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Skye Five-4

Patrick tries the long-arm scraper with steel blade.

If you own a boat for long enough you may be faced with one of the most daunting challenges a DIY boat owner can have… stripping old, cracked and peeling antifouling back to a bare hull.

My time was up this spring. I knew it was coming and after Karen and I purchased a C&C 30 last fall we realised this job was looming on the horizon. During the pre-purchase haul-out and survey it was clear that the task was imminent. She’s a fine, strong boat and the price was right so we decided to bite the bullet and get on with it.

I spent some time researching “how to,” and of course there are plenty of opinions and advice on various forums. But it’s difficult to separate the opinions from the raw “truth.”

Big factors will be time and money. You will probably have one or the other and if you have both then count yourself as being very, very lucky but even then care is needed. Avoiding charlatans, gimmicks and rash promises can be tricky. And even with all the money in the world you may be unable to nail down a reliable shipwright or out-of-work yacht bum to do the grunt work – especially in the spring when they are in peak demand. If you are flush with cash then this is probably not for you anyway as you probably have a spanking new boat that won’t need serious bottom work for many years to come.

Skye Five spent the winter in Captain’s Cove Marina in Ladner, BC. The Marina allows owners to freely work on their own boats. Skye Five was hauled on the 15th March and I decided to rent the yard’s pressure washer to clean the weed off. Lucky I did, as I discovered that if I held the nozzle close enough, not only did the weed and barnacles come off but large slabs of old antifouling too. With the yard’s approval, I continued for 3 hours with only a five-minute break to put more gas in the machine. My shoulders and arms were killing me after grappling with the writhing hose but at the end of it I figured I had removed 60 – 70% of the horrid stuff without getting much on myself. I had clogged the drains but I felt victorious. The yard manager was pretty amazed too.

Skye Five-2

Pressure washing removed a lot of loose antifouling.

The euphoria was short lived, however, as I began to tackle the remaining 30 – 40% the following day. I had help. Karen’s son Patrick used a day off work. Little did he know what he might be getting in to. Between the two of us we spent an exhausting 16 hours attacking the bottom, armed to the teeth with various scrapers. These fell into two camps. The very long handled variety with steel blades – very effective but the blades required sharpening every 10 minutes. The other, somewhat shorter scraper came with a reversible tungsten carbide blade. I used two carbide blades for the whole project, eventually abandoning the steel scrapers.

Twenty-five hours of back breaking, shoulder burning work was needed to get the hull ready for final sanding. I’m nudging 60 and starting to feel it. Young studs may not be so challenged. It’s filthy, hot work. You need all the protective gear – goggles, dust masks, safety glasses, hazmat suit (well, painter’s coveralls). It then took 10 hours of sanding to prepare for paint. Eighty grit worked the best. The dust was extraordinarily obnoxious and had a tendency to find its way into everything. You have to “decontaminate” at the end of each session to avoid the worst. Once kitted up I would work non-stop for 3-4 hours because I just didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of getting the gear on and off.

Fortunately, the weather was unbelievably benevolent for Vancouver and I had five days of sunshine and temperatures in the low teens – perfect!

So, after 37 hours of probably the most grueling work I have ever done, I stepped back to admire a job well done.

Was it worth it? Are there better or cheaper alternatives? Well I did look into using paint stripper. There are some soy based products out there but none I could find in Vancouver. I could have brought some in from the USA but I had left it too late.

As for materials, the cost of 40 sanding discs and 3 scrapers hardly touched $100. Paint stripper would have been way more expensive and I still would have needed to sand the hull.

The yard also warned not to use soy based stripper if the temperature was below 20C. They had seen expensive failures last year using a soy based system – the weather was too cold and a second application, applied by a contractor at extra cost was needed. I was told that if conditions are right it works well.

Web searches showed some pretty mixed reviews on all types of paint stripper. There are blasting options but these are not generally DIY and therefore expensive.

I could have just sanded, preferably vacuum sanding, but I’m not sure that would have been any faster. You also need to apply a lot of pressure for rapid removal and believe me, that is not easy when working above your head, sometimes crouched, sometimes kneeling and sometimes sitting. Given the pain it was definitely a case of “mind over matter.” At the end of it I gave myself a pat on my very sore back as I had endured way more discomfort than I ever knew was possible.

The other really, really big consideration is the impact of the dust created using scraping and sanding. The yard, quite rightly, insisted that I tarp the hull off to contain the dust. A roll of construction plastic and some Tuc tape worked very well and I did manage to remove the tape without leaving a lot of goo on the boat. There was very little wind which helped keep the dust in one place. The last thing the yard wanted was a fine red film on freshly detailed boats. I think I met their requirements – at least there were no complaints.

Skye Five-6

Almost done! The tent contains the nasty red stuff.

Well, it took 37 hours of scraping and sanding. If I hadn’t struck it lucky with the pressure washer it would have taken considerably longer. It’s probably the cheapest way to do the job by far – if you are providing your own labour. Also be realistic about the length of time it’s going to require. Yard space is not cheap. Keep in mind that if you start out scraping you can switch to another method if it doesn’t work for you.

It’s just starting to rain so the new antifouling will have to wait. Right now I’m heading off for a well-earned beer.

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Don’t expect secluded anchorages in Desolation Sound – this is Prideaux Haven in early August.

I had heard that Desolation Sound was “one” of the “Holy Grails” of the cruising world – a must see. Here the salt chuck is warm enough to languish in it for hours without a wetsuit. The summer days are long and balmy and rugged peaks thrust skywards amongst deep channels and cosy anchorages.

After a brief visit this summer I can attest that these facts are true. What is missing from this description of a cruising paradise is the fact that Desolation Sound can hardly be considered desolate when it comes to human visitation.

I’ll admit to being very naïve when I visualised sheltered, secluded anchorages. I hadn’t realised that it is probably one of the busiest yachting playgrounds in the world. The sheer numbers of boats, mainly US registered, and the numbers of very large boats (60′ plus), boggles the mind.

Well, it was August, and a long weekend, but I would guess that the majority of boaters here don’t have to organise their vacations around long weekends.

The sun scorched and the heat and humidity seemed tropical. Thankfully we found relief in the refreshing waters of Melanie Cove by swimming for half an hour while Rainbird was at anchor with a stern line ashore – the standard procedure in these waters to cram as many boats as possible into the tight space.

Power boats outnumbered sailboats by at least 5 to 1 and at one time I saw a raft of 4 substantial power boats being “driven” around the cove in what could have become an insurance assessors nightmare!

Boats came in various shapes and sizes too. A high performance 30 something foot power boat, all engine and very little cabin, anchored beside us. Without a dinghy the stern tie was achieved by backing up carefully to the steep shore and dropping off one of the kids with a rope. Later, dad hung over the stern barbequing supper – where they all slept I have no idea but it was an adventure they will no doubt remember for a long time.

Despite the crowds everyone seemed in good humour, although at times my patience was challenged. Like the time in Refuge Cove where we motored in lazy circles for 45 minutes waiting for dock space that never materialised. We needed some basic supplies and in the end gave up and headed across to Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island. More luck there although I had a last minute fight with a nimble power boat that tried to squeeze in ahead of me just as I was about to step ashore with my lines. Only a quick application of reverse saved the day.

“I have to find a mechanic to fix my boat,” was the excuse provided by the skipper. I very nearly suggested that he should also find himself a fibre-glass technician as he was obviously going to need one if his impatience continued. I pointed to a more than adequate space on the other side of the dock and he zoomed off to take it, leaving me space to take a second run at it.

We got all we needed from the Squirrel Cove Store and by the time our laundry was dry I decided to stay the night on the dock. Good choice, as early the following morning, “Song of Joy”, a very substantial sloop, adeptly squeezed into the space ahead of us. A rather weary skipper explained that it was blowing very hard in the cove during the night and a power boat dragged into them and their anchor rodes became entangled, requiring him to cut his chain to get free.

The power boat was still fouled up and I later saw the skipper flying across the bay in his 30hp centre-console tender to pick up a diver. I don’t know the final outcome but we did spend the following night in the inner cove despite the warning. My wife counted 100 boats before giving up and I saw one raft of 11 boats. That evening, I heard the tannoy of a very large boat, sufficiently loud to alert the whole cove, hail the skipper of a smaller boat in the process of anchoring; “We have 100′ of rode out and when we swing in the night you are the prime target!”

Desolation Sound has become a high-tech playground.

Twenty years ago when I cruised the west coast of Britain in an open-deck Wharram catamaran, I probably saw as many recreational boats in 3 months than I did in a day in Desolation Sound.

The experience has made me question my somewhat romantic notions of cruising. For many, climbing aboard a boat is now like climbing into any recreational vehicle. Engines are fundamentally reliable, the state of the tide can be found on the screen of an iPhone, and with chart plotters and radar, being lost is almost inexcusable. Radar antennas twirl relentlessly and GPS alarms beep and it’s possible to get from Seattle to Juneau without ever donning oil skins or getting a foot wet.

Two or three times daily I rowed our little dinghy ashore so that our Portuguese Water Dog could do what dogs need to do. I only saw two other tenders actually being rowed during the whole two-week trip – the internal combustion engine reigns supreme even when a pair of oars would be perfectly adequate.

In the cold winter months I will ruminate on this experience. In the end I will just probably conclude that the Slocums, Hiscocks and Smeetons of this world are long gone and with them a golden age of cruising. My romantic notions, seeded 25 years ago, are now probably a nonsense.

So do we want to head back up there? The answer is a conditional “yes”. We would do it out of season, when we could drop the hook where seamanship dictated and not where I had to squeeze into a space amongst other boats and would then spend the night worrying where I was swinging. But there is still the lure of the North. The Broughtons beckon – thousands of islands and surely less boats. Failing that, Patagonia perhaps?

Copyright David Skelhon, 2012

Rainbird at anchor in Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island…..just one of more than 100 boats in the cove.