The Ageing Stella Fleet – what is to be done?
A few personal observations and suggested remedies
Although having spent much of my working life repairing and maintaining boats of various sizes built from different materials my knowledge of Stellas is limited to partially rebuilding Alcyone (17).
But in general, old wooden boats whether carvel or clinker tend to suffer from the same infirmities of the hull:
- Degrading of backbone including floors.
- Cracking of steam bent timbers.
- Cracked and split planking.
- Deterioration of fasteners.
Wooden planked boats like to be immersed in water or in mud at all times in order to reduce the movement of the timber associated with the drying out then wetting in the annual laying up launching cycle. In days gone by boats were often laid up in mud berths for the winter so alleviating this problem. But times move on and nearly all boats spend the winter months ashore so drying out the timber.
This annual drying and swelling of the timber puts strain on the fasteners and makes the holes through which they pass bigger – particularly with clinker where the timber is freer to move, so causing excessive leaking.
Also with the Stellas where the keel bolts are arranged opposite each other rather than reeled or in line the drying out of the wood keel can cause it to split.
On Alcyone, the wood floors where cut from single pieces of oak with the result that all the arms had snapped across the short grain so offering very little support for the wood keel to stop it twisting from the heeled weight of the 1.25-ton ballast keel and the lateral force applied to it when close hauled etc. This also adversely affected the integrity of the garboard/wood keel joint. This joint had been screwed and re-screwed using brass screws which had de-zincified making them pretty useless. Silicone bronze screws were used to replace them.
And of course, there is nail sickness particularly where the copper nails pass through the oak timbers, and corrosion of the keel and backbone bolts. The deterioration of the backbone bolts and floors in way of the mast can cause leaking from the compression load coming down the mast causing leaking in the garboard joints.
On the whole the Stellas were lightly built and probably many suffer from some or all of these problems.
The true wood aficionados will say if it’s worth repairing then do it properly and replace and renew where necessary. And I have to admit this is what I did with Alcyone. But being a retired one time boat builder I had time and some experience on my side.
I did contemplate filling the cracked wood keel with epoxy putty but decided against it for reasons above. And so, I replaced the wood keel and floors etc. – see account of rebuilding Alcyone elsewhere on Stella website.
Carrying out a fairly comprehensive rebuild which although not very expensive material wise – depending on what needs doing, is very demanding on time. I dread to think of the hours I spent on Alcyone – clearly not economic if the time had to be paid for. But nevertheless, very satisfying.
Personally, I do not believe that there are many short cuts to sorting out the backbone problems and it is probably these which might be the toss up factor as to whether the boat is worth saving or not.
Planking is fairly easily replaced depending on where it is and whether much internal joinery would need removing for access for riveting.
Sharp intakes of breath amongst the aforementioned wood aficionados. There are those that say sheathing a planked hull pronounces a death sentence on the boat. But many wooden hulls have been sheathed with a variety of different materials with differing long term results.
Amongst the synthetic sheathings glass and polyester resin were frequently used but polyester does not penetrate wood nearly as well as epoxy resin – leading to frequent delamination, and so epoxy tends to be the resin of choice when combined with glass cloth.
I was interested to hear that the sheathed Stella is doing OK – for the moment. Hopefully it will give admirable service for many years to come. Has the boat been epoxy sealed on the inside? If not how is the timber going to cope with climatic movement? The paint coating on the inside, I am advised will not stop the movement of moisture (and a what about the uncoated lands and areas behind the timbers etc.?). So, the outside of the planking will be held in the vice like grip of the epoxy glass sheathing whilst the inside of the planking will be free to move. What happens?
My own view is that it would be safer to rake out the lands with a hacksaw blade when the hull is well dried out and slightly vee with a sharpened file tang and having brushed epoxy into the land fill up the vee with Ciba 2016 (?) which is a thixotropic epoxy putty. This would glue the planking together without subjecting it to the stresses above.
It would be even more effective if this procedure could be carried out with the boat upside down. Not impossible if the engine and all loose fittings are removed and two circular wooden frames were fitted around the hull allowing it to be rolled over. The ballast keel would need removing as well thus providing the incentive to replace the keel bolts.
As the fleet gets older there will be Stellas which are not worth saving. So how about stripping them out, removing all the serviceable gear and replacing the hull/deck with a fiberglass one? As far as I can see this would help keep the Stella fleet alive well into the future and because of the attraction of reduced maintenance might even attract new members to the club. If there is a hull somewhere which the owner considers past saving, then it could with work be used as a plug for making a mould. I would be prepared to take on this project so long as a suitable hull was freely available.
Pembrokeshire, December 2016