When to Retire Your Boat
By Tamia Nelson
April 8, 2008
It’s been a long winter, but the ice is breaking up now, and paddlers throughout Canoe Country are shaking off their winter torpor and looking forward to getting back on the water, if only for a day. There’s no better time to give your gear a good going-over, either. Nothing lasts forever, and boats are no exception. It would be a shame to miss the first part of the season because an old friend let you down, wouldn’t it?
But that begs the most important question. Just how do you tell when it’s time to retire a boat? That’s not an easy question to answer. There’s no mandatory retirement age, after all. The decision is necessarily subjective. In weighing risk against benefit, or sense against sentiment, each of us strikes a different balance. I’ve known paddlers who took wood-canvas canoes with cracked ribs and torn covers down some of the gnarliest whitewater runs in the East. And I’ve seen folks put a boat up for sale after the first deep scratch. Still, even the most subjective judgments can be helped along by a little objective analysis. A boat’s useful working life—however you choose to define “useful”—depends on many things. The quality of materials and workmanship, to begin with, along with the boat’s subsequent history: how it was used (or abused), where it was stored, and how conscientiously it was maintained.
A well-made boat that’s used skillfully, transported safely, stored carefully, and regularly maintained will last much longer than one that’s been “rode hard and put away wet.” That’s only common sense. It’s also an easy call to retire any boat that suffers a catastrophic accident. If you’ve watched your canoe broach on a rock, then break up and float downstream in pieces, you’re probably right to write it off as a dead loss. What about the less obvious cases, though? How do you decide when to part with a boat that’s served you loyally for many years? Well, I can’t offer any hard-and-fast rules, but this much at least is clear: it’s best to begin by giving your old friend a comprehensive checkup. You won’t need any special tools, just an hour or two of free time and a place to work, plus a good flashlight and a notebook. And there’s no time like the present. So let’s get started, beginning with…
The Hull Story
No matter what it’s made of, a boat is really just a hole in the water. And it’s the boat’s hull that keeps the water in its place. We’ll begin there. Place the boat on a level surface, right side up. Stand back a bit from one end, squat down, and sight along the whole length. Is the hull fair? In other words, are the curves smooth? Good. Now line up the bow and stern, and compare the boat’s port and starboard (left and right) halves. Are they symmetrical? They should be. Next, turn the boat over, supporting it in cradles or on sawhorses. Sight down the keel line. Does the keel describe a smooth convex curve? (Some keels are straight, except at the ends. This is fine in any boat that will be paddled where tracking is more important than turning. But a concave or “hogged” keel is almost always bad news.)
Now it’s time to get superficial. In other words, it’s time to look at the surface of the hull, inside and out, including the decks (if any). Actually, “look” is a misnomer. Your eyes aren’t the best tool for the job, though you’ll have to rely on them under the decks and in deep compartments. You’ll need a flashlight in these dark corners, too. But use your hands when and where you can. Feel for any roughness or irregularity. And what are you searching for, exactly? That depends on what your boat is made of…
Laminated Plastic Hulls A boat built from fiberglass- or Kevlar®-reinforced plastic should be checked for localized bulging or other signs of delamination. If the layup is transparent or translucent, you may notice haze—or even frank condensation—in areas where moisture has infiltrated between layers of fabric. Then, once you’ve finished your first go-round, gently flex the flats of the hull and deck by pressing on them with your palm. If they flex and snap back noiselessly, all is well, but a spongy feel or a crackling sound can mean trouble.
Thermoplastic Hulls All plastics become brittle with age and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, and thermoplastics (ABS and polyethylene, for example) are no exception. Early signs of damage include chalkiness and a network of hairline cracks. Now try the flex test. If the hull springs back immediately and returns to its original contour, you’re in luck. If not, it may be time to limit your old friend to trips on Golden Pond.
Aluminum Canoes I like “tin tanks.” While they don’t slide over rocks with the ease and aplomb of their plastic counterparts, they hold up very well under everyday wear and tear. But even a tank has to be retired sometime, and an annual inspection is always a good idea. Don’t be put off by the dulling of the showroom shine. It’s normal. In fact, it’s caused by an oxide coat that actually protects the underlying metal. Unless appearance means more to you than function, leave it be. Dents can be a problem, however. They cause drag, and some conceal small cracks or holes. Luckily, most dents can be hammered out—it’s a job best done by someone with experience—and any holes patched.
Chemical corrosion is a much more insidious problem. Aluminum is a very reactive metal, and aluminum canoes that have been stored on concrete floors or left on the ground for long periods of time may slowly be eaten away. The signs? Etching of the metal and pinhole leaks. The rivets are another potential source of trouble, as is the invisible, rubber-like gasket along the keel. Missing rivets can be replaced, but replacing a keel gasket is a factory job. The upshot? A tin tank that’s begun to leak at the keel is probably ready for retirement.
Wooden Boats These include traditional wood-canvas canoes and canvas-on-frame kayaks (including faltboots, or foldboats), as well as “strippers” and boats made from plywood. Although some wood-canvas canoes are well into their second century now, it’s important to remember that wet wood rots. (In fact, some centenarian canoes have very little original wood left. You’ve probably heard the one about grandpappy’s ax: a hundred years old and still going strong. Of course, it’s had two new heads and three new helves, but… Many veteran wood-canvas canoes are like that.) In any case, if you have one of these beautiful boats, look for early indications of rot (discolored or pulpy wood, say), and be alert to any sign of water infiltration. The good news? Wood boats—at least traditional wooden boats with canvas covers—are just about infinitely repairable. (Grandpappy’s ax again!) And the bad? Such repairs are a job for an expert.
Inflatable Canoes and Kayaks Inflatables have to hold air, so any abrasion or snag in the fabric is a danger sign. Pump your boat up—pump the seats up too—and leave it for a couple of hours, somewhere out of the sun. No leaks? Good. Now inspect every corner and crevice. Pay special special attention to the seams. Punctured tubes are usually easy to patch, but repairing a ruptured seam ranges from difficult to impossible. Contact the manufacturer for advice.
OK. We’ve checked the hull and deck(s). Now it’s time to…
The hull may be the heart of your boat, but it’s never a good idea to neglect the rest. It’s all important. Here’s a brief checklist to guide you:
Gunwales Are all the fasteners (rivets or screws) in place? Is each gunwale free from cracks, kinks, and sharp edges? And—if your gunwales are wood—do they show signs of rot? Is the varnish in good shape? Look at the underside of the gunwales, too. That’s often where rot sets in first. Kayakers don’t usually think of their boats as having gunwales, but that’s only half true. Many kayaks have side seams where the hull joins the deck. These also warrant close inspection (see below).
Thwarts Thwarts are essential structural members. Are the fasteners tight? Any signs of rot? And what about the varnish?
Bulkheads You probably eyeballed these when you checked the decks earlier. Take another look now—you’ll need your flashlight—and verify the integrity of the side seams (if any) while you’re at it. Check all hatches and seals, too, and if your boat is a canoe be sure you examine the underside of the short bow and stern decks carefully. Water can pool here whenever a boat is stored or transported, and it’s often the first place for rot or delamination to set in.
Cockpit and Seat(s) Is the cockpit rim smooth and free from cracks? Is the seat securely anchored? Are the backrest and knee braces in good shape? How about the foot braces? Canoeists: Read “thigh straps” and “toe blocks” for knee braces and foot braces—and be sure to test the quick-releases on the straps! Check your seats and saddles, as well. Farwell got a nasty surprise last fall when the cane seat in his pack canoe let go with a bang! Don’t let this happen to you.
Everything Else If it’s on your boat, it’s there for a reason. Check it! Rudder and pedals, grab loops, tie-downs, deck rigging, bilge pumps, mast step (and mast and sail)… They’re all important, right? Right!
All done? Good. Now comes the hard part: deciding if it’s time to say goodbye. And this decision rests on the…
If your boat’s hull is badly damaged, brittle, delaminating, or deformed, it’s probably ready for retirement. Then again, it really is your call. Almost anything can be repaired—for a price. And almost any risk can be ignored if sentiment weighs heavily enough in the balance. Of course, this too can have a cost, and the price can be very high indeed. So—should you retire your boat? I can’t make that decision for you. All I can do is suggest how I balance risk and reward. Here goes:
I think it’s time to say goodbye if a boat has…
- Extensive structural damage
- Extensive rot (wooden boats)
- Extensive delamination (fiberglass and Kevlar® boats)
- A failing keel gasket (aluminum canoes)
- Noticeable deformation
- A blown seam (inflatables)
On the other hand, I wouldn’t think twice about keeping a boat that had any (or all) of the following problems, though I wouldn’t lose any time in making repairs, and the boat would stay on the sick list until everything was mended:
- Damaged gunwales, thwarts, or seats
- A damaged cockpit rim
- A leaking bulkhead or hatch
That leaves a broad middle ground—problems that have more to do with age than neglect or a single traumatic event. I wouldn’t retire a boat that met any of the conditions outlined below, but I wouldn’t venture far from Golden Pond in one, either.
- A history of extensive repairs (wood-canvas canoes excepted)
- More than three seasons of hard use (e.g., expeditions, extreme whitewater)
- Obvious weathering or minor embrittlement
What’s my bottom line, then? It’s only natural to become attached to a boat that’s carried you hundreds (or thousands) of miles. But sentiment’s a poor substitute for common sense. Nothing lasts forever, after all, and it’s a lot easier to say goodbye on dry land than in the middle of a snowmelt-swollen river. ’Nuff said?
You can’t float far without a boat. So it pays to give your old friend a thorough physical before the season starts. Is your canoe or kayak still up to the job? Now is the time to find out.
Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.