Fifty years ago no gentleman left the house without a hat, and no yacht spent the winter outdoors without a fitted canvas cover. Supported by a sturdy frame, the cover not only protected the yacht from snow and ice damage, but also from winter winds that would dry the wood planking, ruining the topside paint job, and opening the bottom seams. Drying's not a problem with fiberglass boats—just the opposite—but winter can still do a number on a yacht stored naked outdoors. Water can get under the deck hardware and cause damage when it freezes, while UV rays attack brightwork and turn gelcoat chalky.
Why not just shrink wrap your boat or drape it with cheap blue poly tarps? "Tarps and shrink wrap don't breathe," says Erik Schmaling, vice-president of Fairclough Sailmakers. "They create a greenhouse effect that promotes mildew." In business since 1938, Fairclough builds 225 new covers in a typical year and installs and maintains about 500 more. Although you'd expect the company to use a high-tech miracle fabric, Schmaling says there's nothing better than 100 percent cotton. "Cotton breathes," he explains. Unlike the heavy canvas of post-WWII days that derived its water-repellence from a waxy coating, modern fabric—Fairclough uses a high-thread-count duck that's "almost like khaki pants"—relies on a tight weave that sheds water when the threads swell in wet weather but opens up in dry weather to let in fresh air. Maybe it's a miracle fabric after all.
Uncoated cotton is also nonabrasive, adds Schmaling, so the cover can protect the hull down to the waterline without danger of scuffing the underlying gelcoat. Shrink wrap or tarps used like this can trap water against the hull and possibly cause damage to the laminate, but cotton's breathability lets moisture escape. Extending the cover down to the waterline is better for securing the cover, too, says Schmaling, since the wind can't get under the fabric and blow it away.
But covering your boat takes more than just cotton canvas; you need a well-engineered frame to support it and allow it to shed snow and ice. Fairclough builds a custom frame for each boat, using one-inch galvanized steel tubing and innovative aluminum castings to join the fore-and-aft ridge sections and the athwartships legs. Assembling the frame requires only a few tools, some 3M fiberglass tape, and basic manual skills; all the pieces simply slide together. Once the frame is in place, you just roll the cover over it and secure it. Then you go home and wait for spring.
So what's the bad news? A proper cover from Fairclough isn't cheap: For example, covering a 42-foot Grand Banks will set you back $10,500 for the frame and canvas. However, ordering the cover in the less-busy summer season gets you a 20-percent discount, and the cover should last at least ten years, probably more. (Schmaling says of the 500 covers Fairclough services every year, many are 15, some 20 years old.) When you figure shrink wrapping can cost up to $20 per foot, year in and year out, investing in a custom cover makes financial sense over the long term—and it does a better job of protecting your boat from year one. So don't let your boat sleep naked this winter.
When filling out my winter-storage agreement, I noticed a $1-per-foot charge for "recycling shrink wrap." Is this legit or another boatyard scam?—D. Travers, via e-mail
Too much shrink wrap ends up in landfills where, not being biodegradable, it will remain for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, unless in the future somebody digs it up and disposes of it some other way. The problem of used shrink wrap is serious enough that many states are implementing, or talking of implementing, mandatory recycling programs. (Check with your state's department of environmental protection to see what rules you, or your boatyard, need to follow.) In the meantime, responsible yards are recycling shrink wrap voluntarily, often contracting with a commercial hauler to transport the stuff to a recycling plant or back to the company that manufactured it—some recycle old shrink wrap into new and sell it to you again next year. However it's done, recycling costs money, which—surprise—you pay. But in the overall expense of boat ownership, a buck a foot isn't much, especially if it makes you feel green.
If your boatyard doesn't recycle, you can do it yourself, with the help of UPS. Dr. Shrink, a Manistee, Michigan, supplier of shrink wrap to industries of all kinds, runs the Rebag program. For a flat per-bag fee ($15.50 this year), you can ship your used shrink wrap directly to a recycling plant from anywhere in the country. Just roll up the old wrap—any color, from any manufacturer—stuff it in the bag (each Rebag holds about 600 square feet), paste on the prepaid label, and hand it to a UPS guy. According to Melissa at Dr. Shrink, the recycled wrap is used to make all kinds of things, including construction-grade plastic drop cloths, corner boards for shipping palettes, and even more shrink wrap (although she stresses that Dr. Shrink's own shrink wrap is made only from virgin resin, not recycled material). In a typical year, about 350,000 pounds of shrink wrap is recycled through the Rebag program. Even if your state doesn't require it, recycling shrink wrap is easy and inexpensive, too.
This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.