When the Little Things Matter

When the Little Things Matter

On December 30, 2014 an unusual weather event struck the harbor in Avalon, Catalina Island. Storm conditions resulted in property damage and tragically, the loss of two lives. Boats can be replaced or repaired. Our most heartfelt condolences extend to families and friends of Bruce Ryder and Tim Mitchell.2015-01-03 001 013

Property damage included boats on the beach, one boat completely destroyed against the sea wall, one submerged sailboat and a Harbor full of sunken small boats and tenders. The damage was partially caused by “an act of God” as we say in the insurance business, but a storm like this is a good reminder of little things that can be done to reduce damage.

We should remain vigilant with our monitoring of weather forecasts. There are weather events that are sudden, but many weather patterns in Southern California are predictable. Make the right choice based on weather, your boat, your skill level and the intended voyage. Different harbors offer protection from winds from different directions. A strong wind over a long fetch (distance traveled by winds and waves over water) can cause real problems in an exposed Harbor. Move the boat early to a safe harbor, or a safer place in your harbor, before the storm is too intense, just as wise sailors know to reef a sail when the wind starts building. It is an important skill that comes with experience.

Mooring and dock lines chafe quickly in heavy weather conditions. Among the precautions we can take are strong, suitable lines and chafe protection. There are many new types of high strength lines, however some are too small to handle and do not fit well with existing hardware. Some lines age quickly in the sun. Ask a professional, switch out lines as needed and buy the proper type. Add extra lines if possible, easy to do at your slip, not so easy on a mooring. The concept of chafe protection is simple, but chafe protection that remains in place and is effective in heavy weather requires forethought and planning. Anti-chafing gear also requires monitoring during the event, another risky task.

Heavy weather exposes weaknesses in our boats. The hardware to which we secure our lines should be strong. Many boaters secure bow lines to their windlasses (not a good idea) and some sailors secure lines to stanchions (even worse idea). Many production boat builders 2015-01-03 001 061use nothing or only small washers as the backing for cleats and deck hardware. Naked nuts or small washers rip out relatively easily. Here is where the small things really matter, but the cost of a better built boat is significant. Building a cleat, chock, bit or any deck hardware, with a backing plate adds cost to the manufacturing process and is an extra that is not noticed by many boat buyers.

Homework: Look in your anchor rode locker or lazarette at the bottom of your cleats. Is there a backing plate? Do you have pieces of fire hose or garden hose that can be properly secured for chafe protection? Do you have a bridle that allows the force of the anchor rode to be split between two bow cleats? And the most important lesson from this recent storm, get the precious humans out of harm’s way.
For a first hand description of the storm and photos please go to bottomdweller.weebly.com and thank you to Daniel Sipes for allowing us to publish the website address.

A Primer on Displacement

A Primer on Displacement

Often I obtain boat weights from a Marine Travelift’s operator and usually it is more than the listing specification’s displacement; I wonder why? Researching the answer (on Wikipedia, WoodenBoat forum and other on-line sources) enlightened me on a few interesting boating terms and concepts.

At the root is Archimedes’ Principle, displacement and buoyancy. Displacement is the weight of the water a boat displaces when floating still. In other words, the weight of the water that would be spilled out of a completely filled container when a boat is placed in it. Archimedes’ Principl120px-Principio_di_Archimede_galleggiamento[1]e says that the weight of the boat is reduced by its volume multiplied by the density of the fluid. If the weight of the object is less than this displaced quantity the object floats, if more, it sinks.

A boat will displace the same weight of fluid, regardless of the fluid, thus it will sit lower in fresh water than salt water because fresh water is less dense. Thus the weight of the hull, structure and everything inside is precisely the displacement. There are physics arguments about weight being matter under the acceleration of gravity, blah, blah, blah and displacement being primarily about volume, (read – boring) but for us common boaters – forget about it, weight = displacement.

This concept only applies to boats afloat, when sunk they only displace the volume of material in the boat, not the weight. Equal size cubes of aluminum and gold displace the same amount when sunk. By the way, I solve sunken boat mysteries, and it’s always the same cause, too much water on the inside.

Draft scale at the ship bow
Ton is derived from “tun”, a large wine barrel. Net Tonnage (NT) replaced Net Register Tonnage (NRT), which denoted a ship’s revenue earning spaces in Register Tons, units of volume equal to 100 cubic feet. NT is a dimensionless index calculated from the volume of a ship’s cargo spaces using a mathematical formula. Gross Tonnage (GT) is related to the ship’s overall internal volume and is used to determine manning requirements, safety rules and fees. Tonnage specifications have nothing to do with weight, so you can’t calculate how much your boat weighs based on your U.S.C.G. Documentation’s Gross Tonnage or Net Tonnage. It is these legal definitions that allow naval architects to design relatively large boats with relatively small crew requirements and to reduce expenses.

So why am I told boat weights that are more than published displacements? There is no standard for manufacturers’ published displacement and a lighter boat is often considered better by the buying public. The weight of a boat on a travel lift’s scale includes everything aboard, including equipment that has been added, personal effects, paint, varnish, spare parts, water and possibly absorbed water. The scales are not required to be certified, are rarely calibrated, and are primarily used for balancing the load. About one third of the travel lifts’ scales I use are completely inoperative, but these scales are usually our only option, so if you have your boat pulled out, ask for and record the weight.

If a true weight is desired or required (as in competitive sailboat racing) we rent and use a load cell as the weighing device. A weighbridge or truck scale is also very accurate but the opportunity to use one is rare, if you have your boat transported overland ask the trucker for the weight, it will be very accurate.

Now that we have cleared up weight, displacement and tonnage, how long do you think your boat is?

Winterizing Tips for Southern California

Winterizing Tips for Southern California

Boat-Parade_Photo-Credit-John-Blom-Photography-1-1024x684[1] Highs in the 70’s and lows in the 50’s, that’s one reason we live here. Unless you leave your boat at a high elevation, you don’t need to worry about the engine block, gear case or exhaust manifold cracking. You don’t have to bother with filling the fresh water system with anti-freeze and you don’t have to haul the boat for the winter. So there are a lot of things you don’t need to do but what should you do?

Prepare for the rain. Winter is our rainy season and whether your boat is stored in the water or on a trailer, a little preparation will minimize resulting damage. Boats on trailers or tenders on chocks should be stored bow up with the drain plug out. The bilge should be clear of debris that can plug the drain hole. Every spring we handle a few insurance claims due to “trailer submersions”. Covers should be inspected and serviced. They should be installed to prevent puddling, secure to prevent being blown loose and they should cover all the parts you don’t want exposed to the sun.frozen_boat_250[1]
The rain is an easy way for you to find leaks, or at least to become aware they exist. Take the opportunity to maintain and rebed the deck hardware, service hatches, windows and port lights. Ventilate, by coming down and opening the boat up during the beautiful days and/or installing ventilation devices. Someone will come to their boat in the spring and be enlightened as to how fast mold (fungi) can grow. It won’t grow without significant moisture, which is the only factor you control.

While you are visiting the boat spend a few minutes operating the systems, run the engine, engage the transmission, flush the head, cycle pumps and motors and maybe go for a ride, you’re paying the So Cal lifestyle “tax”, you should enjoy it!

If your boat or tender has an outboard and you won’t use it for five months, run the gasoline out of the carburetor and fuel lines, consider stabilizing fuel and follow the manufacturer’s suggestions. Take measures to inhibit corrosion over the winter as appropriate. Service through hull valves, shut the valves that will not be used and make sure cockpit and deck drain valves are open. Check and service bilge pumps and their automatic switches, batteries and charging systems.

Thieves are aware you don’t come to your boat much. Make your boat less attractive to them, lock the doors and hide the key somewhere different or unique, not in the cockpit locker where all your neighbors hide their key. Conceal the pricey electronics and buy that live-aboard neighbor a bottle of her favorite wine to get a little more attention paid to your boat while you are away.

The winter is a good time to get some work done. The boatyards and trades are slower now than they will be in March. Many boatyards have specials during the holiday season for extended laydays and do-it-yourself projects.

Take advantage of your time and energy you are devoting to “winterizing”, by making your own custom check list. Do a little internet research, remember that lesson you learned, write it down and edit the list when you get more ideas, it will be a good read next winter.
Remember the San Diego Sunroad Boatshow is coming on January 23 – 26, 2014, see you there.

Modern Advances

Modern Advances

marquis_420sportbridge_helm_2014_big[1]  A late model production fifty five foot motor vessel recently foundered after losing a generator… then one engine…and then the other engine. As we sat in our office and pondered the cause, we began with the obvious, “Had to be fuel, right? Once a diesel starts, it runs till you stop it or it runs out of fuel“, waxed the surveyors romantically.

The captain had developed a trusting relationship with the fuel gauges and they said the tanks were half full. Ever the skeptic of gauges, we asked if he had taken fuel that day, “no” he answered. So we looked at the fuel system and found the fuel filters a little low on fuel. We were having a tough time actually measuring fuel tanks’ levels and we held off on further inspection of the fuel supply system.

The captain said the generator died (a cause was easily identified for that one and it wasn’t fuel) and then the instruments dimmed and died before the engines died. Too much electrical coincidence? Perhaps. We called the engine dealer and they confirmed that electrical issues can cause these engines to stop and their computers should register a fault code if that happened. These engines won’t register a fault code if they run out of fuel.45-FootResponseBoatHelm816x612[1]

We asked the dealer if he could tell us how to read the codes on the fancy on-board engine monitor? “Nope, we have to read it with our proprietary software.” So a few dollars later we found the culprit “power loss to the un-switched power supply to the ECM”. Following that clue we found the culprit.

This boat had 12 and 24 volt DC electrical systems with 24 volts to the engines’ controls. The 24 volt batteries and the 24 volt alternator were bad, a problem masked while underway by the 24 volt battery charger (life support), as long as the generator was running.

We have also had several electronic engine control related claims in the recent past. One was caused by a ghost in the electronic controls and one was a lack of maintenance of the mechanical portion of the control system combined with a questionable “failure mode” of the electronic component. Both resulted in boats crashing into other boats.evinrude_idock_nl_120215[1]

The reality of our times is we are becoming more dependent on electronics, electricity and sensors. Try and find a new diesel that only needs fuel once you get it running. We used to believe in the “suck, squeeze, bang and blow” theory. It was real, get an old Detroit Diesel running and it was running until it lost fuel or air, period. We just had to get it to fire and turn once. Those days are gone and we need to act accordingly
This evolution requires additional maintenance. It is not enough to tune the engine and change the fluids, now we need to test batteries, check the charging systems and consider electrical redundancy and emergency electrical procedures. We need to know if we can run without the generator and for how long. If we already own a “smart boat”, let’s ask some new safety questions of our technicians. What is the failure mode? Can we carry a spare sensor(s) and where does it/they go? Is the windlass on the same batteries as the engines?

When we are considering buying a brilliant new testament to modern engineering, we need to consider the side effects? How dependable are those new fly by wire pods, joystick controls and fully computerized machines? Have they gone through enough research and development or will we be part of it? Is battery maintenance now a preventative procedure versus a reactive one?

And one thing we learned the hard way, if your electronic engine control system does start acting up, turn the engines OFF before you continue testing.

p.s. The new electronic engines are truly phenomenal with respect to emissions, efficiency and power production and the new controls and drive systems have simplified docking, just don’t forget the maintenance!

Paintballs and Pinnipeds

Paintballs and Pinnipeds

blogpicmain[1] I was hired to inspect a small damaged boat in Marina del Rey and as approached I noticed a large sea lion in the way. Sea lions (the ones with the ear flaps and long smooth foreflippers) and seals (the ones with the ear holes and short, rough foreflippers with claws) wreak havoc on boaters and fishermen. These otherwise lovable, cute, large, stinky creatures create controversy as they can be a nuisance.

While tourists love to take pictures of them, the one on the dock was trying to stop me from working and like the U.S. postal service, I must deliver. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like seals and sea lions, I dislike seagulls, the terrorists from above, but that battle will have to await another article.

On another recent job, an Oceanside customer told of his troubles with these marine mammals and his method of dealing with them, paint balls. He researched the legal methods of deterrence and it included paint balls, I couldn’t believe it, but he had a printed copy aboard his boat (link below). He was challenged by gun drawn harbor patrol, who stood down when presented with the documentation.

I thought you could not harass marine mammals but it appears that you can’t harass them using “potentially lethal means”.s316283394684049153_p14_i3_w715[1] Legal, non lethal means includes barriers, visual and audible means and physical contact. The options include: fencing, strobe lights, horns, electric livestock fences, cattle prods, Super Soaker type squirt guns, sling shots and water soluble paint balls fired from paint ball guns.

One “on line” suggestion was to use large dog food kibble in a sling shot, as it is biodegradable. Environment: 1 Seals: 0 Is it unethical or amoral to enjoy deterrence?

I found very little written about actual physical harm to people from these animals, but there was mention of “seal finger” an infection from a seal bite. I have witnessed property damage caused by these intruders. Ruined boat covers, damaged swim platforms and hardware in cockpits and one small boat submersion where the pinnipeds were our prime suspect. We have all heard of the nuisance they can create by trying to share dock space with businesses and municipalities and the most vocal and aggrieved subset of boaters appears to be harassed fishermen.

My recent encounter concluded when I walked to the other side of the boat, luckily it was not a double slip, stepped onto the swim platform and approached the dormant, sunning creature in order to accomplish the task at hand. The big beast arose, turned toward me, barked loudly, flashed both of her or his ferocious teeth and then dove into the water, restoring peace and letting me work.

This article is free legal advice and as one of my maritime attorney friends once told me “it is worth every penny you spent”. There are local ordinances and varied law enforcement interpretations that may cause you problems that this article won’t solve. And the article probably won’t stop the hippies at the Children’s Pool from giving you a big group hug if you pull out your sling shot there.

Most of the research on this article referred to the following publication: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/publications/protected_species/marine_mammals/pinnipeds/sea_lion_removals/pinnipeddeterrencemethods.pdf

Preventing Petty & Grand Theft

Preventing Petty & Grand Theft

My work truck was stolen recently, from my driveway. I couldn’t believe it, car theft really happens, and the truck had Christian & Company Marine Surveyors all over it! I felt violated but it gave me writing inspiration. Our experience assisting marine underwriters with theft claims shows how a little effort can prevent most thefts.stop_boat_theft[1]

I can’t be sure, but I think my truck was left unlocked. The unlocked truck gave the thief opportunity. Theft happens to all size boats from tenders to trailer boats to mega-yachts. We can significantly reduce the likelihood of the theft of our boats or items from our boats by reducing opportunity and increasing the risk for the thief. We may not prevent theft, but we can help the thieves choose a different boat.

For boats kept in the water reduce opportunity for theft by keeping the boat entry doors and lazarette lockers locked. Make sure the hatches and windows are locked and store the key more creatively than most people do, i.e. hanging on a hook in a locker. Meet your neighbors, especially the live aboards, exchange phone numbers and watch out for each other. A boat stolen in Oceanside a few years ago was recovered off La Jolla after the neighbors alerted the owner to unusual activity aboard, and the owner alerted the authorities.

Security cameras (real or fake) are a fantastic deterrent to crime and real cameras are often used to solve crimes. Camera systems’ prices have come down significantly and they are easy to install. Signs announcing a theft protection system are a simple deterrent. An infra-red marina camera identified a thief recently in Mission Bay, the camera’s night time resolution was phenomenal.

The marina, yacht club or storage location of the boat is an important part of theft prevention. Basic security measures include locked gates, security guards and lights. I usually check in at the office but when I am “following” owners through locked dock gates I appreciate being challenged. Ask the stranger for a business card or send them to the office for a key. Leaving the gate ajar is an invitation to a burglar.
Some cruisers purposely let the exterior of their boats weather, so they don’t look like shiny beacons to thieves in foreign ports. We have surveyed many boats that appear neglected externally but are actually quite well maintained and equipped, but you may have to start a new class to win an award at the yacht club.

Simple ignition system protection devices, hidden battery switches and unavailable ignition keys make stealing the boat more difficult. Professional thieves are going to take what they want but the joy rider or opportunistic drunk can be thwarted and are far more common.

Component theft is more common and can happen to any boat stored ashore or afloat. The most commonly stolen items are high value, small and easily removed. Take the electronics home or lock them up, lock the outboard and keep the valuables out of sight. Fishing gear is a common target. Simply locking the lockers is an effective deterrent; after all, they are called lockers.

We see many trailerable boats stolen and stripped. This type of theft is best prevented by storing the boat in a safe place, locked gates, blocking them in with other vehicles, motion sensor lights, cameras, trailer locks and other visible theft deterrent devices will keep the thieves’ eyes moving to another boat. Many of these vessels are stolen from temporary storage locations that provided an easy target.

The truck story ended with a fair claim payment for a truck with over 270,000 miles, but the anger, lost time, lost money (deductible and depreciation applies) and energy was not worth it for me or for most people. I was most angry that the thief stole what I worked for. Shouldn’t thieves work for a living? Let’s make them work harder!

What is that Noise? – Snapping Shrimp

What is that Noise? – Snapping Shrimp

The first time you hear it, the noise will catch your attention, as any unusual noise should.

The first time I heard it, I was alone aboard a sailboat on Harbor Island in San Diego Bay. I was completely perplexed. I call it a “crackling” noise and someone else described it as the sound of Rice Krispies right after you pour in the milk. I recall my initial confusion and subsequent surprise when I was told what made the sound.

“Shrimp”, someone explained, “make that sound”. “What”, I thought, “how could that be?” After a few others confirmed the source of the noise I accepted it and began sharing the explanation with others, as I am often aboard with novice boaters. You only hear these little guys when it is quiet, though research suggests they are very loud (218 decibels). They aren’t usually audible over the normal noise of an active boat, probably because they are about two inches long, but try to go to sleep…

Pistol shrimp
There are many noises aboard boats. Some noises are unavoidable, like waves slapping on the hull and passing boats. Many noises (even pistol shrimp) can be soothing reminders that we are in our happy place, but some noises should be taken more seriously, for instance a short cycling bilge pump.
As a marine surveyor I advocate developing an understanding of the “norm” of the boat and reacting to changes, including different sounds. Get used to the sound of the refrigeration and battery charger. Familiarize yourself with the sound of the water discharging with your engine exhaust and/or your engine room blower running. Identify the sound of a water leak. Tell your neighbor to take care of that slapping halyard (it can be done).
Don’t forget to check the function of the “emergency” sound making devices, including smoke, fire and propane alarms, audible engine alarms and high water alarms. Know what they are and how to react.


Aboard our boats, my family prefers the sound of reggae music, though rock and roll, classical and occasionally funky dance tunes can be heard.
For more information about the pistol shrimp, or more scientifically “Alpheus Heterochaelis” check out the links below, the first one is a recording of the noise, or consult “Alpheidae” in Wikipedia

The most common reference I found to this phenomenon was a 2000 research paper called “How Snapping Shrimp Snap: Through Cavitating Bubbles” by
1. Michel Versluis1,
2. Barbara Schmitz2,
3. Anna von der Heydt1,3,
4. Detlef Lohse1,*

Little Things

A commercial lobster fisherman was required to have a marine survey on his boat by his insurance company. The boat was a 1960’s vintage, converted U.S. Navy Captain’s Gig.

The owner was an intelligent, experienced, hands-on fisherman. Much of the vessel had been rebuilt, it had a new engine, propulsion components, electronics etc… The vessel had been actively fished for several seasons.

Upon my arrival, the vessel was hauled, the owner was not present. Most components were in good condition however the rudder was loose. The vessel was launched to allow the owner to fish the following morning. The steering system was tested and functioned normally. There was excessive water leaking at the rudder’s packing gland. The packing gland was mostly inaccessible for inspection due to its installation.

The owner returned and we discussed the survey findings, including the loose rudder. The owner was aware of this condition and stated his intention to address it. The owner and boat departed at approximately 5:30 p.m. late on a Monday afternoon. On the following day, Tuesday, at 2:00 p.m., we returned to the same boat yard to haul another vessel for survey. We saw the lobster boat hauled and were surprised to see no rudder behind the propeller.

We found the owner who described losing the rudder while fishing five miles offshore that morning.

Inspecting the rudder revealed a heavily corroded break surface, with two perpendicular channels, apparently for fasteners or pins.
The rudder post had corroded and failed, leaving the vessel without steerage. Fortunately the stub of the post remained in the rudder port, preventing a sudden and catastrophic flooding.

The moral of the story: It is hard to know which of the findings will manifest as a significant problem. In this case the problem which could have been simply a maintenance issue was in fact a significant mechanical problem and nearly a catastrophic failure. In an attempt to make lemonade the captain said “now I will have replaced all of the important parts of the boat”.

Cored vs solid

Designers and builders of boats know that cored composite fiberglass structures have better characteristics than solid fiberglass structures. The general boating public does not. We tend to believe that solid fiberglass is stronger and less likely to suffer damage from water saturation, and the latter is true. Virtually every high performance racing sail or powerboat is cored.

The mass production of fiberglass boats began in the 1960s and from the beginning the advantages of coring fiberglass panels were known. Fiberglass panels’ strength comes from the exterior plys and the thickness. Coring is the addition of a different material between two thin layers of fiberglass and the resulting panel is better in almost every way.

Builders began coring hulls and taking advantage of the lighter, stronger composites and were able to make the boats go faster and be more efficient, and then they realized the coring process had its own set of challenges, including water intrusion.

Fiberglass coring is generally made of balsa wood, closed cell foam or varieties of honey comb. In the earlier days of coring, balsa was the normal choice. Balsa is actually still better in many ways than any man made coring, but it is organic and with moisture, fungus spores and the proper temperature, it deteriorates. Many production fiberglass boats were made with balsa core without properly sealing the penetrations, including through hulls, port lights, deck hardware, etc…

The boating public became aware of the problem and many builders started advertising “solid fiberglass hulls”, likely beginning the boating public’s opinion that this was a better way to build a boat. It’s not. It is however a way to eliminate concerns about water intrusion into core.

Balsa and foam core comes in sheets sliced on one side to allow it to bend to conform to a curved mold. These open “kerfs” would allow water to accumulate and flow, resulting in significant weight gain and in the case of balsa, fungus deterioration (rot). The boating community had a reason to be concerned. The cored composite was good, but the construction methods were not.

Most builders have come a full circle and are coring hulls but doing it better. They remove the core from around through hulls and port lights in the mold, they fill the kerf lines and they design and build with water intrusion in mind.

To determine if you have water in your boat’s core use a moisture meter, pull a through hull, drill a few holes or weigh it. If you determine you do have water in the core, should you care? Well if it is fresh water and balsa core, yes, it will eventually rot and the two thin pieces of fiberglass separated by rotten wood is not strong.

If you have salt water in your balsa (or on your plywood), it may not rot and of course the man made cores can live in water and not deteriorate. There can be issues with freeze and thaw cycles (expansion) and the added weight is never a positive, but many builders have responded to complaints of water in the core with “well seal the entry point to prevent air from getting in and it won’t rot” or “it is closed cell PVC foam, it will be fine”. And they are right, but as a surveyor, I know it will reduce performance and value. But like blisters, you may have water in the core for years and never know or care.

If you own one of the boats designed to keep water out of the core, be careful when you install a new through hull or piece of hardware, remove the core from around the hole, back fill with an epoxy and then bed the new installation with a good sealant.
p.s. most of those boats with solid fiberglass hulls still have balsa cored decks

How long will my engine last?

How long will my engine last?

enginesThis is a frequent question from potential boat buyers. Most mechanics and marine surveyors answer with some version of… “well, it all depends”. For this article I tried something different – research.

Virtually every mechanic I spoke to and online article I read supported my standard response. Boat engines don’t wear out, they fail because an engine component is neglected and eventually causes more significant (and expensive) damage. However there were interesting responses and research results.

The web sites BoatSafe.com and DiscoverBoating.com state that an average gasoline boat engine will run for 1,500 hours and the average diesel will last 5,000 hours before requiring a major overhaul, and a well maintained diesel may last 8,000 hours.

Randy Hynd, of Sunset Marine, a San Diego dealer for several popular gasoline marine engines said in his thirty years in the business he has seen two outboard engines wear out, and they had over 6,000 hours. He is aware of government vessels with over 4,000 operating hours on gasoline inboard/outdrive engines, and they “hardly ever wear out”.

Yanmar dealer PacWest Marine (San Diego) and distributor Boatswain’s Locker (Costa Mesa) mentioned 10,000 operating hours as a target for Yanmar engines and they report knowledge of a Japanese government boat with over 40,000 hours on its Yanmar engine.

Craig Stange, a San Diego based Detroit Diesel engine specialist said he has seen a 71 series engine run for 7,000 hours before ring and cylinder liner wear lead to excessive blow-by. He noted that two stroke engines (like the old 71 series) wear out faster than four stroke engines and he uses 5,000 hours as an average life expectancy. He stressed that more horsepower results in less engine life.

More horsepower from the same engine block will reduce the life expectancy. For instance, the Caterpillar 3208, a popular boat engine (of yesterday) is rated at 210 h.p. Add turbo charging and after cooling and, voila 435 h.p.   More than double the horsepower but with a significant decrease in life expectancy. A competition pulling tractor named Silver Bullet has a nitro burning, blown Cat 3208 producing an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower; no life expectancy information was available. And we think our boat engines have it rough!

Boat engines can last significantly longer than the common assumptions of 1,500 to 2,000 for gas and 5,000 for diesel if they get proper maintenance and usage. To get the most life out of your boat engine run it regularly. Explain to your husband or wife that the marine surveyor said you had to use the boat’s engines or they would break and major repairs are more expensive than the fuel. Pay attention to any hiccups, if it’s harder to start, smokes more, gets hotter or has any changes, address them prudently. Establish and maintain a suitable service protocol and don’t burn nitro.

p.s.  A different way some diesel engine manufactures (Cummins, Hino, Caterpillar) express engine life expectancy is B10 and B50. B50 is the time, usually expressed in miles, that a given type of engine will run before 50% of the engines will require major repairs (heads or oil pan removed). Many large diesels are rated with a B50 of 400,000 – 500,000 miles (not hours) and I saw as high as 1,000,000.

Who killed my engine?

Who killed my engine?

The mystery begins with trouble starting the boat’s engine. The suspense builds when charging and then replacing batteries doesn’t fix the problem. The plot thickens when replacing the starter still doesn’t do the trick. A mechanic is introduced into the story and twists the plot by diagnosing water in the cylinders. Who (or what) done it?

Let’s meet the players.

The engine is made by a large manufacturing company, they make the engine for cars, trucks or tractors. A marine engine company “marinized” the engine, i.e. they changed the cooling and exhaust systems. Radiators don’t work so well on boats and hot exhaust pipes are not welcome. The marine engine company adds a second water pump (raw water pump), a heat exchanger (acts like a radiator on fresh water cooled engines) and a water cooled exhaust system. Then the boat manufacturer installs it in the boat and connects the plumbing for the cooling and exhaust systems.
A dealer then sells the boat, perhaps modifying it during the commissioning. The boat owner finds a “mechanic” on the dock to help with the maintenance (and saves a bundle :>) and saves even more by doing some things himself!

The water the mechanic found is salt water. Can you solve the mystery?

It could be the engine manufacturer. The engine may have been designed wrong or assembled improperly, but they made thousands of these engines and no one is complaining on the internet. Perhaps it was the “marinizer”, they designed and installed the cooling system and wet exhaust, but why did the engine run so well for so long? It had started and run fine for the first five years.
HINT: The engine has been a bit harder to start the past year or so, but once it got started it ran fine, didn’t it? (the crescendo)

It might be the boat builder, perhaps they didn’t install something properly, like insufficient exhaust riser height or not enough slope in the exhaust discharge hose. But how could it have taken so long to kill the engine?

The butler in this proverbial engine murder mystery is the exhaust system. It is water cooled, meaning water circulates through cavities on the exterior of the castings (manifolds and risers) to keep the system cool. The seawater is injected and mixed into the hot exhaust gasses to cool them on their way out of the boat. The system developed a small leak, allowing a small amount of water to enter the cylinders and causing the hard starting condition for several months. Eventually the volume of the leak increased and when the engine stopped with the wrong exhaust valve open, one cylinder flooded and prevented the engine from starting. That piston just could not compress that water, no matter how much power you gave it from new batteries. (the climax)

The mechanic may try to rid the engine of corrosion and get it running, he may need to have the heads rebuilt to address the long term corrosion from the water leak in the exhaust system or the whole engine may need rebuilt. (the denouement)

The resolution, New Year’s Resolution in this case, is to pay more attention to the subtle changes in the boat and the engine. If the engine becomes harder to start, gets hotter, won’t go as fast or smokes more, resolve to address it immediately. If the bilge has water or the odor, if the dock lines are frayed or the hatch is leaking, resolve to address the problem before it grows into something more extensive and expensive…..Happy New Year!

assembled exhaust manifold and riser
assembled exhaust manifold and riser
normal dry exhaust chamber
normal dry exhaust chamber
corrosion in normal exhaust
corrosion in normal exhaust
excess corrosion in exhaust chamber
excess corrosion in exhaust chamber
exhaust manifolds removed from engine
exhaust manifolds removed from engine


This article was edited on February 29, 2016.

Marina Heroes

Marina Heroes

On Wednesday, September 26, 2012, I was having a normal day, surveying a 70’s era Ingrid 38 cruising sailboat, for a nice young man with plans on sailing the Indian Ocean. We finished the deck and cockpit and had just entered the cabin. I was in the engine space and my tall client was standing in the cabin looking aft at the engine. We had no idea how exciting the day was to become.

The client became distracted and I heard people yelling. I was blind to the action but he could see out of the companionway and something had caught his attention. For a few moments he couldn’t vocalize his thoughts. Eventually he said “that boat’s in trouble”, indicating a problem but not the nature of the problem. I asked him if they needed help and he again paused, and appeared almost frozen. Something was preventing him from normal communication and action.marina_heroes500

We were in Marina Cortez, on Harbor Island in San Diego; it was midday, clear and sunny. After several long moments (actually only a few seconds) he said “a boat is on fire” and I quickly exited the engine room to assess the situation. The Ingrid’s owner said “I’ll get an extinguisher”. After I saw the fire, I told him, “never mind the extinguisher, let’s go move some boats.” A sport-fishing boat located directly across the fairway and upwind was “fully involved” as the fire pros say. It was ablaze with flames jumping and smoke beginning to billow.

I have been involved with many boat fire claims after the fact, but this was only the second one I have witnessed. Several years ago I saw a boat aflame on a mooring in America’s Cup Harbor, by the time I saw it fire fighters were already there. This fire had just begun and was on the next dock. There were boats in the slips adjacent to the fire origin boat and I knew we could reduce the damage by moving the adjacent boats. Then I heard several explosions, I paused and reconsidered. “Maybe not” I thought for a moment, perhaps we should let them burn and stay at a safe distance.

I deduced that tanks had expanded and exploded and ran to help. By the time I arrived at the burning boat, one of the dock’s fire hoses was being discharged on the fire and a second dock fire hose joined in shortly thereafter. One of the neighboring boats had been cut loose and was drifting towards my client and the boat owner of the boat I was surveying, they helped gather and secure it. Moments later the other neighboring boat was on its way to safety, across the fairway.

One of the fire hoses was being manned by a guy in a wet suit, apparently a diver at work before volunteering for this job. I asked if he was okay or wanted relief, he said no, he was strong and steady. There was a lady using a smaller water hose, dousing the adjacent boats to prevent further damage. I noticed the lady from the office hustling down to the scene as well.marina_heroes _alt500

The boats that were removed included a Columbia sailboat and a Hatteras power boat; both were badly damaged, but appeared repairable. If they had been left much longer, the fire would have grown considerably and caused more damage. The boats were all approximately fifty feet long.

The wind was blowing down toward our dock and the smoke was thick. It was clear that the fire could have jumped docks if it had not been contained. The fire department arrived within a few minutes and a shiny new fire boat was soon pumping water onto the fire. When I returned to the boat I was surveying, I noticed they had deployed a fire hose on that dock as well and had apparently doused the two boats that came floating across the fairway, to prevent any flare ups.

I noticed local heroes reacting to an emergency, saving property and helping their fellow boaters. The gang of responders knocked down the fire, saved two boats and possibly many others. They all acted selflessly. The diver, the neighboring boater with the small hose, the marina office staff and numerous other responders deserve kudos! Thank you for your efforts!


This article was edited on February 29, 2016.

Mega Yacht Emergency

Mega Yacht Emergency

I arrived to the shipyard shortly after the 100+ foot steel yacht had been launched. The majority of the survey was completed while the vessel was hauled, but the client requested a sea trial and, surprise, the launch was delayed. This day was devoted to a sea trial, but another surprise would delay it once again.

The boat had been out of the water for several weeks, there was a transom extension, exterior paint job and a few new electronics were installed. The yard described the job as a “freshen up” versus a “refit”. The owner needed a marine survey report for his insurance carrier and wanted a survey to check on the condition of the boat after the yard was done.

Most of our condition and valuation (C & V) survey customers fall into one of two categories: those who want a marine survey and those who need one. This customer was the rare customer who was required to obtain a survey and took the opportunity to have a surveyor assess the boat fully. A survey performed in the water, out of the water and underway is more thorough than one that omits any of these procedures, and this client requested the full Monty.crew cutie

During the yard time the vessel had changed engineers but the captain had been with the boat for a long time and both were aboard for the sea trial. The new engineer was in the engine room. I began there, to check conditions before the sea trial commenced. An attractive steward was in the engine room as well, and perhaps she was a distraction, but the engineer was toiling away completely oblivious to the water in the bilge. These engines were mounted high above a deep bilge; three and a half feet of water had risen up to the bottom of the oil pans.

My mention of the water quickly changed the engineer’s focus from his previous job to the more pressing matter of dewatering the boat before the water rose any higher. Like most yachts of this size, the primary dewatering system was a pair of AC electric pumps that were coupled to a manifold system to allow them to serve various functions (fire or bilge) and to draw from different bilge compartments (separated by water tight bulkheads). The engineer opened the proper valves and energized the first pump, both of us initially thought this would be a short process and the sea trial would continue as planned.

I am somewhat accustomed to unexpected conditions in boats. We handle lots of damage claims and the sheer number of vessels we are on inevitably leads to our encountering problems. So I was initially unfazed and began my normal inspection process. After ten or fifteen minutes, I noticed the water level was still rising, now half way up the engines’ oil pans and decided to stop surveying and focus on the most pressing concern.

This event occurred in Mexico and the crew spoke English as well as I speak Spanish. Though my bilingual children and Spanish conversant wife find it humorous, my Spanish is not easily understood by a native speaker. The words flow out of my mouth as easily as the water was flooding the bilge, but their meaning was as unclear as the source of the water. Funny, I know what I am trying to say. The engineer attempted to bring the second pump on line, but he was having trouble with the stiff valves. I noticed the tool box and handed him tools which he used to move the stubborn valves. I found a large pipe wrench to replace the screw driver he was sticking through the valve handles. Now the water level was at the top of the engines’ oil pans and I was concerned because we were losing the battle.

I knew the engineer was new, he spoke less English than the Captain and the water level was still rising after two significant bilge pumps were energized. I found and alerted the captain of the problem. I then spoke with the yard manager, explained the situation and requested an emergency bilge pump. The yard manager was bilingual and quickly brought an emergency bilge pump, but the hose was too short. The closest point of discharge was out the transom “garage” door and the hose didn’t make it all the way. Another delay occurred while another section of hose was located, brought to the boat and coupled to the existing hose.

The emergency pump began dewatering the engine room bilge and the Captain examined the primary bilge pumping system. He noticed that there was nothing discharging from the discharge through hulls and examined the position of the valves. They were in the proper position, but the motors and tubes connected to them were warm; they were not pumping water. The Captain closed the valves, and then opened them slowly. The pumps took a prime and in no time the engine room bilge was dry.
The entire process took less than an hour, but the engines were partially cooled by external electric pumps which had been submerged and were rendered inoperative. The sea trial was postponed.
There are a few lessons in this story.

Know your systems and know how to check them for proper function. The new engineer knew the bilge pump system, but had not learned how to check them for function. He did not check the discharge, which would have quickly revealed the system was not pumping water. He did not note the warm pumps and tubes, indicating the pumps were not pumping water. The more knowledgeable captain recognized the problem and by priming the pumps, quickly dewatered the bilge.

Service the systems regularly, best done by adhering to a written maintenance plan. The second bilge pump’s valves were seized and obviously had not been maintained. Consider what “fire drills” your crew needs: emergency tiller handle installation, man overboard, abandon ship…..
Install a high water alarm, it is easy, inexpensive and is much better than discovering the high water level with your feet when you get out of bed.

The leak was quickly found once the water level was below the leak, leaks below the waterline are tough to find. The leak was from the propeller shaft seal’s priming system, it was opened and forgotten about. The lesson here…after launching a boat, pay attention…no, that’s not it.

As far as the engineer’s distraction, well this is a boating story, not a morality tale.


This article was edited on February 29, 2016.

Ten Ideas for Spring Commissioning

In Southern California we don’t have to winterize our boats and thus in spring we don’t have to de-winterize, or un-winterize… we don’t even know the word for it. However, most of us So-Cal boaters use our vessels much less over the bitter, cold winter and come the 70 degree February days, we once again start planning the Catalina trip or start thinking about fishing. Here is a top ten list of items to check, after the thaw, at the beginning of the boating season.

10. Service the engines, transmissions/drives (and generator), fluids and filters, tune up (gasoline), rack set or injector s (diesel) and change the zinc anodes in the heat exchangers and coolers. Any leaks?

9. Check the shore power cord and inlet for heat damage, wear and provide strain relief on the cord.

8. Service below waterline components, bottom paint, rudders, trim tabs, zincs, cutlass bearings.

7. Test and service the high water alarm.

6. Check and service the engine’s cooling system, raw water pump and impeller and exhaust (water and exhaust gas) system. Again, any leaks? But don’t worry, if you ignore these they will remind you later.

5. Safety or carriage items (most are legally required), life jackets/PFDs (proper size, type and stored in the proper location), flares (every 3.5 years), fire extinguishers (yearly inspection, five year replacement or certification), horn, placards, stickers. What do “they” check for when they board?

4. Bilge pumps and automatic/float switches

3. Check and service rudder and propeller shaft seals. Repack traditional packing glands, service dripless shaft seals (yes they require maintenance too).

2. Personnel safety alarms – carbon monoxide alarms, smoke alarms, gasoline and propane vapor alarms. At least press the test buttons, make sure the wire is connected, replace any batteries and replace the units every five years.

1. Batteries, check them all for condition, replace before they become a problem and ruin your first spring trip.

And for the “one to grow on” idea, what about adding one new safety item every spring, how about emergency wooden dowel plugs, a VHF with emergency position emitter, or a crank type flashlight.

How to steal a boat

How to steal a boat

Do you want to learn how? Of course you do, even if you would never do it, it’s fun to read about. This article will give you some tips on how to steal a boat…. legally. Legalized theft, or buying boats for pennies (okay maybe dimes) on the dollar, is happening, so how is it done?

Wikipedia defines fair market value as follows:

Fair market value (FMV) is an estimate of the market value of a property, based on what a knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured buyer would probably pay to a knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured seller in the market

To steal a boat, a normal factor in the sales process has to be different. The seller has to be motivated and the buyer has to find the seller. The most common factor that allows one to steal a boat is financial distress on the part of the seller. There are a myriad of reasons for financial distress, particularly in the past few years! There are many other factors that result in low sales prices as well and there are a few companies specializing in selling boats in “distressed situations”.

Some boats are deals because few people know they are for sale. There are owners who refuse to pay brokers’ fees and create their own web sites or use lesser known listing sites. Google/Yahoo/Bing searching and internet farming will lead to some of these sites. Tip: Use a skilled broker to acquire the fair market value for a boat you are trying to sell.

Some boats are on the more popular listing sites, such as Yachtworld, but have incorrect information, reducing the size of the potential buying market. Wrong or lesser known manufacturer, wrong year, length, and even the wrong price is sometimes listed. Think about the wide range of names use for many boats, including the builder, importer, designer, model or common nick name. While these are “rookie” mistakes, there are a few rookies out there and a veteran shopper may be able to capitalize on these situations.

Deals are often possible before boats make it to a listing site or are listed by a broker and some deals are made after the boat has been listed for an inordinate amount of time and the seller has tired of the process and the burdens of ownership. “Low ball” offers on boats that have been for sale for a long period of time are occasionally accepted.

Life changes often result in boats available at a discount. An abandoned dream of sailing around the world, a divorce, the dissolution of a partnership and death are all great tragedies for some and opportunities for others. Boats for sale as a result of these types of events will often be sold to individuals who become aware of the circumstance soon after it occurs and are able to act quickly. A wide network helps locate these boats, so if you are looking for a deal, don’t keep it a secret. The more people that know you are looking the more likely a deal will be revealed to you.

Donated boats for sale are possible deals. Though laws changed a few years ago reducing the number of these opportunities, some remain. Boats of lower value or ones that the donor actually is giving the boat away (versus those who give as a better financial option to selling) can be had at a bargain. Some of these deals require a two year lease with an option to buy, and are appropriate for buyers who desire a particular boat and plan to keep it for several years. This is no longer a viable option for “flippers”, or those who want to buy and sell quickly for profit.

There are deals to be had on damaged boats, often for sale by insurance companies after a constructive total loss. There are numerous individual boats sold by countless insurance companies and marine surveyors, to find them one needs to network extensively and be patient. Then there are a few large companies specializing in this type of sale, they include Copart, Certified Sales, and Cooper Capital. All are easily found online. Tip: A stolen and recovered boat often has very little damage but still can be purchased at a huge discount due to the circumstances. Damaged boats present challenges best undertaken by people experienced in the repair industry or people who are “handy” and like to fiddle with projects.

Many boats are being sold on Craig’s List and other online markets such as Ebay. Some boats are sold by marinas and various marine companies as lien sales. There are various governmental auctions and Marshall’s sales, most are publicized on the internet. Don’t forget your due diligence (not so subtle plug for a good marine surveyor) and these sites can lead to a bargain.Repossession_notice_

And finally the most voluminous source of deals in today’s market: repossessed boats. There are many banks that sell only a few boats and utilize a wide variety of outlets to sell them. These boats can be found in all the nooks and crannies of boat selling websites and brokerages. Then there are a few companies that specialize in selling “repos”. Among these businesses are several with a Southern California presence, including: Long Beach Yacht Sales, Grande Yachts, National Liquidators and Brokaw Yacht Sales.

To utilize these companies effectively one should understand some of the underlying factors. Many of the boats are sold quickly, so be ready to act. Know what you want: a specific type of boat or a smoking hot deal. Have your budget or funding source established and if you see a boat that interests you, don’t take long to make your offer. Realize that some of these businesses are deluged with interest (phone calls, emails and walk-ins) and thus customer service is not what it might be at a more traditional brokerage. If you are seriously in the market, let the contact person at the business know in no uncertain terms.

Also realize that the discount doesn’t come without a catch. You don’t get the benefit of disclosure of problems, events of significance (submersions, collisions, etc…) or maintenance history. Many repo boats were not well maintained prior to being repossessed.

Bob Brokaw of Brokaw Yacht Sales is active in selling repo boats and he advises that a buyer utilize a broker familiar with the process. He also suggests that any potential buyer, who is remote from the boat, hire a qualified local representative local to perform a “walk through” prior to incurring any significant expense in the buying process. The sheer volume of repo boats handled by some companies precludes them from getting to know the boats well. Thus if you have an agree price on a boat that is a plane flight away, having a quick inspection to let you know if there is an easily detected significant deficiency can save you the airfare (and valuable time) or let you modify your offer before incurring the expense of travel and/or a detailed marine survey.

So how do you steal a boat?

Broaden your network
Prepare and act quickly
Use due diligence

Choosing a marine tradesman

Your boat has a problem and you need a mechanic, electrician, carpenter, diver, painter or marine surveyor. You are new to boating, the area, or your favorite surveyor just won the lottery and is not returning your calls. What do you do?

Unfortunately I have found many less than professional individuals plying the marine trades. There are ways to reduce your frustration, wasted time and wasted money.

One simple method of searching for a tradesperson is the internet, which has replaced most telephone books and written directories (but they still exist). The internet is convenient, easy to use and will always provide an answer. While there are some sites which vet trades people, this option is limited in the marine trades. The internet however, is very useful in finding brand specific service providers for your specific engine or refrigerator.

Word of mouth from neighboring boat owners is another way to find a repair man. Again your boating neighbor is convenient and easy to access, however their scope of knowledge regarding the specific skill set is likely limited and follow up questions should be asked to assure their problem and the repairer’s skills are similar to your problem and the skill set it requires. On the other hand, if your boating neighbor has negative endorsements, no follow up is required.

One of the most effective methods of finding a good repair person is soliciting referrals. Sources for referrals include boat brokers, boat yards, and marine professionals, such as surveyors, with broad based exposure to the trade and other tradesmen. A mechanic who services an alternate brand of engine may provide very useful reference information for your brand or a marine electrician from one city may provide a name for an electrician in another location.

A combination of these techniques and additional research will provide useful information. Consider the tradesman’s qualifications and certifications, time in trade and specific experience with your problem. Qualifications are provided by manufacturers and include designations such as dealer, distributor or warranty provider. Certifications are provided by various industry organizations including the American Boat & Yachting Council (A.B.Y.C.). While written designations and qualifications do not guarantee professionalism by the tradesmen, they are helpful in the decision process. Once you narrow the field, discussing these issues with the potential vendors allows you to “size them up”; a short discussion about the issue will surely give you insight into their experience, knowledge and ability to help you.

As marine surveyors we are often asked if we are members of professional associations, as membership in these associations are required by many financial and insurance underwriters. While this is a minimum requirement, we still suggest vetting our trade by speaking with a few other professionals in the industry (reputations are usually earned) and perhaps reviewing reports (work product for other trades is harder to review).

For those of you who have been boating for way too long for the above suggestions to be helpful, here are some more advanced considerations in your vetting of service providers. Is your service provider licensed and insured? Licenses for most marine trades are generally limited to local business licenses; insurance on the other hand varies widely and can be important. Sophisticated buyers, such as boat yards and marinas, not only require specific types and limits of insurance but demand to be added as additional insured on policies. While this may be beyond the norm for the boat owner, a copy of a valid insurance policy is fairly simple to obtain.

Another sophisticated consideration in choosing a marine tradesperson is the contract terms. While many of us sign contracts without careful consideration, reviewing of the terms is prudent. Some contracts state that the boat owner has agreed to release the vendor from damage caused as the result of the work performed and even indemnify the vendor from claims resulting from the service. As always reading the contract before signing it is advisable. Anticipating that a contract may be required and requesting it in advance will provide you the time to review its terms and not leave you stuck in a jam.

We were recently asked about options for requiring a major repair job to be completed in a timely fashion. The boat owner was hoping that a performance stipulation could be obtained with his repairer. While not unheard of, performance agreements in boat repair contracts are rare.

Our suggestion, in addition to the above ideas, is to meet the decision maker for the company you are hiring and let your “gut” decide if doing business with them feels good. If the decision maker is not the technician, meet the technician as well and by supporting the true professionalism in the industry, you will increase your boating enjoyment.

An interesting tactic one client used to pick a repairer was to ask the potential repairers to rate each other, and then she chose the one with the highest rating.

Finding water leaks

Finding water leaks

If you like boating and you own a boat, eventually you will have to deal with a water leak. “Nothing good ever comes from water inside a boat” – Jim Merritt (my favorite mentor). Every submersion claim I have ever handled has had the same cause …. too much water on the inside.

Though most water leaks don’t result in a submersion, stopping them as soon as they are detected will often eliminate more significant problems and expenses including professional restoration or cleaning of soft goods (headliner, carpet, bedding), remediating mould, or replacing deteriorated wood.

So, is the water from above or below? Remember, don’t taste it.  To begin the process, put on your thinking cap and make your best guess. If water is accumulating in the bilge, assume the water is coming from below. Clean and dry the area to assure you have a leak and not a spill. If the direction of the source of the water is unknown, coat the bilge and the area around the bilge with powder, the trail of water through the powder will point you in the right direction. If you use cleaning powder, you can then use a rag and stop procrastinating that bilge cleaning job. You can continue using the powder trick in the direction of the leak until the source of the water is located.sinkingboat

Normal sources of water include propeller shaft seals, rudder ports, through hulls, and hoses. Any below waterline component can leak with the boat in a static condition, though some leaks are intermittent. Sometimes a shaft seal will leak with a shaft in a particular orientation. Some systems only leak while operating, particularly if the leak itself is above the static waterline. The engine(s) cooling systems and exhaust systems are primary candidates for leaks. The generator, air conditioner, waste system, and other raw water components/freshwater systems are potential sources to consider. A freshwater system leak is usually indicated by a cycling pressure pump. (No, it is not supposed to do that).

Determining the level of the waterline inside the boat can be tricky if there is no exterior through hull or other simple reference point. You can always detach a hose from a through hull and hope it is long enough to reach above the water level, or you can use a old trick (like before the Greek and Roman empires old). Get a long clear hose, fill it in the water beside your boat. Put your hand on one end and pull it to the place you want to check. Leave the other end of the hose in the water beside your boat, route part of the hose below the waterline and lift the end you’re holding above the waterline. Remove your hand to let air in the hose and the sea water level will be revealed.

If you located the leak and think you fixed it, make sure you have cleaned and dried the area, monitor it again in the near future to confirm you fixed the leak and take this task of your procrastination list.

If the leak is from above, put that thinking cap back on and begin by making your best guess of the source. Remember the construction method of most fiberglass boats includes a two piece deck (similar to the hull and hull liner); the lower piece or liner can often mask the true source of the leak and throw the leak detective off the trail. Vinyl or cloth head and side liners can also redirect the leak, resulting in the appearance of the leak quite a distance from the actual source. Think gravity, the water came through the deck at a point higher than the drip you are seeing in the cabin. Before you start taking things apart, utilize other resources available. Boat owners groups are often an excellent resource and other Sea Ray owners have likely skinned this cat. Manufacturers are also a wealth of knowledge and the Catalina engineering department is incredibly helpful and responsive.

If “non destructive” means of locating the deck leak are not resolving the issue, you will need to continue more active techniques. Consider hose testing for leaks. Realize that some leaks are very slow and this procedure can be tedious. Test only one potential leak source at a time. Spraying the whole foredeck only confirms that you have a leak.

Depending on the type of the installation, re-bedding hardware may be the next logical procedure. Realize that bedding compounds (caulking) has a finite life. Choose your new products appropriately, spend the extra money for strong, long lasting sealant, though be careful about the adhesive properties of some of these compounds.

Removing headliner is a daunting and troublesome task for most of us. However, once it is gone, the answers are often clear and apparent. And, just like in your house (think popcorn ceiling) that fuzzy headliner may be passé.

If you think a leak is from a tank, consider a dye test, it is cheaper and potentially less destructive than a pressure test. Air pressure can be used to test tanks and systems, depending on the configuration and soap bubbles can be helpful.

We often hear condensation blamed for high moisture conditions in boats. While condensation is a reality at certain times of the year, it is fairly easily controlled with heaters or de-humidifiers. And of course, our favorite way to reduce moisture in the cabin is to use the vessel regularly. Open it up when the sun comes up; get the air flowing by moving the vessel through the water with the foredeck hatch open. Ventilate the vessel, be creative. There are many ways to allow ventilation and still restrict moisture intrusion, but the best one is to take a cruise.

P.S. Remember: fungus deterioration in wood requires four things: wood, moisture, air and the proper temperature. You can only control the moisture.

This article was edited on February 26, 2016.

Don’t Drink the Water

Don’t Drink the Water

I did it for decades. I still see others doing it regularly. Truly, I saw a professional captain do it this week. There’s water in the bilge and we want to know, is it fresh or salt? It does make a difference. In most instances, fresh water is from the water tank and can’t sink the boat. Salt water is from the ocean and can sink the boat. Knowing if it is fresh or salt water can assist in solving the problem of where the water came from. A taste quickly answers the question and then we continue on the process of solving the problem at hand. One solution for fresh water and another for salt water. No big deal …right? WRONG!

My wife laughed at the thought of someone tasting bilge water to determine its salinity. This article will do the most good and be most relevant to men; women don’t need this low level intelligence reprimand. Thank goodness because someone needs to take care of the kids’ safety! Now if you are a member of the smarter gender, keep reading, if only for the humor that we men actually taste bilge water.


One of my mentors often says, “Nothing good ever comes from water in the bilge.” Fresh water in the bilge can rot wood, promote mold, stink and is generally yucky. Salt water does not rot wood (trivia tidbit) but it causes corrosion, stinks and is also yucky. Whatever the source, it should be found and eliminated. I am not advocating a need for a perfectly dry bilge, and I have had friends who needed help to get over that obsession, but active, unexpected leaks should be addressed.

The bilge is usually a dirty, unclean, cesspool that collects all manner of pollutants and contaminates. The bilge is the bottom of a vessel in which there are tanks holding fuel and waste, engines have oil and coolant and there are all manner of poisons aboard. There are hoses with connections to fittings carrying the fuel and waste (and other toxins). The boat moves, vibrates, heats and cools, and these fluids do not stay contained. The leaking fluids usually find their way to the bottom of the boat, the bilge.

The normal maintenance of the boat, including washing the exterior and cleaning the interior results in contaminants in the bilge. Sinks, showers, sump collector and deck drains are sources for contaminants. Cleaning chemicals, gifts from birds, debris tracked in on shoes, and other people’s hair… blech!

An occupational health and safety doctor followed a marine surveyor on a job and then spoke to a surveyor’s association meeting. He started and ended with one clear message. In between, he discussed other significant safety issues like confined spaces, gas freeing of tanks, climbing ladders and big boats suspended over our heads, but above all he stressed one simple behavioral change. “Don’t taste the bilge water!”

Few people need to know if the bilge water is fresh or salt as often as a marine surveyor. However, as a boater, you will inevitably be asking that question at some point in your boating career. I did not realize how often this situation arose, until I stopped doing it. In my normal course of inspecting boats, I am asked if the water is salt or fresh once a week. It is often not said, but implied that I should taste it; after all I am the surveyor. I’ll suggest a safe way to answer this question later, but the most important immediate response is, “I aint tastin’ it, and you shouldn’t either.” I have noticed many marine professionals need to answer the question in order to continue up the logic tree of problem solving. As an owner, you can always pay someone to taste the water for you.

The good doctor that advised the large audience of marine surveyors against using our taste buds to determine salt or fresh, had sound reasons. He mentioned several diseases, including incurable ones like hepatitis. He also mentioned several other terms that I did not comprehend, and don’t want to, but more than one included the term “fecal”, enough said.

So, I don’t care how many times you have done it or how long you have been doing it, stop tasting the bilge water now. I am sure I have tasted the bilge water for as long, and as many times as most of you, but I stopped cold turkey, no 12 step program, no counseling, I didn’t start smoking or eat more pie as a substitute. I just stopped and have lived for several years now with no detrimental side effects. If I can stop, so can you!

Now, that we have eliminated tasting the water as a means of determining its source, which can be a very important determination, what do we do?

One method used by professionals is the use of silver nitrite. A few crystals of silver nitrate in the unknown water will quickly provide the answer. White deposits in the bottom mean salt water. A light cloud suspended indicates fresh water. It is very simple and quick.

It is very simple and definitive. We tried mixing fresh and salt water 50% and the resulting mixture still indicated salt water, but to a lesser extent.

Silver nitrate is crystalline at room temperature. It is available at chemical supply stores and may require a business licenses to acquire. It should be kept out of sunlight and off your skin. While it may not be a compound you currently have on your boat, the upside is worth the effort or you can simply bring a sample by our office and we will safety test it for free. Boat repair professionals or anyone who regularly needs to answer this question should invest in some silver nitrate and keep it handy.

Osmotic Blisters

Osmotic Blisters


Os-mo-sis (oz mo’sis) n: 1. Physical Chem a. the tendency of a fluid to pass through a semi-permeable membrane into a solution where its concentration is lower, thus equalizing the conditions on either side of the membrane b. the diffusion of fluid through membranes or porous partitions.*

*From the Random House Dictionary of the English Language.blister4_1580

In 1990 when a boat was hauled for a pre-purchase survey the potential buyer and both brokers often watched carefully as the hull broke the surface of the water. The brokers were mesmerized, certain that this moment would determine the outcome of the sale and their commission. The potential buyer was rapt with anticipation, fearing for the worst but hoping for a smooth blister free bottom. Being neutral with respect to the completion of the sale reduced the stress for the surveyor, but the tension always reached a crescendo when the hull bottom was fully visible. We called this the “broker’s moment”.

A sea change in perceived significance of blisters has occurred since then. Gradually, over two decades, many fiberglass boat owners and potential buyers have come to accept blisters as a normal condition with fiberglass hulls. While “the broker’s moment” has lost its drama, discussions regarding the significance of blister continue, often under or near boats hauled for survey.

The scientific data which we have reviewed over the years has generally been developed by an entity with an interest in the outcome. Resin manufacturers, repair facilities, repair tool suppliers and boat builders are among the sources of information we have reviewed. We are not aware of an independent, unbiased, scientific study of the root cause of blisters or repair method effectivity. The opinions expressed in this article come from our experience in the field, including lengthy discussions with multitudes of repairers and boat owners. Our opinions are based on examples of boats that have had various types of repairs performed due to blisters and on blistered boats which have been left un-repaired.

To begin the inspection process for blisters it is not necessary to haul the vessel. The determination of the existence of blisters is most easily achieved by a diver. During the age of the “broker’s moment”, we would often suggest having a diver inspect the bottom first, and save everyone some time and the potential buyer some money.

When the vessel is hauled from the water for survey, it is imperative that the hull bottom be clean to allow detection of blisters. Marine growth can hide blisters, particularly small blisters. A pressure washer can reveal blisters on a hull bottom as it were a magic wand.blister3_Wolfe 015

After the existence of blisters is confirmed visually, probing them provides more information. Blisters can occur within an exterior coating and are often found between the anti-fouling paint and a barrier coat. Blisters can occur within any layer of laminate, they can be hard or soft, wet or dry. We characterize blisters by their size, depth, location (external coatings, below coating, within laminate etc…) number and location. We feel larger blisters are of greater concern than a large number of blisters. The depth of the blister is generally proportionate to its diameter.

Most fiberglass boats are built of polyester resin. Polyester resin contains organic components, which will dissolve in water. “Blister juice” is a sticky, brown fluid with a distinct odor. It is found in wet blisters which originate within the laminate and can be found in surface blisters, where the water has dissolved part of the polyester gelcoat.

The basic scientific premise is that water molecules diffuse through the exterior barrier (usually gelcoat) and collect in pockets below the coatings or within the laminate; thus the term “osmotic blisters”. Water then dissolves the organic components of the polyester resin and the resulting pressure pushes the coatings or laminate outward, forming the blister.

The significance of blisters is often debated among professionals. The undersigned is relatively “light” with respect to their significance. We interface regularly with several respected professionals who don’t share our opinion. The other side of the spectrum feels that blisters are cancerous and require eradication to prevent their certain, gradual and insidious growth. While we concur that no good can come of blisters and we would prefer all hulls without them, we feel that they are generally inconsequential to the ownership, operation and maintenance of a vessel.

We have never heard of a blister sinking a boat. We have not encountered multiple blisters connecting and causing large scale delamination. We are well aware of many examples of large scale delamination, however none of them have been attributed to osmotic blisters.

We have found blisters which we feel (and specify in our reports) require repair, generally they are over 3” in diameter and well into the laminate.

There are various repair options for blisters. The depth of the blisters is often considered when deciding if and how to repair them. While blisters that originate between external coatings or the gelcoat and a barrier coat are less significant structurally, the same repair options apply. A boat owner can do nothing, repair individual blisters or have “a blister job” performed on the entire hull bottom.

Repairing blisters locally consists of grinding the individual blister, filling the divot (a rare golf analogy in a boat story) and repainting. This method is suitable for local repairs and recommended for a boat bottom with a few large blisters.

A “blister job” involves removing the exterior coatings entirely, grinding away any dry fibers which remain in the area of the blisters, allowing the laminate on the hull bottom to dry, filling individual blisters and recoating the bottom. Often the bottom is coated with fiberglass material impregnated with vinylester or epoxy resins. The intent is to provide a barrier to prevent the osmosis of water, a repetition of the blister process and to return any strength removed by the removal of exterior coatings and laminates.

Many blister repairs have been successful, and in San Diego, Hull Tech is an experienced company that successfully provides this service for many boat owners. However, many boats which have had blister jobs have had the unfortunate experience of more blisters in the future. At an average “low end” cost of $225.00 per foot, ranging upward to double that amount, a blister is a significant financial commitment. As this is a labor intensive repair, it is not uncommon to have this job done in areas with less expensive labor. Mexico is an option and Baja Naval is a skilled facility in Ensenada. If you decide to have a “blister job”, choose the vendor wisely. While the value of the vessel will certainly be increased as a result, the increase will likely not be equal to the cost of the blister job.

The majority of boaters who own a boat with blisters choose to do nothing. We advise them that the blisters are not going to go away and will likely increase with time. It is uncertain at what rate they will increase or how large they will ultimately get, but they are certain to remain. The disclosure of their existence prior to the haul out for survey is the best way to diffuse their effect on a sale transaction. An allowance for blisters is almost certainly less expensive than the cost of a “blister job”.

In short it is our opinion that blisters are an unfortunate but regular occurrence on fiberglass hulls. Their significance is primarily on the day of sale and rarely significant with respect to the ownership, operation and maintenance of the vessel.

Boat Corrosion 101

Boat Corrosion 101

The singularly most misunderstood, but frequently discussed, problem in boating is corrosion. Corrosion of metal components below the waterline will be a problem all boaters will eventually encounter and inevitably discuss with their boating neighbors. By far, the best source of information is a specialist such as a marine electrician, electrical engineer or metallurgist. Unfortunately most of them speak an incomprehensible language. Furthermore, the few specialists who are able to speak in simple, understandable terms don’t stop in time. They continue their explanations about ions, electrons and current carrying conductors until the basic explanation gets lost in the mental overload that follows. For those who wish to understand this subject in basic terms, you are in luck. The following explanation is written by an electrical simpleton and remains basic from start to finish.

Let’s begin with some very basic concepts. Alternating current (AC) is the type of electricity from the shore power cord, generator or alternator. Direct current (DC) is the type of electricity from the batteries. Circuit breakers are designed to prevent the overheating of wires and fires. Ground fault circuit interrupter devices, such as G.F.C.I. protected AC electrical outlets are designed to protect people. It is more important to protect people and prevent fires than it is to prevent corrosion. Bonding is connecting metal components with wires, resulting in electrical continuity. This is done with most below waterline metal components, including through hulls, struts, propeller shafts and rudders.

Aluminum corrosion
Aluminum corrosion

Testing for voltage and current can get complicated fast. The only testing we will discuss is electrical continuity. On virtually all electrical meters there is a continuity test, the symbol is an ohm sign (horse shoe). To determine if one metal component has continuity to another, set the tester on this setting, touch one metal with one of the tester’s leads and touch the other metal component with the other lead, continuity is indicated by a beep or a number. A number near one is good continuity. This test will allow you to determine if your rudder is continuous with a sacrificial anode or if a through hull is included in the bonding system.

It is unlikely that the cause of your corrosion problem is the “stupid wiring” at the marina. The wiring on your dock is almost certainly to an electrical code. The wiring on your boat is almost certainly not to code, as the only legal requirements apply to commercial, not recreational vessels. There is no “code” or Coast Guard requirements for the electrical system on your boat. While there are standards and recommended practices, compliance with them is voluntary. Regardless, metal corrosion in boats is a result of the laws of nature or a failure aboard the boat and rarely a result of a problem with the wiring on the dock.

The normally green AC ground wire used by the marina does provide a path for an electrical current that can contribute to corrosion. It also provides a path to ground in the event of an electrical problem and is designed to save lives. Don’t cut it! There are two common choices that can be used to allow the safety aspects of the AC ground wire and reduce or eliminate its contribution to corrosion, galvanic isolators and isolation transformers. Galvanic isolators are relatively inexpensive devices that prevent most problems associated with the AC ground wire. A more sophisticated, expensive and reliable method to prevent AC ground wire related corrosion is an isolation transformer. Without falling into the abyss of electrical theory, both devices reduce the potential for corrosion on your vessel. By using these devices and leaving the AC ground wire connected as designed, the boater can reduce or prevent corrosion while allowing the safety components to function as designed.

There are two primary types of corrosion experienced by boaters: galvanic and stray current. Galvanic corrosion is a natural process which occurs when dissimilar metals have electrical continuity and are immersed in the same electrolyte. In other words, different metals are either in contact with each other or connected by a wire and they are in the same body of water. This is by far the most common cause of corrosion. Stray current corrosion is caused by an electrical current leak and in the boater’s world is almost exclusively direct current (DC). This simply means that the primary source of the power driving this type of corrosion is your batteries not your shore power cord.

Another type of corrosion experienced mostly by high performance vessels is called cavitation corrosion or impingement. This primarily is seen on high speed propellers or rudders and is not addressed in this article. Anaerobic corrosion or oxygen starvation damage effects stainless steel where it is wet and starved of oxygen. Sailboat rigging and propeller shafts are common victims of this type of corrosion; this is also not addressed in this article. Both of these types of corrosion are unusual.

Galvanic corrosion is the common cause of corrosion on boats. The prerequisites, electrical continuity between the dissimilar metals and common water are the only things we need to understand to fight the good fight against it. If we bond all below waterline components, the least noble metal will corrode faster. While the theory is most easily understood if we use two separate pieces of metal in our examples, a single metal component can galvanically corrode. A bronze propeller is an alloy of several metallic elements, including copper and zinc. In this example, if left unprotected, the zinc will corrode out of the alloy, leaving a higher concentration of copper. This results in a pink color, versus bronze or gold. It also results in a much softer and weaker metal. Galvanic corrosion can also occur where two dissimilar alloys are in contact above the waterline, such as a steel fastener in an aluminum toe rail. In this case the aluminum will corrode. The least noble metal will lose this fight every time. This is a fundamental law of nature.

To protect against galvanic corrosion we use paint, sacrificial anodes (usually zinc), galvanic isolators or isolation transformers. The most effective form of protection is paint. If a piece of metal is completely isolated from the ocean by paint, it will not corrode. This is the initial method for protecting outdrives and outboard engines. The paint has to be designed for this purpose; anti-fouling paint is not designed to prevent corrosion. Metal boats are painted to reduce corrosion.

For a sacrificial zinc anode to protect a metal component from corrosion, it needs to have electrical conductivity and immersion in the same body of water. In other words your zinc anode must be touching or connected by a wire to the metal you are trying to protect and they both have to be on the bottom of your boat or in the same component in your engine. Simply speaking, connect all submerged metal to the zinc anode. The anode on your transom is not protecting your rudder unless your meter beeps when you touch both components. The sacrificial anode in the engine’s heat exchanger (a big round tube on the back of your engine) does not prevent corrosion in the exhaust manifolds. And, by the way, you should replace that anode in your heat exchanger.

The plate zinc on your transom rarely protects the propeller shaft and the propeller. It is difficult to maintain continuity with a propeller shaft that spins several thousand revolutions per minute. The most practical means to protect the propeller shaft and propeller from galvanic corrosion is a collar zinc installed directly on the shaft. You do not need to put a zinc anode on every piece of submerged metal. However, if you wish to provide galvanic corrosion protection, the metal does require continuity with a zinc anode located somewhere on the bottom of the boat.

By their nature, outdrives have corrosion challenges. Aluminum is low on the galvanic chart thus subject to corrosion more easily than bronze or stainless steel. Zinc anodes can reduce corrosion on an outdrive but the rubber bushings isolate the various components including the hydraulic rams, steering components and transom assemblies. Electrical continuity must be maintained between each component part and a sacrificial zinc anode in order for all parts to have protection. Small cables used for this purpose often become disconnected and the zinc anodes are more difficult to see and maintain than transom plates or propeller shaft collar zincs.

Trim tabs corrode. Deal with it.

Stray current corrosion is a much more rapid and damaging condition. The good news, it is unusual. The bad news, it is much more destructive and more difficult to diagnose. Extreme cases of stray current corrosion can result in a good propeller taking the form of Swiss Cheese in a matter of days. A through hull flange can disappear and solid steel components such as propeller shafts and rudder shafts can be severed. As previously mentioned, the root cause of this problem is a DC electrical stray current leak. An electrical short circuit has occurred and the current is being discharged into the water. One piece of metal will inevitably be coated with a white compound and another piece of metal will suffer metal loss. What the boater will experience is a sudden change in the condition of a submerged metal component, often found by a diver. The root cause will often end up being a failed electric motor, bilge pump or battery charger.

Sacrificial zinc anodes will not protect against stray current corrosion. Superman is defenseless against Kryptonite and metal is defenseless against a stray current. If a stray current problem is suspected, call a professional. The source must be eliminated. Take immediate action, boats have sunk after the through hulls were destroyed by stray current corrosion in a few days.

We do not believe that all metal components necessarily require bonding and protection with a sacrificial zinc anode. While there are standards which recommend this practice, we have seen many quality alloys last for several decades, virtually undamaged. We do believe that a bonding system should be complete if attempted, a complete bonding system or no bonding.

Fiberglass boats can not be “over zinced”, or install so much zinc that damage is caused. Wood and metal boats can be “over zinced”. This issue is particularly important to wooden boat owners. The amount of zinc installed on wooden and metal vessel is important and should be measured and maintained actively.

There are devices available to measure the amount of protection provided by zinc anodes. They are seldom understood or used as designed. If your boat has one, either learn how it works and use it actively or abandon it and use the simple system of bonding everything to a zinc.

There are more sophisticated corrosion prevention systems which are generally used in commercial applications. While zinc anodes are “passive” some outdrives and many steel ships and structures use “active” systems. Some of these systems impress a current into the water to prevent corrosion. These systems are beyond the scope of this article.

Corrosion of that toe rail we discussed earlier (and other above waterline metal) can be reduced by washing away the salts left after a day sailing. We won’t broach the subject of tank failures, just keep them dry.

Remember to protect metal with an anode; it needs electrical conductivity and a shared body of water. Sudden corrosion or significant changes in the metal components require immediate attention by a qualified expert, and follow the advice of that crusty boating neighbor at your peril.