Forever boat: bigger upkeep on an older sailboat

Two girls petting a dog in front of a marine travellift with a sailboat in the slings.

  

Jamie and Salvador talking about work to be done on Totem

  

Totem turned 36 this year. We treat her like our forever boat, and prioritize maintenance to ensure our sailboat / home remains a sound vessel with a long future ahead. Lately that means turning attention to a projects that accumulated into something more than “routine maintenance.” While organizing plans for the new bottom (we’ve made a decision on bottom paint, by the way, details coming soon – I am VERY excited about our plans, details coming!), a number of these kicked off.

Step one is simply getting supplies. Some things are easy to get in Mexico; others aren’t. Because Cabrales Boatyard is only an hour and a half south of Arizona, it’s not hard to source from north of the border. There’s even a West Marine in Phoenix! Several other cruisers in the yard are making trips back and forth; we’ve been able to tag along with road trips to get our supplies down, and our friend Michael (my co-author for Voyaging with Kids and Good Old Boat editor) has provided invaluable mailstop support from his home in Arizona, and Pam Wall helped secure good prices all the way from Fort Lauderdale. (Rhetorical question: is it still cruising when you can get an Amazon Prime order?)

While waiting on materials to get the bottom done, Jamie’s tackled power train work. The engine mounts are probably original to the engine; Totem was repowered in 2002.

Old and new, side by side: I think it’s time, what do you think?

Shiny new engine mount in front of a well worn older one

Propeller shaft woes: it’s original, but that’s not the problem. Unfortunately, it seems that it wasn’t sufficiently protected during blasting to remove all paint from the bottom in Grenada last year. The little bit of grit that got inside was enough to cause wear in the shaft in the subsequent miles: that’s gotta go! Jamie’s ordered a new shaft made from Aqualoy 22. I’d never heard of Aqualoy, but it’s an alloy specifically designed for marine environment applications: corrosion resistant and stronger than the comparable grade of steel that would be used for the shaft. That sounds like an excellent “forever boat” choice.

man holding cut-off propeller shaft
cut-off prop showing damage from the area inside the two bearings

 

cutting off the prop shaft
Honestly I’m happy I didn’t witness this (Siobhan’s photo)! Jamie: “The angle grinder paid for itself today.”

Remember that steerage failure off Colombia? We’re replacing the failed chain, but instead of a stainless cable we’ll use Dyneema. The fix Jamie put into place 4,000 miles ago has proven itself. Additional work on the steering system includes replacing sheave pins and bearings: bushing from Oilite (a bronze alloy) will replace the old bearings, providing lower friction. After 36 years, the stainless pins showed wear, so those will be replaced as well.

Jamie holding two steering cable sheaves in dirty, work-hardened hands
Some see the sheaves. I see hands of a very hard working boat dad.

 

Up at the bow, we’ve long wanted to repair the anchor rollers. They are TOASTED and have been for some time, but the right size rollers never seemed to be on the shelf when we passed through better-supplied chandleries. When Jamie saw the machine shop at the yard, he had an idea; improve on off-the-shelf rollers with a slight change in profile that makes it harder for anchor chain to skip over the top. He purchased cylinders of durable plastic stock ordered from McMaster-Carr (love this resource for boat bits at non-marine-markup prices) and is having the profile machined to order.

Salvador and Jamie squatting on the ground with materials and plans for anchor rollers
Jamie and Salvador making a plan for the anchor roller

 

Plastic stock for future anchor roller, plans sketched on paper, and beat up old roller.

 

Three men confer inside a well used machine shop
Salvador communicating direction for the machine shop crew

The bow pulpit needs attention too. Like many boats built in the 1980s in Taiwan, mixed quality stainless steel was used for everything from tankage to stanchions. Bit by bit we’ve addressed original stainless components; it’s the bow pulpit’s turn. The feet are cracked. It’s not imminently dangerous, but time to replace, and the skillset and resources are here to do the job at a reasonable rate.

Totem’s swim ladder is another piece of original stainless being improved by the welders at Cabrales Boatyard. The support legs which help our swim ladder stand off Totem’s transom when deployed make for pesky obstacles and chafe risk when raising our dinghy on the davits. It would be nice not to have to finesse that process every time we haul the dinghy and eliminate the risk so those blunt legs have been replaced with a gentle curve that will function much better, and be kinder to the dinghy.

The bare fiberglass bottom is also a great opportunity to clean up Totem’s through hull scene. We replaced most of the  36-year-old seacocks in Thailand five years ago, but a few of the originals  remained. Instead of replacing them, Jamie’s removed them. Each divot left by a former through hull is now filled with a large sandwich made up of layers fiberglass and epoxy.

How did we manage to eliminate so many through hulls? Well, one was unused. Two were sink drains which will now drain to a greywater system in the bilge. The fourth is a raw water intake for a toilet, which will use water from a greywater system instead of seawater.  We’re happy to minimize holes in the boat, and pleased to have just five for a boat of Totem’s size and layout.

One project that’s more of a luxury item than upkeep of a good old boat is our plan to expand solar charging capacity. Solar power keeps getting more affordable: quality panels are about $1/watt, and we had an opportunity to buy gently used solar panels at an irresistible bargain. A pair will soon come down from Arizona and we’ll increase our capacity from the current 270 to about 650… cost to us about $0.37/watt. SWEET! OK, so it will cost a little more because we’ll need another charge controller: still feeling very good about improving our green power generation.

Meanwhile, Totem looks like there was a small Stuff explosion inside. We had a lot of fine dust to clean out after the summer on the hard: bits that filtered in through solar vents and other crannies. 

Looking down into the main cabin where tools and gear spread on table, bench, settees, and cabin sole

The state of chaos is a sinusoidal wave between “messy” and “chaos” that won’t improve dramatically util projects are done and we’re on our way. That’s OK. The work getting done right now feels really, really good: important steps to ensure the long future life of our floating home.

Masts and rigging from boats in the shipyard are silhouetted by a vibrant sunset in Puerto Penasco

Suddenly without steering in the Caribbean Sea

Jamie at the helm sailing by yacht M5

Losing steerage is stressful at the best of times. Losing it when hand-steering gnarly seas that threaten to broach the inattentive sailor, on day one of a four-day sail between countries where the sea state is likely to be worse before it’s better? Hectic! Here’s what happened when steering failed on our recent passage from Colombia to Panama.

The event

Motoring out of the protection in Santa Marta bay (with a small deviation from course to rubberneck the 185’ yacht, M5, pictured above), we quickly entered more boisterous conditions outside the protection of the bay. Steep waves were better managed with hand steering; Jamie worked the helm.  Just a few hours out of Santa Marta, Colombia, Totem lurched after a loud bang from the guts of the boat. “We have no steerage!” Jamie called out from the cockpit, instantly in motion.

He dove for the autopilot controls at the companionway: guessing, correctly, that the autopilot would still drive the rudder. Sure enough, it worked and Totem was under control again.

Braced in the nav station, I called to Utopia II over the VHF to let them know our situation. They were just a few miles away—we expected to remain in proximity to them for the duration, and knowing they would be nearby to render aid if necessary was comforting.

Niall worked the autopilot while Jamie set up our emergency tiller. Being ready for the next level of events can mean the difference between difficulty and crisis. Our concern was that heavy seas would overwork our old Raymarine and cause the autopilot to fail. It happened before: four years ago this month, we lost the autopilot, then the eye-bolt that secures steering cable to quadrant broke, THEN the engine overheated- trifecta!

The focus: limiting this event to a single problem. Driving Totem with the emergency tiller is hard work in calm conditions. With our bigger rudder, as Jamie says—using the tiller is like steering a loaded dump-truck without a wheel!

February 2014: steering with the emergency tiller in Thailand

The cause

With Totem under autopilot control, Jamie started troubleshooting. He began at the quadrant. Eye bolts and cable looked fine. Then followed the steering cable forward until it turns on a sheave upward to the binnacle. Bingo! One cable did not look like the other.

The cause was the weakest link, literally. The steering system is comprised of a length of chain that meshes with the sprocket fixed to the steering wheel. Each chain end has a link that secures to the swaged eye at the end of the steering cable. This last link is different than the others. It has a circlip that allows the link to open to lock the swage eye in place. The link broke under that circlip, due to stainless steel crevice corrosion. Jamie inspected the system just a year ago (with 7x magnifying glass), but as is often the case with stainless steel, you cannot see all of the surfaces where a sign of pending doom may lurk.

broken chain link

The weakest link

The fix

Conditions were tough: square-faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters. These were the steepest wave we’ve experienced. Using the autopilot with constant adjustments kept us well in control. We touched 13.2 knots a couple times without any dramas, but always ready to jump to the emergency tiller.

After 60 miles in those waves and wind from 25 to 40 knots, we anchored that evening at Puerto Velero, just west of Barranquilla. Nice relief to be in safe harbor, but the day was not over. With the miles and conditions ahead of us, we wanted steering back on line. Earlier in the day, while calling out “plus ten, now go minus ten” to help Niall work the autopilot for steering the waves, Jamie thought through possible solutions. We have spare steering cables, but no spare chain. The solution was one of his favorite materials – DYNEEMA!

Working on repairs by headlamp-light, he removed chain and cables. Then spliced 6mm single-braid Dyneema to the last chain pin to run in place of the wire cable. By 10 that night, the linkage was reinstalled and adjusted. There is chance the quadrant or sheaves may chafe the Dyneema; or the chain pin with Dyneema around it may distort or break. We’re monitoring it and is all good, three weeks and 326 nautical miles so far.

Splicing by headlamp-light

The evening was interrupted by a visit from Maritime Police, an event I’d sooner put in hindsight (details, this post). Happy to leave the harbor the next morning, we motored out behind the Aussie cat, Aseka, in the mellow light of dawn and continued to Panama.