Steel Sailboat Maintenance
How hard is the maintenance of steel sailboats? How hard is it to keep interior rust under control? How about problems with rust in hard-to-see and reach places like under framing members?
Any owners, past owners of steel sailboats, tell us how hard you found the maintenance.
Moderately difficult. Certainly more than fibreglass probably a bit less than timber.
Initial hull preparation of a steel hull is most important. Point One.
Most irksome thing about steel is that everything weeps just a little and in a remarkably short period of time you end up with rust streaks on the hull. These are not harmful just unsightly. A quick rub down with a mild acid solution (mea culpa I've forgotten the type of acid, boracic ????) and its all gone but leave her on the mooring untouched for a week or so and it will be back. You can minimise this weeping but it comes from under deck fittings, such as stanchion attachment points, mainly. I suspect the only way to avoid this would be to have everything welded to the hull and deck, nothing bolted.
On deck you also need to watch for any cracks in the paint. Left untended they can develop into real problems as the moisture will migrate under the paint surface until you will find a sheet of paint will simply come away revealing an ugly patch of rust. Again not all that difficult to fix with the aid of a Dremel or similar and products like POR, but you do need to keep on top of it.
They say that steel boats rust from the inside out, I'm not convinced about this.
Inside the main thing is to ensure that all surfaces are intitially perfect then keep everything dry dry dry. Before you leave the boat, mop out any moisture in the bilges and don't allow moisture to accumulate for any period of time if you are staying on board. Make sure all limber holes are kept clear of any gunk at all times. Also you must be able to access all, and I mean all, internal areas of the hull. If any parts of the hull have been lined with carpet , get rid of the damn stuff.
Probably sounds worse than it really is.
Obviously the best thing about steel is its strength when presented with things like floating trees trunks, other boats, half submerged containers and the odd reef but I'd still not like to put any of these to the test.
On the other hand it is fair to say that in a position of disputed right of way with something light and plastic and a well placed " no problem, we're steel" serves to clarify the situation. ;)
Our current boat is steel and while we are in the middle of buying fibreglass that is not from any disatisfaction with steel, we are simply going a bit larger in size and the grp boat seemed a practical choice for us. Had a suitable steel boat come along I would have been tempted but hull survey would need to have come up with a perfect report card. A poorly built steel hull would be second only to ferro as a hull to be avoided.
My final thought is that for liveaboard cruising steel is second only to aluminium as a choice of material but for a day sailor or weekend cruiser it's probably more trouble than it is worth. Final point is that steel really does not come into it's own until around 40'. Much under than the inherent weight of the material itself results in less than exhilarating performance in light airs. As an example our 34'er is painfully slow in anything under five knots and really doesn't start to kick up her heels until it tops ten.
Steel boats can rust from the inside out. Because you can't behind all of that cabinetry and ceilings. So if you have any rust starting in the inside of the vessel. It will be hard to attend to even if you know about it.
It is phosphoric acid mixed with water in a spray bottle will stand you in good stead.
Have worked on steel vessels all of my maritime career and chasing rust, painting and other hull maintenance is normal. but with the newer paints they have out now you work about as hard as you do keeping your teak trimming bright.
I have seen wood vessels whose steel fastenings bleeding rust through the paint. and the same with fiberglass boats also. Because of some of the stainless steels do bleed rust.
With a steel boat, expect to spend a good part of your time on board painting. The general rule seems to be "if it doesn't move, paint it - if it moves, paint it 'till it doesn't".. and those nail guns are noisy beasts too!!
Aluminium is not much better - it just takes longer for everything to corrode. It's wood and 'glass for me.
I'm not saying that steel boats cannot rust from the inside only that I have experienced more problems out than in. The cabinetry is definitely an area of concern. On Raven none of the cabinets are lined at the back. Inspection of underdeck is a bit of a pain because of headlining and insulation but I doubt that is one of the problem areas. More likely are surfaces where moisture can collect.
Have to agree in general that modern steel coatings have reduced much of the maintenance required. I am quite surprised by how little maintenance has been required with Raven.
Re the streaks , we have an Alejuela 39 on the mooring next to Raven and she weeps rust stains from her chain plates and stanchions as badly as anything on Raven.
Inside, we have kept a constant watch and have only needed to paint one small area where a fresh water inline tap had been rubbing against the hull.
The problems outside invariably start with impact e.g dropping a metal winch handle onto the deck is not a great idea even if you catch it after the first bounce and before the final splash.
In fact the biggest bummer with Raven is that her topsides need recoating.
Having to do this by brush may be beyond my skill as a painter. To have her sprayed is going to be a right pain in the bum, not to mention the expense.
I can't add anything here that hasn't already been said. The price paid with steel is eternal vigilance. The payoff is when you kedge off that uncharted coral reef with only some time with a rubber mallet and yet more paint in the next boat yard down the line.
We haven't seen salt in our steel cruiser, but I suspect I will find some interesting things behind the water tanks that are coming out, to judge by the interesting things we've found under the headliner and insulation in the aft cabin. It's not much, but it's been there for years and will require the requisite grind 'n' prime and two-part shuffle.
But I will say again what I've posted before: When idiots do this to your steel boat:
and the only damage is this:
...you'll be happy to do all that painting. Steel can save you from a long trip in a small raft in a way that 90% of most fibreglass or wooden boats simply can't...although the Tayana 45 beside me in the yard this winter looked like the most brutally overbuilt 18-tonne chunk of plastic I'd ever seen up close.
Val's post remined me that, in any good discussion of the merits of Steel boats, one shouldn't forget Concrete... sorry, "Ferro-cement".
I'm sure there are a few of these creatures still left that, if made well, are the lightest and lowest-maintenance "steel" hull form you can get, but if you hit something, like a reef, it's a swim for sure(shore). :cool: :D
BTW, Val.. How ever did they rescue your boat? Lot's of cranes and a new cradle perhaps? ...and why were they moving it with the mast up??
Val, good to see that the idiots were thinking ahead. They left the fenders hanging over the side, just in case :D
When it comes to rust on steel boats, my sense is that exterior rust will make the boat look bad while interior rust will reduce its strength.
When I worked for Charlie Wittholz in the early 1980's we figured that steel boats had a useful lifespan of 20-25 years or so, depending on build quality and maintenance, before they needed sufficient replating and reframing as to be of negligable value. At that time we were calling for the interior of the boats to be sandblasted white and coated with zinc rich, coal tar epoxy. The zinc was supposed to greatly improve the adhesion of the coating and the coal tar epoxy was very hard stuff that would stand up to abrasion very well.
Over the past ten years I have been aboard a number of the steel boats that were built from plans prepared during the period that I worked for Charlie.
In several cases I had a chance to examine the interior skin of the boat. In all cases I found that there was as significant rust along the stringers, in places as much as an 1/8" of the plating rusted away, which is not the end of the world on the bigger boats (over 40 feet) that had 5/16" plating, but was certainly not acceptable on the smaller boats with 10 and 11 gauge (roughly 1/8") plating where the strength of the panel was pretty much shot.
At least one of the boats that I saw had the interior removed and had been partially replated, sandblasted and recoated. Two years later the rust was back and growing. The broker told me that the seller of that boat had spent more than his asking price to remove the interior, do the plate repairs, sandblast the interior of the steel and recoat it and was now frustrated that the rust was back so quickly. Even discounting for broker hype, the cost of replating a 20-30 year old boat is a very significant number.
My problem is not with the small amounts of routine maintenance that has been described above. That kind of work is no different than say maintaining teak oil on the deck trim. You get a routine, and simply do it and its done. My problem is with this insideous rusting of key structural components and connections, and the long term impact on the boat's strength.
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