A Tale of Two Seminars

Actually, it was only one seminar. But you get the idea: that whole good-and-bad-simultaneously thing.

I’ve been meaning to attend the Safety At Sea seminar for some time now. And since it was here in Annapolis, as it is each spring, I was able to do so this year. So I spent this past weekend on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy listening to really cool presentations by sailing experts and also got to enjoy some hands-on fun in the Naval Academy pool playing with life jackets, pumps, throw ropes and life rafts.

And it really was two different seminars.

I came out of Saturday’s lectures thinking, “Holy shit. EVERYTHING about sailing offshore not only CAN kill you, it will. In fact, it’s going to. And soon.” One boat inspector told us just how fast THIS much water can come into your boat from just a one-inch hole. A two-inch hole? You’re screwed. And jeez, hit something big and put a serious hole in the boat? Kiss your ass goodbye.

A doctor (who was actually quite entertaining) talked about how debilitating seasickness is. But boy oh boy, if you think THAT’S bad, just get injured at sea and you’ll find out what really bad is.

Misery upon misery upon misery will be visited upon those who are silly enough to buy a boat and contemplate a life at sea. That was the message from the Safety At Sea seminar. So I came out of Saturday’s session thinking, “I think I’ll sell my boat and go walkabout on this wonderful planet — via plane — for a while.” ‘Course, then I realized that I’d probably board a Boeing 737 Max 8 and, well, we know how well THOSE things have been flying lately.

And then Sunday happened. Sailing author John Kretschmer spoke of his love for being at sea — and he’s been out there for some really nasty stuff. He keeps going back out there…that’s how much he loves it. And the way he characterized what it’s like out there, and the fact that it wasn’t so much about buying more damned stuff for the boat, got me back into the concept of sailing over the horizon and searching for golden shores, warm water, cold water even and good times. After Kretschmer’s presentation, and while walking to the Naval Academy pool, I was not only fired up again but I also felt like I could do this, and soon…and that felt good.

The thing is: NONE of the presenters told me or taught me anything I didn’t already know. Have I done some of the things those with more experience than me have done? No. And that’s why my chief takeaway from the sessions was the need to practice, practice, practice before you really go for it.

Which is why I signed up for the seminar in the first place: because for Sunday’s pool session participants donned their foul-weather gear and inflatable life jackets and played with things that we all have but have never used — and hope never to have to use.

My life jacket inflated properly upon hitting the water. The manual bilge pumps that I have on board for emergencies really do move a lot of water. The Lifesling and throw bags deployed their rescue gear as I expected. And while climbing into a life raft from the water wasn’t easy, it also wasn’t as hard as I’d always heard it was. Granted, I wasn’t climbing into the raft after abandoning my sinking ship in the middle of a gale. And yes, now I know I need to inspect some parts on my pumps and check the packing of my Lifesling (see above re: practice, practice, practice). But now if, God forbid, I should ever have to use any of this survival gear in real life, it won’t be for the first time. And for that, the seminar was a far, far better event than I had expected.


Fun With Diesels — An Update

And just like that…all better! Mostly.

Sitting in the office today, about to grab some lunch, when my phone rings. It’s Bay Shore Marine, the engine folks here in Annapolis from whom, on my lunch break, I was going to buy a seal rebuild kit I mentioned in my most recent post. They had some parts issue on a job they had scheduled for today so one of their techs was freed up and was going to get sent to check my boat. Woohoo!

Instead of grabbing lunch I drove home and met the guy at Further. I explained what the problem was and what I’d done to try to fix it. Short version: He said I was on the right track. He then proceeded to do basically everything I had done, only better (but he did remark that I’d done a good job cleaning the centrifuge assembly in the fuel filter). And when we started up the engine…voila! The vacuum gauge was in the green.

Now, he did point out that he blew out the fuel line back TOWARD the tank, which I hadn’t done, and that it was entirely possible there was something in the tank blocking the fitting where the line came out. If so, it’s also entirely possible it will once again find its way to the line and block things up again. Then again, it’s possible that it won’t. Either way, the engine is running soundly again.

The tech also showed me a couple of other points to keep an eye on, and helped with a couple of other minor things. In the long run, I’ll be better with the engine for having watched what he was doing. And that’s good.

There was one issue he noticed, however, that is going to have to be dealt with. He noticed (as I’ve known) that there’s still a trickle of water coming in via the propeller shaft. He had me take a look at the new-in-October shaft seal and pointed out some divots in the flange and, perplexingly, a hose clamp on the shaft itself. When I asked him what would cause those divots he replied, “Someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” The presence of the hose clamp sealed the deal (but not the shaft): someone couldn’t get the flange secured properly so they put a hose clamp on the shaft to try to hold the flange in place. What the ever-lovin’ f…?! So in the next day or so I’ll be having a chat with the boat yard that did the work in October…

But in the meantime, Further is ambulatory once again, and that makes me happy. It is, as the tech said when I’d said I hadn’t expected to hear from Bay Shore Marine for a couple of weeks, my “lucky day.” So much so that I went right out and bought a ticket for Wednesday’s Powerball drawing. Cross your fingers…

Fun With Diesels

Further’s engine compartment on a glorious Sunday afternoon. The primary fuel filter goes in that mount on the right side of the compartment.

What did you do this weekend? If you’re a sailor on the Chesapeake Bay, hopefully you spent yesterday — a truly glorious spring Sunday — on your boat in the gorgeous sunshine and steady, building breeze.

Me, I spent my Sunday with my head in Further‘s engine compartment.

Last Sunday, I took Further out but never left Back Creek. I backed the boat out of her slip, spun her around and motored a little way into the creek toward the Annapolis Landing Marina fuel dock. I didn’t stop, just asked the attendant how late they were open. I planned to fuel up at the end of my day.

Turns out the end of my day was about three minutes later. I revved up Further‘s diesel to pull away from the fuel dock but a few seconds later the RPMs just dropped inexplicable. I pulled the throttle back for a couple of seconds and then opened it up again. Motored along…okay, all fine. Nope, there’s that drop again.

So rather than run into a problem out on the bay, I returned to my slip and shut everything down. I then pulled the stairs out so I could get at the engine. And when I fired it up again, I found that the vacuum gauge on top of the primary fuel filter was way up into the red — and with it went my planned-for Sunday on the bay.

Now, I am not mechanically inclined. I’d like to be and I’ve tried, somewhat, to learn to be capable when it comes to engines. In the interest of sailing self-sufficiency, a couple of years ago I took a two-day course at the Annapolis School of Seamanship on diesel engines — you know, the kind of engine in a sailboat. In hindsight, I should have waited until after I’d bought Further, that way after each class I could have returned home and cross-referenced what I’d learned in the class to my engine.

Instead, a couple of years removed from the class, I have to dredge up memories of the class and pull out some reference books and see if I can figure out what’s what. I have to take on faith the dictum of Nigel Calder, author and guru of DIY yachties the world over, that diesel engines are eminently logical, and that if one just follows the logic one can solve any problem.

Thus far, I hadn’t had anything too pressing on my engine. I’ve checked the oil, I’ve changed the element in the fuel filter..that’s about it. But now we’re into something more.

Okay, so, the symptom is: the vacuum in the fuel line is high. That means the fuel pump is pulling too hard. That means something is obstructing the flow of fuel. That means something is clogging the fuel line. Logical, right?

On the Monday after my aborted sail, I replaced the element in the fuel filter — despite the fact that the element in there looked fine. It certainly didn’t look like it did in Block Island after my first ocean sail when the wave action stirred up all the gunk in my fuel tank and left the filter a clogged mess. So while I didn’t think that was it, I started there. When I ran the engine, the vacuum gauge showed lower pressure but still too high. Hmm…

After work on Wednesday, I dug into it some more. I disconnected the fuel line between the tank and the filter and made sure it was clear. How did I do that, you ask? I blew on the end of the line that connects to the tank. Mmm, that diesel sure is yummy! Meanwhile, back in the engine compartment, fuel flew all over the place, thereby proving the line wasn’t blocked. In the process, I got so stinky with diesel that when I walked into the locker room to play hockey that night, a friend turned to me and said, “Jesus! You smell like diesel!” I wasn’t high from the fumes but I sure wasn’t right.

Of course, in the process of getting the fuel line off the fittings on the fuel filter, I wound up damaging so end of the hose. So on Thursday I went to the local chandlery and got a new length of fuel line. Thursday evening I connected it up and tried the engine. Better still, but also still in the yellow. Not there yet.

So yesterday, on that glorious Sunday I referred to earlier, I dug in. I filled the fuel filter with clean diesel, right to the top, and ran the engine for a bit. The gauge was again in the yellow. And when I opened the filter again, the chamber was half-full of fuel. That tells me that yes, the fuel pump is sucking hard and fuel isn’t getting into the filter. So if it’s not the fuel line from the tank and it’s not beyond the filter, it must be the filter itself, right?

Here’s the Racor fuel filter, exploded onto the countertop in the galley. Fun!

Next step: I took apart the filter itself and cleaned all sorts of gunk out of the centrifuge that separates water and crap out of the fuel. That was a project but it was pretty straightforward, thanks to a good online resource. Filled the filter back up and started the engine. Even better: the gauge went up into the yellow and then came back down a bit. Still in the yellow but better, noticeably better.  And to be honest, I was pretty proud of myself for having given it a shot and having helped the cause in the process. But still not good enough.

All this started because on Tuesday I had stopped by a local marine-engine shop that a hockey-playing friend had recommended. “Chris eats Yanmars [my brand of engine] for breakfast,” Jay declared. In typical Annapolis fashion, Chris said he could take a look…in May. He did concur with my belief that it was something in the fuel line between the tank and the filter, especially when I said that there were some air bubbles visible in the filter. But May?! That’s six freakin’ weeks away! Oy.

So after all my efforts, today on the way into work I stopped by another engine shop. They’re making appointments in mid-April. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to fix things on my own (including another bit of advice from that online resource) and hopefully get it sorted out before I need help from the pros. Because being able to DIY is not only a safer, cheaper way to live the boating life, it’s also really gratifying. Even if it does cost you a gorgeous day on the bay.