I blame Bernard Moitessier, Ernest Gann, and Lesa equally. Moitessier, the famous French solo sailor and author, filled my head with quixotic notions of a stout, simple, steel boat. It had to be steel, yes sir, a brutally strong vessel equally at home tiptoeing through the minefields of Tuamotu Reefs or surging before monster waves in the Southern Ocean. Moitessier's prose took me by the chin and looked me squarely in the eyes when I was still young enough to believe most of what I read. The seed was planted. By the time I read Ernest Gann I should have known better. Still, in my own defense, Song of the Sirens
is possibly the best boating book ever written. Gann relates his follies with a troubled steel schooner named Albatross
of all things, in soaring, irresistable fashion. The seed was growing.
And then it bore fruit. Instead of just chuckling at Gann's misadventures and looking more closely at the rust streaks in the pictures in Moitessier's books, I followed their lead and abandoned all reason long enough to sign the check and commit my soul to a steel siren of questionable value. I blame Lesa, my usually levelheaded wife, for allowing this transaction to take place—she could have stopped the check. In the end, and, oh I hate to admit this, I know it was really my own fault because I didn't listen to the sun-wrinkled sage in Belize.
I had wanted a steel boat for a long time. After 200,000 blue-water miles and normal encounters with wayward hurricanes, lurking flotsam, sneaky reefs, and humorless dock pilings, a steel boat seemed like the logical step in my evolution as a boat owner. In my mind, steel boats had no limitations. If I wanted to venture up the Orinocco River or head for Greenland, a steel boat would be up to the task and sneer at deadheads and growlers alike. Of course, as I was to learn when it was already too late, it's tough to tell the difference between sneering and rusting. I realize now that I was just rationalizing what had already become an obsession. I completely overlooked the fact that rust-free fiberglass boats had safely carried me across every ocean. Somehow I convinced myself that steel suited my personality. While I am no man of steel, I admit that I am not, by nature, delicate. Indeed, a diesel mechanic watching me over-tighten a union nut on an injector once remarked that I had the touch of a Russian midwife. With steel, at least I'd have a boat that I couldn't easily break.
There was also the creativity issue. While fiberglass boats have their wrinkles, for the most part they look the same and you are more or less stuck with a boat that looks the way the designer and builder intended. With steel boats it's different. They're funky; in fact, most designers can't recognize their own children. Both backyard and so-called professional builders just can't resist adorning their boats with too many good ideas. But that's OK. I have spent 20 years delivering "nice" boats all over the world. I wanted a boat with a few dents and a lopsided pilothouse—a boat with personality. I wanted a boat that could lay to that nasty, sporadically planked wharf in Cap Haitian without worrying about destroying the topsides. Yes sir, a funky, capable steel boat, that's what I wanted and unfortunately, that's what I got.
"You'll never believe what you can buy her for," insisted my good friend Joe, a local yacht broker. With his thick East End London accent and mischievous smile, it was hard to tell if he was serious. Lesa and I were milling around his office, soaking up the air-conditioning and waiting to be paid for a recently completed delivery. "But Joe, I don't want a steel boat." He knew I was lying and handed me the keys. "Just go take a look at her and when you get back I'll tell you the price." It never hurts to look, right?
At first glance, the rust streaked topsides made the boat look like a floating tiger. Wood and steel don't like each other—moisture in the wood eventually rusts the metal below, as was the case with a rotting wooden toe rail. It was nothing serious of course, just a little surface rust. The stem had a bit of rust where the paint was chipped and there was also a bit of rust around the hatches and portlights; nothing serious mind you; just surface rust. Then we dropped below. The interior had the look of a homebuilder who had run out of patience with a project gone bad and just wanted the damned boat out his backyard. I removed all the floorboards and probed around the bilges. Steel boats corrode from the inside out, so serious problems will usually turn up in the bilge first. There were traces of rust throughout, but several well placed thwacks with a small sledgehammer revealed—yep, you guessed it—nothing serious, just surface rust.
We spent hours pouring over the boat. I didn't realize it at the time, but the single best feature of the boat was access; you could locate the hull everywhere; nothing was hidden behind fancy, or even less than fancy, joinery work. In many ways, the old rust bucket was everything we wanted. A Roberts 44 design, she was a ketch rig with a comfortable center-cockpit design. Standing back, it was clear to see that in spite of her hard chines, she had a handsome sheer and nice overall lines. According to the drawings and specs on Joe's listing sheet, she had a seakindly underbody with a modified fin keel and skeg-hung rudder. And of course, she was steel. This was a boat made to roam the blue planet; this was a cruising boat. Of course, it needed a little work, but it was nothing serious .
We retreated to the Southport Raw Bar for lunch. Amazingly, Lesa was as taken as I was with the hard-sided, seemingly forgotten boat hidden away in a canal far enough up the New River that alligators cavorted alongside. Why is a damsel in distress so alluring? Before the conch chowder arrived, Lesa was sketching out a new interior layout on a cocktail napkin. I assured her that I'd knock off that silly wooden toe rail and weld on a proper steel bulwark. After all, that was another great advantage of steel. According to all the books I'd read, when you needed to add a fitting to a steel boat, you just fired up the arc welder and presto, there it was. Amidst our fatuous ramblings, however, a nagging vision was running around my brain.
I was back in Belize, where I had spent much of the previous year as skipper of a 46-foot sloop doing research on the Maya, while we were anchored near Placencia. A lovely old Orca sloop slipped into the anchorage and dropped the hook nearby. I instantly recognized and admired the boat. The next day I spied a wizened old man in a floppy hat working on deck. I hopped in the dinghy and zoomed over for a visit. I tried to start up a conversation.
"Nice boat. She's steel, isn't she?"
"She's in nice shape. Have you had her a long time?"
The old man was concentrating on chipping a patch of rust near the chainplates and didn't make eye contact.
"Is she Corten or just mild steel?"
"Are steel boats really as much work as they say?"
"I don't mean to bother you sir, but I am really interested in steel boats and…."
The old man finally looked at me. He didn't smile.
"Son, can't you see I'm working? If I stop or even pause to talk to you the damned rust will get ahead of me. Rust never sleeps."
I blotted out the vision and we hurried back to Joe's office. He explained that the owner lived out of state and needed cash immediately; he was willing to let the boat go cheap, real cheap. Lesa and I looked at each other. Cheap, real cheap, equaled our combined savings at that very second. All we had to do was make out a check and transfer the funds. She reached for her checkbook and just like that we became the new owners of 32,000 pounds of mildly rusting iron.
I actually had another chance to back out of the deal the next day. I had reserved the right to survey the boat myself. Miraculously, I coaxed the old Leland diesel to life and navigated to a nearby boatyard. As we hauled the boat in the slings, friends at the yard thought that I had lost any rumor of sense that I might have once had. Ironically, seeing the boat out of the water erased any doubts I had about her. She had a lovely underwater profile, better in fact than the drawings Joe had provided. I sounded around the hull with my trusty five-pound sledge, and while there were bits of surface rust at the waterline, there was of course, nothing serious.
The boat went back into the water and any two-bit psychotherapist could spot the beginnings of a classic love-hate relationship. That was seven and a half years ago. The boat has helped us realize some of our dreams, as we have sailed to Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Yet, that great, cheap, real cheap deal has slowly evolved into a relentless attempt to keep ahead of the old boat. I confess, at times the relentless labor wears me down, and not long ago we considered selling the boat. But our two young daughters are just about the right age for a long-anticipated world cruise, maybe another year or two, and we definitely hope to sail well off the beaten path—steel boats have certain advantages. I couldn't sell the boat—she is still the main character in dreams to come. I just have to be content with the knowledge that as I sit here writing, Fortuna is quietly rusting—after all, rust never sleeps.
Tips on Secondhand Steel Boats
On a more serious tone, I really do like steel boats and respect their many advantages. Obviously hull strength is the primary factor, and several years ago I learned just how strong our hull really is. We were exploring the Lighthouse Reef in Belize. A nasty gale blew in and we dragged onto the reef. For eight hours we pounded up and down grinding into rock and coral. Nobody was around to help us. Finally, I managed to kedge the boat off, though it was a horrifying experience. Yet, aside for a few more dents and scratches (a little more character), the boat was unscathed. Yes, steel boats have advantages. You just need to find a good one to save yourself a lot of knuckle busting work. Here are a few tips:
|The most important thing about a steel boat is access. If you can't see the hull from the inside, you can't see the rust and corrosion.|
|Be wary of a boat that has been plugged into shore power for years and years. Electrolysis is a serious business in a steel boat. Be sure to keep up your zincs. When you haul the boat look carefully at the zincs; see if they are eaten away evenly or just on one side or in one section of the hull. |
|Don't hesitate to pay for ultrasonic testing to determine plate thickness. Although the paint needs to be ground away in the areas where the testing is done, this is less destructive than actually drilling the plates to test for thickness.|
|Destructive testing sounds worse than it is. Ultimately, if an area of the hull appears corroded, you need to see just how much metal is still there. Sometimes it is more practical to drill a hole and see for yourself. Holes can be welded back up. |
|Don't believe the notion that things can easily be welded in place. While the welding is no big deal, it does create a lot of heat. If there is any insulation or wood close to the area below or inside of where you intend to weld, it will burn. I have set my boat on fire several times!|
|Don't despair if you have to replace a bit of plate in the hull. Steel is cheap, and skilled welders can be found for around $50 an hour. A moderate-sized replating job will likely cost less than a blister job for a glass boat. |