26 January 2010

Don't Panic

If a wooden boat is neglected for a couple of years, there are bound to be one or two spots where the bottom paint has been scuffed or worn off. In that case, you should expect to find worm holes.

And after clearing the major crud off the Blue Moon's bottom, that's exactly what I did find.

A minor problem, compared to battling worms?
Wikimeda Commons

Of all the monsters in the mythology of the sea, from Jonah's Whale, to Moby Dick, to Jules Verne's giant squid, none are as feared by sailors as the lowly marine boring worm.

And for good reason. It wasn't a giant squid that sank all of Christopher Columbus's ships on his 4th voyage to the New World. It was the worm. In fact, worms plagued all the great wooden ships during the Age of Exploration, until someone discovered that covering bottoms with sheets of copper -- using the same techniques used to make copper sheathed roofs -- would protect ships from the voracious wood-eating worms.

So, when I found tell-tale worm holes on the lovely Blue Moon's bottom, I decided to do some research on the problem.

Worm holes along a line of rubbed-off bottom paint
photo jalmberg

Now, wooden boat lore abounds with ship worm horror stories and remedies -- mostly of the drastic nature.

These remedies include:
  1. Drilling lots of small holes and injecting home-made or patent substances guaranteed to kill the buggers. The best solutions include chemicals banned by the Geneva Conventions.
  2. Flushing the worms out with fire. A propane torch is handy. As is a fire extinguisher, no doubt.
  3. A trip up a fresh water river... these salt water creatures can't live in the purer stuff.
After the panic induced by this research subsided, I decided some first-hand investigation was in order.

Most of the stories talked about holes extending as far as 6 feet into the planking. I suddenly realized that I could plumb the depths of my own holes with a stiff wire, or other small, thin object.

The next morning, I picked my smallest drill bit out of my tool box and -- holding my breath -- plunged it into one of the holes.

Small, not very hungry monsters?
photo jalmberg

The drill bit went in about 1/4". And whatever worm had made the hole was gone.

I poked into all the holes. All were about the same depth. All were vacant. This was a bit of a let down. I blew out the propane torch with a sigh. Other sailors have all the fun.

However, further inspection showed that the worms had done damage. It wasn't the tiny holes, themselves that was the problem, but the fact that these holes had let sea water into the wood for an extended period of time (due to the fact that the Blue Moon hadn't been hauled frequently enough.) This caused the wood around the holes to get soft and start to rot.

There are various treatments for this rot, but since the rot was so limited in scope, I decided to pull out my favorite chisel (never leave home without your favorite chisel) and just cut out the bad wood.

It was only a few minutes work to cut the wood back to good wood. I then mixed up some epoxy putty, and filled the shallow, 'V' shaped channel.

Excavated channel, filled with epoxy
photo jalmberg

So, the lesson this wooden boat restoring newbie takes from this experience is, don't panic. One of the great things about actually having a wooden boat to work on, rather than just reading about them as I've done for so long, is that it is there in front of you to poke, tap, and probe. You don't have to take someone else's word for what might (or might not) be going on with your boat. You can just look at it yourself.

An whatever is wrong, you can be pretty sure that you won't need rocket science to fix it. Some hand tools, patience, common sense (and maybe a daub or two of epoxy), with get you through most problems.

>>> Next Episode: Hand Tooled Shoe

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  1. As a new wooden (Atkin) boat owner, I read this post with great delight!



  2. I can remember my father having a wooden boat and him alwasy going on about rot and worms - but i didnt realise how tiny (and hungry!) they are!!

    He also said there was nothing like the soul of a boat (wooden of course!) to complete a mans!

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  3. I, too, look forward to your next post.
    It's some time since I have been on the seven seas but, I remember many experiences as though they were yesterday. Keep it coming...

  4. We have a few spots locally where the gribble is rife.

    You're right not to panic, I haven't heard of a boring worm that can eat through epoxy!!

    Nice post, look forward to the sequal - and Blue Moon is lovely



  5. Thanks, guys! Writing this blog is what I do when I finish working on the boat. It's all fun.

  6. Hi! Whats the result a few years on? Any problem with the bond failing as the wood swells and works?
    I am about to attack the same issue and everyone is telling me to remove and replace, but I far prefer cut and fill (and go sailing)



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