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Blistered bottoms are bad for boats

Caused by water seeping into the fiberglass through scars, blistering can wreak havoc.

It's no secret that I love scrounging along waterfronts, through small out-of-the-way marinas and in tiny, crowded bait-and-tackle shops.

They are great places to catch up on the latest scuttlebutt and pick up a secret tidbit or two. You never know who you'll meet or what you'll find. The part I love most is listening to all the stories. They range from the simple to the sublime.

This past week I took a hiatus to the east coast. I went to get away, relax and catch up on the latest scuttlebutt. There I found an interesting story about boat-bottom maintenance.

If I had had another brother, it would have been my good friend Al Bernetti. He's a consummate bluewater angler with a maniacally analytical mind. He led me to my first sailfish, I led him to his first tarpon. It's a symbiotic relationship.

When not landlubbing, Bernetti spends most of his time miles from shore in The B, his 36-foot, custom-designed, Mako sportfishing boat. Built in 1979 for Robert Schweitke, the founder of Mako boats, The B is both a beautiful and proper yacht.

Bernetti and his boat fish the offshore waters of Florida's east coast and the Bahamas Bank for large billfish. Together they have taken two second-place finishes and one third in the Treasure Cay Billfish Tournament. During the dog days of summer, The B gets a well-deserved rest from the tournament circuit. Bernetti treats it to spa-like amenities at Cracker Boys Boat Works in Fort Pierce.

Bernetti and I visited The B as it rested in the yacht yard, its bottom bared in preparation for the upcoming season.

Bernetti not only is a savvy skipper, he's fastidious about the condition of his true love. Twice each year it gets rubbed down from stem to stern, every inch being inspected closely for flaws. This trip to the spa had revealed some skin eruptions on the bottom called osmotic blisters. If left unchecked, they could cause a variety of unpleasantries from simple to serious.

Hard-core offshore anglers know that blistering is caused by water seeping into the fiberglass through small gouges, scratches or pocks in the surface. Once it begins it can spread like a cancer, wreaking havoc on the hull. Things attributed to blistering run from lowered fuel economy and speed to delamination of the hull, which can render a vessel unseaworthy.

Being the proper yacht that The B is, remedying the problem would take a proper job. It would be decommissioned for a couple of weeks.

To rid the bottom of the acne-like eruptions, it would get a good sandblasting, then the afflicted areas would be ground down and coated with clear epoxy. After the sandblasting and grinding, there would be a drying-out phase.

Once water has penetrated a fiberglass hull, it weeps back out slowly. To aid the process, The B's bottom would have to be periodically rubbed down with a scrub brush and warm water. This keeps the affected area clear of obstructions, accelerating the drying time on the chocks. Some yacht yards use a light spray of acetone to help draw out the water.

Only when the hull has dried is the epoxy coating and fresh paint applied. To know when a hull has dried sufficiently, a moisture meter is employed. This miraculous little machine measures the moisture content of the fiberglass using AC electrical current. When the reading on the scale is right, the job can be finished.

As a vessel goes through the drying process, water weeps slowly from the areas, creating a chemical reaction where the entry and exit point water was. It appears like little reddish-brown droplets of blood bleeding from the hull. Those places are wiped down with the scrub brush even more.

Performed according to manufacturer specifications, bottom jobs often come with a warranty against future blistering. Done improperly, those hideous blisters return. The last thing you want or need is a blistered, bleeding bottom when you are miles from nowhere.

While a boat is up on the chocks, it's a good idea to check the rest of the understructure to see if any corrective maintenance is needed. The prudent mariner wants and strives for perfection. Breakdowns at sea are usually caused by lackluster maintenance schedules, those schedules being dictated by the amount of time a vessel stays in the water.

Don't forget also to clean any barnacle growth from the props, rudders, struts and shafts. All those items need to be clear of obstructions to operate smoothly. Then they should be coated with fresh, anti-fouling bottom paint to ward off future growth. Also, greasing any moving parts like the cutlass bearings will keep you worry-free.

It's worry-free boating that frees the mind to concentrate on the most important part of fishing: the fishing.