Boat TLC, and Goodbye to Antigua

Sailboats use “anti-fouling” paints on under the water to stop, or at least slow down things growing on the hull. Without the paint, hard growth such as barnacles, and soft growth (plants/sea weed/slime) happily attaches to the hull and grows. The developing forest makes it harder for the boat to move through the water, slowing us down, and can cause real problems if it clogs intakes and outlets for water (things like toilets and engines cooling).

Back in the 18th century, the Royal Navy pioneered the use of copper sheeting to cover the bottoms of their ships, since biological growth doesn’t like copper. 200+ years later and the technology really hasn’t changed that much. In fact, one of the more expensive and long-lived bottom treatments is copper powder mixed in with an epoxy and applied to the hull. Some swear by it, but it certainly has to be applied correctly to work well, and scrubbed regularly to expose fresh copper and keep the bottom clean. For most sailors, including us, the solution is a paint with a high copper content and biocides. Paint is easier to apply and lower cost (but still expensive), at least in the short term. Admittedly it doesn’t feel great to apply something to your boat that is effectively a pesticide/herbicide, and eventually does leach off into the environment. There are better alternatives emerging, though they can be hard to find, and in most countries regulations have been implemented in recent years that have changed the compounds used in the paints in order to lessen the environmental impact. We try and stretch each coat of paint a long as we can, and keeping the boat moving/sailing also helps to slow down the growth.

The last time we put a fresh bottom paint on the boat was when we had her out of the water in Vancouver in 2021, as part of our big refit for cruising. Aside from a bit of a touch up during a haul out in April last year, the bottom paint has remained, and lasted well. Since we shipped the boat to Georgian Bay and started sailing, however, we’ve put on another 5,000+ nautical miles, and even before leaving North Carolina for the Caribbean, we knew that we’d have to find time for a haul-out to refresh the bottom paint.

In fact, not only bottom paint, but the hull above the waterline was also due for some TLC. Navy blue sailboats look beautiful (in our biased view) when gleaming, but the blue gel coat doesn’t seem to stay in its polished and shiny state for long. After having polished and waxed her last April, the shiny blue had slowly developed chalky oxidized patches and a dull colour, and was looking pretty neglected. Hoping to find a technique that would last longer (than the three days of polishing and waxing eight months ago), we started talking to other sailors for suggestions and reading up on products online, eventually settling on the idea of trying a polymer coating with good reviews from those we talked to. It wasn’t available in Antigua, however, so we had to arrange shipping through a freight forwarder from the US, along with a longer list of other boat bits and pieces.

We called around to different boatyards and eventually booked a haul-out date at one that would let us both do our own work and stay on board the boat in the yard (avoiding a $1,000+ hotel bill). And while waiting for supplies, we tackled some other other boatwork jobs, rebedding leaky portlights and polishing stainless fittings that tarnish quickly in the salty, warm conditions here. And along with our chalky hull, the exterior wood on the boat (called “brightwork” in boating terms) also needs some TLC. That will be a process in itself, but we were able to get started on some smaller pieces, sanding and varnishing them to restore their beauty and protect them.

Eventually everything arrived, and after some last minute scrambling to remove the forestay for the boat to fit on the travel lift, Innisfree was up on the hard (the inner stay was still there to support the mast). We spent quite a while walking around under the boat inspecting it all to see the real condition of the old paint (almost completely gone from higher wearing surfaces like the rudder), and where there might be surprises (such as a larger blister in the fiberglass in the rudder that would need to be ground out and filled).

The next ten days were fairly arduous. Lots of cleaning and then sanding to prep the hull below the waterline for bottom paint, then cleaning and more cleaning to prep the gel coat above the waterline for the polymer coating. Antigua doesn’t receive the rainfall that some of the other islands do, and so freshwater is a real challenge for the island (and a hot political issue). With the freshwater in the boat yard on and off (mostly off), we were hauling buckets from a rain catchment system. The job got done, but took longer than expected. Frequent rain storms during the first few days also slowed us down, making for stop/start work outside and turning the yard around the boat into a mud puddle. One morning even had us bracing as a magnitude 6.2 earthquake hit near Guadeloupe. On the boat, on land, everything was shaking and we were both immediately worried the boat was going to fall off the stands! Seconds later it all stopped, but it was a long while before our heartrates slowed.

Quite a few friends from the Salty Dawg Rally generously offered to have us over in the evenings for dinner and (perhaps most importantly) a shower, and even a chance to sleep off the boat for a couple of nights. It was nice to get away from the heat of the boatyard and the little no-see-um bugs that found their way in past our screens at night. They’ve all “been there” as well and understood what we were going through.

One week in and we had begun carefully wiping on the polymer coating on the gel coat. It’s fast drying, so you work on one section of hull at a time, applying 5 coats with only a couple of minutes between them. After the first few coats, the shine really started to appear, and with a bit of practice we became pretty good at wiping on the coating without streaks or drops. The process is certainly a lot less effort than days of work with the electric polisher, and the immediate results are better – the shine was more even and it was a lot easier to work in the corner areas like the bowsprit. The big test is going to be to see how it lasts in the Caribbean sun, but I have to say we are really happy with how it looks now. I don’t think Innisfree’s hull has looked this good in the time we’ve owned her.

The final piece to complete was getting two coats of new bottom paint on the boat. While coats of paint dried, I started to tackle another boat project that had been lingering since Quebec City. One of the fiberglass supports for the wood planking on our bowsprit had broken, and the fiberglass repair I made in Rimouski didn’t last very long. At the suggestion of Gozzard Yachts, we instead had new stainless L brackets made for us in Annapolis, and the plan was to cut off the old fiberglass supports on both sides, replacing them with the new stainless ones. So, while Glenda was wrapping up sanding on the hull, or while the paint was drying between coats, I spent time up on a ladder cutting off the old supports and locating, drilling, and bedding in the new stainless brackets. I think the turned out looking pretty nice, and the bowsprit planking feels stiff and secure.

Our launch was delayed a day because the travel lift operator was sick, and then his replacement was out of practice, leading to a nervewracking couple of hours watching the boat get maneuvered back and forth to line up with the slipway into the water. Back floating, we found our way back to anchor in Falmouth Harbour, nerves frayed and exhausted, but relieved and happy to be done.

It was finally time to get moving from Antigua, and after a day at anchor we sailed around to Jolly Harbour to do one last provisioning, to get a badly needed haircut for me, and then check out at customs. Antigua wasn’t quite done with us yet, however, and our Torqeedo electric outboard motor died as we were headed back to the boat. This was unfortunately the third time it had failed since arriving in Antigua. Having pulled it apart twice already, the problem stems from water penetrating into the pod at the bottom of the unit, which houses the electric motor and gearbox. I don’t know if it’s the simple o-rings between the plastic ends of the pod and the aluminum motor base, or the seal around the prop shaft that is leaking, but once water gets in there the motor and motor control circuit board are fully exposed and unsurprisingly things start to short. The previous two times damage wasn’t permanent and cleaning out the water and resealing was enough to get it working again. This time, sadly, traces on the circuit board were blown – not repairable.

We ordered replacement parts which my cousin will bring with her to Martinique in February, but this failure crystallized something we’d been thinking about since buying Innisfree – whether we should have a more powerful (faster, longer range) gas outboard. The next morning when we had planned to leave, we started calling around in Antigua for a suitable gas outboard. Nothing was going to be available for a least two weeks, and the prices seemed high. Not wanting to wait around anymore, we decided we’d head for the larger city (and chandleries) of Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe and look there.

After roughly two months in Antigua, it felt great to set our sails again, point the bow south across the ocean swells, and watch the mountains of Montserrat pass by and the peaks of Guadeloupe appear ahead.

On our way to Guadeloupe