Gyro failure

The Birch Marine workboat, Apollo, operates out of Long Wharf, Boston, tending to boat projects both big and small. Photo by Christopher Birch

October/November 2022

By Christopher Birch

I was listening to a Red Sox day-game while repairing shrink-wrap tools in my shop one slow September day a few decades back when the phone rang. A thickly accented voice on the other end of the line explained that he was having problems with the phantom ring motor on his gyrocompass and wanted my help with a repair. I had only a limited understanding of what a gyrocompass was and no idea what the phantom ring motor did. I continued to fiddle with a broken shrink-wrap torch while the man on the phone, Radimir, struggled to overcome our language barrier.

I had lashed the torch together with an awkward coil of baling wire. Seeing it again after months of storage reminded me of how unsatisfactory and uncomfortable that repair was. Burns to the glove hand while shrink-wrapping is both painful and inevitable. But slashing your “gun hand” open with the sharp end of a baling wire repair heaps on an unnecessary indignity. A new torch would solve the problem nicely if only I had the cash to buy one.

Aside from tinkering with my tools and listening to the ballgame, I had little work on my schedule. And even less money in the bank. September can be slow in the boat maintenance business – the pregnant pause before the onrush of winterization begins.

Eager for the work, I put aside my misgivings about the project and told Radimir that I was happy to help and asked where I could find him and his boat. He assured me that part would be easy. He was aboard the only oil tanker anchored in the general anchorage off Deer Island – I couldn’t miss it.

I usually fix cabin lights on 30-foot Sea Rays and replace propane solenoids on 40-foot Sabres, and service winches on 50-foot Swans. I am a real pro when it comes to bottom painting, waxing and shrink-wrapping these same boats. But oil tankers are bigger, and for me, this would be something new. But a boat’s a boat, right? How much different could things be out there on an oil tanker? A little blue wire, or maybe an orange one, had probably vibrated out of a wire harness somewhere. With a crimp connection and an industrial-size 6-inch length of heat-shrink tubing, I’d have that mystery machine back in business in no time. I hopped in my workboat on Long Wharf and headed out into Boston Harbor with an absurdly high level of confidence.

The ship was indeed easy to find and every bit as big as I feared she might be. Crew members at the rail helped me extend my bow and stern lines to secure my little workboat alongside. A massive woven basket was lowered for my equipment. My single tool bag, containing only a modest collection of hand tools, was so small I had to tie it to the webbing of the basket to ensure it wouldn’t fall through the holes in the weave.

Once the tools were aboard, the crew dropped a rope ladder for me. Offshore sailors hope to avoid these ladders for good reason: you’re only climbing one if something really bad has just happened. Inshore boat repair pros should avoid them too. It’s a long way up, and all the swaying delivers an unsettling feeling of insecurity. On the upside, the ladder climb briefly took my mind off the beating my workboat was suffering alongside the steel ship in the outer harbor chop.

A stoic-looking crew – perhaps Eastern European? – met me on deck. A few of them, presumably the ones stationed in the engine room, wore bright orange coveralls. The rest were oddly attired as if getting ready for a night at the disco. Wearing street shoes, pressed pants, and smart “Members Only” jackets, they looked like they were auditioning for parts on Saturday Night Fever. “Sailors, this is the `90s, not the ‘70s!” I considered sharing my knowledge on appropriate boating footwear and fashions, but the language barrier held me back.

Radimir (I think) surveyed me skeptically and motioned for me to follow him. We descended into the bowels of the ship and made our way to a large room full of machinery. He stopped, and we stood there for a while. I looked around, taking in all the pipes and pumps and electronics boxes, none of which looked at all familiar to me.

“Gyrocompass?” I asked feebly.

His face grew more sour, and he nodded at the box directly in front of me. Roughly the size of a washing machine, it had some lights on top and a wire harness running out the back to other components of the ship’s power and navigational systems. At this point, my boat shoes were the only thing I had going for me.

“Owner’s manual? Er, uh, service manual?” I asked as I pulled a multimeter out of my tool bag.

A three-ring binder containing the 400-plus pages of gyrocompass minutia was thrust in my direction. It had been sitting nearby and had probably been exhaustively thumbed through by the onboard engineers in the hours before my arrival. I flipped through a few pages of wiring diagrams while comparing observations on the big washing machine thing, keeping an eye out for a loose blue wire or maybe an orange one.

“So, you say it’s not working so great?” I inquired.

Radimir had a great deal to say at this point, little of which I understood. References to the phantom ring motor came up frequently, coupled with a good deal of pointing towards the lower left side of the machine. I gathered that a fault indicator from the networked steering compass up on the bridge had been a red flag.

The issue of liability fluttered into my mind. What if my gyrocompass repair ends up as my torch repair did? And then these guys head off in the fog, steering toward what they think is the open ocean to the east, when actually they were heading south, straight for Hull? That could be bad. But my yearning for that expensive new shrink-wrap torch prevailed. If I got things sorted, his gyrocompass job would pay for that torch in its entirety. I put all lawyerly thinking aside and forged on, determined to fix the machine.

Suddenly, and thankfully, we were interrupted by someone who had come to serve me tea on a tray. That never happened when I was working on a 30-foot Sea Ray! Things were finally looking up, and I lingered over the tea break for a good while, still feeling superior about my boat shoes.

With the cup drained, my gaze refocused on the work. I stared at the machine from different angles hoping to come up with some idea of how to move forward and be the hero shopping for a new shrink-wrap torch before sunset. Radimir kept staring at me, knowing that I knew, that he knew that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing – but holding out hope that I might figure something out so he could go home.

It was hopeless, though. No length of my heat-shrink tubing would solve any compass problems on that ship. I had no idea even where to start.

Eventually, I straightened up, looked Radimir in the eye for the first time in a long while, and sadly shook my head “no.” He acknowledged my defeat with a knowing look. We walked silently back up to the deck, where we went our separate ways, and I climbed down into what was left of my workboat.

Compared to fixing an oil tanker’s gyrocompass, my shrink-wrap tool repairs felt like child’s play. Back in my shop that evening, I redoubled my efforts on the torch and came up with a clean fix utilizing a series of rivets that lasted for years. I had missed the end of the Red Sox game and Mo Vaughn’s winning home run, but the day had been productive, and those rivets on that torch never failed to remind me of Radimir, his funny shoes and his big ship.

Christopher Birch is the founder of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston. He is now out cruising full-time with his wife, Alex, aboard their 36-foot Morris Justine. Follow their voyage at