Whats Worse Than Layers of Barnacles?

By Tom Neale, 9/3/2009


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I hate barnacles.  It’s bad enough that they eat up pilings and make me look like a fool when the pilings fall over as I dock. They also slow me down when I let them get the jump on me. Jumping barnacles may not be what the average person has in mind when he thinks of these things, but it’s what I had in mind a few weeks ago when I realized how long it had been since I cleaned my prop.

Stinging Nettle that Means Business

When barnacles begin growing they’re usually just tiny crusty bumps on the hull or running gear.  At this point they’re easy to get off. You can almost wipe them off with a tough towel. But nevertheless, they’ll slow you down drastically even then.  It can be very surprising, because this film of crusty barnacle babies can develop quickly.  One weekend your boat may be performing well, the next weekend it may be noticeably slower.  Good bottom paint will keep them off the bottom. I use Interlux products and they always do a great job for me. But I’ve never had much luck with any kind of protective coating on my prop, shaft and strut, at least for long.  I’ve used everything from special paints marketed for the purpose to STP (yes, STP was the commercial fishing waterman’s favorite one summer on the Chesapeake.)  So, instead of relying on manufactured products, I regularly dive down and clean barnacles off my running gear.

If you can do this it’ll save you a lot of money. But many can’t, and you shouldn’t unless you’re in shape for it, can swim and dive well and know how to do it. It can be dangerous.  I have Hooka diving gear by Brownie’s Third Lung ( www.browniedive.com )  and it quickly paid for itself.  But most of the time, I just go down with flippers, mask and snorkel. I wear heavy duty gloves to avoid what could be very dangerous cuts from the barnacles. If it’s close in work, I wear an old dive suit to protect my elbows etc. I take a breath, hold it, and go under and scrape the barnacles until I have to come up and breathe again.  If I haven’t let them go too long, this works well for me.

This summer I let them go too long.  Call it laziness, stupidity or whatever, I’m sure you’d be right. I let them go way too long. I didn’t realize how long it had been until I got down there and saw those monsters.  I use a wide blade paint scraper for most of my barnacle removal.  Sometimes, like up in the bow thrusters, a kitchen knife, long screwdriver or something else may be more appropriate.  When I saw the mess I started scraping and hacking away, coming up periodically for gulps of air, and diving down again. There were so many, some were layered on top of others. The water was so murky I had to find the target of my affections each time I went back down.  I do this by groping along until I see the running gear emerging from the gloom.  When it would emerge I knew I was right on top of it, because visibility was only a few inches. This was a point I’d overlooked when I decided to do the job.

One thing that I didn’t overlook was that I hate stinging nettles. I hate them a whole lot worse than barnacles. So I looked carefully, all around the boat, before I took the plunge.  I also looked up and down the creek. I looked very carefully, because there had been a huge number of them recently. I didn’t see a thing. I felt safe--until I swam around under water to the other side of my boat.  I was about three feet down when I felt the poisonous slime of a long tentacle scrape across my left arm. I thrashed to get away, but only succeeded in getting my right arm entangled in another one—or was it the same one? I couldn’t see. I couldn’t tell.  Flippers are a great weapon. I’ve even used them to ward off sharks while diving for fish in the Bahamas.

The flipper defense instinct came into play immediately. I’ve used it before with nettles. Big flippers move you out of the area quickly, they make a current in the water that washes the nettles back, and the nettles can touch them all they want, but they won’t sting those flippers.  But this particular day the problem was with what was above the flippers—my legs.  The nettles got both legs immediately. I got so many “stings” so quickly that it felt like I was having my breath knocked my breath out of me.  I wanted to get out, but I also needed to finish the job (no, not smart). As I did this, I was hit several more times.

I’ve used all the home brew remedies during my life. These include vinegar, meat tenderizer, alcohol and soft mud from the river bottom. They also include washing off the stung area in river water before you get out, since, the experts say, fresh water and soap only exacerbates the bad stuff and makes it do its thing even worse.  That day I did everything I could think of, but nothing helped.  The welts on my arms and legs were so bad they were still large and red over two weeks later.  By that time they were itchy, some relief from the earlier pain.

I hate it when I read expert advice about stinging nettles. Most of them don’t seem to know a lot about it—or at least, whatever they know doesn’t work much for me. If you’re into expert stuff, I wrote some expert-like stuff in an archived column in this section called “The Gel From Hell.” https://www.boatus.com/cruising/TomNeale/article_112.asp
But the bottom line for me is that when I get hit by these things there’s nothing much to do except grin and bear it. I just have a lot of trouble with the “grin” part. So I didn’t learn any new lessons on this encounter with stinging nettles. I was reminded of a lesson I’d learned a long time ago. I hadn’t really forgotten the lesson, I had just pushed it to the nether regions of my mind because I wanted to clean my running gear.

Tom’s Tips on Stinging Nettles

1. Wearing long sleeved T shirts and some sort of tight fitting long pants will help if you think stinging nettles are around, but things like this are hardly a guarantee. And it’s not really fun if a nettle gets inside

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Nettles will often hang out in a layer a few feet below the surface, where you can’t see them. The insidiousness of this can make layers of barnacles seem trite. This may be particularly likely to happen if it is extremely warm and the surface layer of water is extremely warm. I’ve also noticed a lower layer stinging nettle infestation after a lot of rain. My guess is that the fresher water is floating on top until it’s assimilated, and the nettles are avoiding it. So if it’s a stinging nettle season, don’t be misled by the fact that you don’t see any. It may not be quite as important if it’s an adult like me jumping in (who should have known better), but it could be very important if it’s a young child.


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