There are a lot of old boats out there. Every year storms blow through and wreak havoc at marinas across the country. Not all of them make it through unscathed. Afterward, a lot of them end up for sale on the web in various places for really cheap prices. Should you buy a storm damaged fiberglass boats and try to fix it up? That’s a good question. Here is my experience buying a storm damaged fiberglass boat and fixing it up.
I have done this once. I love old boats and working on them. I’ve owned somewhere between 15 and 20 boats in my life so far and plan on adding a +1 sometime in the near future. Storm damaged boats are not for the faint of heart. There are a few things to consider before buying it. There is the whole process of fixing it after you buy it.
Where to buy a storm damaged fiberglass boat and other fixer-uppers?
The first thing to ask. Where do you find these things? Mostly check on eBay and Craigslist. eBay seems to get a lot of unfixed hurricane boats. If you live in the Great Lakes area where hurricane boats are not prevalent then your best place to dumpster dive for boats is Craigslist and now Facebook Marketplace also.
When you find a boat, you have to look at it realistically and ask yourself a few questions.
- How much is this boat worth if it’s not damaged?
- Can I repair this thing?
- Is the hull white? Color matching gelcoat that isn’t white is really difficult. This means your probably going to be painting the whole hull during this process.
- Do I have somewhere I can fix this at?
- How much money will I put into it to get it back to usable?
- How much crap am I going to take from my wife, family, and friends for buying this beat up old thing?
Do some homework first
If your thinking about maybe buying a damaged boat at any time in the future, and even if your not, go find some videos and books on Fiberglass and gelcoat repair. Now in the age of Youtube, there are tons and tons out there. Fiberglass and gelcoat really aren’t that hard to work with. They are messy and produce a lot of dust. Most of the work is grinding, sanding for the prep work and finishing.
I’m not expert in fiberglass by any means. Just an average guy with average skills. You don’t need to be an expert to take on a project boat.
Yes, you can pay someone to fix it for you. Fiberglass shops will be more than happy to take big huge large amounts of money from you. They charge a minimum of $100/hour in labor. If you think it will cost you $1000 in materials to do a job. They will probably charge you $10000 or more to do it for you.
I have spent a fair amount of time reading books on boat repair and fixing up old boats. I always had a dream of getting an old classic looking boat someday and making it beautiful again. I recommend you do the same thing if your even remotely thinking of buying a fixer-upper.
I’ve bought several old boats over the years. Only one had significant damage when I bought it. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? I don’t know.
Many people say to get a survey before buying any boat. If your only spending a few thousand, or less, do you really need a survey? That’s debatable. I will say, do your homework on any boat you are looking at. Research where it’s normal trouble spots are.
Run the engine. Look at the engine. Look at the dipstick and radiator fluid. Most things the survey will find are easily spottable if you look closely at the boat. Wet decks usually leak residue around fasteners inside the boat. Soft spots feel soft walking around on the boat. Look around the bulkheads inside the storage compartments and floorboards to see if there is any cracking or tearing of fiberglass tabbing. Look at the hull keel joint for cracking.
Most boats will tell you if they have serious problems if you take a close look. A lot of serious problems aren’t that serious depending on where and how you will use it.
Phantom – My Catalina 27 storm damaged fiberglass boat
Several years back when I was in a phase where I wanted to find a cheap boat just to get back on the water again I came across a Craigslist ad for a Catalina 27 for $3000. This boat had a diesel, wheel steering, roller furling, autopilot, tall rig and pressure heated water system among other things. It wasn’t a 1970’s zero option outboard motorboat. At the time Catalina 27’s with diesel inboards and wheel steering were selling for at least $12,000. Maybe $10,000 if you found a crazy good deal.
I called the guy and asked about it. He described it having a few scratches on the side and the bow was scraped up a bit. I thought that really didn’t sound that bad. I got in the car to go have a look.
I got to the boat. The few scratches on the side were a giant gouge that went the whole way through into the plywood core. The bow was really scratched off. The wood bowsprit was busted off along with the baby stay.
On the positive side, the engine started right up and ran well. The interior cushions and general interior were in very good condition.
I thought about it for a minute staring at things. Side gouge was really ugly looking. The rub rail, jib track and lifeline stanchions in the impact area were all going to need to be replaced.
What is it going to cost?
There was going to be some significant part costs. I figured mentally a few hundred dollars for each item. I figured a few hundred dollars in fiberglass, epoxy resin and fillers. West System makes good resin fillers and other supplies. My mental estimate at the time was I could probably fix this for $2000 in material costs.
I figured my cost for this whole thing to be around $5500. $2000 for materials and $3000 for the boat. Another $500 for transport some unknown that would come up. This was way below the $10,000 I knew I would spend to buy this boat if it was sitting there in good condition with nothing wrong.
I threw this guy some money and he even offered to take it back to the marina where I had my current boat at for a couple hundred dollars.
One of the first things I did was mention to my dad that I had bought another boat and showed him a couple pictures of what I planned on fixing. His immediate reaction was pretty much “You’re stupid. You’ll never fix that. You just threw a lot of money away on junk”. That opinion continued any time the boat was mentioned in the next couple of months.
Don’t necessarily expect your family and friends to be really supportive of what you’re doing.
Where are you going to keep it and work on it at?
I went to the marina and said I wanted to bring a boat in for winter storage a bit early and asked if that was okay. Their first response was why aren’t you launching it now? I responded it needs some work. They grumbled a lot and very reluctantly agreed to let me bring it in.
Marinas, in general, aren’t horribly happy about your bringing in a junker to fix on the hard, especially if it’s currently August and still the middle of boating season. Before handing out any money for anything you might want to follow up with where you plan to do the work.
I got the boat delivered and it was time to get to work. It was late August at this point. I was only missing a couple months of sailing season to get this boat repaired before it needed to be covered for the winter.
Remove all the hardware
The first thing to do is take off all the damaged parts and anything covering or getting in the way of the fiberglass you need to work on.
One characteristic of fiberglass boats is that there are many parts bolted through the deck and sometimes through the hull deck joint on the said. Some of these fasteners are easy to access. Some are really really not. Some builders attached parts to the hull and deck before joining them together and there is no access to the nuts on some fasteners.
When looking at a boat if you see something you need to remove or will need to remove in the future look for both sides of the fastener and figure out plan for getting it on and off again. You may need to cut a large number of access holes and then need a way to make all the holes you added look nice. If you care if your boat look nice that is.
On this Catalina 27 and most Catalina’s have a bolted on jib track running along the edge of the boat from the stern to midship. It has a bolt every few inches. The inside access to the nut is a giant pain. They are up in the gap between the headliner molding and hull molding. They don’t have enough clearance to get a socket onto or a regular wrench. I would love to know how they tighten these at the factory.
One tool I found really really helpful for holding onto nuts that are a set of vice grip needle nose pliers. You can pinch the nuts with a little fiddling. Typically there wasn’t enough room for the pliers to spin around. You could then unscrew the bolt from outside until you hear the pliers drop to the floor when the nut came off.
Grind out the damage
After taking all the parts off. The first task is to grind off all the damaged fiberglass. All of it needs to come off. You need to grind until you get to undamaged glass and then you need a nice taper in the surface to glue new glass too. Think of it as grinding a dish shape in.
It’s really helpful to have a vacuum close by during this step to suck up the dust. Clean the surface every couple of minutes so you can see.
I found a dremel tool with sanding drum to be very helplful where once the rough grinding is done to shape the taper around the edge and to make a smooth surface for attaching new glass.
Add layers of fiberglass and resin
After grinding is done you add a few layers of fiberglass. Layers go on in a tapered fashing where the first is small and each layer added gets larger. You are filling the dish profile with progressively larger layers of fiberglass.
After the fiberglass has been put in the largest damage spot. I used 4 layers of glass.
Tips for adding fiberglass and resin
- Wear rubber gloves.
- Tape up some newspaper or plastic to catch the resin drips. It will drip and run.
- Measure and cut your fiberglass pieces first and lay them out on some newspaper in an organized fashion so you know which piece to grab next.
- put some resin down on the surface where you will apply the fiberglass before putting down the first layer
- Lay down the first layer and wet it out with some resin
- Put down the next layer and put down a bit more resin
- Repeat until the last layer.
- Put down a bit of resin on the last layer
- Squeeze as much extra resin as you can out and gently wipe it off.
Fairing and Sanding
The next thing your doing is filling and fairing out the surface. This will take much longer than the step before this. For this, you need resin and filler to mix into it. West Systems makes a bunch of options to use for fairing compounds. Mix the resin up to putty thickness and apply it like putty. After applying let it harden and then sand away.
My repaired surface needed some fairly thick fairing in spots. Upwards of an inch thick in places. The boat has a contoured ridge running around it in the original shape. Don’t be afraid of surface character lines. These aren’t too horrible to match.
You can get some softwood or plastic and attach it to the existing undamaged surfaces to make a mold. I used 4″ x 48″ sheets of balsa wood. I think I used 1/8″ thick. I put wax paper under the wood. This gave me a pretty good mold for the 2 surface contours which I then filled up with thickened resin.
Something to consider. I wasted a lot of time because of this. If your going to be applying gelcoat you only need a rough match of your original surfaces. The gelcoat needs to go on 1/16 to an 1/8inch thick. If you fair to your original surface you don’t have any room for the gelcoat.
I faired and sanded until I had a really good surface match and then had a problem because I had no space for the gelcoat to fair and had to grind a bunch of my filler back off. That was a lot of wasted time and effort.
Tips for fairing
- Make molds where you can to fill with putty
- Don’t try to hard to match your original surface. You need a match for the gelcoat
- Use as long a sanding black as you can find to smooth out any contour lines.
- Appy an initial thick coat and then do several smaller patching layers to fill holes and gaps.
Working with Gel Coat
Gelcoat is a bit tricky to work with. There are 2 types. Waxed and without wax. The without wax variety needs a coat of wax painted over it after it initially sets to oxygen starve it before it completely hardens. This is the most common form of it.
Gelcoat is meant to be applied in a mold before fiberglass is laid into it. This is great for building new boats. Not so great for doing repairs.
This is where a lot of time will be spent doing fine detail sanding after applying it. This is the final surface of your repair. Spend some time with 400 and 600 grit paper to really make it smooth.
Don’t try to mix up an entire jar of gelcoat at once. I did this. It hardens much much faster then Epoxy resin. Your working time is a few minutes at best. If you just throw the whole tube of hardener into the whole can. You’ll get a pretty exciting smoking hot jar of boiled gelcoat that will never make it onto your boat. I did this once and took the can back to West Marine. The guy at the counter looked at me a bit weird and gave me a replacement.
Use small amounts. You only get a short time to work with what you mixed up.
If your an unfortunate soul who bought a nonwhite boat this is the time to apply some small test patches to try and figure out what dyes you need to add to the mixture to get the color to match. Apply a small amount. Sand and smooth it out. If the color doesn’t match, grind it off and try again.
Tips for Gelcoat
- Use small amounts.
- Put a rough coat on and sand it down. Then apply more coats to fill gaps and bubbles
- Keep going until you fill all the gaps and bubbles. The more time you put in here the better your end result.
- This step takes time. You have to apply gelcoat. Let it harden. Then brush on wax and let it sit overnight before you can start sanding it.
- Use a long sanding block and work slow and carefully. A longer block is much easier to use to shape character lines
- Wet sand with progressively finer and finer sandpaper. You really need to get down to 600-1000 grit to get a really nice shiny surface.
After you get done with gelcoat there is stil some more surface prep work to do. I found that 3M glazing compound is really good at bringing out the shine of old gelcoat. Follow the directions on the bottle. It’s fairly straight forward stuff to work with. It puts on a nice glossy shiny top layer onto your gelcoat. If your boat is old and faded to begin with it’s not a horrible idea to apply this to the entire hull.
Put the hardware back on
Lastly after this, now that you’ve got a nice shiny smooth undamaged hull, it’s time to reattach any hardware you had to take off or replace at the beginning.
Launch the boat and enjoy
Congratulations. You now have a boat that’s ready to use and enjoy. Like me, you’re probably a few thousand poorer than you were when you started this project. Hopefully your friends and family have figured out they were wrong and now looking forward to checking out the boat.
I went on and added a dodger and some new cockpit cushions and eventually self-tailing winches and made this into quite a nice little boat that I got a lot of enjoyment out of for a couple of years before the 3 foot itch got to me and I moved up to something bigger.
After a couple of sailing seasons, I sold this boat for $7000. I was of course honest with the buyers about the repairs and pointed them out so they knew the history of the boat. After the upgrades that I did, that means I just around broke even for what I put into it. I am fine with that. It’s still significantly less money then a similar boat with similar upgrades would have cost in if I had bought a boat with no damage.
Should you buy a boat that has storm damaged fiberglass boat? That’s up to you. This is the story of my fixer-upper and how it turned out. If you decide to take on a project like this be ready for a lot of hours of effort to get to where you eventually want to be.
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About the author
My name is Ryan C. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys kayaking, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water. I decided to start this website as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports and travel.