Yachts share the sea with all manner of interesting organisms, many of which consider a shiny hull to be a particularly salubrious place to set up home. First to arrive is an algae scum, which coats the surface. Next come coral spores, which settle in the algae and hatch into proper corals. Once these are established, they provide food and shelter and – most importantly – anchor points for molluscs and barnacles and other animals. These latter are quite capable, once they have a good hold, of drilling through solid rock; fibreglass is no problem to them at all.
The trick is not to let them get a foothold. One option is to swim under the hull every weekend and clean them off; this technique is used by particularly diligent racers. Most people choose to apply ablative antifouling. This is a copper-based (ie hopefully unpalatable) paint that is designed to slough off when rubbed. Any organisms that are not deterred by the poisons in the paint, are dislodged next time the boat moves, because the outer paint layer as well as anything rooted in it gets rubbed off by the action of the water passing the hull. Obviously, as time goes on, the paint all wears away. About once a year you have to put new stuff on. The only way that you can do this is to haul your boat out onto the land.
Dry-dock space at the shipyard is expensive. Since we knew that the first thing that we would have to do on land was to scrub all the life-forms from the hull, and since there were such a lot of them, it made sense for us to do as much as possible in the water first, while it was all still soft. I donned some scuba gear and spent an enjoyable and fruitful day wiping off algae and chipping at coral with a range of household implements. The best tool turned out to be an aluminium-handled window-wiper. I used a suction cup to keep me in place while I did some of the flatter sections, but generally I just swam up and down attacking each part in turn.
I’d never worked underwater before, but I soon got used to it; the trick seemed to be to consider whatever surface I was working on to be a vertical wall, regardless of which way up I was in the water.
Since I was weightless (well, neutrally buoyant anyway, thanks to the scuba gear), it made no practical difference whether my feet were pointing up or down, so long as I could reach the work area. Fish soon realised that food was raining down from above, and for the latter part of my work, I was accompanied by a variety of sea life. Some larger fish even helped by nibbling loosened bits of coral directly from the hull. A couple of air tanks later, the job was completed. Hard work, but satisfying.
We had been told that it is usual to spend a complete weekend doing antifouling, so that is what we booked. However, the weather had been bad recently and so there was a backlog of boats standing (expensively) on the slip waiting to be worked on, and a rapidly building queue of people demanding their turn at the spaces. After a few weeks, though, we did get a spot, and out she came, back onto the same slip on which she had been surveyed.
First step was to borrow a water-jet lance and clean all the accumulated gunk off the underside. Right away, my scuba work paid off dividends; it would have taken us a day just to clean the accumulated coral off the bottom. As it was, even though we only had a couple of weeks worth of algae to remove, the shipyard staff were hanging around trying to take away the water jet before we had really finished.
The next step was to rub down the old paint layer with wet-and-dry to get a good key for our new coat. This was quite a laborious process, especially as the previous layer hadnt been applied particularly well, and streaks and drips abounded. Working at full stretch above our heads, we were soon turned bright blue from head to toe.
Eventually we were satisfied. Protecting all the edges with masking paper, we started to roll on the undercoat.
The antifouling paint itself was blue, and the undercoat, grey. The idea is that if we see any grey in future, we’ll know that this years antifouling has worn away and it is time to do it again. Our blue paint was some very expensive semi-professional antifouling that we were assured was the best thing to use. We had been a little dubious about the cost, but now we realised the value of that advice. Other workers were having real problems with drips and runs, while ours went on smooth as silk and drew envious glances.
Back at the time of the survey, we had noted that the moulding around the cast iron keel was cracked and was peeling away in several places. Six months later, the problem was much worse. Nick, an engineer loosely attached to David Bray Yachts who dropped by to make sure that we were OK, attacked it with a borrowed angle-grinder and repaired the damage. He wasn’t at all surprised, and said that we could expect similar damage every time we did our annual slipping.
Once the new moulding was dry, we could finish up the antifouling. We continued painting until we’d run out of paint, putting on three layers overall, and four layers in high-abrasion areas such as the bow, waterline, and leading edges of the keel.
The only area that we couldn’t paint was directly underneath the sling that was supporting the yacht, resulting in an untreated band about a hands-width across running from waterline to waterline just aft of the propeller. The guy next to us, a seasoned antifouler with whom we had been sharing tools and advice, propped up his hull with scaffold poles, undid the sling, and painted underneath. We simply couldn’t bear to try it; that sling was holding up hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of yacht, and no way were we going to mess about poking poles into the hull. We resolved to dive underneath occasionally to keep an eye on the strip,and left it at that.
The Tale of the Propeller
Pindimara came equipped with a neat three-blade folding propeller, designed to collapse in on itself when under sail in order to reduce drag. It was supposed to be nice shiny brass, but in fact bore a closer resemblance to an old hub cap that had been languishing in a coral reef. Wielding a wire brush on an angle-grinder, I made short work of all the white stuff, and then took the whole thing apart and greased it and reassembled it with a liberal coating of lanolin, which looked great but made me smell like an old sheep. Then I painted the sail drive itself with several coats of special aluminium-friendly light blue paint, and stood back to admire my handywork. Lovely, it was. A work of art.
On the Monday morning, we were up bright and early to supervise Pindimara’s return the water. However, we couldn’t find any of the slipway staff; because of the rain, they were all hiding somewhere and wouldn’t answer their radios, so we had to go to work and hope that they’d reappear and do the job later that day. In the evening, we turned up and she was waiting for us, tied up to the fuel dock. While Bronwyn drove the car around the bay to our home marina, I motored off into Pittwater to meet her. Once in the open water, I couldn’t resist opening the throttle to see what would happen. Remember that before we started this work, she would barely make one knot. Four knots… five knots… six knots… seven knots. Incredible, and very, very smooth. Pretty happy, I made my way through the falling dusk to the marina dock, where I could vaguely see Bronwyn standing on the decking, and the low shape of the Zodiac in the water beside her.
The tide was low, and opposed to the rain and wind. I had to be careful in my approach, and so nosed up ever so carefully, squinting in the dying light. Then, suddenly, nothing seemed to be working. The engine started hammering loudly on the deck under my feet, and I couldn’t get any control. I managed to swing away, and came around for another try. Had I hit the bottom? Was I tangled in fishing line? Bronwyn waited, puzzled, on the dock as the boat ran around in circles. I really couldn’t make any sense of what was happening; steering and power seemed to come and go at random. Finally I got the nose up to Bronwyn, who hopped aboard, trailing the tender behind her. Immediately I powered away to prevent the current from ramming us into the dock, and although the bow peeled away, it still all felt very wrong. We were almost around and clear when the engine started banging again and the yacht started to crab mysteriously sideways toward an oyster-encrusted piling. I glanced back; if I let off the power, the stern would connect with the dock; if I did nothing, we would hit the piling. Bronwyn stood on the pulpit, shouting something, and I realised that she still had the tender’s painter in her hand. I hit the power, the engine slammed up against the soles of my feet, and the yacht ploughed into the Zodiac inflatable and crushed it against the razor-sharp oysters. Seconds later, we bounced free. I killed the power, and watched as the crushed remains of our tender bobbed sadly to the surface, remarkably still afloat despite the slashes down its side.
Getting to the mooring was hard work with little in the way of power or steering, and eventually we realised that we would have to stay the night and sort it out in the morning, because there was no way that we were rowing back to shore in half a tender.
Morning came. The tender looked pretty bad in the light of day, but the yacht had sustained no hull damage at all. With a slack tide and no wind, we motored around a bit trying to figure out what was wrong, but in the end crabbed our way to the water dock and asked a local firm of engineers to take a look.
Later that day, I got a phone call. They’d sent a diver down, and apparently one of the blades of our shiny beautiful folding propeller was twisted backwards, giving us two thirds forward motion and one third backward. No wonder the engine was banging; the poor thing was trying to jump up through the hull with the forces that were being applied to it. I asked the engineers to take her back up onto the slip and fit our emergency backup prop so that we could take a look at the old one. Deeply embarrassed, I could only think that Id somehow fitted one of the blades backward, and I couldn’t understand how that was possible.
Once we got hold of the failed prop, it became clear that I hadn’t been immediately to blame. The brass teeth that work the folding mechanism were old and worn, and in fact the layer of coral that I had diligently removed was all that had been holding the thing together. The prop would have failed eventually, but cleaning it up had hastened the day.
The Tale of the Zodiac
The tender came home to live on our balcony. Every day I would pump up the poor flaccid thing, add soapy water, draw circles around the biggest bubbles, and then patch them. As the days (and expensive patching kits) passed, it soon became clear that this wasn’t really sticking-plaster territory. The gashes were so big that I was having to patch my patches just to cover them. Something more drastic was needed.
Taking it to Zodiac for repairs would cost almost as much as a new tender. However, we had been noticing adverts for something called Tuff-Cote, which was a repair paint alleged to bond to hypalon and repair pinhole leaks. Well, we certainly had pinhole leaks; dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. We resolved to give it a go, but to stop repairs when our material costs exceeded $500; after all, a brand new Zodiac only costs a couple of thousand, and ours had already enjoyed a number of owners before we laid our hands on it.
My daily routine changed. Every day I would pump it up, add soapy water, draw circles around the largest bubbles, and then dry it off and add another layer of Tuff-Cote. The stuff certainly seemed to do the job, but for every hole that was repaired, a bunch more would be revealed. It became a bit of a joke, checking to see how soft it had got while we were away at work, but one day we returned from a whole weekend away to find our tender standing as full and proud as the day wed left it.
The aged rowlocks had broken long ago, and since then we had been paddling canoe-style. This was fine for two people, but tricky with only one. I celebrated the end of my nightly balcony visits by fitting shiny new rowlocks with lockable paddles, and painting all the woodwork a nice bright gloss blue.
It was a proud moment for Mr Stubborn.