Monthly Archives: October 2008

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I finally got a mechanic down to the boat last week.  I’ve been meaning to do this since before Ibought the boat, but never got around to it. 
I knew the news would be bad.  Dothey ever give good news?


The port engine is very hard to start.  It has to be cranked for 60-120 seconds (notcontinuously) before it will fire.  Whenit does, it only runs on one cylinder and understandably very rough.  After it has warmed up for a few minutes, theother cylinders will start to fire, after which it is fine and will run allday.

A diesel engine is pretty simple.  It doesn’t have spark plugs, but insteadrelies on the air in the cylinder being heated by compression and a fine sprayof fuel being injected into the cylinder at the right time to cause combustion.  Simple, but precise.  The piston has to fit perfectly in thecylinder to create the compression, and the fuel has to be sprayed at theperfect time, in the perfect pattern, and under very high pressure.

I have managed to put together a few pieces of the boat’sstory.  The engines were commissioned inNovember 2000 by a mechanic in Sarasota. 
This was interesting because I didn’t know the boat had ever been inthis area.  I have a logbook that starts ayear later in November 2001, in Fort Lauderdale, when the engines have 145hours on them.  The logbook containsseveral entries that indicate that the port engine had problems even then.  It mentions some “blow by” and that theengine was accidentally run with the raw water intake closed, causing it tooverheat.

The overheating back then could very likely be root cause ofmy problems today.  When metal gets hotit gets soft and expands.  Getting softcan lead to deformation, and expansion within the small tolerances of acylinder can lead to increased friction and wear (which leads to more heat andmore friction until your engine seizes). 
Overheating is not conducive for maintaining compression inside theengine. 

The “blow by” he notes is a compression problem, but isrelated to the rings at the top of the cylinder not fitting correctly andallowing gas to escape.  It is usually arelatively easy fix and not a long-term problem.

Generally, the first thing a mechanic wants to know when heencounters a diesel that won’t fire is if there is compression.  This can be done by removing the glow plugs (littleelectrodes that pre-heat the air in the cylinder for easier starting), fittinga pressure gauge, and cranking it.  It ishard to say what pressure is good and what is bad, but the cylinders should allbe about the same.  It is definitely bad whenyou have one cylinder that is 50% higher than the others, and that cylinderworks when the others don’t.  Alas, thisis the case.

It is a pretty safe bet that what is going on inside theengine is that the engine has to be turned over (either by the starter, or by the“good” cylinder) until the pistons heat up from enough friction to expand and thepressure rises enough to allow combustion. 
While the engine is turning over, the injectors are dumping fuel intothe cylinders, which washes away the lubricating oil.  This increases the friction and helps thecylinders to heat up and thus fire earlier, but it also causes wear and thestarting problem will get worse and worse until someday the engine just won’tstart.

What is the solution? 
Well, the piston has to be made to fit perfectly in the cylinder.  The cylinder therefore has to be bored larger(probably half a millimeter) and fitted with larger pistons, or the cylinderhas to be sleeved and re-bored to the original spec and the pistons replaced.  Of course this can’t be done in the boat so theengine has be removed and re-installed, adding about two days of labor.  Ballpark estimate: $4,000.

Now, this isn’t all that terrible in boat-money terms.  Where it gets complicated is when youconsider that after spending the four grand, I’ll still have a pair of tiredold 30 horsepower engines that really probably should have been 40s or 50s tobegin with.  The real question here is doI want to take this boat long-distance with these engines?  Ballpark estimate for two new 40HP engines andmatched propellers: $40,000.

The mechanic that did this compression test for me was thesame guy who commissioned the engines in 2000. 
I did that on purpose.  He helpedme collect some of the pieces of the history puzzle.  Also, he wrote in his 2000 report that theboat motored at 9 knots.  Now, I’ve spentsome time on this boat and the only time I’ve seen 9 knots is with a nicebreeze and a big sail.  The best I’veseen under power is about 5.5.  I wantedto meet the man who said this boat went 9 knots on these engines.  He verified that it did indeed happen andnoted that the engines did not achieve anywhere near their rated RPMs.

As I’ve alluded to before, there are many factors toconsider when trying to maximize boat speed and minimize fuel consumption.  The boat’s shape and weight areconstants.  The engine manufacturerconsiders the RPM a constant.  The gearratio is a constant.  There areenvironmental considerations such as temperature, wind, and sea state, but themain variable is the propeller.  Whatdiameter, how many blades, what blade pitch? 
Apparently, it is possible to pitch the propellers such that the boatcan go 9 knots, but the engines can’t turn them at the speed the manufacturersays is ideal.  How bad this is, I don’tknow.  I also note that however the propswere pitched then, and however they are now, the engines do run faster, butstill don’t get what the manufacturer considers “cruising speed”.

The boat has fancy feathering propellers that orientthemselves to the water when sailing to reduce drag.  They have adjustable pitch, but unfortunatelythe boat has to be pulled out to make the adjustment.  Pulling this boat out is not something you docasually.  I know that the propellerswere removed and sent off to be serviced by the manufacturer sometime after thecommissioning.  Whether the pitch was thesame when the propellers were returned I don’t know, but this seems the mostlikely point at which the pitch would have been changed, perhaps inadvertently.

All stuff to consider. 
In the meantime we plan to run the port engine as-is.  We found that all the glow plugs were dead(probably from a tricky control panel switch that keeps them on unnecessarily)so those are being replaced.  They reallyaren’t necessary in this climate, but anything that can raise the temperaturein the cylinders is a good thing.  Sincewe already had the injectors out, we figured it wouldn’t hurt either to havethem cleaned on the chance that a bad spray pattern was inhibiting combustion.  When that is all done and the engine is backtogether I’ll have to find another mechanic to come take it all apart again andgive me a second opinion before I consider going any further.

Update 11/03/08

After reassembling the engine with the new glow plugs and the rebuilt injectors it starts amazingly well.  Like immediately.  It still runs unevenly when it is cold, and it seems to not warm up as quickly, probably due to the water getting colder, but at least I don't have to crank it nearly as much.  The mechanic's bill was $1,500 and while I'm not pleased with some of his billing practices, I think it was money well spent.  The starboard engine has now begun starting sluggishly and probably needs the same treatment.  I'll be doing that one myself.



I discovered at the end of last weekend that I get landsick.  That’s correct: landsick. Jay, on the other hand gets seasick. So far, he’s done fine, but I feel absolutely nauseous. It’s at its worst on Sunday nights when we get back from the boat, and doing the dishes exacerbates my condition. Normally, when I do dishes, I look out at the water and sky and sometimes see small people bouncing around on the foredeck or fishing, periodically peeping in at me. The horizon stays still, but everything else is moving. When I get home, I just can’t get my bearings. I plunge my hands into the water, look out of the window at our back yard and nothing will stop moving, including the horizon.  I actually had to go lie down last Sunday afternoon. Jay and I had a good laugh about it.

I guess I’m landsick in other ways too. As much as I appreciate my warm, high-pressure shower (now more than ever), and having space to move and breathe and spread out, I would rather be sailing. I am never more at ease than when the sail goes up, or we drop the hook to spend the night somewhere, or wake up in the middle of the night and see the stars overhead through an open hatch and feel the boat rocking me back to sleep. Last December, when we went to look at Take Two, I got a few minutes kid-free to go peeking into nooks and crannies by myself. I was the only one of our search party to actually lie in one of the bunks. After about five minutes of lying there considering the future possibilities, I said to myself, “A person could get tired of their house moving all the time.” Never did I consider that a person could get tired of their house feeling like it was moving, and prefer the actually moving house.

Does this mean I am ready to go overboard and abandon land? I don’t know. Can one be ready for that sort of thing? All I know is that I love being on the water, near the water, and in the water. I love sea birds, stars, small, deserted islands, being with my family, and sitting with Jay on the foredeck in the moonlight. When I’m at home, I think constantly of being back on the boat, and when I’m on the boat I finally feel at home.

Our First Trip to Egmont Key

One morning we left our house in Clearwater and drove to Bradenton. We went to our marina and had a bagel breakfast on our boat. After breakfast, we sailed to Egmont Key. Egmont Key lies at the entrance of Tampa Bay just a little way from Fort De Soto.

We had just a little time after we anchored and before dinner to fish. I cast my line with a shrimp on the hook and I put a bell instead of a bobber on, so I would hear the bell ring if I caught a fish. My brother did too. So we sat down at dinner. My dad blessed the food and we all ate.

After dinner we could see that the stars were amazing. We went on the foredeck and lay down so we could look up. We saw three satellites and I saw one shooting star. My mom saw three and my dad saw four. We were so far from the city lights that we could even see the Milky Way, our own galaxy.

At about nine o’ clock, after a long look at the stars, it was time to go to bed. Just as we were getting up, a loud bell went off and it was my pole. Because I was fishing with no bobber, Dad was sure that I had caught a catfish. At first I said, “I have nothing!” But then, I felt the strong tug at my pole. I said, “I need help.” Dad said, “Nope—you reel it in!” Finally, the fish came up and because it was so dark, no one could see anything. Dad turned on the spotlight and there, beside the transom, was a beautiful-looking, foot-long, young shark. I hauled him in and Dad had to de-hook him. Yes, indeed, you’ve got it—he did have a mouthful of teeth! Everyone got to pet him and then we all watched him swim back to his home in the sea.

The next day, we had an expedition on Egmont Key to see what it was like. We all got in the dinghy and rowed to the beach. We took a long walk and found some neat shells. The most fun part of it all was getting to see the fort from the Spanish American War. It was built in 1900. All that was left was a two-story building with a maze of dark rooms, hallways, and stairs. We also saw towers, foundations for other buildings and original brick roads. On the way back, there on the road was a gopher tortoise!

We went back to our boat and went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. The water was shallow, and we put on our masks, fins, and snorkels and then went snorkeling. I saw a crab scuttle across the bottom and then push itself under the sand. Dad scrubbed the bottom of the boat. Mom set a second anchor. Aaron and Sarah swam for awhile and then got out. Sam sat on the swim ladder and splashed.

That afternoon, we left Egmont and sailed back to the marina. We stayed the night at the dock, had breakfast the next morning, and left. It was the best sailing trip that I have ever been on.

Perfect Timing

The old adage holds true: Timing is everything. I believe that even the right dream, or right person, or right place can be wrong if they come to you at the wrong time. 

I read in my devotions this morning about Moses, who sensed early in his life God calling him to right the wrongs done against his people. So he acted rashly on righteous impulses and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. He then fled and spent forty years herding sheep in the desert. Was the calling wrong? Clearly not, as he eventually led a couple million people out of slavery. When the call came the second time, he had been humbled, and only when he felt unworthy was he truly ready.

It is true for us, too, I see now. Ten years ago, I got a glimpse of what a sailing life might entail and my heart was set aglow.  Two years ago, Katie Rose, the boat we almost bought, sailed away, and with it, my dreams of living aboard. I was sure we had let our destiny float off without us. We obviously weren’t ready. When Jay came home last December and said, “I found the boat,” he caught me off-guard. When we decided to do it, I was petrified. But the timing was right.

We’ve been dockside for four months. We were fixing, learning, acclimating. And only now has the time come to begin doing the thing of which we’ve been dreaming. It’s our time for firsts: first sail out of the Manatee River, first reefing in strong wind, first time dropping the anchor, first night “on the hook”, first leaps off the bow and swims through “the tunnel,” first expedition to an island, first edible fish caught. It’s just like I thought it was going to be. The kids are loving it, and Jay and I are still sitting on a moonlit deck after they go to bed incredulous that we actually did it. I admit to feeling impatient sometimes, but I now see the wisdom in waiting, in going slowly and taking it one step at a time.  

In a larger sense, the timing is right, too: many of the people who live their dreams of cruising do so after raising a family, after successful careers, after most of their time and energy have been poured into a land-life. The people who sailed away on Katie Rose were old and pudgy. Although that sounds critical, I myself will be old and pudgy before too long and that is exactly my point. In some ways it’s harder to do this now, to take a risk when we have small children, when our income goes mostly toward house payments and grocery bills. But in many ways it is easier: presumably we have a lot of time and energy left, the children will benefit from a simpler, more adventurous life, and we are young enough that we still feel almost invincible but not so young that we don’t recognize and try to avoid danger. And with times being uncertain, learning to live more self-sufficiently doesn’t sound so bad, either.

I think I understand just a bit of what Moses felt when he heard the call.  When I first stepped aboard Katie Rose, I heard a quiet voice saying, “this is your future home.” It was almost audible—my heart was pounding and I felt a little clammy. But my immediate response was, “No way!”  Since we didn’t end up living aboard that particular boat, did I miss or misunderstand the call?  I think not; I just wasn’t ready.  Am I now?  Are we humbled enough by the daunting task ahead of us to be truly ready? All we have are a dream, a boat, a willingness to work, and a belief that Someone bigger than us has a bigger plan.

I close with the second stanza of a favorite poem, Sea Fever by John Masefield:

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.