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Know how: Reinforcing Engine Stringers

The author found herself in a tight spot after discovering one of her boat’s stringers had turned to mush 

The author found herself in a tight spot after discovering one of her boat’s stringers had turned to mush 

If I were to ask, “What are the top five parts of the engine you want to be able to easily access?” How would you respond? Would it be the dipstick? The overflow coolant? I’d wager the raw water pump and its impeller would also make the list. Am I right?

The reason we want to be able to get to the latter is not so much to tweak our shoulders (as always happens to mine), but to see if it’s leaking: and, if so, to check or replace the impeller and, every so often, replace or rebuild the pump. Over the years, my partner, Phillip, and I have done so several times on our 1985 Niagara 35, Plaintiff’s Rest, and I never thought past that leaking pump, until…

We were hauled out to do a number of projects: reinforce our rudder post, upgrade to a composting head and give “Westie,” Plaintiff’s Rest’s original Westerbeke 27A some much-needed love by replacing various seals, checking the mounts and alignment, and repainting him. We had never before removed the engine from its stringers, and it proved an eye-opener. Why? Try to guess what we found directly below the mount that sits beneath our raw water pump?

The moment we pulled the mount off, a flurry of images went racing through my mind: mulch, Tyvek suits, plastic on the walls, 406 filler in the air. It was a replay of the time we had taken on the task of rebuilding our rotting, crushed mast step stringers. The reason? Within moments of removing the engine mount directly under the water pump on top of the starboard-side stringer, we discovered the once-rigid stringer—comprised of wood, glassed on both sides for rigidity and, I’m just going to say it, stupidly not glassed on the top—had long since dissolved into that all-too-familiar mulch.

There was no denying it, nor was there any denying what had to be done. Phillip and I have a very strict “rot not” policy on our boat. Therefore, while Philip and the rest of the guys worked on the rudder post, the rotten stringer project was gifted to me; either because it was small, or I’m small, I’m still not sure which (although there’s no denying it was a very tight spot to have to work in). The good news is it was a rewarding project and one that, thanks to the lessons I’d learned during our mast stringer repair, I was able to tackle without too much trouble. Ultimately, the job involved completing the following steps:

1. Cutting out a square section of the rot with a handheld multi-tool saw

2. Cutting two pieces of Coosa board to fill the gap

3. Epoxying (and clamping) the two pieces into place with West System Six10 epoxy adhesive

4. Sanding and smoothing as needed after curing

5. Cutting and rolling a piece of fiberglass over the Coosa filler to reinforce and seal the repair.

I’ll be honest, it had never occurred to me to check—or even consider—the condition of our engine mounts or the rigidity of our engine stringers. However, when we finally got Westie re-mounted and re-aligned, the first crank literally startled me. “He really jumps!” I thought as he sprang to life again.

Now, more acutely aware than ever before of our engine’s “grip” on the boat, I noticed it literally rattles about a half-inch when cranking. It’s hard to believe such movement is possible. But then again, I’m always amazed at how much a boat can flex and bend underway. Strong but flexible became my new mantra as I asked for advice on how to further reinforce the stringers. The shipyard crew happily coached me on cutting some Coosa gussets, which I installed to either side to give the stringers some additional lateral support.

It’s strange, with the work now well behind me, to discover a project so removed from improving the creature comforts on our boat could bring me such pleasure. However, the thought of Westie having a solid, talon-like, glass-reinforced grip on the inside of Plaintiff’s Rest’s hull brings me no end of satisfaction—especially when coaxing him on in the middle of a seemingly endless calm.

Any time Philip and I can identify and eradicate rot and replace it with a substance that cannot rot, I feel better. I am humbled at the realization that no matter how clean, well-maintained or freshly painted our engine may have looked after our mini-engine refit, it wouldn’t have mattered at all if he couldn’t remain aligned, or worse if he’d jumped his shiny red-self right off his mounts because they were bolted to rot.

It was a solid (pun intended) reminder that any leak should not only be stopped but traced to its source and the full measure of its damage assessed and repaired. Rot not and all of your other hard work won’t be for naught. 

Photos courtesy of Annie Dike

May 2021

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