It’s Easier on the Hard
No one enjoys having their boat on the hard, but use this time to your advantage by inspecting every inch. Here are the most important things that need to be done.
Those of you in less salubrious climes probably hauled your boat when winter set in, and she sits on the jackstands as you read this. Tropical folks have been enjoying their boats all winter, but most schedule a haulout for the spring, if only to touch up the antifouling and replace the zincs. In both cases, the time the boat’s on the hard is ideal for taking care of minor topside repairs—remember when you whacked the dock last August? So, get some old clothes for crawling around under the boat, a small blue poly tarp for a ground sheet, a flashlight, a paint scraper, a dust mask and a stick for checking your props. Let’s get started.
Maybe your boatyard has already done the first thing on the list. Yard managers need to scare up work over the winter, and often do topsides and bottom checks of boats they haul. You might have gotten a checklist in the mail, noting work the yard guy thinks needs doing. It’s probably gonna contain stuff that you can let ride, jobs that, in the perfect world of unlimited disposable income, would be completed—but in this world, maybe not. Nevertheless, some things the yard may find may very well need fixing, so if you received a list, read it. Toss some jobs to the boatyard: It’ll save you time and misery on the cold, wet ground under your boat, and it’ll help keep your yard in business and not turned into condos.
Of course, maybe you miss seeing your boat during the winter months and want to inspect her yourself. Forget cosmetics for the time being and start at the keel. Underwater issues are more likely to need professional attention, and the sooner the yard writes the work order, the higher on the list you’ll be during the spring launch frenzy—hopefully. Devise a search pattern; I start at the bow, inspecting the thruster for damage, corrosion or fouling. It’ll go quickly, since most bottoms have large areas where nothing’s happening. When I find something odd—a crack oozing water, areas of peeling paint, blisters, etc.—I scrape off the antifouling so I can see what’s really happening. Unless your boat is a decade old or more, and/or you keep her in the water most of the time, you probably won’t find blisters in these sections, but look for them anyway. Some boats built before the turn of the century were prone to blistering from osmosis through the gelcoat, so if you own a classic plastic vessel, check carefully. Call the yard manager or a surveyor to check out serious blistering.
Clogged through-hulls can be the bane of your boating life, so use your flashlight and look into every single one. You should be able to see the valve of the seacock, whether it’s a ball valve or tapered bronze plug. If there are barnacles in the way, scrape them out, a chore that is sometimes easier said than done. I use a thin file. Clean any external strainers, and check with the flashlight that critters haven’t gotten through its slots and taken up residence. If so, remove the strainer and scrape the little devils out. While you’re doing this, look for corrosion on the through-hull fittings, if they’re metal. A seriously corroded fitting needs replacement.
Speaking of corrosion, check the sacrificial anodes on the shaft(s), rudder(s), trim tabs and, if applicable, stern or pod drives. (Although, given their cost and complexity, I’d leave maintenance of pods to a qualified mechanic.) The anodes installed at the start of last season should be about half eaten away, maybe a bit more. If yours are not, chances are they weren’t bonded sufficiently to the underlying metal when installed—the metal should be brushed clean with emery paper before the anode’s re-attached—or there’s a break in the bonding-circuit wiring. The yard electrician can check that out. In either case fully intact anodes aren’t doing their job, so double-check all underwater metal for corrosion. Don’t overlook the underside of the swim platform.
Look for damage to the running gear or signs of wear-and-tear, and clean off any barnacles; don’t forget to check inside the stern tube. Ensure each shaft turns freely. If you can wiggle the shaft, up and down or from side to side, the cutlass bearing is likely worn out. For most folks, replacing a cutlass bearing is a job for the yard. Inspect both sides of the propeller blades for corrosion, pitting at the tips, nicks or other damage to the edges. Randy Hale III, owner of Hale Propeller in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, gave me a tip for checking blade alignment: Clamp or hold a stick—a paint stirrer or ruler will work fine—against the rudder so it just touches the tip of one propeller blade. Then rotate the prop and see if the other blades also just touch the stick. If they don’t, the blades are out of alignment, which can cause vibration. Time for a trip to the prop shop.
Dings and Gouges
Let’s move on to the topsides. There’s less to worry about between rubrail and waterline, and, unless you really whacked something last summer, most of it is cosmetic. Scratches, dings, abrasions and other insults are easier to repair from a ladder than from a dinghy, so now’s the time. Once the shrinkwrap’s pulled off (recycle it), and the weather’s warm enough for gelcoat to kick off, grab a sturdy ladder—bring your own,; don’t “borrow” one from the yard or another boat—and all the other implements of destruction you need and get to work.
You don’t need much in the way of power tools to repair minor cosmetic issues in gelcoat. A church-key type can opener or an old drill bit is fine for V-ing out scratches and crazing to accept the repair gelcoat. Okay, in past articles I’ve quoted experts who use a Dremel-type grinder for such jobs—but they’re experts. They know how to use power tools without making things worse. If you’re a Dremel virtuoso, go for it—but for cosmetic scratches and crazing I generally use a drill bit, and it works fine. Once you’ve finished the V-ing process, the only power tool you’ll really need is a dual-action buffer for final polishing; get a cordless one so you don’t have to drag heavy extension cords to the nearest outlet, which in most boatyards is about a quarter-mile away. Get extra batteries.
The step-by-step process for repairing gelcoat has already been covered in previous issues, and in every other boating magazine, countless times, so I won’t bore you with it yet again. Search past articles on our website and you’ll find all the info you need. It’s pretty easy, really—I find the hardest part is matching the color, especially if the boat: a) isn’t white or b) is a few years old, and the gelcoat has faded. If you have an eye for color, you can mix your own gelcoat, but it’s better to get a repair kit from your boat’s builder. Ditto if the boat’s painted; some high-tech paints are easier than others to touch up, but at least you can start with the right color.
Once you’ve inspected and repaired all the glitches in the bottom and topsides, the boat’s ready to go overboard. Then you can give the deck and superstructure the same treatment. With any luck, you’ll have everything all spic-and-span by haulout time this coming fall.
Better, Faster ... Safer
Working on your own boat can be fun and rewarding, but not if you get hurt at the boatyard. Follow a few basic rules to stay safe. To work on all but the smallest boats, you need a good ladder. Invest in one that’s stable, with widely spread legs and a load rating that’s more than your weight plus the weight of your tools. You want a ladder tall enough to rest on your boat’s rubrail, not on the hull side. Avoid short, discount-house stepladders. I personally recommend an articulating ladder that can be used as a stepladder, but also unfolds into a straight ladder when necessary. Little Giant is one brand, but it’ll cost you a couple hundred bucks. Falling off a cheap, unsteady ladder can cost a lot more, though. A good ladder is among the best investments you can make for working on your boat.
Before crawling under your boat, check the jackstands that are holding her up. Make sure they’re all taking some weight, one hasn’t sunk into wet ground and they’re chained together, port to starboard, under the keel so one can’t kick out. Never remove a jackstand for any reason—I know, it sounds crazy, but people have done it. Never tie anything to a jackstand either, other than maybe your new, expensive ladder when you leave it at the yard overnight. Good luck with that. (By the way. I’d take mine home with me.)
Finally, keep an eye open for machinery on the move—big, heavy, unwieldy machines like TraveLifts and forklifts, whose operators can’t see as well as they’d like to, what with a boat in the slings or balanced on the forks. Don’t get in their way, and don’t park your car anywhere near where these big beasts roam. And stay away from cranes. Think defensively, and you should be okay until your boat’s safely back in the water.