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Let’s get to the bottom of sailing’s big problem

2022 July 1

It is a bond that has linked sailors from time immemorial, bringing us joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, marked by hubris and humility, angst and obsession, success and failure, all with egalitarian fairness, treating Phoenician traders in 1000 B.C. much the same as the Russian oligarch whose 465-foot “sailboat” (looks like a warship but has three masts and sails) was seized by Spanish authorities in 2022. The bond is our boat bottoms.

I am well versed in this subject. OK, that’s too humble. Actually, I’m an expert, having possibly spent more hours of my life tending to the bottoms of boats than sailing them.

Sailors love the sea, but the sea is no friend of the parts of their vessels that are immersed in it. The flora and fauna that teem in that liquid environment are relentless in their drive to become obnoxious hitchhikers on our boat bottoms. The best we can do is discourage them. They can’t be stopped.

Even with smooth bottoms, it is hard enough for watercraft that depend for propulsion on a natural phenomenon that is often fickle and unreliable to move through their medium with any semblance of alacrity. Those with bottoms festooned with various plants and animals struggle to move, as though dragging a living anchor, with consequences that range from lost races to lost ships.

The annals of 18th and 19th century seafaring mention vessels laboring with bottoms covered with weeds more than three feet long and Royal Navy ships so handicapped by fouled bottoms they were not able to avoid shipwreck on a lee shore or maneuver to defend themselves from the broadsides of a cleaner-bottomed enemy frigate.

In saltwater, those submerged weed gardens are habitat for creatures that nature seems to have equipped expressly for the malign purpose of becoming part of boat bottoms. Barnacles excrete a glue that cements them to hulls. Microbes paint bottoms with slime that makes a welcoming neighborhood for tubeworms.

The bottom foulers attack ruthlessly and with awesome speed. Recall the photo in this magazine a few years back of a fiberglass sailboat named Sea Nymph on which two hapless women and two long-suffering dogs drifted, lost and clueless, around the Pacific for five months until they were rescued. Grotesque brown growth on the white hull, barnacles and other forms of sea crud, reached almost to the gunwales, evidence that merely rolling in seawater was enough to foul the topsides as well as the bottom. Not that it mattered—if you’re drifting aimlessly you might as well do it slowly.

Think freshwater provides refuge from bottom fouling? Wrong. Rampant aquatic plant growth proves that a wishful fantasy. No barnacles live in the Great Lakes, but algae thrives, supercharged by phosphates and nitrates in fertilizer-polluted runoff (if you sail near farmland and detect a whiff of manure in the air, your bottom is in jeopardy) and stimulated by sunshine burning through water filtered and clarified by billions of invasive mussels. It literally grows overnight.

The unwinnable war to defeat bottom fouling started with the first commercial boatowners, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and was fought through the ages with, among other impotent weapons, tar, wax, arsenic, sulfur and lead sheathing. Finally, someone tried copper sheathing, and it proved modestly effective at delaying the inevitable. 

I’m not saying bottom fouling technology hasn’t advanced commendably, but it is worth noting that some of today’s bottom paints depend on the same metal that was discovered to be a fouling deterrent centuries ago.

Boat bottom factoid: The U.S. Navy spends more than a quarter of a billion dollars every year removing what it calls “biofouling” from its fleet’s bottoms.

The first sailboat I owned that, unlike a dry-sailed dinghy, lived in the water was an unremarkable, used, production-built 30-footer, but I worshiped its bottom because of its pedigree. That bottom was born on the drawing board of the peerless Olin Stephens, designer of legendary racing sailboats, including a series of America’s Cup winners.

To me, the underbody of that S&S-designed Yankee 30, with the artful turn of its bilges and appendages so shapely they appeared sculpted, was a thing of beauty. When after three weeks in the water, the bottom I had lovingly painted with a snazzy blue antifouling paint turned a sickly green, I was so outraged that a mean steak of nature was corrupting the fluid dynamics refined by a master designer that I fell victim to an obsessive-compulsive bottom-cleaning disorder that has not been cured to this day.

An acquaintance who ran a small dive shop in his garage sold me some used scuba gear and took me to a high school swimming pool for a half hour of instruction. When I emerged from the pool, he scribbled on one of his shop’s receipt forms that I had passed a scuba course satisfactorily and pronounced me a certified diver.

That launched me, so to speak, on a quest to sail through life on boats with clean, smooth, fast bottoms. I have scrubbed them for decades, in 45-minute increments, in water that was: so murky I couldn’t see the bottom I was cleaning and other times so bright and pellucid I could admire every admirable detail of my splendid work; so cold its temperature was a scant 10 degrees above freezing or warm enough to scrub sans wetsuit; so still the boat was as immobile as a statue and sometimes so rough the rolling hull threatened to bring on a case of submarine mal de mer. 

Though this has involved a fair amount of exertion and discomfort, it has been worth it for the gratification of, however briefly, owning a perfect bottom, not to mention the unadulterated joy of sailing a clean-bottomed boat past a competitor whose heeled hull reveals a generous coating of speed-killing marine growth.

The job, alas, has become more taxing than it was in Yankee 30 days. There is more bottom to scrub on bigger boats and the paints we now favor because they yield the slickest bottoms for racing have anemic anti-fouling capability at best.

I’ve passed the bottom-cleaner-in-chief mantle, symbolized by my collection of the well-seasoned and softened abrasive pads that are the bottom scrubbers’ essential tool, to my son.

He carries on the mission to maintain a pristine bottom with appropriate zeal—knowing full well it’s mission impossible.