What 3 Inch Hole in the Roof?

During the winter rainy season here in northern California, I would sometimes come aboard Sparklemuffin to find evidence of water dripping onto the starboard salon settee. It appeared water was pooling at a low point and dripping down from the headliner, which was slightly bulging. Not far from a portlight, which became the immediate suspect.

I was never present at the right time to see water actively entering.

The water was clearly not getting in through the portlight itself, though — it would have to be coming in through the exterior seam and soaking down through the deck core. I had visions of ripping out the portlight to discover a substantial trail of rotten core and one heck of a project.

So today on a whim I decided to strategically pour water and see if I could reproduce the leak.

Of course the very first victim was the suspected portlight. I emptied a gallon jug of water around it, attempting to simulate rainwater coming from various directions. Then I waited. And waited. And nothing! No sign of any water inside. Hmmm…

So I tried the teak strip that runs along the side of the cabin above the portlights. Still nothing.

Then I poured water around the teak handholds on the cabin top. Just this morning I’d read a post in the Cabo Rico owner’s forum about a leaky handhold, which sounded like a somewhat nightmarish endeavor to resolve. But following my test, there was no water.

From the interior, I got access to the underside of the staysail boom track. No sign at all of any water entry there.

Next up was the propane heater chimney. I emptied another gallon on and around it, too. Then casually strode down below, expecting to find more nothing. However, I was “rewarded” with several pools of water forming on the settee cushion and water dripping from the heater!

The heater chimney

Now, since the very first day I ever set eyes upon this vessel, I considered the chimney dodgey as hell. Come storm and splash, who wants a giant hole on the top of their boat? No thank you. I figured I might do something about it eventually, but wasn’t in any hurry. So I let it be.

Following the test, the water did not end up in exactly the same spot I’d observed during the winters. Mostly it was around and below the heater. However, it had splashed quite a bit. And the main splash destination was a corner that showed signs of water, such as a darkening and bulging of the wood trim at that location. And, that spot had collected water, and was “uphill” from the point I’d generally observed water. So, entirely feasible that it could run down, pool, and drip where I observed. (But at the same time, not a 100% smoking gun, either.)

Well, now my curiosity was piqued. So I removed the chimney, and, lo and behold, discovered the installation was pretty sad:

  • It was secured using self-tapping screws, through the deck glass and into the deck core
  • There was NO sealant of any kind used; just a lowly rubber gasket
  • The deck core was left completely exposed to the elements

Given this state of affairs, it was definitely a matter of “when,” not “if.”

The sole barrier between a heap o’ water and the inside

Miraculously, it appears that the core is not rotten, and actually in decent shape. Acoustic tapping and core poking corroborate. So, less onerous a project than otherwise would be. Whew! Praise Neptune.

But. There’s a three inch diameter hole in the roof. Now what?

As I see it, there’s three options. Basically, it boils down to the question: Do I really want a heater?

Option 1: Keep the Heater, but Install it Right

I’m not a fan of cold. There’s a reason I’m wanting to explore the South Pacific tropics, and generally stray not far from the equator. If I’m doing it right, a heater won’t be needed. On the other hand, the northern California winter nights can get chilly. But I found I can get by with a good quality sleeping back and some mild discomfort.

I’ve only used the propane heater in earnest once. And it was for the comfort of a guest; not myself. However, I’ve used an electric space heater on several occasions (A/C power is readily available at the dock).

If she came with no heater, I wouldn’t install one. But since she already has one, should I keep it?

Option 1, should I choose to keep the heater, is to install it right. That means removing some core around the chimney hole and filling it with epoxy. This will keep water out of the core. Then, the chimney can be reinstalled, but properly bedded using either 3M 4200 UV or butyl tape.

However, the chimney is still a decent-sized hole in the deck, and a slew of water intrusion should be expected during a storm. There’s no obvious storm preparation that would help with this. This is not a particularly appealing prospect.

Option 2: Remove the Heater but Keep the Hole

There’s much to like about removing the heater. One less system to break. More interior cabin space. Not hitting your head when sitting up from a prone position on the settee. One less path for propane to enter the cabin or pool in the bilge. One less source of carbon monoxide in the enclosed living space. Its propane tank then becomes a spare for cooking (or repurpose the locker space).

But what of the chimney hole? What if I change my mind and want the heater back later? Or is there any other potentially useful purpose for a cabin top hole?

Option 2 is to keep the hole, but install a deck plate in it. This would entail

  1. possibly enlarging the hole a bit
  2. removing some core and replacing with epoxy (as above)
  3. installing a weather-proof deck plate, properly bedded and through-bolted
Reminds me of coconut

Option 3: Re-Glass and Close the Hole

If there’s no need for a heater, and no need for a hole… the best option is to reconstruct the cabin top and permanently close the hole. This would be a decent-sized, but not huge, project, which would involve:

  1. sand the interior and exterior glass to a 12:1 slope
  2. plug the hole temporarily and lay up concentric circles of glass cloth in the interior
  3. add some new core material
  4. lay up concentric circles of glass on the exterior
  5. paint/finish

Admittedly, this option appeals to me a bit, because not only would it simplify things on the vessel a bit by removal of the heater, but also I haven’t yet had the proper excuse yet to try my hand at some fiberglass work. 🙂

Which of these options would you choose, and why? Leave a comment if you’re feeling so inclined.

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