How to Repair Toe Rail Leaks

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In response to reader requests, the following is a description of my efforts to identify the toe rail as the source of leaks in my C-26, and efforts taken to repair the leaks. While this description is geared to a C-26, it is also applicable to C-20 & C-22 classes as well, because the hull/deck composition appears to be very similar.

Unfortunately, this repair job was done about a year ago, and I had not envisioned writing a "how to" tutorial on the job. Consequently, no photos are provided in this tutorial.

Ron & Sue Hatton provided me with a great deal of information and moral support in identifying and repairing the leak.

Identification of the Toe Rail as the Source of Leaks

I was getting water in the boat, but couldn't figure out how it was coming in. I checked all my thru-deck fittings, windows, etc., but couldn't find any leaks that would account for the amount of water in the boat. I pulled the boat out of the water and checked the thru-hull fittings, but found no places where the water could be coming in.

Finally, after examining all possible alternatives, I took a look at the toe rail, which was slightly bent from a previous accident which I had deemed not to be too serious.

The accident which caused the leak was one of my own doing. It occured after I had tied off my boat in the slip after a day of sailing. I was in a hurry and did not leave enough slack in the lines. We had a strong storm surge in the marina due to heavy rains. Inevitably, the boat had to rise with the storm surge, and my port side toe rail was caught underneath the dock. The force of the rising water forced the toe rail to bend outwards, and to partially pull out the screws holding the toe rail to the deck.

As a result of this problem, I had water coming in through the screw holes in the deck. Water was gathering on the deck and coming in through the holes left by the toe rail screws.

Toe Rail Removal & Repair

  1. First pull off the black rubber "bumper" strip. Make sure not to tear or rip it, as you will need to reinstall it later! To get to the rubber strip, remove the "angle" fittings covering the "bumper" at the bow and stern. Use a flat head screw driver or narrow-bladed putty knife to get underneath and remove it. Removal of the black rubber "bumper" strip will leave the toe rail screws exposed.

  2. Next, remove the screws with a phillips head screw driver. Make sure to save the screws for reinstallation!

  3. Once the screws are removed, you will be able to pry the toe rail off. I found that the toe rail came off fairly easily, because the adhesive between the toe rail and the the hull was fairly old. Yours may not be as easy.

    One thing I want to stress here; this is a two-person job, as the toe rail is stainless steel or aluminum, and fairly heavy as well as unwieldy. You don't want the toe rail to get bent any further, or to mar your gelcoat if it gets dropped.

  4. Next, scrape off the old adhesive, making sure to really get all the adhesive off. I found this step to be the most labor-intensive part of the project, as the old adhesive was fairly difficult to get off. You will want to use a paint scraper and adhesive remover to get the old adhesive off.

    NOTE: A discussion of adhesive & adhesive removal materials is provided at the bottom of this tutorial.

  5. Next, fill in the screw holes with new adhesive. Also, make sure to liberally spread new adhesive in the trough where the toe rail sits, over the sandwiched edges of the hull and deck layers. You can afford to be a little bit sloppy here, as you can always clean up the adhesive afterwards. Make sure to be generous with the new adhesive, as this will provide an extra bond between the layers, and establish a thoroughly waterproof barrier once the toe rail is reattached.

  6. While the new adhesive is still fresh, re-install the toe rail with the screws you removed earlier. Again, two people are needed to hold and reinstall the toe rail. You will want to begin the reinstallation process at the bow, and work your way aft.

  7. If your original screw holes were damaged (like mine), you will want to avoid re-using the damaged holes. They will not provide any support to hold the screws. You will want to drill some new holes to provide the support necessary to keep the toe rail firmly attached. Use the toe rail as a template for drilling new holes. If you do drill new holes and don't have enough screws for the job, make sure to get stainless steel screws that match the old screws.

  8. At this point, the toe rail itself should be reinstalled. You will want to make another pass with the new adhesive on both the topside and underside of the area where the toerail was reinstalled, wiping off the excess adhesive afterwards.

  9. The last step will be to reinstall the rubber "bumper" strip. You will find that it is harder to reinstall the strip than it was to remove it. Again, start at the bow and work your way back, using a flat headed screwdriver or narrow putty knife to get the strip back into the groove. You will want to pull vigorously on the rubber strip to get it to stretch back to its old length. Finally, reinstall the "angle" fittings atop the rubber strip.

Summary and Lessons Learned

For me, the whole process of repairing the toe rail was done in about four hours, and was much easier than I thought it would be.

I was fortunate that I had someone to help me, as it would have been impossible to accomplish by myself.

Take the time to thoroughly remove all old adhesive.

The rubber strip was very hard to reinstall; you will need to do some serious pulling here, but it will fit!

Adhesives & Adhesive Removers

In case you're wondering which adhesive to use, I used 3M 5200 Polyurethane Adhesive/Sealant in a caulkgun. Here is 3M's description of this product:

"Famous because it provides incredible adhesion, yet stays flexible after it cures. Ideal for underwater thru-hull fittings, hull-to-deck joints, portholes, and bonding wood to fiberglass. Goes on smoothly, won't sag, and remains workable up to 4 hours. Retains strength above and below the waterline. Becomes tack-free in 48 hours, and cures completely in 5-7 days with no shrinking. Cleans up with kerosene or mineral spirits."

Regarding adhesive removal, I looked in the West Marine catalog under paint/adhesive strippers -- here's what they carry (these descriptions, except where noted, were copied directly from their catalog):

  1. Acetone: Effective for metal cleaning, epoxies, vinyls, lacquers, solvent based contact cement or adhesives, plastic and polyester resins and fiberglass. [Rik's note: I've used this product, and know that my marina uses it as well -- it is a hazardous chemical so be VERY careful using it -- make sure to use long sleeves and pants, good gloves designed for use with chemicals, a good respirator (not a cloth mask), and safety goggles. You don't want to get this stuff on you!]

  2. Methyl Ethyl Ketone: MEK has characteristics similar to acetone, but is 30% slower evaporating. [Rik's note: never used this product before]

  3. Paint Stripper: Premium stripper, in thick, brushable paste form. Suitable for paint, epoxy and polyurethane. Not for use on fiberglass. [Rik's note: never used this product before]

  4. Paint & Epoxy Remover: Removes epoxy, urethane, varnish, lacquer and shellac. Won't stain wood, veneer, or glass. Not for use on fiberglass. [Rik's note: never used this product before]

My recommendation though, is for you to either contact your local marine supply store or one of the big marine supply stores like West Marine. Explain what you're trying to do and they'll provide you with solid advice. West Marine's phone number is 1-800-BOATING (262-8464).


3M 5200 Adhesive (10 oz)
Stainless Steel Screws

If you have any questions about any of the information in this tutorial, send me an e-mail at or click on the e-mail button in the left frame.

This page last updated on Saturday, October 16, 1999.