Forever boat: bigger upkeep on an older sailboat

Two girls petting a dog in front of a marine travellift with a sailboat in the slings.

  

Jamie and Salvador talking about work to be done on Totem

  

Totem turned 36 this year. We treat her like our forever boat, and prioritize maintenance to ensure our sailboat / home remains a sound vessel with a long future ahead. Lately that means turning attention to a projects that accumulated into something more than “routine maintenance.” While organizing plans for the new bottom (we’ve made a decision on bottom paint, by the way, details coming soon – I am VERY excited about our plans, details coming!), a number of these kicked off.

Step one is simply getting supplies. Some things are easy to get in Mexico; others aren’t. Because Cabrales Boatyard is only an hour and a half south of Arizona, it’s not hard to source from north of the border. There’s even a West Marine in Phoenix! Several other cruisers in the yard are making trips back and forth; we’ve been able to tag along with road trips to get our supplies down, and our friend Michael (my co-author for Voyaging with Kids and Good Old Boat editor) has provided invaluable mailstop support from his home in Arizona, and Pam Wall helped secure good prices all the way from Fort Lauderdale. (Rhetorical question: is it still cruising when you can get an Amazon Prime order?)

While waiting on materials to get the bottom done, Jamie’s tackled power train work. The engine mounts are probably original to the engine; Totem was repowered in 2002.

Old and new, side by side: I think it’s time, what do you think?

Shiny new engine mount in front of a well worn older one

Propeller shaft woes: it’s original, but that’s not the problem. Unfortunately, it seems that it wasn’t sufficiently protected during blasting to remove all paint from the bottom in Grenada last year. The little bit of grit that got inside was enough to cause wear in the shaft in the subsequent miles: that’s gotta go! Jamie’s ordered a new shaft made from Aqualoy 22. I’d never heard of Aqualoy, but it’s an alloy specifically designed for marine environment applications: corrosion resistant and stronger than the comparable grade of steel that would be used for the shaft. That sounds like an excellent “forever boat” choice.

man holding cut-off propeller shaft
cut-off prop showing damage from the area inside the two bearings

 

cutting off the prop shaft
Honestly I’m happy I didn’t witness this (Siobhan’s photo)! Jamie: “The angle grinder paid for itself today.”

Remember that steerage failure off Colombia? We’re replacing the failed chain, but instead of a stainless cable we’ll use Dyneema. The fix Jamie put into place 4,000 miles ago has proven itself. Additional work on the steering system includes replacing sheave pins and bearings: bushing from Oilite (a bronze alloy) will replace the old bearings, providing lower friction. After 36 years, the stainless pins showed wear, so those will be replaced as well.

Jamie holding two steering cable sheaves in dirty, work-hardened hands
Some see the sheaves. I see hands of a very hard working boat dad.

 

Up at the bow, we’ve long wanted to repair the anchor rollers. They are TOASTED and have been for some time, but the right size rollers never seemed to be on the shelf when we passed through better-supplied chandleries. When Jamie saw the machine shop at the yard, he had an idea; improve on off-the-shelf rollers with a slight change in profile that makes it harder for anchor chain to skip over the top. He purchased cylinders of durable plastic stock ordered from McMaster-Carr (love this resource for boat bits at non-marine-markup prices) and is having the profile machined to order.

Salvador and Jamie squatting on the ground with materials and plans for anchor rollers
Jamie and Salvador making a plan for the anchor roller

 

Plastic stock for future anchor roller, plans sketched on paper, and beat up old roller.

 

Three men confer inside a well used machine shop
Salvador communicating direction for the machine shop crew

The bow pulpit needs attention too. Like many boats built in the 1980s in Taiwan, mixed quality stainless steel was used for everything from tankage to stanchions. Bit by bit we’ve addressed original stainless components; it’s the bow pulpit’s turn. The feet are cracked. It’s not imminently dangerous, but time to replace, and the skillset and resources are here to do the job at a reasonable rate.

Totem’s swim ladder is another piece of original stainless being improved by the welders at Cabrales Boatyard. The support legs which help our swim ladder stand off Totem’s transom when deployed make for pesky obstacles and chafe risk when raising our dinghy on the davits. It would be nice not to have to finesse that process every time we haul the dinghy and eliminate the risk so those blunt legs have been replaced with a gentle curve that will function much better, and be kinder to the dinghy.

The bare fiberglass bottom is also a great opportunity to clean up Totem’s through hull scene. We replaced most of the  36-year-old seacocks in Thailand five years ago, but a few of the originals  remained. Instead of replacing them, Jamie’s removed them. Each divot left by a former through hull is now filled with a large sandwich made up of layers fiberglass and epoxy.

How did we manage to eliminate so many through hulls? Well, one was unused. Two were sink drains which will now drain to a greywater system in the bilge. The fourth is a raw water intake for a toilet, which will use water from a greywater system instead of seawater.  We’re happy to minimize holes in the boat, and pleased to have just five for a boat of Totem’s size and layout.

One project that’s more of a luxury item than upkeep of a good old boat is our plan to expand solar charging capacity. Solar power keeps getting more affordable: quality panels are about $1/watt, and we had an opportunity to buy gently used solar panels at an irresistible bargain. A pair will soon come down from Arizona and we’ll increase our capacity from the current 270 to about 650… cost to us about $0.37/watt. SWEET! OK, so it will cost a little more because we’ll need another charge controller: still feeling very good about improving our green power generation.

Meanwhile, Totem looks like there was a small Stuff explosion inside. We had a lot of fine dust to clean out after the summer on the hard: bits that filtered in through solar vents and other crannies. 

Looking down into the main cabin where tools and gear spread on table, bench, settees, and cabin sole

The state of chaos is a sinusoidal wave between “messy” and “chaos” that won’t improve dramatically util projects are done and we’re on our way. That’s OK. The work getting done right now feels really, really good: important steps to ensure the long future life of our floating home.

Masts and rigging from boats in the shipyard are silhouetted by a vibrant sunset in Puerto Penasco

Wet bottom: a haulout story

boats anchored at Isla Danzante Baja

Totem cruises the Sea of Cortez;  in about three weeks, we haul at the Cabrales shipyard in Puerto Peñasco, a small harbor surrounded by the Sonora desert. Typically, boats can go a few years between haulouts. So why now – didn’t we just do this in Grenada, six or seven months ago? Yes, we did, and had an unpleasant surprise. This is the backstory, and what we’ll do about it in Peñasco.

At the time we hauled out in Grenada Totem had gotten nearly three years out of the bottom paint applied in Thailand. That’s a good lifespan for ablative! We chose Grenada to repaint (a relatively safe hurricane season location, affordable rates, cruiser-friendly boatyards). Not only that, but in Grenada we had an opportunity to do a “proper” bottom job on Totem.

Prior to hauling in Grenada, we put on three bottoms on Totem in ten years, representing at least 11 coats of paints and primers and barrier coast. That’s on top of who knows how many layers we bought the Stevens 47 then called “Don’t Look Back.” Even then the hull wasn’t very smooth; over the years, accumulation of bottom paint became progressively uneven. By sand blasting the bottom back to the original barrier coat over Totem’s gelcoat bottom, we’d be able to start fresh. The crew at Grenada Marine would help us get it done right!

sailboat in travel lift slings

Totem gets hauled at Grenada Marine

Blasted surprise

To take down the old paint, a specific grade of sand is used; it’s mixed with water into a slurry that’s blasted at the bottom. This removes paint without damaging gelcoat or epoxy barrier underneath. Except what we found underneath the paint was a big surprise: there was no barrier coat. There was not even gel coat. Just bare fiberglass hull.

fiberglass sailboat hull

Bare fiberglass: not what we expected under the paint

The crew sandblasting stopped work to inform Jamie. I’d like to say it was to inform me, too, but I was happily internet-ing away with wifi in Grenada Marine’s lovely open-air waterfront restaurant. But this discovery… it wasn’t really good news. It wasn’t what anyone expected. The only thing to do was remove the rest of the paint, evaluate the bottom, and then decide on the next steps.

Why bare fiberglass?

We suspect Totem had a big problem with osmotic blisters somewhere in her history. Os-whaaa? Osmotic blisters are bubbles on the hull caused by a reaction between salts (from absorbed seawater) and styrene (a chemical in the fiberglass resin). This reaction causes pressure which can be great enough to push outwards between the fiberglass hull and gelcoat outer skin, creating a bubble (or, blister).

It can also happen pretty easily deeper than the surface: when fiberglass boats are made, they’re mainly constructed from heavy-duty fiberglass roving. But the outermost layer is usually thinner/lighter, to provide a smoother surface so that the last layer before gelcoat is a gentler transition to a smooth outer hull. Because that’s a thin layer of fiberglass, in bad cases of blistering this layer can be affected too: it can create voids by pushing out in that last, lightweight layer of fiberglass. (Side note: we’re not chemical / material engineers; this is just our understanding!)

sailboat without bottom paint

Naked hull

We suspect Totem’s problem had sufficiently bad blistering that a prior owner did what’s called a full peel. That’s when all the gelcoat is removed (peeled), and the hull is allowed to dry (hopefully) to resolve a blister problem. The bottom is then rebuilt by adding a new, thin outer layer of fiberglass and a two-part epoxy resin barrier coat over the top of that.

The crew working with us at Grenada Marine murmured approval at the fiberglass hull. Whoever did it had done a nice job, and they appreciated a good layup. The question was: would the fiberglass be wet? Or dry?

It’s a bigger problem

When blasting was finished and we were waiting for Totem to dry from the wet slurry, Jamie was cautiously optimistic that the bottom wasn’t wet. We really hoped it wasn’t, as this signaled the need for more work and more expense. But the crew supporting us, who we had come to trust for knowledge and judgement, looked at Jamie and said – “I know it’s wet.” How? In even that brief waiting period, he pointed out a sheen on the hull’s surface. This was a sticky, shiny film that is a result of the reaction between the salt and styrene. That only happens if there’s moisture in the hull. Subsequent readings on a moisture meter over a period of days confirmed his observation.

Why did it happen?

The crew may have appreciated that fine layup, but we still had a problem. Well-done fiberglass work aside, there were two unknowns in that job which lead to the moisture problem we faced.

First, we don’t know what kind of barrier coat as applied. We can tell it wasn’t a two-part epoxy resin; we’d have seen that layer that when sandblasting. We could hope that that outer layer of glass was correctly done, but we don’t know.

Second, we don’t know if moisture in the hull which caused the blisters had been dried out before the repair was made, or if there was still moisture absorbed in the hull that got covered over. What we had left is a fiberglass bottom without a gelcoat that would shown blistering from remaining moisture, so we can only speculate.

jackstands supporting fiberglass sailboat

Excavating Totem’s bottom

Somewhere between these missing links of information, Totem’s bottom became a wet hull. Jamie suspects the hull wasn’t wet initially, but has happened over time under our ownership due to the problems with the earlier repairs. Why? Because for our first years of ownership we always floated high on our waterline, and in recent years, Totem has sat relatively low on her lines. OK, OK, we have accumulated trinkets on board and the kids have gotten bigger and there are probably a few more items in lockers than when we moved aboard in May 2018! But these would not add up to the mass required to sink Totem to the point where our stern end has settled down to (and even slightly below) the waterline. Most likely this water weight has slowly accumulated over time.

Now what?

We were reluctant to bury the wet hull under more paint, but had few options. The hull needs time to dry out, Grenada’s humidity and rain makes it a poor choice of location. On the other hand, we had plans to sail for the Pacific coast of Mexico. Where better than the dry desert of Baja, already our anticipated destination for hurricane season? So thin barrier coat and two thin coats of ablative bottom paint were applied: enough to get us to an ideal place for drying out a boat, the low humidity of the Sonora desert. These thin layers are already thinning, which we hope makes the job of going back to bare fiberglass for a proper dry-out an easy one.

Totem will sit on the hardstand in the desert while her crew spends a summer back in the Pacific Northwest. A periodic rinse is good and the rain there is measured in millimeters, so a periodic hose-down to help pull out impurities and styrene will be hired out in our absence. We’ll be back in the back half of October after the Annapolis Boat Show. HOPEFULLY, at that point, the hull will measure dry; then the work to put it back begins. Fairing the hull. Adding multiple coats of two-part epoxy barrier to keep water out. Starting fresh, with new bottom paint.

Grenada Marine

We may have had disappointing news during our haulout at Grenada Marine, but the crew we worked with gets high marks. Part of our decision to haul there was the full-service staff. At other boatyards, you hire in contractors associated with the yard. On one hand, that puts the choice of workers solidly in your hands. On the other, being your own project manager adds risk and time (I’d prefer deal with one point of contact the yard if there are problems, rather than a handful of different contractors). We were allowed to mix DIY work in, which helped us save money on jobs we could do, and everyone who worked on Totem impressed us.

Grenada Marine team

Very happy with the team at Grenada Marine! Just before splashing with a shiny bottom

More on blistering

That’s the story of why we’re hauling out again so soon. Here are a few FAQs about osmotic blistering (and water ingress).

What does it look like?

Osmotic blisters can be the size of a coin, or much bigger – especially if the thinner fiberglass layer is what’s being lifted instead of a bubble of gelcoat.

What do you do if you have blisters?

It’s a question of magnitude: the size, quantity, and depth of blisters as well as the type of hull (cored or solid). Depending on the scope of the problem, they can be dug out – dried – filled, then repainted; if there’s time you can dry the bottom further, and re-barrier coat it.

When blistering is really bad, if you can afford it: peel the (permeable) gel coat, dry out the hull, and start fresh with a new barrier coat. Just, a more effective barrier than was apparently applied to Totem!

How do you dry out?

It’s pretty convenient that we have a low-humidity desert stop ahead. Grenada would have required intervention beyond sitting on the hard to sufficiently dry out. Heat lamps, heat pads, infrared lamps, and other options are available. Glad we can just park in the desert!

How bad can it be?

Osmotic blistering is partly a cosmetic problem of unsightly pox. Mostly, it makes a boat heavier. My dear friend Pam Wall lost 1,500 pounds of water weight absorbed in the hull of her beloved Kandarik, when hauled in Portugual for the better part of a year! This is mainly a practical problem for a boat that now sits lower in the water and may be slower. It can be behind some peskier problems than just making the boat weigh more, too We’ve also heard of dampness being felt on the interior, and potentially causing problems with mold/mildew.

Can the hull integrity be compromised?

Hull thickness, and strength of the layup in the materials, make it less likely. In a cored hull, water ingress can cause more significant problems. If the outer skin is thin, the blister and moisture in it can reach core material. Presumably that’s closed cell, but can still leech and lead to larger areas of delamination. Fortunately this is pretty unusual! Bottom line: it won’t sink your boat.

Further reading

An excellent guide to boat care with good information on the why and how of osmotic blisters, and deep details for DIY fixing (because wow, can this get costly) is Don Casey’s This Old Boat.

Totem and crew are enjoying stops along the inside of Baja on the way north to Puerto Peñasco.

Relaxing view from Grenada Marine's restaurant

Relaxing at Grenada Marine’s restaurant at the end of the day

We now return to regularly scheduled cruising adventures

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Grenada brings respite to the Totem crew. The last five months have been crazy: bashing against conditions from Bahama to the BVIs, dealing with skin cancer scares in Puerto Rico, running south from hurricanes through the Lesser Antilles, and working the whirlwind of the Annapolis boat show. This frenzied roller coaster was well outside our usual rhythm, even though not much of typical life on Totem could really be characterized as “normal” anyway. Finally, here in Grenada, there’s a strong sense that we’re finally getting back to something resembling our normal. Taking time to get out and enjoy the place we’re in, the company of people around us.

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KIDS KIDS KIDS

The biggest reason life is especially good right now: KID BOATS. Totem’s younger crew members are so happy to be among a group of other kids. Reuniting with old friends has been exceptionally sweet for the kids (and pretty awesome for me and Jamie, too).  As if converging with these families wasn’t good enough, there are teens. Lots of teens!

Ava and Mairen

Ava and Mairen

There’s a beach to dinghy to and hang out.  Organized volleyball on a sand court at the marina where we’re anchored; there’s a skilled cruisers giving instruction to the kids. Sleepovers…and toasting with your forks over chocolate-chip pancakes the next morning.

Teens/tweens from four different boats

Teens/tweens from four different boats

Late departure (March) from Florida put us behind typical Caribbean route timing; coming through the Bahamas, most of the kid boats we met were going the other direction. Beyond the Bahamas, they’d already jetted to safe territory further south. Well, here they are!

Dinghy full of teens and tweens

Dinghy full of teens and tweens

I’m told this is a “slow year” for kid boats in Grenada. Granted, we’re less dialed into the younger kid fleet, but not feeling a shortage.

Everyday life

A cruiser flock migrates annually to Grenada to wait out the hurricane season in a (relatively) safe zone. One of the less appealing aspects of being among a large group of relatively stationary folks on boats is the culture that seems to spring up around it. The same phenomenon happens in George Town, Bahamas, and other cruiser nooks around the world. Some of this is great, like cruisers sharing their skill sets, from yoga to volleyball. Some is decidedly not, as facets of the mainstream we hoped we’d left behind crop up (plans for anchorage trick-or-treating have as many rules as a homeowner’s association in a gated community!). There is SO MUCH going on: the “events” segment of the morning VHF net lasted 23 minutes recently. People: thats Twenty. Three. Minutes.

Colorful shop inland

Colorful shop inland

Some of the culture/rulesy stuff may grate, but on balance it means positivity in new faces, new stories, new opportunities. Like getting together with a few boats to organize island tours to cool spots: a rum distillery with works dating to the 1800s, a cacao plantation with a chocolate production factory, a string of waterfalls.

Crushing sugar cane

Crushing sugar cane

Or another day, to gather with a few boats to be led by an experienced hand from one bay to another, through a nature preserve (thank you Fatty!).

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There’s a great vibe to Grenada in general, friendly and mellow. The easy greetings of a small community, eye contact and a smile. Walking on a country road? Someone will stop to see if you need a ride, just because. I would happily have walked to a meet up the other day but ended up with rides both times, only a couple of minutes into what should have been a half hour walk.

Grenada is lush, a gardeners dream. It’s been really wet, but the rain creates that lush landscape, cascading waterfalls and beautiful flowers. Driving around the island, there’s food everywhere you look: banana trees, breadfruit, papaya, mango, avocado, taro, cassava… and nutmeg, nutmeg trees are everywhere (that’s a nutmeg fruit Mairen’s holding, below).

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flowers

Float like a butterfly... no wait...

Float like a butterfly… no wait…

It’s sometimes frustrating how wet things are this time of year; more often rain just nudges us slow down and breathe. After so many arid months this year, we soak it in. We’ve been parched.

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Rain squalls can drop the temperature to around 80... enough for Siobhan to put on jeans

Rain squalls can drop the temperature to around 80… enough for Siobhan to put on jeans

Squalls mean shower time for Niall!

Squalls mean shower time for Niall!

Squalls also make dramatic photos. The Goodlander's Amphritite, Ganesh

Squalls also make dramatic photos. The Goodlander’s Amphritite 43, Ganesh

Hauling out

We hauled out with just one day’s rest after I got back from the Annapolis boat show: not exactly a break, but deferred maintenance called. It’s almost exactly three years since Totem was last out of the water in Thailand, and new bottom paint was past due. It’s a strange feeling to see all the old paint removed. Yes, the hull needs a paint job too…no, it won’t happen this time around. Or probably the next!

Bare bottom!

Bare bottom!

I”m expecting to have a lot to say about being hauled, the Grenada vs. Trinidad haulout options, what we learned out of the water this last week, and work planned on Totem next… that will have to wait for future updates. We’re splashing today, and Jamie and I have a date to walk around the yard and look at the other boats. Romantic, no? Our version of a date anyway!

Until later… a dose of the great colors of Grenada.

colorful Grenada