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What’s The Deal With Steel Boats?

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When you’re looking for your dream boat you never quite know what you might end up with. Unless you’ve already decided on a particular make and model you are probably working to a budget and with a list of requirements, searching for those particular features that you think you want or need. You may even have a vague idea of what she might look like. We considered ourselves lucky to find our current boat. She had just about everything we wanted—but one thing we hadn’t anticipated—she was built from steel.

After many hours of research and due consideration we decided to go ahead. But could we rise to the challenge of owning and maintaining a steel boat? I know some people thought us a bit crazy but we had considered the pros and cons and, for us, we got it right. Indeed this is no plastic fantastic, no fibreglass plaything. She is 20 tons of real steel, strong, stiff, and ready to go anywhere. We like that she feels like a real ship. We like knowing that should we hit something on a dark night, we might later tell the tale.

Steel boats get a raw deal. They’re not the cool kids on the block. But take a good look around any crowded anchorage and chances are there’s at least one or more. So what’s the deal with steel?

On the plus side, they’re strong and they’re cheap. Strength per dollar they’re incredibly strong. So for the custom build and for one-offs on a budget steel is usually the material of choice. The same goes for the amateur builder in possession of the right skills and equipment. Steel is easy to get repaired almost anywhere, even if only temporarily until permanent replating can be effected. When properly completed repairs are as good as new, unlike repairs to fibreglass, which rarely are. And in a lightning storm where better to be than in one’s own personal Faraday cage? A properly insulated boat is cooler in the tropics and warmer in the winter than some poorly finished production boats.

Is all Stainless Steel the Same?

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Twenty tons of steel, strong, stiff, and ready to go anywhere. Photo by Sim Hoggarth
Twenty tons of steel, strong, stiff, and ready to go anywhere. Photo by Sim Hoggarth

The big minus? Steel boats rust. Also, they’re heavy and therefore slow. We are happy to sacrifice a knot of boat speed. But if we ignore rust we do so at our peril. The maintenance is part of our routine. I emphasis this is maintenance, not major rebuild, sand blasting and replating. Keep on top of the little bits and, with a little work and a little luck, that day may never come. Fortunately modern paints and epoxy coatings make the task less onerous than it might otherwise be. And for a relatively small sum the right tools will help you along the way.

Invest in a small compressor and a decent needle gun to remove rust and scale. And an air-chisel attachment to remove old paint in a flash. The Ingersol Rand 125 is a good choice. A small compressor is okay as you’re unlikely to be going at it continuously. A good quality angle grinder with a selection of stiff wire wheels and cup brushes will give a bright clean surface finish ready to take the paint. The paint system we chose says it is ‘surface tolerant’, claiming to stick to almost any surface! That’s no excuse not to do the best job we can.

Before the paint goes on we may wash with phosphoric acid. This neutralizes any rust we may have missed but it needs to be very thoroughly rinsed off. Opinions differ widely. If we’re working on inside areas, it isn’t always practical. Outside areas always get the acid treatment, brush it on, leave for 6 – 12 hours and rinse and scrub it clean.

The Worst Possible Chainplates

Now for the paint; remember your nice clean bright shiny steel starts rusting straight away, so don’t delay. Whichever manufacturer’s system you choose make sure it includes a pre-sealer coat. This is a clear thin penetrating epoxy which soaks deep into any remaining imperfections and cures to a tough water resistant coating. Next is several layers of epoxy paint; we like to use a 4+3 or 5+4 method; that is, between each full coat we apply a ‘stripe coat’, just an extra coat over the corners and stringers and welds and frames and all the hard to get at bits. Using different colors makes it easier and it saves both time and money. And now we finish with our top coats, be it glossy topside, a non-skid deck or anti-fouling. We like to stick to one paint manufacturer throughout and follow closely their instructions regarding drying and recoating times.

Boat Bites: Raw Italian

Stripe coats save time and money. Photo by Sim Hoggarth
Stripe coats save time and money. Photo by Sim Hoggarth
And a good job done. Photo by Sim Hoggarth
And a good job done. Photo by Sim Hoggarth

So if your dream boat turns out to be steel; don’t be afraid. It’s really not such a big deal!

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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