Andrew is staring down at my keel, having just uttered his plea to avoid an unplanned excursion through the nether regions of my keel stub, so painstakingly smoothed and painted. I don't want to be the one to break the news to him, but someone has to do it.
“Didn't Brick House have a similar problem? What did they do to fix it?" Brick House is one of my sister ships. We follow her blog, and recently watched as she had to be hauled out in South Africa to have her keel stub repaired.
“They cut a hole in it!" Andrew groaned.
The keel stub is the fiberglass section above the lead part that Andrew already worked so hard on. For much of its length, it is the cube of open space that makes up my bilge. On the last two feet, there is a sealed off cavity filled with foam. Usually, my lead keel is beneath it to give it structure, especially when I am out on land. But, of course, while my lead keel was off for repairs, that keel stub was resting on a large pipe for support. I don't know if that was enough to handle all the rest of my weight. Something is definitely going wrong inside there.
This is the “keel stub”, resting on a pipe before Andrew reattached the lead part of the keel. The red bits are where Andrew grinded away fiberglass damaged by water. He spent days upon days grinding bubbles out, laying up new fiberglass, then faring to make it all smooth. The fiberglass particles imbed themselves into your skin and lungs if you don’t wear protection, so it is a sweaty, sticky, and inevitably itchy job.
Look how smooth he got it!
Once Andrew had repaired and smoothed the fiberglass for the keel, skeg, and the rudder, he was duly awarded the Epoxy Resin Oscar for Best Boat Captain of 2019. But, the work was not finished there!
Next, we had to paint my newly smoothed bottom. This is not as simple as it seems. The paint Andrew has chosen is not just any paint, but a hard epoxy resin (liquid plastic, basically) mixed with copper dust powder to make a paint the texture of an old lady’s makeup foundation. It requires a series of ten steps to occur in a particular order, with particular timing, and without interruption from a tropical rain delay. Easier said than done!
First, it requires two layers of primer with several days of cure time to “make sure all the volatiles have evaporated” as Captain Andrew says. I’m not sure what that means, other than the grey paint was very stinky upon application. Next, the copper coat has to be mixed and continuously stirred to keep the copper powder in solution. Each single layer must be put on quickly before the chemicals react and the paint hardens to form a thin but very strong layer of metal and plastic like an eggshell on my hull. Each subsequent layer, must be applied in the sweet spot where the last layer had started to cure, but had not hardened to a solid. In this tropical heat, it takes only about a half hour before the next layer must be applied. For this reason, Andrew hired three other painters to help him apply the paint, and they all worked as fast as they could to get one layer on before the next had to go. They applied five layers like this! (Aren’t I a spoiled sailboat!?)
And, so I admit, it is entirely soul crushing to consider the need to cut another hole in this beautiful underbelly.
“Maybe it's okay,” I tell him.
He ignores me and turns to finish up his work for the day. Something about this conversation makes my pain flare even higher. I have another sleepless night. I can't possibly go in the water like this. The pain is raw and burning now, traveling through my hull like a toothache.
Andrew arrives the next morning with a scowl on his face and drill in his hand. He circles my keel and kneels down beside me. “Take a deep breath, Sonrisa.” He presses the drill against fiberglass and pulls the trigger. I feel a small hole open in my keel stub. More water pours out. “Maybe I can drill a few little holes, drain the water, and inject liquid epoxy into the space and stop the problem." Andrew says, still hopeful he won’t have to open a big hole.
While we await these holes to drain, Andrew proceeds to tear apart the ceiling in my bow to access and replace the cutter jib chain plate - a dirty, frustrating, dusty, job to be sure. By the end of the day he is sweaty and grumpy. He descends the ladder, circles my keel to look at the holes he's drilled. The water has slowed, maybe it's drying out? He drills one more hole, a little higher hoping it will be dry. As soon as he punctures the fiberglass, water pours out.
Without saying another word, he climbs the ladder, retrieves his angle grinder, hammer, and chisel. He tears a wide open hole in my keel stub, reaching in, and pulling green soggy foam from the cavity. It mounds like a pile of old kitchen sink sponges at his feet. He clicks a picture and sends it off to Leslie.
“Isn't it ironic the hole is shaped like a tombstone?" He asks.
“That’s horrible!” I tell him. “Don’t make Leslie crazy.”
The gravity of this problem settles in my bilge. We are only two weeks away from our splash date. “It’s disappointing, I’m sure we’ll miss our spash date, now.” I say, knowing Andrew will need someone to commiserate for this sad event.
“Nnnoope!” He says, green sponges flying from below my hull like a dog digging under a fence. “I’ll just fix it, Sonrisa. That’s what we’ll do.”
“You really think...(sputter)...you can fix this (cough) and all the other things you had planned, too?” I ask, choking on my words, as it does not become a little ship to doubt her Captain!
“Yes, we’ve got this. It’s okay. I’ll just get it done.”
He has that look in his eye that says, “get out of my way.”
His gears turn and turn, still no faster or slower than before. Turning, turning. Once everything is clean and dry, he sticks his head inside the hole, turning the corner and looking forward to see what he suspected to be the problem. Shining a flashlight, he sees it. The fiberglass wall separating the rest of my bilge from the dead space has been manufactured with a disorganized blob of epoxy resin and glass that looks like a chewed up wad of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. This has cracked and separated from the rest of the fiberglass layup.
The sun is low in the sky now. He pours water through my bilge to both wash out the space and watch where it pours through. “That’s the problem!” Andrew says, “Resting your full weight without the support of your keel must have put too much pressure on that spot.” He says. “Don't worry. We’ll get that sealed up tomorrow.”
He is remarkably cheery for having just cut a hole in the keel stub he so carefully fared, and painted with seven layers of epoxy paint and coppercoat. “It’s done now, nothing to get worked up about." He says, as if he can hear my thoughts. He sips a beer in the shade while he considers his fiberglassing strategy with another Captain and professional boat builder in the yard who is rebuilding his own catamaran to add sevearal feet to the back end. By the time Andrew crawls in the car to go home, he knows exactly what he’ll do the next morning.
T-Minus 12 days to splash Andrew takes a tube of 5200 caulk and creates a thick waterproof barrier between the inside of the bilge and the dead space. Then, he whips up a bucket of fiberglass resin and chopped glass. Sticking his arm through the hole in my keel, turning the corner, he smashes layer after layer of glass and resin against the now sealed crack until he feels the structure will be more than adequate to hold against any inevitability. He reimerges from below my hull pulling his rubber gloves away from sweaty hands. “There. Let that dry, and then we will get to closing this hole again.
T-Minus 11 days, brings the question of how he can patch this hole with fiberglass matt that will cure flat, smooth, and as strong as the fiberglass he originally cut away. First, he designs a fiberglass panel to fill the gap of the hole, attaches a string, and uses the string to pull the panel flush against the hole from inside. This isn’t intended to be structural, it created the backing support to allow the structural layers of fiberglass to lay smooth and not dent or bulge into the hole.
Once the panel is cured, he is ready to lay structural fiberglass around the hole he has shaped carefully with a gradating slope. This allows him to lay up several layers of fiberglass that each get larger and larger until his layup spans an area large enough to create a strong bond with the rest of the keel stub. Following the specifications provided by Lloyds of London Insurance Survey requirements, this area will be even stronger than before.
T-Minus 10 days, the fiberglass is cured and now he slathers on a layer of cake icing I like to call “faring compound”. He smooths it as best he can, then leaves it to dry. (Countless tropical rainstorms do NOT help this process.)
T-Minus 9 days, the faring compound is dry, so Andrew sands and grinds it until it is so smooth and flat, you cannot see or feel the slightest ridge. This is good, the water should flow over my keel smoothly, now. He paints the first layer of epoxy primer paint and leaves it to dry.
T-Minus 8 days, he paints the second layer of epoxy primer paint, then waits for it to dry. In the meantime, he installs my new shiny stainless steel bow roller that had recently been so lovingly welded together.
T-Minus 6 days, he sands the epoxy primer paint, then layers on five new layers of copper coat, timing the intervals just so the paint all sticks properly. The copper coat needs five days to fully cure, so we are really cutting it down to the wire here!
T-Minus 5 days, he sands the copper coat surface to activate the copper coat, and it's like none of this ever happened in the first place.
He spends the rest of the afternoon helping Leslie clean the apartment and move crap back aboard. They each visit me in rounds, returning my possessions I’ve long missed. Ropes, sails, bean bags. I’m even more of a wreck than I had been previously. My crew can hardly move about, I’m so full of things not in their place.
And this is where this story first picked up.
By August 25, 2019, my crew had moved back aboard and they were rustling in various cubbies trying to find a place for everything. Andrew found my anniversary wine gift.
“It must be terrible! Where did we get that?” Leslie says.
“I don't know!” Andrew says, “I say we uncork it.”
He removes the fancy wax seal, pulls the cork and pours a glass. He swirls. He sniffs. “It’s good!” He says.
“It's good?” Leslie says, hardly believing a bottle of wine from 2006 that has been tumbling around the tropics and in my bilge for god knows how long can be anything but vinegar. She sips. “Hey! It is really good!” I smile the smug smile of victory.
They clamor into the cockpit and take up their seats on respective bean bags. The stars compete with the streetlights of the yard lot, but off in the distance, the ocean and tropical cliffs of Langkawi offer a nice view. Frogs sing an anniversary ballad in the jungle behind the yard.
“Ahhhh!” Leslie says. “Good to be home.”
“Yep! So close to being back in the water. I can taste salt on my lips.” Andrew says.