Boatyard Cure for the Blues

By Tom Neale, 3/15/2011


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Depressed? Feeling low? Thinking that life and the world is ganging up on you? Well, I’ve got good news. There’s a cure. And it’s not pills or seeing a shrink or even smelling the flowers of springtime (which give you allergies). If you want to make yourself start feeling good again, just spend some time hanging out in a busy boat repair yard. You think you got problems? Wait’ll you see the problems there.

Strut Close-up
It’ll make you feel even better to know that the problems were most likely unrealized by the folks who brought the boat in to be hauled. They were probably feeling kinda good about their wonderful boat---maybe even a little proud if it was one of those rich guy boats. Or maybe they knew there was a problem—but not like that, for heaven sakes.

Take, for example, a magnificent trawler we noticed one fall. It was built by a well known company, its lines were beautiful and it looked solid as a rock—even when on the hard. But lying on the hard next to the hull were its struts. These had been built massively to be far more than adequate to take the immense thrust as the diesels turned the huge wheels. They had looked fine when the boat was hauled, just for a bottom job, before continuing south. The owner had noticed a slight vibration when running, but then what else is new with boats. Perfection certainly isn’t, and I’ve learned that whenever I think there’s perfection in my boat I’d better duck for cover. A sharp yard guy took a good look at the struts. They were rotten inside and out with electrolysis. They had to have new ones built.

Rotten worm board.
The cause was very simple. Someone in another yard during a previous haul had apparently forgotten to attach the grounding wire to the through hull bolts of the strut so that it was unprotected. And there were some dissimilar metals in the strut’s makeup.

I love beautiful classic old wooden boats. The cut of their lines, the way they can slice through the water, the very feel of them just makes me feel good. I was admiring one such boat one day, waiting for some hull work. We all know that old wooden boats need constant attention to ward off those evils of rot and loosening fastenings and popping caulking. You have a boat like that, you just do it—yourself or a good yard. So this owner was doing it. I thought: good for him. But then as my eyes swept admiringly along the hull something caught them and drew them in like a snake to an egg. It was the worm board. This is essentially a strip of sacrificial wood at the very bottom of the keel. In the olden days it was there to sacrifice to the worms that always came for dinner, although worms are seldom that discriminating—they’d go for any part of the boat they could get. These days a worm board still comes in handy as groundings have a tendency to grind off anti fouling paint. But this worm board had been neglected for too long, and it was riddled with worm holes and rot to the extent that it was literally falling off the boat. And the worms and rot hadn’t just stopped there. The mess had migrated into the hull timbers and the scheduled maintenance job was going to be a major rebuild job that would probably cost far more than the boat was worth.

Rusty Keel
And then there was the proud owner who’d recently purchased the sailboat of his dreams. It was shippy and proud looking in the water. He had it hauled for bottom work. A few days after the boat had dried out, people were seen bending down under it, shaking their heads. Rust—serious rust was running down the keel. It was coming from the joint between the keel and the hull. I don’t know whether it was a steel keel (I have never been much of a believer in steel keels) or steel keel bolts (not much of a believer in those either) or something else. But the keel was going to have to be dropped and whatever was wrong was going to have to be redone with better and more expensive material.

Damaged Dreams
Then there was the guy who took off down the coast on his dream voyage to the islands. He’d worked long and hard to get his boat that he’d recently purchased used, fixed up. Then the mistakes began. He took off out of one inlet in bad weather. He sailed in bad weather down to another inlet which isn’t a good inlet to use in bad weather. He used it anyway, presumably tired of the bad weather. Yes, he looked at the chart, but thought that the blank area on the chart meant deep, deep water. You and I know that a blank area on a chart showing an inlet usually means that you need another more detailed chart for the inlet, or, more likely these days on the east coast, the inlet shoals change so much that they simply can’t be charted. He grounded in large seas in the blank area and thus ended the voyage. Fortunately the boat and those aboard were saved, but as we watched from the yard while it was being hauled it was clear, as water and sand cascaded out the opened hull, that he wasn’t going to make it to the islands anytime soon.

Ripped hull.
On another day we were listening to Channel 16 VHF (always good entertainment when it’s not me hollering for help) and heard a guy calling for a tow, saying he’d gone aground. As I recall, this was another of those “I’ve gone aground right in the middle of the channel” deals. The boat was hard up on a bar that is often totally exposed at low water. And the tide was fast flowing out the inlet. In order to avoid unnecessary damage to the hull, the towboat operator waited until enough water had come back in to float the boat off. This was a wise move because this was a brand new very slick fast lobster type boat. This was the type of boat I’d dream about owning if I could print money like the government. When she was hauled, what everybody had assumed was obvious. The wheels, hanging down below any other part of the hull, were ruined. The struts weren’t in great shape either. But this person was on a mission and had the money to accomplish it. He had two new props air shipped in (must have owned an airline too) and was soon on his way. BUT, as my wife, Mel and I were admiring the sleek hull lines in the evening, we saw something in the “just right” light. The hull was deformed from the collision. Newer boats are often built with exotic coring to save weight and costs. These are often supported in part by internal grids and structure. This hull, underneath, had ripples and waves in its smooth skin. If you look closely at the photo you should see them. Off he went, rippled hull and all, for a surprise in another yard another day.

I was planning to finish this by pointing out how other people’s misfortunes can make you feel better in a boatyard. But instead I’m sitting here in my boat thinking, “Hmm, maybe I won’t ever haul her again.”

Tom’s Tips About Avoiding the Blues

1. The single most important thing I’ve done to avoid bad surprises when I get hauled was learn to dive and buy good equipment for it.
2. Even though I usually get hauled every 3 years, I dive my bottom regularly and it’s saved me fortunes and disasters.

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