Friday, June 26, 2015

Boats Break A Lot. Or: Why Sailors Drink Rum

Boats are ticking time bombs. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but - really - the fact that our home is floating in one of the most corrosive environments on the planet (sun + saltwater... have you seen what these things do to stuff?!) means that everything from bathing suits to booster pumps (and, sadly, skin) have a severely truncated shelf life out here. Combine the harsh natural environment with the fact that a boat is constantly in motion with gear that is heavily used (and sometimes abused) means stuff breaks. A lot. Scott reckons he could be fixing and/or maintaining something every single day for several hours a day if he felt so inclined. And our boat is in "really good" condition.

And this is the part of cruising that drives many to denounce this lifestyle. This is even the part of cruising that wears down others enough to actually 'swallow the anchor' and move back to land. Most landlubbers have no idea how much work it takes to keep a full-time cruising boat afloat and in good working order. "I had no idea how hard this would be" is a cry I've heard from many a new cruiser. It can be a real shock to the person who envisioned cruising to be all that it looks like from our Facebook Pages (which, understandably, share predominantly the good stuff...and, don't get me wrong, there's a lot of good stuff).

What's worse is the fact that if you don't know how to fix the systems yourself, you are paying handsomely to have someone else do it for you.  I've written before on the virtues of having a handy person aboard, and it warrants repeating: if you want to live on a boat in paradise, get ready to roll up your shirt sleeves. It's work. Not "desk job" 9-5 work, but back-breaking, jury-rigging, bang-your-head-against-the-wall, contort-yourself-like-a-freak-show and sweat-a-full-bucket-while-you-do-it McGuyver-style work. It's unpredictable, it's sink or swim, and it often comes at the most inopportune time (example: engine dies as you are navigating a rough cut between islands). And before you tell me that "it sure beats XYZ", know that once the cruising honeymoon wears off, constantly "fixing your boat in exotic locations" (and possibly in hairy situations) can be incredibly frustrating, discouraging and downright maddening. Because it's not just the fixing that needs to happen, but the diagnosing (sometimes the hardest part of all), the sourcing of parts, and the research as well. Throw three small children into the mix who require a lot of attention and need naps at various times throughout the day (read: shhhhhhh!!!!) and it gets pretty tricky staying on top of it all. Sometimes, from our perspective, your cozy traditional home with unlimited power, water, amenities, proximity to child care and Trader Joe's looks just as appealing to us as our palm lined white sand beaches look to you. 


Don't get me wrong, it's the yin to the yang and the price we willingly pay for the tremendous benefits of this life afloat... but that doesn't mean we love it all the time. That is just life. There is no Utopia. For me living on a boat in the tropics with my family is about as close as it gets, but every rose has it's thorn and while I don't write this to complain, I do strive to paint a realistic picture.

I digress...

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here's a condensed list of what has broken on our boat in the last five months. It's important to note that we are not doing any "hard core" sailing or long passages, so wear and tear is way less on our boat than, say, a boat that is doing more serious miles or an ocean crossing. We do short (>4 hour) day sails and island hops, but sail often and all our our systems (from watermaker to windlass) are used regularly. These breakdowns are in no particular order and don't include the litany of things we fixed immediately when we came down here, nor do they include the impressive amount of general maintenance (must. polish. stainless.) that has to happen regularly. It also does not include the high priority "want to do" things like rewiring certain areas of the boat, finding a new home for our fridge compressor, getting our freezer up and running and re-locating our battery bank.

Here's whats broken this season:
  1. We discovered our starboard side aluminum fuel tank has corroded and developed a pin hole leak. This is what you would consider a "BIG" (and probably very expensive) problem. Luckily for us, we have two very large fuel tanks and the leaky one was just about empty. Scott put together a pump to remove fuel from the leaky tank to the good tank with an old pump (read: sub-project) and we are still figuring out how and when we are going to deal with this issue.
  2. Scott has had to repair the "boost pump" on our water maker three times (by literally taking it apart and fixing teeny tiny pieces that I think might be called 'scrubbers') and he's now just installed a brand new boost pump to hopefully remedy this issue. This job required electrical know-how, plumbing savvy, the mind of a Tetris champion, the hands of a surgeon and a lot of patience. (If you are counting, there are four fix-it projects within this one.)
  3. Our mast was leaking. That needed to be fixed, stat. We used Spartite, it has proven effective.
  4. Our generator's heat exchanger needed something super important. I can't remember what. I was chasing babies, managing tantrums and changing diapers. But it was a big thing, I remember that. Scott was in the engine compartment for a long time. Something about the raw water pump perhaps?
  5. Our generator's battery died and needed replacing (we've since reconfigured our battery bank, see #10). A simple fix, but a nuisance none the less.
  6. When letting out all our chain to see exactly how much we had marked, our windlass died and started sparking. Turns out, it was wired wrong and actually was a huge fire hazard. (Bullet: Dodged). Scott put on his electrician hat and fixed it. Now it works better than before. Oh, and now we know for sure we have 275 feet of chain marked. Win/win.
  7. We ran out of propane. No biggie. Luckily we were able to have it refilled quickly (not always the case) but it sucked none the less.
  8. The wooden seat on our bowsprit broke off in some nasty waves. Whatever, we never used it anyway. It sits in our cockpit locker until we have the "time" to fix it. Hahaha!! Time?!?! What's that?!?! Let's be honest, this is so low priority it's not getting done for a loooong time. Or ever.
  9. Our engine's thermostat needed replacing because our engine kept giving us a false overheating alarm. We did it, but it seems our issue is back, though our engine is not overheating. Hmmmm. The plot thickens.
  10. Our chart plotter has gone on the fritz and is more or less unusable. Thanks, Raymarine. Point for backup systems (handheld GPS) and paper charts!
  11. A hose clamp came loose from our forward head sink, so that every time we used the water, most of it ended up in our bilge. Simple fix. But tracing back where all that water was coming from and why the bilge pump was going off was a bit tricky. 
  12. Our galley plumbing consists of some cheap house-hold plumping (note: must replace all of it...later). One of the pipe fittings came loose under the sink gushing impressive amounts of saltwater into our bilge. Simple straightforward fix, but a bit alarming when Scott first noticed the bilge pump running non-stop and even more alarming when I looked into the bilge and saw a hefty river of saltwater rushing into our boat. This was all before the morning's first cup of coffee, mind you. I don't function well these days without coffee (see #7).
  13. Our house battery bank died. Turns out, the crappy batteries we bought for a small fortune in St. Kitts were not a good "long term" solution (we had no other options at the time) so we needed to replace them. While doing this, Scott rewired our start battery and reconfigured our house bank (read: job within a job). We're pretty happy with our new setup. Our battery situation was far from perfect so this was a blessing in disguise. Side note: Boat batteries are not cheap (and my God are they heavy!)
  14. Our outhaul snapped. We tied it to a u-bolt on the boom with a bowline, called it good and said we would fix it properly "later". This was about three months ago. Again...time?! What's time!?!
  15. Our aft head clogged and needed to be unclogged. My poor sister was the one to do it (unclog it, I mean.)
  16. Our aft head needs to be rebuilt.  When our toilet began to seep in seawater, it was a minor annoyance. Scott switched out the forward and aft head pumps and that solved our issue for a while, but the issues persists and it's clear we need some new o-rings and seals and a new toilet pump shaft. These items need to be sourced from the states and shipped down here. Not an urgent matter, but stepping onto a wet floor near a toilet (even if it is only seawater) is...gross.
  17. All of our portholes need re-bedding and a good polish. We have eighteen of them. This is an incredibly laborious job that we just haven't had the time for. Say it with me folks...Time!?! What's that!?!?
  18. Just about every wooden surface on our boat needs re-varnishing. Again, suuuper low priority and very labor intensive. Aka: This is not happening.
Hmmm...I think that's about it. Not too bad, really. But we could do without the leaking fuel tank. That one's gonna be a doozy.

And this right here might answer the age old question of "Why do sailors drink so much rum?" Answer: Because you need it at the end of long, fruitless day spent in a 110 degree engine room trying to diagnose why your thermostat isn't reading properly, or after a full day on the phone calling various islands trying to source batteries for your boat, or after four hours dealing with cranky customs people only to find out they're not the agency you need to deal with. You especially need it to celebrate the wins; the parts sourced, the cost-effective DIY that worked like butta, the problem solved... Okay, that and the fact that rum is literally cheaper than water down here. But still, like parenthood, cruising is a job that is not recognized as such. No one pats you on the back and says, "Well done" and the moments where you truly shine are often unseen. We don't do this for the accolades. Like parenthood, cruising is one of the most rewarding and gratifying jobs' you will ever love, despite the all the "work" it takes to keep going.

Until the next thing breaks, of course. But then, there's the rum.
What would us cruisers do without Nigel? 
The leaky fuel tank. This really warrants it's own blog post. Huge can of worms right here.
Scott jury-rigging a pump to siphon fuel from one tank to another.
Eben and Scott removing and installing our new battery bank.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on Spartite. We've been struggling with a way to seal our mast for over a year now. The little rubber boots from West Marine just weren't cutting it.

One crazy thing I noticed during our charter in the SVIs last week was how many shoe blowouts our crew had. Three different people lost the soles of their shoes while hiking, and judging from how many shoe pieces were on the trails, this apparently is a real problem. I guess saltwater is really hard on shoe glue.

Robert Salnick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Salnick said...

We have had to deal with the "pinhole in the aluminum fuel tank" problem. Perhaps I can help...

Some questions:
Have you already repaired it?

It's an aluminum tank. The leak could be from electrolysis. Where is the leak on the tank? If it is near the bottom, it is may be caused by acids in a small amount of water that has bugs living in it, eating the diesel. This is NOT electrolysis.

Can you reach the area where the leak is from existing openings in the tank?
If not, can you reach the part of the tank where you'd need to cut a new opening?

Our tank was repaired by cleaning the inside with very hot water, then a solvent wipe-down. Then an epoxy paste was applied over the entire inside bottom of the tank, wiped on by hand to ensure complete coverage.

Hasn't leaked since.

(Our problem was electrolysis caused by a lead fishing weight someone dropped in the tank. It still had line on it.)

Mark and Cindy - s/v Cream Puff said...

yep. living the dream! said...

As usual, excellent post! The most amazing thing about cruising is the instant rapport with other cruisers you just met. In 5 minutes it's " Here's where we found this part " or "I had that same problem - let me take a look at it". Just doesn't happen on land. Which is where we are right now, & have to say I am enjoying flush toilets. See you again next season! Hugs.

Doug said...

Great post(s)! My wife reads your blog regularly & I do when I can. We have a 20y/o boat (that I've had since new) & can definitely relate to many of your experiences. Thanks for making it real! We hope to get back out there in a couple years.

#1) I've got a 70 gal steel holding tank that sprung pinhole leaks. Major problem to remove the tank. Tried an (exterior!) epoxy repair, but more holes have appeared. Still don't really know what to do...

#13) Same happened to me, twice! With a parallel setup, batteries often die together, with the weakest. I bought a single 250 Ah gelled absorbed glass mat (in NZ for $900!) to replace the four (non-gelled AGM) I had before. I'm still not impressed (don't have a generator & lost the engine just out of NZ, sailing to Vancouver, so was solar-only): I think I'll give up on lead-acid, maybe go to LiIon chemistry. What did you choose when you replaced/rebuilt your house bank?

Again, great post, thanks for taking the time to update us!

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Austest Melbourne said...

He is friendly, professional, responsive and most importantly very competent. They were quickly found the source of my high water bills and put me in touch with a plumber able to make repairs the next day. He detected our leak was from the skimmers and had his team work on it quickly, Thank you Austest Melbourne!

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