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How to Quickly Paint Your Boat's Hull & Get Back to Sailing

Updated on February 16, 2016
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Robert Beringer is a Florida-based marine journalist who writes for most national sailing, boating, and outdoor magazines.

Up & out she goes
Up & out she goes
These guys really earn their pay.
These guys really earn their pay.
Doing the sanding & painting yourself saves an enormous amount of $$$, but it is nasty, dirty work.
Doing the sanding & painting yourself saves an enormous amount of $$$, but it is nasty, dirty work.

A New Coat of Bottom Paint in Lightning Fast Time


Slower and slower she went: as the months passed in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake, the boat speed of our Catalina 34, Ukiyo, continually went downward until we seriously considered renaming her Three Legged Pig. The culprit, of course, was the myriad barnacles that climb aboard any wetted surface.

We were due for a bottom job, and we meant to do it, but we found ourselves putting it off, and off, and off. For four years.

The lack of speed didn’t bother me so much. After all, if you’re in a rush, you shouldn’t be sailing, right? We would crawl out of our slip in Galesville, sail in tight circles for awhile and drop the hook in some placid creek. Twenty-miles, tops.

But when I went down for the first maintenance scraping dive this spring, what I saw made me feel like a surgeon operating on a terminal cancer patient: the barnacles and algae were so pervasive that the hull looked more like a reef than a keel--virtually every square inch was covered with something alive.

I am the inveterate do-it-yourself type (read: cheap), and found such a boatyard in the HerringHarbor area. After a quick conversation with the office manager, we set a date for the haulout. What follows is a chronology of what happened over the next two frantic weeks as my family and I labored to get our bottom back in shape by the Memorial Day weekend:

DAY 1: The boat rises in the travel lift as the old salts at the yard gather round to see what life under the Chessie looks like. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty. Some guy’s pipe drops out of his mouth and he gapes at my bottom. Two workers groan, and grab the full size scrapers. I grab some coffee and a seat: This is the only part I get to watch and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. A woman next to me cries something unprintable and calls for her husband to have a look. “Who’s ugly old boat is that?” she asks to no one in particular. I pull my cap down and slink away. The fourth deadly sin, sloth, is plain for all to see.

The power wash guy shakes his head and gives me a funny look as he hits her hard at point-blank range. A pungent mix of muck, bottom paint and oxidized fiberglass stream down in rich torrents, and form large puddles of gurry beneath the boat. Thankfully, no EPA inspectors are visiting today.

With putty knife and gloves, I go at the marble-sized barnacles the minute she hits the jackstands. To my extreme relief there are no hull blisters, and the prop, shaft, and rudder are all sound.

DAY 2 & 3: I lack the patience and time to fix the myriad dings, dents, and gouges, so I arrange for the gelcoat pro to come by later in the week. To do a proper color match he’ll need the hull to be clean, so I go at it with a scrubbing pad, hose, and a can of Bartenders Best Friend.

Next I grab the Ryobi orbital sander and send clouds of old red paint billowing in my face and across the windy yard. The bottom paint is designed to dissuade marine organisms from attaching to it, so you can imagine what it does in contact with the human body. I have unwisely chosen glasses instead of goggles. My eyes burn all that night, and must be constantly doused with water.

DAY 4 & 5: A diving mask proves to be the solution to my eye problem, sanding compete by 1800. After replacing the shaft anodes, I go for the putty knife again. The barnacles, even the scraped ones, leave dime-sized foundations on the hull and must be completely removed, all 20,000 of them. Along the bottom of the wing where the steam cleaning did not reach, they have completely coated the keel. Flat on my back I scrape and poke at them until I’m down to the shiny lead.

DAY 6 & 7: The gelcoat guy comes over for an estimate to repair all the docking mishaps of the past few years, some of which are barely visible. Wife and kids surprise me with a visit and a picnic lunch, and I gladly knock off for the day.

DAY 8 & 9: Time to do what we came here for: Oh so carefully the water line tape goes on, then I pull out two of the most expensive gallons of paint I will ever buy and pop the lid off the first.

Long vertical strokes with a roller on an extension pole make this a short, if messy job. At times Mr. Gelcoat and I are literally on top of each other, he sanding gelcoat above, and me painting below. The paint dries quickly and makes a smooth, barnacle busting surface.

DAY 10 & 11: Did I mention I have a job? Five days a week they expect me there, toiling away with the other wage slaves, so everyday at six I drive the 32 miles from the office to the yard in a race to beat the sunset. During dinner onboard I learn that the boat is now infested with a dozen very large, very hungry roaches. Positively revolted, I dispatch them one-by-one, and finally get to bed.

DAY 12 &13: The two cans of paint are toast and I need more, so one of the livaboards sells me an opened can for half-price. I have the jackstands moved to get at the hull they covered.

Talk about plastic surgery. Sir Gelcoat completes his work and has magically erased eight-years of hard sailing off the boat. No question it was money well spent, letting a pro do the job that I would have had to grope my way through.

DAY 14: The last night. Ukiyo hangs in the travel lift with jackstands removed. She gently sways as I scrape the last of the barnacles and paint the very bottom where she rested on the blocks. I fill the water tank and tidy things up for the re-launch in the morning. I spend a while with my paint-covered neighbors wishing them well.

DAY 15: Time to get wet! After I pay the bill, the yard guys come by and fire up the travel lift. Gently she is lowered into the warm brown water and I am reminded to check for water in the bilge. The diesel starts on the first crank, the straps are lowered and I’m on my way homeward, sans barnacles.

Boat should be immediately power washed when removed from water.
Boat should be immediately power washed when removed from water.


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