An Old Inflatable is Given a Touch-Up

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Before: who knew the old boat would clean up so nicely?

Before: Abandoned, cradling a massive block of ice within her tubes

All last winter the faded red Achilles inflatable floated in an empty slip, a rose with its bloom most definitely gone, abandoned, I was told, by a cruiser who’d moved up to a RIB. In the autumn gales she filled with rainwater and in the coldest New England months, she cradled a massive block of ice within her tubes. Yet those same Hypalon tubes had held air for the six months she’d been floating there, and the Achilles pedigree had to count for something. I was looking for an inexpensive tender, and this one was free; perhaps she was worth saving.

One spring afternoon I pumped the water out of the dinghy and pulled it onto the dock. The plywood floorboards were, of course, delaminated and spongy, except for the triangular piece at the bow, and the varnish on the transom was peeling off in sheets. Flipping it over, I recoiled at the fragrant wilderness of barnacles, mussels and weed encrusting the bottom. Twenty minutes with a plastic scraper followed by a power-washing took care of all but the barnacles and some particularly clingy marine grass. Aside from a lone patch, the tubes looked to be in good condition; the seams were still bonded and the tubes were securely attached to the wooden transom, which showed no signs of rot. I pumped up the soft tubes till they were fit to burst and left them overnight. Next morning they were still drum-tight. So far, so good.

The maker’s plate revealed the dinghy to be an LS-4, 8ft 8in long and dating back to the late 1980s. The latest version, substantially the same boat, retails for around $1,300, so I figured I could afford to put a couple of hundred bucks into this one.

Step one was a thorough cleaning of the tubes. I used a spray bottle of West Marine inflatable boat cleaner that I’d had lying around for a few years, and got the tubes smartened up in an hour. Then it was time for the barnacles on the bottom. I foolishly tried to pick one of them off with the edge of a scraper, and was rewarded with the sound of whistling air as the stubborn critter took a tiny piece of Hypalon with it. Damn. So, before patching my new slow leak, I did what I should have done in the first place— bought a bottle of muriatic acid, diluted it a little with water and brushed it onto the bottom. After a few applications the last of the barnacles had fizzed away and dissolved, even the small circles they like to leave behind. Lesson learned—take the path of least resistance. There are gentler ways of removing barnacles, but I’m all for the shock-and-awe approach.

Next, I measured the decayed floorboards and calculated that I could get all three out of one 2ft x 8ft piece of 3/8in Okume marine plywood. This cost me $60. There was enough left of the original floorboards to use as templates, so I spent a happy couple of hours cutting new ones out with a router. After sealing the edges with epoxy resin I gave the floorboards five coats of Pettit SeaGold, which has the considerable advantage of not needing to be sanded between coats. I also stripped the remaining varnish off the transom with a chemical paint stripper, as I was afraid a heat gun would soften the glue bonding the fabric to the wood,then used up the rest of the SeaGold on it. Full disclosure: I chose the SeaGold because it was on special at WM, but it looks good and feels tough.

And that’s about it. I had to buy a new pair of oars, along with a spare valve, new end caps for the rowlocks, some Hypalon glue and 30ft of floating line for a painter, but all up, this dinghy restoration cost me less than $200 plus some elbow grease. Even if I only get two or three seasons out of it, it’ll be money and time well spent. Yankee stinginess? Maybe, but I prefer to think of it as smart recycling.

Is it worth saving?

Since Hypalon is more UV-resistant than the kinds of PVC fabric used in many inflatables, boats constructed with this material are longer-lived and tend to be easier to clean and restore than elderly PVC variants. However, even an aging PVC inflatable with sun-softened, sticky tubes and pinhole leaks can be brought back into useful service with the application of a specialized paint and one of those sealants that is poured into the tubes. The latter is a last resort, to be used only if all other methods of detecting and fixing leaks have been tried and failed. However, I used it in an old Quicksilver dinghy years ago, and it worked well. There are numerous videos online detailing the process. Both the paint for inflatables and the liquid sealant are readily available online or from chandlers. For a total of around $100, it’s an inexpensive way of getting a couple more years of service out of a tender.

Before you do anything else, pump the boat up and spray it with soapy water to find the leaks. Look for tiny air bubbles. Pay close attention to the valves—they’re a prime source of slow leaks, and it’s an easy fix. Punctures up to an inch or two long can be patched easily—there is a ton of information on YouTube on how to do this—though larger or awkwardly located holes are tricky, and you may have to have them professionally repaired. This is especially true if the seams are leaking—Hypalon seams are glued and can be repaired (professionally), but heat-sealed PVC seams are not so forgiving and can condemn a boat.

RESOURCES

Defender Industries defender.com

Jamestown Distributors jamestowndistributors.com

Inland Marine inlandmarine.us

West Marine westmarine.com

August 2017

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