One of the most frequently conducted repairs is tending to damage inflicted to the gunwale. The gunwale is the top ridge of the structural walls on the dragon boat. Being the top most portion of the boat the gunwale is highly susceptible to physical damage and constantly exposed to the heat, wind and water. To complicate matters the gunwale is often made out of wood which is a material, if not properly protected, easily succumbs to water damage.

Water penetration is the greatest contributor to wood damage. Once water has penetrated into the wood the moisture is entrapped mold growth will ensue within a 36 hour period. The fungi will slowly consume the wood fibers and inevitably rob the wood of its tensile strength.

If water penetration is treated early the damage can be localized and controlled however if the gunwale is subjected to prolonged water penetration, moisture will eventually seep deep into the structural wall resulting in irreversible structural damage.

Unlike other wood components on the boat (seats and steering arm) it's not possible to replace a portion of the gunwale without compromising the boat's structural integrity. Even if such a repair can be conducted the cost would prove too great. A boat that has endured extensive structural damage is not longer safe to use and will have to be decommissioned and replaced.

Because of the potential heavy toll that can ensue as a result of gunwale damage we feel that it's important that all paddlers are made aware of the level of effort that goes into the protection and repair of the gunwale. Our hope is that through awareness we can instill in all members the same degree of urgency to enforce proper behavior to avoid damaging the gunwale.

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Water Damage Causing Wood To Warp and Rot. Nail Heads Exposed.


What protects the gunwale from moisture and other elements?
A spar varnish coating serves as the only line of defense to waterproof and protect the gunwale. When the varnish coating is compromised the wood grain is exposed to wind, water and UV rays.

Steps involved to maintain or repair the varnish coating:
Step 1: Damaged layers of varnish are removed using fine grit sandpaper.
Step 2: Holes and cracks are then filled using wood filler or bondo. Damaged fasteners (nails, screws, staples) are removed and replaced.
Step 3: Work surface is sanded smooth
Step 4: Work surface is then wiped clean of dust and debris in preparation for varnish application.
Step 5: Up to three coats of marine grade spar varnish are seperately applied.

Do not let the simplicity of the repair process deceive you as each step is time consuming and the materials involved require supervision to safely handle.

What causes the spar varnish coating to wear?
In time the sun, wind and rain will deplete the oils in the varnish reducing it’s elasticity and strength causing the varnish to crack and flake however this degradation process, even under harsh weather conditions, would normally take several years. The greatest cause of varnish depletion resulting in gunwale damage is abrasive impact. Excessive impact to a new varnish coating rated to last several years will remove the varnish coating within a few weeks.

Common causes of abrasive impact:
• Not fully positioning the paddle outside of the boat when paddling.
• Hitting the gunwale in celebration.
• Using the gunwale as a makeshift oarlock when back paddling.

Culprit identified! Paddle shafts worn from abrasion.

How can I help prevent gunwale damage?
Educate new and novice paddlers. With the exception of resting the paddle on the gunwale during inactivity the paddle should never come into contact with the gunwale. If you see or hear a fellow paddler scrapping against the gunwale when paddling please inform them to correct their form or stop paddling.

How does this impact you?
• Inconvenience: Depending on the extent of the damage and the availability of a repair crew a boat can be decommissioned up to 2 weeks, if not months, for repair.
• Cost: Severe gunwale damage will alter a boat’s performance or render a boat unsafe resulting in permanent decommission or replacement.
• Safety: Rotted wood can expose metal fasteners embedded in the wood. A compromised gunwale may come apart during use.