Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Annapolis, Md
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How old is too old for a boat?
I would not think that a fiberglass has a life span per se. Neither concrete nor fiberglass truly breaks down or looses strength on their own. They require other causes. In the case of fiberglass loss of strength can result from one or more of the following,
-The surface resins exposed to sunlight will UV degrade.
-Prolonged saturation with water will effect the byproducts formed in the hardening process turning some into acids. These acids can break down the bond between the glass reinforcing and the resin.
-Fiberglass is prone to fatigue in areas repetitively loaded and unloaded at the point where it is repetitively deflected. High load concentration areas such as at bulkheads, hull/deck joints and keel joints are particularly prone.
-Salts suspended in water will move through some of the larger capillaries within the matrix. Salts have larger molecules than water. At some point these salts cannot move further and are deposited as the water keeps moving toward an area with lower moisture content. Once dried these salt turn into a crystalline form and exert great pressure on the adjacent matrix.
-Poor construction techniques with poorly handled cloth, poorly mixed or over accelerated resins, and poor resin to fiber ratios were very typical in early fiberglass boats. These weaker areas can be actually subjected to higher stresses that result from much heavier boats. Its not all that unusual to see small spider cracking and/or small fractures in early glass boats.
-Of course beyond the simple fiberglass degradation there is core deterioration, and the deterioration of such things as the plywood bulkheads and flats that form a part of the boat''s structure.
There are probably other forms of degradation that I have not mentioned but I think as you suggest that the real end of the life of a boat is going to be economic. In other words the cost to maintain and repair an old boat will get to be far beyond what it is worth in the marketplace. I would guess this was the end of more wooden boats than rot. I can give you a bit of an example from land structures. When I was doing my thesis in college, I came across a government statistic which if I remember it correctly suggested that in the years between 1948 and 1973 more houses had been built in America than in all of history before that time. In another study these houses were estimated to have a useful life span of 35 years or so. As an architect today I see a lot of thirty five year old houses that need new bathrooms, kitchens, heating systems, modern insulation, floor finishes, etc. But beyond the physical problems of these houses, tastes have changes so that today these houses in perfect shape still has proportionately small market value. With such a small market value it often does not make sense from a resale point of view to rebuild and these houses are therefore often sold for little more than land value. At some level, this drives me crazy, since we are tearing down perfectly solid structures that 35 years ago was perfectly adequate for the people who built it, but today does not meet the "modern" standards.
The same thing happens in boats. You may find a boat that has a perfectly sound hull. Perhaps it needs sails, standing and running rigging, a bit of galley updating, some minor electronics, a bit or rewiring, new plumbing, upholstery, a little deck core work, an engine rebuild, or for the big spender, replacement. Pretty soon you can buy a much newer boat with all relatively new gear for less than you''d have in the old girl. Its not hard for an old boat to suddenly be worth more as salvage than as a boat. A couple years ago a couple friends of mine were given a Rainbow in reasonable shape. She just needed sails and they wanted an auxiliary, but even buying everything used the boat was worth a lot less than the cost of the "new" parts. When they couldn''t afford the slip fees, the Rainbow was disposed of. She now graces a landfill and the cast iron keel was sold for scrap for more than they could sell the whole boat for.
Wooden boats represent the difference between a maintainable construction method versus a low maintenance. A wooden boat can be rebuilt for a nearly infinite period of time until it becomes a sailing equivalent of ''George Washington''s axe'' (as in "that''s George Washinton''s axe. It''s had a few new handles and a few new heads but that is still George Washington''s axe".)
I don''t think you can arbitrarily decide that any boat is too old. After about 20 years they are all on a pretty level plain in terms of the likelihood of needing some kind of serious attention. The best deals are on quality older boats that have been well maintained and upgraded but which have thier prices limited by their age and model.
And finally if you decide to buy an old fiberglass boat, and find one with the bilges painted white, buy it. It does nothing for the boat, but you have say "Lets buy her because any man that would love a boat so much that he went through the trouble to paint the bilge white must have enjoyed this boat and taken great care of her no matter what her age."