One of the inescapable problems of owning a good old boat is, it’s old! If you are pushing 40, like Britannia, many things need renovating or replacing.
The overhead liner was one that had irritated us since we bought her five years ago. It was vinyl material with a cloth felt backing, stretched and fastened between the wooden beams throughout the length of the boat. Originally, I’m sure it was a nice white color, but over the years it had faded into a dirty beige.
Changing her rig didn't help either, because it meant bolting new fittings through the deck, things like eye bolts, winches, rope jammers, liferaft cradles, and not least the new main mast, which came right through the center of the saloon. I had to cut the liner to install these and the only thing I could think of to patch them was cream colored masking tape, which didn't match too well. The vinyl soon looked like a patchwork of band-aids and we frequently saw visitors glancing upwards, but politely saying nothing.
Eventually ‘replace vinyl’ came to the top of my ‘to do’ list, but even thinking about it on a 45 footer gave me hot flushes. The saloon overhead alone was 9 feet wide and 11 feet long in five full width sections, between wooden deck beams. There were also three cabins, two bathrooms and two corridors.
I found a suitable replacement material called plank paneling, which is plastic (PVC) tongued and grooved planking, used as wainscot panels on house walls. Each board is 7” inches wide and ¼” inch thick and comes in packs of 8’ feet and 3’ feet long boards. It is also reversible, with two different sides, one molded with two strips 3½” inches wide and the other side with three thinner strips. I decided to use the two strip side. An important benefit, particularly on a boat, is the rot and mildew free lifetime guarantee and the ability to wash it with soap and water. I also thought the added thickness to the vinyl would give better thermal insulation from the hot deck.
REMOVAL OF THE OLD OVERHEAD LINER
The first operation was to remove the vinyl from a section. It was secured every inch with steel staples, (and every one was rusty), into a wooden bead which was in turn stapled to the overhead beams. Every foot of liner contained roughly 24 staples, and on a 45 footer that means an awful lot of staples!
I cut the vinyl with a sharp box cutter along both sides and ends of the beams, close to the staples, whereupon the lining frequently fell on my head. It contained nearly three decades of dust and more than a few dead cockroaches. It always amazes me that cockroaches don't seem to decompose over years… The remedy for this was to wear my wife's shower cap, but for some inexplicable reason she insisted on buying a new one, when the job was finished.
After the material had been stripped out of a section, now came the tedious job of removing all the old staples from the wooden bead, to which the cloth had been fixed. Luckily it was still in good condition. I used a thin blade flat head screwdriver to prize the staples up, one at a time, then lever them out with long nosed pliers. Each section contained more than 500 staples.
The new panels were also self supporting between the 2’ foot wide beams, so I planned to secret nail them to the beads with 1” inch stainless brads. (panel pins).
INSTALLING NEW PANELS
To cut the boards I installed my miter saw in the cockpit, which sliced through them like butter. Unfortunately it only makes a 6” inch long cut, so I had to turn the board over, then very carefully finish the cut. A sliding compound saw would have been better to cut straight through a 7” inch wide panel, but on boats you learn to use the tools you have. The lazer guide on the saw proved invaluable, firing an accurate red line down the cut. The material can also be cut with a box cutter, but that is a slow process and hard on the hands.
I first cut a piece off an 8’ foot board, slightly longer than the space between the beams. I then held it up between the beams, exactly down the center line of the boat, which I had marked with a thin string fastened from one end of the saloon to the other. I found the beams to be remarkable parallel, but each panel still had to be checked and sometimes trimmed for a close butt-fit to the beam. I marked the other end of the panel using a wooden ruler against the beam, then scored a line with a pencil.
Then it was up the six steps into the cockpit, carefully cut to the line, then back down to try the fit, then back up to make minute adjustments, sometimes less than a millimeter, to seat the panel snugly between the beams.
I then drilled pilot holes with a 1/16” inch drill into the corner tongues of the panel to stop them splitting, then nailed the panel with brads at an angle into the wooden bead. I had to hold the small brads with long nosed pliers, then finish them off with a nail punch. I did consider also gluing the panels, but then they would have been practically impossible to remove if I ever needed to bolt another fitting through the deck.
Subsequent panels were measured and cut exactly the same way, then tapped into the grooves of the adjacent panel, covering the brads, then secured with brads on the other side. This way I slowly in-filled a section.
It was all easy enough, and I soon got into the swing of measuring and cutting, but I would be lying if I said I didn't make a few wrong cuts, and even found myself trying to mount a panel upside down more than once.
When I came to the ends of a section, where the panels met the saloon sides, I had to make accurate cardboard templates because these were irregular, with tapers and rounded sides, the edges of which also needed chamfering. The central corridor section also had to have a template.
The lights had been removed with the cloth, then re-installed into the new panels, which also helped to hold the panels in place. There is a butterfly hatch in the center of the saloon and the sides had to be extended before I could infill that section.
It was gratifying to eventually see a complete new clean section of panels, between the beams.
The saloon took a week, full time to complete, and another two weeks to work through the whole boat.
The longer panels in the bathrooms and bedrooms had to be supported to stop them sagging. I did this by screwing up into the under deck and covering the screw with a small collar and white plastic snap-on cap. The section under the aft cabin was tricky. I had to lie on my back to measure, then nail the panels in place, but it was worth it to have such a clean overhead.
It was tedious work, continuously reaching upwards, and my arms ached for days afterwards. I used ten packs and cut about 200 panels. I removed more than 4000 rusty staples, and pre-drilled and nailed some 400 brads. But we now have very professional looking overhead panels throughout the boat.
We have also noticed a reduction in the heat felt through the deck on blistering hot Florida days. The effort has greatly improved the inside appearance and probably the value of the boat.
The total cost of material was around $250.00, but I shudder to think how much it would have cost to have had it all professionally installed.