Continuous Maintenance

This section describes some of the things that must be done on a regular basis, even if the boat never leaves the slip.


When I first bought Candide, I had never heard of the term “brightwork.”  When I first encountered the term, I thought that maybe it meant working outside under the sun.  I soon learned otherwise!  “Brightwork” is the nautical term for “varnish.”  Candide has acres and acres of varnished handrails, toe rails, gunwhales, combing, and hatches.  All of these things were in beautiful condition when I bought the boat, and nobody told me how difficult it is to maintain that high-gloss sheen.  So, grab a beer, settle back, and let me share my horror story with you.

The first year of owning Candide, I did nothing to the brightwork.  This was simply out of ignorance.  It looked great for several months, but the shine slowly faded away and the varnish eventually started to crack and peel.  Candide looked terrible!  Sort of like me when I get a sunburn and my skin starts to fall off in thin chunks!

I was told on numerous occasions by my fellow liveaboards and even strangers passing by that it was a shame to let such a boat deteriorate.  Eventually, I decided to completely redo the brightwork.  This was no easy undertaking, and I swore to never let it get in this condition again.  With brightwork, you see, it simply can’t be repaired once it gets past a certain point.  The varnish must be completely removed all the way to bare wood.  Here’s what had to be done:

  • Using a heat gun and a sharp scraper (glass from a window pane works much better than expensive brightwork scrapers from a marina store), slowly and methodically remove the old varnish.  Heat it up with the gun, and it will start to blister.  While it’s still hot, use the scraper to peel it away.  You must be very careful not to slip and gouge the wood.  If you do, you’ll spend a lot of unnecessary time sanding.
  • Using  150 grain sandpaper, sand the area you just scraped.
  • Using 250 grain sandpaper, re-sand the area you just sanded with the more coarse paper.
  • Using 300 grain sandpaper, turn the wood into a surface as smooth as glass.
  • Remove any dust with a cloth dipped in mineral spirits.
  • Now you’re ready to apply some varnish.  Mix the varnish with thinner (50 / 50) and apply to the surface.  Repeat this twice, waiting 24 hours between coats.
  • Apply more varnish (this time 75% varnish with 25% thinner).
  • At long last, you’re ready to apply straight varnish to the wood.  If you want it to last, you should apply at least 12-14 coats.  Don’t forget to wait 24 hours between those coats!

Now you’re ready to scrape and sand the next section of your project.  Welcome to the wonderful world of brightwork!

Of course, if I hadn’t neglected my brightwork from the beginning, this process would have been much less arduous.  As it was, it took about 400 hours’ labor and several gallons of Ephiphanes High Gloss varnish (at about $120 per gallon) to complete the task.  I lost count of the pieces of sandpaper used, but it had to be close to a thousand.  Never, NEVER again!!!

Today, I properly maintain my brightwork, which is a lot easier than stripping it down and starting from scratch.  Every week, I pick a manageable bit of brightwork to attack and do the following:

  •     Sand with 300 grain sandpaper until the varnish has a milky appearance.
  •     Apply a coat of thinned varnish (75% varnish / 25% thinner) and wait 24 hours.
  •     Apply two coats of straight varnish, waiting 24 hours between each coat.

That’s it!  No scraping, no heat gun, no blood, sweat or tears!  It is, however, absolutely constant maintenance.  Just like mowing the lawn!

If all this doesn’t sound like your type of thing, my advice is to not purchase a boat with brightwork.  You won’t be happy with the way she looks after a year’s neglect!

I know that some of my readers cringed when they read that I use Epiphanes High Gloss varnish on Candide.  Why on Earth would he do that to himself?  Epiphanes is hard to repair, expensive, and doesn’t last nearly as long as some of the other varnishes on the market!  This is all very true…

However, it is my opinion that Ephiphanes provides a stunningly beautiful finish that if properly maintained, will look great for years.  Originally, Candide’s brightwork was done with Sikkens Cetol, which is a pigmented varnish that has somewhat of an orange hue.  Cetol lasts for a long, long time because its pigment helps block the sun’s UV rays (kind of like a combination of suntan lotion and varnish).  This pigment, though, hides the natural grain of the wood.  Sure, the grain is still visible, but it’s not nearly as bright and shiny as several coats of Epiphanes.

Captain’s Spar Varnish is even better than Epiphanes.  In fact, I use Spar Varnish on Candide’s cabin sole (interior floor).  It gives the floor an absolutely brilliant finish that almost always invokes the first comments from new visitors about the boat’s interior.  The only problem with Spar Varnish is it’s expense.  It’s nearly twice the cost of Epiphanes!

Regardless of which type of varnish you choose to use on your boat, I can almost guarantee that your neighbors won’t approve (unless, of course, they’re using the exact same make and brand…and even then, they probably won’t like the way you hold the paint brush).  You’ll find that varnish is a very personal subject that elicits strong emotions from everyone who uses it.  My advice is to experiment with a few brands, choose one that you like, and ignore the comments from other brightwork-lovers in the marina.

Deck Scrubbing

For some reason, boats tend to be painted mostly white on the surface.  If you live near a bridge or airport, you might be surprised at how quickly it will become dirty.  If you don’t make your friends remove their shoes before coming aboard, it will get dirty even quicker (and scrubbing away scuff marks left by black-soled shoes is absolutely no fun at all)!

To scrub Candide’s decks, I use a toxic concoction of Wisk laundry detergent, ammonia, and water.  WARNING—if you choose to use the same formula, do NOT breath the mixture!  It’s nasty.  The ammonia kills the black mold that grows in the grain of the teak decks.  The Wisk breaks down the surface oils and helps the water carry away the dirt.  By the way, if you do have teak decks, always scrub against the grain of the wood.  This is not the easiest way to scrub, but it will help ensure that you don’t dig out the “soft matter” of the teak with the bristles of the brush.  This, in turn, will make your teak decks last a lot longer!

Holding Tank

A boat’s “holding tank” is, in landlubber terms, its septic tank.  By law, when you go to the toilet within three miles of shore, this tank will hold your feces, urine, and toilet paper….and NOTHING else!  Never put anything down the toilet other than these three things, or you’ll be in for serious (and nasty) trouble when you clog the pipes leading to the holding tank.  Some liveaboards, in fact, don’t even allow toilet paper down the porcelain throne.  Instead, they keep a special trashcan for the paper.  This is a little radical for me, so I tend to flush everything and it eventually winds up in the boat’s holding tank.

Eventually, the holding tank will become full and must be emptied.  Many marinas have special “pump out” facilities that literally suck out the contents of the tank.  The number of times you have to have this done depends on a few variables; the size of the tank, the amount of waste you will be storing, and your personal tolerance for foul odors.  In general, I empty the holding tank about seven times per year.  This involves moving Candide to the fueling area at my marina and asking them to pump out the tank.  Many marinas provide this service for free to their tenants.  Other marinas have mobile pumping facilities, and can empty your tank while she’s in her slip.

Many liveaboards complain about the noxious odor emanating from the ship’s toilet.  Personally, I don’t have this problem because I am very methodical about flushing the toilet.  The trick is to flush (pull the handle and pump) at least ten times after urinating, and at least 20 times after a bowel movement.  This means that Candide has to be pumped out more often, but it ensures that my head doesn’t have offensive odors.

Water Tanks

Unlike a house, boats should NOT be hooked up directly to city water.  Instead, you should plan on filling the inboard water tanks from time to time.  When they drain, simply fill them again with a hose connected to a dockside water spigot.

It is true that many liveaboards use a pressure valve (available at Walmart for less than $5.00) to connect directly to city water.  They simply connect a water hose from the dock to their water tanks and enjoy an unlimited water supply on board.  Unfortunately, they run a huge risk of valve failure.  In the years I’ve lived aboard, I’ve seen two boats sink in their slips because the pressure valves failed (both times it happened, the owners were out of town on business).  My recommendation is to fill the tanks, disconnect the hose, and enjoy your limited supply of water.  It’s simply not worth the risk of sinking your vessel for the convenience of having direct access to city water.

Candide holds 100 gallons of fresh water in two separate tanks (if you’re looking for a boat to buy, it is a big plus to have more than one water tank.  If you’re out sailing and a tank springs a leak, you’ll have a backup).  In general, this water lasts for about five weeks before I have to top off.  It should be noted, though, that I almost never shower on the boat.  I prefer to use the marina showers where there’s an infinite supply of water.  Plus, I don’t have to deal with mildew in the boat’s head (or whiskers in the sink).  I strongly recommend this policy.

Brass Polishing

This should go without saying, but as you look at boats for sale, many of them have perfectly shiny brass portals, binnacles, clocks, barometers, etc.  Like brightwork, that perfect shine won’t last without constant polishing.  Because Candide could pass for a vessel launched 100 years ago, I tend to tell people that I don’t keep up the “polished brass” because I paid a significant amount of money to have all of the brass and bronze on board professionally “antiqued.”  That finish isn’t due to neglect…it’s fundamental to the ambiance of such a traditional vessel.  This, generally, shuts people up about the condition of my brass.  Thank God for the general public’s gullibility!

So, I don’t polish brass on board.  In my opinion, Candide looks just as regal with green-tinted brass fixtures.  It’s a constant battle to keep brass polished, and I just don’t have the time (or the desire) to be bothered with it.

I have neighbors, though, who do polish their brass.  According to them, Brasso polish works best.  Last year, a group of these folks got together and presented me with a can of the stuff for Christmas.  Liveaboards definitely know how to drop hints!  Nonetheless, since labor wasn’t included with the gift, the unopened can is stored with my other cleaning materials.

  • Katie September 18, 2015 at 1:25 am

    Thank you so much for all the help and advice, it is really really useful. I’m about to be living aboard in a boatyard for winter in the UK 🙂

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