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

Seriously?

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.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Salon Settee Cushion Update

Four-year-old fabric
Just a follow-up on a project. I used the Sunbrella 8304-0000 linen to make salon cushions in February of 2013. Now, more than 4 years later, the fabric still looks as good as it did the first day.

We had a long debate about the white fabric. We do all the work on the boat, so we're frequently filthy with grease, oil, sanding dust, or any of the other hundreds of ways boats get you dirty. We were nervous about having white cushions, but we really needed the light color to brighten up the cave feeling of the boat. After a few months of living with it, I decided to make slip covers for the bottom cushions so I wouldn't have to wash them so much. I used Velux blankets and made two sets that I can trade out when I do laundry. I ordered two different colors to match the striped pillows I made, just to have some variety in the interior.

Brand new in 2013
The fabric is nothing short of a miracle. I can wash it in the washer on low temp, and dry it in the dryer. It doesn't shrink at all, but the webbing I used on the back to sew the mounting snaps on does shrink so I use lower temps. We have successfully removed every single stain from the fabric, most just using a little dish soap on a microfiber cloth. Our toddler granddaughter recently wrote on it with gel art pen, and even that came out with just a touch of hydrogen peroxide and a microfiber cloth. Ketchup, blood, dirt, grass, all came out with ease. Since I tufted the backs with buttons, it's harder to remove the covers to wash. I simply use soap suds on a brush and surface clean the cushion. Then I set them out in the sun and they dry quickly.

If you need to reupholster your salon cushions, I can't say enough good about this fabric. If you're going to buy it, please give the business to the folks at Sailrite.com. You won't regret the customer service you get there which is just another bonus on the fabric.