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Old 07-08-2007
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Maintaining Fiberglass
Regular fiberglass care prolongs boat life

Fiberglass boats are maintenance free. You'll read it and hear it while you're looking at boats, but don't believe a word of it. I suppose in comparison to wooden boats, fiberglass boats might be termed "virtually maintenance free," but you'd still better plan to spend a few weekends to keep that dream boat in perfect shape. Let's take a look at some of the areas you'll need to work on, starting at the bottom and working upwards.

Bottom
The underwater surfaces of your boat need to be protected from the growth of barnacles and algae, even if you only plan to leave your boat in the water for a short time. You'll find noticeable growth in a few days in most areas, and barnacles that attach themselves to an unprotected hull can permanently scar the fiberglass surface. The solution is to cover the entire bottom with so-called "antifouling" paint, which contains various poisons to retard growth. There are a multitude of different antifouling paints, designed for different areas and different boat types. A racing sailboat, for example, should have a hard antifouling paint so that drag is kept to a minimum. A cruising sailboat might use a softer bottom paint since speed isn't as much of a concern as the longevity of the paint. Talk to owners of similar boats as well as boatyards and boat dealers to see what they recommend in your area. Some paint companies formulate different paints depending upon the area, since growth occurs more rapidly in warm climates such as Florida and California than it does in colder waters of the northern areas.

Whatever paint you choose, be sure that the bottom is prepared correctly. Bare fiberglass should be etched with a chemical preparation or carefully sanded to insure good adhesion of the paint. If you have to sand down an existing antifouling paint, be sure you wear a breathing mask and clothing to keep the dust off your skin, since the paint is still poisonous. The majority of boatyards and do-it-yourselfers use rollers to apply the bottom paint, and you'll find that the average boat can be done in a few hours.

Topsides
The topsides of a boat are the area between the waterline and the rail, and they take a tremendous beating from the effects of spray, sun, and even the occasional brush with a pier. Fiberglass boats have the color molded into the surface gelcoat, but you'll need to polish the topsides at least yearly to keep it bright and shiny. Without care, the color layer can oxidize, causing white hulls to turn dull and colored hulls to take on a hazy cast. To keep the fiberglass in like-new condition, you should wax it regularly, using a wax formulated for marine use since automotive waxes don't have the fillers needed to seal the pores in the gel coat. If you wax the hull regularly, you'll never need to worry about any oxidation, but you'd be the exception. Most of us have to use a mild rubbing compound first to remove the haze and then finish up with a good marine wax to restore the shine. You can do it by hand, but you'll be a lot happier if you buy or rent an automotive buffer with several different pads. Keep the buffer moving so it doesn't heat up the fiberglass and watch out for edges or corners where you can accidentally buff through the color coat.

Deck
The deck of your boat also takes a beating from the sun, from dirt and grime ground in by the non-slip treads of deck shoes, and even from an occasional spilled coffee or soft drink. Regular washings with fresh water and a mild soap will keep the deck clean, and most stains can be removed with a liquid detergent. The non-slip areas of the deck should never be waxed, but you can get the rough surface clean by using a stiff-bristled brush. If a stain is particularly stubborn, you might try a little household abrasive cleanser on it, but never use the cleanser on a smooth fiberglass surface! Smooth areas of the cabin sides can be waxed just like the hull, but don't wax any area where you're likely to walk.

Wood
Most fiberglass sailboats have a minimum amount of wood on the deck, but you'll still have to take care of whatever there is. Teak is both the easiest and the most difficult material, since you have a variety of choices and finishes. Teak can be left alone until it weathers to a whitish-gray finish that some people like and others hate. If you'd rather have the look of Scandinavian furniture, then you'll want to use one of the commercial teak oils on your teak. This is, however, an on-going commitment since the teak oil isn't permanent. The teak will start to darken after one season so you'll have to remove the oil by chemicals or sanding and then re-oil the teak. The last method is to varnish the teak, but teak is such an oily wood that you need extra care to insure that the varnish adheres properly. Like oil, you'll need to renew your varnish yearly, and more often if you're in a sunny climate or if your varnish is chipped or scuffed.

The other common wood found on fiberglass sailboats is mahogany, which has it's own set of requirements. Mahogany can be finished with varnish, but you'll probably like the color better if you use a wood stain first to enhance the grain and even out the tones. After one or two seasons, you'll see that chips in the varnish have allowed saltwater to seep in and darken the mahogany. If it doesn't bother you, then you can simply varnish over the dark spots, but if you prefer more perfection, you'll need to strip off the varnish, sand and bleach the bare wood, re-stain and re-varnish. That sounds like a lot of trouble for a toe-rail or cockpit coaming, but it makes a pleasant afternoon project.

Interior
The interior of your boat is likely to have a variety of materials that will need your attention periodically. The bulkheads may be solid wood, veneer, formica, or simply painted plywood and you'll need to find out which is which before you do any maintenance. If you plan to varnish the bulkheads or other wood areas, you might want to use a satin finish varnish to reduce the reflections and glare, although a gloss finish can certainly make your boat sparkle.

Bunk cushions should be aired out regularly to prevent mildew, particularly if they've gotten wet. The salt that remains after a cushion dries will pick up moisture from the air and create a damp feeling. You can have the cushions professionally cleaned, or you can simply remove the foam and hose down the fabric cover to get rid of most of the dirt and salt.

Mast and Rigging
The rigging and gear on a sailboat should be maintained as regularly as you have your car tuned up. The aluminum mast should be rinsed off to remove corrosive salt spray as well as dirt that can stain sails, and you should plan to go aloft several times a year to check everything over. The wire shrouds and stays should be inspected for kinks or broken strands (replace them immediately if you find any!), the spreaders should be cleaned off and the tape protecting the spreader tips should be replaced. Once a year, you should plan to put a coat of car wax on your mast to help it resist the elements and make it easier to clean. If your mast is anodized, it'll be less likely to pit, but bare aluminum will soon develop a coat of oxidation. You can leave it alone, since it doesn't affect strength, you can lightly wet-sand and wax the mast yearly to reduce the corrosion, or you can paint the spar. Modern two-part finishes should be sprayed by a professional, but they can assure you of a flawless mast for many seasons.

Winches should be disassembled, the residue of old grease, dirt and salt removed, and then the manufacturers instructions should be followed to lubricate and reassemble them. All running rigging should be inspected regularly, but once a year you should make a point to dump all your lines into fresh water for a good rinsing to restore their original flexibility.

Sails
You'll find yourself checking your sails as you sail, and any small rips or tears should be repaired immediately before they grow larger. It's a good idea to leave your sails with your sailmaker yearly for the inspection and repair of any flaws, and many sailmakers can have your sails washed for you at the same time. In Dacron, the material rarely fails except when pierced by a sharp object but, since the fabric is so hard, the stitching remains on top rather than sinking in. This means that any chafing on mast or rigging is directly on the stitching, which can wear or break. Given annual attention, a set of sails can have years of useful life.

Engines
Even though the wind is your primary power, your engine should be ready to perform when you need it, and that will only happen if you take care of it. There's nothing mystical about keeping your engine tuned, but it is something that you want to schedule regularly. Unlike your car, however, where you think in terms of mileage between servicings, you'll want to think in months for your boat. Even if you only use your boat occasionally, plan to change the oil and check the engine over as though you'd used it regularly. Like any engine, marine power plants need clean oil and fuel, a fully-charged battery and a reasonable state of tune. Diesels are less picky than gasoline engines, but don't let your guard down. Check the alternator/generator belts for wear, check the oil levels whenever you leave the dock, check the cooling system for leaks, and watch the bilge area under the engine for oil leaks. Spark plug wires tend to self-destruct rapidly in the marine atmosphere, as do the distributor points, so be sure to carry spares and plan to change them on a regular basis.

Sound like a lot of work? It's really not bad at all, and most boat owners enjoy the rituals of keeping their boat in tip-top shape. If you plan ahead, make a list of projects, and see that they get done, you'll find that your boat will look and run like new for years.
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