Rot, Rust and Osmosis
Wood, steel, aluminum and fiberglass are all perishable to an extent we only ignore at our own great risk. The decay and decomposition of any boat hull is an ongoing process. Fortunately, we can delay, and even reverse, the process, but it takes both time and money.
Keeping your body healthy and well nourished can slow the process of dying, and any well built boat can last a long time and remain healthy and structurally sound if it is well maintained. Unfortunately, like the seemingly healthy person who is about to have a massive heart attack or stroke, but shows no signs of anything except perfect health, boats can also appear to be in “Bristol” condition until just before a catastrophic failure. Cosmetics can hide a fatal disease.
The majority of sportfishing boat hulls from 30-75 feet are constructed of some combination of fiberglass and/or wood (with more exotic “composite” materials frequently playing key roles). The ability of resins, adhesives, welds and mechanical fastenings to hold things together is of paramount importance.
Most of the chemical bonds are internal, and other types of joins and secondary bondings are hidden by structures like tanks, furniture and decks added after the original hull was constructed. Modern wooden boats are generally sheathed in fiberglass or some other resinated fabric. Many problems or potential problems can not be seen by the average owner or captain.
Even a skilled boat builder may be totally unable to determine what is still sound and what has faults and flaws that may fail under the stress of heavy weather. Old fashioned surveyors tapping with hammers and listening for the change in sound that indicates a void or laminate failure would miss many potentially catastrophic flaws.
Luckily, both physicians and surveyors have miraculous new tools to help them investigate beneath the surface, many of them using similar technologies. Think of a marine survey as a physical exam. X-rays, sonograms, and radar type of technology are all used by modern marine surveyors. Not getting a hull survey is an enormous acceptance of risk and one that could (usually would) stop an owner from getting adequate insurance.
The phenomenon of “osmosis”, a blistering of fiberglass hulls, is of particular concern in older fiberglass hulls. I would never be involved in purchasing an older glass hull without having a competent surveyor check the hull with a moisture meter. Repairs can be made but they are expensive.
WARNING – even the best surveys include the phrase “inaccessable to inspection” with regard to major components that can not be adequately inspected and surveyors do NOT accept liability for potential problems in these areas.
Can you See From the Helm?
I get to go for sea trials on multi million dollar boats I would not accept as a present. If I can not see the bow, or at least the deck hand on the bow, from the helm station, I do not want to dock the boat.
If I can not see the angler in the chair well enough to be able to see if the reel is turning over I do not want to fish this boat seriously. It may be fine for cruising but not for fishing.
Can you see the electronics? Can you see them in real world conditions when the sun’s light is at a low angle? Do you have to stand up and lean over to read any of the display screens because the screen is mounted at less that a 60 degree angle (measured above the horizontal)? Any one of these being answered “yes” would mean I have to spend money correcting that particular flaw and could tip the scales toward a different boat.
Engine Room Lay Out
Engine room layouts have improved enormously in recent years. Manufacturers have made most of the critically important preventative maintenance much easier to do. (If you do not know what this entails plan on hiring a captain.)
Fluids and filters must be easy to change or they may not get done regularly enough. This includes primary and secondary fuel filters, lube oil filters, coolant filters and all fluids.
It should also be easy to do battery checks, get access to bilge pumps, fuel priming pumps, shaft glands or seals and all refrigeration and air conditioning pumps. You should not have to cut salon soles (engine room overheads) to work on main engines.
The key word is prevention! A good boatman avoids trouble by anticipating it. On a good boat this is easy to achieve. Look for it and make it high on your list of necessary features.
Beware a Cream Puff
Most buyers would consider low hours of use by the previous owner as a plus when looking at a used boat but watch out. Low engine hours and lack of use by a loving owner can actually be a negative.
Consider these facts. When an internal combustion engine is first shut down there is a film of oil coating all its moving parts. Over time this oil drains away leaving the metal dry and unprotected. Since at least one cylinder on every engine has an exhaust valve open, or an exhaust port exposed, there will be some degree of exposure to a salt air environment, even on turbocharged engines, and over time a thin coating of rust will form.
If special lay-up procedures are not followed when the engine is left idle for long periods of storage, the first few seconds when the engine runs after a long time without starting will cause more wear than hundreds or even thousands of hours of normal use. The rust particles on the cylinder walls can act like a grinding compound when the piston begins to move up and down and can create enormous wear to pistons and cylinder liners!
The higher up you are the better you can see ahead of the boat, and with experience the easier it is to read the depth of the water before you cross over it. I can not take boats safely to some of my favorite places in the Bahamas unless I have the advantage of height of eye a tower gives me.
Most people do not use a tower for anything except styling and are not therefore familiar with what make a tower functional. Unfortunately, most tower manufacturers never use their products, so functional towers these days are scarce as hen’s teeth.
It should go without saying, a tower should be easy to climb (not too steep) and it should be easy to enter the upper platform. Controls should be easy to reach from the padded corner of a belly rail so the skipper can always hang on with at least one hand and never has to use both hands to adjust gear shifters or throttles. A good tower has all the electronics a flying bridge has and they should be easily visible. A loud hailer with a microphone in the tower and a speaker under the cockpit overhang makes communications between the cockpit and the tower easy and saves a lot of yelling.
Sea trials are an absolute necessity and the rougher the better. You might have the wettest boat ever built and never know it if you do not have some chop and at least a modest breeze. Wet boats often have poor vision ahead, a serious impairment. (On one boat test of a well known brand of express boat I was afraid I would run over a wind surfer because I could barely make out their bright sails.)
ALWAYS try to run the boat on one engine! Can you steer in either direction? Or is this a one way only rig that would be a nightmare to dock with one engine shut down? What about windage and maneuvering in a tight channel?
Does she track straight in a following sea? Does the auto pilot handle her or will you be hand steering constantly, in a quartering or following sea? What about beating into it? Does she come down softly or with a bone jarring SMACK that will eventually loosen fastenings and beat swinging doors off her hinges?
We boat for the fun of it. The more advance research you do, the better the professional help you can hire, and the better your new boat suits your needs the more fun you will have.
Happy boating and good fishing!
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