Category Archives: problems

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Pry Bar

The hardest kind of boat project, in my opinion, is any involving getting stuck things out of the thing they’re stuck in. Seized bolts, corroded screws, prop shaft couplers, etc. You may recall 3 months ago I started the project of rebedding our Navtec U-Bolts that connect the rig to the tie rods and chainplates.

Three months later I had completed 5 out of 6 but still had one stubborn one remaining – the first one I had started on, the last one to finish, and by far the hardest. For whatever reason, the starboard aft U-Bolt was more stuck than all the others. It wouldn’t pull free despite trying all the methods I had used on the others – a 2’ long pry bar, heat, PB Blaster, mineral spirits, BoatLife Release, hammering. I even sailed on it with the nuts slightly loose, and tensioned the shroud to 1500-2000 pounds (this didn’t do anything at all).

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Tensioning the U-Bolt with the main halyard while simultaneously prying with the pry bar

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Summarizing 3 Months of Cruising – Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this post, we summarized our route, trip stats, and the wind and weather conditions we experienced. In this part we’ll describe the sailing a bit more, wildlife, and what went wrong (or didn’t) with our boat.

As inevitably happens on a 3 month trip, some equipment breaks or starts acting up – it’s Murphy’s Law of the sea. But while cruising we quickly learned to focus on only the things that actually matter. You get good at prioritizing really quickly. We had to conserve our energy because most of it went towards sailing the boat during the day.

Now back on shore, some of the problems we worry about in day-to-day life seem trivial in comparison. I heard a Clipper racer recently said:

I think I’m doing this because life has become too easy.”

That’s a good way of explaining the difference between shore life and life at sea. While cruising, the challenges are real, and have a direct connection with your safety, health, or comfort. Long-term sailing makes you realize how easy, cushy and soft our lives have become in modern times.

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Sailing Tactics

As the wind levels mentioned previously show, if we didn’t sail in 4-10 knot winds, we would’ve done very little sailing. We found our sailing became very tactical this year. It was like a constant chess match with the wind – trying to make sure we left anchor at the right time, were sailing with the wind if possible, didn’t sail ourselves into wind holes, and watched for puffs of better air on the water.

We used the spinnaker, our storm staysail, and nearly every reefing configuration we have for the main and genoa.

But what was more important than which sails we had was having patience and flexibility. The patience to wait for wind, and the flexibility to not sail to a schedule were the two key factors that enabled us to sail more.

We averaged 5 gallons of diesel per week. We have a 16 gallon diesel tank plus up to 10 gallons in jerry cans, so we had enough we could’ve gone a month without filling up in theory – but never risked going below 50%. About 2-3 times per week we sailed onto or off of anchor. It’s not often possible to do that, but when it was we liked to just for fun – it was good practice of a new sailing skill, and gave us confidence we’d still be okay if our engine failed going into an anchorage.

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Engine Problems in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

This might have been the first time I knew real fear. We were having engine problems in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 4 foot ocean rollers and no wind. Our engine power was dropping randomly, and at this point I had no clue why.

I’m not a person who frightens easily. Rock climbing, mountaineering, auto racing on a track, roller coasters – those things I would hardly even call scary. The only two things I’ve ever really found scary were skydiving and spelunking (caving, but in a random cave in PA where we crawled through tiny shoulder-width passages and the fear of getting trapped was very real).

But with our engine acting up in the Strait and no wind to sail, I began to realize how truly on our own we were. There was no easy rescue. If our engine completely failed we’d be stuck doing 360’s in ocean waves getting seasick for maybe hours before we could get Vessel Assist or a Coast Guard tow.

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If you’ve never been out the Strait of Juan de Fuca before, the first thing you need to know about it is that it’s much bigger and more remote than you probably realize. In the whole day we hadn’t seen any other sailboats until the last hour, and there aren’t many safe anchorages you can pull into if something goes wrong.

Our lives weren’t in any danger. This wasn’t a real crisis compared to the life or death situations some sailors have been through. Yet it was still scary.

With time to think, and a quick check of the engine troubleshooting table in the Don Casey book, it was pretty clear it was probably a clogged fuel filter. But, I couldn’t help worry about all the other things it could maybe be – what if this was some weird, hard to fix issue rather than the fuel filter? What if the engine was actually overheating and our temperature alarm was broken? What if the fuel lift pump was broken? An air leak in the fuel lines? Would we continue on to the outside of Vancouver Island only to find the engine failing again in an even more remote location?

Limping into Neah Bay

We shut down the engine and I did an inspection. With the lack of wind and the 4’ rollers, the boat quickly turned beam to the waves, which made below decks work fairly seasickness inducing.

I really didn’t want to try changing the fuel filter at sea. We restarted the engine, and were able to get it to run fine at a low cruising rpm (1800-1900). We slowly motored the last hour into Neah Bay.

Maybe it was our engine problems, or the gray chilly weather, but we found Neah Bay very glum and depressing

Maybe it was our engine problems, or the gray chilly weather, but we found Neah Bay very glum and depressing

As I motored towards a dilapidated-looking unattended fuel dock, the engine died. Bad timing. Restart engine, died again. Ugh! Okay, what now? We’re 100 feet from the fuel dock, in 15 knots of wind (blowing off dock/land fortunately), gray overcast skies with a gloomy early darkness approaching.

We quickly raise the main halfway, and decide to sail onto anchor. That works surprisingly well. The most stressful part was making sure we got the anchor well set on the first try, since I didn’t want to have to do it all over again. Plus we only had the wind to set / test the anchor, and I didn’t want us blowing onto the rock jetty across the harbor in the middle of the night.

Fixing The Problem

We had 15-20 knot winds in the anchorage all night, which coupled with worrying about the engine and the anchor holding, made for a restless night.

Fortunately the primary fuel filter (a Racor) was the problem, and replacing it with one of the two spares I had fixed the issue. But I was still paranoid maybe that wasn’t truly the cause, or maybe there was another secondary problem. I replaced the Yanmar fuel filter (on engine) too just in case.

In a way I felt stupid worrying so much about a fuel filter clog. Fuel filter clogs are mundane, routine stuff for people who cruise in Mexico and other areas with dirty fuel. But this was the first time Violet Hour had really let us down (in reality it was Yamagachi, the name we gave our engine, who let us down). And I had realized how truly dependent we were on engine power when in a strait with no wind.

The Lovely Smell of Diesel in the Morning

The fun wasn’t over yet though – the secondary filter (on the Yanmar) leaked fuel for the next four days. So I was mopping up diesel from the bilge and under floor panels every evening.

Yeah, this first week was pretty tough.

The Yanmar fuel filter has a metal collar with slightly raised nubs and screws on to attach the filter housing. Fuel was slowly leaking from here whenever the engine was on. I tried tightening it as much as possible by hand, and eventually with a ViseGrip wrench (that was the only thing I could get a decent grip on it with). That still didn’t fix it. Eventually I tried replacing the rubber gasket inside the housing, even though it looked fine, with a spare I had onboard (fortunately). That worked!

Marinating chicken in the cockpit since the swell in the Strait was too rolly to work below.

Marinating chicken in the cockpit since the swell in the Strait was too rolly to work below.

When Your Motor Can’t Go Forward, Drive in Reverse

There we were in the Gulf Islands, drifting between Sidney Spit and several threatening rocks on flat, windless water. We were motoring backwards with our mainsail up. Other boats must have thought we were completely crazy. While sailboats around us were motoring like normal, we were traveling in reverse.

Our transmission was failing – the forward gear would no longer engage. But reverse worked just fine – meaning we could motor in reverse, but in forward could only go about ½ a knot – the speed gained from the prop spinning at about 500 rpm with the clutch slipping; and that would only work in windless, waveless conditions.

A failing transmission was a giant kink in our plans – everything became more difficult. Getting into marinas without forward power was scary, so we avoided marinas except for one stop in Ganges to get a mechanic to check out the transmission. Sailboats don’t drive well in reverse (the rudder isn’t designed to work that way), but we could motor that way at 2-3 knots a short while if we needed to get out of trouble or to some wind.

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Luckily sailboats have two means of propulsion – the engine, and the sails. So we took light air sailing to new levels – sailing in 2 knot winds where every other sailboat was motoring. There are a few sailboats that sail across oceans with no engine, but those sailors are by far a tiny, minuscule minority. I don’t know how they do it, and have tremendous respect for someone who could. Sailing without a motor is an exercise in frustration when wind can be absent for hours, or days, at a time.

Fortunately the transmission magically popped into forward after 2 ½ hours waiting, and we slammed it into full power for 10 hours from the Gulf Islands to Port Townsend, crossing a glassy, windless Haro Strait and a windless eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. We had to exit Cattle Pass against current, but with the motor finally in gear there was no way we were turning it off – if we throttled down too much the clutch could slip and we’d lose forward gear again.

This was like our own version of the 90’s movie ‘Speed’ where they’re on a speeding bus that they can’t slow down.

A dead transmission is not a problem we could fix underway. No one I’ve heard of carries spare transmission parts with them, and repairing it requires removing the transmission from the prop shaft – this model, a Hurth v-drive, is not easily opened up.

And we don’t know what caused it – as far as I know, we didn’t do anything wrong that would contribute to the transmission issue. The mechanics we’ve talked to so far thought most likely it was just old and gradually wearing out.

A makeshift oil funnel I made out of a beer box because the engine oil funnels I had were too big to fit the transmission. The oil looked okay, but I topped it up just in case.

A makeshift oil funnel I made out of a beer box because the engine oil funnels I had were too big to fit the transmission. The oil looked okay, but I topped it up since we didn’t have any other ideas.

Perhaps what scared me even more than whether or not we’d be able to get home was that this could have happened anywhere. If we decided to sail to Mexico someday, this could’ve happened 50 miles offshore of the Oregon coast. Then we’d be in ocean waves (possibly with no wind) and no power. We’d be far from rescue, and far from any ports that could repair the issue. And there’d be nothing we could do to fix the problem ourselves – unlike most other boats problems where we could have jury rigged a solution.

Even if the transmission had kicked the bucket when we were on the west coast of Vancouver Island we would’ve been pretty screwed. There are no major marine ports like Port Townsend there, probably few if any mechanics experienced in marine transmissions, and the boat would’ve been stuck there for months while we tried to fly parts in.

After anchoring overnight at Port Townsend, we sailed all the way back to Seattle the next day, having a wonderful downwind sail with blessedly consistent 10-12 knot winds. Then came our last challenge – getting into Elliott Bay Marina without forward gear and a 12 knot wind blowing through the entrances! We could sail in, but sailing a 38 foot, 18,000 pound displacement boat into a marina you’ve never entered before is not so easy, nor necessarily a good idea when there are breakwater rocks and million dollar powerboats. After an hour of getting pushed by wind and current, when we were just about to try reversing in, the clutch miraculously engaged in forward and we made it in!

Violet Hour is out of commission now for at least a month, all of August which is prime sailing season in Seattle. And will cost many boat bucks to repair. So this is a disappointing end to our trip, but there were many great moments before this – more to come soon!