Leaks on my boat seem to be appearing from the keel bolt area. Since I don't want to drop the keel if I don't have to, is there a way to fix these leaks?
Mark Matthews responds:
Thanks for the question. While I know it's not what you want to hear (and of course your situation is hard to see from where I sit) the best fix will likely be to in fact drop the keel, examine the keel bolts, and if these need to be replaced, rebed, and reattach the keel again. Sure, you can goof around with epoxy fillets on the outside and inside of the keel, and these might work in the near term, but ultimately my sense is that you should be mentally and fiscally prepared for a bigger job to get it properly repaired. It is, after all, your boat's keel that we're talking about, and that's not a trivial matter.
Consider one of the most common of all leaks on sailboats— windows—for a case study of why gooping epoxy or another substance over the top of the keel just won't work. Walk around the docks of any marina and you'll see leaky windows with sorry repair jobs. You'll witness window frames exhibiting multiple attempts at stemming the flow, but which still leak. Time, sun, and motion eventually degrade the seal and the leak reappears.
A leaky window or stanchion is one thing—annoying, but not exactly dangerous in the short term. Leaky keel bolts are quite another. You should consider them a sign that something could be structurally wrong, and that is serious. Keeping the water out should be the first priority. A small trickle that can't be stopped can easily become a large and more serious ingress of water over time.
I'm sure you know that keels are regularly subjected to tremendous forces, both under sail and in the groundings that all boats sooner or later experience. The job of the keel is a serious one—to keep the boat right side up. I'm reminded of a competitor in the 1996 Vendee Globe whose keel-less boat inverted in the Southern Ocean appeared in dramatic photographs. His comments afterward went something along the lines of 'I can deal with losing the rudder or even a dismasting, but the keel is the almighty!' Now I know you're not likely to be plying those treacherous waters, but any time the water temperature dips below your own body temperature and your distance to shore is more than you can swim, there is a potential for disaster for you and those on board. Given all that, you'll see how wise it might be to enlist the services of a knowledgeable surveyor if you think this problem is beyond your scope of knowledge and ability.
For additional information, I'll refer you to a couple of articles and resources on this website. The first is Don Casey's Keel Bolt Concerns, which will allow you to better assess the kind of risks involved with keel bolts. He has also written an article titled Keel Bolt Repair, which you may find useful should you have to go this route. I'd also refer you to Sinking at the Dock, a less-than-Shakespearean-quality account of what can happen by yours truly. Finally, I'd encourage you to check out our E-mail Discussion Lists. These are arranged by boat types. Subscribing to these is a great way to glean insight from other sailors with your make and model boat.
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