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Refurbishing Shirley Rose: Part 1

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Shirley Rose, a well-worn Santana 27, sorely needed refurbishing. When I took ownership, she was on stands in a sorry state looking for someone to bring her back to life. Since then, I’ve replaced or repaired most of her major systems and also done a fair bit of cosmetic work.

After poking my nose into pretty much every nook and cranny you can think of I realized that while the previous owner may have fixed things when they broke, he didn’t do much in the way of preventative maintenance. Corrosion was rampant. The batteries could barely hold a charge. I often found myself thinking how much easier all this would have been if he had just taken a little bit better care of the boat in the first place.

That said, I can’t harp on the previous owner too much. He’d had the boat for over a quarter-century and did his best to maintain her when not busy raising a family. She was technically sailable at the time of purchase, and the things he’d fixed had been fixed properly. My focus, therefore, became breathing new life into the boat and saving the cosmetic fixes until after all the functional repairs were finished. Thankfully, I work as a fiberglass tech at a boatyard and had ample resources and knowledge at my disposal.

The number of repairs I ultimately undertook was large enough that I organized them into four different categories to keep tabs. These included “Under the Waterline,” “On Deck,” “Interior” and “Rigging.” Some repairs fit into multiple categories, but that is only to be expected since everything on a boat must work together. The yearlong timeline for the repairs would make your head spin. Some repairs had to be completed before I could put Shirley Rose back in the water. Others were done after she was sailing again. I would often start a project and then halfway through find another project and switch back and forth. First up was taking care of things below the waterline.

Two views of the old cockpit drain after its removal: not good!

Two views of the old cockpit drain after its removal: not good!

Every boat leaks a little, which is why you have a bilge pump. Leaking turns to sinking, though, when more water gets inside than the bilge pump can pump back out again. Shirley Rose was on the hard when I bought her, and I knew she couldn’t go back into the water until I had taken care of her very real sinking problem. She also had a number of other issues below the waterline that needed work. The most visible of these was the crack circling the base of the keel and dripping a kind of goo. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong because the keel bolts were tight and looked brand new. In a happy coincidence, a composite sales rep I know had also owned a Santana 27 in Hawaii, and he said that despite his best efforts, the boat inevitably had a “keel smile” every time he hauled out. Apparently, the foil and weight distribution of the bell-shaped fin creates a bit of wobble underway, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The good news, I supposed, was I’d have a chance to continue practicing my keel-repair skills for years to come!

I started out by sanding the keel mount until I reached solid fiberglass or hit the actual metal of the keel. That done, I found some other projects to work on as I waited for the area to dry. Truth be told, it never fully stopped oozing brown liquid before I decided to patch things up again. As a first step, I cleaned the area with acetone. After that, I mixed up a custom batch of epoxy putty with milled fiber (for strength) and fumed silica (a thickener) and to build things up again. The idea was to get it into every part of the repair area and provide a nice gooey bed for the fiberglass to hang onto. It also served to eliminate any air bubbles that might form, which would render the repair weak and useless.

Next, I put on a layer of 10-oz. tri-axial fiberglass cloth and an over layer of X-mat cloth, which was wetted out with epoxy and a squeegee and covered with peel ply to leave a smooth non-tacky finish. Later I faired in the repair to the hull with a bit of Dynaglass and called it good.

The old head through-hulls after glassing over

The old head through-hulls after glassing over

A year later, after plenty of hard sailing out on San Francisco Bay, I hauled the boat to change the zinc’s and was pleased to see the repair had held up surprisingly well. There was a 4in crack in the port aft corner of the keel box, but that was it. As I said, I’m sure to get lots of practice with this repair in the future.

Which brings us to the sinking problem.

Originally, I was told there was something wrong with the starboard-side cockpit drain. After pouring some water into it, though, I found no clog. Digging around inside the boat I eventually found a thick mound of oily putty surrounding the base of the through-hull. Picking away at it with my five-in-one tool, I also soon discovered that underneath the uncured putty the interior section of the through-hull had at some point sheared away from its exterior counterpart, leaving a 1in hole in the bottom of the boat. The mystery of the distinctly visible waterline on the inside of the cabin (and the empty jar of leak-stopper putty) was now solved!

I figured if one through-hull failed, the other was probably on its way as well. Sure enough I couldn’t budge the other ball valve and therefore replaced both. As far as boat repairs go, this was a pretty straightforward one. First, I wetted out a mound of X-mat cloth and used some peel ply and a block of wood to weigh it down against the hull and create a flat surface as it cured. Next, I used a hole saw to cut through the new mounting plates, and with the help of a friend and bit of Sicaflex sealer, twisted on the new through-hull and ball valves. As we were doing so, I realized the homemade mounting plate wasn’t at the correct angle, and the edge of the through-hull wasn’t true to the hull, so I took a grinder and made it fair. All good. After the boat hit the water, I attached the cockpit drain hose and checked for leaks. Nothing! I could officially cross “sinking problem” off the project list.

While on the subject of through-hulls, I also got rid of a few. When I bought Shirley Rose, the head didn’t have a holding tank and pumped straight out of the boat, which besides being gross is not up to code. Not wanting to waste space on a holding tank or have to deal with the smell of used sanitation hose, I removed of the whole thing. Dawning my trusty respirator, I took apart the hoses, tossed out the porcelain bowl and cut out the through-hulls. A combination of X-mat patches and putty served to seal them up again. With a bit of Dynaglass and some sanding, it’s now like the holes never existed. Later, I bought a Porta Potti style toilet to take the old toilet’s place and have been using it faithfully ever since.

Once all the patching was taken care of, I sanded the entire hull below the waterline. This is standard practice for new bottom paint and also exposes blisters. I found roughly 200 blisters, most pretty small, and popped and drained as many as I could. Although my research told me I should fix every last one, the guys in the yard all said I only needed to fix the ones that were the most egregious. Their advice fit my level of motivation. Even then, using my Dremel tool, I carved out a good three dozen blisters.

After everything had a few days to dry, I filled the craters with epoxy putty and considered them fixed. Did I cop out on this repair? Yeah, probably. Will I have to fix more blisters later? Yeah, definitely. But then again, I’m not trying to be the fastest or prettiest boat out there. I wanted to get it done, so I slapped some bottom paint on and called it good.

The author fairs the hull after filling a number of blisters: note the work in progress along the keel-hull joint

The author fairs the hull after filling a number of blisters: note the work in progress along the keel-hull joint

Taking another look during my recent haulout leads me to believe my repairs are holding up pretty well. The blisters didn’t seem that bad, although there are definitely a few pock marks leftover.

Cleaning the prop and shaft were the last of my below-the-waterline repairs. I used On-Off (a diluted acid) to clean away all the organic matter that had accumulated the last time she’d been in the water. As the acid bubbled, I used a metal scraper to remove the tougher bits of gunk, making sure I wore thick rubber gloves as I did so. This stuff burns badly! Afterward, I scrubbed both the prop and shaft with some high-grit sandpaper and soon had the metal shining again like new. Unfortunately, much of the gunk grew back as a result of my failing to coat them with antifouling. During my most recent haulout, I scrapped away again and added a thick coat of Lanocote. Hopefully, it’s still doing its job!

After painting the bottom, Shirley Rose was ready to go back in the water. Before I could officially launch, though, one more surprise remained. With the boat in the hoist, my boss noticed the cutlass bearing had worn down and needed to be replaced. This can only be done with the boat out of the water using a heavy-duty hydraulic press. Luckily, Dave (one of the old salts in the yard where I work) is lightning fast at this job, and much to the chagrin of the lift driver, we quickly replaced the bearing, threw the prop back on and launched the boat. Next up, deck repairs! 

Update: Read part 2 here.

Photos courtesy of Greg Maciver

June 2021

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