Fall Maintenance: Don’t Wait Until Spring!

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As the frost line marches southward over the next few months, it will signal the end of the season for sailors stranded to its north. The end of the sailing season, however, does not mean the end of boat responsibilities. A pleasure for some, a chore for others, off-season layup and winter’s armchair sailing is all part of the game. Like it or not, a boat requires care when it is laid up, just as it does when it is in use.

In a way, the fact that you may not get to use your boat for more than half a year is a plus. If you have ever looked at a boat that has been in the Caribbean charter trade for four years, you realize that the concept of the no-maintenance fiberglass boat with eternal life is little more than a myth.

A boat is a big investment, and like most investments it requires some attention from the investor (you) to do its best.

It can’t be repeated too many times: The time to begin off-season projects is before the end of the season. If you haven’t at least made notes about what needs to be done, you’re likely to forget them over the winter months when you are not spending much time with your boat.

Wet or Dry Storage?

If you have a boat built of fiberglass, aluminum, or steel, it is going to last longer if stored out of the water when not in use. Although the me¬chanics of gelcoat blistering are not fully understood, there does appear to be a defmite relationship between the amount of time the boat spends in the water and the likelihood of gelcoat blistering. That doesn’t mean that if you haul the boat out every time you use it the bottom will never blister. It merely means that all other things being equal, a fiberglass boat in the water is more likely to blister than a boat ashore.

The problem with aluminum and steel boats stored in salt water is basically one of corrosion. In many marinas, poor wiring-either that of the marina or that of the boats docked there-puts a lot of electrical current into the water, accelerating the natural tendency of these materials to corrode. In unpolluted fresh water free of electrical currents, the corrosion of both steel and aluminum is minimal. But when was the last time you saw those conditions?

Wooden boats, on the other hand, are almost always better off stored in the water. Although the metal in a wooden boat-fastenings, through-hull fittings, props will be more likely to corrode when the boat is in the water, a more important consideration is the stabilization of a wooden boat’s structure by keeping the moisture content of the wood as constant as possible year around.

Cold-molded wooden boats, theoretically free from the problems of moisture stabilization, are the exception. Their epoxy coating, if undamaged, is highly resistant to the penetration of water. A cold-molded boat should be treated like a fiberglass boat. Cold-molded or fiberglass-sheathed wooden boats should be stored out of the water, to avoid damage to the hull from ice or rubbing a piling-which could breach the epoxy seal, allowing water to enter the wood.

If you store a boat in the water, be prepared to pay at least the same amount you would for storing the boat on land. For the marina operator, wet storage is almost always more of a headache than a boat stored ashore. Lines chafe and stretch, fenders chafe on topsides, boats leak and sometimes sink, untended by owners who are busy elsewhere. Wet storing a boat is a serious responsibility for both the marina operator and the owner. If you can’t realistically expect to check your boat in the water once a week, it is essential that you come to terms with the marina or boatyard about what their degree of responsibility will be. These terms should be spelled out in the storage contract, with the charges for the various services detailed.

Hauling Out

There are, of course, risks entailed every time you haul a boat. Boats have been damaged in every form of hauling-trailers, cranes, mobile lifts, and railways. It is best to stay completely away from your boat while it is being hauled. If it is damaged, you want to be sure that the responsibility for the damage lies with the person hauling the boat. It is extremely rare that a boat owner will be more knowledgeable than the marina operators about how a boat should be hauled. If you have any doubt about the competence of the yard, watch how they haul other boats before committing your boat into their hands. But don’t make a nuisance of yourself; the crane operator is not getting paid to chat with you about your boat.

Immediately after your boat is hauled, the bottom should be scrubbed. Marine growth gets more tenacious if it is allowed to dry out before you try to remove it. Usually, the boatyard will wash the bottom of the boat with a high-pressure hose for a fixed price per foot; it’s almost always worth it. Paying $50 to $75 to wash the bottom of a 40-footer may seem like a lot for a few minutes labor, but after the first time you do it yourself you will gladly part with the money next time.

If at all possible, you should look at the bottom of your boat before it is washed, to determine the effectiveness of your bottom paint. Once it is clean, you will never know how good your $125 per gallon paint really is.

Proper Supports

Truly one of the marine industry’s greatest inventions is the screw-type jack stand for support of a hull. Before jack stands, the crane or mobile lift might be tied up for an hour supporting a boat while wooden poppets were fitted to the hull, with their accompanying system of diagonal supports, longitudinals, and heavy base timbers. On a 40-footer, this might take two men an hour. The same job can be done with four jack stands in 10 minutes by one man, and if properly done, it will be just as good or better.

Having a real cradle for your boat is no particular advantage as far as most yards are concerned. A cradle is heavy and takes up a lot of space, and will only fit your boat or another just like it. A jack stand can be carried by one man, while a cradle may have to be dragged around by a tractor. It all costs time and money.

While no boatyard goes out of its way to improperly store your boat, it pays for you to cast a weather eye on the way your boat is stored. Whether sailboat or powerboat, the keel should be supported by timbers which will help distribute the load on the ground. On soft ground, this will help keep the boat from sinking into the ground, redistributing the loads on the hull. Jack stands are not foolproof.

Each leg of the stand should be backed up by a pad to keep the legs from sinking into the ground. The best pads are pieces of 3/4-inch plywood large enough to really distribute the load. About eight inches square should do in most cases.

The screw pads of the jack stands should be tightened up firmly against the hull, but they should not distort it in any way. Fin keel boats with flat bilges are the boats most at risk in this respect. Frequently, the hull structure is strong enough to support the keel with the boat in the water, but the weight of the boat on the keel ashore is enough to force the bottom of the hull upward. The tendency then is to over-tighten the jack stands to take some of the load of the hull off the keel.

With lighter, more flexible hulls, the answer may be to use more than the normal four jack stands so that more load can be removed from the keel without distorting the hull. Be prepared to pay extra for the use of more jack stands. They do, after all, cost money. The angle of the stand to the hull is also important. Although the heads of jack stands are equipped with ball joints to allow the support pads to swivel, you should try to position the stands so that the load on them is as close to pure compression as possible. This will reduce the tendency of the stands to be forced out away from the hull as load is applied to them. On powerboats, this is usually pretty easy. On sailboats, it can require some juggling of the stands to get the best angle.

On sailboats, the jack stands should be located as far outboard from the center of the boat as is practical to help stabilize the boat in high winds. With slack-bilged sailboat hulls, it may also be necessary to chain the jack stands together under the hull to insure that they can’t pop out.

Windage is the primary reason that you should take your mast out when the boat is to be stored out of the water in a northern climate. Boats can blow over, and while a mast may not seem like much windage, just consider that your boat is an object on the end of a very long lever-the mast. It does not take much force at the end of a 40-foot mast to tip over a boat. The money you might save by leaving the mast in may not be worth the risk, especially when you add the wear and tear on your mast and rigging, and the difficulty of fitting a cover around the mast and rigging.

Beneath The Cover…

You are going to cover your boat for the winter, aren’t you? Almost nothing will age your boat faster than leaving it over the winter unprotected from rain, snow, ice, and even sun. The gelcoat will fade, the brightwork will peel, oiled teak will check, and acrylic hatches will craze. The weathering caused by  moisture and ultraviolet light are your boat’s primary enemies; keeping the boat covered while in winter storage can easily cut the annual toll in half.

But don’t button your boat up tight, however. In some areas, shrink-wrapping a boat has become popular. We think it is a poor idea. Instead, provide as much ventilation for your boat as you can, consistent with protecting it from the elements. Usually, this means leaving opening ports opened, as long as there are screens on them to keep out unwanted visitors such as rats and squirrels. In addition, replacing the upper companionway dropboard with a screen, and leaving all cowl ventilators in places will help.

Below, clean out lockers and drawers as much as possible. Don’t leave food, life jackets, clothes, linens, or even bunk cushions aboard.

Get them out of the damp environment of the boat, where mildew and rot will attack them. Ventilation is the best prevention for mildew there is. Clean the inside of lockers and other surfaces prone to condensation with a damp sponge and a liquid cleaner such as Fantastic or 409; then leave doors and drawers open. Leave the bilges open (but don’t forget the hatches are open when you climb down the companionway ladder in the dark). If at all possible, remove your electronics such as Loran and VHF radios, both to render the boat less appetizing to thieves, and to get them out of the corrosive atmosphere.

The same goes for clocks and barometers. A pleasant winter projects is to make a mounting board for displaying your boat’s clock and barometer in your home or office. Every time the clock strikes, you can close your eyes and transport yourself back to the boat.

All this unloading of gear may seem like a real nuisance, but there is another good reason for it. Over time, boats collect an enormous amount of junk. Junk makes boats heavier and slower; if you make a habit of removing as much of it as possible from the boat every year, you will gain both storage space and improved performance.

Of course, all this work is only a prelude to the real work. Even before you cover the boat, you should wash it down from top to bottom, removing dirt and salt. This will give you a chance to examine every inch of the exterior of the boat for things like leaking fittings, hardware that needs to be replaced, lifting varnish, chafe spots on the hull and trim, and the dreaded curse, blistering gelcoat.

If you have a blistering problem, now is the time to find out, not in the spring when all you want to do is get the boat over the side. Blisters will be most obvious right after the boat is hauled and the bottom cleaned, as the liquid in them will sometimes evaporate after the boat has been out of the water for a while. A blister that disappears, unfortunately, is still there under the surface, even if you can’t see it; it will quickly refill with water after the boat is launched.

If you do discover a blistering problem, or if you have been putting off the repair of existing blisters, the fall is the time to get started. Blisters should be opened, drained, and wash thoroughly with fresh water  in the fall. This will allow the maximum amount of time for the laminate to dry so the blistered areas can be filled and faired in the spring.

A Head Start on the Fun It might be nice to simply haul the boat and walk away from it for the winter-a surprising number of boat owners do just that. They are the ones you see with the glazed look in their eyes in the spring, trying to figure out how they are going to get all the work done in the two weeks  before the boat goes in the water.

If you start the work when the boat is hauled, you will be miles ahead in the spring. You’re going to have to do the work sooner or later.

Why not start now?

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