Stripping bottom paint

Stripping decades of paint with Peel Away. Massive amount of hard labor.

But it produced great results.

I was surprised to find Copper-Clad under all that paint.

After a winter of drying and more spring prep, the bottom got primed.

And painted.

And launched!

The project inspired a piece for my Boston Harbor Currents column in the February 2021 issue of Points East Magazine:

In my daydream, I’m sailing a perfectly restored J-class yacht from yesteryear. Familiar faces dot the crew. Ted Turner is on the topping lift, Dennis Conner is down below making sandwiches and I am firmly ensconced at the helm. The wind is abaft the beam and thousands of square feet of spinnaker cloth pull us down the final leg towards the finish line just off palmy English Harbor, Antigua. We’re in first place, of course, with the lesser boats distant in our wake. The satisfaction of yet another horizon job settles over the yacht.

In my reality, I’m crouched under my 36-foot sailboat in East Boston scraping bottom paint on a bleak November day. The horizon is obscured from view. And nobody is making sandwiches.

This was at least the sixth time I’ve stripped decades of accumulated paint off a boat bottom. One long Saturday was spent troweling 20 gallons of the heavy paint-stripping goop onto the bottom. The accompanying sheets of paper (at least the ones that didn’t blow away in the wind) were flattened onto the paste in effort to keep it moist and enzymatic. An even longer Sunday followed scraping it all off. The process works amazingly well, but it’s brutal work and I always vow to never do it again.

Cringeworthy afflictions such as dental pain, back pain and childbirth all pale in comparison to the full body agony tragically wedded to the scraping of bottom paint. I once struggled to complete the Boston Marathon. The bottom stripping project was longer and harder. I would sooner summit Everest before I scrape paint off a seventh boat. A trek on foot across the Sahara Dessert with no hat, or scrape the bottom of a Rhodes-19? Easy choice. Just give me some sunglasses and I’m off into the sand.

There are other methods for removing old paint from below the waterline. Soda blasting is popular. It’s also known to be messy and is not permitted at the location where my boat is stored for winter. Ditto for blasting with Black Beauty, ground walnut shells, chipped ice or any other media you might think to blast with. Sanding the bottom would have gotten the job done eventually. I worked down a sample square and did some extrapolation. That math had me squatting under there sanding for months, not days. A variety of sharp and violent power tools claim to be capable of quickly removing bottom paint, but they all look far too sharp and violent to me. 

Theoretically, I could have hired someone to do this work for me. But, I’m the sort of person that people hire to do this sort of work, so I was pretty well boxed out of that option. Seven years of wishing away the paint had gone nowhere. After extensive research, head scratching and procrastination, I came around to where I always come around to: Scraping the stuff off with some paint stripper and a pull scraper.

Counting paint layers like tree rings, I figured the problem on this boat originated during the Clinton administration. Somewhere in that time window, a coat of green paint was applied atop a coat of older blue paint. The two failed to bond well and their feud has been actively simmering under all the additional coats of paint applied during the Bush, Obama and Trump years.

The green and blue paints may have been chemically incompatible from the start. Or their failure to bond may have been a result of inadequate paint prep with the sander. Perhaps a previous owner was hastily getting the boat ready for a Y2K escape mission and skipped the sanding all together. Whatever the reason, the battle in the paint produced a boat bottom that resembled the pocked surface of the moon. The flaking mess was heavy, slow and just plain bad. Damning the Y2K hysteria with every pull of the scraper, I dug down through history determined to impeach and remove all the paint.

My swollen hands, trebling with pain, were barely capable of steering me home from the boatyard that Sunday evening. On the upside, my conscience was finally at ease. The boat deserved this work and I was relieved to have started the project.

The chemical/paint mix soup had managed to sneak inside the long cuff of my rubber gloves leaving a nasty rash on my wrists. The burning only got worse when I tried to clean myself up in the hot shower. On the upside, I knew my relationship with the boat had turned a corner. Standing toe to keel for two days, the old girl and I had an important, hard and frank conversation about her past. 

In bed that Sunday night, my upper body, lower body and middle body were all in active revolt and complaining loudly. Was it the paint stripping chemicals that produced the splitting headache? Or was it the vise-like grip of the full-face respirator designed to keep those chemicals away? Or, perhaps, the headache was brought on by my clenched jaw working furiously to shred my teeth with every pull of the scraper? A fresh COVID-19 diagnosis was doubtful given my solitary working environment and abundance of PPE. Could I have stumbled upon COVID-20, I wondered? On the upside, my boat’s bottom was returned to glory, and I had become her Lochinvar. 

I wasn’t motivated by a desire to win races, or to turn in an extra tenth of a knot of speed or to impress fish. Instead, this project was about proud yacht husbandry. Only when a boat is properly cared for, do I have confidence that she might return the favor in kind.

Next summer, we will once again sail well beyond the sight of land. I expect this bolstered confidence will help us enjoy the quiet bliss of a different kind of horizon job when it settles over the yacht.

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