The Other Side of Sailing

Why do boat builders build boats knowing that fully grown human beings will never be able to access the essential areas necessary to maintain them? Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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.

Flying Fish, with a freshly painted bottom and buffed topsides, returns to the water in Didim, Turkey. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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.

The “Three Mehmets” will fabricate a tool from raw steel to adjust the stubborn and inaccessible shaft bearing aboard Flying Fish. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish. I welcome your comments.

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:

To see where Flying Fish has sailed since leaving Key West in 2017, click here:

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker

25 thoughts on “The Other Side of Sailing

  1. Thank you for sharing the struggles as well as the successes! I feel your pain (literally) when trying to access areas of the boat that are clearly not designed for human beings to reach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your vote of sympathy, Noreen, but I always have to remind myself that it is a privilege just to have a boat despite occasional frustrating inconveniences. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Glad to hear you are getting going again. Really enjoyed this episode. Reminded me of the time I was delivering a sailboat from Charlotte Amalie to here and had a breakdown just north of Turks and Caicos. Repaired by a very nice fellow from Haiti who apparently spoke only French.. I don’t speak French but I am pretty sure we paid the fellow twice. Repair was fine, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you, John. It is always interesting to negotiate repairs, especially if that negotiation is in different languages. The one common denomination, however, is always money. If the person fixing my boat can do something that I cannot do, then that person has earned the money. Now, when you are charged twice for the same job that’s a different story 🙂


    • Thanks for the compliment, Jeff, but there are also many days when she is “rode hard and put away wet.”
      I love this boat and I will always be grateful to you and the new IPY family for seeing this project through when it looked like Flying Fish was not going to be completed.


  3. Wonderfull story Jeffrey, you are one brave soul .Starting a journey around the world and then the world changes. We missed reading the new chapters in your life and learning about things we have never seen.
    Stay safe and we look forward to seeing you again .
    Ed & Carol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeffery,
    I always love your choice of words when describing a situation. Once again you paint the image only a great writer can. As a sailor with many miles under keel, I feel your pain for I too have been there scratching my head. Fair winds and sail on !!!
    All the best

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great to hear that you are under way again Jeffrey and that the repairs aren’t getting you down! Onward bound! Joanna and I look forward to hearing more about your adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeffrey,
    Always a pleasure to read about your adventures! Your writing captures an audience, and makes me just smile and shake my head with wonder and awe.
    I would be a true chicken to attempt this voyage; but then again, all of us in this continuous pandemic peril should no longer think of themselves as chickens, we are trying to survive the greatest of storms.
    I wish you the safest of journeys, and look forward to more of your adventures.
    Gods speed,


    • Thank you for such a kind note, Elizabeth. Being alone on Flying Fish compels me to write to remain in contact. I would guess this is the same for anyone in isolation during this pandemic. We reach out in any way possible. We all must stay healthy. There is so much good ahead of us.


  7. Excellent story expounding on the frustrations many of us sailors have with routine maintenance items that should be designed properly so the average sailor can maintain their boat. I had a similar issue with the stuffing box on my IP and used a 3’ rod to tighten/loosen the bronze nuts. Very frustrating indeed! Keep up the good work and stay safe. It’s nice to hear about your travels. Fair winds and following seas (not too big though). 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Pat. Your comment reminds me that there is an upside to these challenging and frustrating access and repair issues. They are lessons in problem-solving. Your use of a three-foot rod to tighten nuts is a perfect example. When life gets too easy our brains get lazy. My new resolution: I will not get frustrated, I will get smarter.


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