Summer 2020 Refit – Part 1 of ??? (Keel Bolts)

Well…right now, I’m kind of focused—perhaps overly-focused—on the question marks in the blog-post title. The overall refit of Hazel James reminds me of my consulting days when a client would call and request an assessment of their troubled, multi-million dollar project. Often, in assessing the project, under every rock we would find ten more rocks; under each of those ten rocks we’d find ten more rocks…and so on.

Being the recovering project manager that I am, I have a spreadsheet with 107 lines of to-dos. Some are big and structural projects, many are small items to make our lives at sea more comfortable. On one hand, I feel like I’m spending money at an alarming rate. On the other hand, I’ve concluded that I want to sell my house and live on HJ for awhile. Therefore, I can think about the big projects as capital investments (ahhhh…the things we do to rationalize what we do).

I also feel a bit like a general contractor. I’m doing a majority of the work myself but having professionals do some work that I’m just not equipped to do. At the moment I have lots of parallel efforts going on. While the approach is overall more-efficient than doing the work serially (finish one project before starting the next), early in the process it feels like everything is going backwards—it’s just ripping apart and ripping apart. In the few instances so far that I have been putting things back together, it’s a real thrill.

Here’s a rundown of some of the major projects in process: keel bolt inspection, head plumbing replacement, re-bedding of deck fittings, water-maker installation, steering system replacement, refrigeration replacement, solar arch fabrication, sailing-rig inspection and sail replacement, and building a proper nesting dinghy. In the next several posts, I’ll go into some detail on these projects. As I review them, keep in mind that Hazel is 30 years old and many of them have likely never been done to her.

Let’s start with the keel bolts, which have always made me nervous—not for any specific reason other than they are 30 years old, made of steel (albeit stainless steel) and have spent more than 29 of their 30 years below the waterline and sloshing around in bilge water. If they suffered extensive corrosion and were to fail in the middle of the ocean, and the keel were to separate from the hull—it would be really bad…catastrophic.

First, some terminology and background. The “keel” is the fin that sticks down into the water underneath Hazel’s hull.

Hazel during a haul out with her keel plainly visible

The keel does a couple things. First, it provides resistance against the wind and sails thus allowing her to sail into the wind. Second, the keel stabilizes the hull. Unladen, Hazel displaces (weighs) 11,000 pounds. 4,000 of those pounds is in her lead keel (that’s over one-third of her total displacement). While the hull and keel look like one contiguous piece, the keel is actually a separate piece of cast lead that is bolted to the hull.

A second term to know is the “bilge well”. It’s the lowest part of the inside of the hull where leaked seawater and rainwater collect (in modern usage “bilge well” is almost always shortened to “bilge”).

Here’s a picture from the internet of another boat (not HJ) with her keel dropped, the keel bolts are sticking up from the cast lead keel. When put back together, nuts in the bilge-well secure the keel to the hull.

Hazel is a Pacific Seacraft and Pacific Seacrafts are legendary for their over-engineering (i.e., pieces and parts designed and engineered to handle loads significantly higher than they would normally be exposed to). In HJ’s case her 4,000 lead keel is secured to the hull with 10, 3/4 inch diameter stainless steel bolts that are secured inside the hull—down in the bilge—with backing plates (think large-washers) and nuts. In the bilge, the nuts and bolts are covered with thickened epoxy and paint to seal them. While that sounds great, 30 years is 30 years. If those bolts were to be exposed to enough seawater and other corrosive conditions over-time, they could rust. I talked to Thumper Brooks, my key contact at Pacific Seacraft (anyone named “Thumper” has got to be a straight-shooter). He suggested that rather than drop the entire keel to inspect the bolts, I should just expose them from the inside of the hull and inspect them. If that inspection yielded suspicious results, I could go forward with dropping the keel and then figuring out what to do (a costly proposition). He added that’s what they would do in their shop with a hull of Hazel’s vintage, so that’s exactly what I did…

Here’s the beginning of the process, we’re looking down into the bilge well (I’ve already pulled out the fuel tank that sits on the keel bolts). Three sets of two bolts each are visible in this picture covered by a 30-year old epoxy and paint (HJ has 10 total keel bolts).
This is a close-up of one set of keel bolts with the epoxy chipped off. It sure was gratifying to see that stainless steel shining and solid after 30-years sitting in bilge water!
The two forward-most keel bolts covered with new thickened epoxy.
And we’re done (with this project)! A couple coats of fresh bilge paint seals the entire deal…should be good for another 30 years.

The refit process is a win-some-lose-some game. Some projects are simpler and/or cheaper than expected while others are wildly more-complicated AND more-expensive. Like Vegas odds, the deck is stacked against the mariner but it’s the game we play.

Fortunately, the keel bolt inspection process cost me less than $100 in materials (we’re not counting my time to do the work). If I would have found problems with the bolts, remediating the situation would have been very expensive. In the worst case, the keel would have to be re-cast with new keel bolts embedded in the molten lead. As I highlight other projects in future posts, you’ll see how other projects end up a lot more expensive than anticipated.

On one hand I love getting my hands dirty and knowing how things work. On the other hand, I haven’t sailed since late-May. Through the refit, I have to keep thinking about the days I enjoyed while sailing and how all this work will get me back there…eventually—and will get me back there with greater peace of mind that I’ve done all I can to make HJ as seaworthy as possible. If Hazel were to be “retired” to a life of day-sails and coastal cruising, I wouldn’t worry about things like keel bolts. However, as I’m hatching a plan to do transatlantic sails with her, in good conscience, I’m doing all I can do.

While life during a pandemic is challenging, I’m grateful that a vessel refit is a naturally socially-distanced endeavor. I’m grateful too that I have the time to do much of the work myself and the means to hire professionals and help them through this economy.

A sunset in the Caribbean.

Fair winds and following seas.

10 thoughts on “Summer 2020 Refit – Part 1 of ??? (Keel Bolts)

  1. I have found that I really enjoy working on boats. Not easy work, but somehow, relaxing and very educational. If you ever need a deck hand to help out, reach out! Thanks for posting the next chapter in this great journey.

  2. i’m tired just reading your blog. It will be worth it if ypou go on a transatlantic adventure to know you have basically a new ship under you. Keep the faith and thanks for the blog!

  3. Dan,
    This makes me contemplate how at times we have to refit our lives so we can continue to sail.

  4. I’ve never sailed Dan, but utterly fascinated with it and reading your blog deepens the fascination. Really appreciate how descriptive you are.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: