Monday, July 18, 2011

The Triton Bottom Paint Death March

How we redid our catamaran's bottom paint,
added an epoxy barrier coat,
pushed ourselves beyond exhaustion,
and abused all our friends.

Friends help you move.   - Abraham Lincoln.
Good friends help you move the body.   - Al Capone.
Great friends help you paint your boat.   - Robb Triton.

Triton up on blocks in Trinidad, when we first bought her.
You can see that I'd just finished putting a layer of red paint
over what turned out to be several layers of blue bottom.
Is your life a bit too interesting?  Or perhaps you just have too many friends and/or too much money?  Maybe you're getting too much sleep and looking for a way to run yourself down a bit?  Well look no further folks, we've got a solution to all that's plaguing you!!

First, buy a catamaran, preferably a large one, that needs new bottom paint.  Do make sure that there are at least seven or eight layers of old paint already on there, so that you'll eventually need to grind it all off before you can put the new paint back on.  Then, move your boat to California, where the environmental protection laws require you to use absurdly inefficient and costly mechanisms that require enormous physical effort and a vast work force to achieve your goal.   Oh, and while you are at it, decide at the last moment that what you really want to do is grind all the bottom paint completely off, right down to the gelcoat, so that you can add a couple of coats of two-part epoxy barrier paint before re-painting your boat. 

Triton with her original blue bottom paint- we'd already
easily scraped off all the red paint I had put on in Trinidad,
leading us to a false sense of security.
That is how we spent our summer vacation.  And we also wanted to rid ourselves of any unwanted cash, sleep or friends.  What better way to achieve all these goals than to ask everyone we knew to come help us work on Triton, our 45' catamaran?   Now I should point out that when we bought the boat, we knew it had several layers of bottom paint already (six to be precise, all in blue) and I'd quickly thrown on a couple of coats of red on in Trinidad (before we sailed her back to S.F., back in 2007) so we knew all that would eventually have to come off, but we had no idea how grueling a task it would turn out to be.  [editor's note:  It is no coincidence that the first four letters in the word paint are pain.]

The actor Edward Kean, on his death bed, is claimed to have said "dying is easy . . . comedy is hard".   Well, the sailing equivalent of that would be "painting is easy, grinding is hard".   When they say "Ignorance Is Bliss", they are talking about folks who've only ever put paint on, but never removed it.

I think I spent all of three days, in the hot tropic sun of Trinidad, to slap two layers of bottom paint on Triton, and I was by myself.  I thought "Taking it off shouldn't be much worse.  How hard could this be?"  I think you'll find that question running through many of my blog entries.  Usually followed by a heart-wrenching tale of woe.

Mike has never fully recovered from the ordeal
of painting his own boat.  He still twitches when
ever anyone mentions it.
Did I mention that the boat in question is a 45' catamaran?  I bring up the length not to brag, but only because that is, by most sailor's standards, a very large boat!  I also point out that it is a catamaran (not one, but two hulls!) because, when you have to first scrape off said paint, it really means it's far more than twice as big as that.  It is more like 100,000 times as big!!  At least it feels that way.

My dear friend Mikey [one of the original Triton crew] scraped and painted the bottom of his 21' monohull over the course of about a week at the same marina.  He had half a dozen friends helping him, and was exhausted by the end.  We foolishly ignored his experience and thought we would have no problem.  We expected to have at least three times as many (and maybe more) show up to help, so we were confident we could kick this job out in no time.  Perhaps coincidentally, Mikey was busy that week, which should have clued us in. [editor's note: in the end it turned out that over twenty-five people came to our assistance, all of them worked tirelessly, and some of them are still speaking to us.]

Our loyal, supportive friends.
We are not worthy.
But like all doomed projects, somewhere along the line you convince yourself of something that is just patently false-- like filling a zeppelin with highly explosive hydrogen gas is a good idea for commercial air travel, or that launching a space shuttle with frozen O-rings is a reasonable safety precaution, or that you can remove a 1/8" thick sheet of copper infused paint from 700 square feet of boat in less than a man-year.  All of these ideas end in fireballs, and usually none of the crew survives.
Jen after just two hours of grinding.
It got worse.

So, we needed to put paint on our catamaran.  We knew that was going to be a big job, but we figured we'd be able to depend on our vast network of friends to help us, which we hoped might reduce the cost a bit by "doing it yourself".  We had a large assortment of friends who've been there for us in the past, and we were confident that we could pull this off.  Little did we know that the net savings would be offset by the increased health risks of sleep deprivation, penury through boat-yard micro-purchases [i.e. being nickle and dime'd to death] and the negative health effects of breathing toxic paint dust.

Triton up on the hard, we established a base camp over to the right with a
  shade awning and a cooler full of cool and  refreshing drinks, and snacks.
  Plus lots of camp chairs!  This is quite possibly the only reason the crew
  didn't mutiny.  If you are going  to enlist your friends, make sure they are
 well fed, better hydrated, and have a comfortable  place to sit in the shade.
But our first task was finding a marina that could haul us, somewhere within sailing distance of Emeryville. After much searching, we eventually brought our boat to the Napa Valley Marina, just up the Napa River, in beautiful Napa, CA. They are (as best we could determine) the only non-industrial boat yard  in the bay area capable of hauling our boat. At just under 25' wide, there just aren't that many boat yards that can handle us on the west coast. . . that don't require a trip to L.A. or San Diego.  There were  some real headaches in arranging a date to make this happen [see our post titled Napa Valley Marina] but we eventually managed to arrange a date in July and sailed up there the day before.

There is nothing so much fun as
messing around in boats.
To haul large catamarans the marina uses a rail car with a superstructure welded on top, that's it in the picture to the left and above, with Triton hanging from it.  They lower it down (on  railroad tracks) into the water and float the boat over, then pull the rail car (and the boat) up and out of the water by means of a massive winch and cable system. That means that the boat is dangling ten feet up in the air, but it also means both hulls are completely exposed and it was easy to get to anything that needed work, provided you are willing to stand on a wooden plank suspended between two stands that had all the rigidity of President Bush's stance on new taxes.

John ate more dust than
Wile. E. Coyote
Once we were up out of the water, we thought removing the old paint from the hulls would be quite easy, as both "amas" (the hull-shaped parts of the boat) are suspended in mid-air.  Impressive if you've never seen it done before.  As with most things that are referred to as "she", nothing is easy.

How Blue Beard got his name.
If you are anticipating doing this kind of job yourself, I'd suggest two things.  First, think hard about adding an epoxy barrier coat (or three) to your hull if it doesn't already have it (this will help prevent boat blisters), and second, pay someone else to take the old paint off.  It is a horrible job and I'm glad I'll never have to do anything like that again in my life.   To say that this was a rough job is an understatement.  It is a horrible job, and you will hate every minute of it after about the third day.   There is a reason why child labor laws were enacted, and I think a large part of it is because many boaters have children.  I know that if I had any kids, I'd have made them scrape paint until their beards grew in, even the girls. [editor's note: The above is an understatement.  Did I say third day?  AnnMarie insists it only took three hours.]
Are we having fun yet?

And to make matters worse, the state of California has decided that scraping off paint is a threat to marine wildlife, and therefore you can only do so in a controlled fashion.  The controlled fashion is a grinding wheel attached to a vacuum cleaner.  Think R2D2's retarded cousin, but with a mean streak.   These things are loud, heavy, cumbersome and sprayed copper sulfate dust everywhere.  If you weren't careful, some even ended up inside the vacuum cleaner itself.  I always wondered what you got if a jack hammer mated with a bench grinder, whose mother was an industrial Hoover.

Oh sure, it looks cute and friendly, but this little beast is pure
 demon spawn from hell.  You have to use special sandpaper
 with a Velcro backing, except that half the grinders 
we got 
 didn't hold the sandpaper.  In the end we just glued them on.
Using these devices was one of the most frustrating things any of us had ever done.  You would finally get into a groove with the grinder, and start actually taking paint off, when the disk would tear itself off the backing plate and fly away. That meant you're having to climb down the ladder, go find the disk (it was usually under the cradle in some difficult to reach place) and then you had to glue it back on again, which took several minutes.  But we're not bitter.
Believe it or not, there is a beautiful, sexy
woman underneath all those bandages. I just
don't know why she is still living with me.

And because there is dust flying everywhere, you need to wear enough protective clothing to operate an asbestos mine.  This is neither comfortable, nor attractive, unless you were going for that Claude Rains look.  Not wearing the gear meant you were, after a few minutes of grinding, completely covered in a brightly colored toxic dust.  Looking at this as a Libertarian, who believes you should have the right of self determination and responsibility for one's choices, I got to choose between death from sun stroke, or lung failure.

A very blue Chuck.
Or perhaps nerve failure.  Holding the grinder for any length of time, in any position, was exhausting, but especially if you were working overhead.  The constant vibration eventually gets to you and we all began to experience a certain amount of tingling and numbness in our hands.  Our friend Fracas developed a technique where he suspended the grinder from a bungee cord, which helped relieve some of the strain, but I think OSHA would take a dim view of operating heavy machinery at the end of an elastic band.

As the days wore on, the symptoms would occur sooner and sooner.  This is not a good sign.  We were not having fun, and it probably meant we were causing permanent nerve damage.  There is nothing about this in the glossy ads for boat ownership, and you never hear about this from the yacht salesman.  AnnMarie mentioned this fact repeatedly.

Kids don't try this at home!  Operating
a grinder attached to a sling shot isn't
 for the faint of heart.
We came to despise the grinders.  Not only did we hate using the Marine version of the Flowbie (as we not-so-affectionately called it) but they were expensive too!  We had to rent them from the yard -you can't use your own or we'd have bought several, then returned them for more industrial ones, then returned those and asked if they had anything bigger and faster, perhaps those machines they use to remove asphalt from the road?  Plus there weren't enough to go around.  We wanted to rent at least four, and we were lucky if, on any given day, we could get three working units, which is another story entirely. [see Napa Valley Marina post]

Barb the wonder bunny!
And to add salt to the wound, the Velcro backing on the grinder head was worn off, so that the sandpaper disks wouldn't stick and we needed to use glue to keep them on.  We went through four tubes of the glue intended for the non-Velcro style disks, and had a stack of used disks six inches high when we were done.

Also, the disks themselves were very expense.  If you are foolish enough to do this job yourself, be advised that it is far cheaper to buy the sanding disks in bulk somewhere other than the marina, as you are going to use an English-Standard-Intercourse-Tonne of the them.  [editor's note: English-Standard-Intercourse-Tonne is the registered trademark of Her Imperial Majesty and may not be used without permission, especially if you are part of the EU, which uses the metric version.]

J.D. is our hero.  She worked harder than guys
twice her size, and still rocked the place.  I'm
amazed more people didn't fall off scaffolds
for not watching what they were doing.
Now, to be fair, we screwed up.  What we should have done was just paid the yard to do the work.  They probably would have done a better job, faster, and for about the same amount of money in the long run, when you consider what it cost us for the months of therapy afterwards.   AnnMarie still twitches whenever she hears a vacuum cleaner start up.  And we really didn't factor in the cost of materials - you'll want to have at least one respirator per active helper, plus goggles, ear muffs, gloves, head covering, coveralls, bunny suits, etc. for everyone working on the project, or standing within 100 yards of it.

That this woman is still
speaking to me is amazing.
Plus, you'll look a right bork wearing all the gear.  Now, to be fair, some folks can still pull off this look (JD managed it quite well) but your average friend is going to be hot, uncomfortable and relatively unproductive after about four hours.  And you'll spend a significant amount of your own time just keeping the project moving forward.  There will be constant problems, your friends will not understand simple instructions (like "Please don't sand a hole through my boat") and wil tend to make gouges in the fiberglass if they aren't careful.

All that will take away from your ability to get anything accomplished yourself.  Being a foreman is a full time job, which means you won't get any actual work done, and you'll be hard pressed not to want to start yelling at people who are only trying to help.  Yet another reason to let the pros at Napa Valley do the work.  They know how, and won't make costly mistakes, like promising your better third you'd take her out for a nice dinner, and then falling asleep in front of all your friends instead.  This is not the best way to endear yourself to the love of your life, especially if she has just spent the day being miserable on your behalf.

Chuck & Susie chat with Fracas while I snore through my
promise of a hard-earned dinner for AnnMarie.
John Roller - one of the many saviours
 of our project!  We would still be
 grinding if it wasn't for his help.
In retrospect, we now realize that part of the problem was how much progress we made the first day.  The first two layers of red paint (the stuff I had put on in Trinidad) came off so quickly that it made us think the job would go much faster than it did.  We'd had lots of folks show up that first weekend, and were running the grinders continuously, with four or five people rotating through a given machine, so that they were never sitting idle.  The boat had been red on the bottom when we hauled it out, and after two days, it was mostly blue, so it looked like we were zipping alone and would be done in no time, but what we really did was the easy part.

Unfortunately, the remaining bottom paint was six layers thick, and baked on.  I think the space shuttle tiles would be easier to get off.  It was twice as hard to grind, and three times as thick.  And there were less of us.  Most of our friends had left, and only the few, the proud, the marine lunatics remained.  While we are very, very grateful to everyone who helped, it was ultimately the folks who showed up day after day that made this task possible.  We can't thank them enough!   JD, John, Felix, Terri, Ed & Diana all came back over and over again to help, and that made a huge difference for our moral.

Joe & John beat back the blues.
We persevered on, ignoring the enormity of the job, despite the warnings of John [crew on the leg from Cabo to San Diego trip], a professional painting contractor, who (politely but firmly) suggested we try a chemical stripper.  We started out by buying a gallon of the stuff, which seemed to work well.  We then got a 5 gallon bucket of the stuff, and wished we had done so right from the start.

You paint it on and wait a few hours, keeping the surface slightly moist, then scrape off the paint.  No grinding, or at least, not as much.  It would take off about four layers of paint per application.  For a boat our size and condition, I'm guessing you would need about 15 gallons of the stuff to do the whole boat, and probably a high pressure washer would help, but it would all be worth the cost.   Had we been smart, we would have used this on the boat before anyone showed up to grind, then reapplied it after the first wave of volunteers when home for the day.   It may have made the job go much quicker, and it would have helped save our backs.
Scott never stopped working!

We don't quite know how she managed it, but Barbara's
 coverall remained clean throughout her grueling efforts.
We learned a lot of very important lessons, like hire someone else to do the dirty work, and use your friends for the things that don't require back breaking effort.  More importantly, you are going to blow through all of your friends for a very long time.  Any favors you had, you'll have used them up.  So think carefully before you go there.  On the bright side, you'll definitely know who your friends are.  We were amazed at how many folks came out, and how many came back again to help some more.
Terri needs to get out more.

Eventually we ground the boat down to the gel-coat.  It was grueling work, and each day we crashed exhausted into a bed that was twenty feet above sea level, only to wake up in a freezing cold boat surrounded in fog, with a 100 yard dash to the bathrooms.

At this point we've got the bottom mostly scraped clean, just a few hard to reach areas around the stern, and are about to patch up any small dents or pockmarks we find, slap on the epoxy barrier coat, then throw on a couple of new layers of bottom paint.  We're way behind schedule, and way over budget.  But that shouldn't be a surprise if you own a boat.

In the meantime, my hands are destroyed.  It was weeks before the blue dust exfoliated from my skin, I've no doubt taken several years off my life, and ingested enough toxins to have permanently altered my DNA.  I'm hoping for new super powers from this, preferably the one where I can see into the future and avoid death march boat projects.
But if there is anything good that came out of this project, we learned that the cruising life, with all its setbacks and demands, will probably be a cakewalk compared to what we've just gone through.  AnnMarie & I still had fun doing very hard work.  No matter how crazy the days became, how far behind schedule we fell, how exhausted we were, we still had friends there for us, we were there for each other, we laughed continuously, and we loved being together through it all.  You can't ask for more in life.  Well, actually, you can, like enough money to hire someone else to do all the work, but then we probably wouldn't appreciate it as much later on.  At this point, that's a risk I'm willing to take.

We'll cover finishing the bottom paint job in part two of this entry.

[editor's note: No one died during the first phase of this effort.  That may not sound like much to you, but it came as a major shock to the author.]

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