Our first boat: Lessons Learned

Gannet waiting for her boom during commissioning. The aqua-colored decks have a distinctly 1960s feel. Photo courtesy Ben Steele

By Ben Steele
For Points East

Even though we parted with her, we still thought of her as a perfect cruising boat for two or four people. She was in good shape, with everything working. But, I’m sure to prospective buyers, the flaws of age seemed obvious, despite the countless hours and dollars spent on maintenance.

In those 24 years, Gannet took us to lovely places along the Maine coast that most land-based travelers never experience. While Gannet showed us spruce-covered islands, ledges, coves, bays, daymarks, lobster pots, and open water, she also taught us about navigation, anchoring, and exploring from the water, as well as plumbing, engine repair, electrical systems, rigging, and the many other systems on a boat. Now, with a larger boat, we start new adventures with a wealth of knowledge gained on Gannet.

We bought Gannet to solve two problems. First, we liked to spend time on the Maine coast with two English setters (who enjoy these waters as much as we do), and it was hard to find a good place to stay. Second, we both liked to sail – me with some experience on Sunfishes, and my wife Lynn, with sea miles on a 1941 catboat.

One summer day, after renting a J/24 on Mt. Desert Island, and, sailing out Western Way and up Somes Sound, we wandered into Jarvis Newman’s office in Southwest Harbor. In addition to building boats, Jarvis had a few listings of used boats, including Migrator, a Bill Shaw-designed 1969 Pearson Coaster built of fiberglass. Best of all, her size and layout would accommodate our two setters, Lynn and me, and our two young boys. The deal was struck: She satisfied both the sailing urge and the place-to-stay issue, plus she was affordable.

Ownership realities

Soon after we took possession, we were exposed to the real costs of boat ownership. While I could fix most things on the boat, the high costs of hauling, storing, stepping the mast, and the cost of most boat parts, quickly became apparent.

The second lesson we learned was the difficulty of finding a mooring for a sailboat. After we signed papers, we drove down the coast, checking for harbors with open moorings. The nice ones, of course, had waiting lists of seven to 15 years, and we wanted to be in a nice harbor. Serendipitously, we ran into a sailing friend from New Hampshire who had a mooring in Rockport, Maine, he’d let us use. Rockport is in Penobscot Bay – prime cruising ground – and it was also close to my brother’s home, a place to stay while commissioning or decommissioning Gannet. So the homeport problem was solved.

Navigation disciplines

The next lesson Gannet taught us was navigation. Lynn had cruised her catboat along the Maine coast, and I had witnessed chart use during my first job, in ornithology, counting seabirds between Penobscot Bay and the Canadian border from the stern of a lobsterboat. Not surprisingly, our abilities were tested on our first cruise. While crossing Jericho Bay, headed for York Narrows at the northwest corner of Swans Island, the red bell we were aiming for suddenly disappeared in fog. We got a bearing on the bell, stayed on course, and soon experienced the exhilaration of having our intended target emerge from the fog.

The second time our navigation skills were tested we were tacking upwind toward a nun on the east side of North Haven when the nun disappeared in fog before we could get a bearing on it. Lynn quickly realized that we needed to get a bearing on some landmark, so we headed across East Penobscot Bay, for an island at the western end of Merchant Row. The island soon loomed out of the fog, but it was not completely clear if it was the island we had targeted.

We circled it, comparing the shape of the island to ones on the chart, while I fired up the loran that had come with Gannet. It worked, but hadn’t been calibrated for our section of the coast. So off we went with the visual identification and plotted a course to the next island to the east, Farrell. Farrell appeared where it should be, confirming our location, and then nun “10”, then can “9” appeared on our nose, and we were soon anchored snugly behind Harbor Island.

A few years later, my other brother gave us a handheld GPS, with no charts, just letters and numbers, but you could put in waypoints and get a bearing from your current location. I spent many mornings with the chart on the galley table, transferring a buoy to the edge of the chart with the parallel rule, and using the dividers and the longitude and latitude scales on the edge of the chart, to get lat and long to the degree, minute and second. With these entered into the GPS, it would tell you bearing to the point, distance, and time to arrival. This gave the same feeling of accomplishment when the target appeared out of the fog.

Several years after that, we upgraded to a Garmin Colorado 400c that had internal marine charts. It was not a chartplotter, but we no longer had to go from buoy to buoy, and we could take courses that curved around obstacles. We always had paper charts, parallel ruler and dividers for backup and for getting the big picture.

Plumbing mysteries

A cruising maxim states that one should ensure all pipe fittings are secure because there are no plumbers at sea. I think it is more accurate to say, if you own a boat, you are a plumber. I knew a little about plumbing from building a bathroom in our house; but when the house is in the water, there are more challenges. The first one was as much as three inches of water appearing on the cabin sole when we tacked. Of course, the first test was to taste the water to see if it was fresh or salt, but no one volunteered because it might have been leaking from the head.

Diagnosing the problem was complicated by the fact that water did not always appear, depending on things like how full the water tank was, how full the head bowl was, and how much we were heeled. By tracing wet boards and tubes, we located one problem: the connection between the freshwater hose and the hand pump at the galley sink. It was an awkward move, but I could reach under the sink and tighten the threaded connection to the pump.

The water on the floor reappeared. After several iterations of this, I realized that there was a crack in the plastic flange on the bottom of the hand-pump, and, by tightening it, I was widening the crack, increasing the leak. So we endured wet floors until we could install a new pump.

But the pool of water in the cabin persisted. It seemed to be deeper when the water tank in the bow was full. A-hah! The cap on the water tank was an old worn out expanding cap with a levering tab on top that expanded the sides. This fit in a hole in the plywood top of the tank. It was difficult to find a plug that was three-and-a-quarter-inches wide. However, in Lynn’s research lab supplies there was a supply of plugs. Problem solved?

Not quite. Water persisted. It turns out, that, when heeled heavily to port, the faucet for the head sink was below the water level in the water tank. Water leaked into the sink bowl, and then when we came about and heeled to starboard, the water spilled onto the sole. So we installed a shut-off valve in the line to the starboard-side sink, and, for the same reason, to the line to the portside galley sink.

Still water on the floor! By this time, we recognized that the gaskets in the head were not perfect, and seawater leaked into the bowl sometimes (this is what kept us from tasting the water on the sole). It would overtop the rim, even when not heeled, so we were vigilant to shut off the intake thru-hull when not using the head. Several years later, I drained the head, took it all apart and replaced all the gaskets. It worked perfectly ever since, and I wish I’d done that earlier.

But there was another source of saltwater. Again, when heeling, this time to starboard, water came up the drain to the galley sink, sometimes overtopping the rim. There was a one-way valve in the drain to the sink, but it did not always work. Leveling the boat and forcing water back down the drain solved the problem temporarily, but it was still annoying until I took out the one-way valve. It was an enlarged section of pipe with what looked like a ping-pong ball inside. But the ping-pong ball was shattered. Ping-pong balls are cheap, but there was no way to get a new ball into the valve, so another type of valve removed that source of floor water.

So that’s the final way water can reach the cabin sole, right? No. We had slowed the flow to an occasional trickle, coming from under the galley, but it still was enough to soak the throw rug and get under the veneer flooring, causing discoloration. We determined that the drain from the icebox must be leaking, because it only leaked after blocks of ice had been in there a while and the outside of the drain tubing was wet. There was no obvious way to fix the fiberglass connection from the corner of the icebox into the plastic tubing that served as a drain, but by plugging the drain from the inside, we could prevent any water from getting to those invisible cracks. But still the connection dripped water.

This leak mystery had persisted for about a decade, each solution taking about a year or two to discover, and it was annoying and perplexing. Finally, I realized that the foam insulation underneath the icebox was not bonded to the icebox, allowing about a half-inch of damp sea air to get in there and condense on the cool underside of the icebox. Eventually, it would flow to the floor. I did not dare spray adhesive under there to reattach the foam because, if I did not get complete contact, the problem would be permanent. And I did not want to take the galley apart to access the icebox’s bottom.

When we sold her, I told the new owner to jam a plastic cup under the icebox to keep the foam in direct contact with the fiberglass of the box. This was not in the owner’s manual when we got Gannet.

Engine repairs

A boat owner is also an engine mechanic. The Universal Atomic 4 is common on many 1960s and ’70s boats, and it is a simple gas engine that’s easy to fix. It has been reliable for 24 years, and only let us down three times when we were under way. The first time was on an early cruise, motoring north through Somes Sound, on Mount Desert Island, toward Somesville, a secure anchorage for an impending gale. Suddenly the engine stopped.

The silence of a sailboat is a delight, except when you want to motor. Lynn, thinking quickly, raised the mainsail in light air. Nothing would restart the engine, and the batteries looked OK, so I’d exhausted my mechanical expertise. The cruising guide told us the John Williams Boat Company was just abeam. They had a mechanic available, and he immediately checked the voltage. Soon, while wiggling the ignition switch, the engine stated to turn over. The cause of this panic had been a loose connection on the back of the switch.

A few years later, as we approached Calderwood Island, just east of North Haven, the engine would not start. It was early in the day, so we sailed back to Rockport and our mooring. A mechanic at Rockport Marine checked the engine the next week. It was a simple problem, although difficult to diagnose.

When we bought Gannet, the bank that loaned us the money required insurance, and the insurance company required a marine survey. Our survey included about three pages absolving the surveyor of liability regarding some obvious things, useful advice, and recommended safety precautions. One of the latter was that all fuel fittings should have two hose clamps on each end, not just one. But the fuel nipple on the carburetor was too short for two hose clamps, so the second one just pinches the rubber fuel hose. And if the owner tightens the second clamp too much, it shuts off fuel entirely. The mechanic diagnosed this quickly, and the fix was easy.

The third engine event was due to its age, 50 years old. Motoring across Blue Hill Bay, toward Bass Head Light, steam suddenly appeared out of the engine compartment. Opening the cover, we saw a fountain of water squirting out of the engine. We shut it off, and the fountain subsided. There was a light breeze, so the sail went up quickly. Inspection showed that the block on an Atomic 4 is cast iron except for a side panel where the raw cooling water enters. With saltwater running beside this panel for 45 years, it was not surprising it would rust through. A stainless-steel screw fit loosely into the roundish hole in the panel slowed the flow of water. Some JB Weld epoxy helped us get back to Rockport with some wind and a little motoring. We were done for the season.

Fortunately, a place called Moyer Marine specializes in making parts for Atomic 4s, so rather than having a replacement panel machined at great cost, I ordered one online for less than $100, with stainless-steel studs, not bolts. It also came with an improved fitting to maximize water flow through the block. Long story short, replacement was a long and dirty job, but the engine was back in top shape.

Electrical conundrums

The mechanic at Williams Company had discovered that the alternator was barely charging, and he recommended getting it re-wound. Until that point in our cruising life, we thought that, even with two batteries, you could only use electric lights for about 30 minutes before they dimmed and went out. We went through all kinds of portable reading lights and candles before fixing the alternator. During this period, we also learned to make sure the battery switch was on the house battery at night, rather than on both, so that a light left on would not drain both batteries, leaving you unable to start the engine.

When I bought a new alternator several years later, the charging got even better. That purchase resulted in another lesson: Do not connect the house battery backwards (positive-on-negative) and then start the engine. This will fry the diodes in the alternator.

But those are all the lessons that Gannet taught us when problems arose. We also learned about hundreds of beautiful anchorages, passages, gunkholes, open water, cloud formations, night skies, sunsets, views, hikes, seabirds, marine mammals, squalls, and peaceful waters.

Occasionally, we caught the schooner Mary Day on their lobster bake, and they usually had lobsters to spare. Our setters learned to “point” at spotted sandpipers on Sheep Island. And Gannet took us east to the beautiful sand beach on Roque Island. She showed us, from Pulpit Harbor, indescribable sunsets over the Camden Hills. And she carried us to the hiking trails in Acadia National Park, accessible from Valley Cove in Somes Sound or from Northeast Harbor.

We picked mussels on the White Islands for lunch, and found limpets, crabs, sponges, barnacles feeding, and all kinds of other marine life in tide pools on every rocky island. We marveled at geology – from pink granite on the Porcupine Islands to the smooth black stones at the south point of Brimstone Island. And we learned the constellations from Gannet’s cockpit in countless anchorages.

Now Gannet has a new home, in Round Pond, Maine, and she’s teaching her new owner, a young music teacher, about cruising, navigation, tides, and sunsets. She’s also, once again, become a classroom for her owner to learn about carburetors, charging systems, thru-hulls, and the rest of the tangle of wires and pipes hidden from view in the cabin.

And we have moved on to a 33-year-old Bristol 40, with radar, an electric windlass, pressurized hot water, and other upgrades. After only two cruises, Moon Path has already taught us more about cruising and cruising boats. At 40 feet, she may teach us more about long passages and longer cruises. Who knows, she may even show us some Caribbean islands.

Ben Steele is a recently retired professor of Biology at Colby-Sawyer College, in New London, N.H., and has studied behavior of seabirds for the past 17 years. He lives in Hanover, N.H. He traded up from Gannet to Moon Path, a 1986 Bristol 40.