Monday, 25 November 2013

Boat Hatches

Sometimes it’s good to take a break from sanding, polishing and cleaning. Sometimes it’s good just to stand back and reflect on what you are doing, look at progress so far and improvements you have made. If you have an ice cold Belgian beer in your hand, you can actually become inspired!

It happened to me a couple of weeks ago and I’m still excited by it even though further thought and research
now leads me to believe that it wasn’t my idea at all. Rather it was the blossoming of the seed of an idea I discovered in a book several years ago (more of that later).

Anyhow, to you it may seem a small thing – but to me – not the most creative of people - it was like a shining light hovering above the road to Damascus.

There I was standing back looking at my work to date and wondering what to do about the wooden cabin hatch – truth is, it has rot, it has delaminated and it needs repair or replacement. I had already decided to replace it but not until spring. Use the old one to see me through winter. I had also decided that the new hatch should look planked (even if the planks merely hide plywood beneath).

That afternoon though, my eye was caught not by the rotting main hatch but by the equally ugly plastic box that pretends to be a fore hatch. I love this boat I am renovating but I am constantly aware that she was designed by Rayner – a naval officer who put functionality way in front of aesthetics. So the fore hatch works, it does its job – but why didn’t Rayner build it in the same style and material as the main hatch? Probably because the idea never entered his head.

Now, am I restoring this old boat, in which case things would be put back as the designer originally intended,
or am I doing something else - up-grading her maybe?  In which case I am free to make changes and, in this case, I think the change will be an improvement.

So, if replacing or covering plastic hatches with planked wood wasn’t an original idea of mine, where did it come from? Well there is a very good book that I bought several years ago which has proved to be a constant source of ideas and inspiration. It’s called ‘Smart DIY Boat Ideas by a guy called
Bruce Bingham. It’s full of suggestions and fully illustrated with pen and ink drawings. For me, the value of the book is the ideas he has for internal change. It’s relatively easy to stroll around a boatyard or marina and come away with several good ideas for the outside of a boat – but its harder to get views inside – so this is where his book scores. As well as ideas for covering significant areas of GRP with wood, he also explains a very effective method for obtaining measurements within boat cabins where every line seems to be a curve. I tried his method on a previous boat in it worked like a dream.

So, a sunny afternoon, a bottle of beer, and I have now doubled the amount of hatch-work I have to do! I know she’ll look so much better. Will she be faster or safer as a result of the additional effort?  No, but she’ll look prettier to me and she’ll be more ‘personalised’. Can’t imagine anyone else will notice – but I’ll know I have done right by the old girl.

You can get Bruce Bingham’s book here:

Smart D.I.Y. Boat Ideas (UK Readers)

Finally, a number of people have requested more information on my other activities mainly about downsizing, living frugally and setting up a homestead in France - This blog isn't about that and I don't want to dilute its contents, so here is another site which deals with all that stuff:

Frugal Living in France


Monday, 18 November 2013

The Ideal Boat

One of the most difficult aspects of buying and renovating a small boat is choosing the boat to work on. Three factors make for the difficulty:

all boat design is a compromise – a boat good for this may be useless for something else – so you have be clear about what you want your boat to do;

the boats you inspect will differ in the amount of work needed to bring them back to serviceable use – and you will need to be able to diagnose the treatment before you spend your money;

the cost of renovation will be greatly affected by your own skill or lack of it.

For me the first of these problems was the most difficult.
While marine architects are happy to design
boats for particular purposes, builders need a volume of sales so they try to market craft as being all things to all people. To get the right shortlist of boats for you, it’s important that you can compare hundreds of boats and know which ones might be worthy of consideration.  By way of extreme examples, an old trawler might make an excellent motor cruiser but she wouldn't get far up most UK canals. A 19ft sailing cruiser might be great fun – but would be unlikely to offer comfortable accommodation to four adults and a dog for extended cruising – despite what the builders and brokers may say.

Now, there is a book that I wish I had known about before I began my search. I’d like to think that I would still have chosen my Westerly Nomad – but I also think that I would have arrived at my decision much quicker, and with less road miles under my belt in the search process.

Anyway, for anyone embarking on this process, and already committed to a sailboat of no more than 26ft, as opposed to a motor vessel, here is the first weapon in your armory – you’ll recover its cost in time and petrol which could be wasted visiting inappropriate designs.

The Book is called:  The Sailors Book of Small Cruising Sailboats, by Steve Henkel.

You can get it here:

The Sailor's Book of Small Cruising Sailboats: Reviews and Comparisons of 360 Boats Under 26 Feet (USA Readers)
The Sailor's Book of Small Cruising Sailboats: Reviews and Comparisons of 360 Boats Under 26 Feet
(UK Readers)


Monday, 11 November 2013

Sailing a Cornish Shrimper

Regular readers will know that the purpose of these pages is to explore the possibilities of getting on the water for less money. My own endeavours towards this goal have been centred in the renovation of a 1960s GRP sailing cruiser – a Westerly Nomad. Its taking a lot of time, much more than I envisaged, but there again ‘time’ is something I’ve got. Money, I have less of it.

Before I focused on the Westerly Nomad I had been very interested in Cornish Shrimpers. In the end I gave
up the search. Shrimpers are very expensive to purchase new and they keep their second hand prices. They are very attractive boats, tan sails and somewhat ‘retro’ looking, but with a reputation for seaworthiness and a reasonable turn of speed. A friend bought one recently – she had been lying neglected for several years in a local marina and looked pretty bad. He made a reasonable offer based on what a similar boat in good condition could command – minus the costs he might incur in bringing her back to good order. His offer was accepted and he hitched the boat to the car and drove her home. Fortunately it was a short journey.

The following day was spent replacing hub bearings on the trailer and then he began to work through the inventory of fittings, gear and equipment. The more he inspected the happier he became. In fact by the end of the day, despite stains and dirt, the faded colour on the hull and decks and cobwebs on the engine, he decided all her problems were cosmetic. She could be launched and sailed immediately. All this is a rather long-winded way of saying that I spent a couple of days last week, rigging, launching, sailing and recovering a Cornish Shrimper.

Rigging and raising the mast took a morning. Much of the time was spent reading the handbook and finding the relevant parts in the jumble of gear. Next time, we could get that time down to less than one hour. Launching, using the Shrimper’s break-back trailer took ten minutes. The inboard engine fired first time and we were away. The wind on the estuary was light force two at best, but with all sail set the Shrimper performed well, slight heal, hint of weather helm, enough power to tack without effort and a feeling that she was a bigger boat than the mere 19ft hull length. The cockpit was spacious for the two of us (and we aren't small guys!). The angle of heal barely changed with both of us sitting to leeward. She certainly felt like a real boat – not a dinghy.

The following day we set out in a force three which increased to a four that was pushing a five on our return. Under these conditions she behaved as impeccably as before. Across the wind with all sail set she was over-pressed but the angle of heal wasn’t alarming and the weather-helm was handleable. With reef in her, she maintained the same speed and tramped along without a care in the world. Sailing the Shrimper was safe, satisfying and exciting. The downside was the diminutive size of the cabin. A one-burner stove, sleeping accommodation for two, with a centerboard casing between you and not much else – it is possible to purchase a cockpit tent however, and this would make a huge difference to comfort if you wanted to use her as a weekender.

With her lifting centerboard, retractable rudder and shallow draft, recovering the Shrimper was easy and
quick. She sits low on the trailer too so I’d have no worries about taking her on reasonably long trips for a change of cruising scenery now and again. All in all, this boat would fit the bill in most aspects of ‘simple sailing low cost cruising’ except her second hand price which is usually quite high.

The one I sailed was bought for a very low price because of her apparent condition which turned out to be much better than expected. So how much work /money will be required to bring her back to excellent condition? Well, to date, the price of a set of hub bearings for the trailer. Later there will be one or two shackles and bolts to replace. These will cost pence. The Shrimper, despite her high price is fitted with galvanised fittings (in keeping with her traditional looks). Galvanised parts are usually half the price of stainless steel. Finally the mast and bowsprit need stripping cleaning and re-varnishing – the cost of a bottle of Oxalic Acid and a tin of varnish. . It’s comforting to know that cheap boats are there to be found if you look long and hard enough AND sometimes maybe sometimes they won’t need as much restoration as you might imagine.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Cracks and Blisters on GRP Boats

GRP gel-coat can be brittle and it gets more brittle with age. It also gains a ‘patina’ over the years and unlike
antique furniture, most of us boatowners don’t appreciate it. We like white – pristine white (on the white bits at least) hence the need to sand, compound and generally cut back to a layer of gel that hasn’t been exposed to the elements. It’s a pain to do but the rewards are obvious. There is a useful bi-product of all this effort too! When you’ve finished you can truly say that you know this boat, inch for inch better than anyone – better even that the builder who pulled her from the mold all those years ago.

Now, I started this project by saying that I didn't mind if the result of my efforts was less than pristine new show-room condition. She’s a old boat after all and I can live with the notion that she will show signs of her age here and there so long as she looks ‘cared for’ and seaworthy. The  problems is that the sanding and polishing process brings you within thirty inches of the hull and you soon develop an eye for those little blemishes that could be sorted with just another twenty minutes elbow grease.

There are some imperfections that have to be dealt with however. I’m talking here about cracks. Scratches I
can live with, providing I can understand how they happened and be sure that they aren't likely to compromise the integrity of the gel-coat – cracks however are another matter.

How do I define the difference? Well, for me, scratches are what you get on gel coat when, for example, people climb aboard and bring a few grains of sand with them on their shoes. They climb from the cockpit onto the deck in a certain way and over the years the gel coat takes a bit of a hammering. I sand back as far as I can and live with what I can’t eradicate. The scratches are old and reflect the life this old tub has enjoyed.

Cracks however, are deeper; they go through the gel coat and might be large enough to allow water ingress. They have to be sorted and the solution is a bit frightening because in order to fill the cracks with GRP putty you have to widen them with a chisel. In effect, initially at lease the ‘cure’ can look worse than the problem. Once the crack is widened and V shaped you have a chance of squeezing in the putty. Problem is it shrinks as it cures therefore you always have to apply it so that it is slightly proud of its surroundings and then when cured you have to sand it back – all the time hoping that you have a half decent colour match. You have to be careful in mixing the putty with the hardener also. The mixing has to be thorough; otherwise you can get an uneven set and, with a proportion of putty to hardener sometimes as little as 100 to 1,  it is very easy to add too much hardener – then the putty overheats and hardens off too quickly.

Crazing is a different matter. Some boats have it so bad they look like broken eggs! Personally, I’d stay away from them and seek another boat to work on. In localised areas however, the trick is to attack the problem while it is ‘cosmetic’, before it can begin to affect the integrity of the vessel.  The best advice on a repair seems to be to sand the surface heavily and roll on two coats of epoxy primer followed by two coats of two-part linear polyurethane. The epoxy fills and seals the cracks, and the polyurethane restores the colour and gloss. A paint free solution would be to grind away most of the crazed gelcoat and replace it with a fresh application of colour-matching gel coat paste.
Before you attempt any repair on cracked or crazed gel-coat however, you have to understand the root cause of the problem and fix it. No amount of filling, sanding, painting and polishing will provide a sustainable solution if the underlying cause has not been dealt with. Look at each problem area carefully with new eyes and try to work out what has happened and why.
Localized crazing is almost always due to flexing of the underlying laminate. So before  pasting over the cracks, you must stiffen the affected area before you can successfully repair the crazing.  Star shaped cracks around a fitting often suggest that the fitting itself has put too much strain on the fibreglass in that location. The strain may have been caused by a fastening being over tightened thus crushing the fibreglass core and cracking the gelcoat around the object. Alternatively, the star shaped crack may have been caused by too much pressure being put on the fitting itself, in which case you may need to fit a larger backing pad to distribute the strain over a larger area.
Star crazed cracks in elsewhere – the side of the hull or the fore-deck for example may have been caused by impact, a hard knock against a pontoon or lock wall, maybe someone dropping the anchor on deck. These are less worrisome as hopefully the cause was a one-off event not to be repeated.
Finally you may find little dings, blisters or holes in the gel coat here and there. Nine times out of ten they are a manufacturing fault. A void or small space in the core which was originally gel-coated over. There is little strength in gel coat and so over time, the gel coat will fall off to reveal the ‘bubble’ underneath. Fill it, sand it and forget it. It shouldn't be too important.
To date I've been lucky – on this project I have encountered nothing worse than blisters and scratches. So far so good!
Finally, for those who like information presented in a simple,concise way with plenty of illustrations - here is an excellent book I have come across.
Sailboat Refinishing (International Marine Sailboat Library) (USA)
Sailboat Refinishing (International Marine Sailboat Library) (UK)