Bottom Blacking and Dysfunctional Anchors

Wanderlust comes out of the water in Saint Jean de Losne.

Five years after launch, in the summer of 2018, Wanderlust was due to have her bottom blacked. This is a standard maintenance item for most steel inland waterway craft. For Wanderlust, the re-blacking of the hull became more necessary after the paint survey conducted in the summer 2017 showed widespread failure of the underwater coatings. When Wanderlust was out of the water in 2017 swaths of bare steel were visible, particularly in the HAZ or “heat affected zones”, the places where the metal work had removed the shop primer applied during the steel’s manufacture.

Our surveyor pointed to two issues leading to the paint problems: The builder’s improper preparation of the metal surfaces, particularly at the welds, and the uneven application of a substantially insufficient amount of coating. Wanderlust’s bottom paint was doomed to fail from steel as she left the plant in 2013. In 2018 we paid for the consequences of the choices made by the builder during Wanderlust’s construction.

Wanderlust’s underwater paint failed at the welds revealing mirror-like polished steel insufficiently roughed to allow paint adhesion.

Where’s Wanderlust?  Our 2018 season’s mooring was not particularly scenic.

Even though we could see a widespread lack of paint adherence, there was little visible damage to Wanderlust’s underwater steel. If her hull wasn’t coated at all, it is likely that Wanderlust’s hull thickness would be sufficient to last for decades in the low oxygen freshwater environment she was meant for. This is something the builder knows, and is perhaps a reason for violating the legal RCD requirements by undercoating the bottoms of his boats. Nevertheless, standards or no standards, if you are going through the time and expense of applying a protective coating to a steel surface, why not try to do it correctly? I suspect that we and other owners with new build boats would have been more than happy to pay a little more to have the paint applied properly, given the alternative enormous expense of correcting it later.

In the end, in 2018, we were left we three options.

The best option and the most correct way to deal with the underwater paint issues is to start by blast cleaning the steel to the prescribed SA 2.5 standard. Once the steel is properly prepared, the coatings are re-applied from the steel up to achieve the 320 µM minimum thickness specified by the Recreational Craft Directives. This is what our paint surveyor and the other boatyard professionals we talked with recommend. In some cases boatyards will warranty their work done in this manner.

Another option is to do what many do: Simply clean the bottom, maybe sand lightly, and re-coat, whether the existing paint is showing as compromised or not. There is a vague though unlikely hope then that each subsequent round of re-blacking would eventually address the places where the coating was failing to adhere. A downside here is there’s little warranty recourse from the manufacturer or boatyard in the event of a paint failure.

Wanderlust’s bottom paint being applied at the plant in 2013.

The third option is to do nothing. Aside from being unattractive, the neglect is unlikely to do significant harm to the boat’s underwater steel structure for the best part of a century. In the future, the boat can always be blacked. Disclosed to potential buyers, a new built barge treated this was should not present a potential customer with serious concerns. With that, when barges are eventually sold, attentive surveyors have been known to recommend that the bottom be grit blasted and recoated at the seller’s expense. Neglecting bottom maintenance may save money in the short term but not necessarily in the long run.

In Wanderlust’s case the decision was more complicated. The paint in the visible areas above the waterline, particularly on the decks, was also failing. These areas are cosmetically and structurally more concerning. And left untreated, the decks’ thinner steel left uncoated in the oxygen rich environment would create significant damage over a shorter period of time. Even if we chose not to blast the bottom, the decks would need remedial work at some point in time in the not too distant future.

Further, repair of the leaking fuel tank necessitated cutting three large access holes through the 13mm steel plate on the bottom of Wanderlust’s hull. After the inside of the tank was re-welded and sealed, the sections of the steel plate that had been removed for access were welded back into place. The typical protocol then is a blast cleaning of the damaged areas followed by the application of the coatings in compliance with the paint manufacturers specifications.

Wanderlust’s bottom in the midst of the fuel tank leak repair

On the hard: It is not uncommon to reblack a hull without blast cleaning when it is Wanderlust’s condition here.

It seemed as long as we were blasting some of Wanderlust’s underwater areas, we might as well do it all. At the least it is a better feeling knowing that no corner has been cut. Perhaps years down the road, when it comes time to sell Wanderlust, a future owner will appreciate the effort and expense we’ve gone through to do things properly.

Thus when the repair holes in Wanderlust’s bottom were closed up she was made ready for the grit-blasting shed. There wasn’t that much for us to do, as H2O would tent all the above the water portions of the boat to keep the dust out. We did the one thing we could do ourselves: Drop and remove the anchors, fore and aft. They needed to be out of the way during the blast cleaning and paint work.

Dropping the anchors should have been easy. After all, anchors are supposed to be quickly deployable in the event of an emergency. But it didn’t turn out that way.

I loosened the clutch on the manual forward anchor winch that held back the chain attached to the 75 kg anchor. Nothing moved, even after the clutch was completely loosened. Eventually I managed to drag the anchor and chain out and down by hand. But clearly that was not a viable deployment method in the event of an emergency.

Wanderlust’s forward anchor winch with its fixing bolts removed and shift over slightly: Note that the wildcat sits between the hawsepipe opening at the left and the guide hole from the chain locker at the right.

The rear anchor winch sitting on the newly installed plate designed with a hole to guide the chain resting at the bottom of the locker onto the wildcat. Before this plate was installed, the chain dropped directly from the wildcat to the locker floor.

Why wouldn’t the anchor drop? It had been deployed before, so it was a mystery why it would not drop now. It did not seem that anything had changed in the intervening years.

After some investigation it was discovered that the internals of the rear anchor winch, the identical model, were different than those of the forward winch. In particular the cone-shaped clutch inside the forward anchor winch was made out of plastic, while the rear winch’s clutch was brass. Over time the plastic had apparently swelled causing the winch to seize. Even with the clutch fully loosened there was too much friction to let the chain to pay out.

It is hard to say why there was a plastic cone inside the forward winch in the first place. I’m guessing that it might be a dummy insert used by Italwinch during manufacture that was accidently not swapped out at the end of the production line. But who knows? In any event, there was for us some added time and expense to obtain a proper brass clutch cone. With the proper cone in place, the forward winch worked normally.

The rear anchor had a different issue. In this case when the clutch was loosened the chain came out easily. In fact, it came out too easily as it quickly fell off of the “wildcat”, the sprocket that pays out the chain. Once off the wildcat the chain whipped violently up out of the locker allowing the anchor to drop uncontrolled to the ground. That’s obviously neither ideal nor safe. It also makes the anchor winch pointless, as we had the same amount of control as we would if we just manually tossed the anchor over the side of the boat. With a chain off the wildcat and under tension, there’d be no easy way to retrieve a deployed anchor.

The bow thruster tube prepped for blast cleaning.

A load of grit arrives in preparation for Wanderlust blast cleaning.

In this case the cause of the problem with the rear anchor set up was obvious: The winch was mounted high on steel platform too far from the coils of chain at the base of the locker. Without any provision for a chain guide, when the clutch was loosened the chain wobbled as came of the coils at the bottom of the locker and quickly fell off the wildcat. Perhaps with practice it would be possible to slowly release the anchor and keep the chain on the wildcat, possibly by routing the chain by hand. But in an emergency situation with an unknown crewmember using the winch, this would not be practically reliable.

Unfortunately this issue was not discovered earlier. It should have been recognized that there was a problem on inspection. Indeed, if the builder tested their installation of the rear anchor just once, they would have identified the problem immediately and presumably fixed it. In retrospect I guess we too should have tested the stern anchor before the boat left the plant. But it is easy to assume that such a simple device would work without question and that the builder knew what they were doing when they installed it. I’m pretty sure that many boat owners do not routinely test their anchors, particularly as there is always some damage to the paint when the anchor is deployed and brought back in.

The fix for the rear anchor winch problem was straightforward, as there was a model for what needed to be done at the forward anchor winch. At the bow, when the chain comes up to the wildcat from the anchor locker below, it passes through a hole in the deck trimmed with a piece that functions both as a guide and as protection for the paint. As the hawsepipe opening does at the anchor side of the wildcat, the hole on the chain locker side of the winch makes sure that the chain is aligned for the sprocket. At the stern, there was no provision to guide the chain onto the winch at all. It was simply pulled up uncontrolled from the locker. Without anything arrangement to guide it onto the wildcat, the chain was destined to fall off of the winch.

The solution was straightforward: A steel plate was fabricated with a guide hole positioned to mimic the location of the opening through the deck between the chain locker and forward winch. Once this plate was installed, the chain runs up from the locker, through the restricting hole in the plate, onto the wildcat, and down through hawsepipe. This set up works perfectly: The chain now stays on the wildcat and the anchor can be raised and lowered using the winch.

Wanderlust in the grit blast shed.

The blasting nozzle

Once Wanderlust’s anchors were down she was ready for the grit-blasting shed. Though we had lived aboard on the hard already for several weeks, it would not be possible while Wanderlust was covered in the sheds for blast cleaning and painting. Thus we headed out on a road trip to the south of France.

The job was going slower than expected. About two weeks after we left, we returned to Saint Jean de Losne and were able to check the status of the grit blast, noting a couple of spots that were missed. With Wanderlust still unavailable for occupation we headed back out on the road to Liechtenstein.

A week later, on returning to Saint Jean, Wanderlust was out of the shed with her bottom freshly coated with Jotamastic 87. Above the waterline Epifanes Multiforte, a single-pack coating, over coated the Jotamastic. The Epifanes was chosen as it is less prone to graying and easier for us to repair.

There was a slight snafu with the bottom painting. The one-week curing time for the Jotamastic 87 caught us by surprise. Most bottom coatings cure more quickly, allowing the boat to go back into the water almost as soon as the painting is finished. But the longer curing time for the Jotamastic meant that Wanderlust would remain on the hard at least a week until the paint dried. Extending the wait, the boat yard chose to apply all of the Jotamastic that they had purchased, which meant that there were still coats being applied after we returned from Liechtenstein. At least Wanderlust’s bottom paint is unquestionably thick now.

Wanderlust’s hull in the process of paint after we returned from Liechtenstein.

Wanderlust’s prop shaft disconnected to temporarily stop the leak at the Volvo-Penta seal, the black bit.

Once Wanderlust’s bottom paint was finally sufficiently cured it was a simple matter of bolting on the anodes and putting her back into the water. Or it should have been a simple matter.

We had decided to replace our aluminum anodes with magnesium, as there was no evidence of significant erosion of the original sacrificial anodes after five years in the water. Though it wasn’t absolutely necessary to do this, as the evidence of hull pitting was minimal, magnesium anodes are a more appropriate choice for freshwater cruising. As long as we were out of the water we thought we might as well make the change.

Swapping in the new anodes should have been straightforward, but the magnesium anodes were out of stock and there was a significant delay in getting them from the manufacturer. Eventually H2O gave up and decided to put Wanderlust into the water with her original anodes. When the new anodes did arrive they’d pull her out of the water and swap the new ones in. That was good for us, as living on the hard had gotten to be a drag.

All told, the blast cleaning, painting, and waiting for anodes took about six weeks. The work on Wanderlust was not moving fast this summer.

Even after the paint has been applied, Wanderlust still shows scars from her fuel tank surgery.

Once Wanderlust was back in the water we had another surprise. I peered down into the engine compartment and noticed water. On inspection I saw that the newly installed Volvo-Penta seal was leaking. We had decided to replace the seal when were out of the water after hearing from the manufacturer that we were mid-range on the replacement interval. Many decide not to replace these seals until it starts failing, which is in my opinion a reasonable approach. But under our circumstances it seemed cheaper in the long run to replace the seal while Wanderlust was out of the water rather than risk an emergency lift out at some point in the future.

Unfortunately the new seal was installed it split when the prop shaft was inserted. As a result there was now water coming into the engine compartment bilge. It wasn’t a fast leak, but without a bilge pump Wanderlust would have eventually sunk. It might have taken a few weeks, but still she would have gone down.

H2O came over, disconnected the prop shaft, and pulled it part of the way out. This effectively stopped the leak for the time being. The shaft would sit disconnected until a replacement seal could be installed. Eventually Wanderlust would have to be taken out of the water to swap in the new seal. There’s usually a considerable cost to pull a boat out of the water, but H2O had already agreed to do this for free to put the new anodes on when they arrived. It made the most sense to replace the seal and the anodes at the same time. So Wanderlust sat in the water in Saint Jean with her shaft disconnected until both the new anodes and the seal were available and ready to install.

Wanderlust during the build, naked without paint.

DSC_5776

One of Wanderlust’s old anodes in place on her hull: Sacrificial anodes are by purpose chosen so that they erode electrolytically before the hull does. With some minor hull pitting and little to no erosion of the aluminum anodes it seemed best to swap to the easier to erode magnesium anodes.

Aside from the delay, the leaking seal meant that Wanderlust wasn’t going anywhere. If the Volvo-Penta seal had not leaked, we might have been able to go out for jollies, at least on the weekends outside of H2O’s work hours. But this was no longer a possibility. Wanderlust would continue to be stuck in Saint Jean de Losne.

Indeed, it was becoming clear that Wanderlust would do little if any cruising in 2018. Wanderlust’s build took six months to complete, two months longer than contracted. As of 2019, it was clear that we’d lose more than a full year of cruising time correcting the consequences of her faulty manufacture.

Wanderlust in Saint Jean de Losne: On the hard or in the water she would spend the entire 2018 cruising season within a few hundred meters of this position.

 

2 thoughts on “Bottom Blacking and Dysfunctional Anchors

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