Friday, January 25, 2013

This Old Hull Update

Soft decks are a very common problem with old Lasers.  Over many years, the weight of the sailor in the middle of the deck leads to delamination of the sandwich structure.  Instead of a tightly bonded sandwich of fiberglass – foam – fiberglass, the top layer loses the bond with the foam.  This leaves the sailor supported by a 1/8” thick piece of fiberglass.  The affected area widens over time with the repeated flexing of the soft deck. 

Recently I have had two lasers suffering from this condition.  Rather than attempt to cut a hole in the cockpit sidewall, and grind out and rebuild the sandwich construction, I elected to use the epoxy injection method described in Eric’s This Old Hull.

Unlike Eric, I had no confidence that I could maintain air pressure in the hull for 24 hours.  I was using a pump designed to inflate water toys like ski tubes.  The nozzle fit quite well into the transom drain hole, but I had no way to keep it there except tape.  To control the pressure in the hull I taped over an inspection port and put small holes in the tape until the air pressure lifted the deck to flat, but no higher.  I didn’t trust this crude pressure control system for more that 2 – 3 hours, which dictated a much faster process than Eric used.

Instead of a slow cure hardener (all West System products), I used a fast cure hardener.  This meant I had to work a lot more rapidly.  I got a helper to double the rate at which the holes could be injected with epoxy.  I also used bigger holes, 1/8”, to get epoxy into the space faster.  I used several batches of epoxy (4 pumps of resin and 4 pumps of hardener per batch) and between mixing and injecting, the two of us were still racing the clock to beat the set up time of the epoxy.

I was repairing two boats on both sides so I had four tries to perfect my process, and I tried to learn something each time.  My primary concerns were making the process simple and straightforward and controlling things that affect the aesthetics of the finished product.  I tried hard to hide the repairs and avoid the machine gun bullet holes look.

First, I used a 2” x 2” rectangular grid because it was much easier to lay out and I thought it looked a little less distracting to the eye than Eric’s 60 degree grid.  On the first deck, I started by covering the entire area with masking tape and drawing on the tape.  I then drilled the holes through the masking tape.  Each time the depth stop on the drill bit hit the tape, it made a small tear in the tape.  I learned later that this meant that some epoxy got on the deck, undermining the masking process.  I also learned that until the tape comes off, you don’t really know how well it worked.  TAKE IT OFF BEFORE THE EPOXY IS SO HARD IT CAN’T BE REMOVED.

Aesthetically, it is very important to keep excess epoxy off the deck.  Much easier said than done.  I spent more time on this than on the rest of the process.

As a result of what I learned on the first try, I resolved to drill the holes first and then apply the tape that protects the deck from epoxy overflow.  I didn’t want to draw all over the deck, so I had to mask first, drill, remove the first tape and re-tape it.  Half way through this I realized I could make a template for the holes and save a lot of time and trouble.  This made a lot of sense with a second boat to fix.  After drilling the holes, I taped the entire area with blue painters’ tape.  I then punched holes in the tape.  Just like Eric did, I clamped pieces of wood into place to keep the deck from arching upward when air pressure was applied.

Lessons learned for the second side:
Hanging chads from the tape can get stuck in the epoxy and leave little blue marks in the holes.  Use standard masking tape.
When taking the tape off for a cleanup before the epoxy is cured, you have to work around the wood struts that hold the deck down.  Plan carefully where the wood is located in relation to tape strips and holes.
Clean-up is a painstaking operation if you want a clean deck.
If you can catch the epoxy at the stage where it is still rubbery, but not rigid, you can used a razor blade scraper to remove excess.  If there is a bump where a hole was filled, the scrapper cuts it off flush.  This is the perfect way to get the holes completely filled and absolutely flat.

I learned another good lesson when I went to West Marine for more resin and hardener: 
There is an additive for the epoxy which makes the color white.  It turns out that mixing the slightly yellow resin/hardener solution with white additive yields an almost perfect color match for off white decks.  When done well, the filled holes can be just about invisible.

Employing all the lessons learned so far, I advanced to side one of boat two.  In the universe’s unrelenting desire for me to learn new things, a new problem arose.  The process of putting epoxy in one hole, forcing the air out of the next hole until epoxy came out of that hole, broke down.  With several of the holes, the air never stopped coming, and, in fact, was a steady stream of perceptibly moving air. As I injected epoxy into these holes, air bubbled through the epoxy until the epoxy settled and disappeared.  There was a break somewhere between the pressurized hull and the bottom side of the sandwich.  This was undermining the ability of the pressure inside the hull to push up the bottom half of the sandwich and make a tight seal.   With no good solutions apparent, I had no choice but to keep filling the holes trying to fill as much of the void as possible.  This used a lot more epoxy and made the clean-up that much more tedious.  The next day the deck was firm, but a few holes still remained and had to be filled.

With some of the imperfections, I thought I would try gel coat to pretty up the filled holes.  There are three pitfalls to this.  It can be difficult to achieve a color match.  It is difficult to apply one drop of gel coat and achieve a not concave, not convex, but flat finish.  The scraper method of clean-up does not work at all.  When the gel coat is rubbery, it all comes off in a ball, and when it is firmer, the blade can’t cut through it.  Over all, I concluded that gel coat was more trouble than it was worth.  (Gel coat is required to prevent breakdown of the epoxy from ultraviolet light.  Because I keep my boats covered when not in use, I don’t think either I or the boat will live long enough for this to become a problem.)

Side two of boat two went smoothly.  When all was said and done, both boats have rock solid decks (at the cost of a couple of pounds of weight gain) and cosmetically acceptable scars, some better looking than others.

Standard masking tape, white epoxy additive, and using a razor blade scraper at the right time are the keys to getting the best look.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Business of Sailing vs. the Interests of Sailors

I used to think that a winning business strategy was that doing what is best for the customers is what is best for the business.  Win–win.  The long term loyalty of customers will reap long term rewards for the bottom line of the business.  I thought this worked particularly well in one-design sailing where customers bought new sails, spare parts, upgrades, and new boats, frequently replacing perfectly serviceable boats.

The strategy works well in the first one-design class I joined – Flying Scots.  The builder makes an incredibly high quality durable product.  Parts are always in stock and shipped immediately.  Flying Scot Inc. brings spare parts to major regattas and sometimes delivers new boats there.  The company owner runs seminars on setting up and tuning the boat for racing.  There is no doubt that the company is doing everything it can to serve the customers, and there is no doubt that the customers love the company.  There are no accusations that prices are unfair.  The customers want to pay enough to keep the company profitable.  The class association does everything it can to support the builder, and the builder tenaciously supports the one-design goals of the association.  Even in the midst of a sluggish economy and an arguably overall decline in small boat sailing, it all works.

When I first got into Laser sailing, it seemed like it all worked there too.  Vanguard was a strong builder, the class association was strong, serving both the builder and its members, and the sailors were among the most talented and enthusiastic in the world.  I was in love again.

Vanguard is also the builder of 420s, the boats we use in high school sailing. When I began coaching,  there were a few issues with the boats, but parts were readily available and the service network worked well. 

Maybe I was just naive, or maybe things began to change.  With Lasers, I found $500 sails turned into rags in a year or less.  With 420s, I found myself doing lots of repairs, and usually the same things over and over again.  The hull flexed to the point where keelsons cracked and tank/ hull joints separated or broke.  I had to reinforce the back corners to prevent them from fracturing or even snapping off whenever there was contact with another boat. Autobailers leaked and/or cut the feet of sailors, and we removed them.  The hull /deck joint routinely needed to be reinforced after collisions.

As a sailor, I try to be understanding about one-design sailing issues.  Prices need to be high enough (or higher) to support the builder, and design shortcomings take a long time to correct.   But now that Laser-Performance has taken over, there seem to be even more price, quality, and service issues.  My list is anecdotal, but it seems like there are way too many anecdotes:

The overpricing of the Laser sail seems permanent, and the controversy over Intensity sails and fully class legal sails goes on
The Laser sail re-design has stalled
The Bruce Kirby struggle seems intractable
The only 2 brand new lasers I have seen this year both came missing many of the parts
I hear stories of difficulty getting Laser parts, Sunfish parts, and finding a class legal Sunfish sail
I have a friend who had difficulty finding a new Sunfish to buy
I note a lack of interest in improving the 420 design in general and rejection of MIT’s offer a few years ago to fund engineering for a new design in particular (MIT worked with Rondar to produce a much improved 420)
I see a number of people losing faith in LP and buying boats from up and coming Zim

I know sometimes business is hard and things go wrong, but is LP really trying to do a good job for us sailors?  Do they still love me, or is this a one sided affair?

And then there is this news from college sailing…

Recently the ICSA (Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association) has sparked a major uproar in the way it has renewed its sponsorship agreement with Laser-Performance.  As in the previous agreement, LP will supply new Lasers for both the men’s and women’s single-handed national championships.  LP will also provide some media coverage support and some unspecified cash for the association and/or host venues.  This may involve larger amounts of money than in the past, but the details are confidential, as is customary in this type of agreement.  What is different in this eight year deal is a requirement that all double-handed national championships and semi-finals leading to those championships must be held in LP boats.

No one should expect a boat manufacturer to fund an event held in someone else’s boats. In the previous agreement, LP withheld cash from the host school if other boats were used.  Schools paid a price for using another brand, but found ways to get sufficient support from other sources to host national events.  Now, they are specifically prohibited from hosting these events.

On Sail1 Airwaves, you can read the written volleys in the controversy

Okay, LP’s competition gets screwed.  (There would have been no competition if LP had worked to improve the boats and respond to the expressed desires of the customers.)  Maybe that’s just business, but what about the ultimate constituency, the sailors?  This agreement is very tough on schools currently owning other brands of boats and on the sailors at those schools. It’s also hard to see how sailors are better off in the old, tired LP design when improved products are available from Zim and Rondar.  In sailing’s most visible event, the America’s Cup, innovation is everything.  But not in college sailing.  The ICSA leaders are making an exclusive bargain that is good for business at the expense of many of the schools, sailors and coaches.  Don’t take it personally, sailors.  It’s strictly business. 

Is it impossible to have a win–win relationship with a boat builder in this complicated world?  More and more it looks like LP is pursuing a corporation-wins, who-cares-about-the-customers policy.  Show me I’m wrong.  Show me the love.