Facing the Inevitable

Lead Line — December 2004
By Richard Thiel

Facing the Inevitable
“Richard,” he said, “Read my lips: All boats leak. Just come to my yard and I’ll show you.”
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We get a lot of questions here at PMY, on subjects ranging from how to maintain marital accord and buy a new boat to the meaning of the word deadrise and how it re­lates to the afterlife. Most are technical, but none was so deceptively simple as one I received in September. “Why,” the writer inquired, “do all boats leak?”

I first dismissed this query as faulty in its premise. All boats do not leak, I told myself. Then I thought about it. Okay, every boat I’ve ever owned has leaked at one time or another, but I’ve only owned used boats. New boats don’t leak, do they? I thought about PMY’s annual project boats. About half leaked to some degree, including one that leaked so badly, we had to wear foul-weather gear inside.

Feeling I couldn’t simply dismiss the question, I called my friend Frank, who owns a boatyard and has worked on more boats than I’ve seen. I asked him what percentage of boats leak.

“You kiddin’? Man, all boats leak. Leaks keep me in business!”

“Okay,” I admitted, “all boats eventually leak—like when they get three or four years old—but not new boats, right?”

“Richard,” he said, as he did his best George Bush, Sr., “Read my lips: All boats leak. Just come to my yard and I’ll show you.”

Next I called my source at a major production boatbuilder and asked whether he sees lots of leak complaints. “Oh yeah,” he admitted, “Leaks are number three, after engines and speed.”

How, I asked myself, can this be, with the new high-tech sealants? I asked my two sources. My boat-company guy explained, “Part of the problem’s quality control. Your average 40-footer has dozens of places water can get into, and every one must be properly sealed. The chances that one won’t are pretty good.”

“But what about those spray tests you give boats before you ship them?” I asked.

“They show problems, but they can’t simulate water driven by a gale or a big sea coming aboard.”

Frank had a different take. “The new sealants are great, but you have to remember: A boat is made of a dozen different kinds of material, and each one reacts to stress and temperature differently. Imagine a boat twisting and turning every time the sun hits it. Sealants are flexible to accommodate this, but the margin of error is razor-thin. Some guy applies sealant too thin or cranks down too hard on mounting bolts and squeezes out the goop, and you’ve got a leak. Even the best new boat can have some leaks, and by the time you track them all down and fix them, it’s a year or two gone, and the sealant is starting to harden and isn’t as flexible.”

So maybe the writer who contacted me back in September was right. Maybe all boats actually do leak—eventually. Having spent my fair share of time tracking leaks down—finding the source usually re­quires divine intervention—I was really hoping that wasn’t true. But then, I guess, if you can’t stand a little water, you don’t belong on a boat in the first place.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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