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Blister repair was cheap. . . all things considered

By Norman Ralph

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 2, Number 2, March/April 1999.

A bad case of blisters made the boat affordable; upgrades were the expensive part

Bluebonnet awaits launch

Bluebonnet appears to be at peace in her rural setting as she awaits her launch date.

It all started innocently
enough. It was mid-October of 1990, and we were going to Texas anyway to
visit cousins in San Antonio and then on to the Clear Lake area near Houston.
I had seen ads in sailing magazines for Valiant Yachts and noticed their
facilities were located in Gordonville, Texas. We would be going right by
on Interstate 35 and thought it would be great to visit the factory. I had
read about Valiants and their reputation as offshore cruising boats and
had admired their looks from afar. A letter to Valiant brought a prompt
response and invitation to stop by.

We were taken on a tour of the factory by Stan Dabney, who, with his wife,
Sylvia, was working at the factory while their Valiant 40, Native Sun,
was being repaired after being damaged in Hurricane Hugo. They were among
the founders of Valiant. (That story was related by Sylvia in the September
1998 issue of Good Old Boat.
) We were very impressed with the boat and
the factory operation. If we were “rich instead of good looking,”
as the saying goes, we would have signed up to buy a new Valiant 40 on the
spot. But as I was cheated on both counts, we couldn’t afford even the used
ones we saw among the brokerage boats there.

While touring the facility, we noticed several used Valiants on jack stands
with the gelcoat stripped. Stan explained they had been purchased to be
refurbished during the slack season but the area had suffered severe flooding
so repairs on these boats had been put on hold.


Freedom in the yardFreedom in the patching stage

Freedom after repainting

Freedom was affordable because of the blisters on her bottom, topsides, decks, and cabintop. The photos show the boat in the yard in Texas, in the patching stage, and after repainting.

After thanking Stan for
his time, we headed for San Antonio. As we traveled, we debated and schemed
about how we could manage to own a Valiant. Our present boat was a Pacific
Seacraft Flicka. Since we have bigger dreams than bank account, we had purchased
her and refurbished her with the goal of doing some cruising. However I
am over 6 feet tall and Jeanette, my wife, is almost 5 feet 10 inches. We
soon found that the Flicka was wonderful for short trips but too confining
for an extended cruise. I would be able to take an early retirement within
five to seven years, and we had set a goal to find a boat we could have
ready to cruise by then.

In Clear Lake, we looked at a used Valiant 32. It was completely disassembled
in the midst of being refurbished. It was for sale “as is.” Looking
back, the asking price was not out of line, however I did not feel confident
in my ability to put something back together that someone else had taken
apart on his word that all the pieces were present.

While we were there, we kept thinking of the Valiant 32 we saw in the boatyard
at Cedar Mills in need of repair and refurbishing. Perhaps they would sell
it to us “as is.” At Jeanette’s urging, I called Stan with that
question. We reached an agreement on price and told him we would be stopping
by on our way back to Missouri in a couple of days to examine the boat and
close the deal.

Her name was Freedom. She had a white hull with a dark blue stripe below
the caprail and a red bootstripe above the waterline. We decided immediately
that the boat would be repainted the same colors. In honor of my wife’s
native state and the state where we found her, we would name her after the
state flower of Texas, Bluebonnet. The interior was in very good
condition, though it needed cleaning and new upholstery. The exterior, however,
was going to need a lot of work; it had blisters everywhere, not just on
the bottom. Stan explained that the previous owner of Valiant Yachts, Uniflite
of Bellingham, Wash., had constructed their Valiant sailboats and Uniflite
powerboats for a time in the late 1970s with a polyester resin that had
a fire retardant additive. The additive caused the boats to blister badly.
Uniflite dropped the fire retardant additive in the early 1980s, but by
that time it was too late. Due, in part at least, to the blistering problems,
Uniflite was sold. The new owner was not interested in sailboats and sold
the Valiant name, molds inventory, and so on to Rich Worstell. He moved
the manufacturing operation to Texas in the mid-1980s.

Stan and I made a complete inventory of the boat, its rigging, sails, and
equipment. He furnished us a copy of the owner’s manual and gave us the
history of the boat. We determined what materials we might need from the
factory and purchased them to be shipped with the boat. We signed the papers
for the boat and headed home.


Arriving home, we made arrangements to have the boat shipped to our back
yard. We lived outside Kansas City, Mo. We purchased five jack stands with
the boat. We used four at a time. The fifth one allowed us to move a stand
in order to work in the area where it had been. In preparation for the boat’s
arrival, I purchased three pressure-treated plywood sheets and two pressure-treated
4 by 4s. I also made three sturdy sawhorses to hold the mast.

It was early December when the boat arrived. The sawhorses were spaced out
evenly, and the crane picked the mast off the boat and set it on the sawhorses.
Then it picked up the boat. We spaced the plywood sheets and 4 by 4s under
the keel. Then we arranged the jack stands. The plywood and 4 by 4s prevented
the keel and jack stands from shifting due to rain or the spring thaw.

Winter weather made working on the boat impossible, so I spent the time
purchasing the necessary materials and tools to start in the spring. The
boat sat next to my workshop where I had access to an air compressor and
air orbital and jitterbug sanders. I also had an electric palm sander. I
found that a Dremel tool was indispensable for opening blisters. I removed
the teak hatchboards and replaced them with plywood, so I could refinish
the boards later. I did the same with the large opening hatches on the cabintop
and foredeck. They were made with teak frames, and as all the exterior teak
had been allowed to weather to a rough gray, the hatches needed to be disassembled,
refinished, and have the Plexiglas rebedded.

Cabin blistersBlisters patched

Blisters repainted

Blisters will continue to appear and need patching each year but never again in the numbers which Norman faced to begin with. Cabintop blisters before, patched, and after.

I also did some research
on the Valiant blistering problem. I discovered that instead of osmosis
blisters caused by water penetrating the gelcoat from the outside and setting
up a chemical reaction in the laminate to cause blisters, these blisters
are caused by the fire retardant not having kicked with the polyester resin.
This retardant then slowly wicks its way through the laminate to the surface
and forms blisters under the gelcoat. These blisters will show up on the
bottom, topsides, decks, and cabintop. They seem to be more evident in warm
climates and waters. The retardant seems to wick itself to the surface when
the laminate is warmest. Boats sailed exclusively in the cold waters of
the Pacific Northwest and Alaska were very slow to develop blisters.

Through the advice of friends and from observations at the factory, I used
West System epoxy products for the repairs. I used their epoxy and fillers
and purchased several of their booklets and a video on fiberglass repair.
The folks at Gougeon Brothers were very helpful and informative the few
times I called them with questions about a particular phase of the project.
The total cost of the epoxy materials, including resin, hardener, fillers,
additives, cloth, masks, acid brushes, stir sticks, sandpaper, and so on
was about $1,100. (See sidebar on Page 13 for a breakdown of expenses.)

The project begins

I started on the repair in spring 1991. The blisters on the hull above the
waterline and on the deck and cabintop had not been opened. I opened and
flushed them with water and left them to dry while I concentrated on the
bottom. I filled the blisters with glass cloth and epoxy resin and faired
the boat with epoxy resin mixed with fillers to make a putty the consistency
of peanut butter. The bottom had some large deep blisters, while the topside
blisters were just under the gelcoat. I left the bottom exposed to allow
the hull to dry out, and I did not cover the bottom with a barrier coat
until September the following year.

This was not highly skilled work, but it was time-consuming. At times I
felt intimidated by the unending number of blisters. A lot of the blisters
were dry; nothing was in them but a pocket of air under the gelcoat. Apparently
the fire retardant had wicked to the surface and formed the blister. Then
the porous gelcoat allowed it to evaporate. Since I was working full-time
at my job, I spent afternoons after work on the boat project. Often 30 to
45 minutes a day was all the time I had. This was sufficient to sand down
the previous day’s work and mix and fill in more areas.

The bottom received its barrier coat over the Labor Day weekend in 1992.
Most of the repair work had been a one-man job, but the barrier coat required
the additional efforts of my wife and our son. The hull must be close to
air temperature before you begin to apply the barrier coat. If it has cooled
overnight, it must be allowed to warm up, so no condensation will form on
the hull. The barrier coat consisted of one coat of clear epoxy followed
by six coats of epoxy with West System #422 barrier additive and a final
coat of epoxy with #425 additive. The #422 is an aluminum powder that increases
the epoxy’s resistance to water absorption and makes it more abrasion-resistant.
The #425 is a fine copper powder that provides a backup to bottom paint
and is extremely abrasion-resistant. The epoxy is applied with a foam roller,
and someone follows around with a foam brush to tip off the bubbles which

When the first coat is applied, you start on the next coat as the first
one has started to kick, usually in 30 to 45 minutes. You keep going around
and around taking turns with the different tasks. You have to work fairly
fast on a hot day, as the epoxy will have a short pot life. If you don’t
finish in one day, you must wash the hull with clear water and a “scrubbie”
and dry it with white paper towels. An excellent booklet, Fiberglass Boat
Repair & Maintenance, is available from Gougeon Brothers. It is a must
for anyone who works on fiberglass boats. (As a side note: the last time
we had the boat hauled, in Sept. 1997, I buffed the bronze prop and coated
it with epoxy resin with the #425 copper additive. I had some of the additive
on hand, and the intent was to prevent barnacle growth on the prop. If it
works I’ll pass that information on through Good Old Boat’s Mail Buoy column.)

After we covered
the bottom with the barrier coat, I concentrated on the topsides, cabin,
and deck. I repaired the damaged teak caprail and replaced the starboard
teak rubrail.

The many small blisters
filled with epoxy filler on the hull at times looked like zits on a teenybopper.
Upon the recommendation of Gougeon Brothers, we gave the topsides two barrier
coats of epoxy: one clear and one with the #422 additive. Looking back,
I would not coat the hull above the waterline with epoxy, because the blister
problem on a Valiant is from within, not from moisture coming from the outside.
I painted the hull with Interlux Brightside one-part polyurethane paint
with a brush. I did not have an enclosure large enough nor the experience
to spray it with a two-part polyurethane such as Awlgrip or Imron. I have
been very pleased with the result however, and touch-ups and repairs are

Related projects

Bluebonnet being launchedBluebonnet in the water

Bluebonnet was launched July 27, 1994, in Grand Rivers, Ky. Spared from an early retirement, she will squire Norman and Jeanette Ralph in style for theirs.

After repairing the blisters and filling in the holes where the old depth
and knot instruments had been, I painted the deck, cockpit, and cabintop
with the same paint. I added a flattener to the white to reduce the glare,
masked off the non-skid areas, and painted them light gray with a commercial
non-skid powder added. As some areas of the non-skid had been removed to
repair blisters, the grit in the paint gave it an even look. The two-tone
look is very pleasing to the eye.

I sanded the exterior teak, except for the hatches and Dorade boxes, and
gave it several coats of Sikkens Cetol. I varnished the rest of the teak
and covered it with Sunbrella fabric. An annual topcoat of Sikkens keeps
the teak looking great.

As I discussed in the January 1999 issue of Good Old Boat, I also had to
repair a leak in the diesel fuel tank. In addition, I made a turtle, or
hood, for the companionway sliding hatch. The Valiant factory wanted $500
for one, and I had the materials on hand anyway. I made a female mold, lined
it with waxed paper and laid up the hood with epoxy and cloth. The top has
a core of plywood. On a table saw, I made cuts in the plywood halfway through
lengthwise and 1 inch apart, and then I turned the plywood over and cut
it on the other side, staggering the cuts so the piece was very flexible.
I coated the plywood with epoxy resin and laid it in the mold, adding more
fiberglass cloth on top of it. After the hood came out of the mold, I trimmed
and faired it, then painted it to match the cabintop. I added teak trim,
and it turned out very nice. As the material was already on hand, all I
had invested in it was the time.

The holding tank was a rubber composition bladder under the V-berth. I replaced
it with a solid tank I made of 1/4-inch plywood and epoxy, using the stitch
and glue technique. The tank is covered with glass mat and cloth inside
and out and has a baffle inside for extra rigidity. It has an approximate
capacity of 20 gallons. (More on this subject in a future issue of Good
Old Boat.)

The boat had a tiller, but it was broken and delaminated. I could have ordered
one from the factory, but as I was making everything else, I decided to
make one. I bought some ash and mahogany lumber and ripped it in the table
saw in strips 1/4-inch thick by 2 1/4 inches wide and 4 feet long. I built
a jig using blocks of wood on a scrap piece of plywood. I bent the alternating
strips of ash and mahogany around the blocks of wood in a pattern that matched
the old tiller. When I was satisfied with its shape, I screwed the blocks
onto the plywood. Then I removed the strips and covered the blocks and plywood
base with waxed paper. I brushed epoxy resin on the strips, placed them
in the jig, and clamped them in place with woodworking clamps. When the
epoxy had hardened, I removed the tiller, shaped it with a belt sander,
and varnished it.

The standing rigging that came with the boat seemed to be in good shape
but was of undetermined age, so I felt it should be replaced. I considered
buying the wire and Norseman or Sta-lok fittings and doing the work myself.
However I ended up having a rigging shop do the work for less than what
it would have cost me. I had the top ends swaged and the bottom ends fitted
with Sta-lok fittings. The rationale was that the bottom end usually goes
bad from moisture running down into the swage. The sealant in the Sta-lok
would prevent this and when a problem does occur, the repair can be done
at deck level.

When I pressurized the water system, I found that the copper water lines
had not been winterized properly and had split in several places under the
cabin sole. I had to find all the split sections of copper tubing and cut
them out. I inserted flexible plastic hose in place of the missing sections
and clamped them with hose clamps. It required several attempts to pressurize
the system to find all the leaks.

Blisters were cheap

When it came to upgrading the equipment and outfitting the boat, it soon
became obvious that the cost of blister repairs had been very modest in
comparison. The costs of the new cabintop winches for the halyards and mainsheet,
new running rigging, new ground tackle, new depth sounder, and new knotlog
added up quickly. The list went on and on. When I painted the spars, I replaced
the wiring in the mast. The old wiring seemed to be usable, but with the
mast on sawhorses, why not? All in all, we spent about three times as much
on replacements and upgrades as we spent on the blister repairs. As there
was no rush in purchasing the equipment, we tried to find it on sale. We
were successful in this for the most part.

By Memorial Day of 1994, Jeanette was asking when the boat was going to
be finished. We set a goal for the third week in July. A date was set to
have the truck come and pick the boat up and take it to Kentucky Lake near
Paducah, Kentucky.

We wanted the boat documented, and the staff at the Valiant factory handled
it. We were thankful for this, since only they could have traced her ownership
to satisfy the U.S. Coast Guard.

We launched her July 27, 1994, at Green Turtle Bay in Grand Rivers, Ky.
That day will always be fresh in our memories. At the end of February of
1995, I took early retirement in order to spend time living on and sailing Bluebonnet. We spent several months on the boat and in the fall of
that year, we sold our home, put our furniture in storage, and motored down
the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile Bay. From there, we sailed along
the Gulf Coast to Mandeville, La., on Lake Pontchartrain. The trip covered
more than 900 miles, and the boat performed flawlessly. The engine did not
use any oil. Raw water pump impeller replacement was the only problem. We
have purchased a home in Mandeville and sail the boat on the lake and on
the gulf.

Lessons learned

Would we do it all over again? Yes! Would we do it the same way? No! There
are many things we would change, but that is all part of life. You learn
by doing, and as you learn you try not to make the same mistakes over again.
To a couple who had been sailing a 20-foot boat on inland lakes, a 32-foot
boat seemed like the Titanic. However after we sailed her and got used to
sailing on the gulf and living aboard for longer periods, we got to thinking
that maybe a Valiant 40 would have been the “perfect boat.” However Bluebonnet is comfortable, easy to sail, and so pretty we wouldn’t
want to part with her. Besides, no boat is big enough for everything you
want from a practical standpoint. You have to make choices and learn to
compromise. I have a theory that, as your boat doubles in size, the things
you want on it square.

Bluebonnet stern

We have continued to upgrade her. We added a Bimini, refrigeration for the
icebox, and a new propane galley stove (a happy cook is a happy boat). There
was a new dodger that was worth its weight in gold on the waterway in November.
There was the new mainsheet traveler system. The old one had frozen bearings
and was an orphan when it came to parts. And there was a roller furling
system and a larger headsail. This past spring I installed Whitlock rack-and-pinion
pedestal steering. All these additions have made the boat more comfortable
and easier to sail. As you get older, this becomes more important.

When we went looking for a boat to cruise on upon retirement, we wanted
a boat that would not restrict our dreams. We wanted a boat that would take
us safely anywhere we wanted to go. We feel that we found and have such
a boat. Whatever it is that keeps us from sailing off to the islands or
New Zealand, it won’t be Bluebonnet.

Are the blisters fixed permanently? No. They won’t be fixed unless the gelcoat
and several layers of laminate are completely removed and replaced with
cloth and epoxy to completely seal in the retardant. Otherwise the retardant
will continue to wick to the surface and form blisters or find a pinhole
in the gelcoat and weep out. The blisters are not big maintenance items.
Part of the annual spring maintenance is to open the few blisters that have
cropped up and flush hem out with water. Then along with general cleaning
and topcoating the teak, I fill in the blisters, sand them down and give
them a coat of paint. A nuisance, yes, but as Stan Dabney told us, “Kiss
those blisters. Without them, you couldn’t afford the boat.”

Cost breakdown tells the tale

The following is a breakdown of the expenditures for bringing the
boat back to her former glory. They are broken down into two sections:
the cost of blister repair and the cost of upgrades, not including
the upgrades added after launching. The amount of upgrading you might
want to do would depend on the size of your bank account. There are
always new bells and whistles to buy for your boat, and you can always
convince yourself that you need them. A major source of materials
I used in the repairs was Jamestown Distributors in Jamestown, R.I.,
for epoxy products, paint, acid brushes, rubber gloves, tongue depressors,
and so on. I had previously purchased a Sailrite sewing machine and
sewed all the canvas covers for the boat. I later used the machine
to convert the headsail to roller furling.

West System
epoxy and hardeners, 15 gallons, used about 12 gallons (1991 & 92 prices)
West System
fillers and barrier coat additives
West System
6-ounce glass cloth: 15 yards, 60 inches wide
Brightside one-part polyurethane paint
and Sikkens Cetol
New teak
caprail, two pieces from Valiant
New teak
rubrail, one piece from Valiant
Miscellaneous (Sandpaper, masking paper, acid bushes, stir sticks, etc.) $125
Total $1,540

Bottom paint:
Not a blister repair cost, nor an upgrade,
but still necessary to get the boat ready to launch: Interlux
Micron CSC 4 gallons


Upgrades and replacements
Four new
Barient self-tailing winches for cabintop, 2 two-speed and 2
single-speed for halyards and staysail sheets. Old ones were
in good condition, but we wanted self-tailing. On sale when
Barient discontinued sales in U.S.
depth sounder and knotlog: $285 each
Delta plow anchor
New England
nylon anchor rode 300 feet @ .36
5/8-inch nylon line for docklines, etc., 300 feet @ .33
10 x 28
fenders 6 @ $30

Additional to rewire the mast
Coax $80
14/2 triplex
– tinned 100 feet
14/3 triplex
– tinned 100 feet
to rewire mast

Exide #SP-30H gel-cell batteries 3 @ $120

New lifelines
(I did them myself, price includes cost of the tool)
New standing
rigging (swaged top and Sta-lok bottom)

Total upgrades and replacements


These prices were current in 1991-1994. Although the totals
may differ today, the ratio of repair to upgrades and outfitting
costs is valid. If you could find a blistered Valiant that was
fully equipped with up-to-date equipment, the boat would be
an even greater value. If you didn’t have the skill, inclination,
or facilities to work on the boat yourself and had to pay a
boatyard to do the work, it would be questionable whether the
project would be practical.

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