Sunday, October 15, 2017


I have an Imp in my life. She is the right size, though the bleached blonde hair and dancing blue eyes, instead of bat wings and tiny horns, tend to mask her Impish nature. However, when it comes to mischief and the determination to being the center of attention, no Imp is her better. Which makes perfect sense. Why shouldn’t a near endless flurry of pure joy, boundless curiosity, and fearless adventurism be the center of attention? A touch of the mischief just comes with the territory.

A couple of weeks ago, a small lump appeared in the middle of my Imp’s little tummy. It was coy, sometimes noticeable and sometimes not. Every adult in her life immediately moved right up to the edge of panic and hovered there. Her Doctor insisted there was no real reason to worry. Our Imp was eating and sleeping well, never complaining of feeling bad, or showing any sign of being in pain. Still, he couldn’t say what the lump was was, only what is wasn’t. And what it wasn’t was a (rather common place) hernia. He scheduled an ultrasound for several days later, allowing that it could be canceled depending on what he learned from further research and conferring with other doctors.

Ultrasounds are moderately expensive tests on toddlers, and the Imp is among the many in our country whose family can only afford health insurance that comes with a crippling high deductible. Which puts one in a weird state of mind, hoping that any looming medical bills remain as “out of pocket” expenses. Such could easily drive us into a financial hole so deep that climbing out would take several years, as happened with a cancer scare a few years ago. (One of the contributing factors to us being in Bradenton these last two summers.) But chewing through the deductible to actually get insurance support would mean entering that place from where the panic wells. Perhaps the Doctor would come up with something, and the ultrasound could be canceled.

The several days passed and the Doctor could not find any explanation for the lump that would negate the need for an ultrasound. So the Imp, accompanied by Mom, headed off to the hospital. Apparently ultrasounds are common procedures for those who ended up having reason to fear the worst. My little Imp was the healthiest one in the room. It was a thought that brought a deep ache to the heart and allowed the panic to edge in a bit closer. Why should fate smile upon those I love when so many, so deeply loved by others, dwell in the valley of the Shadow?

At the end of the test, the technician was nothing but encouraging. According to him, had the test shown anything of real concern, the radiologist overseeing the procedure would have admitted the Imp to the hospital forthwith. That she was sent home to await the diagnosis was a a positive omen. But, once again, though they got a bunch of “good” pictures no one would say for sure what this thing was, or even what it wasn’t. The panic edged away a bit, but it didn’t disappear.

Two days later came word, and the panic died. The Imp has a hernia after all, it just isn’t a very common one. Surprisingly, while spreading the good news to family, we found out my Sister was born with the exact same kind of hernia and has had it all of her life. Surgery was never required nor has the condition done her any harm. Good news made even better, but it seems there is still some room for debate. Word has it general anesthesia and invasive surgery have already been broached by the professionals.

When one climbs aboard an airplane the professionalism of those flying is assumed. There is good reason for the assumption since the crew, as the saying goes “will be the first ones in the hole.” They have skin in the game, and those in the back of the plane ride along on the crews determination to end the day in one piece. But it is difficult to make that assumption of the medical profession in the US.

Our medical industry is a profit center, not a health center. It would be far more lucrative for that industry if the Imp undergoes surgery rather than just going about her life. A stay in the hospital, specialists and drugs, doctors and nurses…what do you guess - $10,000 - $20,000? And the thing is, if something goes terribly wrong, no one in the operating room “will be the first one in the hole”. In fact, they will get paid anyway. Will they “feel bad?" Sure. They are human beings after all. But they have likely “felt bad” before, and will “feel bad” again. In the mean time they have student loans to pay off, mortgages to meet, and dinner to put on the table. American’s ratio of health care returned for dollars spent is the worst in the first world. Ours is also the only one based on making a profit rather than making people well. Are the two connected? Many insist not. Indeed, some insist that "market forces" will make for the best health care. I suspect (if you will forgive the pun) they are whistling past the grave yard.

It would be nice to think that we, as a people, have earned better than that. Maybe, much like a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link, a nation can’t rise above the level of its average collective wisdom. It is starting to look like this is the best we can do, the wisest we will ever be. This generation of America is never going to fix its health care system. We have reached the limit of our collective wisdom.

My hope is that such is a generational thing. There is a whole new generation of Imps out there. One of them owns a big part of my heart. She is fine. And my belief is she, and they, are going to be much wiser than we.

Assuming we let them live that long.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Magic dust

Sometimes boats and tools feels a bit like Santa and the Magic Dust. First some tools for the project are carried onto the boat. Then a few more tools get carried onto the boat, then a few more tools… (and if you get that reference you are giving away your age.) A spark chaser’s tool bag has strippers, crimpers, and cutters, with a couple of screw drivers and nut drivers. (Listed that way, it sounds a lot more interesting than it really is.) Other things in the bag, slip joint pliers, vice grips, measuring stick (rule to the lay person) and some other odds and ends get toted along but not often used.

A magic dust of a morning at Snead Island Boat Works

Then the job gets going and, what’s this - a hot wire wrapped a time or two around a fuel line? What fool did that?  Though one must admit, finding a wiring harness zip tied to fuel lines is pretty standard fare. So it's back to the golf cart for a flare nut wrench, maybe two; it being easier to undo the fuel line than splitting open a slimy harness (slime being what is left of electrical tape after a few decades deep in the damp parts of a boat). Later some holes need poked and some screws need set, so the boat gets a little more in the tool department, sniffing up drills, bits, and countersinks. Eventually, of course, the wiring harness needs split open anyway, so the valve cover bolts holding the clamps that hold the harness have to come out. This takes a ratchet, a short extension, and a socket. Hard to tell which socket though, since my calibrated eyeballs aren’t as accurate as they used to be, particularly in the dim recesses of an engine box. The bolts look to have 7/16 heads, so grab the 3/8 and 1/2 inch sockets as well and tote them to the boat. Later, the bracket holding some electrical gizmos that make timed sparks for the spark plugs needs to come off. It has bigger bolts. Maybe 9/16. The 1/2 is already laying around somewhere, but better grab the 5/8 as well. Oh, and a longer extension might save a bruised knuckle.

This goes on for a couple of days, tools rarely making it back off the boat since whatever was needed to get something off will clearly be needed to put it back on. Come the time when the job is finished or the powers-that-be need efforts focused on some other project, it will be amazing just how much magic dust the boat needed to sniff up to get all the goodies working as they should. Usually, right about this time, my old life making a living in airplane hangers launches a bit of paranoia my way. If there is one thing that chills the bones of an aircraft tech, it is the thought of some accident investigator pulling one of his or her tools out of the smoking wreckage of an airplane that just left the hanger. It is the main reason aircraft hangars are filled with orderly, carefully maintained rolling tool boxes filled with racks and slots.

Boat yards don’t have any such things. A wooden box on the back of the golf cart is considered rather plush. Mine has attracted comments because it has a couple of racks for sockets. Wrench sets are sequestered in custom made holders. Zippered bags hold punches, chisels and picks. It isn’t as professional as my old Snap-On roll-around, a style known as the “Taco Stand". Still, when it comes time to move on, making sure everything that got toted up on the boat is toted off is easier than just hoping that the pile of tools on the cart looks tall enough.

Truth to tell though, I’m not really sure it matters that much, except for the cost of replacing tools. In a boat, all kinds of things are left lying around in all kinds of scary places. Engine compartments are stuffed with loose jugs of oil and coolant, spare parts and loose junk stashed on pretty much any flat surface. Want to look at the batteries or generator? Move stuff out of the way first. When the flat surfaces are full up, plastic milk cartons, open-topped and unsecured, are a popular option for additional storage. I have found deck chairs lying on top of engines and boxes of parts sliding around on top of fuel tanks. And batteries…apparently battery boxes have some kind of attracting power for pressurized cans of things that can go “boom” in the dark.

Cockpit lockers are often even more scary. Life jackets, coils of line, boat hooks, and fishing nets get jammed into the same holes that provide access to rudder posts, steering cables, and autopilot rams. How it is that things keep working while being tossed around in a rambunctious sea is beyond me, but a forgotten wrench or screw drivers isn’t much of an additional threat.

Then again, maybe a touch of the magic dust helps?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Still in one piece

Image from
So, for what is apparently no reason whatsoever, the baddest hurricane in Atlantic recorded history rampaged its way past Tampa without leaving so much as a scratch on my family. When we hurried back from PA last week to help prep boats and get the kids out of harm’s way, the prospects for such an outcome seemed slim. For a while, sitting in the hotel room in Atlanta and watching Irma track further and further to the west, there seemed little chance that we could come away unscathed. In the last few hours before reaching the Tampa area the storm wobbled north instead of north by north west. That sixty miles, in a storm that measured hundreds of miles across, was the difference between us spending the rest of this week getting things back to normal, and spending it trying to figure out how to rebuild our lives. A strange week, provoking some odd thoughts.

I have, after more than 5 decades of miscellaneous adventuring doing this or that, had my fair share of close calls. This one was different. My normal brushes with disaster normally have nothing to do with losing stuff and everything to do with me not being around to enjoy the stuff any longer. They also tended to last just minutes, sometimes seconds; not days. The profound sense of relief after this close call is balanced with being a bit embarrassed at being so relieved. It was, after all, only stuff that was at risk.

We ran north in a compact rental car filled mostly with clothes, electronics, and a few odds and ends. Next time I think I’ll take some tools along…just in case. Had things gone the other way it would be difficult to replenish the cruising kitty and get our feet back under us based on just my good looks and sunny disposition. A few screw drivers, a handful of wrenches, and a hammer or two wouldn’t take up much room. They could also have ended up being the most useful things still in my possession.

We may be hanging around the Tampa Bay area longer than we thought. Key West, Marathon, Biscayne Bay, and the Dinner Key marina took a real beating. There are stories of sunken and lost boats with navigation markers missing in pretty much all the water that surrounds Florida. We often think of Biscayne Bay as our “US home”, and Dinner Key is one of our favorite places. But those are all places that will be a long time recovering, and really don’t need us in the way until they do. So it may be a while before leaving the Tampa area via a small sail boat makes a lot of sense. And it may be a while before leaving a job fixing boats in the Florida area makes a lot of sense either.

A photo by Douglas Hanks as seen in a article

I am not a fan of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who, among his other policy failures, walks in lock step with the science-rejecting Republican party. Yet he relied on that very same science to track the hurricane’s progress, to anticipate storm surges and flooding potentials, and to estimate potential wind damage. He issued evacuation orders base on what the scientists were telling him without hesitation, and likely saved many lives in the process. He was relentless in his warnings about the dangers of this storm and was tireless in addressing issues like fuel shortages in order to get people the resources they needed to flee. He must have been instrumental in getting the hundreds upon hundreds of utility company trucks and crews flowing into the sate to restore power and repair infrastructure. It is too early to tell how he will fair now that the storm has passed and the long, and expensive, clean-up commences. But there is reason to hope he will look past his ideology and see the needs of people instead. A rare and wonderful thing for any American politician to do these days, Republican or Democrat.

Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. We know so many people whose boats were lost, who are still in shock just trying to grasp the enormity of the blow they have taken. Good people, the kind you hope your kids and grand kids grow up to be. Seasoned too, many of them; well aware of the challenges of living this close to nature, not easily caught off-guard and unprepared. But no one can stand up to a storm like this one. Luck, good and bad, makes the call. And yet, somehow, that isn’t enough to explain why some lives have been irrevocably split between "before Irma" and "after" while, for others, Irma will fade quickly from everyday thoughts.

The spike in fuel costs from Harvey and the fuel shortages in Florida in the face of an impending Irma have me rethinking the thought of buying a trawler. No gas, no go, no matter what. I know they shouldn’t…but they do.

The paint booth we fixed after the Monday morning tropical storm of a few weeks ago wasn’t up to this challenge. It caved in, part of it landing on the stern rail of a boat strapped down near by. That appears to be the only damage done. Maybe we should have left that rope tied to the tree?

We spent nearly 70 hours driving since leaving for PA, 70 hours in 12 days. I don’t like driving that much any more. If I ever do buy another car, it will certainly not be a Chevy Sonic. What a horrible little thing. I’m glad it belongs to Enterprise and not to me.

Weather in Pittsburgh was in the mid to upper 60s, low 70s during the day. Weather in Atlanta was upper 60s to low 70s. Here in Florida the forecast is for upper-upper 80s, some 90s…all the way to the end of the forecast period. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, (it turns out the boat parked next to us took a lightning hit which wiped out all of its - very expensive - electronics) floods, heat. The weather in Florida is getting old.

Backing Kintala out of the haul out pit to put her back in her slip reminded me that she still doesn’t reverse worth a damn.

But I am sure glad she is still in one piece.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Pain Killer and Caffeine Crisis

We loaded up the compact rental car and left last Friday after work, taking advantage of the holiday weekend to visit family in PA. It was supposed to be a week-long visit with us arriving back at the boat on Sunday a week. By Tuesday morning it was clear that we needed to be back in Florida as quickly as possible. It was a 15 hour run back to Kintala, with an arrival of around 0200 Wednesday morning. Pain killers kept the rental car kinks at bay, and caffeine made it possible to keep on going.

Image courtesy of NOAA/CIRA

While we were on the road Daughter Eldest and family had prepped and packed. Deb and I boarded Kintala as quietly as we could so as not to wake sleeping grand kids (3) and an exhausted Mom and Dad. A few hours later dawn arrived. We helped them load the last stuff in the van, shared teary hugs all around, and sent them northward. We didn’t know then, and we don’t know yet, if there will be anything left of the life we had made together this summer at Snead Island.

One of a long long line of red lights averaging 35mph
With the kids on the move out of harm’s way I joined the crew working to get boats hauled, blocked, strapped down and stripped while Deb started getting Kintala ready to be pulled from the water. The initial plan was for me to work the day, spend a last night on the boat, haul it Thursday morning, and head out to catch up with Daughter Eldest at the hotel in Atlanta that we had booked before leaving PA. But she called a few hours later with news of traffic already slowing to a crawl, and suggested we get while the getting was good. Boss-not-so-new understood, encouraging me to punch out to help Deb and, a few hours later, moving Kintala to the head of the line for getting hauled. We stripped off canvas and solar panels, lines were secured, the anchor got dropped and tied to a nearby post, hurricane straps were ready to tie her to stakes driven deep into the ground, and all ports, hatches and holes were taped shut. By 1900 there was nothing left to do but give her hull a last pat, wish her good luck, and get on the road ourselves. That last 36 hours had seen just 4 hours of sleep, and there were miles and miles yet to go.

Traffic traffic everywhere and this was 2 days early
Pain killers and caffeine.

Daughter Eldest and family couldn’t make it to Atlanta. They bailed in Valdosta to a hotel they had booked from the car. As it turned out we couldn’t make it to Atlanta either, and so crashed at their hotel room around 0100 Thursday. After a few hours of sleep Deb and I headed for Atlanta while Daughter Eldest and family spent one more day in Valdosta. Rt. 75 was an on-and-off parking lot with a couple of wrecks strewn here and there just for ambiance. The day ended earlier than the last few, but sleep came hard. Not enough pain killer, too much caffeine.

This morning we moved to a second hotel, the one we had originally made the 5 day reservations at when we thought we were leaving Florida a day later. Plans change when one is a refugee. And there are tens of thousands of us at the moment. Though the original thought was that we could leave here to return to Florida, that may not be possible. At the moment all predictions are pretty grim. Sunday or Monday we will find out if there is anything to return to and, if so, when returning would make sense. One tries not to hope too much, but giving up hope is hard as well. The future is, right now, up to the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

And it doesn’t care.

In spite of it all we have been extraordinarily fortunate. We were working at a boat yard when this thing blew up, and our boat has as good a chance of surviving as any. We are refugees. But we run in an air-conditioned car with music and internet access. When it rains we are dry. There are funds in the bank for gas, food, and hotel rooms. Should the worst happen, we have a support network of friends and family who will help as we work to rebuild what has been lost. There are many, many people not nearly as fortunate as we, and our hearts go out to those who have taken a much harder hit.

Everything stripped and taped over

We are just one family of the thousands and thousands who have fled but, for others, running to safety really wasn’t an option. Cruisers are, at heart, wanderers. Moving because of weather is part and parcel of how we live, as is just picking up and heading off  because we feel like it. But we don’t live like most. Picking up and leaving is not a part of most people’s hearts, even in the face of Category 4 hurricane. So we have friends and co-workers who are in the strike zone. They will board up, hunker down, and hope for the best. I hope their luck holds, but I fear they are in for a ride they may boast about later, but never voluntarily take again.

In any case I suspect there are more pain killers and caffeine to go before this is all over.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


I've always been interested in the meaning of names. In fact, we chose each of our three girls' names based on their meanings and the girls have surprisingly grown up to model the meanings of those names. So it's no surprise that I became curious as to what the name Irma meant since she is about to unleash a hurtin' on us. It turns out that Irma means "world" as in "a world of hurt" and "dramatically changing mine."

We attempted to go visit family in Pittsburgh, PA over Labor Day and the following week. We knew that Irma was heading east toward the Leeward Islands, but all tracks agreed that she would turn north and veer out into the Atlantic so we went anyway. We should learn. Right before Tropical Storm Hermine charged toward land just 60 miles north of us, changing into a Cat 1 hurricane in the hour before landfall, a forecaster said, "There is no possible scenario in which this storm becomes a hurricane before landfall." Yeah.

So we found ourselves cutting short our vacation and rushing back to prep Kintala to be hauled out. The kids are still there and have been frantically prepping the boat for haulout tomorrow morning, calling us with frequent updates. After that, we head out with what we can carry to Atlanta where we have hotel rooms waiting.

The cruising life has so many benefits - the life of few possessions, a lighter footprint on the earth - and then that big one, the closeness to nature. It also is a life of intensity - colors are brilliant, smells and sounds are enhanced - but the intensity in closeness to nature can sometimes be a challenge. The reality of it is that we are just along for the ride and Mother.Nature.Always.Rules.

So we drive south against the flow of evacuation traffic so we can do the final prep for our girl and wish her the best. Our friend Brittany from has a daughter who summed it up just right:

"Don't worry mommy. If our stuff tips over it's okay, it's just stuff. The most important things are people." 

From the mouths of babes...

Wish us well as we go about trying to salvage what we can from this cruising life.

Friday, August 18, 2017


Good morning from Snead Island
I was thinking back over the last week’s worth of work, searching for something that might be of interest to write about, but the week went by void of those “you have to be kidding me” moments. I did stumble across a fat black wire that, instead of being a ground, was connected directly to the battery switch. No circuit breakers or fuses; select “1” or “2” or “BOTH” and it would be ready to add a little sizzle to your day.  But this is the “classic” boat getting a new instrument panel so finding such things isn’t really a surprise. More of a surprise would be not finding such things. In any case the offending wire went away, along with another fat black wire that carried power to the bus side of the circuit breaker panel. That one was changed to a fat red wire since I was poking around in that area anyway. The only real issue at work lately has been the relentless heat. It has been brutal enough that even the “old hands", people who have been working through Florida summers for decades, were struggling.

On the other hand, the current social and political maelstrom pummeling the US is chock full of “you have to kidding me moments.” Indeed, there have been so many since January 20th that, honestly, I stopped paying much attention. I mean, really, once you know there is a crazy uncle living upstairs in your parents house, what more is there to know?

“How’s Uncle Chester doing these days?”

“I fear he has been a bit crazier that normal lately.”
“Really, how can you tell?”

“Well, yesterday he decided that Nazis can be “good people” And that people who stand up against Nazis are "bad people".

“Yep, that is crazy alright, even for Chester. What do the doctors say?

“Uncle Chester doesn’t go to see doctors anymore. He thinks he is smarter and knows more about medicine than every doctor who has ever lived. He is also sure all the doctors are out to get him and that they are telling us nothing but lies to make him look bad. He is medicating himself on ego and hubris."

“Damn, don’t know what can be done about that.”

“Not much. We put a buzzer on the back door so we know when he goes out, and hid the ‘nukes over in the neighbor’s garage.”

“Good idea. Would you pass the salt please?”

At some point, of course, Chester is going to be a danger to himself and everyone around. Sooner or later someone is going to have to step up and move him out of the house and into a facility where he can get some help. That, or someone is going to get hurt and Chester will end up in a different kind of facility. (The US is pretty far behind the rest of the civilized world when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill.)

For now the family has no choice but to bumble along wondering just how much worse Chester can get before something just has to be done. But, like families everywhere, we will put off doing anything until the last possible moment.

Hopefully it will not be a moment too late.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Taking Sides

My family was steeped in academia because my dad was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh for his whole career. Very early in my life, we moved to South America for a position he took to help establish a school of electrical engineering at a university near Valparaiso, Chile. I was enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school there where I was one of only two white girls. At the tender age of six, I experienced racial prejudice from the receiving end. I was perplexed and hurt, as I had never witnessed racial prejudice first hand.

Once reestablished in the US, our whole family attended the university annual retreat for orientation of the incoming freshmen, of which my dad was a key organizer. Even as a young girl, I interacted with the college students from many countries. Our home was frequently host to international students. My whole family was at least bilingual, my older brother spoke at least three languages fluently and understood more. Our friends were of every race and ethnicity. This was the norm for me, this understanding that all peoples are equal and intrinsically valuable. To harbor hate or disdain towards another human being simply by reason of their culture or skin color was so foreign an idea that, after adopting our biracial child, I was floored at the visceral reaction of some folks.

We are a melting pot, a country populated by the influx of immigrants from many nations, drawn to the ideals of equality. The melding of multiple races is a difficult thing, but the richness of our culture lies in the good things brought to it by all of these immigrants. But we've forgotten this.

Recently, these cultures, which have woven so much beauty into the tapestry that we call the United States, have come under attack with none to come to their defense. We've become lazy and comfortable. As long as we have our favorite brand of beer and 258 channels of inane banter, we strive to avoid any conflict that might upset the balance and threaten our comfort. I confess, I'm guilty. I have always hated conflict of any kind, striving to please in order to stave off uncomfortable encounters. But for those in this country who have lived their entire lives in peace and with freedom, a wakeup call has ensued. It's time to take a side.

If you were listening at all, you could hear the murmurings among the thoughtful over recent months. "Surely this could never happen here the way it did in Germany." "We would never allow such a man to take control of our society, would we?" Yet, the thoughtful existed in Germany and were persuaded to agree or be silent.

Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes:
"In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. . . . In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door." (Levi, Survival and Reawakening, 381)
I suspect that as the immediacy of the Holocaust waned, many thoughtful people in Germany reviewed the events in their minds, wondering how such an atrocity could take place without their own realization of the danger. They were duped, led like lemmings to the cliff. Today, the pitter patter of little lemming feet marching toward the cliff sounds again.

Some have, and indeed will again, criticize the writers of this blog for being too political in a sailing blog. But what good will it do to have a sailing blog if we no longer have the freedom to write in it or, indeed, to even participate in the activity at all?  Will you build for yourself that illusion of not knowing, guilt laid at your door by passivity, or will you see this as the time to stand and take a side? I've chosen mine. I draw the line in the sand and I denounce hatred and bigotry and choose the side of love, inclusion and community. Will you join me?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Get it to work

"Out There"
Years as a corporate and charter pilot gave me the opportunity to interact with very rich people way more than any normal person should be expected to endure. They were, by and large, pretty average folk. They didn’t work any harder than most, weren’t any smarter than most, didn’t speak with an elegance that would catch one’s attention, or exude any particular wisdom. The vast majority were second or third generation money; setting off on their adult journey with a nice head start in education, health care, and connections all bequeathed to them by parents or grand parents. It is a head start any of us would have provided for our kids and grand kids as well, so such is just an observation, not a criticism.

Most of them did have this aura of entitlement about them, as if they had somehow earned the privilege of their birth. And many of them, though they were pretty ordinary in most ways, also shared a trait not quite as common among the rest of us. Almost to a person, and regardless of the luxury of their cars, the size and number of their homes, the hangars and garages stuffed with various kinds of toys, the number of ex’s, and any current entourage of mistresses or boy toys, they eventually got around to boasting of how cheap they were. It was like a badge of honor they had to pull out and polish for all to see. I don’t know if they made the same claim to limo drivers, cooks, grounds keepers, or other hired help, but it was a claim I heard many a time while loading bags aboard some corporate jet or turbo-prop.

Oddly enough, and contrary to how they lived, it was a claim that was also, somehow, true. I remember a rich man (let’s call him…oh “John”) inviting some friends to ride along for a day trip from PA to FL. He was going to take his turbo-prop for a spin to “get some lunch”. A week later his friends were a bit incensed when they got billed for their share of the fuel burned. I wasn’t sure which was more amusing, that “John” would make such a demand, or that people rich enough to be his “friends” would balk at ponying up. It was long ago and one of my first introductions into the strange doings of the well-to-do, but similar stories became the norm as the years wore on. (Here is a free tip, if a rich person offers to “take you to lunch” for some reason, be sure to take your wallet. Unless it is a “date” they are offering to drive, not pay for your meal.)

Working as a mechanic in a boat yard has landed me at the edge of that world once again. Though I don’t talk directly to owners very often or for very long, this weird obsession with being known as “cheap” can pop up in odd little ways. One of our current projects is a brand of ‘hobby” boat; a smallish, old-school kind of power/fishing boat with lots of teak and classic “looks”. The amount of money being spent on the project must be massive; board feet of teak being refinished and a all new instrument panel. Nothing cheap about that, right?  But this is all stuff one can see. Things that can’t be seen, like the wiring disasters that lie in the bilge, those are fine. There is no VHF in the new panel, though the stereo is first class. I have been given “cart blanche” to wire the helm, but I’m not really sure what that means. We are using the old breaker panel and most of the wiring strung throughout the boat, rank as much of it is. I do have to admit that if “cheap” keeps me out of the grungy bilge and its equally grungy wiring, that will be fine with me.

“Looks” is a big part of what this project is about; ascetics more than function. Building up the new instrument panel will be an exercise in getting everything to fit as close to perfect as possible. Such is easy in a “new school” shop of C-n-C machines, laser cutters, and computer generated graphics. More challenging is getting close to perfection using only a jig saw, the odd assortment of hole saws, a barrel sander, and a measuring tape. I cheated a bit with that last one, digging out my old sheet metal mechanic’s 12 inch rule marked in hundreds of an inch. I laughed, remembering an old ditty tossed around many a fabrication shop….

“Measure with a micrometer, cut with an ax, install with a hammer, paint it to match.”

It makes, in an “old-school” kind of way, for an interesting bit of work. The boat is on the hard though, out in the open and siting in the sun. The teak work means the bimini is removed; so “interesting” includes trying to not melt in the Florida summer.

A couple of other projects I played a part in have been finished, and I was tasked with doing the sea trials, a new and pleasant experience for me. Another tech and I did two trips in the boat that got a whole new autopilot system. The first trip was a bust, the auto pilot refusing to helm the boat even though the set-ups at the dock had been completed. A reset of the rudder position indicator, even though all indications were that it was indexed correctly, and a restart of the set-up procedures from scratch, got the auto pilot up to speed. It was a fun boat to helm, though the diminutive cockpit put the end of the boom right in one’s face when standing at the wheel. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to back up compared to Kintala.

A day or so later the same tech and I took a Catalina out to set up its auto pilot. This boat had been struck by lightning, virtually every single electrical component on the boat has been replaced. Once again it took a couple of tries to get the thing working but, this time, we didn’t bother coming back to the dock. Instead we just put the boat in neutral and let it drift while doing the “dock side” pre-sets. A couple of slow circles after that aligned the compass. That last step was a thing called “auto-learn”. One turns the boat over to the auto pilot and watches it slalom the boat down the waterway. I’m not sure what the thing is learning and it makes for a weird ride while the boat slews port and starboard a total of 15 times. It took three tries to get through this step as the electronic driver kept turning the boat toward shallow water. Eventually we figured out just how much room was needed and what general direction the boat would end up going; in this case a slow arc to starboard. After the third try we got a “COMPLETE” on the MFD. A few minutes trying the various auto pilot modes confirmed that all was copacetic and we headed back in.

It was good to be back out on more open water again. The life I was hoping to live is out there. Even though this time at the dock is necessary for a lot of reasons, and I am utterly (and gladly) under the spell of grandsons (2) and grand daughter (youngest), “out there” is still the goal. Short visits out there are fun, even if they are just to get something to work.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Ed Note:

And totally unrelated, here's a shameless plug for the brightwork that my son-in-law is doing here at Snead Island. He's an artist by trade and it shows in the quality of his work

Monday, July 31, 2017

Some Monday mornings...

Some Monday mornings are harder to take than others. This Monday morning dawned gray and wet after a night of little sleep, mostly due to the bursts of hard rain that kept hammering the boat. We had been watching a small area of storms forming out in the Gulf of Mexico during the weekend. All of the weather gurus were nonchalant about the possibility of it turning into anything more than a bunch of rain, so splashing off to work seemed like the thing to do. People were talking about the weather though, and just an hour or so into the morning’s work Deb came by to let me know that the little area of rain had become a tropical storm aimed pretty much our way. We have grandkids around and, maybe, it would be best to get them somewhere safer than on a boat in a tropical storm. On the other hand, it is Florida in the summer time; rain and a little wind are part of the life. Besides, how big can a storm grow in 50 miles and a couple of hours? Deb settled the little ones into the v-berth and cranked some cartoons up on the iPad.

The history of Emily as seen on

During first break, there was a lot of talk about the incoming weather. Some of the guys had already bailed out as nearly all outside work had ground to a halt. My project for the day was in the paint shed, which isn’t really a shed - two stories of fabric stretched over an aluminum lattice that hums in the wind. But it does help keep the rain off of one’s bald head. Still, the sky looked dark with fast moving, low level clouds racing overhead. Word soon spread that our little batch of storms, now tropical storm Emily, was picking up speed and about to crash our Monday morning work party. Not ten minutes after break had ended, the winds picked up, waves started breaking over the sea wall, and the rain could be seen boiling up over the barrier islands. So I took a few minutes off to check on Kintala and her crew of Daughter Eldest and grand kids (3).

I got there just as Deb was about to walk the two boys over to the head. Once the weather arrived it seemed a good bet they would be boat bound for a good part of the day, so a preemptive potty strike seemed like a good idea. The shower house is about 200 feet from Kintala’s dock. About 100’ into the trip the leading edger of Emily arrived. Two little kids in 60 knot winds and driving, sheeting rain. That will be a story they tell for many a year. Deb and I hustled them inside than I went back to the boat to check on the remaining crew of Daughter Eldest and grand daughter youngest.

Even in the lee of the boat house Kintala was heeled over enough to send glasses and dishes cascading off of counters and onto the cabin sole. The rain was horizontal in straight line winds that must have been over 60 knots.  Every phone on the boat started to blare, a tornado warning was issued and we were being advised to “take cover immediately”. Daughter Eldest was a bit beside herself as the last she had seen of her parents and her two boys was all of us being swallowed up in the onslaught and disappearing from sight. I let her know that all were fine but we needed to get them back on the boat, the bath house being the last place one would want to be in a tornado. Two hundred feet can bet a long way in that kind of weather, but the four of us held hands and made it back to the boat without a problem.

Just as we got back aboard, Son-in-Law and new coworker at the boat yard, who had been helping me with the project in the paint shed, showed up. He had been inside when one side of the shed had failed under the pressure, all but the two corner posts buckling in and threatening to bring the whole thing down on the three boats parked inside. As he told the story, Deb and I adjusted the lines to keep Kintala off the pilings in the shifting winds. With our boat as safe as it could be and everyone accounted for, I headed back out to the yard to help do whatever it was that needed done.

There was some scrambling going on. The wind had ripped the headsail open on a boat whose mast had gone up late last week. Its rigging had yet to be tuned, so a team of five was tightening up the rig and wrestling with the wayward sail. The sail could not be saved, but the tight rig held the mast in place. Such was not the case out in storage A. Just a few hundred feet from Kintala a mast sheared off at its base, crashing down across the next two downwind boats. Storage C saw boats lose their canvas, and just on the other side of the fence several large trees are down. A Couple of large dock boxes were, literally, blown apart, the tiny bits scattered to the winds.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, a couple of us  grabbed a length of heavy line to shore up the paint shed the best we could, using a couple of well placed trees. Two of the boats threatened by the shed were on trailers. They got pulled clear, chocked and blocked.

Power went down throughout the boatyard and isn’t back yet. The sky is still heavily overcast but the winds have died away and the water is settled. My guess is that those who live on land will be berating NOAA for being slow, then being alarmist by “naming” the weather on a typical Florida day. Those of us who live on boats, much closer to the weather, will have a slightly different take. Sure, it was a small storm. But it came basically came out of nowhere. At 0700 it was a tropical depression. By 1030 a tropical storm was pounding its way on shore, likely dragging something along that, if it wasn’t a tornado, was certainly close enough for my taste. By noon it was over and people were assessing the damage.

Some Monday mornings are harder to take than others.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A different take on stuff...

Every tribe has certain markers, common characteristics or habits shared by a majority of the members. One characteristic of the cruising tribe is a nonchalant attitude when it comes to filling one’s life with bits of this and pieces of that…stuff. The travails of downsizing from a the typical American home filled with personal items to a boat is a part of nearly every cruiser’s story. Even after the move is made, finding room for the things that were brought along is a regular challenge. As time flows by, even some of the things brought along, things felt to be “essential”, get lost in the corner of some little cubby somewhere. Months go by, the thing gets forgotten and, even though it might still be on the boat, it is one more thing dropped from life’s space. Then the boat shows up in a boatyard somewhere…and suddenly there is stuff everywhere.

Mid-project on our old boat. Stuff everywhere and plastic protecting the scratch-prone surfaces

Boat techs live and work in cubby holes. That is where the wires, pumps, hoses, and switches dwell that we run, change, clamp, and replace. But rare is the event where we can reach, or even see, those things after opening a door and lifting up a hatch. What we will see are trash cans, life vests, cleaning supplies, dishes, cookware, bedding, towels, and clothes. Getting to items needing repair often requires moving mattresses, cushions, or multiple pillows out of the way. And then the question becomes, where does one stuff the stuff that needs to be moved in order to reach the stuff that needs to be fixed? The interior of any boat getting extensive work rapidly takes on the look of a giant, 3-D, Chinese puzzle. One can’t move anything without it fowling something else and, once it is moved, there is no place to put it. It is one of the peculiarities of working in a boat yard, there is no storage space off the boat. Even if there were, think of a boat on the hard. It is the second story of a house that has no first floor, with only a ladder for getting to the street.

Working in the cockpit is only marginally better. Open any hatch and what is found are fenders, lines, deck brushes, hatch boards and more life vests. They will quickly fill a cockpit so tiptoeing around on the coaming, on that aforementioned second floor, is a regular exercise in maintaining one’s balance. Sometimes the stuff ends up on deck. In any case, at the end of the day it all has to go back in the lockers so at not to be blown around or utterly soaked in the ever present thunderstorms that frequent these parts. (I know, this stuff is supposed to get wet. But stash a wad of rain soaked life vests in a locker; close it up tight for a week or so in the Florida heat, and then be around when the owner pops the top before leaving with his boat - and after paying a rather sizable bill.)

One of my personal trials seems to be engine hatches - Catalina engine hatches in particular, though they are far from the only offender. Once the hatch, unwieldily, heavy, and dirty, is removed, where to put it? There isn’t enough floor space to set it out of the way. Even if there was, it would likely be covering access to someplace else that needs to be reached. Can’t put it on the table, hell, the table itself is already in the way. Can’t go on a counter. Engine hatches end up being a lump of inconvenience to be suffered for the length of the job. On top of that, getting in and out of the boat is now an exercise in exercise.  The hatches that swing up are, sometimes, worse. There is simply no way to get in and out of the boat with the hatch up, and the head room under the hatch is often severely limited. Banging the back of one’s head hurts just as much as any other head hit. At least the blood doesn’t run into the eyes.

Mattresses are another spiteful thing. Drag one out of the aft cabin to reach a leaking holding tank, and what to do with it? A giant, floppy irritation that is going to sag in the way no matter where it is stashed. Often, before the mattress can be moved, the bedding has to be removed. How is a sweat stained, grubby boat tech working in temps well over 100 degrees going to manage that without staining the pretty whites and, once again, where to stash them so they stay pretty and white? Sometimes, before removing the bedding, a pile of dirty clothes has to be moved. They didn’t include that in the “boat tech guide to happy living” brochure. I don’t worry about staining dirty clothes.

It doesn’t help that, when working on a boat, we generally bring a bunch of our own stuff on board, hoses, extension cords, fans, lights, and tools. The boat is already full, now it is over flowing. Getting tangled up in one’s own extension cord and thus pulling one’s own light down on one’s own bald head, followed by a cascade of screwdrivers and wrenches, is just one of the joys to be found in this profession. Try to turn to get out of the way and skin one’s shins against the engine hatch.

Sometimes we get a boat that has just recently been purchased. The original owner has removed all of the stuff, and the new owner has yet to put replacement stuff on board. A happy occasion. Last week included working on just such a boat. Only a trash can and a couple of small bins of brick-a-back stood in the way of reaching the autopilot computer. Cockpit lockers were only half full. If access was needed to the port side, everything fit in the starboard hole, and visa-versa. The lockers themselves were large enough to crawl inside and move around…some. One day it started to rain and pulling the hatch cover partly closed meant I had a dry space in which to work while hanging the ram and rudder position indicator. How cool is that? There was even room in there for a fan, so it really was cool…er.

The inside of the boat wasn’t near as much fun. The cabin was tiny! Standing up inside was impossible, being on my knees was the exact right height for “standing” at the sink. Half way along the settee, going forward, the ceiling dropped a foot or so lower. Already bent 90 degrees at the waist to move means not really looking where one is going. Ouch. I soon learned to move slowly in that boat, caring not what that meant to the labor bill.

The v-berth was already stuffed full of cockpit cushions, topped by the helm wheel. Gaining access under a settee meant piling cushions from one on the other, filling that side of the boat nearly to the ceiling. Needing to be under both at the same time was, fortunately, only needed once. On that occasion the cushion pile went on the galley counter, completely blocking the companionway. Finding a place to stash locker hatches was a constant challenge. This was a very pretty boat, with high gloss varnished inside decks and teak glowing in the sunlight. It is the kind of finish that will scratch just from brushing it with a hatch corner or belt buckle; that will nick at the touch of a screwdriver blade. Cardboard and tape were liberally applied, but had to be folded up and stashed somewhere when the floor needed to come up.

Then, of course, the floor needed to be stashed someplace as well.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Getting finished...

The anchorage at Snead Island Boat Works
Finishing a task is the best part of the task. Most tasks however, get started, get interrupted, get restarted, then kind of bumble through to the end. The interruptions come in many forms, weather and scheduling among them. But waiting on parts seems inevitable.

There are a lot of old boats out there, boats built by manufacturers long out of business, who installed parts made by manufacturers now equally long out of business. Finding parts that will get the job done isn’t hard. Finding parts that will get the job done, use the same wires, have the same bolt patterns, fit in the same spaces, and fill the same holes? That is another matter. At one point last week every one of the five boat tasks assigned to yours truly was waiting on parts. A bait-well pump came in for one boat, but not the circuit breaker for its bilge pump. Mounting brackets for a TV antenna going on a mast came in, but not the associated coax cable. Lift struts to help carry the weight of the massive engine covers on a sport fishing boat are two weeks back ordered. We had a mixing elbow for a boat just surveyed, but not the associated exhaust elbow. In fact, no one has the associated exhaust elbow. That particular part for that particular engine is no longer available. But there is a different part that will work, using different bolts; and it was on the way.

The fifth boat is my “filler boat”, getting its autopilot system replaced. When other tasks get brought to a halt that one is waiting. All that needs done is to close whatever boat was being worked on, pack up tools, wind up extension cords, collect fans, load the golf cart, find a place to store parts for tasks interrupted, move, unpack tools, unwind the extension cords, deploy fans, climb aboard, and get started. Sometimes a task never does get finished, at least not by me. It isn’t the least bit unusual to get pulled out of the middle of a job, never to see it again. One might wonder how we manage the transition, making sure that everything gets done that needs to be done. In my old life there was a very definite “hand-off” procedure between shifts; and a paperwork trail that everyone involved in a task could follow. There are no such things in the marine industry but, somehow, things generally seem to work out. (To be fair, "generally seem to work out" would not be a standard most people would find comforting at 35,000 feet going 500 mph. At sea level doing 5 knots with land in sight? Different story.)

But Friday was a good day. The exhaust elbow came in. With it and the mixing elbow screwed tight to the adapter and the proper bolts, lock washers, and gasket located, I loaded up and headed over to the boat. It wasn't were I left it, a real puzzle since the engine was missing some serious bits. Turns out a paper trail might - at least once in a while - be a good idea.  And I have a new directive to "tag" a boat I have disabled by pulling parts off of it.

Boat located, along with another tech who was head down and waist deep, already in the hole where the exhaust was located. He was doing a different task. He had tools, fans, lights, and his own parts scattered around. Bolting up the exhaust would be no big deal. After all, he gets paid by the hour just like me. One task down. An easy pack up and move. (And yes, I was very careful to make sure he knew exactly what it was that needed done.)

Wiring in the new bait well pump wouldn’t finish that task, but there was hope that the bilge circuit breaker would arrive before the day was out. I knew the old pump was toast because I had jumped it straight across a battery and all I got was sparks, no spin. But the new pump wouldn’t work either. Curses. Literally, lots and lots of curses. The problem tracked to that pump’s circuit breaker being intermittently open as well. Wiggle the post to get power, wiggle it again to make the power go away. Both of these breakers are the kind that have little buttons on them, they can be reset but not opened. Poor idea on a boat. They just sit, inactive, year after year, slowly deteriorating. There are six in this boat, two are bad, the others can’t be far behind. Yes, the panel should be rewired with new, better breakers. No, no one is going to suggest or approve such a thing on a toy that is used to go fishing on weekends. Anyway, the new pump is in and secured and the two little open holes in the panel will get filled as soon as the parts arrive. Task two as far as it can go. Pack up and move.

I did think about leaving a note on the boat about the circuit breakers. But the open holes are directly in front of the helm and I talked to the owner on Wednesday, telling him we were waiting on parts. On Thursday he took the boat out anyway, with the circuit breaker for the manual bilge pump missing and the bait well pump screwed into its housing just hand tight. If he don't care, I don't care either.

The lift struts came in but that boat can wait a bit. No one is pressing to have that one finished…yet. Those parts stayed stashed behind the counter until later, but there was a new roll of coax back there as well.

Sixty six feet of it went smoothly into the mast.  A connector and a couple of clamps would see the mast ready to go back on the boat, after a quick check of the lights. Everything electrical in this mast is new: wiring, lights, antennas, and wind sensor. This often happens with lightning hits. But the quick check of the lights revealed that the deck light wasn’t working. Two wires, how could I have messed that up? But, as it turns out, the manufacturer didn’t bother to plug the light bulb in at the factory, just stuck it in the hole and put the lens on. Thank you very much. It was an easy fix with the mast on the ground, which is why I check them before the mast goes in the air. Mark this task as “done.” Pack up and move. (The boat itself is far from done, but the only monkey I have in that particular circus is reinstalling the alternator, which went out for repair.)

And with that, it was back to the autopilot install. This is supposed to be a “plug - ’n - play” job. The old system failed. Instead of fixing it, the owner decided to replace it with the new version. All of the parts are supposed to go in the same places, using most of the wiring already run. Which sounds like a really good idea, yes? (I can see some of you shaking your heads already.) Of course not all of the parts are exactly the same size as the old. The flux gate (yep that is its real name) is much larger than the original, connects to a network and not directly to the autopilot controller, and will not fit where the old one was located. The hole in the cockpit wall where the old control panel was located was cut too big for the new one to mount. It had to be filled and the mount holes re-drilled. Okay, not quite “plug - ’n - play” but not too bad. Except…

...what if the original problem is not a component failure? What if there is a jacked up piece of wire somewhere, a connector corroded, or a butt splice pulling free? What if someone ran a too-long screw into a wiring conduit while mounting a fan or something? No one really knows exactly why the system doesn’t work, and the problem is intermittent. It powers up, but that is only two wires out of dozens. There is no test box to install that will verify that signals are actually flowing from one unit to another. The assumption of a component failure is based entirely on what a guy who fixes autopilot boxes told us over the phone.  I sure hope he is correct. If he isn’t there is going to be one really unhappy boat owner, in spite of the fact that it was his call to replace the system rather than figure out, for sure, what the problem might be. We will not know until next week some time when that particular task is finished. Maybe the owner will be a happy little camper and all will be well with the world.

Or maybe there will be another task waiting to be finished.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Home by Five

When I was 8, we roamed the square mile or so that was our neighborhood the entirety of every long day of summer. Our parents rarely saw us during those days, usually only long enough for us to grab a snack or some Koolaid and head back out. Always, the admonishment from Mom was, "Be sure to be home by five to set the table."

Having all five of us seated around the table as soon as my dad walked in the door from work was an unwritten law. Nothing got in the way. The schedule was sometimes a few minutes either way of 5:30 depending on the Pittsburgh traffic my dad had to juggle or how complicated my mom's menu was, but family dinner was family dinner, a long-standing tradition that provided so much more than physical nourishment.

Many years later, we established the family dinner in our own family. The world was yet to see a 50% divorce rate and most of my kids' friends also had family dinners. But by the time they were in high school, organized sports had bred the Soccer Mom and the family dinner began to fall prey to drive-through fast food lanes and microwave single-serve entrees eaten over a smart phone or tablet.

The first dinner on our new table back in 2013
I recently wrote a post about how we're managing to survive having seven people on our 42-foot sailboat over the summer, three of whom are my grandkids. In it I talked about manners and how important they are when cramming a lot of people into a small space. One reader observed that maybe the increasing size of houses might be contributing to the lack of manners I see every day. While that might be a possibility, I believe that the death of the Family Dinner has contributed to so many of society's ills. We are an increasingly lonely people, struggling to find some place to connect in a wholly connected society. In our effort to chase satisfaction through endless scheduled activity, we have given up the one thing that could offer it. The plain, old-fashioned family dinner.

Dinner was The School of Human Behavior. We talked about our days in school during the school year, or the forts we built in the woods during the summer. We learned manners by being taught to ask politely for something to be passed. We learned to respect each other by listening and not interrupting someone's story. We learned responsibility by participating in the preparation and cleanup. We learned to express gratitude by appreciating my mom's hard work to prepare the meal. We learned to participate in effective conversation. We laughed together, we got angry at each other, we learned to appreciate each other's feelings. We felt connected. Not too bad for an hour a day investment. So whether you live in a 400 square foot boat, an apartment, or a McMansion, try hollering, "Be sure to be home by five!" to your kids as they go out the door. You won't regret it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


So a big powerboat got tossed into the water last Friday, one that has been sitting in the yard since we had tucked Kintala into her slip. Having never been tasked with doing anything on that particular boat, I had no idea of what was being done or when it was supposed to be finished. Nor did I really care; not my circus, not my monkeys.

Kintala tucked into her slip next to the power boat shed

Once it was in the water, Boss-not-so-new pulled me off the mast I was rewiring. I don’t know the whole story, but my guess is the owner of the boat told us to splash the thing.  I’m sure it was suggested to him that might not be the best idea since there were several leaks that had yet to be addressed. For some reason he insisted, and thus was I handed a bucket of monkeys in the guise of making sure the bilge pumps were operating. Apparently, it is bad form to have a boat sink at the dock even if the owner insists on putting it in the water. I have trouble getting my head around that, but what else could be done? There is no law that says a yard can’t launch a leaking boat. If we insisted on not putting it in the water wouldn’t we, in some fashion, be stealing it? We get paid to fix boats, not protect owners from themselves. And, come to think of it, that might be a good thing. I don’t know if there is enough money in the whole world to cover the costs of protecting - some owners anyway - from themselves.

The first challenge in any boat is to find the appropriate controls and switches to make the things happen that one wants to happen. Old boats tend to collect switches that have no labels, switches that are labeled to do one thing when they have been rewired to do something else, and switches that, though labeled, don’t actually do anything at all. Not only did I have to figure out how to work the pumps, we had to know, for an absolute certainty, that the batteries were being charged from the shore power. Not as easy as one might suspect since this boat has no switch marked” battery charger”. It does have one that says “converter” which did the trick; verified by checking the actual voltage that hit the batteries when the “converter” was turned on.

The boat has a set of circuit breakers that “arm” the three bilge pumps to come on automatically with the activation of a float switch. It also has three switch/circuit breakers that just turn the pumps on. Little lights next to the breakers and/or switches indicated that the pumps are armed and/or that that they are on.

Not actually true. The lights simply indicate that there is power on the breaker panel end of the wire. If the wire is broken or the pump itself inoperative, the little light will happily glow just the same. With the boat leaking, trusting little glowing lights was likely not what Boss-not-so-new had in mind. Thus I crawled my way into the various places where the pumps were located, all switches in “manual run” and verified that each pump was, in fact, pumping. Then I went back to the panel, turned all the pumps to “armed”, and crawled back down into the various places to check that the pumps came on with the float switches activated. Two did, but the forward one, the one whose place was deepest and hardest to reach, didn’t.

Of course.

The first check was the float switch itself, since the pump worked. Actually not the switch so much, since the wiring to the switch appeared to be pulled apart, kind of, not really cut. Not sure how that could have happened but hey, take the easy way out first. It only took a few minutes to do a temporary patch on the wires, just to see. Which was good since, even wired up, the switch didn’t work and the pump didn’t run.

These switches normal fail “open” meaning that they don’t put power to the pump motor even when the water gets deep and scary. But this one tested as having failed “closed”. This was not good since that meant the pump should think that the water was deep and scary and be running, which it wasn’t. Since the switch was clearly toast, changing it was the first order of business. The new switch didn’t make the pump run though, truth to tell, I was hoping some kind of electrical magic would happen. So now the challenge was to figure out where the electrons were going astray between the control panel and the pump.

The wire off the back of the circuit breaker was a pretty purple. The wire at the motor was an ugly black…with a butt splice already in it. As usual there was no hint of a wiring diagram or schematic anywhere. Still, the only reasonable assumption (given that the circuit breaker shouldn’t be doing anything other than powering up the bilge pump) was that the wire should go directly from breaker to motor. Clearly this circuit had been butchered, at least one wire spliced in that wasn’t there when the boat left the factory. There is no telling where in the boat this particular butchering took place, and the work day was running out.

So I butchered it some more. At the moment the “Manual” switch powers up the pump through the float switch. No one is going to be on the boat this weekend, and Boss-not-so-new is fully aware of what I did to keep the boat from sinking. (Note: Fatty Goodlander would say that the boat wasn’t sinking, it was leaking. IF the pumps failed, THEN it would be sinking.)

Poking around also revealed that most of the circuits on this boat, including the other two bilge pumps, are put together with wire nut, not butt splices. Wire nuts are fine, if one is wiring a house. When one is wiring boat circuits that are likely to end up in the water (like bilge pumps), wire nuts are, well, just nuts. I hard wired in the forward bilge pump because I couldn’t make my fingers do anything less. But no one was going to pay me to rewire the rest of the bilge circuits and, well, I work for money. Not to be too blunt, but if you insist on putting a boat in the water that is “leaking” then I don’t really care if it sinks, only that it doesn’t sink because of something I did.

At one point, while working on the forward pump, I realized that the center pump had quit working. I realized this because the water at that pump had gotten deep enough to float its switch (the one I had tested before) but the pump wasn’t running. As it turned out there was a single butt splice in the center pump’s power wire, a splice that had never been crimped shut. My moving around in a tight place had pulled it loose, disabling the pump. An easy fix but…seriously?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Fourth of July Muse

One of the many storms blowing down the Manatee River this season
Kintala is sitting in the exact same place she was last Fourth of July weekend, tied in the same dock, facing the same way, using the same lines. We were here for many months last year. We have already been here several months this year and there are, at least, several more months to go. That being the case I suspect we can’t really call ourselves “cruisers” at the moment. We have been cruisers and hope to be cruisers again. But for now we are live-a-boards, staying in one place, with each day pretty much like the day before. (Except for holiday weekends!)

It isn’t a bad way to live. We are still on the water. Pelicans, dolphins, and manatees are occasional visitors, sunsets can still be spectacular and - at least after work hours are over - it is often as quiet as an island anchorage. There are likely a billion or more people on the planet who would love to change places with us. Some might be fellow Americans drudging through days in a cubicle, buried under interest payments, and wondering if they will ever get the chance to live a different kind of life. (They should feel free to enjoy their air conditioning though. Working in the intense Florida summer time sunshine will put a dent in anyone’s day.)

Grand kids looking at the weird color sky
We still live far outside US of A normal. Living in a tiny house discourages our being consumers in the normal American sense. Our lives are not full of stuff we don’t really need, use, or want. We don’t have anywhere to put such things, and don’t like spending money that could go into the cruising kitty on such things. In a way, it is fine that most Americans don’t live like we do for, if they did, the consumer economy would collapse within months, maybe weeks. That simply has to happen some day, but the transition to whatever comes next is likely to be a rough go. It needn't be that way, compassion and wisdom would go a long way to easing the path. From my point of view the US is a bit short of both such commodities at the moment, so stumbling along as we are might be the best choice for now.

I do miss traveling. It has likely been decades since I spent so many days in a row in such a confined space. This is actually “human normal”, most people spending the majority of their lives within 25 miles of the place they were born or raised. But, as some have pointed out now and again, I may not be “human normal”. Most of the cruising tribe shares this peculiarity, one of the reasons I miss being among them.

There are other reasons for missing the tribe. Many (not all but many) share my renegade view of current American politics. It isn’t so much that I am the renegade, but I am secular, pro-science and education, pro-human, civil, women’s, and workers' rights. I am anti-authoritarian, anti-war, disdain religious fundamentalism, racism, and gay bashing in all of their guises, and have zero faith that the profit motive results in anything but greed and abuse.  To my deep dismay, the President of the United States has been pretty open about regarding people like me as his enemy. Members of his Party and his other supports loudly echo his views, cheering him on as some kind of hero.

It is weird being away from the community I know while living in a country I barely recognize. Once my country, but now one that sees me as some kind of threat. And I guess, in some tiny, near negligible way, I am.

Happy 4th of July

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mystery math

I was hanging dinghy davits on the rear of a good-sized Hunter when a big old power boat stumbled into the next slip over. It was quite an arrival with the boat thumping and bumping off of nearly every piling in sight. The Captain blamed the ungainly landing on his not being able to find neutral on either one of his engines. Fair enough.

A day or so later another tech and yours truly were tasked with finding out why the Captain in question couldn't find his neutrals. It turned out that we could not find them either. The shift levers felt like they were anchored in thick, cold, oatmeal; both stiff and mushy at the same time. We popped the control covers at both the upper and lower helm stations and discovered every single screw in each set loose, allowing the mechanisms to flex and bind at will. Even worse, the clamps at the cable ends at the transmissions were within a thread or two of just falling off, allowing the cables to slip and flex. It was kind of amazing that the Captain managed to hit the slip at all. I haven't a clue as to how such a state of affairs came about. That was what we found when the boat landed in our laps. How it got that way doesn't really matter.

There was an additional puzzle. Though I am not all that familiar with power boat shifting levers, it appeared that some parts were missing; parts that determine exactly where the detentes are felt as the levers move. But the threaded holes where I thought such parts should go appeared to have never had any parts screwed into them, ever. A bit of Internet searching came up with a parts diagram (yeah, I was amazed as well) that listed the missing parts as a “kit”. Apparently not every installation includes them, though it is hard to imagine why. In any case, it looks like the neutrals might really be missing, as in not on the boat at all. Maybe they have never been on the boat. Maybe the design engineer decided that they don't need to be on the boat. There is simply no way of knowing.

Kits were ordered and I would have liked to put them in just to know, but they ended up on back-order. The Captain needed to be on his way so we offered to forward them to wherever when they arrived. And with that he fired up his big old power boat and headed out...all the way to the middle of the yard's basin, roughly two boat lengths.

There he discovered that his starboard engine had refused to start (not sure why he left the slip without it) and that his entire DC electrical panel had died. A bit of a scramble ensued, a small power boat was launched to help corral the wayward yacht while fenders, lines, and poles were brought into play. I watched from the far side of the basin, having been earlier dispatched to check something else on a different boat. When that task was done, I found myself assigned (along with my original partner in the neutral search) to figure out what had gone wrong with the big boat.

While the other tech worked on replacing a badly corroded starboard-side engine ground he had found, I went looking for the DC panel's missing electricity. Turned out it was tucked away in the forward port corner of the engine room, a tight little spot forward and outboard of the port engine. (That was the one that had started. Leaning against it was a mistake I made only once.) Inside a plain looking box were two 12 volt, 100 amp fuses that fed electricity from the batteries to the DC panel. Both had failed under some kind of massive load. As usual, we were working without any kind of schematic, so the exact wiring details were anyone's guess.

Though a couple of people suggested that the corroded engine ground could explain the blown fuses, both the other tech and I were skeptical. Corroded connections normally reduce current flow but, hey, this is the boating industry. Maybe it has its own physics.

New fuses showed up while the two of us were off trying to figure out a reluctant system on a third, unrelated, boat. I bailed on him to put the new fuses in the big boat, which brought up the DC panel. But the starboard engine starter still refused to turn the engine over fast enough to get it running. General consensus was that the start battery was toast.

At this point, I must digress a bit. I openly admit to being a completely anal aviation tech, one trying to be useful enough in the marine industry to fill our cruising kitty. Fixing things is fun enough, but knowing just what was done to fix a thing, and what is was that caused the thing to fail in the first place, is better. When it comes to mechanical things I don't like unsolved puzzles.

I was told to just jump the start battery to get the engine running, but two blown 100 amp fuses not directly involved in the starter circuit was a puzzle that chafed. Things will tack weld themselves at 200 amps; smoke and sparks can get downright exciting at 200 amps. Excitement I wanted nothing to do with tucked in an engine compartment with 2/0 wires running in every direction.

My partner for the day had hit a stopping point on our other project and so joined in. He is good, knows more in general about boats than I do, and is used to working in the blind. Still, he indulged my reluctance to just start jumping things; though I suspect he would have gone straight to jumping the start battery (what we would have called a “smoke check” back in my aviation days). He is also about half my age, but I don't hold that against him.

We put a voltmeter on every battery we could find, both with the battery charger on and with it off. It is a preliminary check that really doesn't do much more than rule out a battery that has suffered an internal self destruct, but that is a good thing to rule out. We checked the voltage drop across the start relay, bypassed the ground half of starter circuit, then bypassed the power run from battery to relay. Nothing appeared amiss, except...

This boat is equipped with an enormous gyro bolted athwart ships to act as a stabilizer. Spinning that thing up has to chew through a noticeable amount of wattage, and it was starting to spin as soon as the ignition for the starboard engine was turned on. Though I don't know much about such gyros, that just seemed wrong, and my partner in crime agreed. A breaker was found to kill the thing. With nothing else obviously amiss we jumped the starboard start battery and hit the switch.

No smoke, no sparks, the engine fired right up. The starboard start battery was, indeed, toast.

Still, the math bothers me. It doesn't seem completely impossible that a dying battery facing the combined loads of an engine start and stabilizing gyro's start-up surge (which does flow through the DC panel), was enough to do in the fuses. Amps can do unexpected things as voltage falls away under big loads. But it doesn't really add up, and I am not convinced that we know what went wonky, where, when, or why. There is no parallel switch on this boat, no battery isolation switches, the battery that has gone toes up is labeled as both a “start” and “house” battery, and there are two other batteries in the engine compartment have no markings at all. Mysteries abound.

But if the boat starts with a new battery and the fuses don't blow, the owner will be happy, pay his bill, and be on his way. A tired battery, two equally tired fuses, a funky ground, some sneaky circuit some where that has a gyro spinning up when it shouldn't? Maybe, in this case, 1+2+1+1+1 = 5.998, and that is all the answer I am going to get.