Foam proves positive feature of home-built metal yacht

From Ocean Navigator #128
March/April 2003
To the editor: It’s an almost universal mantra. You’re standing a particularly long watch or lying in your bunk listening to the water rush past the hull and thinking about something you wish you’d done to make your vessel safer, stronger, more glamorous, faster or more efficient.

“If I’d had the time or money, I’d have made these decks and overheads more resistant to condensation,” you may have thought.

“If we’d thought more about it, we’d have added higher bulkheads for watertight compartments,” a voice may have once whispered in your ear.

But these things seldom get addressed, and we press on to the next port and shove them into the “some other time” locker of our mind.

Owner/skipper Jack Fitzpatrick thought about a lot of these things when he built his 60-foot dream ketch, Ms. Fitz. He planned his design for years and added some extra elements the rest of us only wonder about. In spring of 2001, however, while sailing the boat in the Bahamas, all of his planning came to a sudden and unusual climax.

Image Credit: J.J. Stives

The extensive dishing of plates on Ms. Fitz’s aluminum hull after a night on a Bahamas reef.

The big ketch wallowed at a precarious angle on her starboard side, atop the hard coral reef, water sloshed about the angled pilothouse sole, and the starboard lifeline was awash as wave after wave pounded over the deck.

Ms. Fitz, a custom-built, aluminum pilothouse ketch, was lying on a shallow reef near Little Harbour Island in the Bahamas as night fell. Her owner/skipper and crew were soon rescued by islanders, and they spent a restless night ashore in a newly built house on the cliffs overlooking the reef.

“No boat has ever survived a night out there,” the house’s friendly and concerned owner told skipper Fitzpatrick. “The reef is too rough, and the breakers always win. Forget about your boat.”

Fitzpatrick slept little that night. The crewmember who had been at the wheel at the time of the grounding was beside himself with grief at the thought that the beautiful dark-green hull was being smashed on the reef below.

Morning brought a surprise, however. As the sun came up on the Marsh Harbour group of islands, it showed that the vessel was no longer visible in the green and white surf of the reef, no longer being pounded by the waves. She was on the far side of the coral ledge, in deeper water, riding easily at anchor. (Before they had left, Fitzpatrick had hopefully put out Ms. Fitz’s bow anchor on the possibility that they might succeed in saving some part of the vessel from the reef’s vengeance). Now she was floating on her own, upright without any list, apparently safe. It was unbelievable, but a testimony to luck, her design and Fitzpatrick’s construction skills.

Ms. Fitz isn’t your everyday, built-in-the-garage custom sailboat. Launched in 1993 at Toms River, N.J., she displaces 55,000 pounds, draws six feet and is fabricated totally from aluminum, including deck, deckhouse and major fixtures. Fitzpatrick had intentionally designed her from the keel up as a sturdy, attractive, live-aboard vessel. It took him nearly 13 years of part-time work to complete the dream. In the process, he built a Quonset hut-type enclosure in a local yard, working through many New Jersey winters and welding every plate exactly the way he wanted it. At times, he said, he’d take major sections apart and start over again, just to make sure it was right. His careful attention to detail included double protection for sound deadening, floatation and extra-beefy structure. As a model, he had followed the construction of a sister ship, noting and working out quirks and problems he saw in the earlier hull’s design.

Image Credit: J.J. Stives

The 60-foot ketch Ms. Fitz was built during a 13-year period in Toms River, N.J., by owner Jack Fitzpatrick, who welded every aluminum plate of the boat’s hull and deckhouse. He filled the bilges of the boat with as much as 5 feet of urethane foam.

This kind of awareness and a willingness to do it over and over until it was right paid off that night in the Bahamas. It had carried Ms. Fitz through the night while the waves, high tide and currents carried her over the reef and into safer waters.

When they went aboard the next morning, there was very little water in the bilges, and when they were pumped dry, no new water appeared. Actually, there aren’t really any bilges because he had filled the areas below the sole with expanding urethane foam – as much as 5 feet of it! The engine room, built as a secure, watertight box, with full aluminum sole, overhead and bulkheads fore and aft for total isolation from possible flooding, was dry, and all machinery was working. The small sumps around the transmission and drive shaft were practically dry. Ms. Fitz had survived.

A few days later, after a careful visual inspection by Fitzpatrick and insurance people who flew in, the skipper took Ms. Fitz back across the Gulf Stream to her year-round mooring at Vero Beach, Fla. While he continued to worry about the obviously buckled and bent hull plates above and below the waterline, Fitzpatrick marveled at the fact that she was not taking on any water. Along the starboard side, at the waterline, above and below, were deep scars from the night on the reef and the pounding she took. But Fitzpatrick had not only welded the quarter-inch aluminum plates himself with extra care and strength, he had added many cubic feet of closed-cell polyurethane foam to the inside of the hull. Although he says his intent was to provide extra sound insulation and to prevent condensation, Fitzpatrick admits that flotation was also part of his plan. “The flotation part was one aspect of the foaming that I never intended to test,” he said.

“We pumped in the contents of 2 1/2 55-gallon drums of the urethane material. This expanded at a ratio of about 10-to-1 and covered the entire inside of the hull,” he said. “It was the only work I contracted out, and the guy did a great job. It took him two long days.”

The job cost about $2,000 and involved more or less framing the boat up twice. Once the sleepers and tanks were in place, they were then pulled out so that the foam could be sprayed directly onto the inside of the hull. After the foam was in, sleepers, equipment and tanks were quickly replaced and reseated in the foam base. When fully expanded and dry, the unwanted portions were simply cut out and the areas covered with plywood. It was this foam liner that had apparently helped absorb the continuous shock from the grounding. It had also performed an unintended function.

In early April, four weeks after Ms. Fitz returned to port, my Florida dive team was doing public-service free inspection dives in the Vero Beach area. Fitzpatrick asked me to do a check dive to assess the extent of the underwater damage. From this, he would determine if she would be hauled then or wait until later in the year.

The exploratory dive went well. In the murky Indian River waters, I found no major damage to her keel and rudder. There appeared to be no severe hull damage on the starboard side, although many plates were deeply dented and slightly concave. Most of the bottom paint was abraded away. So, I thought, at the least the boat needed a new paint job.

Then, amidships on the port side, I found a 6- to 8-inch-long open vertical fracture in the plates, surrounded by deep indentations. The coral heads had beaten the metal so hard that the plate had cracked. The mystery was why she wasn’t taking on water with this break in her hull plates. The hole was about two feet below the waterline, and we later estimated that it was the size of a 2-inch-diameter hole, so water should have been flooding in. But it wasn’t.

Again, Fitzpatrick assumed that the thick layer of foam was keeping the hole sealed, but he immediately made plans to haul out the next week, as soon as there was a good high tide and an opening at the nearest yard, some 15 miles to the south. On April 24, we took Ms. Fitz out of the water for the first time since the Bahamas grounding. As soon as she was on land, we were able to see the full extent of the damage: caved-in plates, long, deep scratches along the entire length of the hull, and most of the bottom paint gone. But we found no other fractures.

A local aluminum welder was hired and the damaged plates repaired while Fitzpatrick applied new epoxy sealer and bottom paint to the rest of the hull. His insurance company paid him another visit, and the settlement was improved somewhat to cover the additional damage and required repairs.

By May 2, Ms. Fitz was back in the water, and Fitzpatrick was once again living on the mooring instead of on the hard. To think he owed the survival of his boat to a few drums of foam!

J.J. Stives has sailed his own 41-foot Cheoy Lee sloop, Laphroaig, for 15 years on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts. He runs an underwater marine services operation in Vero Beach and Fort Pierce, Fla.

By Ocean Navigator