Okay, full disclosure: Sometimes I do not know which is the correct way to turn a wrench. I think with a different part of my brain. I can sail upright through a gale. I can calculate in an instant the photographic exposure of a bird flying against a fading sunset. But ask me to change the impeller on a diesel engine and I’m a deer staring into the headlights of an 18-wheeler.
After four months on the hard, Flying Fish was re-launched last week in Didim, Turkey. Sailboats, like all machines (and many people), do not work well after sitting idle. It’s the Tin Man syndrome. It requires attention, motivation, and lubrication to start moving again. Complicating things is the fact that my beloved 46-foot cutter is not a simple sailboat. Systems designed to make sailing more efficient and enjoyable often bring about the exact opposite result. In an effort to attract buyers, marine manufacturers stuff modern sailboats with features many sailors like me are challenged to repair themselves. And it is not just the sophisticated stuff like air conditioners, computer-driven engines, and high-tech navigation systems that baffle boneheads like me. It’s the simple stuff, too. Like why put a threaded shaft bearing that needs frequent maintenance into an area of the bilge that is inaccessible with a wrench? Or, why design an engine that requires partial disassembly to service a simple but essential engine cooling impeller.
When standard engine service is necessary on a new vessel, Certified Factory Authorized Technicians are often required or warranties will be voided. That level of service can be tough to find in remote places like Fatu Hiva or Pukapuka, or Sumatra. So when I pass through major population centers I have the engine on Flying Fish serviced by pros. Earlier in my voyage, a Certified Factory Authorized Technician I hired in New Zealand asked me, “How do you access the impeller?” I said, “You’re the one making the big bucks. You tell me.” Soon there were two Kiwi technicians onboard scratching their heads. And then there were four of them–all Certified Factory Authorized Technicians. Bewildered, they then called in a carpenter with a reciprocating saw who said, “These guys tell me I need to cut a hole in the cabin floor (a gorgeous new teak-and-holly cabin floor) for them to access the impeller.” I said some bad words and pointed the Certified Factory Authorized Technicians, and their carpenter with the Sawzall, to the dock.
A kind sailor named Matt Stence from the sailboat Nimbus was watching the departing parade of mechanics. He said, “Hey, let me try.” With his face squished against the engine’s flywheel, his shoulder in the bilge, and his hand bloody and bent at an impossible angle, Matt blindly removed and replaced the impeller on Flying Fish. There is a place in heaven for people like Matt Stence. I have never been able to reproduce his effort.
Eighteen months and 750 engine hours later, it is time to replace the impeller again. Flying Fish is in a reputable boatyard with trained Certified Factory Authorized Technicians. “It is a difficult job,” I tell them when they arrive. “It’s not impossible but I cannot figure out how to do it,” I say. “It will only take one hour,” the service manager assures me. He tells me to watch and learn. Four mechanics open their toolboxes and roll up their sleeves. I feel their confidence; there are no reciprocating saws in their toolboxes. But the mechanics cannot access the impeller with a blind hand under the engine as Matt Stence did. The lead mechanic asks for more tools. Then he begins to remove the heat exchanger, essential for cooling the engine with seawater. This will allow him to access the concealed cooling pump and impeller. He unclamps a hose and suddenly there is a fountain of seawater in the engine room. “Close seacock,” he tells an assistant, who tells the service manager, who translates and then asks me: “Where is seacock?” When the seacock has closed the ingress of water is stopped. I feel chest palpitations. “Is everything okay now?” I ask. “Yes,” the service manager says, facing the engine room “Is okay, except for a little fire.”
A little fire…?
The seawater leakage has shorted exposed wiring in the alternator.
“Please sir,” the manager says urgently. “Turn off electricity.” I pull the master switch to shut down the batteries.
“A little fire?” I ask again, incredulously.
“Is okay,” the manager reassures. “No fire, only sparklets.”
In the end, the issue resolves amicably and professionally. The technicians address my concerns and disassemble, clean, and test the alternator. The seawater impeller is replaced. The engine is cleaned and reassembled. No human beings were harmed in the making of this drama.
I understand that it is on me to maintain and fix what breaks aboard Flying Fish. It is the captain’s responsibility, especially if he is sailing shorthanded, to see that his vessel is seaworthy. Some sailors have it–they can build a boat with their bare hands and fix anything that breaks with their eyes closed. And some captains like me have trouble remembering which way to turn a wrench. There are resources available to me when systems become too complicated for my artistic-oriented brain to compute. The kindness of strangers like Matt Stence is one welcomed resource. There is also a helpful organization called the Island Packet Yacht Owners Association, men and women who have seen and resolved nearly anything that could go wrong in both simple and sophisticated boat systems. You never know how many friends you have until you need help on a boat, and the long-distanced IPOYA members have always had my back. There are circumstances, however, when you need boots on the ground right now and you have to call in the calvary.
Today is one of those days. The mission is addressing the shaft stuffing box bearing that allows no access with a wrench. The bearing needs adjustment because if it is too tight it can burn up the shaft seal. If the bearing is too loose the ocean can enter the sailboat and everything gets wet as the boat sinks. I go online to look for ideas of how to adjust the correct tension on the two large bronze nuts of the stuffing box bearing. The yacht owners group has some excellent suggestions. Try heat and penetrating oil, is one idea. Another Island Packet owner writes that he tightens and loosens the large nuts on his bearing by pounding on their edges from above with a hammer hitting a crowbar. It works for him but not for me. I have visions of the crowbar slipping off the nut as the force of the hammer drives the crowbar through the bottom of Flying Fish. There is one more option and it saves the day–using resourceful local boatyard engineers. They are going to brainstorm the problem and make a tool from scratch that will adjust the shaft bearing nuts.
The three engineers arrive, walking shoulder-to-shoulder like the Ghostbusters down the dock. They introduce themselves. “I am Mehmet,” says the first one. “I am Mehmet,” says the second one. “I am also Mehmet,” says the third, who speaks English. “We are the Three Mehmets,” he says proudly. “In Turkey when you are in the company of three people named Mehmet it is a sign of good luck! Make a wish and your wish will come true.”
Meeting people like the Three Mehmets, and receiving the kindness of strangers from around the globe who help me in a time of need, makes me realize that my wish has already been fulfilled.
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I hope to be underway aboard Flying Fish in March 2021. Once the voyage restarts you can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, by clicking this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish
To see where Flying Fish has sailed since leaving Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish
Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021
Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives –Fr. John Baker