How to Throw Away a Boat

Clark March 14th, 2018

boat hole
Now that I’ve been overseeing a boatyard for ten months, I’ve run into the problematic issue of throwing boats away. Boats sink, catch fire, are abandoned, get too far behind on maintenance and repairs, and boats just get old. In these situations, the economically sensible thing to do is dispose of the boat.

Unlike the old days, intentionally scuttling a boat offshore now comes with heavy fines and maybe some jail time.

The cost of throwing away a boat varies widely. Some municipalities have programs for disposing of a boat for free (to the owner, not the taxpayer), but it generally costs $5,000-$10,000 to throw away a fiberglass 40-footer.

It costs this much because all hazardous materials must be removed before disposal. This means every last drop of fuel must be cleaned from the tanks (or tanks removed), every drop of oil from the crankcase (or engine removed), every drop of sewage from the holding tank, batteries removed and disposed of elsewhere, hydraulic fluid drained from steering systems, oil drained from windlass and gear works with oil baths, refrigerant removed and contained, etc.

If you can do all this yourself, then you’re just looking at transportation and disposal fees. Paying someone else to remove all the hazardous stuff and transport it gets expensive. You’d think there would be plenty of value in salvaging parts, but usually the only thing worth salvaging is a lead keel, as lead can fetch up to 75 cents a pound.

Once the boat is free of hazardous substances there are several avenues to disposal: Large men with chainsaws and demolition saws can reduce the boat to manageable chunks that can be thrown in a dumpster, then hauled away to the landfill. Or, the boat can be trailered whole to the landfill, where they will run it over with a landfill compactor. After a few passes it’s unrecognizable as a boat:

This is sad to watch, because even if it was a piece of crap before demolition, it was somebody’s baby once.

There are several promising technologies for recycling fiberglass, but none ready for the mainstream. At $35 to $50 per ton, disposal in a landfill is almost always the cheapest option.

All that composite material will then sit in a landfill forever, or at least, shall we say, hundreds of years. Wooden boats will eventually return to the earth. It seems to take about 100 years for a wooden boat to rot away to nothing in a temperate climate; much less time in the tropics. Steel boats will rust away in about the same amount of time. I don’t know the disintegration time for an aluminum boat, but for a composite (fiberglass) boat, it’s going to be taking up space and being ugly long after we are all forgotten.

With this in mind, owning a fiberglass boat isn’t just this year’s maintenance or next year’s haul-out. It’s the eternal plan for several hundred gallons of polyester resin. And, not to mention any names, but there are certain manufacturers turning out thousands of fiberglass boats every year, and these boats will have a lifespan of 20-30 years, after which they’re not worth maintaining.

It sort of like getting a puppy: If you’re the kind of person who is going to tire of it after the puppy stage, then you shouldn’t get a dog. If you’re going to buy a boat that needs work, not do the work, and then hope to sell or dispose of said boat in worse condition than you bought it, then you, or the sucker you sell the boat to for $1, will be headed for the landfill.

The Epoxy Allergy and How to Avoid It

Clark March 6th, 2018

The Epoxy Allergy, more specifically allergic dermatitis, is the curse of the marine industry: The few who develop it are marked for life, never to come near epoxy again. The rest of us can go on working with these wonderful products with impunity. The key concept is that the allergy is developed over time. One is not born with it, as with many other allergies.

In New Zealand, during a 100-day blister and bottom job, my friend Ian developed the allergy as we went. We worked away, day after day, filling ground-out blisters with epoxy and fiberglass mat, rolling out the bubbles with ridged metal rollers. The boat being above us, much epoxy dripped down on us. One day Ian felt sick and had some swelling. We wrote it off to a cold or flu. Then a week later a big gob of thickened epoxy fell on his cheek. We cleaned it off (I think with acetone…eh gads) and within a few hours he looked like the Elephant Man, with one eye completely swollen shut for a week. Ian had to stand 100 yards away for the rest of the project if we were working with epoxy, and can’t go anywhere near the stuff for the rest of his life.

It turns out that cleaning it off with acetone was the worst thing we could have done. This puts the epoxy mixture in suspension in a solvent that is easily absorbed into the skin. If you get epoxy on your bare skin, just wash it with soap and water. Vinegar is also supposed to be good. Letting it dry and peeling it off later is preferable to using solvent.

Some people can develop the allergy after just a few contacts, but for most it takes months or years of exposure.

A few tips for working with epoxy:

1. Wear vinyl gloves (not latex)…always!
2. Wear a protective suit, or at least long sleeves, and tuck your sleeves into your gloves. No matter how careful you plan to be, you’ll somehow get it on your wrists or arms, even if you’re wearing gloves.
3. Never clean epoxy from your skin with solvent.
4. The thinner the epoxy, the worse it is for causing the allergy. Just as cleaning it with acetone puts it into an easily-absorbed suspension, epoxy-based paints, thinned epoxy, and penetrating epoxy are more easily-absorbed into the skin.
5. It’s the hardener, not the epoxy. The allergens for most people are in the hardeners (part B), not the epoxy base (part A). You’ll seldom have one without the other, but something to keep in mind.
6. Epoxy is generally considered safe to use without a respirator in a well-ventilated area. If you’re going to be in an enclosed area, wear a respirator, as the concentrated vapors can cause irritation to the respiratory tract and eyelids (and hasten your road to developing the allergy).
7. Epoxy dust, from sanding, can be especially insidious. We often refer to epoxy being “green,” as in dried, but not completely cured. Full curing can take as long as a week, and during this time the epoxy dust still contains some of the same volatile compounds as wet epoxy. If you must sand green epoxy, wear a respirator and eye protection.

Epoxy products are ubiquitous in the boating world, and they should be. They’re strong, versatile, easy to work with, resistant to chemicals, and create a barrier to moisture. Take a few very basic precautions, don’t ever clean it off with solvent, and you’ll have a lifetime of ahead of you in the wonderful world of epoxy. Blow it, develop the allergy, and you are forever banished!

Trailer Out for Donald Crowhurst Biopic, The Mercy

Clark November 29th, 2017

I’m still in.

I’ve been long awaiting this film’s release, here and here, and now it looks like it is being rolled out:

“THE MERCY has a running time of c2 hours. It will be released in Portugal on November 23rd, in the Netherlands on December 14th, in Australia on February 8th, in the UK on February 9th, in Poland on March 2nd, in France on March 7th, in New Zealand on March 8th and in Germany on March 29th.”

United States? Hello? What are we, chopped liver? It says elsewhere it’s coming out in 2017, but there ain’t much of 2017 left.

One critic has reviewed it here and gives it a mostly positive review, especially Colin Firth’s performance.

Still, will it appeal to sailors, or will the sailing bits make us shake our heads in disgust, as with just about every other movie about sailing? The trailer does indulge a bit in the dreaded man clinging to top of mast in middle of storm for no good reason trope. And some way too big waves, probably a model filmed in a tank.

But I’m still in…if it’s ever released in the US.

Lightning and Sailboats

Clark November 22nd, 2017

You can read many authoritative treatises about boats and lightning, and they’re all full of crap. There is only one thing we know for sure about lightning: It is unpredictable.

An acquaintance recently introduced me to a fellow sailor, saying, “You got run over by a container ship. He got struck by lightning.”

I reflexively asked, “Did it zap all your electronics?”

“No, it blew a 2 x 3 foot hole out the side of the boat and she sank in twenty seconds.”

He was sailing solo in the vicinity of Drakes Bay, Costa Rica, also very close to Isla del Caño, one of the most lightning-struck places on earth. His boat was a cold molded 60-footer, with a nearly 100-foot aluminum mast. Being a conscientious guy, he did what the books say and connected the base of his aluminum mast to his external lead keel with some large gauge cable.

Did the lightning do what the books say and politely conduct itself down the mast, through the cable, and out the keel? Nay, it jumped from the base of the mast to a monel water tank that was 2 x 3 feet in cross-section.

He heard a kerblong, the noise the water tank makes when it’s full, as the lightning struck. When he went down the companionway to investigate the water was already four feet deep, and his bilge was four feet deep, meaning the water was actually eight feet deep. He grabbed his ditch bag, then went for the life raft, which was in the forepeak, but the water was already so high that it triggered the hydrostatic release on the life raft, inflating it, and wedging it hopelessly in the forepeak. If there is a lesson to be learned from his story, it is to keep life rafts with hydrostatic releases on deck.

In the end he escaped with his ditch bag, some water, the clothes on his back, and his surfboard, which he paddled through the night, and into the next day, before reaching shore. Among the wreckage was a piece of 2 x 3 foot cold molded wood, confirming the whole lightning blew the monel water tank out the side of the boat hypothesis. (I might hypothesize a bit more, that the lightning violently boiled the water in the tank, and the resulting steam blew the tank apart?) A day or two of walking and paddling down the shoreline, a remote vacation house, a chicken bus to the nearest town, a few phone calls, and he was soon on a plane back to the US. The boat wasn’t insured.

His is the worst sailboat-lightning story I’ve ever heard, but I’m sure there are some that are never told.

While I was in Costa Rica I knew eleven boats that got struck, ranging from minor damage to total destruction of all things electrical and electronic.

Once I watched as lightning struck the boat anchored right next to me. It vaporized the tri-color light on the top of the mast, traveled down one of the outer stays, and jumped from the stay to the lifeline. Where it jumped from the stay it left a puddle, as they say in welding parlance, a puddle just big enough to take out two of the wires in the 1 x 19 wire rope. My dad flew down a week or two later, and brought them their new tricolor and enough wire rope to replace the stay. They were lucky, but I was even luckier, because I was just a hundred feet away and didn’t get hit.

It looked something like this:

On another boat the strike found its way to the anchor chain and didn’t do any apparent damage, but the lightning strike electropolished the anchor chain and anchor to a mirror finish. I could see my reflection in the fluke of the anchor, which was galvanized but looked like shiny stainless.

On the boat that had a total loss of all things electronic and electrical they just did a quick and dirty replacement of the engine battery, starter, and alternator, then bought a handheld GPS and VHF to get them across the Pacific. Total electrical replacement took place later in New Zealand.

At that point I’d had the bejesus scared out of me by lightning, read the books, connected my aluminum mast to my external lead keel with some large gauge cable, and got one of the bottle brush static dissipators for the top of the mast. The so-called lightning experts often scoff at these dissipators (”You can’t dissipate all the ions in the whole ocean off the top of your mast!”) but none of the eleven boats struck had dissipators, and none of the boats with dissipators were ever struck. Coincidence? Maybe-probably.

After my mad scramble to “lightning-proof” my boat, I never saw lightning like in Central America again. I was in the break of the monsoon in Southeast Asia, spent months in Southern India, a whole circumnavigation with lots of lighning, but nothing ever compared to Central America where, well, eleven boats got struck that I knew. There were probably many more I never heard about, meaning it’s a significant danger down there.

So what shall we do? Everyone agrees that connecting the mast to the keel is a good idea, or somehow otherwise providing a low resistance path for lightning to get from your mast to the sea. And this lightning ground should be connected to the bonding system, so that the charge can be conducted, rather than jump, to various thru-hulls, and hull appurtenances.

A common misconception is that lightning, and electricity in general, will take the path of least resistance. Wrong. Electricity will TAKE ALL AVAILABLE PATHS. This is a good thing to keep in mind with grounding systems and all manner of wiring aboard. So even if we provide lightning with a low resistance path to ground, will it take it? Maybe. Will it take it, and also take other routes? Probably, and we’re talking about lightning here, a phenomenon not generally described in harmless or insignificant quantities.

I was going to close with a flippant remark about the “cone of protection,” the 45-degree zone below your mast, which you always read about in discussions about boats and lightning. I was going to suggest that during an electrical storm you stand in the cone with a golf club over your head while I cower in the quarter berth, but the National Lightning Safety Institute beats me to the punch with their dispelling of the Cone of Protection Myth.

Bad Things Come In Threes

Clark August 9th, 2017

We were sailing back to the Spaulding Marine Center from a successful first charter on our 1885 gaff-rigged sloop Freda. We left the charter guests at the Ferry Building, set sail, and managed to lay Sausalito in one tack on the ebb. Volunteer crew Rob and I quaffed artisanal cheeses and fresh figs, leftover from the charter, as we enjoyed spectacular Bay sailing aboard the oldest sailing yacht on the West Coast. I was feeling so cocky about it that I suggested, “People always drop her sails and motor the last mile to Spaulding. There’s plenty of room by Spaulding to drop sail. Let’s sail on down the waterfront.”

Thank God we didn’t actually do that! When we neared Sausalito we started getting hammered by williwaws coming down the slopes, and I called the fight. I went to start the engine, and she wouldn’t start. I tried on battery 1, on battery 2, on both, and she barely turned over. It was bizarre, because the boat had been used both days over the weekend, we’d motored for a good half hour at the start of the charter, and Freda doesn’t have much in the way of an electrical system, just a bilge pump and a few lights, not enough to drain the batteries.

“Uh oh.”

I ran up to the foredeck to drop the jib and ready the anchor, but the strop that holds the sheet tackle to the club-footed jib parted. Now with each williwaw the foredeck was swept menacingly by a loose, 15-foot long jib boom. The jib has a downhaul, as in a line that runs from the foredeck to a pulley on the tip of the bowsprit, then up the luff of the jib to the its head. Without it there’s no way to get the jib down without going to the end of the bowsprit.

With all the flogging the end of the downhaul was carried away, and I had to go to the end of the bowsprit, with the jib boom flailing, to retrieve the end of the downhaul. Once I did I got the jib down, and the jib boom only smacked me in the head once, lightly. It turned out this was the only remaining manila strop on Freda. All the rest had been replaced with modern rope:

I assembled the ancient fisherman anchor, which is more for looks than function, and got it ready to deploy.
Freda behaved herself very well. With just the main up she sat in irons, without really moving forward or drifting back.

I was about to call back to Spaulding for a tow, but decided to give the engine a Hail Mary, now that the batteries had sat for a few minutes. It worked!

Now we just had to douse and gasket the main and we were home free. We loosed the peak and throat halyards to drop the gaff, I started taming the main and tying on some gaskets, then fell through the open main companionway hatch:

There are two ways to avoid falling through a hatch:

1. Close the hatch.
2. Be aware the hatch is open and don’t fall into it.

I did not do either of these, but it’s common practice, of course, to close the cursed hatch before furling the main. Luckily I was able to break my fall with my rib cage. It must have looked terrible, because Rob left the helm to jump to my aid, but I seemed to be okay. A day later I’ve got some nasty bruises on my ribs, but none broken. On the other side I’ve got pulled muscles in my arm pit.

So there you go: Engine that won’t start, parted jib boom strop, and falling through a hatch. Three bad things in rapid succession. I attribute it to being out of real sailing practice, still learning the ins and outs of Freda (the saucy old Manx), and being a bit flustered after all that jib boom dodging.

My dad fell through a foredeck hatch in the middle of a race once. He was nearly 80 at the time, broke a few ribs, and that was the end of that race. I guess if you sail long enough, sooner or later you’ll fall through a hatch.

My New Job: Keeping Sausalito Salty

Clark July 7th, 2017

I’m two months into my new job as General Manager of the Spaulding Marine Center, in Sausalito, California. According to Google Maps, work is 2.4 miles from my house. Have I ridden my bike to work? Of course not.

A non-profit boatyard? Yes, all proceeds from boatyard operations go to restoration projects, education, outreach, and other do-gooder stuff. We (meaning Spaulding) owns Freda, the “Matriarch of San Francisco Bay,” the oldest sailing yacht on the West Coast. She was originally built in 1885, and the subject of a half million dollar, decade-long, museum quality restoration:
Freda Schooner Race 2017

I’d never sailed a gaffer before, but now I’ve got her wired. She’s got one long boom.

Myron Spaulding was the lord of San Francisco sailing. He designed great boats, built great boats, and won great races. He won the TransPac in 1936, as captain of Dorade. Did I mention that all the while he played first violin for the San Francisco Symphony? Don’t you hate people like that? We don’t hate people like that: we celebrate them, and Myron’s legacy is celebrated in just about everything we do around here. Myron passed in 2000.

A year and a half later Myron’s wife Gladys passed away. The couple didn’t have children (they met later in life), so Gladys left the boatyard in a charitable trust, later formed into a 501(c)(3) corporation, and that’s how we became a non-profit boatyard.

Myron and Gladys’s ashes sit in urns on a shelf above my desk. When I start zoning out in the afternoon and checking Facebook I can feel them scowling at me, so I get back to work.

The boatyard pretty much runs itself. We’ve got six boatyard staff, three men and three women, which is unique, and they’re all very dedicated. I’ve learned how to drive the forklift, give crane signals, and I get my hands dirty a few times a week, but I’m mostly an office duck.

It’s an amazing place, Sausalito’s unofficial maritime museum, with a huge nautical library, sailing magazines dating back to the 1920s, and all kinds of sailing treasures and memorabilia. We’re open to the public whenever we’re open:

A few weeks ago I opened the place on a Saturday so a group could come ogle our old woodworking tools. Some came from as far away as Central Oregon, and drove all night. Who knew there were people who traveled long distances just to geek out on old power tools?

Our coolest project is the SV14, an affordable boat for disabled sailors. The project has been an international collaboration among the builders of the various prototypes and various disabled groups. We’re hoping for a launch and test sail later this summer:

You can check out the SV14 website and Facebook page.

But first we’ll have to pour her weighted centerboard, and the likely location will be my backyard. I’m sure the local fire marshall, and my wife, will be totally cool with this, right? Three hundred pounds of molten, toxic metal getting poured into a mold in a hole behind our back deck will be an educational experience for my two small children, right?

Our next restoration project will be Mavis, a 1924 Bird Boat, built here in Sausalito. They were originally called the San Francisco S Class, but so many were named after birds (Curlew, Petrel, etc.) that they became known as Birds or Bird Boats. Several still sail the Bay. Poor Mavis sank in her berth, and was then donated to Spaulding. Gladys Spaulding owned and sailed her at one point, so she’s a worthy project, but like Freda, by the time it’s all said and done very little of the original boat will remain:

Spaulding offers boatbuilding classes, summer camps for kids, guest speakers, seminars, community sails, and a vibrant social scene for volunteers, apprentices, and all manner of salty folks.

One old customer calls Spaulding “hallowed ground.” Across the floor are still marks where the frames were laid, and a hole drilled up through the floor for the rudder post of Chrysopyle, one of Myron’s masterpieces. Another of his masterpieces, Suomi, was lost with all hands in what might still stand as the worst yachting accident on the California coast. In 1955 she was hit by the Swedish ship Paramatta off Point Arguello. Yet, we have two of her life rings hanging on the wall, and nobody knows where they came from. Did they survive the wreck, or did we make extras?:

Come visit anytime. I’ll be here.

Riding the Tides in Baja

Clark June 8th, 2017

Yes, I like crossing oceans and making great landfalls, but I’m obsessed with the smaller crevices of our watery world.

My mom built a shack on the beach in Baja 35 years ago, and passed it on to me. The shack sits about 20 miles south of San Felipe, near the top of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). The tidal range is over twenty feet. During the highest tides the desert floods, and what is normally dry land becomes accessible by water. It’s very bizarre and heady to paddle a kayak or sail a windsurfer across mud flats and sand dunes that are only navigable for a few hours per year. The rest of the time they are blazing hot, godforsaken desert or salt pan.

I’ve been exploring the estuary off Santa Maria Bay my whole life, as this is where windsurfing was born, and we were always a windsurfing family. Another estuary, Laguna Percibu, lies to the north, and I’ve always surmised that with a very high tide the two estuaries would almost connect. With the advent of Google Maps I didn’t need to surmise anymore, as it shows a very clear picture. At the far right (south) is Santa Maria Bay, with its estuary extending to the left, and to the far left (north) is Laguna Percibu, with its estuary extending to the right. You can see where the two estuaries nearly connect, in the middle of the photo:
Screenshot (3)

There was a high tide last week, during our vacation, and I set out on my grand adventure. I’ve found over the years that sun protection is key while paddling a sit-on-top kayak in the desert, so I wear a long-sleeved shirt and wide-brimmed hat, but the bare legs, stretched out in front, tend to get scorched, even with a liberal application of sunscreen. Thus, I always put something, like an old towel, over my legs. My adventure was early in our trip, and we didn’t have any dirty towels yet, so I grabbed this apron out of the house, without really thinking about it:

It occurred to me later that it might be considered a little strange, a grown man setting off alone into the desert with his naughty French maid apron:

I made efforts to hide it when I neared civilization.

As planned, I rode the rising tide deep into the desert, but soon came upon this dead whale, which is about the strangest, nay impossible, place to find a dead whale:

I’d estimate it at 30-35 feet long, maybe a humpback or a gray whale. I was already at nearly the high of a very high tide, and a good mile into a complex maze of an estuary, which makes it nearly impossible for a dead whale to have been beached above me. It must have been the most tragic whale death ever, with the poor thing getting lost in the estuary at the highest of tides, then thrashing its way even higher. Either that or aliens dropped it there.

For the next hour or so I meandered farther up the estuary, so that I’d paddle into the deadly stench slipstream of whale carcass, then back out into the cleanest desert air on earth, then back into the stench again.

Finally I’d paddled as far as I could, and the tide was about as high as it was going to get, so I donned my flip-flops and set out, kayak in tow, in what I thought was the direction of the Percibu estuary. The flip-flops were quickly rendered useless with ten pounds of mud stuck to them, but the mud was soft, not too hot, and there weren’t too many prickly things:

However, the mud was sticky enough that it really gripped the tail end of the kayak, meaning dragging it behind me took a lot of effort. The portage ended up being maybe half a mile with all my wrong turns, zigging and zagging, but I eventually found water on the Percibu side that was deep enough to paddle. Then it wasn’t deep enough, then it was, then it wasn’t, but then it really opened up into a full-on inland sea, and I was on my way north, with the tide falling and a current behind me:

Some mariner who proceeded me wasn’t so lucky, and his descendants came to a very remote place to honor him. In many Catholic countries they believe that where life leaves the body is just as important as where the body is interred, so they maintain a shine at the place of his death, thus so many roadside shrines at the sites of fatal car accidents:

I stopped a few times to stretch my legs, and the views were always grand. Picacho del Diablo, the highest mountain in Baja, was always visible to the west:

I finally arrived at Laguna Percibu, where there is a normally a very sleepy bar and restaurant, but being Memorial Day Weekend it was thumping with techno music and college kids making out. I had the foresight to bring some pesos, so I enjoyed a few beers while I waited for my wife and kids to pick me up at the prescribed time.

After years of pondering this adventure, it ended up being a piece of cake, and taking less than four hours. The key is to have someone to pick you up with a car in Percibu to drive you and your kayak back, because once the tide goes out there’s no going back the way you came, unless you want to be found dead of thirst in the middle of the salt pan with nothing but a sit-on-top kayak and a naughty French maid’s apron.

Donald Crowhurst Movie Update

Clark April 19th, 2017


My original announcement of the movie is here. There has been little news since, but the production company has thrown us a few bones:

1. It’s actually happening! There is going to be a mainstream movie about Donald Crowhurst and the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, starring Oscar best actor winner Colin Firth as Crowhurst, and Rachel Weisz as Clare Crowhurst. This is likely to be the biggest movie ever made about sailing, or at least sailboat racing. They couldn’t have chosen a more fascinating and portentous moment in our sport.

2. They released the photo above. That’s it. That’s the teaser. A still of Colin Firth, as Crowhurst, looking worried aboard the re-created Teignmouth Electron. Read into it what you will.

3. The title of the film is The Mercy.

Beyond that they just say it will be released in 2017 sometime, and I will be the first in line.

Here is the story in the Hollywood Reporter.

Metal Tank Repair with a Shop Vac

Clark April 12th, 2017

One of my boat’s stainless steel water tanks has always had a hole in it, and a series of patches, the last of which held for twenty years, until it failed last week. Here are the tanks, under my floors and settees, meaning replacing them is out of the question, or at least worth a lot of time futzing with patches:

After circumnavigating for ten years on an old boat with not only a water tank with a hole in it, but steel fuel tanks with holes in them, I’ve developed a more nuanced approach to patches. I made it over three years with the bottom of a fuel tank patched with JB Weld, a fortified epoxy product. I’ve had very good luck with small repairs with JB Weld, and I always keep some aboard:
Obviously if you get into bigger repairs where some structure is needed, regular liquid epoxy, fillers, and fiberglass are better, although I’ve also had good luck with small pieces of fiberglass impregnated with JB Weld. Point being, patches, done right, can be very solid, adding years to the lifespan of a tank, or at least getting you to your next port where a replacement, or welded repair, can be made. But the patches have to be done right, not rushed, with meticulous attention to detail.

Back to my water tank. Here is the part with the leak, and the leaky patch in place:

Here is the entire patch coming off in one piece, which tells me that epoxy doesn’t stick very well to stainless steel, even if it did last twenty years:

On to the shop vac and my more nuanced approach to repairing leaks. First, empty the tank, or at least get it well below the level of the leak. On most shop vacs you can attach the hose to a different orifice and turn it into a blower. Turn it into a blower and attach the hose to the tank. Some tank testing procedures call for pressurizing with compressed air up to 3 PSI, but we don’t need to go that far, just enough to force a little air out our leak(s). Here I’ve got the hose loosely attached to a tank fitting. I didn’t need to close off the vents, tape it, or take any other measures:

With the tank pressurized I could go around with soapy water, looking for bubbles and pinpointing my leak:
It turned out to be an invisible crack in a weld, about half an inch long, visible with a mirror, or by shoving my iPhone down there:

Now that I’d precisely located my leak, rather than slathering a whole corner of the tank with epoxy, I could pinpoint my repair. As anyone with a boat knows, tracking any kind of leak can be very frustrating. General wetness, be it water, fuel, oil, or whatever, is never a precise indication of where the problem lies.

Sand, sand, and sand some more. You want to key the metal as deeply as possible to give the adhesive something to bite into. I was going to go at it with a 16 grit disk on an angle grinder, but I couldn’t fit the angle grinder, so I sanded by hand with 60 grit. With metal, you must make it bare and shiny. On steel you may get to bare shiny metal, but still have some black spots. These black spots are rust seeds, and they will grow into rust trees and destroy your patch, or lift up your paint if you’re painting. The black spots must be removed. With aluminum, remember that the surface oxidizes minutes after sanding, so move quickly. Bare, shiny metal.

Now it’s on to three things, in whatever order works:

1. Heat the area with a heat gun or torch, enough to cook the moisture out of the crack or hole, and dry the inside of the tank:

NOTE: If you’re repairing a fuel tank, don’t use a heat gun or torch! Welders insist that there not even be a whiff of fuel smell – gas or diesel – before welding a tank. If there’s fuel present, might opt for a day of drying, compressed air, or some other method to dry it out.

2. Switch the shop vac to suction mode and put the whole tank in suction.

3. Clean the area with acetone. When metal looks shiny and clean, it’s still dirty and greasy, so keep cleaning with acetone and fresh paper towels until your paper towel comes off spotless:

If no fuel danger, mix your epoxy or JB Weld, keep the tank in suction, and keep it hot. At 140 degrees F you can keep your hand on metal for about two seconds before having to move it. This is about right. You don’t want to fry your epoxy. Heat will lower the viscosity of your epoxy and let it flow better, so that with the warmth and the suction, some of your goop will be drawn to the inside of the tank, or at least into the crack or hole. By keeping it warm and spreading it thinly, I could see with a mirror as the JB weld dimpled into the crack.

Turn the shop vac off and slather your patch area on the outside.

Obviously if you can get to the inside of the patch, clean the inside to bare metal and attack from both sides. This was the case with the patch in the bottom of my steel fuel tank, the one that lasted three years, until I got new tanks. On my water tank there are baffles in the way.

Four hours later, after the first layer had begun to set, I laid on a second, wider layer of JB Weld, just for good measure. The next day I filled my tanks, and my bilges have since remained dry:

I think the shop vac makes a big difference, of course combined with meticulous prep work and cleanliness. By pulling material into the leak you’re repairing the actual breach and keying some material into it, rather than coating over it. When you just coat over it you’re relying entirely on the adhesion of the goop to bare metal. I’m guessing this patch will last another twenty years, or more, and if any other small leaks crop up I’ll go through similar exercises many times before I consider the huge expense, and gargantuan task, of replacing the tanks.

Charge!: Chargers, Plugs, and Receptacles On Boats

Clark March 27th, 2017

The cigarette lighter plug/receptacle has long been the de facto standard to connect portable 12-Volt devices, and it sucks. Nobody smokes anymore. It’s bulky, insecure, makes poor electrical contact, and can’t carry high current. It’s got to be the only electrical connector in the history of electrical connectors with a compression spring that is constantly trying to break the connection.

I suffered many a night when the only difference between a good sleep and waking up in a pool of sweat, ravaged by mosquitoes, was a 12-Volt fan plugged into a cigarette receptacle above my bunk. If I so much as twitched, it disconnected. If the boat rocked it disconnected. It spontaneously disconnected, because the little spring was always trying to push the plug out of the receptacle. And this was with a stainless steel receptacle from West Marine and a Marinco plug, both purveyors of quality marine equipment.

The receptacle above my bunk looks all marine and stainless steely, but it wants to spit out plugs:


We’re stuck in this backward compatible nightmare simply because cars started coming with cigarette lighters way back when. There has to be a better way. Some enterprising company has to invent the better mousetrap, sell it to the world, and commit to it for twenty years or so, long enough for the world, or as least us boaters, to banish the cigarette lighter receptacle forever. Blue Sea Systems? Marinco? Cole-Hersee? I’m calling you out!

Currently there’s just not much out there to adopt, even if we all agreed to lop off all those cigarette lighter plugs and make a collective switch. There are lots of good in-line connectors (connectors that connect two pairs of wires together), but we don’t want some pigtail hanging out of our nav station: We want a streamlined, sexy little receptacle.

The closest thing I’ve found is the EmPower plug/receptacle, used on some airlines. It’s 15-Volt DC (close enough to 12) but limited to 75 Watts, and 75 Watts at 12 Volts is only 6 Amps, and that’s not much. I’m guessing the connector itself could take much more, but the in-flight systems limit it to 75 Watts so you can’t actually charge your laptop, which is apparently a fire hazard at altitude. Anyway, the EmPower plug/receptacle is barking up the right tree:

Some features this future dream receptacle and plug should have:

1. Compact: It can have a way smaller footprint than a cigarette lighter receptacle and the plug shouldn’t stick out nearly as far.

2. Polarized: Can’t be any way to plug it in backward and reverse the polarity.

3. Rated for 20-30 Amps: Should be able to plug in a 450-Watt portable inverter and have it work.

4. Secure: Yes, but don’t need to go overboard. I think a home 110 AC plug/receptacle is about right in this regard: You can vacuum the whole room and shake the cord every which way and the plug won’t pull out of the wall, but if you accidentally roll the vacuum cleaner down the stairs the plug will pull out. I don’t think there needs to be a locking mechanism, per se, as with a shore power cord, but if you’re using a plug-in spotlight in full combat mode, it shouldn’t come loose when you move about the cockpit (another personal pet peeve).

5. Circuit protection?: I say no. Many cigarette adapters have a fuse in the plug, but this isn’t the place for circuit protection. There’s not a circuit breaker in the plug for your toaster. The circuit supplying the receptacle should be protected by an appropriately-sized fuse or breaker, then any further protection should be in the device itself.

6. Easy install/adaptation, especially for the plugs: Installing the receptacles can take however long it takes, but installing the plug on a new device should be quick and easy. This way, if some of us are are to adopt this new dream connector and ditch our cigarette receptacles, and we buy some new device that comes with a cigarette plug, it should be a joy, rather than a chore, to lop it off and replace it with one of our dream plugs.

Anything else?

Back to reality and what we’re stuck with. Marinco and Blue Sea Systems make the only cigarette receptacles/plugs worth their salt. They’ve taken lemons, and made lemonade, so to speak. I have several of them aboard, and they really are better. The receptacles themselves are superior, in and of themselves, but used with their plugs it’s the best deal going. The plug twists and locks – sort of – into the receptacle, and at least holds the spring in compression and prevents unintended disconnects. Not cheap at about $30 for a receptacle/plug combo, and another $15-$20 for additional plugs:

It’s worth having at least one of these receptacles, then the corresponding plugs for your mission critical devices. For me these are the portable inverter, the spotlight, the fan, and a 12-Volt vacuum cleaner.

USB connectors are now ubiquitous for charging all kinds of devices, and powering a few, but USB operates at 5 Volts, so forget about powering 12-Volt devices. Still, it makes sense to install one of the marinized USB receptacles for phones, iPads, and the like. Without one you’re looking at additional adapters and claptrap, or running an inverter, just to charge a phone:

Or one of these combination panels, with the cigarette receptacle and the USB ports:

They sell combination AC outlet/USB sockets, so if you’re running AC all the time this is kind of nifty. I installed one at home, and it cleans up our charging station somewhat. We just need the cords now, without the adapters:

Next »