Ins and outs of the base­plate de­bate

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

Years ago we owned an am­a­teur-built boat in the Springer style: a trib­ute boat, I called it. Ex­cept that where Springers were ro­bust, no-non­sense craft with straight(ish) sides, this was a frail crea­ture, so light that in a good wind it bobbed around on the wa­ter like a bal­loon.

It was built – hull and su­per­struc­ture – in what was then termed 10 Gauge steel. From new, this came out at a lit­tle over 3.5mm. But this boat wasn’t new. Be­lieve me, when you have a boat with steel you sus­pect of be­ing THAT thin, you look af­ter it.

We used to take it out of the wa­ter ev­ery cou­ple of years which is com­mon now, but it was un­usual in those days when the only steel boats around were for­mer work­ing boats, ei­ther cut down to see out their last years as hire boats, or bought by overea­ger en­thu­si­asts who didn’t quite know what they’d let them­selves in for.

When we were in dock, we’d pam­per the steel with lav­ish at­ten­tion. But I was never sat­is­fied. What about the bot­tom, I kept ask­ing? What about the steel un­der­neath? On the base­plate? For my pains, I was laughed at. Steel base­plates didn’t rust, I was told by the ex­perts. They were un­der wa­ter; they didn’t need blacking.

I was never per­suaded by this con­sen­sus wis­dom and one year, in Too­ley’s in Ban­bury, I let the boat down on rail­way sleep­ers stacked high enough to let me slide un­der­neath on the wet dock floor. There I found a se­ries of small sludge smudges. I poked them with an old screw­driver and some were firm. How­ever, the bright steel be­neath be­trayed the un­mis­tak­able sign of elec­trol­y­sis cor­ro­sion. And most were com­pletely rotten. The fact was, the base­plate was dis­in­te­grat­ing. One good scrape over a su­per­mar­ket trol­ley and it’d have been ripped to shreds.

I men­tion this be­cause you’d think that, af­ter an ex­pe­ri­ence like this, I’d be in favour of the fa­cil­ity be­ing of­fered nowa­days to black base­plates. I’d be in favour of a ‘bet­ter safe than sorry’ pol­icy of check­ing out any steel on a boat be­fore it be­gins to cause trou­ble. But I’m not. In fact, I’m scep­ti­cal of blacking base­plates and I fear that if it catches on, the in­sur­ance com­pa­nies will be de­mand­ing it as a mat­ter of course, and we boat own­ers will be faced with ad­di­tional costs on top of al­ready high dock­ing fees.

Of course, I can see the sense in check­ing out the bot­tom of his­toric craft such as the 100-year-old Dutch barge I was look­ing at re­cently which had been over­plated on over­plat­ing many times in its long life. And I can see the sense, too, in check­ing the base­plate of newer nar­row­boats where vis­i­ble cor­ro­sion along the hull might indicate that cheap steel has been used.

But check­ing out EV­ERY base­plate of EV­ERY boat? As a mat­ter of course? Mod­ern base­plates are 10mm min­i­mum – many are much thicker. They’d last for years even if they were dropped in the road – which they of­ten are when the road’s dug up. The use of reg­u­larly re­placed an­odes to pre­vent elec­trol­y­sis prob­lems like the ones we had is com­mon­place too. And canals sim­ply don’t de­mand as much of boat bot­toms as they used to. Be­lieve it or not, they are deeper than they were in the 1970s and 80s. And cleaner, too. I can barely re­mem­ber the last time I had a good teeth-rak­ing scrape over a junked bike...

What’s be­ing sold here, I fear, is not re­as­sur­ance about the state of the steel, but just plain re­as­sur­ance. A new­bie owner who’s shelled out thou­sands for a boat is vul­ner­a­ble to any amount of in­sid­i­ous pres­sure on how to han­dle and main­tain it. But blacking base­plates is sim­ply not ne­c­es­sary and frankly they’d be bet­ter keep­ing their eyes on their gas lock­ers and un­der their rear decks which, as any boat­yard will at­test, are far more sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­ro­sion.

Be­sides, if the worst comes to the worst with a base­plate, you can al­ways weld on an­other. That’s what we did with our old ‘Springer’. And it was still afloat 20 years later.

‘If it catches on, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies will be de­mand­ing it as a mat­ter of course and we boat own­ers will face ad­di­tional costs’

To black a base­plate, or not?

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