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Reducing Exterior Maintenance

Reducing exterior maintenance has an added bonus of an updated, modern appearance.
All boats require maintenance. Some of the upkeep needed ensures smooth sailing and a seaworthy craft, and simply can’t be avoided. But what about aesthetics? Many of us also spend countless hours polishing the stainless, re-doing the brightwork, and scrubbing the deck¾ only to repeat the process again and again and yet again. For Larry and I, the pleasing lines, grace, and charm of our boat are almost as important as its sailing characteristics. At some point, though, you have to ask yourself, "Where do I draw the line?"

It’s tempting to reduce the exterior maintenance of a boat by going all plastic, or letting the teak go gray, and for lots of sailors that is the best answer. But for us, that would take away an important part of the romantic pleasure we derive from sailing. Presently, we’re finishing our re-fit of a 23-year-old boat with lots of exterior maintenance needs. Our challenge has been to find just the right blend of materials and hardware that would reduce the burden of maintenance, yet keep the grace and charm that attracted us to her in the first place.

As far as exterior teak is concerned, we’re finding ourselves in a unique situation. On our last boat, a new modern production model, we actually added teak to soften its appearance and lend a bit of tradition. No such problem this time. I think our maintenance reduction campaign on Serengeti really started when faced with the task of refinishing the 42 linear feet of varnished teak handrails. If you’ve never had traditional handrails, let me assure you that they are the singular, absolute, most awful, frustrating pieces of wood on any boat to sand and successfully refinish. I’m a pretty patient person, but I met my match with these Guinness Book of World Record-length handrails.

One option would have been to strip the existing varnish and let the handrails gray naturally. That alone is a pretty big job. If you do nothing, eventually all the varnish will flake off, but it will take several years before it doesn’t just look like bad varnish. If you’re starting out with unfinished teak handrails, you might want to think twice before varnishing them. Rather than let ours go gray, we chose to remove the wooden handrails once and for all and be done with them. We replaced them with new ones made of stainless steel. This is a look that we’ve always admired, will be extremely durable, and will require just quick polishing every once in a while.

The contrast of highly varnished and unfinished teak is as pleasing as it is practical.
Our cockpit on Serengeti is adorned with beautiful teak trim. Since this is where we spend the bulk of our time, we wanted our emphasis of beautiful woodwork here where we can enjoy it the most. With our new fiberglass bimini and dodger installed, the cockpit varnish will be protected from the sun and will now last much longer than before.

When refinishing the cockpit wood, we chose a combination of high-gloss varnish on the trim boards and letting the center sections go natural. This provides a pleasing contrast to the eye, less area to maintain, and the best traction underfoot. Similarly, the louvers on the aft hatch board were stripped and allowed to gray, thus eliminating a difficult-to-maintain area.

On older boats, teak trim was often used in abundance. What this means today is that there are many small, hard to reach areas that are difficult to refinish¾ teak mounting blocks, hatch frames, traveler bases are good examples. Again, one option is to let them go gray. They won’t dazzle your friends with their beauty, but you also won’t have to fool with them again. We decided to take a different approach.

Our goal was to completely eliminate all teak maintenance outside of the cockpit with the exception of our teak toerail. We made each of these hard-to-maintain pieces of teak appear to be, and function as if they were, originally part of the fiberglass cabin house.

The traditional teak hatch frames were fashioned from four individual pieces of wood with a mitered joint at each corner. These pieces could expand and contract at a different rate and cause the joints to open up. Varnish or other teak finishes frequently fail in these areas due to this process. Our solution was to fiberglass and paint each hatch frame, which provided a modern look, zero maintenance, and complete water-tightness. We liked the results with our hatches so much, we repeated this process with our wooden traveler base, cheek block bases, and dorade boxes.

If you want to fiberglass your hatch frames, or other exterior teak, but aren’t ready to paint your entire cabin house like we did, don’t worry. You can use fine line tape to create a break on the cabin house approximately one inch away from your hatch frame. Paint down to this line, then remove the tape. You can use the same color or a different color from your boat to create a pleasant contrast. You’ll be amazed at the professional-looking results you can achieve with only a little effort.

Before the transformation, Serengeti's teak hatch frames and handrails were a real chore.
A varnished teak toerail accents the graceful lines of any sailboat and is possibly the most beautiful ornamentation of all. If you share our passion for this look, there’s no getting around regular maintenance coats to keep its beauty. As long as you re-coat before the varnish starts to break down, re-finishing is a snap. It’s when you wait too long that the job becomes a real chore. When we’re on the move, this is an area that needs attention every three to four months. If we find ourselves at dock for extended periods, we cover the rails to extend the maintenance cycle. An inexpensive homemade solution is to use thin-walled PVC drainage pipe, cut down the middle, then snapped into place over the rail. We use four-inch ID pipe, and it fits like a charm. Vinyl gutter materials also may fit your particular needs. The old standby is to use canvas covers that snap down the sides of each toerail.

A final way to reduce maintenance on your exterior woodwork is to use products and finishes that provide a longer life when compared to varnish. Although we personally prefer either varnish or nothing on our teak, there are many products that provide a somewhat "varnish-like" look. These finishes last longer than varnish, and are easier to reapply and touch up. Products like Cetol and Deks Olje give a nice finish and last six months to one year between coats.

When anchoring frequently, sailors can find themselves with a unique daily maintenance problem. If you’ve ever pulled an anchor that was lying in the mud, you know what we mean. The muddy water runs down the entire length of your deck until it finally finds the scupper and trickles overboard. This leaves you with an awful mess. To eliminate this problem, we added two things.

First, we installed a pressurized anchor wash down system at the bow that allows us to use saltwater to clean up the chain and anchor as it is being raised. This prevents the anchor locker and deck from being caked in mud and clean since the locker keeps our bilge eventually drains into the bilge. Next, we designed a "mud diverter" on deck just aft of the windlass. Our mud diverter is basically a dam that contains the dirty water and directs it toward the two new drains we installed. This system provides overboard discharge of the muddy water right at the bow, and no more swabbing the decks after each anchor raising.

In the marine environment, stainless steel does stain. You’ll notice they call it stain "less", not stain "free". Depending on the quality of the stainless steel used on your boat, small rusty areas can, and will, soon appear to mar the beautiful, shiny surface. Fortunately, these can be polished off easily with special polishing products designed for stainless steel. Oxalic acid is also a good product for removing stubborn rust stains. To reduce your maintenance burden, always rinse with fresh water after a day’s sail, especially if you’ve been in salt water. This holds true for aluminum too, because salt will pit the metal. Lightly coat your metals occasionally with lubricating sprays such as Boeshield T-9 or Corrosion Block to help protect from rust and corrosion.

Reducing maintenance is hard work, but you only have to do it once.
There’s no getting away from having to do some maintenance chores on our boats. That goes with the territory of owning one. But we do all have a choice of just "how much" maintenance is needed when it comes to the aesthetics part. The decisions you make and actions you take today can affect how much time you’ll have with the wind in your hair rather than a mop in hand or sanding dust in your face. By the way, we’re starting a new society called

Sailors Against Wooden Handrails. Anyone want to join?

Fiberlassing Teak

Fiberglassing teak hatch frames. This basic procedure for fiberglassing can be applied to any teak found on your boat.

  • Remove the hatch and sand away any remaining varnish from the teak frames.
  • Cover the frame with a layer of fiberglass tape or cloth "wet out" (soaked) with epoxy resin.
  • After the epoxy has cured, apply a fillet of thickened epoxy (peanut butter consistency) to the bottom joint between the fiberglass deck and the frame, then smooth it out with the end of a wooden tongue depressor. This will provide a nice rounded transition, have a "built-in" look, and help ensure a watertight seal. The fillet should cover the bottom edge of your fiberglass cloth thus eliminating any need to fair the bottom edge of the fiberglass.
  • Allow the top edge of the fiberglass to protrude into the opening of the hatch and after it has cured use a razor knife to cut it back flush with the opening.
  • Any time you fiberglass, you always have to fair the surface after the resin has cured to achieve a smooth finish. So, next apply a mixture of epoxy thickened with an easy-to-sand filler, like micro-balloons, to the surface. Using a plastic spreader, evenly apply a light coat of your thickened mixture over the entire fiberglassed frame.
  • After your fairing mixture has cured, sand the surface smooth with 120-grit sandpaper, finishing off with 220-grit.
  • Depending upon how well you’ve applied and sanded your fairing epoxy, you may need to apply more fairing material and sand a second time to achieve an acceptable finish.

You’re now completely watertight, ready for a paint job, and soon to be maintenance free.

Sue & Larry is offline  
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