Handholds Highlight Difficult Access

Months before I got thinking about painting repainting Blue Angel, I was in the dinghy working on the stern while the Hunt sat in her lift. With the lift remote around my neck, it was easy to pretty much get her where she gave me best access to the stern-mounted sterndrive and depth transducer, stern light, as well as both sides of the swim platform.

Soon after we bought  Blue Angel , all bright and shiny, only a couple of years ago. Note the two handholds on the transom.

Soon after we bought Blue Angel, all bright and shiny, only a couple of years ago. Note the two handholds on the transom.

I can't recall my specific move or task, but when I grabbed the starboard-side transom handhold to steady myself, to my surprise, one end of the handhold came loose off the transom. I was standing in the dinghy, just about where I would be standing on the swim ladder had I been in the water. I would have grabbed this same handhold had I been in the water, and it was a shock to have it come off with such little effort.

I was soon in the cockpit, tools in hand, trying to get at the nuts that held the handhold tight against the transom. It was an impossible task, really, as there are two transom lockers molded into the deck mold and they completely cover any access to the transom anywhere near the handholds. How on earth were they put on? Were these handholds installed before the deck went on? I can only assume so.

These transom lockers completely block access to the transom area behind and underneath them. The only way we can properly mount new handholds will be to drill access holes through these lockers, adding plugs to seal the lockers.

These transom lockers completely block access to the transom area behind and underneath them. The only way we can properly mount new handholds will be to drill access holes through these lockers, adding plugs to seal the lockers.

I tried all sorts of gyrations to get at the fittings to remove the broken handhold. I was ultimately able to get it off when I caught the remaining nut with a ratcheting wrench, after much sweat and worn skin against the bare fiberglass around the hidden areas. There was no way we could hope to reattach these fasteners with these transom lockers in place, molded into the deck as they were.

On inspection I noticed the break in the handhold bolt seemed the result of crevice corrosion, and the stainless steel bolt had simply snapped off the threaded base after a decade of being covered in Cape Cod-area saltwater. I am so glad no one was coming out of the water on the ladder, holding onto this handhold for security. That would have been a rude experience to say the least!

As part of getting the boat prepared for the upcoming paint job at Composite Yachts, I wanted to remove the other handhold so the paint tech could fill the holes and paint the entire transom. I decided I would have to drill small access holes into the two transom lockers to allow us to get to the back of the transom if I ever planned to replace these handholds.

And that is where things go interesting, and a little scary. And reminded me of other times, on other boats I have owned. This is not a unique situation, it would seem.

As you can see in the image, the thickness of the handhold backing plate is pretty thin, and I can tell you that when we finally removed the second handhold, we found one bolt securing it through the transom was only engaged with the handhold base maybe two complete threads, no more.

And this brought back memories of other access issues. I suppose it is human nature to just assume that when you buy a boat from a known builder, things will be done to keep you in the boat...and safe. I am shocked at the number of times I have been wrong with that assumption.

I don't care if you have a sailboat or a powerboat, or anything in between. Just because that handhold or rail feels secure, you just can't assume it is, unless you can inspect it yourself. I remember being contorted, half-upside down in the lazarette of my Baba sailboat, a beauty of a cutter built by the famous Ta Shing yard in Taiwan. A premier builder of super nice and gorgeous yachts, the builder produces superior boats. So it came as a shock when I reached the outer edges of the lazarette space and found the nuts on the much-advertised hull/deck joint were not only loose but coming off.

Or when I was able to get behind a bulkhead because of some water damage while helping a friend with his older sailboat that he hoped to resurrect into a comfortable sailing home. We found the assumed backing plates and bedding of deck hardware to be illusion. The builder guessed the inches of teak trim and fiberglass would be enough to support the loads of the winches at sea. I also have found this in anchor lockers, where a builder couldn't quite figure out how to properly bed a bow cleat (or lifeline stanchion, take your pick) with a backing plate in such a tight spot...and so didn't.

If there is one thing that totally blows everything else off the top of my top of critical elements of a well-built boat, it is good access to everything. And I mean in-your-face access, not just that it "feels" right by touch behind a bulkhead.

There is a brave young woman, Susan Goodall, who is preparing to take part in next year's solo Golden Globe Race around the world. There are 30 sailors taking part in this 50th anniversary event of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston's feat in 1968. As part of the qualifications, each entrant must complete so many offshore miles to make sure they (and their boats) are up to the challenge. This is not 1968, and we don't need to lose people trying to sail around the world alone. Hopefully, the David Crowhurst types will stay home this time.

Anyway, after Goodall mostly completed her preparatory loop around the Atlantic aboard her Rustler 36 sailboat, the boat was so tired and in need of repair that she sailed it back to the Rustler yard in England for a complete refit. And I do mean complete. Every single deck and structural component was removed from the boat, every inch of toe rail, every hatch, cleat, chainplate, fitting, piece of hardware...everything that had been installed was now suspect of becoming another leak or failing under the stress of nonstop sailing offshore. She needed it all done to a much higher standard. And a Rustler 36 is considered such a good boat for this solo race that there are several in the fleet. These sailors must rely on a boat's inherent sailing ability rather than electronic aids and modern equipment.

These days, I try to balance my inherent enthusiasm with a healthy wariness to not make assumptions. Stuff still happens and it is ultimately up to each of us to make sure things are done right. I am not talking about those hairy disaster stories of newsprint replacing fiber mat in the hulls of old Taiwan trawlers or the switching of metals to save a few bucks or absurdly weak outboard-hung rudders destined to fail in the first heavy seaway. Those days are thankfully behind us.

But it remains prudent to inspect every aspect of a boat you plan to buy. Not any of these issues are deal breakers, however. Far from it. They are simply ways you can improve a boat so that you are crystal clear that when a crew member puts his or her full weight on or against a fitting, you are absolutely positive it will hold that weight (and much, much more).

And that is a good thing. Once again, you can greatly improve a boat by taking it apart, which is exactly what is happening with Blue Angel. A new hull color will be a real treat. Just don't get me started on windshield wipers...