(This article is aimed at the typical motor cruiser, but much applies to any kind of wooden boat)
Fitting Out is the opposite of Laying Up and a much more pleasurable activity as it marks the bright start of a new season rather than heralding the dark, damp days of winter, Fitting Out means different things to different people. Essentially it means preparing your boat for the new season.
First, off come the winter covers, which should be cleaned, dried thoroughly, and (if you are wise) repaired ready for the next winter. Canvas covers must be dry and stored in a dry place to avoid mildew. Once the covers are off, open every hatch, door, port-light, locker door and cupboard you can, and lift floor-boards and engine hatches if possible also, to thoroughly air the boat. An electric fan-heater inside the boat can help here. Then give the exterior a good scrub-down. I am always amazed at the amount of dirt that accumulates under the covers, no matter how well they fit. (Yes, close hatches, doors and ports before hosing down!) Then conduct your inspection. It is a good idea to make a list at this point, and you will probably have noticed a number of items during cleaning.
If the boat is out of the water then of course it is the time to scrub down the hull. A traditional method is to use wet sacking, and a wooden scraper for the stubborn stuff, but for river weed a good stiff bristle brush is best. I would be wary of high-pressure hosing a wooden hull. You might remove paying from the seams - or even pieces of soft wood, heaven forbid ! A good hosing down is of course in order. And then inspect the hull closely for soft spots, loose fastenings, exposed seams etc. Check the wind and waves area around the waterline closely, for damage and soft wood. (I have found copper sheathing of this area to be invaluable).
Check over skin-fittings, including instrument transponders, with great care, and remember that catalytic action can eat metal away under the paint skin. Draw any suspect bolts for inspection. You should use phosphor-bronze or marine-grade stainless steel (not any stainless steel) for any through-hull bolts. Replace any badly eroded anodes. (By the way, you never paint these.) Then look over all rudder and prop-shaft mountings with great care, checking for any play and looseness. Cutlass bearings should be checked for play, and propeller nuts should be tightened and split-pins replaced (always keep spares on board). A corroded or bent propeller should be refurbished - there are places that specialize in this. Examine exhaust ports and any other outlets. Keel bolts should be checked for tightness,and if feasible draw one to check the condition. Make a close inspection of the caulking in the garboard seam, alongside the keel, as this often contains more caulking than other seams, and is subjected to any movement of the keel. Keel-band fixings should be examined, as these can often be damaged on those odd occasions when we meet up with the river or sea bed.
When thoroughly dry, (and any repairs done), prepare for a new undercoat and antifouling . Always wear a mask and protective clothing when removing anti-fouling as it contains poisons, and protect yourself also when applying it. A word of warning here regarding wooden boats: Always apply an undercoat to a wooden boat before using a high copper content anti-fouling. The penalty for not doing this will vary, but the worst possible case, to use an example, is probably a wooden hull, copper fastened and with galvanized fittings. A direct application of copper anti-fouling will effectively electrically link the heads of all the fastenings and make one pole of a fairly large battery, the galvanized fittings will provide the other pole and with salt or river water as an efficient electrolyte it is likely that all the galvanized fittings will need to be replaced in two seasons or less. Apparently this is a little-known fact. My preference in undercoats is Blakes rubberized underwater undercoat, which I have found to be excellent.
One of the more depressing aspects of boat maintenance is what happens to brightwork during the winter. Horrid white patches appear under last seasons brand new seven-coats-onto-dry-wood. Usually joints are to blame. It is a good idea to seal all hidden surfaces of new wood with varnish when carrying out repairs, and generally the first coat should always be well thinned to ensure absorption. Per the recent excellent series of Boater articles by Colin Henwood, Deks Olje No. 1 also makes an excellent primer for varnish (you should study these articles to become a varnish expert). Some tips: (1) When someone accidentally chips any varnish, a forefinger dipped into the varnish pot and immediately applied to the chip or scratch may save you from stripping and revarnishing a whole area. (2) Oxalic Acid (white powder, bought from chemists) as 25% solution will restore natural timber colour to bare wood, remove blackening, stains etc. (it did wonders to my pitch-pine deck) Neutralize with white vinegar, clean with damp pad. (3)Dents and bruises: prick with a needle, apply boiling water to swell it back to shape, dry with heatgun/hairdryer.(4) A hot-air gun is excellent for varnish stripping. Strippers are not good for brightwork, as they can soak into the grain.
A word of warning about your repair schedule here.
The English early Spring is not the best time to undertake major paint
and varnish repairs, unless your boat is under weatherproof cover such
as a boathouse. At best, only strip as much as you can prime and protect
at that visit. Leave the major back-to-bare-wood repairs until the weather
is more stable in the summer.
Autumn also often provides good spells of weather, and one has the opportunity to make sure the boat is well protected for the winter, in respect of paint and varnish work..
When repairing paintwork, to state the obvious, feather the edges thoroughly and dont skip either the primer or undercoat stages. Sometimes one is tempted to just touch in with a bit of gloss This may work in your lounge, but not on a boat! Remember the great beauty of undercoat is it sands down so well, as it is mostly filler. Use several coats to build up damaged paint to the surrounding level for an invisible repair. Also use a fine enough abrasive paper, and wrap it around a flat wood block when sanding flat surfaces.
If you have a large damaged areas, it is quickest to use a paint or varnish remover, or a hot-air gun. For a smaller area a good tip is to use a piece of broken glass as a scraper. When it dulls, get a fresh piece. Its a lot less labour than the constant re-sharpening of a metal scraper, and broken glass is not hard to find in many yards. Also you can often find a piece tailored to fit curved surfaces. Then finish off with dry fine paper. Remember to wipe off rubbed-down varnished surfaces with a tack rag, which is a clean cloth dampened with a mix of varnish and white spirit or turps, before applying varnish. Do not apply the final varnish coats on dull cold days or late in the day. Probably midday on a sunny wind-less day is ideal (one should be so lucky!). Put your varnish tin in the sun, and use a new brush with bristles that dont fall out ! Finish with light strokes along the grain. If you miss a bit out, do not try to work it over. Leave until dry to rectify.
Deck fittings should be removed every few years, to inspect the wood beneath. Put a good coat of sealing compound beneath and in the bolt holes before refitting. Sealing compound is a subject all of its own which I wont go into here. Most people have their own preferences. I consider it a good compound if it is still adhering and at least flexible enough to move with the wood after a couple of years. Some cheap ones shrink and go hard and brittle. Overhaul and grease the anchor winch, and carefully inspect the stanchions for looseness and the lifelines for any fraying (and for rust under the paint if galvanised). Dont economise on these safety items. As with the hull, use stainless or phosphor-bronze bolts. Similarly, check chainplate, davit and tabernacle bolts and fixings.
If a laid deck and you dont have any leaks, you are indeed a lucky owner. However the time the leaks really show is after hot weather when it suddenly pours (I well remember one Sunday at the Traditional Boat Rally ). Check the underside of the deck for water stains, use a torch if needed to look in every nook and cranny. Note accordingly. (Some people swear by small but expensive bottles of Creeping Crack Cure, for stopping deck leaks. I have noticed however it bears a strong resemblance to UniBond, an inexpensive PVA (poly-vinyl-acetate) glue/sealant much used by decorators and carpenters. This is a white liquid that can be thinned with water, and sets to a hard translucent finish, ideal for sealing cracks and leaks .definitely worth a try.) Where the water exits of course can be a very long way from where it enters. At this point I would handle any damage to the interior, and save deckseam repairs for the warm weather. Not however that if your deck is cotton-caulked (as mine used to be. I wish in fact Id left it that way) you have to strip out and re-caulk the entire seam, if it leaks. Patching in with caulking just does not work..
Decks which are canvased are fine excepting that when they start to go,as it may not be visible. Water trapped under the canvas can cause a great deal of damage. The first places to look are in dead areas where the water may collect behind fillets and other woodwork which has been put on top of the canvas, and also in the angles of coamings, etc. There is no treatment for wood which has started to rot and the only thing to do is to cut out the affected parts well back beyond the seat of the rot and scarph in new wood with a waterproof resin glue. The canvas can have a patch let in where damaged or torn, put down on a good layer of wet paint, then painted on top. Decks of marine grade ply should be inspected at the edges for delamination, and it is a good idea to remove any fillet covering a butt-joint in the ply (such as down the centre) and inspect and reseal this joint.
In The Bilge
Inside the boat, remove all the floorboards you can, and prod all muck and dirt out of nooks, crannies and especially limber holes, and remove loose paint. If there is water in the bilge, suck it out with an Aquavac first, then vacuum out the dirt. Once all the water is out, if the boat is afloat, conduct a careful observation to find any places below the waterline that water is seeping in. This is also the time to trace and rectify and leakage of any engine oil or (heaven forbid !) fuel into the bilge. De-grease the bilges if needed with bilge cleaner, or a much cheaper substitute I have used is liquid washing-machine detergent, suitably diluted. Inspect all fitting - seacocks, bilge pumps, float switches, keelbolt heads, log, echo-sounder, anode bolts and connections, etc. Bilge pumps and float switches should be removed, cleaned and serviced. Anode connections should be carefully cleaned and left coated with waterproof grease as a protection, and any corroded connecting wire replaced. If you have a pump-out sea toilet, go over the skin fittings (hull exits) with great care: inspect and tighten all bolts, and grease cocks and pumps. Likewise check all sink and basin drain pipes and fittings. Clean out and repack the stern glands and refill the greasers with waterproof grease. Then, once the bilges are clean and dry, prime any bare wood, then finish off with several coats of a bilge paint such as Danboline.
By this time your knees are probably killing you, so a good energetic upright job is in order ! Go up on deck and after putting down an old tarpaulin to protect the deck, pull up all the anchor chain and lay it out for inspection. Check links, swivel-links and shackles for wear, loss of galvanising, etc, and ensure all shackle pins are tight and moused with copper wire. Then go below and clean out and examine the chain locker (and ensure the on-board end of the anchor chain is made fast!) and any other bow lockers, for leaks, rot etc. If you can see daylight through the hull seams above the waterline, (I have seen this on at least two boats) then these seams should be re-caulked, as once under way, water rides up the bow and is forced in through these seams with considerable pressure.
Whilst up forward, if you have any leaks from deck or hatch, examine upholstery, cupboards, lockers, drawers etc., for any evidence of water ingress and subsequent damage. It is amazing how water can seek out your favourite clothing, books or tools ! In fact, do this through the entire boat, and if feeling energetic, you can have a Spring dekludge (as the Americans call it). Regarding the interior in general, remove curtains, loose covers etc. for washing, and wash down all paintwork and brightwork, avoiding any chemical cleaners except where absolutely necessary, and repair any damaged paint and varnish. Clean all windows, ports and lights inside and out. The finest way I know is to use plain old newspaper and water. Just water. Wet a ball of newspaper and clean the window thoroughly. Take a dry ball of newspaper, and polish it up. You get black hands, but you will never have seen such clean, bright glass, and amazingly, it wont mist up (invaluable for the wheelhouse). This is because with this method of cleaning, no chemical coating is created: you end up with plain, bare, clean glass!
Gas and Electrics
Check all gas joints and taps for tightness and leaks, especially flexible links to gas bottle or gimballed stove. I use my nose to detect gas - NEVER use a match or lighter. (Obvious ! you say. But people still do it !). You can buy special green Hermetite compound for making joints gas-tight. Test your gas detectors per manufacturers instructions. Buy gas detectors if you dont have any. (for electronics wizards, you can buy the system components from RS Components Ltd. for a fraction of the cost). Clean out gas bottle containers, and clear all gas drain holes. Next check every single light in the boat, especially navigation, instrument and emergency lights. List any that dont work, and repair them. Any corrosion must be completely removed. Renew the fitting if it is bad, for it will magically reappear, usually at the worst possible moment ! Check you have a full inventory of spare bulbs, with two spare sets for navigation lights. Remove the batteries for cleaning, topping up and charging, if at all possible, otherwise do it in situ. Ensure battery boxes are still watertight, batteries are securely fastened, and gas vents are unobstructed (see Part 3 of the Boat Safety Scheme for requirements). Check battery isolating switches are secure and operational, and check all wiring and terminations in engine compartment, instrument panels and other places, against (1) looseness (2) corrosion (3) overheating/melting (4) broken strands (5) chafing on hot or moving parts (6) not clipped down properly (7) improperly insulated or protected. Also check fuses, fuse and breaker panels, and the instruments themselves. If you have a spaghetti wired boat, now is the time to do the rewire !
And most important, check alternators (always carry a spare!) for noise, sparking, overheating and proper output (watching the ammeter), and those vital fanbelts for tightness and wear. Always have two or more spare belts on board.
I have not room to cover the subject of engines here in detail, so in brief:
Change the oil and oil filters. Clean drip trays. Renew fuel filters, and if diesel, examine the fuel tanks for contamination from condensation or waxing of the fuel from cold weather. (Ive never had problems personally from this. But dire tales from drivers of diesel trucks have caused me to mention it !) Wash out ( in paraffin for diesels, NOT petrol!) and dry, or replace, air filters. Petrol engines should have the carburettor float chamber cleaned out, to remove sludge and water. And a VERY thorough check for any petrol leaks, even slight ones.
Spark plugs should be renewed, fuel injectors serviced or replaced. Plug leads examined/replaced, points ground or replaced and reset, and distributor caps cleaned thoroughly.
Then drain and flush the cooling system, and refill with water and all year coolant (unless you want to flush again in the autumn and add the antifreeze then). Grease seawater pumps. Top up gearbox oil and tighten and lubricate all gearchange and throttle linkage and cables. Tighten flange bolts coupling the propshaft. (Stern glands Ive already covered). Finally go over the steering gear with a fine-tooth-comb, and when sure it is in A1 condition, grease it.
Lastly, check over all First Aid, lifesaving and distress equipment, do an inventoery of buoyancy aids, and test the ships radio (and other instrumentation).
Thats about it (aside from all the things Ive forgotten), so break out the gin to celebrate the first cruise of the season.! If you have successfully done all the above, you deserve it !
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