My story has been on pause for the last while. No one seemed willing to write about what was going on. Part of the reason is because of our computer debacle, sure, but another large part is because we didn’t know what kind of story we would be telling until we got a little bit further into the process. I, for one, have been a little bit nervous. But I know that sometimes you have to tear things apart to build them anew. I’m on board with that plan. I decided not to make as little trouble for Captain Andrew as I can, this time around.
If you can’t remember where we left off, check out this post to remember WHY I’m in the yard, and this post to read our adventures leading us into the yard. Otherwise, I’ll continue my story from there.
It took less than a full day to pull me out of the water, power wash my bottom, and slot me in place on “hard stands,” stilts for boats that look a bit like tire jacks. Our next step in this project is to rip me to pieces. Mast, keel, rudder, skeg, and a menagerie of many other parts and pieces are on the list to come off. Don’t worry, though, any boat who lives her life in salt water is used to having all their parts and pieces exchanged; It doesn’t hurt too much.
The first of my pieces slated to go is my mast. There is nothing wrong with my mast, but we can’t remove my keel (and its 9000 lbs of ballast) before we take off my 50-foot mast+rigging. Otherwise, I might tip over in a brisk wind. To all our surprise, the yard is able to coordinate a crane to lift out my mast the very next day. It’s always a nerve wracking and impressive sight to see that big stick flying through the air. Everyone works as a team to get it settled onto a line of wooden frames that stretch the length of one yard row.
“Does that one look a little crooked, guys?” They ignore me, and leave it exactly as is!
Once the mast is out of the way, Captain Andrew sets to separating me from my keel. Like all projects on a boat, even this is not a straight-forward task. The bolts and their nuts are deep in my bilge – which is in some places much deeper than even Andrew’s long arm length. So, he creates a breaker bar with a socket on the end.
“Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey!” We don’t want to tighten the bolts any further.
Using his breaker bar, Andrew removes crumbly and cracked nut after nut. “Well, maybe the bolts are still fine?” No. One bolt that looked like it was fine snapped off completely when Andrew went to remove the nut.
Two of fifteen nuts simply would not come off their bolt at all. They were fused on by a mixture of corrosion and time.
“We’re committed to this project already, right Sonrisa?”
“Right, Captain.” I tell him with conviction. He hoses down my entire bilge to get it a bit wet, takes his angle grinder, then reaches into the bilge and cuts the remaining two bolts off just below the nut. Sparks fly, and my bones chatter in time with the vibration. My two remaining keel bolts shriek along with the whirring grinder, the sound of teeth on dentist drill. When Andrew is finished, he waters my bilge a second time with a hose and waits the length of a thirty minute “fire watch”. Thankfully, I do not light on fire. Maybe it’s that famous Valiant Fire Retardant Resin!
By Day 4, I am slipped into my stirrups and hoisted into the air to allow everyone to look up at my bottom once again. “The hope is that the keel will just drop off.” Andrew tells me as he pats my keel.
I don’t want anything to “drop off”. “Maybe we could lift me off slowly? If the keel crashes down to the ground it could become misshapen!” Both Andrew and the yard manager, Ryan, agree. The travel lift operator nudges me skyward, gently, gently, less than an inch at a time. All my bolts are free of any holding hardware, but my keel had been caulked and glued on all those years ago. How difficult will it be to peel the glue apart? I wonder. I can feel my keel dangling in the air, hovering just above the wooden pallets and blocks they have placed on the ground to give it cushion and keep it stable. My glue stretches like bubble gum, and soon Andrew declares he can see a bit of daylight between my hull and my keel.
“First time in 37 years, Sonrisa?” Andrew asks. I’m not telling. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. You know how ladies’ secrets are kept.
…in silence. That’s how they are kept.
The yard replaces me atop the jack stands, nestling a large plastic, circular pipe beneath my keel stub (the place my keel used to be) to give me a little support in the middle. Andrew wraps me up in tarp like a Christmas present. With all that weight off my bottom, and my mast and rigging all carried away, I feel light as a feather. As if I could just blow away at any second. Good thing Andrew and Leslie have so much cruising gear, tools, kitchen gear, rum, and general crap stowed aboard to keep me weighted down in a blow.
The moment of truth is here. Are my bolts just fine? Did we do this all for naught? Andrew takes a survey of all my bolts now fully visible. The tally isn’t very good. Five of fifteen are visibly broken. The rest of them, it’s anyone’s guess if their metallurgy is compromised. We do NOT want to trust that out in the Indian Ocean, no we do not.
So, what’s next? We have to decide which type of bolt to replace my old bolts with, where to get them, and how to put them in. With my keel officially off, there is nothing left to do but make those decisions. We return to the Stainless Steel v. Silicon Bronze conundrum.
SILICON BRONZE BOLTS V. STAINLESS STEEL
We all know my old Stainless Steel 316 bolts have failed. Why would we put in another set just like them if we don’t have to? As we researched, Andrew learned that as a metal, Silicon Bronze is slightly weaker than Stainless Steel 316 in perfect condition. However, Silicon Bronze is significantly stronger than Stainless Steel 316 if the Stainless Steel has been exposed to any salt water. Given that these bolts will live their lives in my bilge (i.e. the lowest part of my hull) it is very likely they will be exposed to salt water at some point. Silicon Bronze is a bit more expensive than Stainless Steel 316, but when Andrew and Leslie toured the Portuguese Cannons in Melacca – all built of silicon bronze, all built in the 1400s, you’d have no doubt that the metal has lasting power. It is not subject to crevice corrosion or cracking, and instead simply rusts the outer layers first, slowly losing size. In fact, wooden ship builders have always used silicon bronze, and still do to this day.
“Why in the hell do boat builders use Stainless Steel for keel bolts?” Andrew has asked me this question no less than 1,000 times. All I can do is shrug. I don’t know. I admit that it doesn’t seem like the best metal to put at the bottom of a bilge.
Andrew consults with a wooden boat repair company, speaking with a mechanical engineer with years of experience building wooden ship keels. “Silicon bronze is the only way to go,” she says. But, just to make sure, Andrew consults the wise oracle, my all-knowing Papa, Bob Perry himself. He says silicon bronze would be a fine swap, and this makes me feel pretty good about the idea.
(Don’t get distracted by all that “through bolt” stuff. Papa Bob was just explaining why I have “J” shaped keel bolts that can’t be simply lifted out and replaced. The answer to that question being that lead is so soft, it’s difficult to drill a hole through without it all clumping around your drill bit and breaking your drill. So, instead of through bolts, all the manufacturers bent my bolts into a “J” shape and poured liquid lead into a mold to be done with it.)
When Andrew does the calculations on the slight strength loss between perfect Stainless Steel, he realizes that the size of our bolts and the sheer number of them per square foot of keel means the design is already so strong that we can easily handle the slight strength drop from the original bolt spec in favor of a longer lasting, more trustworthy metal in the long term. And then he found an article that confirmed "barring unusual circumstances, bronze bolts should be good for the life of the boat.” https://www.sailmagazine.com/diy/how-secure-is-your-keel
I smile and give my Sonrisa-Nod-Of-Approval. It’s not every Captain who is willing to invest the intense suffering it will require to execute this keel job, and I know I am very (very) lucky to be facing this problem with Captain Andrew. This is the kind of problem that can relegate a boat to rust away as a floating marina condominium or melt into a sludge of mildew and fiberglass in the yard. If he can fix this problem once and for all, I won’t ever have to worry about this again. “Order them up!” I declare.
One caution we did find repeated in this process is that the silicon bronze alloy needs to be made to a specific specification. Some people buy silicon bronze fasteners and materials only to find they don’t last as expected. This is usually because the alloy was not made properly or it was secretly swapped for brass. To ensure we do not run into this trouble, Andrew places our order for Silicon Bronze Alloy 655 to be made by a manufacturer that sells silicon bronze to the wooden ship building/repair industry in the U.S. [TN Fasteners] Andrew sends the chap my blue prints, so he can build my new bolts to the exact same size and shape as my old bolts.
By the end of the first week in the yard, step one of this major project is complete - I’ve lost my keel! My new keel bolts are on order, and this left us to wait for my pretty new bolts to arrive. But, Captain Andrew doesn’t ever let grass grow beneath his feet. More on Andrew’s waiting game in the next post.