Keeping a sharp eye out for corrosion and taking action early are a critical part of preventive maintenance.
We may not be able to stop corrosion, but if we can identify what kind it is, we can probably control it or at least mitigate its effects. Below are some of the most common types of corrosion that occur on boats:
This is what happens to virtually every metal exposed to the air in my homeport in southwest Florida. The air is laden with moisture and salt, and it's a contest of wills to keep rust from forming overnight.
Put metal in water, especially saltwater, and it will corrode. This is a no-brainer. Regional variations influence this process.
Occurs when you marry dissimilar metals and they get wet. The more noble metal will try to protect itself by "stealing" mass from the other (less noble). The transfer of mass occurs in the electrolyte (water). My description here is an oversimplification but the concept should not be unfamiliar. This is not "electrolysis."
Happens when electrical current is added to the formula for galvanic corrosion. This is not "electrolysis," either.
Can grow a tiny pinhole into a big, not always identifiable, perforation and its potential is often overlooked on stainless steel. This is insidious stuff that most affects metal surfaces that are hidden from view — for example, the area of a stainless-steel shaft that is totally isolated in a cutlass bearing.
Like pitting corrosion, is hard to see easily because the corrosion takes place where the metal bears on a wet, porous material. An aluminum fuel tank supported directly by plywood that has become wet might suffer poultice corrosion.
The constant velocity of moving water gradually wears away the metal.
Damage can occur on any metal, anywhere in or on the boat that is exposed to the constant shock and explosive shock waves of air or vapor bubbles in water.
Cracking is commonly seen in metal fittings that have been formed (controlled bending or working) — for example, swaged fittings in standing rigging, angle brackets, and such. The hairline cracks look like a tree without leaves, with cracks branching out from the main crack. One minute, these fittings are giving good service, and the next, they fail without warning and the mast comes down. Did I say "no warning"? You can find cracks if you look closely with a magnifier.
Similar to stress corrosion and results from a combination of corrosive action and a recurring stress that causes a fracture to develop.
Any flaw in a metal can be subject to this form of corrosion when it's contaminated by stagnant water, specks of dirt, or other contaminants.
Notice that none of these terms are tagged "electrolysis." Corrosion and electricity are entwined. Mix water, metal mass, and electrical current and you can have corrosion, but that condition is not electrolysis and the word should not be used as a synonym for corrosion of any kind. Electrolysis is the breakdown of a chemical compound, like metal, in solution by passing an electric current through the solution. The process requires a source of direct current (DC), two electrodes, such as metals, and an electrolyte (seawater).
We've all seen the evidence that makes certain kinds of corrosion obvious, but what about the kinds of corrosion that are not so easy to differentiate? The physical evidence of corrosion activity is a symptom, and seeing the color and textures of the process at work is a call to action. If you see rust, you know something is corroding. To keep corrosion from ruining your day, you need to know what causes it and what it looks like. If you spot corrosion and can't identify the type or cause, it's time to call in an expert.