Boat Troubles

Tuesday 2010 10 26

Windy, cloudy, 47 degrees. This is the time of year the thermometer varies only a few degrees day to night. Thirteen years ago when we spent our first weekend in our empty house on Cayou Valley Road in Deer Harbor we thought the big circular thermometer on the porch was broken since it seemed to hover around 48 degrees and never move. We were used to Boulder where the temperature can vary 30 or more degrees in a 24 hour period.

Sunday when coming back to Crane from Orcas I noticed that the voltage meter on our SeaSport dash showed ten volts. It should show close to fourteen volts with the engine running. That meant that the alternator wasn’t working and we were running off the twin batteries. Not good. After docking, I opened the engine compartment and looked at the V belt that was supposed to turn the alternator. Nothing obviously wrong. I felt the wires behind the alternator and they all appeared to be connected. Not a good situation.

SeaSport engine compartment with Volvo Penta
SeaSport engine compartment with Volvo Penta

We’d returned from traveling about ten days before and had the boat repaired at the West Sound Marina while we were gone. The boat had become impossible to start after operating fitfully for a month or more. Yvonne had towed me to West Sound using our neighbor Margaret’s boat. Margaret was back at Ohio State for the fall semester teaching anthropology.

The problem, it turned out, was a sticky valve and the stickiness was the result of sea water leaking through the port side exhaust manifold. They’d pulled the head and had it machined. Reinstalling it, they replaced the port manifold, riser, and head and replaced the stub riser. The starter motor was clunking so they replaced that. The forward prop was beat up, so they changed the prop and put a new zinc on it. They replaced a V belt, changed or topped off various fluids, replaced other zincs, cleaned and repainted part of the engine and got the top RPMs up to 4200. That was good. But $3241.90 wasn’t.

Well that’s how it is with boats, at least many boats in a saltwater environment. It corrodes everything eventually. Saltwater will dissolve metal unless zincs are strategically attached and can act as sacrificial metal. The zincs are intended to dissolve rather than other, necessary and expensive metal parts of a boat exposed to saltwater.

The $3000 hit was unexpected and unplanned for (of course). But that was only the most recent chapter in the SeaSport repair story. In April we left the boat with West Sound Marina for routine servicing. They called while we were in California to tell us that the U-joint bellows, what was supposed to keep water out of the stern drive, was leaking. Ultimately they had to pull the engine, replace the bell housing, bearing, damper, replace the trim tab cylinders – which had corroded, and on and on. That bill was $5189.80. With the sticky valve problem, our recent SeaSport repairs came to almost $8500. Was the boat worth keeping? How could we afford to continue to fix it? And now the alternator wasn’t charging. We were running on batteries and that wasn’t sustainable. Were we sustainable?

Monday morning I used my multi-meter to check the battery voltage. Just over 12 volts. It should have been over 12.5. So the voltage meter on the dash was probably accurate, not broken. Now what? And I could no longer ignore the starter motor. It was supposedly brand new but it had been clanking just like the old one before we took the boat in for the latest repair session.

I called Ian Wareham, the boat repair and maintenance manager. (The Wareham family owns the West Sound Marina and are active in Orcas Island life, boats, and competitive sailing). Ian explained that a wire had probably come loose from the back of the alternator and that if it had I could push it back on its blade connector. OK, I’d check it.

Indeed a small wire was loose but it wouldn’t be easy to reinstall. I had a hard time getting my hand to where it was needed and I couldn’t see what I was doing. I prevailed on Yvonne to lend me a mirror – not tiny but not too big.

She had been very patient with me a few weeks before when I was working on replacing the electric window regulator (motor) for the front passenger side door in our Ford Freestar van. I’d never done a window replacement before (everything I do seems to be for the first time, I make lots of mistakes, take a long time, and never have a chance to apply what I’ve learned) and I needed to see how things were arranged inside the metal framework that held the cosmetic door panels on.

She lent me a nice, double mirror compact, apparently an important beauty tool. I was very eager to get the window working because whenever I drove the van with Yvonne in the passenger seat, which was most of the time, I was subject to a continuous barrage of requests to lower and raise the passenger side window. Yvonne’s generous driving advice, already keeping me hopping, was now even more complicated.

In any case, I fixed the window, but broke the compact. She was so happy to have a working window that I was named hero of the day and the broken compact ignored. But now I needed another, bigger mirror, the one she used every day for some purpose I couldn’t fathom. The mirror would end up in the bilge so I could see up toward the back of the alternator. The bilge was wet and greasy (though I didn’t tell her that). Yes, I could have it for a little while – BUT.

The mirror was a wonderful help. I could now see what I was doing and could focus on the wire with its slide-on connector and the blade it belonged on. But now everything was backwards. Watching my hand in the mirror, I would move it down when I should have moved it up and vice versa. It made me crazy. Then – finally, the connector slid on. Did that fix the problem? Would the alternator power the engine and charge the batteries? I started the engine and stared at the volt meter – 14 volts. Great! Once I ran the boat a bit, the batteries would be fully charged. Things were looking up.

I turned the ignition key to turn the engine off – and nothing happened. The engine wouldn’t quit. I pulled out the “dead man” switch (a switch with a lanyard on it that when removed caused the switch to depress and kill the engine) and nothing happened. What? Three years before I’d been blown across Deer Harbor from Crane Island because the engine stalled and wouldn’t start. I had to call Vessel Assist to tow me to the Deer Harbor Marina ($450) where I finally figured out that the lanyard had somehow on its own pulled out just enough to cause the switch to depress and disable the engine. But now pulling out the lanyard to depress the deadman’s switch and stop the engine did nothing. The engine wouldn’t stop. Holy Moly.

I was bright enough not to try to pull the errant wire back off the alternator and then turn the battery switch to off to stop the engine. Reaching into a running engine was an easy way to lose a finger. Instead I carefully removed the air filter and closed the choke. No air could get into the carburetor. The engine stalled. But that wouldn’t be a very convenient way going forward to turn off the engine. Yvonne wouldn’t go for it, that’s certain.

I called Ian back. Ah, he said, for some reason there must be a little resistor missing from the circuit. That’s what stops the alternator from continuing to feed the engine after the ignition is shut off. He had the right resistors in stock. I told him I would come over the next morning.

Now it’s tomorrow, Tuesday morning, and I need to see Ian. The West Sound Marina is only about 25 minutes away with the SeaSport running at 20 knots (22 mph). I can get up on plane once I get past Caldwell Point and out of the local No Wake Zone that I’m obligated to observe because I’m one of the four members of the enforcement committee.

When I arrived at West Sound Marina I called Ian from the fuel dock but he was on another call. He’d come to the dock when he got off the phone. While I waited for him I worked on the the SeaSports’s port side rub rail, a strip of rubber held by a bracket against the hull and intended to protect the hull from dock bumps and scrapes. Over time, sections of the rub rail would bulge out of its bracket. I hadn’t paid attention and now about ten feet had come out of the bracket and the aft end was dragging in the water. I spent fifteen minutes forcing the rub rail back into its bracket. Then I noticed that the forward fender line was chafed so I replaced it. Fenders, inflated rubber cylinders, provide additional protection to the hull from the dock. Then Ian showed up.

Ian put the resistor into the alternator line and the engine would now start, charge, and stop when the ignition was turned off. He tightened and adjusted some of the nuts and bolts that were involved during the last repair. That’s good. What about the starter motor? Ian agreed that it sounded broken. If I brought the boat back in they’d look at the starter motor and replace it at no charge – if that was the problem. But the clanking might be from the gear the motor engages. A bad tooth could be filed but if the gear needed replacing the engine would have to be pulled. Another $1000. Next week I’ll take the SeaSport back in. We can use Margaret’s boat while ours is in the shop. Well, at least the engine starts easily (other than the clanking sound) and it’s got more pep than it’s had since we bought it almost three years ago. That’s a plus.

When you live on an island you depend on your boat. Neighbor Tom Temple keeps his boat expenses low by using an 8′ Bullfrog with a 9 hp Honda outboard to commute between Crane and Orcas. Easy on gas. Reliable. But no fun in heavy weather, rain, cold, or if you need to carry more than a couple of grocery bags. As the saying goes, “Boats are a hole in the water you pour money into.”

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