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  #1  
Old 01-15-2008
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How does an old boat fail ?

I've read that fiberglass has a lifetime of 40-50 years. After that it has presumably lost a lot of its structural integrity due to flexing.

Now, I've also read (on the sailnet forums) that a lot of people seem to think that the older boats are the way to go (due to thicker fiberglass, non-cored hulls, cost issues, just liking the look of older boats, etc).

At this point, is a late 60's / early 70's fiberglass boat on its last legs, or will they last quite a bit longer?

I'm thinking specifically about an early 70's Iroquois cat - that's in the price range I'm thinking of for a cruising cat, even taking in the cost of a major refit. But if the hull is going to fall apart at some point in the next 10 years it seems foolish to blow a lot of money on a refit.

Also, while I read that fiberglass has a lifetime of 40-50 years, how exactly does it fail? Does the boat just sink one day? Fall apart in bad weather? Just more prone to getting big holes if you bump the dock too hard?
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Old 01-15-2008
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This is a really tough question to answer, because there are so many variables involved. A lot of the strength loss issues with fiberglass have to do with fatigue, and a heavily, over-built hull is going to suffer far less from fatigue than a lighter solid glass hull is. However, a properly designed and cared for cored hull is going to be even stiffer and more fatigue resistant than a solid hull, since the cored construction resists flexing much better.

I don't think that even a very aged and fatigued hull is just going to sink. It may break more easily or fracture more seriously in the case of an impact, but I seriously doubt it is just going to disintegrate without warning.

One reason many people go for an older boat is simply financial. An older boat is far more affordable. A new boat in the 30' range is going to be upwards of $100,000 properly kitted out. You can get a 31' boat, like a Southern Cross 31 for a third that in very good shape with a lot of extras, like a wind vane, an autopilot, solar panels, PFDs, harnesses and jacklines, etc, that would be additional on a new boat.

If you get an Iroquois, get a survey... and if it passes survey, it isn't likely to fall apart in the next 10 years if you maintain it properly.... Of course, if you neglect anything long enough, it will suffer the consequences...
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Old 01-15-2008
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Exclamation The proverbial debate

As SD mentions this a hard subject and questioned often (Not just here).

A Marine Surveyor may be a good source. I am not an expert of wood or fiberglass. I know enough of both to fix and maintain to have a good boat. I try to explain how I question fiberglass.

I have worked on boats and have some confidence in old fiberglass (With reservations).

Looking for another sailboat, I too have looked at older boats. We know that Wood has proven itself as a boat building material with Centuries of examples under its belt. Fiberglass on the other hand is young and has not had the years to prove itself for longevity.

I tell friends, I feel I could buy a fiberglass sailboat from the 60's and it last the rest of my life.

Wood boats; I see boats 100+ years old that are in very good condition, because they were cared for properly. I also see wood boats from the 70's that are no more than fire wood now because of care.

Fiberglass boats; I read of some from the late 60's and early 70's and they mention soft spots on the deck. I question; "Where"? Are these around Sanctions etc, where screws/bolt holes allow water to penetrate to the core? Are the soft spots on the deck where water should not have a way in?

I see care of fiberglass may not be as stringent as wood. But, fiberglass does seem to show a need for some amount of care. Gelcoat is flexible to some extent and over time it may stiffen and crack. What I think; this allows for water to begin its work of erosion. Over time depending on weather (Freezing, extreme heat). Once the Gelcoat loses integrity it like a war. The first line of defense has failed and now you retreat to the next line which is the fiberglass itself.

If, the fiberglass fails there may be many reasons. Was sufficient epoxy used to saturate the cloth/fibers? How was the epoxy mixed? Too much hardener or not enough? Does the amount of hardener matter? Etc.

Boat owner forums can help about a particular manufacture. Also, seeing how many of an old boat that still around and being used may help (Walking around docks looking and talking with people).

What I look for first on fiberglass boats is the Gelcoat as that what we can see. Then for myself I tap around on the deck and hull (Sometimes I just use a Bolt Washer) for soft spots that may not show walking around on the area. Does it look like a road map in places? Why and how deep does this go? I know I can take cracked gelcoat and with proper waxing/buffing a person not see the cracks, but, sometimes they still there!

I guess I have found boats from the 60's I feel be a good buy and last the rest of my life. I have also found some I not too sure of. The condition of what I can see has a big bearing and then I test my assumption by what I can not see (Washer tapping, trying to see the Fiberglass from the inside best I can, etc.).

Everyone may have a different opinion and ways of checking. Which for me, it gives more ideas for making a better buying decision. I just give a little of how I know/do and not say it the best.

But, fiberglass not been around long enough to be fact, it more in Theory to me. As I said earlier I have seen both wood and fiberglass still going strong with care. I have also seen both sent to the scrape yard.
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Old 01-15-2008
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Turning off the 'chuckle' factor I'll get serious for a minute.

A modicum of google work produced several good links:
http://www.coe.montana.edu/composite...%20Details.pdf

being one of them.
The bottom line it's all about stress cycles and how many it takes to cause a delamination, the real bottom line, we are talking millions of stress cycles - and no one is a) counting them, b) able to say what is and is not a stress cycle.
If we're talking a keel bolt coming through FG and that keel is swinging back and forth (i.e. tacking) and that's a sufficent to count as a cycle then old boats that sit at the pier are okay, boats actually sailed (gasp, what a concept) would be at more risk.
If it takes a grounding to produce sufficient stress to cause a 'cycle' then the suckers will never fail. Looking around and the boats where the keel has fallen off; I'd guess a tack is closer to a cycle than a grounding.

At no point in time does any of the research I did indicate that FG suddenly melts or dissolves - only delaminates, looses it structure integrity and therefore when attached to a lead mine (i.e. keel) or not having enough bouyancy inherent to the design of the boat without water tight integrity, it then sinks.


Chuckle factor back on - if a bank loans you the money for the boat you can be sure they expect it to last long enough for you to pay off the loan (maybe that's why it's hard to get loans on old woodies). Banks aren't wrong are they?
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Old 01-15-2008
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Chuckles has some good info

I like having what I call a "Play Boat". This boat for myself get more abused than something I will keep or sell (And I really not sell many of my boats). Usually I give it away when I finished.

I have had a Play Boat be in pretty rough shape after 4-5 years of stress and experimenting.
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Old 01-15-2008
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This topic has come up many times on this forum. The following was my response to a set of questions asked a few years back that discusses some of the fiberglass issues. This is a very long one.

1) "Isn't heavier and thicker always better?"

Yes and no....There are a lot of factors that add to the weight of a boat beyond its hull. Earlier boats were heavier for a lot of reasons beyond simply having thick hulls. Simply focusing on the hull for a moment. There are really several things that determine the strength of the hull itself. In simple terms it is the strength of the unsupported hull panel (by 'panel' I mean the area of the hull or deck between supporting structures) itself, the size of the unsupported panel, the connections to supporting structures and the strength of the supporting structures.

On its own, Fiberglass laminate does not develop much stiffness and it is very dense. If you simply try to create stiffness in fiberglass it takes a lot of thickness. Early fiberglass boat designers tried to simply use the skin for stiffness with wide spread supports from bulkheads and bunk flats. This lead to incredibly heavy boats and boats that were comparably flexible. (In early designs that were built in both wood and fiberglass, the wooden boats typically weighed the same but were stiffer, stronger, and had higher ballast ratios)

Fiberglass hates to be flexed. Fiberglass is a highly fatigue prone material and over time it looses strength through flexing cycles. A flexible boat may have plenty of reserve strength when new but over time through flexure fiberglass loses this reserve.

So back to your original question, all other things being equal a thicker panel should have more stiffness but typically these early thickened panels were just not that stiff and as a result they are prone to losing more strength over time.


2) Were those boats not made of the same polyester resin (and fiberglass) used in today's boats?

Not Really. While the basic chemistry is the same, there is a lot that makes up polyester resin. Prior to the fuel crisis in the 1970's polyester formulations were different and were comparatively brittle (but more resistant to blisters). As a result of the fuel crisis, the resin formulations used in marine applications were altered, and they were altered again in the early 1980's as a result of the acute blister problems caused by the 1970's reformulation.

Beyond that, there is the way that resins were handled. In the 1960's mixing proportioning, temperature control and even apply resins was pretty haphazard. Various additives were pretty casually added to the resins, such as extenders, bulking agents and accelerators. Each of these offered some cost advantage, but did nothing for strength.

Probably the worst offenders were accelerators, which increases the brittleness of the resin and weakens it over time. The idea behind accelerators is that tooling for boats (moulds) are expensive. The quicker you can pop out a hull the more frequently you can use a mold. In the 1960's fiberglass normally took a period weeks to reach a state of cure (i.e. reach something approaching full strength) that it was acceptable to remove the hull and not risk distortion. If you simply over catalyze the resin it will cure more quickly but it will also go off too quickly to have a useful pot life. So in the 1960s accelerators were used to allow a reasonable pot life but speed up the cure time.

The other component in the laminate is the actual reinforcing fabrics. In its infancy, fiberglass fibers were quite short, brittle and needed to be handled very carefully to avoid damage to the individual fibers. In production facilities in the 1960's this was simply not well known and so fabrics were cut and folded into tight little bundles. In a plant you would see small stacks of these tightly folded and carefully labeled fiberglass fabric bundles around the perimeter of a boat being laminated.

Then there was the cloths themselves. Woven fiberglass is comparatively stretchy and weak because in the weaving process the geometry results in fibers that are folded over each other and need to elongate in order to really absorb a big load. Fiberglass fabrics also take the greatest stress in the direction that the fibers are oriented. In the 1960's there was no effort to minimize the use of materials that reduced the strength of the fiberglass fibers because of the way that the fabric was woven and there was little or no effort to orient the fibers to the direction of maximum stress.

Then there is the ratio of fiberglass and resin. Except in compression, resin is a very weak material. Resin is very poor in tension, can't stand elongation and is not too good in sheer. Resin is only there to glue the fibers together and to keep the fibers in column so that the laminate does not fail. The ideal fiberglass resin has no more resin than is absolutely necessary to hold the fibers together and not a tiny bit more.

This was known in the early days of fiberglass boats but resin and labor was cheap so it was easier to just pour a little more in and avoid dry spots. When I have cored older boats I have generally been amazed how much resin compared to cloth I have found, certainly compared to later boats.

Lastly, comes the controversial issue of coring. Solid glass is heavy. No two ways about it. So it is hard to achieve much bending strength or stiffness without incurring a major weight problem except in very small boats. (It is the same problem with metal construction.) If you try to keep weight down you end up with a boat that flexes a lot and flexing causes fatigue that greatly weakens the laminate. The trade off is typically some mix of internal framing and/or coring which allows smaller panel sizes and therefore less movement,

And before you say, "So just build it heavier". (As I am sure a lot of people are tired of hearing me say) Weight does nothing good for a boat. In and of itself it does not add strength or room, or comfortable motion, but it sure adds additional stresses to every working part of the boat, and it certainly slows a boat down.

Coring allows the depth of the section to increase and significantly strengthens and stiffens the section, reducing flexing and fatigue. While the outer skin is thinner and easier to pierce than a thicker uncored hull, the combination of outer skin, and core work together where the core acts as a crush zone absorbing energy and distributing it to a wider area. Even with the outer skin breached there is a relatively high likelihood that the inner skin will be intact and after the thicker laminate of the same way has been broached. Where coring does not do as well in is situations where the boat is subject to long term abrasion and in situations where a boat spends a lot of time bouncing off a dock. Even here, research suggests that certain kinds of coring is less likely to fatigue or delaminate in such applications than non-cored heavy glass.


3. What things do I look for as far as strength?

Up to now we have focused on the strength of the fiberglass materials themselves. But boats behave as a system. As I said early on there are a number of factors that determine the actual strength of the boat. We've discussed the strength of the hull panel itself but in many ways its the size of the unsupported panel, the connections to supporting structures and the strength of the supporting structures that really determine more about the strength of the boat.

You generally just don't hear of sail boats that are sailing along and a section of hull falls apart. What you do hear about are hardspot failures, hull/ deck joint failures and failures of the framing systems.

Framing systems are a key part of the strength of a boat. A section of fiberglass laminate that might be extremely strong and stiff when spanning say 12 to 16 inches is really in trouble when trying to span 24 to 30 inches. One of the key elements in evaluating how strong a boat is the frequency of framing. Bulkheads, bunk and shelf flats, engine beds, athwartship frames, and longitudinal stringers all reduce panel size and, in doing so, distribute loads and help limit the size of a tear in, or flexure of, the skin.

But the connection between the framing system and the skin is a really important component of the system as well. The joint between the skin and framing members (either tabbing or flanges) need to be wide enough to provide a good contact area for adhesion and to prevent a concentrated load on the skin where our old adversary 'Fatigue' can go to town.

Beyond that the framing members themselves need to be sturdy enough to take the loads being superimposed on them. So to answer your question, if I walked on a boat that knew nothing about, the way I would judge the strength of the boat would be to look for small panel sizes, wide tabbing and structural flanges and framing that looks appropriately sized for the job.

I would also look at high stress areas. Hull/deck joints should have wide contact areas. Mast steps and rudderposts should have large longitudinal and athwartship, knees, frames or bulkheads. Keels should have closely spaced, well glassed-in, athwartship frames (called floor frames) that minimally start at the forward edge of the keel and stop one frame aft of the end of the keel. There should be well glassed in longitudinal (which is often formed by the face of the berths) that occurs over these athwartship frames and act to distribute loads and these should occur reasonably close to the centerline of the boat (within a few feet).

Rigging loads should be tied into longitudinal and athwartship frames, bulkheads or knees.

4. You mentioned that in the 80's the boats were better made but lighter... can you explain that?

In the 1980's, better boat builders began to use better resins and use them properly, handle fabrics better, and use fibers oriented to better stress mapping. Over resin rich laminates became rarer. Framing systems became more sophisticated. (The largest panel on my 1983 38 footer is about 14 by 22 inches. My 1960s era C&C 22 had panels 2 feet by 6 feet in size.)

5. I wonder why is it going beyond the design limits of a coastal cruiser to sail from Florida to the Bahamas? The same is true for most of the Caribbean? However, to make my point... wouldn't almost any production boat 30-34 feet long be safe enough to make those trips?

This is about risk management. In good weather and with a little luck you'd be amazed how minimal a boat can make the kinds of passages that you are talking about. But if your luck runs out, and you get hammered, things happen. Boats will flex bulkheads and stringers loose. At which point, rigging loads are no longer acting on a glassed in bulkhead, which pries the deck up. Perhaps a portlight cracks from being torqued and pretty soon you have something that looks like a boat, but which no longer is a boat. (I have repaired a boat that just what I described happened to and it happened off of Ft. Lauderdale.)


6. I am trying to get the handle on what I should look for, model, weight, price, year, or what?

There is no simple answer here. The real answer (with all due respect) comes from experience. It comes from being able to get aboard a boat and look for those subtle clues that tell you how strong a particular boat is and how hard it has been used and how well it has been maintained. It comes from really researching a boat.

(In my own case. when I was narrowing my search for the boat that I recently bought, I talked via email to people in South Africa, the Caribbean and in New Zealand, who had sailed on sisterships in a wide range of conditions. I spoke to Bruce Farr's office (the design firm). I spoke to people who had sailed on the boat years before. I went through the boat with a fine tooth comb and then had a surveyor do the same thing to keep me honest with myself. Only then was I ready to buy a boat in confidence that the boat would do what I needed it to.)

You have very ambitious goals and not much money. People have given you good advice but you want to understand why you were getting that advice. That's good. But you have a long way to go (and I don't mean that as a put down). My best recommendation is that you allow yourself the time to look at a lot of boats, talk to a lot of people, get out on the water when ever you can and you will be able sort all this out and learn as you go.

7. Can anyone shine a light on my questions?

Yes, You can! We're here to help but this is your puzzle. Even if we could, and even if we did, give you all the answers, you couldn't learn enough or enjoy the ride as much, if all you had to do was dial into a bulletin board and just like turning over a magic 8 ball, the exact right answer to your question came your way.

Hang in there!
Regards
Jeff
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Old 01-15-2008
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This was an article that I wrote for another purpose and while it contains some of the same discussions from the prior post of mine, it may prove useful as well.

I would not think that a well- constructed fiberglass has a life span per se. Neither concrete nor fiberglass truly breaks down or loses strength simply on their own without other factors coming into play. They require other causes. In the case of fiberglass loss of strength can result from one or more of the following,

-The surface resins will UV degrade.
-Prolonged saturation with water will affect the byproducts formed in the hardening process turning some into acids. These acids can break down the bond between the glass reinforcing and the resin.
-Fiberglass is prone to fatigue in areas repetitively loaded and unloaded at the point where it is repetitively deflected. High load concentration areas such as at bulkheads, hull/deck joints and keel joints are particularly prone.
-Salts suspended in water will move through some of the larger capillaries within the matrix. Salts have larger molecules than water. At some point these salts cannot move further and are deposited as the water keeps moving toward an area with lower moisture content. Once dried these salt turn into a crystalline form and exert great pressure on the adjacent matrix.
-Poor construction techniques with poorly handled cloth, poorly mixed or over accelerated resins, and poor resin to fiber ratios were very typical in early fiberglass boats. These weaker areas can be actually subjected to higher stresses that result from much heavier boats. It’s not all that unusual to see small spider cracking and/or small fractures in early glass boats.
-Of course beyond the simple fiberglass degradation there is core deterioration, and the deterioration of such things as the plywood bulkheads and flats that form a part of the boat’s structure.

Earlier boats had heavier hulls for a lot of reasons beyond the myth that designers did not know how strong fiberglass was. Designers knew exactly how strong the fiberglass of that era actually was. The US government had spent a fortune developing fiberglass information during WWII and by the early 1950’s designers had easy access to the design characteristics of fiberglass. (Alberg, for example, was working for the US Government designing F.G. composite items when he designed the Triton and Alberg 35) The reason that the hulls on the early boats were as thick as they were had more to do with the early approach to the design of fiberglass boats and the limitations of the materials and handling methods used in early fiberglass boats. Early designers and builders had hoped to use fiberglass as a monocoque structure using an absolute minimal amount (if any) framing which they felt occupied otherwise usable interior space.

On its own, fiberglass laminate does not develop much stiffness (by which I mean resistance to flexure) and it is very dense. If you try to create the kind of stiffness in fiberglass that designers had experienced in wooden boats, it takes a whole lot of thickness which in turn means a whole lot of weight. Early fiberglass boat designers tried to simply use the skin of the boat for stiffness with wide spread supports from bulkheads and bunk flats. This lead to incredibly heavy boats and boats that were still comparably flexible compared to earlier wooden boats or more modern designs. (In early designs that were built in both wood and fiberglass, the wooden boats typically weighed the same as the fiberglass boats but were stiffer, stronger, and had higher ballast ratios)

The large amount of flexure in these old boats was a real problem over the life of the boat. Fiberglass hates to be flexed. Fiberglass is a highly fatigue prone material and over time it looses strength through flexing cycles. A flexible boat may have plenty of reserve strength when new but over time through flexure fiberglass loses this reserve. There are really several things that determine the overall strength of the hull itself. In simple terms it is the strength of the unsupported hull panel itself (by 'panel' I mean the area of the hull or deck between supporting structures), the size of the unsupported panel, the connections to supporting structures and the strength of the supporting structures. These early boats had huge panel sizes compared to those seen as appropriate today and the connections were often lightly done.

This fatigue issue is not a minor one. In a study performed by the marine insurance industry looking at the high cost of claims made on older boats relative to newer boats and actually doing destructive testing on actual portions of older hulls, it was found that many of these earlier boats have suffered a significant loss of ductility and impact resistance. This problem is especially prevalent in heavier uncored boats constructed even as late as the 1980's before internal structural framing systems became the norm. The study noted that boats built during the early years of boat building tended to use a lot more resin accelerators than are used today. Boat builders would bulk up the matrix with resin rich laminations (approaching 50/50 ratios rather than the idea 30/70), and typically used proportionately high ratios of non-directional fabrics (mat or chopped glass) in order to achieve a desired hull thickness. Resin rich laminates and non-directional materials have been shown to reduce impact resistance and to further increase the tendency towards fatigue. The absence of internal framing means that there is greater flexure in these older boats and that this flexure increases fatigue further. Apparently, there are an increasing number of marine insurance underwriters refusing to insure older boats because of these issues.

I have been looking at a lot of older fiberglass boats in the past few years. One thing that has struck me is the sheer amount of noticeable flexure cracking in areas of high stress, such as bulkheads, chainplate attachment points, hull to deck joints, cabin to deck lines, engine beds and rudder posts, and other high load hardware positions.

There are probably other forms of hull degradation that I have not mentioned but I think that the real end of the life of a boat is going to be economic. In other words the cost to maintain and repair an old boat will get to be far beyond what it is worth in the marketplace. I would guess this was the end of more wooden boats than rot. I can give you a bit of an example from land structures. When I was doing my thesis in college, I came across a government statistic, which if I remember it correctly suggested that in the years between 1948 and 1973 more houses had been built in America than in all of history before that time. In another study these houses were estimated to have a useful life span of 35 years or so. As an architect today I see a lot of thirty five year old houses that need new bathrooms, kitchens, heating systems, modern insulation, floor finishes, etc. But beyond the physical problems of these houses, tastes have changes so that today these houses in perfect shape still has proportionately small market value. With such a small market value it often does not make sense from a resale point of view to rebuild and these houses are therefore often sold for little more than land value. At some level, this drives me crazy, since we are tearing down perfectly solid structures that 35 years ago was perfectly adequate for the people who built it, but today does not meet the “modern” standards.

The same thing happens in boats. You may find a boat that has a perfectly sound hull. Perhaps it needs sails, standing and running rigging, a bit of galley updating, some minor electronics, a bit of rewiring, new plumbing, upholstery, a little deck core work, an engine rebuild, or for the big spender, replacement. Pretty soon you can buy a much newer boat with all relatively new gear for less than you’d have in the old girl. Its not hard for an old boat to suddenly be worth more as salvage than as a boat. A couple years ago a couple friends of mine were given a Rainbow in reasonable shape. She just needed sails and they wanted a newer auxiliary, but even buying everything used the boat was worth a lot less than the cost of the “new” parts. When they couldn’t afford the slip fees, the Rainbow was disposed of. She now graces a landfill and the cast iron keel was sold for scrap for more than they could sell the whole boat for.

Then there is the issue of maintainable vs. durable/low maintenance design concepts. Wooden boats for example represent the difference between a maintainable construction method versus a low maintenance/ durable method. A wooden boat can be rebuilt for a nearly infinite period of time until it becomes a sailing equivalent of ‘George Washington’s axe’ (as in “that’s George Washington’s axe. It’s had a few new handles and a few new heads but that is still George Washington’s axe”.) The main structure of a fiberglass hull is reasonably durable and low maintenance but once it has begun to lose strength, there is nothing that you can do.

The best deals on older used boats are the ones that someone has lovingly restored, upgraded, and maintained. Over the years they have poured lots of money and lavished lots of time into maintaining the boat in reasonably up to date condition. No matter how much they have spent the boat will never be worth anything near what they have in it because there is a real ceiling to how much an older boat will ever be worth and they will often have several times that ceiling invested.

And finally if you buy an old fiberglass boat, paint the bilges white. It does nothing for the boat, but if you ever have to sell the boat, then someone may look in your bilge and say “Lets buy her because any owner who would love a boat so much that he went through the trouble to paint the bilge white must have enjoyed this boat and taken great care of her no matter what her age.”

Good Luck,
Jeff
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Old 01-17-2008
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Hello.
Wow that was a lot of reading.
Here's a another point to concidder when buying an older boat. Be real sure to look very closely at all Stainless Steel - especially around the deck area. Chain plates, stanchion holders etc. If U see the tiniest little hairpin crack or a tiny isolated rust point - this could mean that there is sodium corrosion and most of its strenght is gone. And if one has it - U can be sure the rest of them also.
Not to mention how a 30 year old aluminum fuel tank would look inside - most likely very pitted an lots of crud/ sludge.
Cheers
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