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Now On Deck

There's something new and exciting underfoot on many yachts around the world: cork.

Most of us know cork for one of its most obvious and important uses: keeping wine in the bottle and protecting its flavor. Cork is everywhere around us, doing countless other valuable chores.

Known for its resiliency, cork has been used for insulation, engine gaskets, life jackets, life rings, and household and office flooring. We throw darts at it and use it for bulletin boards.

Considering the amazing number of uses for cork, it's not surprising now to find it underfoot on yachts, work vessels, and cruise ships. Cork is replacing teak as the decking of choice on some new yachts and is also being used to cover old fiberglass decking on others.

Ground, mixed with chemicals, compressed, and sliced into planks, cork displays the burnished gold tones similar to those for which new teak is known. Properly sealed, cork decking will maintain its warm color for years while providing a tough-to-defeat surface that sheds water, grease stains, fuel oil, and fish gore.

Cork decking goes down in strips like teak, with a similar black caulk in the channel between strips. A lighter caulk gives the appearance of teak-and-holly to interior decking.

Unlike teak, cork bends nicely on a cambered deck, and most spills will wipe up or wash off with soap and water. Really, really bad stains are removed by buffing with a Scotch-Brite pad or light sanding.

One of the drawbacks of teak decking is that it must be screwed down. Occasionally, those screws penetrate the fiberglass or plywood subdeck and leaking is possible, if not inevitable. Cork, on the other hand, goes down with adhesive, just like kitchen tile. Properly installed, it provides a waterproof surface. And the best thing: It costs less than teak to buy, to install, and to maintain.

The owners of an 80-foot Hatteras moored in Seattle decided installation of cork decking was just the thing to improve its nearly perfect appearance. They chose Seattle Yacht Service, a distributor and installer of a cork decking known as MarineDeck 2000, to do the work.

John Whitcomb, a partner in the business, invited me to watch as his crew did the work.

Over a period of about three weeks, I made four or five visits to the yacht and watched the white fiberglass deck surface slowly develop a soft golden hue as the new cork decking was cut, fitted, and glued down. When the work was complete the Hatteras did look better-more yachty, more sophisticated, more comfortable.

The Beginning

Cork comes from a type of oak tree that grows around the Mediterranean Sea. The stuff we call cork is an accumulation of waterproof and airtight dead cells that protect the tree from scorching sun, brush fires, and drought.

For thousands of years, man has been shaving the dead cells from the oak and transforming them into useful products. The skinned tree lives on, producing another crop of cork in a decade or so. For those with a green conscience, it is a great renewable resource.

Stazo Marine Equipment BV, a Netherlands firm, manufactures MarineDeck 2000. The company probably is best known for producing beautiful ship's steering wheels in teak, stainless steel, and polyurethane, but its cork decking, first introduced for commercial use, is catching on around the world as a useful new product for yachts.

The slabs of cork cut from the trees are ground, and the fine granules are mixed with a two-part polyether-polyurethane binder. This chemical soup is squeezed hard, and the final product is a long, large and rectangular cork log. It is then milled into planks 75 inches long and three-eighths of an inch thick and two, three, and five inches wide.

The two-inch strips are notched for bands of deck caulking. Three-inch MarineDeck 2000 may also be notched for planking but is often used for borders and trim. The five-inch-wide material is used for large corners or circular pads around deck chairs, windlasses, or other deck fittings.

MarineDeck 2000 is limber and light. It can be cut with ordinary shop tools: the SYS crew used a band saw, a belt sander, a circular saw, sharp knives, T-squares, and other carpenter's tools.

Stazo has installed its cork decking product on three-masted sailing ships, cruise ships, and on work boats throughout Europe. Stazo says that builders using MarineDeck 2000 include Great Southern Yachts, Cape Horn, Aprea Mare, Princess, Regal, Bayliner, Sea Ray, Bertram, Hallberg Rassy, Island Packet, Chris Craft, and Maxum.

You may have seen the cork decking on boats in marinas or shows but didn't know it, because from 15 or 20 feet away MarineDeck 2000 looks like extraordinarily fine teak.

MarQuipt, a Pompano Beach, Florida, marine products supplier, is the U.S. distributor for MarineDeck 2000.

Garnett Byrd, sales manager for MarQuipt, and Seattle Yacht Service's Whitcomb summed up additional benefits of cork decking:

It weighs only half as much as teak, and installation is more efficient, with only four or five percent of cork wasted, compared to about 25 percent or more for a teak deck.

It is impact- and fire-resistant, and damaged areas are easily repaired. (No more fear of guests wearing high heeled shoes.)

Cork is a thermal and acoustic insulating material. Things are quieter and cooler with cork around. It is pet-friendly.

Soap and water will clean up most stains. Cork has no fear of diesel fuel, red wine, or suntan lotion.

It is also less expensive. A cork deck will cost about $75 a square foot installed, including material and labor. A teak deck will cost $120 or more a square foot.

It can be a do-it-yourself project. "Handy people can do it, and many do," says Byrd.

MarQuipt uses MarineDeck 2000 on boarding ladders and ramps that it builds. Byrd said it has been used on oyster fishing boats and on a luxury dinner ship operating out of Seattle on which the threat of high heels is real.

MarQuipt has been using the material since the early 1990s and became the U.S. distributor in 1994. The firm first installed cork decking on a 1974 22-foot Mako sportfishing boat as a test. It so dolled up the old boat that "it made people think it's a new boat," says Byrd.

On The Job

On my first visit to the Hatteras, Larry Clark and Robert Smith of SYS had finished sanding and cleaning the fiberglass cockpit deck. Working with them was Mike Hathaway, a Pompano Beach shipwright and a consultant in the installation of MarineDeck 2000.

They were fitting three-inch deck strips as an edge around the cockpit and were just beginning to cut angles and curves in wider cork pieces to fit around a transom door, a windlass, foot switches, and other deck gear.

They said any boat owner with good carpentry skills could install cork decking. The most important skill in my opinion: planning and measuring.

That became obvious the day I watched Clark spread adhesive and lay the last strip of cork decking in the cockpit. It was near the middle of the deck, and I held my breath as Clark carefully pushed it into place for a perfect fit. Had I been doing it, the cork strip would have been either too wide or too narrow for that last open space.

Obviously, those planning skills are needed when one begins laying cork on an 18-foot-wide deck that lives up to the marine designer's creed: Never build a boat with square corners.

The crew marked curves on cork strips with a pencil and protractor and then cut them carefully on the bandsaw on the dock. Often, final trims were done with sharp knives. Sanding boards buffed the edges smooth. Straight cuts were made with a chop saw or by scoring and snapping.

The Hatteras has three hatches in the cockpit deck. Each was trimmed with cork cut to match curved corners and then outlined with straight runs of planking.

Dabs of hot glue were used to hold cork strips in place while other pieces were fitted against them. Later, they were popped loose with a putty knife.

The cutting and fitting produced many butt joints. But they would disappear later with the application of a Stazo chemical binder to plank ends. When it is dry the joint is tight, leak-free, and nearly invisible.

Once the decking was in place, Clark and Smith began laying thick beads of caulk in the slots between cork planks. On a teak deck, each groove would be edged with masking tape to keep the black goo off the wood-not necessary with MarineDeck 2000.

The beads of caulk slopped over and stood above the deck level. After it had dried Clark used a sharp chisel to clean away the excess. A final sanding removed all traces of the caulk and the binder solution that had spread onto the finished surface.

A Top Coat

Stazo and MarQuipt recommend coating a new cork deck with a two-part polyurethane finish to protect it from ultraviolet light and to maintain its golden glow. Untreated cork eventually will fade and turn gray, as does teak.

The polyurethane coating further reduces the chance that some awful substance will stain the deck.

The topcoating particularly is important in tropical areas, where exposure to the sun could damage the joint-binding compound over time. The sun is less of a problem in northern climates, but the topcoating still is recommended.

Three coatings are required-the last will contain a nonskid material-and application must be precise.

Unlike normal paint or varnish, the two-part polyurethane will not blend while drying and must be applied evenly. The installation manual provided by MarQuipt recommends asking a second person to eyeball the freshly coated deck from a low angle to make sure no spot is uncovered.

Should you miss a spot, you'll need to recoat the entire deck. You can't just dab some on and expect it to look uniform.

The good news is that the coating will last for about five years, and renewing the surface is simple: Clean the deck with soap and water and denatured alcohol. When it is dry, apply one seal coat with non-skid. That's it!

The Ultimate Job

Okay, your boat has the real thing on deck- acres of teak. The problem is that it is old, weathered, splintered, and worn thin. Water is leaking through seams or plugs (who knows really where it comes from?) and is penetrating the core of a fiberglass deck or the plywood subdeck found on wood boats.

It's a big job, but your boat can be redecked with MarineDeck 2000.

Obviously, the old teak needs to come off first. Don't be delicate here; Whitcomb's crews use a circular saw to score across the teak planking every 12 inches and then rip it free with prybars.

Most teak is held down with bronze screws. Trying to remove the deck board-by-board is futile, Whitcomb says, because the screws likely will break if you try removing them. Or they may not come out at all, and that means the planks will break as they are pulled free.

Once a Seattle Yacht Service crew tosses the last of the teak into a dumpster, it attacks the fiberglass with a rough sander that will chew up protruding screw ends and fair the deck. Then several layers of fiberglass cloth are laid to provide a waterproof surface. And then you can begin putting down cork.

Such a job is hugely expensive, and there are no ballpark estimates available.

But if your boat has fiberglass decks, expect materials for a cork decking (including adhesives, seam caulk, and binder) to cost about $37 a square foot. Labor will boost the total to about $75 per square foot.

Laying teak over a clean fiberglass or plywood deck will cost between $100 and $120 a square foot.

The Test

So how stain resistant is cork decking? I thought about filling a couple of small bottles with diesel fuel and red wine and carrying them aboard. "Oooops!" I'd say as the bottles fell and popped open on the new deck. Would it wipe up, leaving no evidence of my stunt?

I decided not to do that. I suspected no one would be happy with my little test. But I asked Whitcomb.

"I would have kicked you overboard," he told me, "for wasting good wine."

Garnett Byrd of MarQuipt said they poured a bottle of red over the seal-coated cork deck in the company Mako and went away for two weeks. They came back and washed it off with soap and water.

Spilled diesel fuel will wipe up with a rag. Ditto for suntan lotion and other greasy substances. A pressure washer turned to a low setting-not more than 400 pounds psi-will rinse away surface dirt, Byrd says.

Abrasives or strong cleaning chemicals may damage the cork decking and should not be used, Byrd told me. The same advice is true for teak decks: Don't use harsh cleaners on wood.

"If a stain is really nasty, just sand and recoat," he adds. "It will look brand new."

Can I Do It?

If a certified installer, such as Seattle Yacht Service, does the installation, you'll get a threeyear manufacturer's warranty. Do it yourself and there's no guarantee.

Whitcomb said his staff will go to a boat and help an owner plan the installation of a MarineDeck 2000 system, charging normal yard fees for the time involved. Other distributors probably will do the same, for a fee.

Byrd says his firm also will help do-it-yourself boaters. "We ask owners if they can hang cabinets in a kitchen," he says, as a way of qualifying would-be installers.

Byrd asks how complex a design will be, how intricate border planks must be. He recommends dry fitting all the pieces, to be sure of fit, before spreading any adhesive.

Doing a dry fit is difficult, particularly for those of us eager to see the end results, but is the only way to do cork decking, Byrd adds.

It would make a good off-season project for skilled boat owners, particularly for those who keep their craft under cover.

Cutting curves, angles and straight edges shouldn't be tough for anyone who has done some wood finishing. Deciding on the curves, angles, and lengths is the hard part.

Don't start this kind of job knowing the boat MUST be under way in three or four weeks. Be flexible, work slowly. Seek professional help.

The result can be a superlative new deck, one that may make your old boat look like brand new.