Beware of Galvanic Corrosion!

Galvanic corrosion is what happens when dissimilar metals are in contact within an electrolyte and an electrical current is applied. That’s the technical definition. The practical description is it’s the white stuff that grows around your stainless steel fasteners in your aluminum mast and boom when you are around salt water. You can clean away the corrosion that you can see on the outside of parts but don’t be fooled, it’s not just a harmless white powder. It’s what you cannot see that’s the bigger problem. It slowly and invisibly welds fasteners and fittings together to the point that they cannot be loosened without destroying one or the other.

Corrosive growth at 200x magnification
Corrosive growth at 200x magnification

It can be a serious problem, especially on older boats like our 33 year-old Catalina 22. Following are examples from my boat that were bad enough that they required replacement parts, a Hall of Shame of sorts. Learn from them and prevent it on your boat.

Corrosion could be growing inside your spar fittings.
It could be growing inside your spar fittings.

The first example is a boom end fitting. I needed to remove the screws that attach it to the boom to replace the eye strap with a larger one in my mainsail outhaul project. One screw came out with some extra effort. The other snapped off flush with the casting. The only way to try to extract what remained was to try to drill it out.

Try is the operative word here. Drilling out small diameter fasteners made of hard, brittle metal in a soft, rounded casting is a gamble at best. Unless you can clamp the casting solidly; use very sharp, very hard drill bits; and prevent the bit from wandering to the edge of the fastener, it will drift into the softer surrounding metal and the game will be over because you’ve lost. As you can see from the picture below, I lost about half of the thickness of the casting in the process and decided that it would be too weak to reuse considering how critical this part is to the rigging. I use my boom as a gin pole to raise and lower my mast. Having these screws pull out could have disastrous results.

Drilling seized fasteners out has low success rate
Drilling out seized fasteners like this has a low chance of success

The next example is (gulp) my masthead. I needed to remove it to install an anchor light although I first discovered the extent of the corrosion during my oversize masthead sheaves project. The masthead through-bolt came out easily enough. It’s not a tight fit there. But as you can see in the picture below, it was heavily corroded and I had to hammer it off the end of the mast. I was eventually able to get the sheave pins out for the sheave project but not without more than a little extra effort. It was the forestay and backstay pins that were the worst. If you ever have to do this job, here’s some tips that worked for me.

The masthead casting won't survive a lot of persuasion
The masthead casting won’t survive a lot of persuasion

Be patient and try to work the pins out gradually by tapping them back and forth with the least amount of force necessary. If at first they don’t budge, try soaking the masthead at least overnight in something to dissolve some of the corrosion, but not too strong. For example, muriatic acid can eat away the aluminum. You can also try heating the masthead lightly with a torch but be careful to not get it too hot or you could damage the temper of the casting.

You might need to use a punch to tap the pins all the way out. If they need really forceful persuasion (a bigger hammer), be careful to not deform the ends of the pins.  If you flare the end of a pin, it won’t fit through the hole in the masthead and you’ll have to either file the flare away or cut the end off and sacrifice the pin. The cotter pin holes in the clevis pins are especially weak. If one collapses shut, you’ll need a new pin. After you get the pins out, clean out any remaining corrosion in the pin through-holes.

Be very careful to not overstress the casting or it will break as in the picture above. This happened after I had successfully removed the three other pins and spent hours trying different methods to loosen the fourth but it hardly moved at all. It is possible to weld a break like this but it will never be as strong as the original. Considering how critical this piece is, it is a bad idea and you should replace the part. At the time that I wrote this, the masthead casting alone was no longer available from a certain Catalina parts dealership even though it appears on their website. They do accept orders for the entire masthead assembly including sheaves, spacer, and pins. However, they are built to order and require 2 to 12 weeks lead time. In the summer of 2014, I had to wait 15 weeks for mine, a seriously long time to not be able to sail.

To prevent this level of corrosion from happening to you, apply a corrosion inhibitor like Marelube to all fasteners in dissimilar metal.  Use corrosion inhibitor anywhere a stainless steel fastener is in constant contact with aluminum, including the masthead tenon. Depending on how much your boat is exposed to salt water and sea air, inspect and reapply on a regular basis such as when you’re doing your standing rigging inspection.

The Bottom Line

Suggested price: $0
$tingy Sailor cost: $116
Savings:  -$116

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