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Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance

Even achieving a good finish on your topsides isn't beyond the reach of a diligent do-it-yourself boat owner.

If you've heard this story before, stop me.

A couple of bottom jobs back, a nice 37-footer sat next to my boat in the yard. One afternoon, a rusty VW bus sputtered and wheezed to a stop behind it. The VW's equally rusty driver pitched the end of a power cord over the lifelines and climbed aboard. The whine of a hole saw and a drill shook the hull. Ten minutes later he asked me to hold the outside part of a new through-hull fitting while he tightened the seacock from the inside. Five minutes after that he was gone. When the boat's owner came by after work to check on the job, his appraisal was peppered with obscenities.

"Problems?" I asked, deciding to keep quiet about my participation.

"I told that *@#%() exactly what I wanted and the ignorant ()%#@* still did it wrong."

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard boat owners say something similar, I could afford to pay others to work on my boat.

This owner took me aboard to commiserate with him.

 "Look! Do you see any caulking squeezing out here, or there?" He was pointing at the flange of the seacock. "And the damn thing is just threaded on! What does that *@#%() think those ears are for? And why smack in the middle of the locker? Why not off to the side where the hose won't be forever in the way? Now I'm stuck with that location. And I'll have to get someone else out to reinstall the fitting."

"Why not," I suggested, "just reinstall it yourself?"

"Me?! Oh no, no, no, no!" He faced his palms out to repel the idea. "If I did it, it would leak for sure."

Here was a guy that obviously knew everything he needed to know to install the new through-hull fitting. Yet he had hired some hard-core underachiever living in an old hulk out in the free anchorage to do the job for him. Why?

Experience will give you confidence and that's what you'll draw on for future haulout projects.

The answer is lack of confidence. The psyche is a strange thing. It is often easier to have unfounded confidence in someone else than to have justifiable confidence in yourself. The guy you hire only has to say, "Sure, I can do that," and you turn your boat, and perhaps your personal safety, over to him.

Now, I am not in any way suggesting that competent people aren't doing boat repairs for a living, although rarely will the person you hire care as much about your boat as you do. Nor am I suggesting that working on your own boat is somehow more noble than hiring the work done, although the more you know about your boat, the less likely you are to have an unmanageable emergency. The only point I am trying to make is that if you wish you could do more of the work on your own boat, fear of screwing up is nearly always a poor reason to decide against it.

Most boat projects require more attitude than aptitude. Take fiberglass repair, for example. There are only two requirements for a strong repair—grinding the old surface and completely saturating the fabric with resin. Your first glassing effort might be ugly, but if you pay attention to these two requirements, your fears of the patch peeling off like a wet Band-Aid will prove unfounded. As for the repair being rough, sandpaper and paint can correct that.

That brings us to painting. For the aging sailboat, no single enhancement effort promises a more dramatic impact than painting the hull with linear polyurethane. While the cost to hire this job out can sometimes exceed the value of the boat, doing it yourself gets the cost down to about $10 a foot—the best bargain going. So why doesn't every old boat sport a new shine?

A significant majority of sailboat owners simply cannot bring themselves to believe that they can get a decent finish with a roller and a brush. It is not that they doubt the paint can be successfully applied this way; it is that they don't believe it will work for them. Such self-doubt denies them the pleasure of a glossy hull and the pride of having done it themselves.

Here again, there are only two essential requirements to applying polyurethane paint—good surface prep and the proper amount of thinner in the paint. Pastes, high-build primers, and a good finishing sander make surface prep more a matter of dedication than skill. As for the thinner, you simply add and test, add and test. When the brush marks disappear in your test application, they will likewise disappear from the surface of the hull. It's as simple as that.

No boat ever sank because a few brushstrokes were visible in the finish. If you keep in mind that it's not a piano, it's a functional boat, your sanity will have a better chance of remaining intact.
But what if you do end up with a run, a sag, or a few brush strokes? So what? No boat ever sank because of brushstrokes in the paint or bubbles in the varnish. What else in our lives do we hold up to a standard of perfection? My mantra for all boat refinishing is, "It's not a Steinway." That doesn't mean I don't try for perfection, but when it proves elusive, I have learned to accept that reality. Adopting this philosophy allows me to try this job—or some other one—in the future. Besides, an enlightened view of boat maintenance finds comfort in these flaws.

Say what?

Consider this. Will you have greater trepidation coming alongside with a perfect paint job that cost you four grand, or one that might yield minor flaws to a close inspection, but only cost $300? The knowledge that, in the worst case, you can effect repairs for a few bucks takes a great deal of the stress out of handling an unwieldy sailboat in close quarters. And even if your command of your vessel is flawless, that doesn't keep someone less skillful from banging into you. I like to sail my boat boldly and to leave it unattended without concern. Painting it myself makes that possible.

Here is another enlightened viewpoint. After a couple of years of exposure, my $300 paint job is going to be indistinguishable from the one costing $4,000. In five years it is going to look far better. Why? Because a $300 price tag means I'll repaint sooner. The second time around the job is also going to be easier—all the hard prep is already done. And because I have experience, I anticipate better results—maybe even perfection.

"In most cases the worst that can happen is that the result falls short of your expectations."
 The lists of essential requirements for other maintenance disciplines are similarly short. The main necessity for woodwork is an accurate cutting tool. The sewing machine is the most significant requirement for canvas work (and you can hone your skill without going near your boat). A good service manual enables successful engine maintenance, and a $40 crimping tool will make your wiring efforts "professional."

If you want to do your own work, or if your financial situation is such that you need to do the work yourself, but you are paralyzed by apprehension, give yourself a break. In most cases the worst that can happen is that the result falls short of your expectations, but with every attempt you expand your capacity. And you just might discover that the greatest reward is in the doing.

Suggested Reading:

The Bottom Paint Blues by Don Casey

Reducing Exterior Maintenance by Sue & Larry

by Don Casey

Don Casey is offline  
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