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Fibre Glass Yacht Construction
What is fiberglass made of?
For the purposes of this article, it is helpful to understand some basic facts about fiberglass boat construction, their typical strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, what are the visible signs that the owner will notice, such as stress cracks, delamination. , osmosis and so on.
How does it cure?
In short, most polyester resins consist of a glycol, an organic acid, and reactive diluents (styrene being one). When adding a catalyst [MEKP usually] a chain reaction is set off. The mixture forms a series of “cross-linking” reactions that allow the styrene to form “bridges” that bind all the chemicals together. The chain reactions proceed faster and faster until the glycol/acid chains begin to gel into a solid mass.
Eventually, all of these “cross-linked” bridges form a solid plastic mass that holds the fiberglass fabric (or matrix) firmly in place. In this reaction, heat is released as the chemicals cross-link (exothermic reaction). Amazing, isn’t it?
Fiberglass boat hulls typically consist of multiple laminations (or layers) of fiberglass impregnated with polyester, vinyl ester, or epoxy resin. To do this, a “female” mold is usually built and created inside the fiberglass body in the following steps:
1. The “female” form is built according to the required body shape.
2. A waxy release agent is applied to the surface of the mold.
3. First, “gel varnish” containing polyester resin pigment (color) is applied to the mold (10-25 ml thick). This gives the body a smooth colored finish.
4. The “gel coat” is then covered with a thinner fiberglass cloth, then several layers of heavier clothing are added to form the main body.
The hull is then usually reinforced with more layers of glass and resin in the stressed areas, and the entire hull is sealed with a final layer of clear resin. The remaining interior details such as the roof, decks, bulkheads and keel are added when the finished hull is released from the mold. (This is not always the case! Different builders vary this).
Often fiberglass hulls have used wood components to reinforce areas such as galleys etc. Often wood comes into contact with water and expands, eventually causing rot and decay.
Many modern boats are built with inner cores and resins. These can be polyurethane foam, end grain balsa cores, and many lightweight racing bodies use a variety of lightweight honeycomb materials.
These materials reduce body weight, often with very little loss of strength. Also, the use of closed cell foam cores combined with epoxy resins has protected many such “composite structures” from early failure, but all must meet high quality and standards, especially when it comes to deck fittings and accessories. repeated high load.
Just because a hull is underwater doesn’t necessarily mean it will degrade faster, but with poor maintenance, hidden factors can play a role. The lack of anti-fouling procedures allows marine growth to proliferate. Crusts are sure gel coat killers if left to work undisturbed!
Of course, the weed-covered hull hides the dreaded “osmosis blisters” and underwater metal fittings can be damaged by galvanic electrical corrosion under the right conditions. Rudders and struts, as well as shafts, are often overlooked when a high-speed slide occurs, usually as a quick failsafe.
The dreaded monsters
I recently did a steering repair that involved the complete destruction of the soft inner core by the dreaded “teredo” worm. The steering wheel was covered in fiberglass and the worm had entered through the pin and chewed the hell out of the core! Don’t take anything for granted!
A word of warning!
If you are considering purchasing an older style fiberglass yacht, use a qualified marine surveyor. Unlike you, they are fully trained and experienced to spot any areas that are defective or will cause problems in the near future.
If you’re skimping on those dollars, you’ve only got yourself to blame!
There are many different types of fiberglass cloths available, from the simple “chopped fiber mat” to the more exotic (and expensive) Kevlar aramids and carbon fibers. All these fibers offer different properties such as stiffness, strength and can be combined in use. Examples of these fabrics include woven fabric; chopped fiber mat (CSM) unidirectional, biaxial and triaxial stitched fabrics. E-glass is probably most often used for general repair work.
How does it work?
Most of us are familiar with how basic fiberglass and resins work. Separately, glass cloth is soft, flexible and can be molded into almost any shape. Polyester resin (or any other) is a clear, sticky liquid that, after mixing with a catalyst (a peroxide catalyst, usually MEKP), generates heat (an exothermic reaction) and eventually solidifies. Individually, these towing components have limited applications, but when used together they form a formidable composite and produce Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP).
How does it do that?
This incredible physical partnership allows enormous stresses and loads to be transferred from the “hardened” plastic and allows the construction of shells of enormous load-bearing capacity, i.e. the hull of the boat.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and while “fiberglass boats” have heralded a huge revolution in long-lasting boat construction, time has shown that fiberglass boats are not absolutely maintenance free. With years of use, boat hulls experience a lot of wear and tear in the form of bending, buckling, fatigue, sudden impacts, etc. Fatigue cycling can cause the hull’s cross-linked “structural chains” to break, causing weakness, cracking and disintegration. -lamination of glass-impregnated cloths from internal components.
In addition to the physical deterioration of the glass/resin bond mentioned, there are also some interesting chemical reactions that can cause once-solid “chains of strength” to break. Often the hull is made under adverse conditions such as high humidity and if the fiberglass fabric has been excessively wet, the water in it reacts with the polyester resin/glass mixture, creating a third unwanted “partner”.
It takes the form of a yellowish, highly acidic mixture, which then attacks its environment and severely weakens the chemical “building blocks” of resin and glass. This causes a downward spiraling chain of destruction that over time causes a catastrophe in hull strength.
How can you tell?
This chemical and physical deterioration manifests itself in many and varied ways. High stress areas subjected to high sudden impact loads such as handrails, stanchions, clamps, etc. will develop fine hairline cracks around the base. These in turn allow the entry of external water. The destruction pattern is then allowed to grow slowly but surely.
Blisters on the gel coat may be in the form of small “pimples” or bubbles. There may be one or two or even dozens of them. A smelly yellow acidic substance is often found lurking inside when pricked. This phenomenon is also called “osmosis”. Caution: Do not let this substance get near the eyes! Wear safety glasses!
A “hard spot” on the hull due to a tight bulkhead or poor fitment of furniture can cause a “hard spot” seen as a hard “line” on the hull. Often the gel polish can be finely cracked (star cracks) around this area.
In my opinion, this is the worst case scenario. Water has been freely absorbed by one or more of the previously described methods and the damage has increased to such an extent that the glass cloth has completely separated from the resin and the area is completely damaged. This can happen in areas that were initially resin deficient during construction, or even in areas that have been “squeezed” due to over-tightening the thru-deck bolts. These areas are tender to the touch or pliable when pushed and may swell. with internal water.
Other areas to pay attention to:
DECK HATCHES – These are subject to sudden cyclic loads. A voltage gap may occur, followed by a complete failure.
MAST/DECK ATTACHMENTS – Cracks, warping, discoloration of gelcoat around area (observe chainplate areas).
WINCHES, HAWSE PIPES – Check for hairline cracks.
POP RIVETED AREAS – Check for leaks and crushing.
ACCESS – Unfortunately, UV is the most intense in our part of the world and fiberglass pigmentation is very susceptible to it. The result is fading, especially on darker colors, and while polishing can help, a complete repaint with two-component or polyurethane paint systems is often the only solution.
The Final Word
Having been scared half to death by the previous chapters; common sense must prevail now. What is written may happen only partially or maybe never. A lot depends on age, location, and how your boat is built and maintained. It’s utter folly to never lift a finger in terms of maintenance and assume your boat is perfect. Among all the other wonders of modern technology, unfortunately we haven’t invented the self-healing boat!
A regular maintenance schedule is strongly recommended and most, if not all, repairs can be done efficiently by the average handyman once you have acquired the proper instructions. There is a lot of information out there, much of which you can get from glass and resin suppliers. So, turn off that TV and pick up the phone! Again, if you’re in doubt about the condition of your boat or the boat you’re considering buying, don’t second guess yourself, get a surveyor and let them do all the research. It’s worth it, I can assure you. you!
If you enjoyed this article, you can find out a lot more about boat building and building your own boat by visiting the website found in the resource box below.
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