Recently a sailor who slipped on a wet deck sued the boat manufacturer because the deck surface had been advertised as nonskid, which it clearly was not. Under the heading of "imagine that," this manufacturer, on advice of counsel, now calls textured deck surfaces anti-skid. That, of course, misses the point. When you are farther from shore than you can swim and the wet deck is canted toward the ocean like a water slide, you don't want a texture that is merely philosophically opposed to your slipping. What you want is nonskid.
Molded in texture that works wet has sharp edges, but because gelcoat is relatively soft, these edges are dulled by wear and exposure. By the time the deck needs cosmetic attention, calling the textured surfaces nonskid is nearly always a case of denying reality. And in a touch of dangerous irony, any grip that might remain is certain to be destroyed by sanding and painting.
Painting the deck to improve its appearance without also taking steps to give it secure footing is well stupid. The gloss, after all, will be above eye level when you're treading water. But, hey, I know I'm preaching to the choir. A couple of months back I promised to provide chapter and verse on restoring nonskid surfaces that have lost their grip if there was sufficient interest in this subject among SailNet visitors. There was -- so I am.
The two approaches to giving a sailboat deck secure footing are nonskid paints and nonskid overlays.
We start all painting jobs with surface preparation -- complicated in this case by the molded-in texture. Not only are the crags and crevices going to be difficult to sand, but they still harbor waxy mold release. Wearing heavy rubber gloves, scrub the surface vigorously with terry-cloth rags (sections of old bath towels) saturated with dewaxing solvent. Turn and change the rags often so you are picking up the wax, not spreading it.
Give the uneven surface "tooth" with a soft wire wheel (brass) in a drill, a brass wire brush or coarse bronze wool. (Never, ever use steel wool, which leaves behind little bits that will bloom into rust spots.) Fortunately, most of the stress on the new paint will be on the top surface, which you can sand properly using 100-grit paper in a palm sander. Sweep or vacuum (better) the sanded surface, then flush and scrub it vigorously with a hose and stiff bristle brush. When dry, give it a thorough solvent wipe.
When the nonskid will be a different color, painting the smooth surface first enables a crisp line of separation. Even if the whole deck will be one color, painting all the smooth areas first is still a good painting scheme. A second option is to wait to apply the final coat to the smooth surfaces until you are also ready to put the final coat on the textured surfaces. In this case, apply all but the final coat to the smooth surfaces and sand them in preparation for the last coat before you start painting the textured panels.
The way we make the paint enhance the deck's nonskid characteristics is by introducing grit into the paint. Sand is the least costly and arguably the most effective grit, but its sharp edges can make it hard on bare feet, abrasive to bare knees and murder on foul-weather pants. Thirty-six-grit foundry sand under a couple of coats of paint gives excellent slip resistance. You can also use sandblasting sand, or even sandbox sand. I recommend against beach sand because of impurities, but if you're doing the deck in Nuku Hiva
Commercial nonskid particles sold by paint manufacturers is your other option. These microscopic plastic beads are spherical and uniform, making them gentler on skin and fabric, but somewhat less tenacious. Nonskid (or anti-skid) compounds are completely interchangeable, so unlike with primers and solvents, you can use any manufacturer's polymeric beads. Coarser is usually better.
Before you begin resurfacing the deck, I strongly urge you to paint a test panel on a plywood scrap to see just how rough the surface will be. That will let you experiment with more than one grit before deciding which offers the best compromise between comfort and safety.
Despite the instructions of some paint manufacturers, mixing the grit into the paint rarely yields satisfactory results because of patchy dispersion. Instead, use a medium- or long-nap roller to coat the textured panel with epoxy primer, then while the primer is still wet, sift your chosen grit into it until the surface is completely covered. When the primer has cured, gently vacuum or brush away the grit that did not adhere (you can reuse it). Encapsulate the remaining grit by rolling on two coats of whatever paint you selected for the deck. Let the paint dry between coats, but do not sand.
Rubberized nonskid overlays provide superior footing to molded-in texture or paint-encapsulated grit. The most readily available deck overlays are Treadmaster M and Vetus Deck Covering. The only drawback to these products is initial cost, but for a boat you expect to keep a long time, the 20-plus-year life expectancy can make overlay an excellent value.
Installation of overlay is not complicated. First you get rid of the molded texture by grinding off the high parts of the pattern and filling the depressions that remain with epoxy putty. Sand the cured epoxy with 80-grit paper to fair it and prepare it for the adhesive.
Cut a pattern from heavy kraft paper for every nonskid panel. Give all the corners a uniform radius using a margarine-tub lid or similar. For appearance and drainage, leave at least 1 inch between adjacent panels, at least 2 inches between the overlay and the rail, cabin side, or coamings. As before, you should paint the smooth portions of the deck first, making sure the edges of the paint will be hidden by the overlay.
Cut holes in the center of the patterns and tape across these to hold the patterns in place on the painted deck. Once you are satisfied with the shape and placement of all the patterns, trace the circumference of each onto the deck. Remove the patterns and use them to cut the overlay panels, taking care to keep the top and the bottom surfaces of the pattern and the overlay in proper orientation.
The trick to getting a perfect installation is to install one panel at a time. Use a serrated trowel to coat the area inside the pencil mark with thickened epoxy, leaving the half inch or so just inside the pencil mark glue free. Carefully position the overlay panel in alignment with the pencil marks and press the panel flat, beginning in the middle and working toward the edge. You can use a roller, but don't press hard. Some epoxy should squeeze out all around, but you want most to remain between the overlay and the deck.
Pick up the squeeze-out carefully with a plastic spreader, and clean away any residue with an acetone-dampened cloth. Gallon zip-lock bags filled with sand make excellent weights to hold the overlay flat until the epoxy kicks.
Either of these nonskid treatments is sure to enhance your safety well beyond what you might imagine.
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