They Fiberglass Boats
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Not long ago I was the recipient of a rather distressing revelation.
It happened when I was asked by a client to attend an auction of storm damaged boats here in Fort Lauderdale. There were two minor hurricanes and one tropical storm in Florida last year, but other than to trees, I wasn't aware of much damage having occurred. In fact, during one of the hurricanes, I was out there with a video camera filming what was going on at several marinas. Not much, except for a few people that did nothing to prepare. Mostly it was these people's boats that ended up in the auction.
Arriving at the auction site, a large open field filled with damaged boats, numerous damaged small boats immediately caught my interest. In part, this was due to so many of them appearing as though they'd been caught in a monster storm like Andrew, instead of a bottom of category one storms with winds barely over hurricane strength, 74 mph. A salient point here is that we have no large, open expanses of water. Just canals and rivers. So, with a storm surge of only 18 inches at high tide, I was scratching my head about why so much damage.
Secondly, so many of these boats had degrees of damage that I hadn't seen before, even from major storms, yet alone minor storms. Much of the damage that I observed seemed to have occurred under different parameters. By that I mean that, in order for a fiberglass hull to become completely broken up, usually a great deal of prolonged bashing and battering against other hard objects is required. Usually a busted up hull will display extremely heavy battering as revealed by heavy gouging and many impact points on the hull. What was startling about these boats were that so many of them were busted up without revealing heavy battering.
Or, to put it another way, these boats got broken up by only a few heavy impacts, and not hours worth of sustained battering. In several of my articles on the subject of construction, I have a photo of a 42 Bertram that broke loose during Opal (1995, Florida panhandle) and was badly battered against pilings and other objects for many hours. The hull laminates did not fail, but obviously had sustained a horrendous beating. I used those photos as a good example of just how strong an ordinary fiberglass laminate can be.
What was so eye-catching about these boats is that many of the broken up pieces did not show any significant degree of heavy battering. The analogy here looked more like hitting a glass bottle with a hammer -- it only takes one swing to break it.
Thirdly, what next caught my attention, and what I found truly distressing, was that these damaged boats revealed what they were made of. Simply put, whatever these materials are, I didn't recognize many of them. And, I suspect that in looking over these photos, you won't either.
Of course some would say, "Hey, you're a surveyor. You're supposed to know these things." Right. But we don't stand there watching thousands of boats being built, and neither do we (unless we're willing to be mislead) take the builder's word for it. The observation of busted up hulls, as we have here, is how we find out. Unfortunately, we don't often get the opportunity to do that.
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We talk a lot about core materials on this site because coring things like hulls and decks has, over the years, proved troublesome. There have been too many problems with materials like foam, especially delaminations and incomplete bonding of the outer skins.
But now we have something new entering the scene, something they call "advanced composites." A composite refers basically to two or more materials that are bonded together. If you glued a piece of wood and plastic together, technically that would be a composite. A balsa cored deck is also a composite, though most of us would just as soon call it cored construction because we know what that means. When the marketing people say "advanced composites," well, we don't know what that means since it could be anything, which, judging by what I saw and the photos displayed here, it does mean just about anything.
The first question to cross my mind was, "Can these fairly be called fiberglass boats any more?" What we see here are hulls made with increasingly less and less fiberglass, and more and more of something else. Some of these boats were stunning in the limited amout of structural fibers used.
One good example is a Sea Ray where the hull side had ONE layer of woven roving, two thin layers of chopped strand mat, and all the rest of the laminate was some kind of brittle putty.
In another boat, only two layers of mat were separated by an expanse of putty. No STRUCTURAL fiber at all, just very weak mat. I had no doubt that if one swung a carpenter's hammer at the side of this hull, the hammer would go right through.
What do I mean by putty? Well, the material looks just like fairing material (some call it bondo, if only because it resembles that automotive repair material). I've never seen this before, though the Sea Ray in question goes back to the early 1990's. Plenty of this material was exposed. Taking pieces in my hands, I could easy crumble the stuff between my fingers. It's not foam, it's not Coremat, and it was found in colors of gray, pink and tan, each in different boats.
What we see here really begs the question, for glass fibers make up only a small percentage of the total laminate thickness, which, as you can see, is pitifully thin to begin with. How about a hull side on a 27 footer that is 3/16" thick, with 2/16" of it being this putty material? That means there was only 1/8" of glass that included the gel coat. Could this leave any doubt about why so many of these small boats got busted to pieces in a minor storm, in a place where there was almost no storm surge? Not in my mind, anyway.
Yet another notable factor was the massive disbonding of the pitiful amounts of glass from the putty -- or call it a core if you're so inclined. Check out the photo below where I grabbed a piece of the outer skin and tore the whole thing off with minimal effort. In this case, the outer skin consisted of two layers of mat (I think). The bonding to the putty was nearly zero on both inner and outer plies. Notice how it breaks away on both sides of the "bond." Notice how easily the stuff cracks and breaks out.
I'm not sure what the point of all this is. Frankly, I'm still so shocked by what I saw that I've yet to fully digest the significance of it. These examples were not confined to just a few boats, but covered a fairly wide range of builders. And most significantly, of the boats which were built with solid fiberglass construction, I did not find one that was busted up anywhere near like these "advanced composites." Not one. There were some old Bayliners and Mainships (1970's) that were badly battered, but none were broken up. A few cracks maybe, but mostly heavy gouging and battering.
If this is the state-of-the-art production boat building, it's a rather pitiful state much of the industry has come to. I find it very hard not derisively call this stuff "the hamburger helper of boat building." What I saw is beginning to explain some of the more common symptoms we see in boats that are starting to come apart. Things like deck joints coming apart, heavy cracking along toe rails and chines, bulkheads, stringers and frames breaking loose, window frames that won't stay sealed, and heavy stress cracking occurring in places that it shouldn't.
Never mind what these materials may be doing for the blistering problem. Why talk about high quality resins when most of the hull material consists of some unknown material?
What concerns me most as a surveyor though is that we have been calling these things fiberglass boats when, in fact, fiberglass may be only a minor ingredient. How can you call it a fiberglass boat when only 10-20% of the total is glass? Previously, we'd look at a hull and question whether it was just cored or not. Now it seems we have to question the entire matrix. What is it made of?
Well, in the case of the photo below, appearances are misleading. If you look at the inside of the hull, what you will see is a surface made up of woven roving. The misleading part is that that is the ONLY layer of roving, with the remainder of it being some other stuff. If the surveyor called it a fiberglass boat in his report, he'd be wrong, and could be sued for his error. Unfortunately, short of cutting holes in the hull, he has no way of determining otherwise. Seeing that one layer of roving on the inside, I would likely make the same mistake too.
What's even worse is that you have to wonder if the builder did it that with the intent on misleading the observer. Roving is much stronger than mat by several magnitudes. For strength purposes on a composite, you'd put the roving on the outside, not the inside. Hence, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the roving on the inside is, indeed, intended to mislead.
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One conclusion we can certainly come to is that the strength and impact resistance of boats built with these materials is something worse than merely inadequate. In the past, it was generally true that no matter how low cost the boat, a decently laid up solid laminate hull was capable of surviving a heavy beating without the hull breaking into pieces as we see here. As near as I can tell, the boats shown here received a minor beating, and broke to pieces. How can there be any doubt of that when the major part of the laminate is nothing but putty?
It has always been the case that when a surveyor calls a boat "fiberglass," he's making an assumption -- an article of faith based on the fact that there were no other materials being used other than standard balsa or foam cores. Now we have a new paradigm. Enter a whole host of new materials, of which no one knows anything about, but for which we are getting some pretty good indications that many of them leave a lot to be desired.
Yet all of this still begs the question of how we should refer to the hull material of these boats. I know one thing for sure: I'm going to stop calling them fiberglass reinforced plastic. For that they surely are not. I can also state with confidence that this is going to have profound implications on all aspects of boating, including owners, surveyors, insurers and, of course, the builders themselves.
Without knowing it, we have apparently entered the era of the Putty Boat.
Posted January 12, 2000