Posted by on Feb 10, 2015

I particularly liked the cup below the holes in the transom to catch the water as it melted.

I particularly liked the cup below the holes in the transom to catch the water as it melted.

This week, I am compelled to take a one week break for the “Getting to Know Your Boat series, I have been publishing, to discuss frozen boat hulls.

Every year, once boat show season is in full swing, my phone starts to ring. The boat buying season starts and everyone in the financial food chain is hungry from the hibernation season which started around Thanksgiving. Like hungry bears, the prey is the aspiring boater developing a mild case of spring fever seeking a great deal on a boat before the spring rush is on.

At the risk of over working this analogy, I’ll only go on to say that the bear must eat. It does not make it an evil creature, but a survivor. Buying a boat, in this analogy, does not constitute becoming prey and meeting your demise. But, depending on your approach, you can meet a financial demise, at least to the extent that your discretionary / hobbyist budget is concerned.

This week, I have taken three calls from prospective boat buyers seeking a survey on a boat, stored either outside (wrapped) or inside (un-heated). Basically, a frozen boat. In each case, I have advised them to either make arrangements to have the boat moved to inside heated storage for a period of 48 – 72 hours (depending on temperature), or wait until we have a few consecutive days AND NIGHTS of 40 degrees or better.


A surveyor has, at most, 5 tools to evaluate the hull condition of a fiberglass boat:

  1. Experience: If the conversation does not start of with asking a prospective surveyor about their experience, you are already off on the wrong foot. Find a SAMS (Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors) or NAMS (National Association of Marine Surveyors) affiliated surveyor first. There are a few unaffiliated surveyors worth their salt, but far more who are not part of one of these two professional associations for a good reason. They have either been booted or don’t meet the qualifications. Here are links to the association web pages that list their members. SAMS: NAMS:
  2. Eyes: OK, sounds simple, and relates to experience. But I distinguish this one since many times, a wrapped boat does not allow for access to the entire deck and hull. This is really the only truly reliable tool, along with experience, that can be counted on with a frozen boat. However, no surveyor that I am aware of has mastered X-ray vision and those goggles they used to sell on the back of comic books, don’t work. Although our 7th grade home economics teacher did confiscate Danny White’s when optimism got the better of him in class. He attests they did not work and I am aware of no new technology breakthroughs in the x-ray glasses field of study.
  3. Percussive testing: Testing or tapping out a hull with a phenolic hammer, known as percussive testing, is a means to detect voids, delamination, and can detect soft / rotten coring. Percussive testing on a frozen boat is effective in finding dry voids. Dry voids generally come from layup during construction, but can also occur from flexural or other mechanical separation. They are often caused by hydraulic forces, which, you guessed it come from water ingress. When that water freezes to a solid, it makes percussive testing, at least unreliable, if not completely ineffective.
  4. Moisture meters: Every surveyor relies in part on at least one moisture meter. In my case, I use two as a means to double check my findings. They are, without question, imperfect tools. So many variables can affect readings. Exterior and interior laminate thickness, coring type and condition, gelcoat and surface coatings. surface moisture (rain, fog, recently hauled, etc.), and factors relating to the meter itself. Now, back to our point with frozen boats. Neither of the two prevailing technologies for moisture meters become more reliable on frozen (iced) cores. The tool will tend to read lower levels of moisture and you may find a major problem, when the hull thaws, that was otherwise undetectable.
  5. Infrared / thermal imaging: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this as it is a old technology finding a new niche’. Done properly, it can be a most reliable tool. The “done properly” part is the challenge, even in temperature controlled environments during the summer. It could be very effective during a thawing of a boat, if you are willing to pay a surveyor to monitor the thaw over the course of the 48 – 72 hours. Thermal dynamic imaging is a complex topic that is often undertaken without the proper education or understanding. The proprietors of the equipment offer training, but the training may be lacking. I often hear stories of hulls being condemned by people selling thermal imaging services without a good understanding of what the image depicts. Copper bonding straps in the hull have been identified as water tracks in the hull. In worst case scenarios, the hull is drilled, grinded, and probed, only to find a dry core. A future article will discuss thermal imaging technology.

So what now? Well, the boat buyer is under a lot of pressure to get the good deal now before the boat buying season hits full swing and their great deal is gone. Boat sellers, be they private or brokers, have carried their winter costs and have spring commissioning costs in front of them. No doubt they would like to sell their boat. Some surveyors are even willing to inspect these boats. Be prepared to sign a waiver for findings related to the boat’s hull. But beware of any surveyor that claims they can effective survey a frozen hull.

There are surveyors I respect that will collect the hull waiver with their contract and inform the buyer of their limitations. Personally, I prefer to decline work that does not allow me to work with a thawed hull. Make your own decision, of course, but hopefully you will do so better informed. Buying a used boat is always a gamble. A frozen boat just does not favor the odds for the best outcome.