Some things can improve with age. Red wine is a good example, which is interesting given the complexity of its chemistry and the fact that it is made from fruit, which rots if left alone long enough. Alcohol turns out to be a great preservative, at least for wine. However, boats are in a class of things for which “best-before dates” matter, and we need to consider them as we prepare our approaches to boat inventory management and personal planning.
Our new appreciation of best-before dates emerged from a visit in 2021 to our boat in Papeete, Tahiti. We had tied Marathon to the dock in June 2019, planning to return later that year and continue sailing to New Zealand. A work opportunity came up and pushed our return to Tahiti date to April 2020. Then there was a pandemic.
We finally returned to the boat in October 2021 with a plan to spend about 10 to 14 days getting it back into cruising shape, followed by four to five weeks of cruising in the Societies. During our absence, Marathon was being “minded” by someone who started the engine, pumped the head and checked the bilge every two weeks for nearly two and a half years. The boat exterior was cleaned every couple of months, and a diver cleaned the bottom and dealt with the zincs as well. Everything else on board was left untouched.
On our first morning in Papeete, the corroded propane solenoid prevented us from boiling water for coffee. Daily discoveries of new problems caused by heat, humidity, and the passage of time, were a feature of at least our first week on board. The temperature and humidity in Papeete likely contribute to faster aging of some things. Plastic, rubber, and anything else on which mould could establish a foothold, did not do well during our absence (other than the mould itself – it thrived).
A new, at the time of departure from Mexico, plastic 4 litre bottle of anti-freeze cracked and released its contents into the bilge. A similar plastic 4 litre bottle of engine oil also cracked, but fortunately the break was at the top of the bottle so no leakage occurred. Tin cans corroded and some leaked. Thankfully, we had most of them in plastic bins, so the acetol, for example, leaked into the plastic bin and mixed with leakage from other assorted tins. It was also fortuitous that none of the mixing led to the creation of explosive outcomes, or more corrosive or flammable liquids.
None of the above examples have best-before dates stamped on them, or at least none were visible on the rusted cans or fractured plastic bottles, though I did learn from trusted sources on the web that new engine oil in its original packaging has a shelf life of about six years.
Many packaged foods have best-before dates stamped on them. The date on the package does not mean that the contents will become inedible or toxic on the indicated date, only that quality in terms of taste and perhaps even colour and texture might start to deteriorate at about that point. An exception might be fresh dairy products, like milk and yogurt, that seem to take a nosedive in terms of quality close to the inscribed date on the package. We had donated nearly all our remaining canned goods, some past their best-before date, others not, to a local charity. We no longer needed them, and we did not want to leave them on board when we left at the end of our visit.
Batteries, even if unused, leaked before their best-before date if they were installed in a device. We normally remove most batteries from electronic devices before we leave the boat for even a few weeks. We were, however, surprised by how much damage was done by leaking batteries in devices that we had not considered, even though they had not reached their “date” by several years. The remote control for the anchor windlass, a digital multi-meter, and a small Sony shortwave radio are now waiting in our electronics recycling bin for processing. Leaking battery fluid has made them inoperable and irreparable.
Rubber and rubberized plastic were also problematic. The plastic hose that runs from the manual bilge pump to the bilge had several visible cracks, in addition to some cracks in places where they are undetectable – a big job to fix this one. Other rubber hoses cracked at their attachment points to metal fittings – the most egregious of these being the hose that runs from the engine cooling system to the hot water tank; or maybe the worst was the hose connected to the engine oil removal pump on the side of the Perkins 4.108. The split in that hose was invisible until oil sprayed around inside the engine compartment while trying to extract oil from the sump for an oil and filter change. And rubberized plastic items had all become slimy, mouldy, cracked or all three. A handheld VHF looked like it had been coated with deeply embossed faux tortoise shell, the individual cells of which promptly fell off when touched.
Additionally, stainless-steel rails and hardware revealed very clearly that it stains “less” but it certainly does rust. Amazingly, none of the chandlers in the marina sold metal cleaners, and the metal cleaner that we had on board was no longer useful – the contents of the tube had separated into component parts that could not be recombined into an effective metal polish.
The notion that everything on your boat is already broken, but you just don’t know it yet, sounded exactly right.
Both propane tanks had passed their required inspection dates, as had the SCUBA tank and fire extinguishers. All pyrotechnics had expired. The life raft was one year past its three-year service requirement.
The only somewhat good news in this sad list was the water maker. Despite being pickled with the chemical that needs to be replaced every six months (though some experts suggest that it remains effective in the membrane housing for up to a year), we were able to revive the machine, using advice from three separate sources, including the manufacturer and a technician working for a dealer that sells this machine. The latter was the most useful and the water maker is producing high quality water at factory specified rates and quality specs after going through a prolonged start-up/rejuvenation process.
All of the above issues can be attributed primarily to pandemic restricted travel and our inability to conduct routine maintenance or to keep the boat well ventilated by being on it. And though we will now have a more exacting inventory of every on-board device with a battery inside it, along with individual expiry dates, the one that is more challenging to deal with is our age. Birthdays are relentless and unavoidable.
Sailing is a physically demanding sport that requires at least moderate fitness, strength, and agility – qualities that seem to have best-before dates for many humans. A colleague once remarked that “yes, as we get older, the horizons get closer” – a comment that struck me as quite alarming! However, it was encouraging to read that Bernard Moitessier held a different view: “…life’s framework is limited only by the horizon, and it retreats as you sail towards it.”