Whenever you own a yacht, compromise becomes an essential element in any long-term upgrade plan. Balancing aesthetics, ease of maintenance, strength and offshore readiness is part science, part personal preference and part emotion. Such was the case when making two modifications to my 22-year-old Pearson 40.
Teak is beautiful. No one will argue with that. There is nothing quite as breathtaking as teak trim with eight perfectly applied coats of gloss spar varnish reflecting the sun from its mirror-like finish. With that beauty comes compromise, since varnished teak also requires a significant investment in time. My desire to sail more and varnish less led me to consider the possibility of replacing my original teak toe rails with perforated aluminum toe rails, and to replace the original teak handrails with stainless. After seeing several boats outfitted this way at a boat show, I decided it was time to trade in my teak.
In addition to the prospect of reduced maintenance, installing new toe rails and handrails gave me the opportunity to fix a number of annoying leaks that had developed over the years. A quick discussion with my local naval architect, Jack Corey at JSI, added a third positive dimension to the decision. Jack explained that bolting a proper aluminum toe rail at the hull-to-deck joint was akin to attaching an I-beam to the joint, providing significant strengthening to the hull. Attaching welded stainless handrails to the deck, just aft of the mast, would have a similar strengthening effect on the deck. On top of that, older wooden handrails are notoriously weak, particularly after sitting in the sun for many years and from the normal erosion of material due to cleaning and sanding. Replacing the handrails would provide the additional benefit of strong and safe grab-rails for the crew on deck.
New toe rail
The hull-to-deck joint on the Pearson 40 is typical of production boats from that era. There is an inward-facing flange on the hull, with the deck sitting on and overlapping the hull flange. Sheet-metal screws hold the deck and hull together, and there is bonding/sealing filler between the two. A teak cap rail that is bolted and/or screwed down covers the joint.
To replace the teak rail, I selected an aluminum extrusion manufactured by Goiot in France, and distributed in the United States by Welmax Marine. I selected the Goiot toe rails for their looks, quality and because they offer a complete integrated system with rails, cast ends and midships chocks, allowing for a custom, professional look.
The toe-rail replacement process was quite simple:
Removing the old toe rail
The first step is to get access to as much of the underside of the rail as possible. Removing significant portions of the interior trim turned out to be the most time-consuming part of our project, but it is essential to the success of the effort. Once you have unfettered access to the underside of the rail, remove the old toe rail by removing any screws and/or bolts holding the teak rail down. Once the screws and bolts are removed, the teak rail should pop off.
Clean and seal the joint
Underneath the old toe rail will be a layer of bedding compound, dirt, salt and varnish. This can be removed with a putty knife, fiberglass-safe paint and varnish remover. Once cleaned, the entire hull-to-deck joint is exposed. At this point, you have the opportunity to permanently seal the joint if you choose. By placing a fillet of thickened epoxy along the ridge where the deck overlaps the hull and then covering the fillet with a layer of epoxy-soaked fiberglass tape, the hull-to-deck joint can be made watertight. This may be overkill, but you can be sure that the hull-to-deck joint will never leak. Considering the overall effort to install new toe rails, the extra four or five hours it takes to do the glass work here is well worth the investment in my mind. Once this process is complete, the finished joint should be inspected for any lumps or protrusions, which might prevent the new rail from sitting flush. A small grinder or Dremel tool will quickly level them.
Dry-fitting the new toe rails
This task requires no special skills other than patience and care. The key is to completely dry-fit the entire toe-rail system, using only bolts. No bedding compound or epoxy at this point. Once the dry-fit is complete, the toe-rail system is removed and then reinstalled with bedding compound and epoxy.
The rail extrusions are approximately 20 feet long. This length requires a joint approximately at midships. The standard Goiot-cast mid-ships chock makes for a smooth and professional joint. Once the position of the chock is determined, bolt it in place. This becomes the starting point for both the forward and aft sections of the rail. The opposite end of the rail must be temporarily suspended over the side as you start the bending process.
Starting at the chock, bend each rail section progressively to conform to the curve of the hull as you work toward the other end, installing a bolt and nut in each hole as you go. Exercise great care in areas where there is a severe curve to the rail, particularly at the midships chock. This is where aesthetics takes over. “Sighting” the shape of the curve from above is essential so that the bend in the finished rail installation is smooth with no kinks or angles. Continue the bolting-bending steps until you reach the end of the hull. Cut the extrusion to fit; add an end fitting; and you are ready to do the same series of steps on the other three pieces of rail extrusion. Once all four sections of rail are completed, remove the bolts, fittings and extrusions, and mark them so that they can be reinstalled in the same locations.
Final fitting and installation
Once all the new parts are removed, both the joint area to be covered by the new rail and all of the aluminum parts must be cleaned. Isopropyl alcohol is an excellent, fast-drying, environmentally friendly solvent for this. Once cleaned, final installation of the first section of the new rail can begin. Have three people for this task, two doing the installation and one doing cleanup. All necessary tools should be set out on deck along with the bolts, washers and nuts to be used during the installation. Once any section is started, it must be completed quickly before the bedding compound or epoxy begins to set up.
The first step is to mount the midships chock permanently using bedding compound. The bolts can be set in bedding compound or thickened epoxy. My personal preference for sealing through-deck bolts is a product called Superbond Epoxy Adhesive from Fiberglass Coatings in St. Petersburg, Fla. (www.fgci.com). The installation of all toe-rail sections starts at the midships chock and then works aft or forward. The selected rail is turned upside down and bedding compound is applied to the bottom of the entire rail section. It is best to use two beads of bedding, one inboard and one outboard. Once the bedding compound is applied, the rail is turned right-side up. The end that is away from the starting point at the chock is hung on its temporary support. Starting with the first bolt next to the chock, bed and tighten the bolts progressively along the rail, one at a time, until you reach the end. Once the track is finished, bed and bolt down the end fitting. When the cleanup is completed, that section is finished, and the same process can be repeated for the other three sections.
In my case, the entire process took a total of about 80 person-hours (two people over two full weekends) and cost less than $2,000. The work is technically fairly simple, but the physical effort to perform those simple tasks can be quite taxing. In particular, the effort required to contort your body and reach into the recesses under the rail for attaching nuts and washers can test your relationship with your crew. Youth and flexibility are real benefits, as are long arms. Manual dexterity is challenged when you are reaching up behind a bulkhead, attempting to get a nut and washer on a bolt that you can only feel and not see. Still, this is one of the most rewarding projects I have ever done on a boat. It dramatically reduced maintenance. The new toe rail makes the boat look far more modern. The hull-to-deck joint is 100 percent waterproof and to that I can determine, the boat is significantly stiffer structurally.
Installing new handrails
Replacing the old teak handrails with stainless-steel rails turned out to be a relatively simple and quick project. We started by removing the fasteners below the bungs (plugs) on top of the rails. Once removed, I took the original rails to a local marine stainless fabricator who built replacement rails that aligned the new rail fasteners with the originals, allowing me to use the existing holes in the deck. The only modification required was a new way to attach the handrails to the deck. The original handrails were fastened from above, with the fasteners passing through the handrail from below. The new stainless handrails were built with 5/16-inch studs welded to the bottom of each leg. These protruded through the cabin ceiling, allowing for nuts and backing plates to be installed. Partial removal of the headliner was required to access the studs and install the nuts and backing plates. Once this was accomplished, the handrail legs were set in epoxy and the fasteners tightened. The new handrails are watertight and extremely strong. Once again, maintenance time is reduced.
Was the toe-rail and handrail refit worth the time and effort? Without a doubt! The boat is stronger, drier, safer and easier to maintain. As much as I love teak, I must say that in today’s time-restricted lifestyle, I prefer stainless and aluminum.
Chip Lawson currently lives in Melbourne, Fla., and keeps his Pearson 40 on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. His sailing experience has included sailmaking, boatbuilding, professional crew and rigger. He is the head of the Pearson 40 Owners Association (www.pearson40.org).