of course, is hit the area with a grinder. It takes about ten minutes to grind the visible cracks away, but then there are three more solid days of grinding until the milky-white resin turns clear, which is when he can rightfully stop.

Alas, the ten inch area that was barely visible is now a five foot by three foot hole in the boat.

Sailor Sam comes down, and faints.

Slow is showering off the itchy stuff in the shipyard’s toilet, and doesn’t notice.

The paramedics take Sam away.

Meanwhile, Slow goes inside the boat and removes the interior on the starboard side so the repair can be made from both sides. This is imperative if the repair is to withstand the repeated shocks of large waves. This, of course, requires grinding inside the yacht. So Slow sadly puts up some 6 mil plastic. South Florida is, of course, extremely warm and Slow is dying of the heat inside his full zoot suit. Why, oh, why did he under-bid this freakin job!

“…the kids,” he mutters angrily to himself as he grinds, “they gotta have a better life!”

While Slow’s grinder is running, a strong afternoon squall sweeps the boat yard, and the gusty wind coming in the hatch blows down some of the duct-taped plastic. Rain gets in, too, and the shag carpeting of the Fancy ‘42 gets doused.

Slow keeps grinding with grim focus.

Next up, Slow removes the floorboards — and realizes finally that he’s in over his head. Yeah, he could have fixed the hull for $15,000 and turned a slight profit, but this will take months. He sighs. Oh, well. A promise is a promise, and he wants the boat to be fixed right and the owner to be happy. He starts laboriously grinding the interior keel area.

Meanwhile, Sailor Sam has recovered from his fainting spell and returns to the yard. There is his once-lovely boat. It is open, and fiberglass dusk is billowing out of the hatch like thick steam from an old locomotive. His pristine vessel is now white-as-snow with grinding dust, and there’s Slow, still at it amid the swirl of toxic chemicals.

“…I’ll kill him!” thinks the outraged owner, just as he clutches his chest, spasms awkwardly, falls over backwards, and dies.
Slow continues stoically grinding—and, thus, can’t hear the ambulance and EMTs outside.

Five days later, just as Slow is finishing up all the structural glasswork inside and preparing to start on the cosmetics on the topsides, the widow comes down with the sheriff and orders him off the boat.

Slick is called in—and, since most of the work is already done, pockets $8,000 of his $10,000 fee this time around. Slow falls into a rum bottle.

The point of the above tale is simple: most of the effort expended during the majority of fiberglass repair jobs is to make the repair look nice rather than to make a sound structural repair. The thinking being, why bother to make the repair structurally sound, when most vessels based in South Florida never experience a severe gale at sea anyway?

Be very, very careful buying a used fiberglass boat.

Any idiot with a can of Bondo can make a crushed egg appear whole.

Let’s put it another way: I’ve lived in the Caribbean through dozens of severe hurricanes, and seen thousands of vessels severely damaged by the same. But I have never seen a Hinckley ad that says, “This B40 was holed and sunk during Hurricane Hugo, smashed on the rocks during Luis, and resank in Marilyn. It’s a steal for $400,000!”

No.

That’s why there are surveyors and brokers to act as double insulators between the former buyer and the new buyer.

I asked a broker in Antigua if I could talk to the local owner of a boat he had listed. The answer was an emphatic “No!”

The owner’s broker works on the commission. The surveyor was hired by the broker-who-works-on-commission. If a vessel has been sunk, dragged two miles over a bumpy reef by an uncaring tugboat, and then just happened to fall back into the water while it was being craned onto the barge, will they be the ones to point out such things?

‘Seldom’ would be the PC answer (seldom means almost never).

Many vessels left unattended in the Bahamas and Caribbean are like yo-yos with the storm seasons – they are up, they go down, they come up, they go down.

That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve known a number of vessels in the Caribbean that have sunk twice in storms, and their prospective buyers were never the wiser.

After buying a long-term Caribbean-based vessel, Jeremy Ozzie of Forever Young once asked me, “where does all this sand keep coming from? I’ve cleaned out the bilges a dozen times…always more sand!”

Duh! (Signs of barnacle growth inside the vessel is another tip-off.)

This isn’t to say there aren’t good boats built of dried snot. There are. The trick is to carefully use your own eyes and your own brain. Ninety-nine percent of the major problems on a used boat will be clearly visible if you really look closely. They are an open book.

After all, who has your best interests at heart more than you?

No one.

Which brings us to the subject of Bose Noise Cancelling headphones.

“Ah,” you say. “So you can pound on the hull and deck with a rubber mallet to check for rot and voids and not get a headache, right?”

No. So you can better ignore the false claims of the builder, the outrageous lies of the broker, and the idiotic observations of the surveyor!

Fatty and Carolyn are currently cruising New Zealand, and are not sheepish about admitting it!   

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