Cockpit locker drainage channels and existential concerns

Lately the tone of my blog posts have assumed an unprecedent technical twist. I have always found hard to describe the refit of Tranquility in great detail, and most of the countless jobs proceeded unaccounted. What’s exciting about writing posts like “laminating fiberglass backing plate for deck hardware (and achieving physical flexibility during installation)“, “sealing umpteenth hole in the deck with thickened epoxy” or “screws and bolts inventory: am I missing any“?

Moreover I am a former psychologist and my education and training concernes things like “emotional defense mechanisms“, “coping strategies” and “cognitive fallacies“, and I used to handle tools like “active listening” “participant observation” and “network analysis“. The language of the master shipwright is still an uncharted territory and the rules of technical writing a mystery.

I also assume that the reader (you) is not very concerned about a bunch of technical digressions on boat construction and repair. It may be a wrong assumption in the end, as the whole point of taking an old boat and sail it through the horizon on a budget requires being able to perform a thorough analysis of the weak points of “the old lady”, and perform satisfactory upgrades with little or none adult supervision. Funny enough “How-to-Do-It-Yourself” articles are the ones I seek with a certain continuity online, to find inspirations about designs and building techniques, so I may fall out of the group of representative readers of this blog according to my idealistic audience.

These are some of the reasons why I find very difficult to write about boat projects and improvements  but despite of that not much else is happening in my life and so I would either shut up (possible) or keep telling the story of the countless jobs that are going on inside and on Tranquility.

Selecting few specific jobs and turning them into a narration is becoming an usual activiy, so hopefull it will be less and less hard.  It turns out it’s also a good way to keep track of how long these project are taking, which is very long. As soon as one is finished it has a slingshot effect to the next one and helps bringing enthusiasm to my work and to the overall goal, so I would be happy to see more and more of these posts appearing on the blog.

Lately the speed of work increased and people at the dock are noticing Tranquility changing face and stops for few words about what’s next and where are we going to take the boat (well where she is going to take us…). Kate also had some time to dedicate to Tranquility and this was another huge help to the overall project. She has a great ability for planning and in just one hour spent in the garden with a calendar in her hand we enlighted the next three weeks projects and tasks down to plankton size. With this new clarity it seems we have a possible deck painting date on mid November, and few days when we will be actually both working on Tranquility.

Drainage channels for watertight cockpit locker

During our Atlantic Ocean offshore passage and in other legs of Tranquility’s voyage from New Bedford to Brunswick rain and occasional crashing waves found their way into the cockpit locker and sloshed into the bilge. After coming to a rest on the Georgia Coast and contemplating the idea of more offshore sailing in the near future we wanted to make sure that we are not taking in water from this or other openings on the boat.

Tranquility has a cockpit locker on port side accessible through the cockpit seat via a very heavy door. The starboard side has no opening as a sleeping quarter bunk lies underneath it. None of these setups were original from the builder: the whole port quarter side was modified by one of the previous owners to fit the locker, which is divided from the interior by a bulkhead that would host the chart table on the cabin side. On starboard side, somebody did the opposite, fitting a bunk where it used to be a cockpit locker. These and other amenities are some of the surprises you could find when you buy a fifty years old sailboat.

Unfortunately for us the cockpit locker/chart table modification was very poorly done and gave us a lot of headache when it was time to improve and eventually redesign the area. The separating bulkhead wasn’t even tabbed (permanently fiberglassed) to the hull and allowed the locker to drain straight into the bilge soaking everything was lying in its path. The chart table would make claustrophobic a 5 years old kid with the resuslt of being perfectly unuseful on board. Finally the cockpit locker door was resting on a very sketchy support that was conceived with the idea of draining extra water sipping through the door sides, but that in fact was a simply terrible half-finished solution that failed completely in its purpose.

Earlier on the projects timeline I adressed the bulkhead problem tabbing it to the hull and making the entire locker a watertight section of our ship. Not communicating anymore with other parts of the boat, the locker will contribute to the buoyancy of the vessel in case water finds its way into the boat. Last spring I also rebuilt the chart table / nav station with the idea of increasing storage and housing the battery bank for our electric motor.

The Lousy cockpit locker drainage system
The lousy cockpit locker drainage system and a pathetic attempt to fix it
A detail of the draining channel as found on Tranquility.
A detail of the draining channel as found on Tranquility.

The drainage channel we found on Tranquility  was one of our least favorite part of the boat but it was also something we couldn’t handle during our first refit in New England, so we just tried timidly to improve it along the way when the real only possible way to fix it was to tear it apart and redo it from scratch. Finally after spending a lot of time designing ideas and procrastinating any concrete action in favor of other projects, I finally started to stare at the problem directly. At the beginning I was in favor of epoxy coated plywood construction, but then my friend Fernando talked me more and more into trying with fiberglass construction. Ultimately fiberglass is for life! After a lot of time spent in woodworking projects for the companionway I figured it was healthy to switch paradigm and tackle a messy fiberglass project. I think I am a messy enough person for such a task.

Mold construction for Fiberglass channels
Mold construction for Fiberglass channels

After looking at examples of drainage channel systems on other boats I finally came out with a design and I decided for angled lateral channel that will allow drainage even when the boat is heeled. Building the  molds for the fiberglass construction wasn’t hard at all as I had some rounded corner molding in my woodpile that happened to be just perfect for the job. Two pieces side by side would form a round shaped channel about one inch and a half wide. I successfully mounted them on two pieces of 3/4 of a inch thick PVC or Plywood screwed together and taped with adhesive packaging tape (cheap and easy to use). Epoxy won’t stick to plastic so if you cover anything with packaging tape or any other plastic wrap it will released the impregnated fiberglass once cured.

Fiberglas molds ready for laminate
Fiberglass molds ready for laminate
Fiberglass channel
Out of the mold fiberglass channel

I then laminated fiberglass cloth and mat onto the molds forming a slightly bigger shape than the desired part. Once the epoxy cured I popped them out of the mold and shaped them to the final measurements using an angle grinder with a cutting disk, before final sanding and cleaning. Some of the channels reminded me of delicious tacos but I restrained myself from eating them.

Fiberglass components of the drainage channel
Components of the drainage channel sanded and cleaned

Together with the three channels I laminated some 90 degrees shaped pieces that helped to fit the parts to the deck for final assembly. Screws held the structure in place while thickened epoxy cured overnight. The following day I removed the screws and engaged a grinding match in the confined space of the locker, making sure to wear all the possible protective clothing and gear for this miserable job. After clean up of both my persona and the locker I proceeded challenging the law of gravity with the messy job of fiberglassing the structure to the deck alternating several layers of fiberglass mat (for waterproofing) and cloth (for structure), and trying my best to avoid the epoxy resin dripping from the overhead.

Screws hold the channels in place while epoxy cures
Screws hold the channels in place while epoxy cures
All the parts are dry-fit before being fiberglassed in place
All the parts are dry-fit before being fiberglassed

With this last upside down job accomplished it was time to fit a lip that will give enough surface for a gasket to make a watertight seal. I had some long and thin pieces of teak lying around on Tranquility (what’s not on Tranquility?) and so I decided to epoxy and fiberglass them around the internal perimeter of the locker. To have a perfect seal with the overlying door I used again thickened epoxy placed on top of the lip. This time I let the law of gravity work for me placing the original lid on top and protecting it with with packaging tape (my new best friend). In this way the still soft thicked epoxy adheres to the door contour forming an even surface of contact after the extra material squeezes out.

The lip for the channel is made with teak strips glassed in place
The lip for the channel is made with teak strips glassed in
Lip is epoxy fitted and then laminated with fiberglass
Lip is epoxy fitted and then laminated with fiberglass

Two half inch sized holes at the lower end of the inboard channels drain the water into the cockpit and then in the ocean through the cockpit scuppers. Next, in this multi-stage multi-level project a whole operation of fairing and sanding will culminate with the paintjob soon to happen on the entire deck. For now I am glad enough I can leave the boat under the rain without having to empty a swamped locker and in perspective I feel confident that less water will find its way in the boat during blue water sailing and foul weather.

Restoring an old companionway: the sea hood

The sea hood is a curious feature on the deck of a sailboat. You can picture it as the shell of  a turtle and the sliding hatch as its head, coming in and out. When open the hatch slides underneath the sea hood, when closed it comes all the way out.

The sea hood covers and protects the opening between the cabin top and the hatch deflecting waves that otherwise will put the hatch under siege making it a very good feature for a blue water boat. Water is so good in finding its way into things that trying to stop it requires the help of multiple agents, and here the sea hood comes into the game.

On Tranquility, our 50 years old Columbia 29 mki, the sea hood is built in solid teak, like the rest of the companionway. Functioning as partial beams the longitudinal elements of the structure strengthen the deck, which on Tranquility is fiberglass laminate with no core, and so it’s a bit springy. Beside being bulky heavy and complex, a fully restored watertight seahood contributes to the sturdiness of a boat.

The project steps are very similar to the ones I described in the sliding hatch post, with the difference that I had to work on the deck instead this time.

The old teak of the companionway

At first I worked caulking all the gaps around the sea hood, using Teak Decking Systems product. The effort has the objective to avoid that water running on deck would sip underneath the wood.

The frame of the sea hood re caulked

After that I proceeded rebuilding the plywood support. Again, I used 1/4 inch plywood because the sea hood has a curve and thicker plywood won’t allow to bend as easily. To reach the desired thickness and strenght I laminated two pieces one on top of the other.

First plywood board installed and ready for laminating. This time I had to use small screws to set the plywood to the frame as there was no way to use clamps. The second plywood board goes on top of it and it’s coated with at least two coats of clear epoxy resin.


Teak strips routed
Teak strips routed

To save some expensive caulking and to make the job easier I routed 1/8 inch slot into the teak strips with a table router I borrowed from Fernando. Fernando is a good friend of mine and a talented guitar maker, check out his work on his website.

Teak strips dry-fit
Teak strips dry-fit

I had to shuffle around the teak strips to find the best match. For how hard I tried to get the most precise fit, the curved surface put some challenges to this job.

New Teak installed and set in place with epoxy resin and thickener

Such an asymmetrical shape required custom ideas to cajole the pieces into shape. In this case some hevy weight and flexible plywood strips did the job.

Caulking operations underway

I proceeded filling the slots using the same caulk product. After taping the wood to make an easier clean-up, I used a cheap caulking gun (still on a budget…) to fill the slots. Following with a spatula I pressed the caulk hard down into the slots working two strips at the time and removing the tape along with the progress.

The finished Sea Hood

A final sanding to remove excess caulk left a smooth surface. I then washed the teak thoroughly with a solution of water (75%) and bleach (25%) plus a couple of tablespoon of Sodium Triphosphate and finally applied three coats of Semco Teck Sealer.

I am glad another piece of the companionway is completed. It’s amazing how complicated it is. With components sliding into each others and pieces that have to be reinstalled in the correct sequence it resembles a puzzle game and I am very glad there are less and less pieces to get to the final picture.