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Fexas P.I.

Spectator — December 2002

Other aspects of yacht design.

The yacht design profession can involve all kinds of strange and interesting sidelines, oftentimes leading one into the marine investigatory field. Although at one time I sported a great Zorba moustache and owned a Ferrari, these were not the results of television P.I. envy. The moustache was an old family tradition, and being a sports car guy, I could reach no higher than a Ferrari.

The Case of The Runaway Chick
A few years ago we were designing a custom motoryacht for a client from the Northeast. He had a daughter who had bailed and apparently was living with some guy in Florida. As I lived in Florida, my client asked if I could track her down. He offered to pay my hourly design rate for the time I spent, plus expenses. It sounded like fun, so I accepted. He sent me a picture of his daughter--a good-looking babe about 18 years old--who he thought was living somewhere around the west coast.

I soon found that being a successful P.I. involved not much more than common sense and dogged determination. My mission was to verify that the girl was living in Florida, and so I found myself in Homosassa Springs. After some snooping around, I located the house where I'd been told she was living. I had to stake it out, and even I knew that you don't do a stakeout in a red Ferrari, so I rented myself a nondescript bilious green Chevy Impala and parked across the street from the designated house. Although I hate coffee, I knew from watching television that any successful stakeout involves lots of coffee, so I had a few cups, which I sipped occasionally, in the car. As the day wore on, I realized that a stakeout was not very glamorous and, in fact, was extremely boring. To pass the time, I started dictating specifications for a new design we were working on. After about three hours, the door opened and out came the girl. Mission accomplished! After my successful stakeout, I rewarded myself with a steak out.

But my investigatory work history consists of a lot more than such frivolous cases. Over time I found the field of marine forensic investigation interesting, fun, and profitable.

The Case of the Boat on the Bottom
When I lived in Connecticut, I was doing a lot of marine survey work--mostly for insurance companies. Obviously, my busy season was spring and summer, but one case arose in the dead of winter. In fact, it was January. I was sitting at my desk with my feet up, reading a boating magazine and dreaming of warmer times down south, when the phone rang. "Fexas, P.I." I answered. (Well, I didn't really say that, but for the sake of the story it sounds better.) On the other end of the line was a lady from one of the bigger insurance companies in Hartford, good clients of mine. She said they had insured a 40-footer that had sunk at a boatyard near Clinton, Connecticut. My job: Find out why.

I soon learned that the boat had been undergoing major engine work while in protected winter storage in the water and that the exhausts had been disconnected at the engines. I immediately suspected foul play (or at least a foul mechanic). It is rather common for boats afloat with exhausts disconnected at the engines to sink when water backflows through the exhaust penetrations in the transom and into the bilge through open, unplugged pipes, especially when there is little rise between the transom penetrations and exhaust manifolds. This boat's exhaust pipes, however, penetrated the transom well above the water--four inches or so above the waterline--so how could water have gotten into the bilges? The vessel was fitted with a winter cover, which, instead of being peaked for snow and rain runoff, was virtually flat on top. Knowing the date the boat sank, I checked with the local weather bureau. Sure enough, on the night of the sinking there was a heavy snowstorm. Knowing the depth of the snowfall, the weight of snow, the area of the canvas, and the pounds-per-inch immersion figure for the hull (which I calculated), I had my answer. Elementary, my dear reader. I was able to prove mathematically that the weight of the snow on the canvas was sufficient to immerse the boat to a point that the transom exhausts became immersed, allowing water to flow into the boat. The insurance company was off the hook.

The Case of the Flapping Hull Sides
Another case involved a fiberglass production sportfisherman in South Florida. This vessel had a beefy, solid hull lay-up consisting of eight or nine plies of reinforcement. After extensive yardwork the owner was running the boat to the Bahamas in four- to six-foot seas at high speed, when suddenly, with a wrenching, ripping sound, the starboard hull side started delaminating midships from the chine, ply by ply. The owner slowed and limped into port with approximately one-third of the starboard hull side flapping in the breeze. After the boat was taken back to Florida and hauled, it was found that all but one ply had delaminated. There was only one thin skin of fiberglass (maybe 1⁄16 inch thick) keeping the boat from going down.

How could such a catastrophic failure have occurred? My investigation revealed that during the refit the gelcoat had been peeled from the bottom for antiosmosis treatment using a hand-operated gelcoat-peeling machine. After chipping away some fairing compound, close inspection showed the eight or nine plies made the transition around the hard corner from the bottom to the topsides at the chine, where the failure occurred. What happened was simple and obvious: The gelcoat-peeler operator had gotten a little too frisky at the chine and cut diagonally through all but one ply of fiberglass. This left fiberglass "end grain" from the hull sides exposed to the water. When the boat was at high speed, hydraulic pressure at the point of impact pumped water up between the plies, causing each to delaminate. We recommended rebuilding the area, and today the boat is happily cruising South Florida waters as good as new.

Boats that only turn to starboard (Republican boats?), hulls that porpoise, weird vibrations, and strange structural failures--I love this stuff! If, however, you suspect your wife is diddling or you lost your Yorkie, call someone else. This P.I. only does marine work.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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