The Importance of Access

Broken Through-hull
Okay, that’s bad… Now, how tough is it going to be to work on?

Many do-it-yourself boat owners joke about “boat yoga”, which is the act of contorting oneself to try to work on otherwise inaccessible parts of the boat, but good access to everything is vital. It’s not the sort of feature that attracts crowds at a boat show, but there are few things more important on a serious cruising boat than easy access to every corner, every fastener, and every component of all the systems. The more a boat gets used, and the older it becomes, the more this holds true. The ideal would be some sort of access for every square inch of the inside of hull. Planning for access when designing and building something as complex as a cruising sailboat is is not always easy to do, but every hour spent ensuring that an actual human being can reach and work on everything inside that boat is time well spent.

I can’t count how many times a small task–one that should have been simple and easy to accomplish, like replacing a hose or a fastener–became a difficult slog simply because the components were difficult or impossible to access. I have spent many hours squeezing into cramped engine compartments, reaching into bilges or behind cabinetry, cursing glassed-in fasteners or hoses, and trying to pull wires through spaces that were never designed to be accessed once the factory had closed them up. As a boat ages, eventually every system and most every fastener will need to be serviced if one wants to keep that boat in good working order. If that boat sees a lot of ocean miles, all of the mechanical systems will need regular service, possibly under conditions that are less than ideal. For example, if a fuel filter can’t be accessed quickly enough it could easily mean serious damage, or even loss of the boat. That’s no exaggeration. It has happened many times.

Most of the time I spend on boat projects is spent dreaming up ways to actually be able to get to the part that I need to work on. The task might be simple–replace a y-valve, for instance, but the space too small to even allow me to see the mounting screws, let alone give me room to try to wrestle the stuck, old hoses off the piece before trying to get in there with a new one. What might take less than an hour with easy access to the part can easily turn into a long, frustrating battle.

Contessa 26 Cockpit engine access
Engine access on a Contessa 26 is mostly gained by taking up the cockpit floor. This can be a problem in rough weather!

Considerable time is spent maintaining a cruising boat if one wants to keep things in top condition, and occasionally major repairs to systems and structure are necessary. Easy access can make this work, if not a pleasure, then at least straightforward. Even simple maintenance tasks are complicated when access is poor. How many boat owners are ignoring things that they know need service simply because poor access make working on those things a burdensome task? Many seacocks, for instance, die prematurely because they are difficult to reach, so they don’t get opened and closed regularly. It used to take me more than an hour to change the impeller in the raw water pump of the engine on my old Contessa 26 because I had to take the entire water pump off in order to have enough room to pull the impeller. I had to remove the cockpit floor to change the oil. Needless to say, I didn’t check those things as often as I would have if the access had not been so demanding.

Engine fuel is filtered through oversized dual Racor system for dependability

The primary fuel filter for this engine can be reached through a cockpit locker. 

Good access is about more than making a job easy–there is a safety factor as well. I have already mentioned the importance of being able to quickly get to a primary fuel filter, but there are many other things that need at least reasonably good access even if they aren’t frequently serviced, such as the shaft packing. It doesn’t happen often, but neglected shaft packing has caused boats to sink. Through-hull fittings–even ones above the waterline–should be placed where they can be reached because hoses can crack, and through-hulls can fail. That easily-forgotten little drain fitting near the waterline might become a real problem if the hose breaks. Many chainplates–those very important parts of a sailboat that transfer all the rigging loads to the hull–are neglected until they fail, simply because they are located where they are difficult to inspect or replace.

If the hull is breached for whatever reason, the chances of being able to effect some sort of repair are greatly enhanced by simply being able to get to where the leak is. Even finding a leak can be troublesome on some boats. I once sailed on a boat that began taking on water from an unidentified source when we were almost 100 miles from the nearest all-weather inlet. By the time we made it into the harbor I was pumping every 30 minutes to keep the water below the floorboards. The boat had a structural grid fiberglassed into the hull. Water could flow under this, but there was no access to the space between the grid and the hull except through a small hole where the bilge pump was placed. Though I had spent hours searching, I couldn’t find the source of the leak until after we docked and a strong wind blew up a chop from astern. A locker drain in the swim platform had cracked between the locker and the hull, and I could only see it squirting water into the boat when the short waves from the harbor slammed forcefully under the counter. The clearance was too tight between the bottom of the locker and the inside of the hull to even reach my hand in from inside the boat, so I had to put some waterproof epoxy over the crack as a temporary measure and then wait to repair it from the outside after the boat was pulled out of the water.

Engine access. Alternator replacement
Repairing the systems is a fact of life on a cruising boat. It’s best if they’re easy to get to!

How to access the systems is always one of the first things on my mind when I inspect a boat. How easy is it to access the service points on the engine?  Is there somewhere, if not comfortable, then at least manageable to sit or lie when working on the engine? (This is something that needs to be doing regularly, so it’s worth taking the time to try it out rather than just looking in and thinking, “Well, it looks a little tight in there, but it’s probably not too bad…” I’ve thought that before, and then later found that I had to modify tools to fit those awkward places.) Can I easily reach all parts of the steering system? Are the important parts of the electrical system easy to reach for inspection and service? How difficult is it to inspect the bilge pumps? Tanks? Hoses? Can I follow the propane line from tank to stove and reach all the connections? If there is a cabin liner, can I still get to deck fasteners and backing plates? Can I get to the fasteners for the chainplates? Has provision been made for removing the engine? How about cleaning and repairing the tanks? Can the bulkhead tabbing and hull/deck joint be inspected? Centerboards and daggerboards can be difficult and expensive to service on any boat, though they are wonderful for reducing draft. The hinge pin and lifting mechanism on a centerboard will need attention eventually. There are many more things that could be put on this list, for sure.

Certain construction methods naturally leave better interior access than others. Fiberglass boats with individually glassed-in bulkheads, screwed or bolted cabinetry, and removable ceilings and overheads with no fixed liners are relatively easy to work on when it comes time to repair them, whereas boats that are built with full liners can be a nightmare when it comes time to service certain systems or fittings if the liner was not designed with adequate access points. A full fiberglass ceiling liner is easy to keep clean, but might mean cutting a lot of holes when the deck fittings begin to leak, for instance! Even a partial liner can be a problem. Here’s a common one I see:  showers built in such a way that the drain fittings and hose are not accessible.

Metal boats built with flat bar or plate stringers, rather than “T” shaped, allow one to reach all interior surfaces. Interior accommodations on steel boats are ideally demountable for interior inspection, painting and repair, as steel usually rusts from the inside out…

Wooden boats need good air circulation throughout their interiors to avoid rot, and should to be built so that all corners are accessible for cleaning and inspection.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen anchor locker
Idle Queen’s anchor locker access just didn’t cut it.

On my own boat, the Dreadnought 32 named Idle Queen, there is good access almost everywhere. This is something I was looking for specifically when I decided to buy her. Idle Queen was in need of a major refit when I found her, so I knew I would be inspecting and probably working in every nook and cranny. There were only a couple of square feet that I could not easily reach when I bought herjust the farthest forward part of the anchor locker. I can’t quite squeeze past the Sampson posts to reach the inside up there at the very point of the bow. Well, it came as no surprise to me that during her refit I had to get into that space in order to remove the fasteners that hold the gammon iron to the stem. After some reflection, (and some time spent trying to tape the nuts to my wrench, which was in turn taped to a boathook in an effort to start threading them onto their bolts without being able to get my hands in there), I ended up putting an inspection plate in the deck to replace the port chain pipe to solve the problem of how to access that small area. This change allows future access to the space as well as giving me a place to put an extra ventilator when in harbor. Whenever I work on something that didn’t have good access, I always try to allow for future service.

Idle Queen has a few unusual features that make her most-serviced systems easy to live with. She gives up a lot of interior space to her engine room, but that makes working on the engine a breeze. Changing the oil takes all of ten minutes, including cleanup. All of her tanks are placed far enough away from the hull that it is possible to get behind them, and every tank can be removed by unbolting the tie-downs. Pumps are placed where they are easily removed for service, and hoses and wiring run where they can be inspected and replaced if needed.  She has insulation throughout most of her hull, but holes have been cut to access fasteners. I can reach my hand into every corner of the bilge, even the deepest part, and I can physically climb into the lazarette. Hiding systems took a backseat to serviceability when they were installed. I actually appreciate Idle Queen’s utilitarian finish.

Easy access to most everything aboard Idle Queen has helped to keep the number of enjoyable hours spent aboard ahead of those spent contorted and frustrated at having to spend a lot of extra time doing something that is only difficult because it is problematic to reach. Of course, I still tend to underestimate how  many hours will go into my boat projects on Idle Queen, but at least it’s not often because I can’t figure out how to access what needs to be worked on…

Rebuilding the Dyer Dinghy

Dyer Midget dinghy
The newly-rebuilt Dyer on the shore of Little Bay.
Dyer Midget dinghy
The Dyer, as I found her

The little Dyer (actually a Dyer “Midget” low-sheer) was a restoration project that had been started by someone else when I found it.  The disassembly portion of the work was complete.  I had bought a pile of parts with no instructions, leaving me scratching my head over what to do next.

On our way north this summer, we stopped in at the Dyer factory in Warren, RI, to buy pre-bent pieces of wood that would be fashioned into the new rubrail and clamp.  These pieces give the dinghy most of its strength; provide a place for attaching the oarlocks and hanging knees (for the thwarts), and generally hold the boat in its proper shape.  Before departing North Carolina, I had already experimented with trying to bend thin pieces of wood around the fiberglass shell to try to laminate a new rubrail. The thin, unsupported fiberglass hull complained and deformed under the load of trying to bend even 1/8″ wood around its edge. After those efforts, I decided that it would not be worth the time to try to save the cost of purchasing new, strong, steam-bent pieces of white oak from the factory.  Otherwise, I would need to build a support for the hull to hold it in the proper shape with enough strength to form the new rubrails around it.

The stop at the Dyer factory was worth it.  They provided heaps of information about how to go about the reconstruction of my dinghy, gave a tour of the factory working areas, recounted much about the history of the Dyer dinghies, and answered every question that I could come up with.  I took a couple of pictures of some of the construction details that I knew I would have trouble with later, but as soon as I was observed to be taking pictures, I was told that they didn’t want me to take any more.  Dyer doesn’t mind sharing  most of their secrets, but they probably don’t want someone publishing the details.  That is more than fair.  I wasn’t asked to delete the pictures that I had taken, though I had offered to do so, and for that I am thankful, as they did help me work out some details during the rebuild.  I won’t publish the pictures that they let me take, so all of the pictures here are of my own boat at home.  Dyer also provided measurements for the placement of all the hardware in the boat, which was particularly helpful, as I had not seen my dinghy before it had been taken to pieces.

Dyer Midget rubrail
Fitting the new guard at the bow. It doesn’t want to bend like that!

The rebuilding process was not quite as straightforward as I had hoped.  Fitting the new rubrail (the “guard”, which goes around the outside rim of the hull), and clamp (which goes around the inside of the hull) was more complicated than just putting them in place and hand-peening nearly 100 copper rivets.  The new pieces of steam-bent white oak still needed a fair amount of coaxing and a bit of shaping to fit the hull.

Dyer Midget dinghy
“New” transom board made from the old center thwart.

I started by turning the old aft thwart into a new transom by trimming it to size, as the old transom did not come with the boat.  It had presumably rotted away.  The new transom piece is a bit thinner than the original, and has some “character” from its former life as a thwart.  It was bedded in place, but not glued, as the factory told me that gluing can cause problems in the future if the piece ever needs to be replaced again.

Dyer Midget dinghy rubrail
Riveting the new rubrail to the bow

The next task was to fit the new gunwhale clamp and guard.  Dyer provides them as a kit, which is comprised of the wood, copper rivets, a couple of wood plugs and screws, and instructions.  First, I sanded and planed the inside, bottom edge of the forward part of the clamp so that it would fit into place against the compound curve of the hull.  Dyer had instructed me to do this, but I had to remove a bit more material than I would have guessed.  The forward part of the clamp was drilled to accept rivets, using the old holes in the hull as a guide.  The port-side guard was then held in place with “C” clamps and drilled to accept the rivets.  This sounds easier than it was, as the curve at the very end of the bow was tighter than the bend in the new piece of wood.  I bent a few of my small, cheap “C” clamps trying to get enough pressure on that piece to get it firmly into place.  Rivets were placed before fitting the starboard guard, which also resisted a tight fit at the bow.  No matter how I tried, when I put the starboard guard in place, a small gap would open up where the two pieces butted together at the bow, as pressure from the new wood pieces changed the shape of the hull slightly.  In the end, after a few attempts, I got the gap down to around 1/16 of an inch, which I can live with.

Dyer Midget dinghy rubrail
Almost finished fitting the new clamp and guard!

The remaining pieces of the clamp and guard were trimmed, fit into place, drilled, and riveted following the excellent instructions provided by Dyer.  I won’t go into all of the details here, because Dyer has already got this covered.  Fitting the aft sections of the clamp and guard was easy when compared with the frustratingly difficult bow sections.  The whole process took me probably about 30 hours of work spread over about a week.  I had to frequently step back to figure out how exactly to proceed with one detail or another, and the fitting process took me a long time, as I don’t have much experience shaping and working with wood.

Dyer Midget dinghy rubrail
Rubrail complete. Cutting new aft thwart; skeg; etc.

Once the clamp and guard were in place, the little Dyer had some strength to its form and could be moved around much easier than before.  Now it was time to cut new pieces for the aft thwart; skeg; and daggerboard case support.  These were made out of some marine plywood I had left over from another project.  The aft thwart is lightly glassed in place from below with a small amount of tabbing, as I was shown by Dyer, and has a vertical support in the center to transfer loads to the keel.  I had coated the underside of the new thwart with epoxy before tabbing it into place, and I had to use a heater to get the epoxy to cure, as the days were too cold for it to work properly.  This almost caused a disaster, as the thwart warped from the combination of heat and uneven sealing.  Luckily, I caught the problem before the epoxy was hard.  I was able to wedge the thwart back into the proper shape.  Once the epoxy cured, it was fine.  Had I not caught it, I would have had to cut the piece out; clean up all the surfaces, and start that portion of the project over again.

Dyer Midget dinghy rubrail
New skeg almost complete–ready for glass

I built the new skeg from two thicknesses of my piece of leftover plywood.  It was carefully fit to the bottom of the boat.  Further, I protected the boat with mylar tape where the skeg would sit, and then coated it with epoxy; pushed it in place; and let it cure.  This provides a perfect fit and a solid base for the skeg.  Holes were drilled for bolts sent in from the bottom of the skeg.  The aft-most bolt does not go all the way through the skeg, as I couldn’t find one long enough.  Instead, I potted a 3 1/2 inch machine screw in thickened epoxy.  They are backed up by nuts and big fender washers on the inside to avoid over-stressing the hull if a heavy load ever gets placed on the skeg.  The boat showed old signs of stress-cracks in the skeg-attachment area, so I decided on this attachment method, which differs from the factory.  They use screws from the inside of the boat.  The skeg got 4 layers of 6-ounce fiberglass cloth and epoxy on the bottom to protect it from the wear it will eventually see on beaches.  I finished it with white Interlux Brightsides polyurethane.

Dyer Midget dinghy
Fitting all of the hardware. There are hundreds of fasteners in this 7′ 9″ boat!

With the glass-work complete, I moved on to fitting the hardware that attaches the remaining two thwarts into the boat.  I didn’t have bronze screws, so I bought new stainless fasteners.  I wanted the strength of bolts for the hanging knees and breast-hooks, so I sunk washers into the new rubrail.  It would have saved many hours of work to just have sent the bolts in from the outside, but the bronze pieces were all countersunk for screws.  I wanted the strength of good contact with the shoulder of the countersinking, so I sent the bolts (actually machine screws) through from that side.  Each fastener had to be cut to length and the threads cleaned up so that it would thread into its mating nut.


Dyer Midget dinghy rubrail
Nuts sunk into the new rubrail

I assembled the whole boat, including the daggerboard case and the piece that ties it to the center thwart, to make sure that everything fit properly.  Then, I took it all apart.  The new wood was all given at least three coats of varnish, and all of the plywood pieces were sealed with epoxy in addition to varnish (or paint for the skeg).  Only then was everything finally fitted with bedding compound.

Dyer Midget dinghy
Finished, and only 74 pounds! (without flotation foam)


I am sure that I could have built a simple dinghy for the hours that I put into this project, but now that I have used my “new” Dyer for a week, I feel that it was worth it.  These dinghies have been in production for more than 50 years for good reason.  They are wonderful tenders–lightweight; tough; reasonably fast; and relatively stable while providing good carrying capacity.  The Dyer factory is an outstanding resource, and will provide parts, and answers to any questions you might have if you are ever tempted to do as I did and restore one of their great little dinghies.