The Hatch Horrors

Water, Water Everywhere

Several of our Lewmar Ocean Hatches have been a problem for some time now. Way back in 2011 as part of my preparations for cruising we replaced our crazed and cracked hatch lenses with new, shaded ones. Presumably new seals were installed, but we didn’t really address any other hardware at that time – the handles, hinges, and so on. They were a bit worn looking, but serviceable.

Over the last couple of years the main hatch in the V-Berth has started leaking. Not in rain, but when water would come over the bow offshore. This is a bad thing, since it floods salt water all over Danielle’s room and her bed. Over time, several more windows developed similar leaks, including the two smaller windows in the forward cabins and the hatch in the saloon. The saloon hatch was starting to take water in heavy rain, even. But we couldn’t take the boat offshore without kluging up some combination of hatch sealing type, while draping the V-Berth with plastic drop cloths and towels.

Obviously, this is not a good thing. The Ocean Hatch series are big, beefy hatches engineered to keep the water out, and were no longer doing their jobs. In addition, some of them were getting quite stiff to open. Visual inspection showed daylight visible between the seal and the metal rim. Culprit found!

Seal Failure/Failure to RE-SEAL

Hatches aren’t cheap. Neither are Lewmar replacement parts, but $150 for a piece of rubber is still less that $1,500 for a whole new hatch. Research into replacing the seals on this particular model showed me it was a nasty job, requiring the sort of patience and care that I don’t usually have. I decided to hired a professional, and was pleased when I found someone who could do the job properly.

I have a long standing motto with regards to boat projects and hiring people, which is “I can always fudge* it up myself for free.” This is from years of experience hiring tradespeople to do jobs I could maybe do and not being pleased with the results, as well as from tackling projects myself that maybe I should not have. But mostly it’s from spending money on dubious outcomes provided by “pros” to do jobs I really ought to at least take a whack at myself. After all, if I completely screw it up I can usually hire someone to bail me out, or just throw the part out and get a new one. Why pay someone else to ruin the project for you, when you can do it badly yourself for no charge?

I should, on occasion, pay attention to what passes for wisdom in my head.

I’m not going to mention names here, but hiring someone to replace the seals for us was an unqualified disaster and a complete waste of money. In brief, the guy was unprofessional, showed up way late after keeping me waiting for almost two days, then did the most work at night in the dark, and didn’t follow my instructions too well. It was sloppy, messy, and looked like it had been done in the darkm then he tried to charge me almost double what he originally quoted for doing less work than I initially asked for but more than I wanted.

The end product was so appalling that I’ve included samples. And get this…some of the windows now leak in light rain.

Seriously, if I wanted a sloppy caulking job that leaked worse than when we started, I could have done it myself. For free.

So much for saving money on this. After this little adventure we learned a few things. First, our seals were probably OK, the problem was more likely in our hinges. In the case of one of the big windows, the hinge had corroded enough so the hatch wasn’t closing straight. In some of the others the hinges were warping the frames, they were so tight to open. Of course, on one window the hatch “expert” didn’t bother to check for hinge problems until after he cut the lens out and destroyed the window seal – against my explicit instructions not to do so.

After we got rid of this guy we were left with hatches we no longer trusted to take off shore. Three of them because he’d mangled the seals and probably made the leaks worse, and two more that were either not fixed, or in poor condition.

Please Take My Money

There was some confusion about the size of my hatches when seals were ordered for replacement. The seals were the wrong size, no surprise given the guy that ordered them seemed a little clueless in the end. But it turns out it that our hatches are a “special” size. It’s not clear to me whether this was a custom size made for Hallberg-Rassy, or if Lewmar used to make a size 66 window in the distant past, and simply stopped making them.

But hatches to replace our large ones are simply not made or in inventory anywhere. They would need to be custom ordered and made. At some point in this process, we realized we might as well do all the hatches at once, since the two little ones were dmaged replacing the seals, and the three big ones were all pretty baked even before the seal guy touched one of them.

Further exploration turned up stock in size 66 hatches at Hallberg-Rassy, in Sweden. But they had clear glass and would not match the tinited windows. And clear lenses are probably great in sun starved Sweden up near the Artic circle. In the tropics they will roast you in your own personal greenhouse; you really want some tint in the lenses.

Then it started getting weird – we started getting quotes. One Australian vendor we talked to was insanely expensive for the custom order. Another was lower priced, but still expensive. Ordering them a place like Defender in the states and importing them ourselves could save money. It turns out the absolute cheapest option was to order the three big hatches from Hallberg-Rassy, and get the two smaller ones locally. Except we’d have to deal with Customs to import them ourselves and arrange local delivery, which may not have been worth the few hundred dollars we’d save.

Eventually I called my friend Phil and asked him if I could ship the hatches from Sweden to him. At this point he politely reminded me that he also sold hatches (I should have figured this out, given he owns a company called DeckHardware…) and would I consider looking at a quote from him? Sure I said, thinking about where else I could send my Lewmar hatches.

So…more options. We got more information on the availability of Lewmar Size 66 hatches with “smoke” lenses (availability: poor) and more pricing. We got quotes back from Phil which were a tiny bit higher, but his were made from 316 stainless instead of Aluminum. But this unbdugeted nightmare was already out of hand, and we really wanted to keep costs down.

We finally decided…we’d order ALL FIVE from the cheaper local supplier and let them deal with customs and importing. The Lewmars were an exact replacement though, and therefore zero risk about fitting in the boat. So I picked up the phone to place the order…

Your Money is No Good Here

I always wanted to hear that phrase, maybe after I’d saved the town from the bad guys or helped shore up a local pub against rising flood waters.

In this case though, they meant my credit card was no good here. Not because I didn’t have enough credit, there’s enough open limit on that card to buy a small car. But because my credit card is foreign. Even though I told the vendor I was an American and planning to pay by credit card a week earlier, they neglected to tell me they don’t take foreign credit cards (for no clear reason) and insisted on a wire transfer for any “foreign” transactions, even though I am sitting in Sydney.

I’ve used this card over the last sixteen months for paying for everything from coffee to a new head installation that cost over $5,000 AUD. Never a problem. But this company wouldn’t even try to run it. I’ve explained elswhere why the credit card works so much better for us even when businesses charge a surcharge. It gets us out of foreign currency fees, wire charges and having to have a bunch of cash ready to transfer out to someone on a wire. We keep cash around for operating expenses, but most of our capital outlay money is less liquid than cash because it’s not impulse money. In this case, it would cut about a week or the ordering time, which with a delivery time of ten weeks for the hatches, is pretty imporant since we’d already been putzing around for two weeks just to get comparative quotes.

Did I feel like spending the next week liquidating assets, moving money, then arranging a wire to prepay this order with cash? No, I did not.

I called Phil and we took a bus out to his shop to look at those hatches. We made a few modifications (added a 25mm lip around the bottom, and some locking handles) and he got back to me the next morning with revised numbers. If the Chinese New Year doesn’t mess with the supply line, we should have them in about 45 days. Yes, they’re more expensive than the Lewmar windows. I also think they are better, being 316 stainless instead of aluminum which we’ve had corrode on us. We’ll meet Phil at the Middle Harbour Yacht Club, he’ll drop off the hatches, then we’ll hoist a few cold ones up the bar. Problem solved.

Man Ship Hatch, courtesy of DeckHardware

Schedule impact

This hatch debaucle has not been without effect. Our original plan after the new year was to sail down to Tasmania. It became quickly apparent that sailing off shore with dodgy hatches wasn’t a good idea. We’d hoped to rectify this by replacing the seals. As you now know, that was a disaster and made the leaks worse. And new replacement hatches were going to take 2-3 months to arrive, by which point it would be snowing in Tasmania again.

So Tassie is out. All offshore places are out. With luck, on a calm day with the wind behind us, we can make the sixteen mile trip back up to the Pittwater to get out of Sydney. But we’re not going anywhere we can get waves over the bow.

That’s a bit of a bummer, and spirits have been low over it. But…c’est la vie afloat. Things break, and you deal with them. Next time we head off shore we won’t need to put tarps all over the V-berth though, so that’s something.

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5 Comments

  1. Rich A. says:

    Ouch, what a painful experience.

    I would have ordered the clear lens hatches and simply made reflective inserts to bounce the heat back out during the hot months.

    1. B.J. says:

      Unfortunately that would still mean importing the windows from Sweden ourselves. Not impossible, but a nuisance.

  2. CHARLES COUGHLIN says:

    Hi B.J.,
    When they replace the hatches make sure they check for core damage and the stucture integrity around the hatch. I don’t know if the core in your boat is balsa, foam, or something else but I do know that getting sea water in the core can cause it to rot and have a non orthogal effect like “necrotizing fasciitis” in a human. So, you have to treat each leak like a cut that you don’t want to get infected. I don’t know if you have 3M Marine Grade Silicone Sealant in the first aid kit for your boat but I’d ask around to see if using that product to seal the leaks until your new hatches arive is a good idea…
    Charlie

    1. B.J. says:

      The good news is they were leaking from the seals, not around the contact at the deck. So we should be in pretty good shape. But yes, we’ll be closely inspecting everything before re-sealing with butyl tape.

  3. CHARLES COUGHLIN says:

    That is good news. As always, I’m fascinated by your families freedom and courage doing what you do 🙂

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