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About that leak I mentioned last month

You’ll recall that during my 42-mile solo cruise under power late last September I was returning from the Sassafras River to Annapolis when my boat sprung a major leak. I traced the problem to the outboard well as best I could, specifically to the engine-mount area, where visible cracks had developed in the corners.

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Since I could not physically explore under the cockpit way aft in no-man’s land and pinpoint the leak while under way, I was guessing about the source.

It was a hazy, flat-calm, windless day with poor visibility. Although a strong ebb was assisting me southward, I had an eerie feeling of almost being lost once I reached the middle of the Bay. There was no traffic whatsoever, and the Bay Bridge spans were nowhere in sight, but the Eastern Shore was where it should be — to port — and the Western Shore to starboard. If it hadn’t been for managing the leak, I would have been quite bored.

Pumping 40 strokes every 20 minutes for 10 hours with a cockpit-mounted Whale Gusher convinced me that a haulout was definitely in order, but since the cruising season was heading toward an end, I decided to put off thinking about it for a while.

I am an amateur do-it-yourselfer and usually try to do things my way to save big boatyard labor bucks at $80 or $90 an hour. Sometimes this cost-cutting can lead to more work in correcting my mistakes, but that did not stop me from pondering a DIY fiberglass-repair job in the water at the dock.

I assembled the appropriate West System materials to take it on as best I could. However, whatever good sense I still have assumed control when I realized the boat might have to be hauled anyway and, if that were the case, why not “splurge” and get the repair done right. In late March I contacted my usual boatyard folks at Casa Rio Marina in Mayo, Md., only to hear that they were so busy they couldn’t haul me until the end of April. I wanted to be sailing by early April, but I didn’t know it would be an unusually cold month, unfit for painting and varnishing, that would delay me.

Fiberglass guru John Hodgkin, of Muller Marine in Eastport, Md., went to work on the Tripper's beloved sailboat.

I looked around Eastport and got the same message from other marinas. I heard that Muller Marine on Back Creek might do a quickie haulout, so I pleaded my case there. For 25 years, white-bearded Bob Muller has run a kind of backyard, in-and-out operation with very limited space for storage. He is also quite busy looking after a large J/Boat rental and club fleet next door. He hauls out with a small crane equipped with an extended boom and a wide, square spreader bar. After a second visit, as I crawled to him on my hands and knees for mercy, he scratched me in on his calendar for April 10.

I had not installed my boom, and my outboard was under the care of Mike’s Marine Service in Annapolis, so now I had to get a move on. My son Eric carried the 5-hp 4-stroke Tohatsu to my docked boat and loaded it in the well. After a few pulls, some sputters, barking, coughing, sneezing and belching, it came to life. I let it run for a half-hour. So far, so good …

Muller had seen this problem before and put John Hodgkin, his fiberglass repair expert, on the job. Some 10 years ago I had cut, epoxy-sealed and installed a new outboard mounting block on the forward wall of the well, to which the motor clamps. Two corners of this raised glassed wall had begun to crack, so I sprayed that area with that black rubber liquid advertised on television as a cure-all patch. Well, it didn’t work, and water continued invading the aft cabin as autumnal and then early winter daysailing came and went.

The first thing Hodgkin did was peel away that rubber stuff, which came off rather easily. Then he cut away a thin exterior, rectangular surface around several drain holes to reveal a long, thin, hidden crack of a slit where the water was entering. “Fifty years ago, when your boat was built [an S&S-designed Sailmaster 22C, in Holland], the builders may have been thinking more of powering with a light 3-hp British Seagull than a 70-pound 4-stroke,” he said. When the engine is running full ahead, I told him, it digs in, stressing the mount and that decades-old well wall.

After sanding, filling and closing off that offensive crack, he glassed over the inside and outside well walls with West System cloth. A final sanding left everything smooth for bottom paint, and he drilled just one new drain hole for any sloshing water to escape. In six hours the repair was completed. Of the $572 bill, $300 was charged to labor ($50 an hour here) and $75 to install a new masthead wind vane. Looking back on how the job was done, I think I would have cut away too much and made the repair much more difficult. This was money well spent. I have since motored under full power in a 20-knot southerly with 3-foot seas, and my bilges remained dry and dusty.

With the outboard well repaired, it was time to put the engine back in and return the boat to the water.

A cold April and fluky May delayed painting, varnishing — and even cruising. At one point, I simply grew weary of sanding, refinishing and waiting for weather, so I just began sailing. The conclusion? All in all, it’s good to be leak-free and not being concerned about floorboards floating.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

July 2013 issue