Another Gremlin?

Today, Karen flew home to go to a concert, so I have no real adventures to share. I am, however, at Palm Cay Marina in the Bahamas. It’s wonderful. It has an infinity pool, a lap pool, a hot tub, a bar, a private beach, a coffeeshop, a gym, and a restaurant, so I’m good for a few days… really, really good, as a matter of fact. 

As there is nothing particularly exciting to share, I am afraid you’ll have to suffer through another repair blog. This boat is simply too large for me to take it anywhere by myself. (I am aware that I just lost a majority of readers right there. It’s OK – you’re all super-excused).

Here goes… About a month ago, Gratitude’s galley lights suddenly stopped coming on when we flicked the switch. This was unexpected and unwelcome, since the galley is an important shared living space as well as the place we cook. Karen got out the electrical schematics book, and we traced it down to a particular 8-amp fuse (fuse #15). After taking various detachable panels off of walls, we found the fuse box in the starboard cabin. I pulled #15 and tested continuity with my multimeter and confirmed that the fuse had, indeed, blown clean through. Then the search began for a replacement fuse of this size and amperage, and believe me – we went everywhere. Four stores later, we were empty-handed. No one in Nassau had it. When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, we tried West Marine and McDonald’s Hardware, and neither of them had one either (to our great surprise). 

Amazon to the rescue. This entire box of assorted fuses, delivered to the marina in one day, cost less than $7.00 It’s hard for me to wrap my head around those economics.

Fuses galore

Then, there was the nagging problem that even if I replaced the fuse, I would not have determined what caused it to blow in the first place, so I arose sometime around 2:30 a.m. and grabbed my trusty multimeter to go investigate.

An electrical short is often as simple as two wires touching that should not be connecting. This can happen for a number of reasons – particularly in a moving environment like a ship. If there is no fuse to burn up, this could heat up the wires and start an electrical fire, so it can potentially be a big deal.

In this case, I traced the problem down to the blue, 12-volt LED accent lights on the port side stern steps. These lights were on the same circuit as the galley lights but operated off of a different switch. There was a short somewhere in the system, and the worst part was going to be wriggling into the very tight space to change out the wiring and lights once I had new lights to use as replacements. 

A day later, when I was back in Fort Lauderdale, someone working on the boat who was about half my size volunteered that he could fit in there “like… no problem”, and I decided that was pretty much an offer I could not refuse. Soon thereafter, the short was resolved, and everything worked. 

Well, that was the port side of the boat, but yesterday, back in The Bahamas, the starboard (opposite side) lights started doing the same thing and blowing the same fuse all over again. #DejaVu. There always seems to be some maintenance needed on the boat, and in this case it reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner was on a flight and saw a gremlin on the wing destroying things, but he was the only one who could see it. Technically I never saw a gremlin, but it could explain a lot.

Don’t be afraid to look, William

Anyway, I got the joy of repeating most of the aforementioned steps to track this down. And the culprit is…

A (charred) 12-volt Lumitec Andros Accent Light

These 12 volt Lumitec Andros LED Accent LED lights seem to fail closed and short out the entire circuit when they go bad, rather than just quit working like a good old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb. Go figure? The net result is that the surrounding wiring heats up very quickly, and the fuse is (mercifully) the first thing to sacrifice itself for the greater good.

I cut out the bad bulb, replaced the fuse, and seven of the eight accent lights now work perfectly, so that is a partial victory. Karen is bringing a few replacement/spare lights back with her on Thursday, and I have the wires all stripped and ready to attach so that I will be able to check this one off the list and resolve my symmetry issues for the time being.

Gratitude safely docked with galley lights and ⅞ step lights working perfectly

As a last word here, I have one tool that has become indispensable aboard Gratitude. It is a Vise Grip wire stripping tool. If you or someone you love enjoys working on electrical things, buy them this for a birthday gift or stocking stuffer. It’s very well-designed and super-functional. I’ve probably owned a half-dozen or more wire-stripping tools in my life, and this one is the best, by a long shot.

Vice Grip wire strippers: an indispensable addition to my tool bag

Swimming with Stingrays

Last week I was in a tough place, mentally and emotionally, after all the drama with our passage back to the Bahamas and our engine troubles and the approaching storm. So Andy suggested a mental-health field trip – something fun, to remind us why we wanted to take this sailing journey in the first place.

We were anchored in a beautiful cove off of Cat Cay, in the Biminis. Cat is a small private island, frequented by Jimmy Buffett and Jeff Bezos, and outsiders are not particularly welcome ashore. But just north of Cat Cay is the unpopulated Gun Cay, and at the top of Gun Cay is Honeymoon Harbor – a popular beach and snorkeling spot. We had anchored there once overnight, after an all-night passage, but we did not go exploring then. So Andy did a little research and found that Honeymoon Harbor is the home of stingrays and turtles. A worthy candidate for a field trip!

So we loaded up the dinghy with towels, water, and snorkel gear, and motored about a mile to Honeymoon. The sea was calm, almost placid, making the ride smooth and enjoyable. As we approached the beach, we saw them – a large school of rays!

Stingrays at Honeymoon Harbor, Bimini

We drifted toward a dock and found a spot to tie on, eager to get closer to the stingrays. We knew from previous experiences that stingrays are gentle creatures that only sting you when you step on them. As long as you shuffle your feet along the sand, they will hear you coming and get out of your way, so there’s little risk of either of you getting hurt. Several families with kids and dogs were already in the water feeding the rays – it’s a common practice here, and Andy had brought a small bag of bait fish from the stock he keeps in our freezer. (Mr. Project Manager plans ahead.)

We carefully climbed out of the boat and eased into the water. It was cool and clear, and about ten rays swam immediately to us. They were so beautiful – gray, with some blue tones up close, varying sizes, gliding smoothly over the sand and each other. At first we just put the bait in the water and watched the rays race each other to it. But we soon found that we could just hold a piece of fish in our fingers, and let the rays swim over and “Hoover” it up directly from our hands. These rays have “teeth” that are more like sandpaper, and they simply suck the food up from the surface of your hand. We both tried it, but only Andy was bold enough to hang on to the bait long enough for the ray to suck it up.

A word on the color of the water here – WOW! After our bait was eaten up and the rays moved on to some nearby little kids with a full bucket, we took some time to walk on the beach and gaze out over the glorious water. Every shade of turquoise – Who knew there were so many? Eventually we struck up a conversation with a dad supervising his kids and dog in the water; he was very friendly and told us a little about his experiences living and boating in the Bahamas. His dog, a pure-bred Corgi rescue, was the most water-happy dog I have ever met. He was neither spooked by nor aggressive towards the rays; he just stood there and let them swim around him. Such a sweet pooch.

Feeding the rays in Honeymoon Harbor

This little field trip did indeed help my mood, and I was grateful Andy thought of it. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision on all the tasks and projects that keep our vessel afloat. “Stop and swim with the rays” is going to be my new “Take time to smell the roses.”

P.S. After Cat Cay we motorsailed to Chub Cay, in the Berry Islands. We waited out a big storm at the marina there, which is SO nice – a pool, restaurant, bar, and places to run. (We both logged a couple miles). We met a receptionist who had heard of Kennesaw because she will be enrolled at KSU next fall – small world! We also met Ben and Nancy who were in the slip across from us on Mimosa, their Leopard 45, and we had fun comparing features and layouts on our boat before hanging out at the Nauti Rooster. They were headed back to Florida, but that encounter did bode well for the new-friends potential of our continued journey.

Replacing an Impeller

(Andy’s note: Most of this entry may be of interest only to boat nerds and people troubleshooting engines.)

Early Saturday morning, we struck out from Bimini to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. All of that was lovely until our starboard engine (a Yanmar 57) signaled an overheat alarm about 10 minutes into our trip. It had been chugging along at a very modest 1600 RPMs, which should be fine, but I still had the port engine, and that had plenty of power to take us the 10 nautical miles or so to where we were going.

No big deal, right?

Wrong! I was trained as a private pilot, and losing an engine made me highly nervous, and it made Karen even more nervous. When an engine overheats, this is serious business.

We made it to a beautiful, calm anchorage outside of Cat Cay and took the dinghy over to Bu’s Bar at the Cat Cay Yacht Club to have some lunch and to take stock of our situation.

Taking a moment…

After talking it through, Karen and I came to the conclusion that we were probably in a tight spot due to the following facts:

  1. Really bad weather was bearing down on us (less than 72 hours out), and we had been planning every leg of our trip around finding good shelter.
  2. Our preferred shelter spot (Chub Cay Marina) was about 12 hours away via Gratitude.
  3. We were suddenly and unexpectedly down to one engine.
  4. In order to get our starboard engine working, we (thought we) needed a part we could not locally source. More on this further down.
  5. The marine store where we could source the part was 18 hours away (on one engine) in Nassau (we could return to Florida in less time, but that would be sailing into the bad weather).
  6. If we went to get the part, we would likely end up with two good engines but no good place to take shelter from days of heavy rain and very high winds.
  7. If we made the trip to our originally preferred shelter spot, we would have to limp there on one engine. If the port engine failed, we could end up in a more serious situation.
  8. If we reached our preferred shelter, I might not be able to safely dock this boat using only one engine, as I use the port and starboard (left and right) engines to maneuver into a slip. Only having the port engine functioning would not allow me to do what I was trained to do. I may get to the point where I could dock the boat in a slip with one engine, but I’m not there yet. We would have to source help from someone who could do this (assuming it’s even doable).

So while we sat and discussed our dilemma, we decided the most likely culprit for the engine overheating was the water impeller.

Now, if you are still awake (or maybe you found this in a web search, and this is why you started reading), one of the ways many marine diesel engines keep cool is this:

  1. Raw seawater is drawn in through an intake pipe
  2. The raw water is strained through a plastic, raw water intake filter to keep out plastic, seaweed, and ocean critters
  3. The filtered seawater is drawn through the system by a rotating impeller (similar to a propeller, except that it sits in front of the hose to move the water along)
  4. The water is circulated back and forth around engine components, so that the water heats up while the engines maintains an optimal temperature
  5. The now-heated sea water is expelled through the exhaust back into the ocean, and fresh, cool seawater is drawn in to continue the cycle

Once I disassembled the impeller housing, I confirmed that we guessed correctly. We definitely had a bad impeller.

Now, I will not inflict upon you the entire story of how we located the spare impeller. Suffice it to say that this took the entire day. After trips ashore and an excursion to another island, we located a spare on our own boat late in the day. Spare impellers are like spare tires. You should always have one, and we did, thanks to the previous owner.

The impeller is a moving part that is subject to wear

Once we located a spare, this turned out to be a straightforward repair. Here were the steps involved:

  1. Folding myself into the engine compartment
  2. Closing the thru-hull seacock to seal off the raw water intake system
  3. Removing the four bolts and cover that house the impeller
  4. Gently prying out the old impeller (I used two sets of pliers to extract the old one)
  5. Lubricating the new impeller with grease and installing it
  6. Replacing the cover and the four bolts that house the impeller
  7. Priming (filling) the raw water strainer with water (an essential step that I missed the first time)
  8. Starting the engine
  9. Immediately opening the thru-hull seacock to allow the system to function
  10. Rejoicing as water spilled out of the side of the boat, indicating that the engine was circulating and cooling

More on step 7 above (priming the raw water intake). When I first fired up the engine, no water circulated. This was a very unwelcome development, as I wondered if the whole problem might be more serious, but once I primed the system and tried again, everything worked as designed.

Voila! Now we are back up and running with two engines and plenty of time to get to shelter ahead of the approaching storm.

Family Time

My dad, and our son, Kyle, joined us for eight days aboard Gratitude. We had to remain at the marina for the first few days while modifications and repairs were being made, but we were able to get in several solid days of sailing too. It gave them a taste for boat life. We made some provisioning runs, sailed, motored, and took the dinghy around. Dad and I made some of our own repairs, and the two of them experienced some basics about how boats operate. Kyle keenly observed, “If sailing were a TV show, it would have pacing issues.”

He is right. Cruising life contrasts being immersed in tranquility, beauty, and fun, punctuated by periods of intense action and stress. The stress may be situational (e.g. something intense is happening, and you have to deal with it immediately) or it may be self-induced. Most often, the locus of my stress involves safely stopping the boat. Hovering in place on a river in front of a drawbridge, maneuvering into a dock slip, or trying to get the anchor to grab and hold can get my heart racing. The reason is that there are usually currents, winds, and other boats or structures to contend with.

As an example, on Wednesday night we were asleep at anchor with the hatches open when it started to sprinkle, around 2:30 a.m. Karen secured the hatches, and I decided that while I was awake, I would check to see how our anchor was holding. When I stepped outside, I noticed the winds and tides had shifted considerably, and the monohull sailboat closest to us was now swinging frenetically on his anchor. After about ten minutes of watching him dart and undulate wildly, his stern came all the way over toward ours. His was a lighter boat than Gratitude, so I was, with some effort, able to physically shove him away when he was close enough to hit us, but he swung back again and again. So, I woke Karen, and we spent hours watching him make Spirograph-like patterns before unpredictably careening right back into us. We used our fenders (basically giant, inflated rubber balls) to keep his boat from crunching ours.

Karen took this whole event quite calmly, but I was full of adrenaline. It felt like being in a fight where your opponent kept getting up and coming back, over and over. (Terminator 2 would be too dramatic a comparison, but you get the idea). We debated trying to wake the owner of the other yacht, but ultimately we just accepted our fate and kept watch to prevent any damage. The next morning, we left that anchorage, bright and early, with his yacht still channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

In order to get back out to sea, we needed to pass under the Las Olas drawbridge. Gratitude is too tall to do that without having the bridge up, so you get the pleasure of being “that guy” and stopping all traffic on Las Olas Boulevard and making everyone wait while the bridge raises for you to pass through. This time, however, the bridge only opened one of its two spans. I radioed him to ask if there was a malfunction, and he informed me that he was only opening halfway for me, and I would need to squeeze through. Again – you transition abruptly from a leisurely journey to a quick jolt of stress. And all of this happened pre-coffee!

The Las Olas Bridge when the operator isn’t trying to play chicken with me

But yesterday, we sailed south to Key Biscayne, and we have never coaxed such great performance out of the boat. We regularly made over 9 kts on that trip with only our sails in about 18 kts of wind. The boat was happy, and so was I. We had a great sail and an easy time anchoring. We dinghied over to a restaurant a mile or so away and enjoyed a wonderful, relaxing meal and some sangria.

Gratitude making great time sailing southward

Today, as I write this, we have made it back to the Bahamas. We spent the day “beating” (traveling into the wind), and crossing the rolling Gulf Stream. Once we were at tonight’s destination, we deployed our anchor and went through all the right steps, but when I dove off the boat to have a look, it was laying sideways on the ocean floor instead of digging in. We had to start over to get it to set, but all’s well now.

Not the way an anchor should look.

Tomorrow looks calm for us. We’re sailing south to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. Then we will start making our way to shelter to ride out some approaching bad weather predicted for next week.

Everything takes longer than it does.

Hi everyone. We write you today from a dock in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. We had hoped to be back in the Bahamas by now, but God just chuckled at our plans. Here’s an update on the last couple of weeks.

Our sail back home to the US was uneventful, blessedly so. We did catch another fish – a tuna this time. Andy is great fun to watch when the reel begins to spin – he gets both excited and uber-focused! The tuna was just large enough for us to get a couple of meals out of him – we cooked it for lunch, while still underway. I decided that I will not cook that way again – too much motion on the boat, even though the sea was relatively calm. Lots of sailors pre-cook their meals when preparing for a long passage, and now I know why.

We arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale in the early afternoon and headed for our marina. There we had another “adventure.” We radioed the marina and followed their directions to our slip… only to discover that the slip they’d assigned us (right beside a big cement dock) was a few feet too narrow for our boat to fit. And another boat had followed us into the docking area, so there was no room to back out. It was a struggle to keep the boat out of harm’s way, but thankfully the other boat caught on to our situation, pulled out, and gave us room to back away from the dock. The dock master sent us to the other side of the marina, where there was plenty of room to maneuver and a spacious berth for Gratitude. But we were both sweating buckets until we got the lines tied.

This incident gave me a couple of insights. One, I’ve decided I’m going to be a lot more assertive from now on, when making marina reservations. I’m going to make sure, on the front end and right before pulling in, that the folks know all the dimensions of our vessel, and ask them for the biggest slip they will give us. I’m not making assumptions that everyone else knows what our boat needs.

The second decision may not be fully in my control, but to the extent that I am able, I am going to stop worrying so much about whether we hit something. If we do, we do. Right now the fear I feel is disproportionate to the risks we are taking. We’re taking it slow and not making big crazy moves. If we damage our boat, we’ll fix her. If we damage someone else’s property, we’ll make it right. As long as no one gets hurt – and in all our scary situations so far, the closest we’ve come was Andy falling into about 10 feet of water in a bay – we are okay. This incident showed me that I’ve been afraid – too afraid – of looking foolish. I know from experience that that is a fear that is based on a lie. So that’s where the battle is, for me and this boat – to remember the truth that learning always involves making mistakes. And we’re allowed our share. It will be okay.

Once Gratitude was docked, we set to work getting her cleaned up, because we would welcome friends aboard just a few hours later. Dan and Tracy flew down from Atlanta to spend a weekend with us, and we had such a good laid-back time. We ate at Coconut’s (twice), lounged around the boat, shopped at West Marine (Dan was like a kid at Christmas!) and generally soaked up precious time with friends. It did both our hearts good.

Dan and Tracy left on Sunday, and the next Thursday I flew home for a short visit. Andy stayed with the boat, to oversee the repairs. I saw all my kids, some dear friends, and my Mom and sister. Worked out (of course!) and went to church. And saw Fleetwood Mac in concert. I would have loved more time and more visits with friends, but I also missed Andy and our boat. Which helped me recognize (not for the first time) that we’d made the right decision, buying Gratitude. She already feels like our new home.

I flew back to Ft. Lauderdale with our son Kyle and Andy’s dad Theron. They are with us now, and we had hoped to sail with them back to Nassau and give them a taste of the Bahamas. However, our repair work has hit various delays, and we learned yesterday that someone made a mistake in fulfilling an order for parts, so now we have to wait again for the right ones to be shipped. Which means that we will not be leaving Ft. Lauderdale by this weekend. It’s disappointing – but on par with what everyone has told us about boat ownership. To quote one of my dearly departed and much beloved college professors, Dr. Brewer: “Everything takes longer than it does.”