For a long time I dreamed of a steel yacht as the ideal ocean cruiser, so much so that I came very close to having one built and looked at many boats on the second-hand market. It was a dispiriting experience in many ways, as amongst the builders there seemed to be complete disagreement on how to keep the paint on and rust at bay, the Achilles heel of steel boats. This was in turn borne out by inspecting many used boats, where the theories proposed by the different builders all seemed to fall down. Every one of them had a rust problem.
Then a revelation
In 2003, my crew and I were sitting in the tiny harbour at Portrush in Northern Ireland, when a yacht appeared in the entrance and made its way to join us on the two-boat pontoon. We helped them alongside, and I found myself looking with increasing interest at this new arrival. Obviously steel, and beautifully built with a host of custom features, she was a beauty, and not a rust streak in sight.
There wasn’t time to do more than have a brief chat with the owners of Caitlin of Argyll, Bryan and Dorothy Collins, as they were whacked after a typically tough circumnavigation of Ireland, and we were changing crews before leaving for the Hebrides early the next morning. But enough time to learn that Brian was the then Managing Director of one of Britain’s most respected boatyards, Silvers at Rosneath on the Clyde in Scotland. That at least explained the immaculate state of the boat, and hinted at the source of the wealth of smart thinking on display wherever you looked at her—a really well thought out boat.
Roll forward nearly ten years, and on our arrival in the Canary Islands, there she was again, still as smart as ever. I didn’t waste any time before going to say hello, and at last have a chance to ask about her in more detail—not least how did they keep her in such great condition. As Bryan and Dorothy both played joint roles in choosing her and having her built over a seven year period, they know her inside out and I had the benefit of two different perspectives.
It starts at the planning stage
The crucial first part for them was selecting the right team to build the steel structure, and both agree that they made the right choice with JT of Morvoren Seacraft in Penryn, Cornwall, now sadly no longer in business. JT had built his own steel boat for a circumnavigation with his family, and on their return put what he had learned into building really good quality steel boats. These were mainly Dutch Van de Stadt designs, another good point as the Dutch know more about steel design and construction than anyone else in Europe. Dorothy came down to vet the yard, liked what she saw, and then began the process of selecting the design.
As they wanted a two person ocean cruising boat, and at the time of dreaming her up (during the late seventies) the considered maximum size for such a boat was below forty feet due to gear constraints, that was the first parameter settled. They wanted a small cockpit, a pilot house and a big bow platform to allow the stowage and use of two anchors for a start, but at that time there was really nothing available on the market, so they agreed she would have to be a one off.
Talking with JT lead them to select a standard Van de Stadt Migrant 36 as the basis for their new boat, and with the aid of the designers they decided to lengthen her by two feet, which in turn allowed them to add the other elements that were at the core of their design philosophy. Adding more ballast, and setting her up to carry a far taller rig than the standard boat meant that she would sail well too, and be capable of good average speeds even with her heavy displacement.
And the result is?
After seven years in the build, as time and money allowed, their plan for a simple, spartan boat had morphed into something quite different—with her elegant sheer, purposeful bow and neat pilot house arrangement she looks completely contemporary, yet she was launched in 1993! Since then they have sailed her between the Azores, Norway, the Canary Islands and all points in between in safety and style. During that time, she has proved to be a fast boat, easy to handle short handed, with excellent load carrying ability and with that most important factor for long distances—comfort.
And she still looks spotless, despite having had only one external re-paint since her launch, so keeping steel looking good in the long term can be achieved, which brings me back to my original question—how do you do it?
It’s Not Easy
There’s a fine old military maxim that ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’, and according to Bryan and Dorothy they approached the building of Caitlin of Argyll like a military campaign. They were determined that their new boat would not become a maintenance nightmare in future years, so they adopted every best practice they could identify to make that a reality—in other words, every steel boat builder’s dream, a boat where you dust the bilges.
So when planning all areas where abrasion could occur, stainless steel was employed, welded to the mild steel of the structure with stainless rod. All of the stainless/mild steel joins were overpainted so that potential rust problems at the joint could be avoided, and crevice corrosion kept at bay. No stainless was used below the waterline.
All deck gear was bought at the build stage, offered up and all holes drilled in advance. The gear was then removed, the holes re-drilled oversize, so that at the blasting and painting stage a good thickness of protective paint could be built up in the holes, before nylon inserts and/or Sikaflex was employed to make the watertight bond. Where items of external deck gear such as dorade boxes were to be fitted, external tangs for fixing were always employed rather than through drilling the deck, to keep moisture out and rust under control.
All deck lockers in the standard design were removed, and apart from a small stern anchor locker and the gas locker there are no other stowage areas accessible from the deck. Bryan and Dorothy argue that salt water inevitably gets into cockpit lockers, and gathers there causing problems. Sharp edges get chipped constantly with gear going in and out, and heavy steel lids are a positive hazard for fingers and the like. Lockers gather all of the gear that you need, and generally at the bottom, where access is awkward, so they maintain that it takes no more time to stow gear below or elsewhere in pre-determined, dedicated stowage spaces, as they do on Caitlin.
Getting The Paint System Right—Outside
Caitlin was first painted in 1987, long before her launch. Externally in preparation for painting she was blasted to SA 2 ½ (or better) and every effort was made to ensure the best possible job—they even made a special blasting nozzle to get to the awkward to reach spots, such as under the toe rail and underneath flanges. Following grit blasting she was immediately blast primed to seal the surface. The next layer was micaceous iron oxide followed by several layers of epoxy paint. This constituted the ‘protective’ paint system, to be overlaid by the ‘cosmetic’ layers. Compatibility with the substrate is vital, so they stuck doggedly to a reputable manufacturer’s specification of primer, undercoat and gloss. At all times a greater thickness of paint than the manufacture’rs recommendation was applied, to build a really tough, durable finish.
Internally, she got the works—as steel generally dies from the inside out, this made sense, so here dedication to getting it right bordered on the fanatical. Blasting to SA 2 ½ and vacuuming out the spoil was followed by thorough inspection with torches and mirrors looking for areas that had been missed or were shadowed. Sub-standard areas had to be re-blasted, re-checked, re-blasted and re-checked again. Only when all areas were deemed up to standard could the whole interior and deckhead be sweep-blasted, to bring all areas up to ‘bright’ metal and allow paint to be applied. At this stage all areas identified as difficult to hit with an airless spray were strip coated with a brush, prior to the whole hull and deckhead being airless spray treated with epoxy tar. It took in excess of eighteen hours of non-stop work before a dab of paint was applied. Manufacturer’s overcoating times were strictly adhered to throughout, making for a punishing work schedule, impossible to achieve within the parameters of a standard working day.
Below the waterline the epoxy tar was overcoated with a primer to seal it and avoid leaching, before white polyurethane was applied as a final coat. Above the waterline, all of the wooden lands needed to accept the interior joinery were bolted into pre-drilled and painted holes in the frames before the whole hull and deck was sprayed with 4” of fire-retardant polyurethane foam for sound and thermal insulation.
The whole internal paint system was time consuming and very labour intensive, but they’re adamant that it was worth it. As Bryan says, ‘you get a second chance with the outside, but not the inside. And time spent at the initial painting stage saves weeks of filthy work down the line, and protects your investment.’ Look at the pictures below, and you’ll know he’s right.
It’s Stood The Test Of Time
Since her launch in 1993, Caitlin has had one external re-spray with Awlgrip in 2000, and the interior has had only touching up where necessary. That she looks as good as new is a credit to the painters and the paint system, but also the meticulous way they both look after her. They advocate washing down after every passage to keep salt off the paint, and use a good quality silicone free car wax on the hull whenever they have the chance to apply it.
And she looks great on it. And though she might be steel, Bryan and Dorothy are proud owners and resisted the temptation to build an ‘all steel’ workboat, so she has a teak deck aft and beautifully varnished teak all around the companionway, to give her a smart yacht finish.
Obviously, Caitlin is a rather special boat. I put this to Bryan, and he laughed that they hadn’t necessarily intended it to be that way, rather as something that simply got out of hand. His view is that as they knew that the build process was going to take several years, they had the chance to test their own opinions of how all things—engine, installation, rig, etc.—should be done, against those of experienced friends and the best boatbuilders in the yard that he ran. And having asked for those opinions, well, ‘ you’d better follow their advice!’, even if it makes a rod for your own back.
Bryan and Dorothy both point out that they were in their thirties when they started to conceive the basic ideas for the boat, with the vision that they were looking for a boat that would suit them until they were well into their sixties. And as there were few designs around at that time for a two person passagemaker in GRP, steel and a one-off it had to be—there was little option. But as Dorothy remarks, there have been times when they’ve been very glad to be in a solid steel boat, mainly when the weather is at its worst.
Practical is good
They both are firm that there is nothing prissy about the boat—she is a practical and capable offshore cruiser that has had plenty of use. She has many custom features, but they had the time to incorporate these over a long build process. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interior of the boat. She features a multitude of clever ideas, simple yet effective, that many of us (myself included) could have incorporated into our own boats to great benefit. The interior trim is all in white laminate faced ply, capped with varnished teak trim, which is light, strong, easy to keep clean and will never look dated. Apart from the forecabin (which is given over to stowage and a workshop), there are no solid doors, instead zipped canvas is used, as it is light and never bangs shut! Unlike so many steel boats, she is not overbuilt internally (and so overweight) where ultimate strength isn’t necessary.
Both agree that a modern boat of the same length might have more space inside, but that’s a minor detail when compared to all of the sterling features she has. Both agree that she has turned out better than they could ever have hoped, that she is irreplaceable and they are looking forward to many more adventures in her.
Steel can make a good choice
In my view, there are three things that I have taken away from Caitlin:
- It’s perfectly possible to build a good, strong, rust free steel boat, as long as you are prepared to do things by the book from the planning stage onwards.
- The time spent in modifying the boat to remove or improve the many features that cause or encourage rust to form is critical, and will prove to be time well spent at the build stage, rather than an endless game of catch-up later.
- It may be almost unaffordable to go to many of the lengths that Bryan and Dorothy have gone to if you buy a new boat off the shelf, but if you have the time and the skills, anything is possible.
Caitlin certainly has changed my view of steel as a practical material to build a long distance boat in. Personally, my choice would still be aluminum, but I accept that it’s not without its faults either.
A wealth of good ideas
Most of us are magpies, wandering around boatyards and marinas, talking to owners and scrutinizing promising looking boats for good ideas, for further use on our own boats down the line. Caitlin has more good ideas per square foot than almost any other boat I’ve ever seen, and I’d like to offer my thanks to Bryan and Dorothy for their kindness and willingness to share their ideas with us here—and do let us know what you think of them: