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Fibre Glass Yacht Construction
What is fiberglass made of?
For the purposes of this article it is beneficial to know some basic facts about how fiberglass boats are constructed, their typical pros and cons and most importantly the visible signs that show up to the boat owner such as stress cracks, delamination, penetration etc. Wait.
How is it cured?
In a nutshell, most polyester resins are made from glycols, organic acids, and reactive diluents (styrene is one). When the catalyst is added, [MEKP usually] Trigger a chain reaction. The mixture forms a series of “crosslinking” reactions that allow the styrene to form “bridges” that link all the chemicals together. The chain reaction runs faster and faster until the glycol/acid chains start to gel into a solid.
Ultimately, all these “cross-linked” bridges form a solid block of plastic that holds the fiberglass cloth (or matrix) firmly in place. When chemicals cross-link together (exothermic reaction), the reaction releases heat. Isn’t it amazing?
Fiberglass hulls generally consist of multiple layers of fiberglass cloth impregnated with polyester, vinyl ester or epoxy resin. This is usually done by building a “female” mold and creating the fiberglass hull in it through a series of subsequent stages:
1. A “female” mold is built to the desired hull shape.
2. Apply a wax release agent to the surface of the mold.
3. First apply a “gel coat” containing polyester resin pigments (colors) to the mold (10-25ml thick). This provides a smooth colored finish to the hull.
4. The “gel coat” then uses a thinner fiberglass cloth as a support, on top of which several layers of heavier cloth are added to form the basic hull.
The hull is then reinforced with more layers of glass and resin, usually in areas under pressure, and the entire hull is sealed with a final layer of clear resin. When the completed hull is released from the mold, the rest of the interior fittings are added, such as roofs, decks, bulkheads and keels. (This doesn’t always work! Different builders do this differently).
Often in fiberglass hulls, wood components are used to reinforce areas such as galleys. Often, wood is exposed to water and swells, eventually leading to rot and decomposition.
Many modern boats are built using cores and resin. These can be polyurethane foam, end grain balsa wood cores and many lightweight racing hulls are using various lightweight “honeycomb” materials.
These materials reduce the weight of the hull, usually with little loss of strength. Also, the use of a “closed cell” foam core in combination with epoxy has safely protected many of these “composite structures” from early failure, but all must be of high quality and standard, especially in deck mounted and Accessories, due to repeated high loads.
Just because a hull is underwater doesn’t necessarily mean it will degrade faster, but in poorly maintained conditions, hidden factors may be at play. The lack of anti-fouling programs allows marine life to thrive. If barnacles are allowed to work undisturbed, they are sure to be gel coat killers!
Naturally, a weed-covered hull hides the dreaded “penetrating blisters” and underwater metal fittings, which, if the right conditions exist, will be damaged by galvanic corrosion. Rudders and struts, shafts are also often overlooked in haste to slide, Usually quick to guard against fouls.
A recent rudder repair I did involved total destruction of the soft core by the dreaded “teredo” worm. The rudders are wrapped in fiberglass, and the worms enter through the pinholes and chew living hell out of the kernels! Nothing is taken for granted!
A word of warning!
If you’re considering buying an older fiberglass yacht, hire a qualified marine surveyor. Unlike you, they are fully trained and experienced to spot any areas that are defective or could cause trouble in the near future.
If you skimp on the money, you have only yourself to blame!
Fiberglass cloth comes in many forms, from the simple “chopped strand mat” to the fancier (and more expensive) aramid-aramid and carbon fiber. All of these fibers have different properties, such as stiffness, strength, and can be used in combination. Examples of these fabrics are woven fabrics; Chopped Strand Mat (CSM) unidirectional, bidirectional and tridirectional stitched fabrics. Alkali-free glass is probably the most commonly used for general repair work.
How does it work?
Most of us are familiar with how basic fiberglass and resin work. Plus, glass cloth is soft, flexible, and can be made into almost any shape. Polyester resin (or any other resin) is a clear viscous liquid that, once mixed with a catalyst (peroxide catalyst, usually MEKP) generates heat (exothermic reaction) and eventually solidifies. Used alone, these tow components are of limited use, but when used together they form powerful alliances and produce fiber reinforced plastics (FRP).
How does it do it?
This incredible physical partnership enables enormous pressures and loads to be transmitted through the “cured” plastic and allows the construction of an outer shell, the hull, of enormous load-bearing capacity.
Sadly, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and while “fiberglass boats” heralded a huge revolution in durable boat construction, time has shown that fiberglass boats are not absolutely maintenance-free. With years of use, hulls experience a lot of wear and tear in the form of bending, flexing, fatigue, sudden impacts, and more. Fatigue cycles cause the hull’s cross-linked “structural chains” to break, resulting in brittleness, cracking and shedding – from internal components laminated to glass-impregnated cloth.
In addition to the physical degradation of the glass/resin bond mentioned above, there are some interesting chemical reactions that together cause the once strong “strength chain” to break. Typically, boat hulls are manufactured under adverse conditions such as high humidity, and if the fiberglass cloth is subjected to excessive moisture, the water contained in it can react with the polyester resin/glass mixture, creating a third unwanted “partner”.
It emerges as a yellowish, highly acidic mixture, which then attacks its own environment and severely weakens the chemical “building blocks” of resin and glass. This leads to a downward spiraling failure chain, wreaking havoc on hull strength in time.
how do you know?
This chemical and physical degradation manifests itself in many different ways. High load stress areas subject to high sudden impact loads (e.g. handrails, pillars, splints, etc.) will develop fine hairline cracks around the base. These in turn allow outside water to enter. The pattern of destruction is then slowly but surely allowed to increase.
Gel-coated blisters can take the form of small “pimples” or air bubbles. There may be one or two or even dozens. Often, when punctured, a foul-smelling yellow acidic substance is found lurking inside. This phenomenon is also known as “bleeding”. Caution: Do not get this substance near your eyes! Wear goggles!
“Hard spots” in the hull due to improper installation of pressurized bulkheads or furniture can cause “hard spots” in the hull that are visible in the form of hard “lines”. Often, the gel coat may develop fine cracks (star cracks) around this area.
In my opinion, this is probably the worst case scenario. Water has been freely absorbed by one or more of the previously described methods, and the damage has increased in such a substantial amount that the glass cloth has completely separated from the resin and the area is completely damaged. This can happen in areas that were initially starved of resin during construction, or even in areas that were “flattened” by over-tightening the through-deck bolts. These areas are soft to the touch or visibly flex when pushed and may swell with internal water.
Other points to note:
Deck hatches – These hatches are subject to sudden, periodic loads. Stress cracking may occur followed by complete failure.
Mast/Deck Fittings – Cracked, warped, discolored gel coat around this area (watch out for chain plate area).
WINCH, HAWSE PIPES – Check for minor cracks.
POP Riveted Area – Check for leaks and pinches.
Fading – Unfortunately, in our area, where some of the most intense UV activity is seen anywhere, fiberglass pigmentation is extremely susceptible. Fading, especially of darker colors, is the result, and while buffing can help, often the only solution is a complete repaint with a two-component or polyurethane paint system.
Scared to death by the previous chapters; now common sense must prevail. What is written may only partially happen, or it may never happen. A lot depends on age, location, and how your boat was built and maintained. As far as maintenance goes, it’s pure folly to never lift a finger and expect your boat to be perfect. Among all the other marvels of modern technology, it is sad that we have not yet invented the self-healing boat!
A regular maintenance schedule is highly recommended, and most, if not all, repairs can be done efficiently by an average handyman if you acquire the proper instructional techniques. There is a wealth of information out there, most of which is available from your glass and resin suppliers. So, turn off the TV and pick up the phone! I stress again, if you have doubts about the condition of your boat or the one you’re thinking of buying, don’t guess, get yourself a marine surveyor and let them do all the research, it’s worth it, I can assure you!
If you liked this article, you can find out more about boat building and building your own boat if you visit the website that can be found in the resources box below.
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