The refit imperative

Exploded views (top and bottom) of last year’s most difficult conquest, the sea chest. Sometimes looks are deceiving. Photo by Ron Weiss

May 2021

By Ron Weiss
For Points East

Many boat owners send their boats to the yard in the fall, tell the yard manager to do whatever needs to be done, and “send me the bill.” That’s fine, but that’s not for me for several reasons:

1. I can’t afford to have the yard do everything.

2. A lot of simple things I can do on my own.

3. Since I live in New England, 10 minutes from our boat, and I have six months of non-sailing weather, I have much free time for boat projects.

4. I enjoy working on our boat most of the time (the exceptions will be enumerated shortly).

5. Self-reliance is a valuable skill for a cruiser, particularly one who occasionally (and not as frequently as he’d like) goes on blue-water passages to environs where skilled mechanics and marine tradesmen are either nonexistent or too busy to work on your boat. You are, after all, a transient, so the latter would rather focus on their home market of repeat customers.

While there are times when I call in the professionals, I do try to do as much as I can by myself. This helps me learn more about the boat, and gives me more confidence in both the vessel itself and my ability to deal with exigencies. Also, I find that I can often reduce the amounts paid to the pros by doing some of the basic diagnosis and troubleshooting, and some prep-work/unskilled-labor that is within my range of capabilities.

However, every once in a while, I get halfway into a job and realize I’m fully out of my depth. Usually (but not always) I figure that out early enough to avoid causing additional damage. Rarely do I screw things up enough to increase a repair cost by a significant amount. But in every case, with either a good outcome or a bad one, I learn something, either about the boat, a tool, or my own abilities (or lack thereof).

Over the years of making various boat repairs – some planned, some unexpected – I have had a few during which the phrase “Murphy was an optimist” comes to mind. Each time, the process of being suckered in plays out as follows: “Oh, OK. All I need to do is take this out and put this in.” Sounds simple; but then, a few days in, I’d realize the full horror of what I’d gotten myself into. “OK, so this wire is hooked up through that junction, but that junction is behind this panel, and to remove that panel I have to remove the keel and the mast . . . .” Well, you get the idea.

The most frustrating situations are when something really should be simple, but there is just one thing – like a single, inaccessible screw – that makes a 10-minute job a 10-hour job.

I clearly remember one such challenge, when my wife and I owned an antique wooden runabout. I needed to rebuild the carburetor. No problem. Three of the four screws that hold the carburetor to the block came out easily, but the fourth screw had a small lip from the engine block over it and there was no way to get a screwdriver onto the head.

After messing around for a while, I went to the hardware store and got a right-angle screwdriver. But there still just wasn’t quite enough room to get the blade onto the screw head. I ended up having to file down the end of the right-angle blade to make it an eighth-of-an-inch shorter to get it started. And then I had to continue to file it shorter and shorter until the screw came out. Screw 1, Ron Zero. I dubbed that “The Battle of the Carburetor.”

Another example is replacing our raw-water impeller. This should be a simple job. On our previous boat, the engine was in the middle of the cabin, and installing a new impeller was a 15-minute job. On our Little Harbor 46 Rocinante, the impeller is in a small engine room, between the alternator belts and compressor for the refrigerator, and it is inaccessible due to a host of galley cabinetry. I strongly believe that the builders installed the impeller first, and then built the rest of the boat around it.

Recently, I calculated that changing the impeller easily would require that your arm be five feet long, have three elbows, two wrists, and an eye in the middle of your palm. Every time I have to change the impeller, it is a major undertaking. Over the years, I have found it quite useful to frame certain projects in my mind as “battles,” which increases my determination and perseverance in the face of challenge. The Battle of the Holding Tank Manifold was a particularly foul task: It was stench warfare!

This past year saw the Battle of the Sea Chest. A sea chest is a tank full of seawater that is fed by one seacock, but which distributes seawater to several other systems. Its advantages are that you only have one hole in the hull, instead of many more. And, if there is a seawater leak, only the master seacock has to be shut down until you can identify the source.

In our case, the sea chest feeds seven other systems: the forward air-conditioning, the forward head, the refrigerator/freezer, the anchor washdown, the seawater galley foot-pump, and something else that I’ve never identified but must be important. It’s a great system, but after 30 years, the seacocks in the sea chest were failing and it needed a complete rebuild. “Oh, it’s simple,” I said. “I take the old one out, rebuild it, and then put it back in. Easy peasey.”

Suckered once again.

Someone once said, “In theory, everything works in theory. In practice, not so much.” (Weirdly, some internet sources purport that the phrase was coined by Albert Einstein; others say Yogi Berra.) In practice, the Battle of the Sea Chest was epic. There were 36 fasteners visible from the top of the sea chest, which was nestled in the lowest part of the bilge. I couldn’t tell which fasteners held the sea chest to the boat, and which actually held together the top and bottom halves of the device. Either way, they’d all have to be removed.

Six bi-metal Sawzall blades, 10 skinned knuckles, two wrenches lost to the depths of the bilge, innumerable curse words in two languages, and a spate of speaking-in-tongues later, the now-hated sea chest was exorcised from the boat. (You might be interested to know that a recent scientific study published in “The Journal of Psychology of Sports and Exercise” has found that swearing aloud can increase physical performance, strength and power, a fact all sailors already knew intuitively.)

The next step was prying the two halves of the sea chest apart. They had been glued together with some form of adhesive. It might have been 3M 5200, but since it had been in 30 years, adjusted for inflation, the 5200 was more like 60,000. With an injudicious amount of heat and excessive leverage, we were able to break the great seal. Our reward? Some of the foulest fluids I have ever encountered. Primordial ooze made of sea creatures that had died when I was in college had been entombed for almost as long as King Tut.

The next step was removing the old bronze seacocks. At one time in history, there was a tool you could insert into the mouth of the seacock to hold it while you spun off the other half of it, but I could not find it. I called the manufacturer. They hadn’t made that tool in 20 years. Even eBay came up empty. I have found all sorts of odd parts on eBay, but had no luck this time.

I went to an auto parts store and got a couple of things I thought might work (a plumber’s wrench, for instance). But, like an unlucky Goldilocks, I could not find one that was just right. Finally, in desperation and inspiration (it’s amazing how often those are closely interlinked), I found a piece of scrap aluminum, and, with a little filing, I could make it work. Again, with a heat gun, a really long piece of pipe attached to a wrench handle, and a friend who foolishly agreed to help me, we were able to get the old seacocks out. By my count, I was now 40 hours into the battle, but the war was still raging.

The chest was pressure-washed and dried, and I wiped the two surfaces with solvent and sanded them down to bare fiberglass. From Grainger Industrial Supply, I got a piece of rubber from which to create a new gasket. I cut it to fit, added adhesive sealant to both sides, inserted 36 fasteners (each coated in sealant), washers top and bottom, locking washers, and two nuts. And I started to tighten things up.

That’s when I discovered that the fasteners I had bought – sized exactly like the originals – were all just a fraction of an inch too short. The gasket I had made was just a tad thicker than the original, and there wasn’t enough thread on the bolts to be confident that the sea chest would be watertight.

Now I had over 200 little pieces of hardware all covered in sticky and expensive goop. None of these could be reused, and I now had to manually remove all of the cured sealant from the entire gasket and edges and holes in the sea chest. More solvent, more sanding, etc. Now I was at 50 hours, and I should note that every good home workshop should be thoroughly clad with curse-absorbing material.

Another trip to Fastenal, the one-stop fastening store, and it was, to quote Yogi (or was it Einstein?) again: “It was déjà vu all over again.” This time, everything went together as planned. It seemed OK, but the true test was whether it would remain watertight. Now, there isn’t any real pressure in the sea chest. It’s basically at a pressure equal to about two feet of depth. But even a small leak, over a long time, would be a big problem. Thankfully, once it was installed, the exterior remained dry.

With a Sharpie, I marked on the top of the sea chest which bolts held it in place, and which bolts held it together. I marked all of the seacocks, as well. Hopefully, I’ll never have to deal with it again. But you never know. I have owned boats long enough to know that you do some tasks often enough to remember how to do them. Some jobs, however, might not have to be done again for so long that you’ll forget how to do them. For this reason, I always try to make notes – either on the system or in the ship’s maintenance log and files – to remind me that, if I ever have to do this particular repair again, “I’ll need these tools, and I’ll need to do it in this order.” Once in a while I mark down: “Don’t attempt to do this again. Just call Bob.”

By the time The Battle of the Sea Chest was over, I figure the job took me 70 hours. At average boatyard prices, it would have cost me at least $7,000, maybe more. Was it enjoyable? Certainly not. Was it rewarding? I can’t honestly say that it was. I had to do a lot of “yacht yoga” to get the sea chest out and in, and I found out that chiropractors charge even more than yacht yards.

But, I’m still glad I did it. After all, I got to see a lot of new places in the boat. By “new places in the boat” I don’t mean the Bahamas. I mean the two forward keel bolts, the forward bilge float-switch, the forward holding tank macerator pump, and other exotic locales.

But I do believe – just like the journey is the destination – preparation is part of the journey. All of the off-season or pre-season work you have to do (or have someone else do) is critical to your enjoyment during the sailing season. One system failure can ruin a cruise, just like it can ruin a race. As a racer, I learned that races are won through preparation, and I’ve carried that lesson into my cruising life.

Sometimes that preparation can be fun. Other times, it can be frustrating. But in either case, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s the preparation that lets you make the journey to wherever your destination may lie.

Ron Weiss is a marketing consultant, author, copywriter and avid ocean racer and coastal cruiser. He and his wife Marty live in Stamford, Conn. He is also the sponsorship and communications committee chair of the Storm Trysail Club.