The following is the text of an interview with Mirage President Ken Fickett, which appeared in the September 2003 issue of Soundings magazine.
Walk the dock with
Ken Fickett, boatbuilder
Q&A on fiberglass trawler shopping
What can I determine about vessel construction from a dockside inspection?
One thing to look for is exposed laminates. That will enable you to see the weave pattern. There should be no puddles of excess hardened resin that look like slick pools on top of the surface. You want to see the bonds that hopefully are holding the bulkheads and other structures neatly laid up with no air. Air in laminates that have not been gelcoated will look like white spots instead of completely clear ó opaque as opposed to translucent. Run your hand over any laminates you find, including the bond areas where strips of fiberglass have been wet out to join pieces together. They should be nicely prepped. Look in storage lockers for these. Lift up floorboards, pull out drawers, check locker lids, exterior hatches ó anywhere you can see fiberglass instead of a molded panel that hides the glass. Salespeople shouldnít discourage you from looking in these blind places. You donít want to see exposed raw wood in bilge areas, where thereís a possibility it could stay wet. Thereís no problem having wood in a boat as long as itís in an area thatís going to stay dry.
What can you tell me about ďhull thumpingĒ?
Iíve been amused over the years as Iíve listened to a lot of salesmen complain about ďhull-thumpers.Ē Anyone looking to buy a particular boat should thump the hull. Surveyors look for defects in hulls by thumping on them. Of course, they do it in a very sophisticated manner with a special hammer. But thumping on a hull can tell a lot, particularly on larger boats. For example, you can tell simply by the resonance you get if bulkheads are bonded on the inside. If you hear a reverberation or a rattle, you should begin to wonder just how the boatís built. With trawlers, it ought to feel like hitting the floor. Hull-thumping is difficult to do with a boat in the water, but out of the water, thump away.
What are some key questions I should ask a salesman or builder at a boat show, when time is at a premium?
Ask what the laminate schedule was ó basically what kind of layers do they put in and how many of them. Ask about bonding methods, whether they use adhesives or wet bonds. Ask what method has been used to resist blisters. There are still plenty of builders who are doing nothing. Vinylester has been pretty well proven to be better than epoxies for resisting blisters. You also should ask what kind of gelcoat has been used. Isothalic NPGs are the most chemical-resistant gelcoats, and offer the best resistance to crazing, cracking and general deterioration. Itís imperative that you really educate yourself. Look for the middle lines on the various issues, not the extreme answers.
Should I be wary of a boat that is cored?
Nearly all boats have core in one place or another. Cored structures are less puncture-resistant than solid fiberglass, so stick with solid fiberglass below the water line. Above the waterline, cores are fine. Theyíre used to reduce the weight aloft, which means a better handling boat with less rocking and rolling. More stiffness, less weight. Coring is put into deck laminates to gain stiffness; it increases the thickness so when you are walking on the deck or moving through the water, the deck doesnít flex and bend. There are several good foam or plastic cores out there that will last forever.
Thereís absolutely no reason in my opinion ó and I understand that thereís going to be people out there who disagree ó to use balsa core in a deck. I donít think thereís any reason to use plywood in a deck. No reason to use wood in a deck at all, and with trawlers, frankly, no reason to use a core in a hull. Wood, on the other hand, is fine for bulkheads.
What kind of indicator is hull fairness, polish, and shine in determining how well a boat is built?
While its certainly nice to have a boat thatís fair and very smooth with a good gloss on it, the quality of the vessel should not be determined by the quality of the outside finish. Things like telltale print-through ó sometimes the result of thin gelcoat ó can be seen on the very best yachts. Thatís not the construction of the boat. A number of high-volume production builders turn out boats with high-luster finishes, and frankly it often comes at the expense of the structural integrity of the first 1/16-inch of skin on the hull. They put in print barriers that may not have the best strength. They do a lot of things to make the skin look very nice without regard to vessel construction.
Some of the boats I plan to look at are built with adhesive joints. How does that differ from other bonds?
Adhesives typically are two-part putties that are troweled or squirted into place, forming a bead of glue to join pieces. More and more boats are put together with adhesives, which is an excellent construction method, as long as the joints were designed as adhesive joints. A properly executed adhesive joint is as good or better than any wet bond.
Why do some builders choose to paint hulls rather than gelcoat?
Boats are painted for a number of reasons. Often itís to fair them out and clean them up to get the surface looking extra smooth, which canít always be achieved with gelcoat. But paint is going to be easier to damage and more difficult to repair. If youíre looking for a new boat and really want a painted hull, I recommend buying a gelcoated boat, using it for a year or so ó which will allow the surface to age and get print ó then fairing and painting it. Youíll have the early dock dings out of the way, so youíre less likely to scratch up the new paint job.
What factor is hull color?
Dark hull colors can tremendously affect the temperature inside the boat, so be sure the air conditioning system was chosen with the color in mind. Make sure the unit isnít sized for a white hull if the color is dark green. A white hull may not require as powerful a system as a dark green one. Dark colors also have an effect on the longevity of the gelcoat. Surface temperatures on some of the darker colors can exceed 200 degrees, and that tends to degrade it a fair amount.
What should I look for in non-skid?
Stay away from diamond-pattern non-skid. It looks great, but I donít think itís very effective. Look for an aggressive non-skid that has sharp edges ó itís not going to hurt your bare feet. Itís going to be a little more difficult to clean, but it will keep you on the boat. Obviously teak decks work very well, too, but the maintenance gets to be very high.
What kind of fuel tank do you prefer ó aluminum, steel, plastic, fiberglass?
The fuel tank material most widely held to be the best is fiberglass, with either epoxy or vinylester resin. If the boatís diesel powered, I would expect the tank to be integral to the hull, which adds strength and structure to the boat. If itís a gasoline-powered trawler, thatís not allowed by law. You can still have a fiberglass tank; it just canít be made as a structural part of the hull. Fiberglass tanks typically will be lifetime tanks, not like steel or aluminum tanks, which are good for 10 years or so.
What should I be careful of when it comes to plumbing and wiring?
The obvious thing to watch for is marine-grade materials installed in a neat and proper fashion, but there is something less obvious. While youíre digging around in that bilge, try to ascertain whether the boat was pre-rigged. Sometimes builders will use an inner liner ó sometimes people talk about it as an IGU ó a large fiberglass piece that incorporates a lot of interior components, such as furniture pieces. These inner liners are dropped into the hull. Sometimes electrical wires, plumbing, hoses, even through-hulls are run, then the fiberglass piece is bonded to the hull. This means you can no longer access any of those items; you have to cut fiberglass apart to do that. Stay clear of boats built like that.