DIY: Knowing When to Call in the Professionals for a Boat Repair

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The author gets ready to operate

The author gets ready to operate

“Scalpel,” I said, an open hand waiting. Phillip passed me the unwieldy angle grinder we were about to use to cut into the stringers under the mast on Plaintiff’s Rest, our 1985 Niagara 35. I couldn’t see what I was supposed to be cutting, but I could feel the tool—hot and humming in my hands —kick when the blade sank in. The smell of rot and chalk filled the cabin as I hunkered over the surgical site, Phillip hoisting the shop light over me. The operating theater was cleaned and draped, and a selection of rudimentary tools—a chisel, a metal grinder, a hammer and a ShopVac—were laid out beside us.

Okay, so we’re not doctors, at least not of the medical kind. Having left a law practice a few years back so I could sail, travel and cruise, I had to laugh at the irony. My specialty had been medical malpractice defense, and I knew that malpractice was precisely what we were committing here, with my blade spinning, jumping and spewing back mulch and dust every time it dug into the wound. This was a total hack job, but there was no turning back. Phillip and I had rolled up our sleeves, scrubbed in and were now elbow-deep in boat surgery. “Suction…”

The repair

I will leave it to Brandon to describe the actual repair:

“Each stringer insert was built with four 3/4in sections of 25lb Coosa high-density foam board. The sections were laminated with 738 Episize biaxal fabric and West Systems 105 epoxy resin to create 4in thick inserts for both the aft and fore stringers. Once the lamination was cured, plywood templates were used to cut out the final insert shape. The stringer inserts were bonded into the boat with epoxy and 406 Colloidal Silica. After final cleanup and fillets, each stringer was laid up with four layers of biaxal fabric, with tabbing between each layer for a total of 160 pieces of fabric glassed in.”

Why was our boat in need of an emergency procedure? A hidden disease had been spreading for some time, one of the worst that can plague a boat—rot, deep in her structural bones—and it had finally surfaced in the form of soft stringers under the mast step, which were slowly being crushed under the weight of the mast. The cause? One tiny little hole, no bigger than my thumb, in the fiberglass skin covering them wooden stringers. When we pulled the mast for the repair, several gallons of water gushed out, caged solely by the weep hole in the center of our mast step, which was clogged with a patented, putrid blend of mud, muck and I can only presume bird doo. While we do have horizontal weep holes in our mast step that drain water out slowly, they are raised just enough to allow a tiny amount to remain and work its way, slowly over time, down the screws of the step and into the heartiest bones of our poor boat’s back. 

So, complex surgery was definitely in order. But where did we go wrong? We became delusional. We thought we could do this repair on our own with no trouble. We should have known better as soon as we lifted up the cabin sole around the mast and watched the blade on an eight-inch knife sink easily into the soft wood of our stringers. What we were watching, essentially, was our boat’s vertebrae crumbling in our hands like mulch, the mast having crushed them down a good inch. “But we’re going to be cruisers,” Phillip and I said to each other. “We need to learn how to make repairs like this ourselves. We can do this!” Yes, we were delusional.Why? 

Because we were losing. Big time. We had convinced ourselves we could at least handle the demolition—cutting out the old stringers—before turning over the rebuild to our buddy and boat repair expert, Brandon Hall with Perdido Sailor, Inc in Pensacola, Florida. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Even through my sexy Tyvek hood-and-boots Ghostbusters outfit, I could feel each of the 10,000 foul little fiberglass devils munching on my skin. Fog filled our goggles, dust filled the air, and our bilge filled with the rotten residue of our stringers. Nonetheless, we continued on in this delusional state, digging through the evening like crazy coal miners, until we finally punched through the bottom of both stringers and touched the bilge. We had reached a point where there was absolutely no wood left to support the mast. 

After six hours in surgery, the potting soil we had extracted lay spread out in a rotten heap around us, even though we had only managed to cut a few small, jagged sections out of the fiberglass face of each stringer. The angle grinder we were using was so big it could not reach the most important areas that needed cutting. We were also such poor surgeons that the areas we could reach were hacked out in sharp, jagged pieces, with multiple incomplete cuts to nowhere, leaving no smooth surface on which to lay up new fiberglass. Did we know this? Heck no! On the contrary, while cleaning up the foul mess, Phillip and I repeatedly congratulated each other not only on a job well done but specifically for having left behind and I can quote myself on this because we filmed the entire procedure an area we believed was “perfect for Brandon to build back into.” Do recall: delusional.

In fact, the stringers were a total wreck. Gutted, yes, but also rough, ragged and agape in no way “perfect” for the necessary rebuild. When Brandon came to inspect our dirty demolition, he gently informed us of the extensive cleaning and prep-work that still needed to be done. And while he was generous in offering us his tools and his spare time in order to complete the procedure at the dock, it soon became clear that cleaning up after what we had begun would cost twice as much and take three times as long. It was time to for us to come back to reality. 

Annie and Phillip check on the patient after the surgery

Annie and Phillip check on the patient after the surgery

Ultimately, we made the decision to haul the boat and work side-by-side with Brandon and his men at the yard to both finish this surgery gone awry and repair our boat properly with solid, glassed-in, high-density foam stringers to support the mast. Our goals in working alongside the Perdido Sailor boys were two-fold: 1) save money on grunt labor and 2) learn how to make these kinds of repairs ourselves because we are going to be cruisers. We do need to know how to perform these kinds of procedures ourselves. That said, I’m confident Phillip and I will some day find ourselves in that same sad delusional state:

“Aww, this is nothing. Scalpel.”

At Annie and Phillip share the realities and rewards of cruising aboard their Niagara 35 via books, blogs and YouTube videos documenting their journey south to Cuba and the Bahamas.

January 2017



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