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.
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.
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.
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.
Sailors Against Wooden Handrails. Anyone want to join?
Fiberglassing teak hatch frames. This basic procedure for fiberglassing can be applied to any teak found on your boat.
You’re now completely watertight, ready for a paint job, and soon to be maintenance free.
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