The Life of Boats

Continued from Part One.  Return to Part One

Annapolis Wherry

Age: 12 years
Damage:  Water incursion in deck.
Cause:  A single tiny pinhole has allowed water to propagate across the plywood deck.
Fix:  Nothing easy.  The pinhole obviously needs to be sealed, but the discoloration is deep so refinishing probably won't undo the damage.
Prognosis:  Live with it.

(click on photos to enlarge) 

You'd need a magnifying glass to find it, but there is a tiny pinhole in the epoxy coating of this workhorse demo-model Annapolis Wherry, at the joint where the seat meets the hull.  Water always finds a way in, and a dozen years of hard living have resulted in a water stain in the forward deck.  A more thorough epoxy coating would have prevented this.  So too would have larger epoxy fillets where the tank top meets the hull. This Annapolis Wherry was built for us by a subcontractor, and they are the smallest structural epoxy fillets I've ever seen in a boat that depends on them.  The fact that, by and large, this Wherry still looks great after 12 years is a testament to how strong and forgiving this stitch-and-glue method is.

Stitch-and-Glue Night Heron Hull #1

Age: 11 years
Damage:  UV degradation of the epoxy on the cockpit floor.
Cause:  No varnish to protect the epoxy from UV light.
Fix:  A light sanding, followed by varnish, will probably restore the luster.
Prognosis:  Over many years we've seen this progress to actual structural damage in the cockpit-area fiberglass, but this boat doesn't spend a huge amount of time unprotected from UV light.  We're not in a hurry to fix it.

This is a very typical pattern of sun damage to stitch-and-glue kayaks.  You've built the thing, you've sanded until your hands are numb, you've built up the prescribed three coats of varnish on the exterior.  But...there's still that patch of epoxy-saturated fiberglass in the cockpit.  But you're ready to hit the water, the epoxy alone in the cockpit looks pretty good, and to hell with any more sanding and varnish.  

And that's fine.  The sun beats down, doing zero harm to the varnished hull.  Gradually that patch of cockpit floor exposed to the persistent radiation of our home star turns cloudy-white as the surface of the epoxy breaks down.  It happened here because this kayak has spent a fair amount of time sitting on display at outdoor boatshows and demos, and being transported atop a car without a cockpit cover.  

The fiberglass on the cockpit floor of this particular kayak is unusually heavy and it could decline a great deal more before any structural harm ensues.  But a quick round of sanding and a few coats of varnish will make the inside look as great as the outside.

Night Heron (Strip)

Age:  16 years
Damage:  Stress damage to interior cockpit fiberglass.
Cause:  Lightweight fiberglass sheathing is flexing during heavy use.
Fix:  Sand and prep surface and apply additional fiberglass fabric to reduce flexing.
Prognosis:  Given this boat's age and the level of abuse it endures in the demo fleet, it really looks pretty good!

This old Night Heron was built very lightly, close to 40 pounds, and has a very thin (probably 4-ounce) sheathing inside and out.  Years of being run up on the beach with the crew aboard has caused a lot of flexing, and the fiberglass is cracking and beginning to separate from the wood.  It's not as bad as it sounds;  this boat still has plenty of stiffness to it.  But an additional patch of fiberglass in the cockpit area (where weight is concentrated) will give this boat another 16 years.  In a boat that sees hard use, I think it's a worthwhile tradeoff to add a bit of weight if it improves longevity.

Matunuck Surf Kayak

Age:  11 years
Damage:  Normal beach abrasion.
Cause:  Actually being used as a boat...
Fix:  A light sanding and fresh varnish.
Prognosis:  As long as the scratches don't penetrate the fiberglass, the scratches are superficial.

This is just what a kayak will look like after a bunch of years of running up on a beach. Scratches in the finish like this are absolutely normal, though perhaps this Matunuck surf kayak has more than its fair share.  In fact, you can let this sort of damage build up for years, as long as there's still enough varnish to protect the epoxy from the old Sun.  

Matunuck Surf Kayak

Age:  11 years
Damage: Impact damage resulting in delamination.
Cause:  If you hit a rock hard enough, you can actually detach the fiberglass from the wood.
Fix:  Sand down to wood and patch the affected area with fiberglass.
Prognosis:  While an ugly contusion, this bruise isn't actually letting water get to the wood.  So we're not in any hurry to fix it.

Whether you've got a small sailboat, or a kayak, or whatever, this is a great example of impact damage in fiberglass.  The fabric has flexed and failed in shear.  We see this sort of damage in our fleet all the time, usually the result of mundane shop or parking lot incidents rather than an on-water misadventure.  The fiberglass has done its job of absorbing the impact, and the repair is straightforward: just sand down until the damaged 'glass disappears, then feather in a small patch of fiberglass.

Expedition Wherry Hull #1

Age:  3 years
Damage:  Water intrusion in cockpit decks.
Cause:  Standing water in (and on) the flotation compartments had led to staining of the cockpit decking.
Fix:  Make sure flotation compartments stay dry to prevent further water intrusion.  
Prognosis:  This can't be fixed except with paint.

The message boards have a term for what happens to okoume plywood as a result of water getting under the epoxy and fiberglass:  "The Black Ick."  This is a good example. Our display model Expedition Wherry is rolled outside every time we open the showroom, and lives outdoors most daylight hours, rain or shine.  Rainwater can get in through the bolt-holes for the sliding seat unit, and sometimes we even forget to close the inspection plates before a big rain.  So water gets in the compartments, then gets hot in the summer sun.  Although the insides of the compartments are agressively sealed in epoxy and fiberglass, it only takes a pinhole to let the water into the wood.  You can see the darkening of the okoume, "The Black Ick," especially where water pooled near the bulkhead.  

We've since plugged the bolt holes while the boat's in storage mode, and we pay more attention to keeping the deck plates closed.  Overall, this Expedition Wherry is still boatshow-quality in presentation, but living outdoors year-round means that we'll have to keep after the varnish.

Team Dory Hull #1

Age:  3 years
Damage:  Puncture wound.
Cause:  Boat was blown off stands during a windstorm and landed on a sawhorse on the way down.
Fix:  An epoxy patch will be expedient.
Prognosis:  Like the Skerry damage a few pages back, this repair will probably always be visible.  

We could get fancy with a "dutchman," cutting out the hole (about 1-1/2" square) and patching that with plywood and then fiberglass. But this is a working boat, and we'll just fix it and go.  Whenever you fret about damage to a boat you've built, remember this:  if you built it, you can fix it!

Chesapeake 16LT Hull #1

Age:  16 years
Damage:  Uneven aging in sunlight.
Cause:  The straps that hold this kayak's hatches in place are plainly visible after a decade-and-a-half of UV light.
Fix:  None.
Prognosis:  "Patina" is a big thing these days with antique boats.

One of the oldest boats in our demo fleet was built in 1998.  It still puts in a hard day's work as a demo kayak, and yet I could find little about it worth documenting.  I did note this age-related fading of the wood where the straps cross the hatches.  It's hard to say with okoume plywood:  sometimes it darkens with age, sometimes it gets lighter.  This well-used Chesapeake 16LT has grown somewhat blonder, the areas beneath the straps revealing a darker coloration after 16 years.  This sort of thing is just to be expected.  The best prevention is to keep the boat stored indoors when not in use, and to use a hull cover when transporting the boat to keep the sun and rain off.

I hope this warts-and-all tour of wear and tear in the CLC demo fleet has been been helpful in visualizing how these lightly-built stitch-and-glue boats hold up over the years, and given you some ideas about preventative maintenance.  Since most people varnish their boats, I've concentrated on those with clear finishes.  Obviously, painted hulls are easier to repair.  But if you've seen our varnished display fleet in Annapolis or at a show, you've seen how GOOD these things still look, despite their age and hard life.  My expectation is that nearly all of the boats in this article will still be display or demo models ten years from now.  Given reasonable care, it's evident to me that the average stitch-and-glue boat will outlive all of us.

This Shearwater 17 was built in 2005 and still looks almost new, in spite of hundreds of demos every year.  These boats hold up incredibly well!

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