Another Year, Another Bottom Paint
Before leaving Trinidad for Venezuela, Calypso’s crew decides to haul out, paint the bottom and perform other maintenance. Yard rates are low, but so is worker efficiency.
By the time we finally moved westward from Trinidad in late September, Calypso had spent most of the 1998 hurricane season in Trinidad, south of the tropical hurricane zone. We spent three months loading up on spare parts, completing unfinished jobs, and making the boat more self-reliant. Some wag once said that cruising is nothing more than working on your boat in exotic places.
He was right.
Bottom Paint Blues
After almost a year in the water, we hauled out in Trinidad for routine maintenance, including painting the bottom. As reported earlier, our Pettit ACP-50 bottom paint was pretty much worn away in some areas, and was beginning to show scattered barnacle growth on other sections of the hull. It was time for a different bottom paint, our third in three years.
Once you leave the U.S., your options for anti-fouling increase dramatically. When we first arrived in the Caribbean almost a year ago, I was amazed to see bottom paints on store shelves that had disappeared from U.S. chandleries more than a decade ago, when paints containing tin were outlawed for use on most recreational vessels.
My first, somewhat naive reaction was that this was leftover, bootleg paint. Then the realization hit. This was new paint stock, much of it from U.S. manufacturers such as Interlux and Seahawk. All of it was marked “restricted use pesticide, not registered for use in the United States of America,” or similar words to the same effect. While TBT (tributyl tin) paints are illegal for recreational vessels under 25 meters in length in the U.S., they are perfectly legal in much of the rest of the world.
This situation required some soul-searching. We consider ourselves environmentally aware, and make a conscious effort to protect the marine environment. High concentrations of TBT in sensitive coastal waters have been shown to damage marine life—not surprising, since TBT is a biocide. At the same time, we are not likely to be back in U.S. waters for many years, by which time any trace of organo-tin paint will be long gone from Calypso’s bottom.
Our experience with tin paints during the 1980’s showed them to be far superior to the copper-based anti-fouling paints that we used in either the 1970’s or the 1990’s. Virtually all of the world’s large commercial and naval vessels still use TBT paints, which are more galvanically compatible with steel and aluminum hulls than paints containing cuprous oxide.
At the end of the day, the decision to use a tin-based anti-fouling paint was an easy one. The most difficult part was the realization that the testing of such paint would be nothing more than an academic exercise to most Practical Sailor readers, who are constrained by U.S. laws.
The most commonly seen TBT bottom paints seen in the Caribbean are Seahawk Islands 44 Plus, Interlux Micron 44, and Jotun HB-99. All are ablative copolymer paints containing tin as either the exclusive anti-fouling ingredient or as part of a more complex biocide package.
Both Seahawk and Interlux are U.S. companies whose copper paints are widely used on recreational vessels. Micron 44 was one of the great anti-fouling paints of the 1980’s, and seeing it on the shelves—along with white Micron 33, which was the standard racing bottom paint of that decade—was a strange flashback. We half-expected the calendar on the wall to say “1982.”
We selected Jotun HB-99, a Danish-manufactured commercial paint designed specifically for slow-speed vessels (under 8 knots), which spend a lot of time anchored or docked in polluted harbors. For better or worse, that pretty much describes the life of the serious cruising sailboat. In the commercial world, HB-99 is a common paint for short-haul ferries and harbor tugs, as well as being used on stationary equipment such as oil platforms. Sometimes, we feel pretty much like a piece of stationary equipment, too.
Hauling in Trinidad is a little different from the same process in most U.S. yards. In general, you serve as your own general contractor, hiring yard-authorized personnel to do your work. At an average day-wage of about $3.50 U.S. per hour, labor is dirt cheap. Hire the yard’s own workforce, however, and the price increases dramatically.
Unfortunately, we had heard a few too many horror stories from cruisers using contract labor. Our own experience using day labor for cleaning and polishing showed that even with tight control by the owner, things can go awry. An inexperienced worker can in an instant do unintended damage that can ruin your whole day.
We elected to haul at Crew’s Inn, at the yard associated with the marina where we kept Calypso during our long sojourn in Trinidad.
Crew’s Inn Boatyard is a full-service yard which is trying very hard to get a foothold in the mega-yacht market. Their 200-ton Travelift is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest south of Florida. Until they can attract big-boat business, they are more than willing to haul boats as small as Calypso, which weighs 15 tons.
Seeing our 40-footer in a lift that can handle 150' motoryachts was a bit strange, and a little discomfiting. A diver positioned the slings, as their placement is critical on our long-keeled boat with a cutaway forefoot. A 3' surge in the slip created zero visibility in the water, and put the diver at very real risk. We came close to scrubbing the haul, but finally succeeded in getting the slings in place and the boat lifted after more than two hours of intense effort.
Our work list for the yard was relatively simple: wash, sand, and paint the bottom, raising the top of the paint line 1" to the bottom of the lower bootstripe; wash, compound and wax the topsides; clean, sand, prime and paint the stainless steel rudder straps, pintles and gudgeons.
We also decided to grind out, fill and fair about 4' of the keel/hull joint on either side of the hull, where slight cracking had allowed moisture to penetrate the joint. This was merely a cosmetic issue, but as it is labor-intensive work, it made sense to do it where rates were low and I could properly monitor the work. Normally, this is a job I would do myself, but since we don’t carry a small angle grinder, the yard got it, and the apprentice who did the job didn’t really seem to mind my telling him exactly how I wanted it done. Perhaps he was just being tolerant.
Crew’s Inn labor rates are substantially higher than those at the do-it-yourself yards in Trinidad, but are still laughably low by U.S. standards. Bottom work—including sanding, grinding, filling and painting—cost $12 per hour. The topsides man gets $15 per hour. It cost $260 to haul, pressure wash, chock the boat and re-launch. That included the diver, too.
The downside is that the workers themselves are only about half as efficient as their counterparts in good U.S. yards, but at these rates, it’s a fair tradeoff. I also felt it very necessary to keep an eye on the progress and timing of the jobs, as there was a limited sense of the proper sequencing of work. Workers seem to come and go between jobs at will, making it difficult to keep track of who was actually working on our boat at any given time. Are you actually paying for the four guys standing around under your boat chatting about music and girls? As the yard is constantly training workers, you also pay for a fair amount of on-the-job training.
We buffed out the topsides with 3M Finesse-It, a mildly abrasive polishing compound that had been used by Javier at Jamestown Boat Yard to bring the gelcoat back to life before we launched two years ago.
We then waxed with Collinite Fleetwax, which was the top performer in PS tests. We carry a supply of it as it is difficult to find outside the U.S.
The topsides gleamed after almost three full days of buffing and waxing, and the workman proudly asked me to take his picture on the scaffolding next to the boat, buffer in hand. At U.S. labor rates for his work—about 18 hours—I would have been ready to blow my brains out.
Test patches on our bottom showed HB-99 bottom paint to be compatible with the ACP-50 we used last year. Bottom preparation consisted of thorough pressure washing followed by wet-sanding to an 80-grit finish. Almost all the paint buildup was removed, with the original Micron CSC signal coat showing through over about 80% of the bottom. The new paint was applied by roller, and went on remarkably smoothly.
My own contribution to the work consisted of polishing and lubricating the three-bladed Max-Prop VP, replacing zincs, cleaning the through-hulls and Dynaplate, and a thorough checkout of the bottom and rudder. I also completely re-worked the rudder stops and the sealing of the rudder drive arm where it exits the hull, as this was originally done as a hurry-up job before we left New England last year. Metalman, a German ex-pat, machined or fabricated a number of parts I designed in stainless steel and Delrin for this job.
The final yard bill was reasonable by any standard, and was within $100 of my own estimate. Total cost, including all labor, materials, and bottom paint, was U.S. $1,900. About $700 of the cost was for the bottom paint. Our experience with Crew’s Inn was very, very good. With luck, our next haulout will be in New Zealand.
Once back in the water, we wrapped up other projects before heading west toward Venezuela, Bonaire, Colombia and Panama. We are still working with various insurance companies to supply coverage for our complex itinerary over the next 12 months, and will report on that next month.