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Old 06-10-2006, 10:18   #1
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Boat Age and faith?

Hi guys,

I am wondering if the age of a boat affects your opinion of its seaworthiness. The boats I am researching are normally built around 1965, with fiberglass layup.

Are there things that happen to old boat hulls that makes it less capable with time? Do the hulls develop flaws or weakness with as they age?

Since old boats are what fit my price range, I'm thinking after 10 or 15 years of sailing these boats are going to be 50 years old. Does it matter?

Thanks guys,

Zach
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Old 06-10-2006, 10:41   #2
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Obviously age matters since you do get wear and tear. Some things like a hull is built well and maintained should not show wear and tear. But there are GRP stories of de lamination, water penetrations blistering etc.

Rigging and all moving mechanical items will show wear and if they don't show it, it may still be there, but hidden, like bedding of deck fittings and chainplates.. crevice corrosion and the like.

I have owned my boat since 85 and have replaced almost everything attached to the hull over its life and will be doing this continually as long as I own her. This includes, portlights, hatches, life lines, stanchions and bases, electronics, electrics, running and standing rigging, plumbing systems... you name it.

But heck.. part of the fun is just messin about on boats ain it?

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Old 06-10-2006, 11:04   #3
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I would not think that a well- constructed fiberglass has a life span per se. Neither concrete nor fiberglass truly breaks down or loses strength simply on their own without other factors coming into play. They require other causes. In the case of fiberglass loss of strength can result from one or more of the following:

-The surface resins will UV degrade.
-Prolonged saturation with water will affect the byproducts formed in the hardening process turning some into acids. These acids can break down the bond between the glass reinforcing and the resin.
-Fiberglass is prone to fatigue in areas repetitively loaded and unloaded at the point where it is repetitively deflected. High load concentration areas such as at bulkheads, hull/deck joints and keel joints are particularly prone.
-Salts suspended in water will move through some of the larger capillaries within the matrix. Salts have larger molecules than water. At some point these salts cannot move further and are deposited as the water keeps moving toward an area with lower moisture content. Once dried these salt turn into a crystalline form and exert great pressure on the adjacent matrix.
-Poor construction techniques with poorly handled cloth, poorly mixed or over accelerated resins, and poor resin to fiber ratios were very typical in early fiberglass boats. These weaker areas can be actually subjected to higher unit stresses which are the result from being much heavier boats. It’s not all that unusual to see small spider cracking and/or small fractures in early glass boats.
-Of course beyond the simple fiberglass degradation there is core deterioration, and the deterioration of such things as the plywood bulkheads and flats that form a part of the boat’s structure.

Earlier boats had heavier hulls for a lot of reasons beyond the myth that designers did not know how strong fiberglass was. Designers knew exactly how strong the fiberglass of that era actually was. What they did not know was how to design around fiberglass's inherent weaknesses. To explain, the US government had spent a fortune developing fiberglass information during WWII and by the early 1950’s designers had easy access to the design characteristics of fiberglass. (Carl Alberg, for example, was working for the US Government designing F.G. composite items when he designed the Triton and Alberg 35) The reason that the hulls on the early boats were as thick as they were had more to do with the early approach to the design of fiberglass boats and the limitations of the materials and handling methods used in early fiberglass boats. Early designers and builders had hoped to use fiberglass as a monocoque structure using an absolute minimal amount (if any) framing which they felt occupied otherwise usable interior space.

On its own, fiberglass laminate does not develop much stiffness (by which I mean resistance to flexure) and it is very dense. If you try to create the kind of stiffness in fiberglass that designers had experienced in wooden boats, it takes a whole lot of thickness which in turn means a whole lot of weight. Early fiberglass boat designers tried to simply use the skin of the boat for stiffness with wide spread supports from bulkheads and bunk flats. This lead to incredibly heavy boats and boats that were still comparably flexible compared to earlier wooden boats or more modern designs. (In early designs that were built in both wood and fiberglass, the wooden boats typically weighed the same as the fiberglass boats but were stiffer, stronger, and had higher ballast ratios)

The large amount of flexure in these old boats was a real problem over the life of the boat. Fiberglass hates to be flexed. Fiberglass is a highly fatigue prone material and over time it looses strength through flexing cycles. A flexible boat may have plenty of reserve strength when new but over time through flexure fiberglass loses this reserve. There are really several things that determine the overall strength of the hull itself. In simple terms it is the strength of the unsupported hull panel itself (by 'panel' I mean the area of the hull or deck between supporting structures), the size of the unsupported panel, the connections to supporting structures and the strength of the supporting structures. These early boats had huge panel sizes compared to those seen as appropriate today and the connections were often lightly done.

This fatigue issue is not a minor one. In a study performed by the marine insurance industry looking at the high cost of claims made on older boats relative to newer boats and actually doing destructive testing on actual portions of older hulls, it was found that many of these earlier boats have suffered a significant loss of ductility and impact resistance. This problem is especially prevalent in heavier uncored boats constructed even as late as the 1980's before internal structural framing systems became the norm. The study noted that boats built during the early years of boat building tended to use a lot more resin accelerators than are used today. Boat builders would bulk up the matrix with resin rich laminations (approaching 50/50 ratios rather than the idea 30/70), and typically used proportionately high ratios of non-directional fabrics (mat or chopped glass) in order to achieve a desired hull thickness. Resin rich laminates and non-directional materials have been shown to reduce impact resistance and to further increase the tendency towards fatigue. The absence of internal framing means that there is greater flexure in these older boats and that this flexure increases fatigue further. Apparently, there are an increasing number of marine insurance underwriters refusing to insure older boats because of these issues.

I have been looking at a lot of older fiberglass boats in the past few years. One thing that has struck me is the sheer amount of noticeable flexure cracking in areas of high stress, such as bulkheads, chainplate attachment points, hull to deck joints, cabin to deck lines, engine beds and rudder posts, and other high load hardware positions.

There are probably other forms of hull degradation that I have not mentioned but I think that the real end of the life of a boat is going to be economic. In other words the cost to maintain and repair an old boat will get to be far beyond what it is worth in the marketplace. I would guess this was the end of more wooden boats than rot. I can give you a bit of an example from land structures. When I was doing my thesis in college, I came across a government statistic, which if I remember it correctly suggested that in the years between 1948 and 1973 more houses had been built in America than in all of history before that time. In another study these houses were estimated to have a useful life span of 35 years or so. As an architect today I see a lot of thirty five year old houses that need new bathrooms, kitchens, heating systems, modern insulation, floor finishes, etc. But beyond the physical problems of these houses, tastes have changes so that today these houses in perfect shape still has proportionately small market value. With such a small market value it often does not make sense from a resale point of view to rebuild and these houses are therefore often sold for little more than land value. At some level, this drives me crazy, since we are tearing down perfectly solid structures that 35 years ago was perfectly adequate for the people who built it, but today does not meet the “modern” standards.

The same thing happens in boats. You may find a boat that has a perfectly sound hull. Perhaps it needs sails, standing and running rigging, a bit of galley updating, some minor electronics, a bit of rewiring, new plumbing, upholstery, a little deck core work, an engine rebuild, or for the big spender, replacement. Pretty soon you can buy a much newer boat with all relatively new gear for less than you’d have in the old girl. Its not hard for an old boat to suddenly be worth more as salvage than as a boat. A couple years ago a couple friends of mine were given a Rainbow in reasonable shape. She just needed sails and they wanted a newer auxiliary, but even buying everything used the boat was worth a lot less than the cost of the “new” parts. When they couldn’t afford the slip fees, the Rainbow was disposed of. She now graces a landfill and the cast iron keel was sold for scrap for more than they could sell the whole boat for.

Then there is the issue of maintainable vs. durable/low maintenance design concepts. Wooden boats for example represent the difference between a maintainable construction method versus a low maintenance/ durable method. A wooden boat can be rebuilt for a nearly infinite period of time until it becomes a sailing equivalent of ‘George Washington’s axe’ (as in “that’s George Washington’s axe. It’s had a few new handles and a few new heads but that is still George Washington’s axe”.) The main structure of a fiberglass hull is reasonably durable and low maintenance but once it has begun to lose strength, there is nothing that you can do.

The best deals on older used boats are the ones that someone has lovingly restored, upgraded, and maintained. Over the years they have poured lots of money and lavished lots of time into maintaining the boat in reasonably up to date condition. No matter how much they have spent the boat will never be worth anything near what they have in it because there is a real ceiling to how much an older boat will ever be worth and they will often have several times that ceiling invested.

And finally if you buy an old fiberglass boat, paint the bilges white. It does nothing for the boat, but if you ever have to sell the boat, then someone may look in your bilge and say “Lets buy her because any owner who would love a boat so much that he went through the trouble to paint the bilge white must have enjoyed this boat and taken great care of her no matter what her age.”

Good Luck,
Jeff
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Old 06-10-2006, 11:11   #4
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Can you please not post in such a small font. my arms are no longer long enough for my reading glasses.
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Old 06-10-2006, 11:19   #5
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An old boat is like an old house. If you don't take care of it, it falls apart. Our boat is 16 y/o, but you would never know it looking at. People are shocked when we tell them the boat's age. We showed it to someone last w/e who kept mumbling, "I can't beleive this is a 16 y/o boat." We are very religious about her upkeep, and so was the previous owner. As for the hull itself on older boats, generally I would think that they would be better than modern production hulls - provided they were well cared for. That said, I think that it's hard to find an older boat that has been continuously properly cared for. But again, it's not the age of the boat that the real factor, rather the lack of care.
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Old 06-10-2006, 11:41   #6
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The Ship of Theseus argument aside. There may be more important questions regarding the suitability of a boat than it's age. A thirty year old boat built by a respected manufacturer could easily be better suited to cruising than a new boat built to a budget. I believe it was Olin Stephens who argued that the builder was far more important than the designer in determining how seaworthy a vessel might be.
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Old 06-10-2006, 11:51   #7
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Talbot,
I have adjusted the font to a bit larger and more ledgable font. I don't know where the original font size and type came from. It is funny how my arms keep getting shorter and how much dimmer everything seems with every passing year.

LaLeLu: I think that if you compare equal quality boats of different eras (in other words compare older Hunters to newer Hunters, older Valliants to newer Valiants, new Tartans to older Tartans, and new Compac's to say older Pearsons or Odays) as a general rule, the new boats are much better built and will probably last longer. Of course as with any general rule, there are always some big exceptions.

Pura Vida,
I don't think that was an Olin Stephens' quote, but I do think that it is very much a partnership between the Designer setting engineering and the standard for the work, and the builder executing it.

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Old 06-10-2006, 13:23   #8
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Same as LaLeLu here. We have a 1987. Each time someone comes aboard, I let them guess the age of the boat. Typically, I get "2002" or so. Of course, I did put in the amount of work that Jeff speaks about. I spent 9-10 months of my life and $23K (a REAL bargain for what we did with her) making her look the way she does.

Ours is an example of a boat that has an older hull brought to near new condition. The boat was built more rigidly and with little components that LAST and weren't made in China. It's in the details. The quality of the equipment in a new boat is not up to par with the same equipment in an a slightly older boat. (there are exceptions of course).

Take the little fans for the galley and such. These fans we had lasted 20 years. The new ones we have are FAR more fragile and I would expect to get maybe 2 years max out of them the way they are built and with the tiny little cheap wiring they have.

Also, note that in older boats you will find a lot of things contructed with pride and care. Sometimes overbuilt, but built in a way that the workers cared about their jobs and the product... built with pride.

Now, you will find boats built more for profit that anything else. The same problems that affect our WalMart economy affect new boats.

I'd go old, personally and fix her up. Not only will you be able to pay for her over time, but you'll also gain much knowledge in replacing and designing systems. When (not if) something breaks at sea, you will likely be able to rig a temporary solution or fix it entirely. Not so if you aren't intimately familiar with every detail of the boat.

Based on Jeff's expert opinion and well written post, given that you can find a solid boat out there that is a little older, and based on my own experience restoring one, I'd say go for it.

Here are a couple photos of what can be done with a 1987.

Over everything else, buy the HULL you want and you can always upgrade everything later.
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Old 06-10-2006, 14:13   #9
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Talbot,
LaLeLu: I think that if you compare equal quality boats of different eras (in other words compare older Hunters to newer Hunters, older Valliants to newer Valiants, new Tartans to older Tartans, and new Compac's to say older Pearsons or Odays) as a general rule, the new boats are much better built and will probably last longer. Of course as with any general rule, there are always some big exceptions.

Jeff
I couldn't disagree more. Particularly I would argure that the older Pearsons are much better built than their newer counterparts. They are much heavier built. I know someone with an older Pearson and it is bomb proof. I am very impressed with the build quaility on that boat. New Compacs are lighter built than Watkins (who is the original manufacturer of Compac hulls). I am personlly familiar with the difference in build quility between Watkins and Compac. I would much prefer a Watkins over a Compac for offshore use. Hunters and Odays are not a boat that I would consider for off shore - in any era. I don't have much personal knowledge about Valliants and Tartans. In general, I think that mass production, increasing labor costs and cutting costs by using inferior quaility parts in favor of increasing the bottom line = inferior boat. I think that is true even for boat manufacturers that I like. The new boat show Calibers, IPs, Hylas, Pacific Seacrafts (and others) to me don't have the same quality/attention to detail and craftmanship as the older ones. There is not as much wood used in the interiors and the wood that is used is not as good quality. Plastic is being used in place of Stainless or brass in a lot of applications.
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Old 06-10-2006, 14:18   #10
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Very well put Sean. and very nice job on the boat - she looks like a page out of a brochure!
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Old 07-10-2006, 10:29   #11
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Thanks guys,

Jeff... would a correct assesment of your thoughts be that older boats need hull reinforcement to prevent flex?

The reduction of strength found in the insurance destructive tests... were they flex cycle tests?

Is there a defineable point which a hull has been subjected to enough stress cycles that would impact its ability to survive a storm? Is the strength loss progressive?

---

It does sound like a fiberglass hull is will be around indefinetly, and it should not matter how old it is...

Thanks again!

Zach
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Old 07-10-2006, 15:56   #12
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Zach, if you get a chance you may want to check out two things. The first is the threads on surveyors. Ultimately a surveyor will help you make the decision if the boat in the slip in front of you fits your intended use. Knowing the pitfalls of dealing with surveys and surveyors is a necessary skill set. Also check out the book "Seaworthy" if you can find it. It discusses boats from an insurer’s point of view.

Jeff, I agree on two points. First that is not an Olin Stephens quote only my recollection of an article I read regarding him. I believe I may still have it and if I can find it I will post the reference. I also agree that there is a balance between the designer and builder. In fairness, I am just not sure that all builders manufacturer to the specifications of the designer.

To La Le Lu’s point that older boats may be better than newer ones, over the period we are discussing many of these manufacturers have moved or changed hands. Others have moved off shore. Some have closed completely and reopened, C&C for example. While the technology is definitely better today I am not sure that is the only factor in the quality of boats made by any given company.
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Old 08-10-2006, 11:03   #13
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Can you please not post in such a small font. my arms are no longer long enough for my reading glasses.
If you right click, highlight the text and then zoom, you can make it bigger.

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Old 14-10-2006, 14:11   #14
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Zach

Does it matter? Still a lot of older boats around which I believe have another 40 odd years left in them, if not more.

Of course like any boat you want to last for 40 years more they will need maintanence / enhancement! (I will be quite interested to see how some of the crop of "cheaper" boats from the last 10/15 years will look like in another 25 years - but it doesn't mean that back in the 60's that they didn't also build badly designed rubbish down to a price!).

What I did last year was to carefully work out what I needed my next boat for, what I wanted from it and how much I wanted to spend and how long I wanted to keep her.

The answer to the second question was in the region of 10 years, if not longer. So I bought a boat made in 1970 (albeit deisgned in the early 1960's) that was fundamentally very very sound, BUT did (and still does!) need a fair bit of cosmetics and a bit of updating on the Electronics. A new suit of sails would not be a bad thing either. I could have bought a vessel with far better cosmetics, newer electronics and more recent sails, but for me it was more important she was sound underneath and equally importantly had in recent years had the usual flaws (for a Seadog) very well remedied. I figure any fool (me!) can wield a paint / varnish brush and buy some soft furnishings - but sorting out Osmosis, new fuel tanks, an aft bulkhead and a mast support are beyond my DIY skills and would be more expensive that the DIY I can do AND will enjoy doing).

Plus I figured that buying a boat with tired sails and old electronics means I upgrade when I want to spend the money and then get the use out of what I now buy, plus I get to buy the stuff I want.

I figure that when I sell her I will not get anywhere near back what I will spend on her over the next few years, BUT she will be exactly what I want on a Boat that I know is very very seaworthy, albeit not exactly fast!!

Of course the slight fly in the ointment is that I am developing a hankering for a Catamaran AND a small motorboat..........but that is for another thread!!
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Old 14-10-2006, 14:24   #15
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Oh I forgot...........Hull Flex?

Although I appreciate that Jeff H may well be techincally correct (and a very interesting post), for a test of Hull flex on ANY boat, not just an older one would be to bounce up and down on the decks and cabin tops, bash the side of your fist against the hull sides along the hull and check the bulkheads for signs of movement or repair. IMO (Ok, I am not a surveyor - but grew up with boats and always been a nosey beggar!), if anything moves or flexes from these checks then I would be careful on what I was spending my money on - not only for the areas checked, but also the places unseen / inaccesible.

Of course nothing lasts for ever, but if the boat is not flexing when doing the above then she may well be still techincally "flexing" and causing stress, but if it hasn't shown up after 35/40 years you know their probably isn't a design flaw and that any flexing will probably not be material over the next 20 odd years.

In many ways an older boat will be easier to assess cos any fundamental flaws will usually be apparent from viewing a few examples (crazing of the gelcoat from flexing and repairs) - plus plenty of history to research and former owners to talk with - unlike last years XYZ which may or may not last.


I await to be shot down by those who DO know better
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