Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Everybody Does It . . .

One thing I like about Meridian is that there's alot of space in the engine room. Now, mind you, it's not exactly spacious down there, with headroom of about three feet or so. You have to move around by doing something of a duck walk - or, alternatively, by scooting around on your read end. And in order to reach into distant corners or around equipment you have to perform what I like to refer to as "boat yoga".

But changing the engine oil is pretty easy. Access to the filter is wide open, with no stretching or abnormal bending of body parts and limbs. And it's always gone relatively smoothly for me. After all, what's really involved? Pump out the old oil with an "Oil Boy", pull the old filter, being careful to place a ZipLoc Bag around it prior to loosening (I double up on the bag), install the new filter (after rubbing oil on the gasket) then add new oil. Finally, run the engine for a minute or two to circulate oil throughout and into the new filter, then check the oil level and fill up as necessary.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, I've always wondered how long you need to run the engine in order to circulate the oil.

This past summer, I found out.

I had changed the oil in the starboard engine, then went up to the helm and cranked it. After a minute or two, I shut down the engine and headed back down into the engine room.


I hadn't paid close enough attention and left the old gasket on the oil filter. With two gaskets, it didn't seal properly. Those two minutes of running the engine sent over half the oil (about three quarts) all over the place.

After a lot of unpleasant words, and the entire afternoon, I had the mess cleaned up. Not the way we wanted to spend the afternoon in Grand Haven. And a bit embarrassing to talk about.

But here's the thing. Everyone I eventually told this about responded "Hey, that happened to me once!" In fact, it started that same day with the boat right beside us in the slip at Grand Haven. Yes, they had done it before. Even when talking with professional mechanics - "Yea, we run into that all the time".

Guess I'm not entirely alone with my ineptness! Somehow, that feels good :-)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Never Assume . . .

We moved Meridian to a new storage yard this winter and I didn't stop by until several weeks after they shrink-wrapped her.

You'd think I'd take a look first but, no, I stopped at Home Depot to buy a ladder before going to the the yard (we left the old ladder at the old yard).

Maybe it was the excitement and anticipation of visiting Meridian after such a long absence . . . but it never crossed my mind that the entry door could be placed in a different location this year. It's always at the transom where a six foot ladder gets you to the swim platform, then the swim ladder gets you up to the entrance and into the boat.

Suddenly, though, a six foot ladder doesn't quite do the job! The nerve! They put the door on the starboard side!

That's about a five foot step from the top of the ladder to the deck. And I actually tried to stand on top of the ladder and unzip the door. As though I'd really be able to climb in there! Luckily, I was foiled by my inability to reach the top of the zipper.

So, it was back to Home Depot - this time to get real ladder.

You'd think that after almost half a century of "experience" on this planet, I'd have learned better by now!

But, hey, I have to admit it's easier to get into the boat from the side!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Maintaining Batteries in Winter

Every autumn, boaters in cold climates take part in a ritual called "Hauling Out and Winterizing". It's the time of year when boaters blink back the tears associated with knowing there's a long hard winter ahead and stumble through the routine of fortifying their beloved boat against the cold wet miserable climate in which they choose to live.

Or, maybe those tears are simply because they got the winterizing bill from the yard.

You see, I don't think I know anyone who does the winterizing themselves. I walk across the boatyard and see scores of boats. But no owners. Only yard workers.

Yet, every autumn the boating world is awash with how-to-winterize information. Articles cover the pages of boating magazines. Signs plaster the aisles and windows of local marine stores. And posts clog the internet discussion groups.

And I'm pretty sure no one in a boat larger than 30 feet does it. Sure, we read that info, and even give out advice and views of our own about it. Then we pay the yard to do it for us. Why is that? Well, it's certainly not because we're all filthy rich. Having a boat pretty much takes care of that problem. No, I'm convinced people look at those "how-to" lists, think about the complex (and expensive) systems on their boats, then come to the conclusion that "I'll let the yard handle it so if something isn't properly winterized it won't be my fault."

But batteries . . . now batteries are different. Especially the standard wet cell kind. Just unhook 'em, isolate 'em and give 'em a charge every now and then.

Yeah, they say you should take them off the boat but, really, who's gonna lug those heavy things out of the engine room, down a 10 foot ladder, into the back of a car, then into their home where they can spill battery acid on valuable belongings (and get yelled at by the admiral - again), while attempting to maintain a proper charge?

No, I just leave them on the boat and charge them every now and then. It always works just fine, and in the spring the boat fires right up as though the batteries are brand new.

If you're gonna follow this procedure, here's the general rule: NEVER MIX OLD BATTERIES WITH NEW ONES IN THE SAME BATTERY BANK.

We've all heard it, and we all understand it. A bad battery will drain the good ones and then you'll have one big dead battery bank.

This year, I got lazy and didn't disconnect the batteries from the charger - or each other. I have two banks, one for starting and one for house. I just left both banks hooked to the charger, with the battery switches set to "both". That way, I can go to the yard at my convenience, plug a power cord from the boat into one of their outlets, and give the batteries some juice every now and then. I don't even have to go into the engine room and access the batteries.

Sounds like a great deal until just one battery goes bad. I went to the boat the other day and was surprised to find everything was dead. Sure enough, the starting battery, which is the oldest of the bunch, finally died. Since all batteries were effectively connected to each other, it drained the house batteries as well. I've since disconnected it and recharged the house batteries.
But I broke the simple rule on battery maintenance. The one thing I didn't pay the yard to do. Sigh. It may not have damaged the other batteries, but it sure didn't do them any good. I'll see how well they hold a charge in the future.

So . . . don't be like me! Disconnect those batteries from each other in the winter! Or, come spring, you'll have much more "commissioning" work to do.

(Commisioning is a traditional nautical term that means "pay the yard lots of money to put your boat in the water")

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sometimes it's just Mud in the Hose

Our second head is working now.

Not that we ever admitted it wasn't, but, well, it wasn't. Back when we finally retrieved Meridian from Chicago Yacht Yard, the aft head decided it didn't want to flush. Apparently Meridian got a little upset with us for leaving her alone so long.

But we weren't about to let something like that delay us any further. After all, we have two heads. And, really now, who ever wants to deal with this kind of thing?

But finally, in Northport, Phil accepted that Bernie wasn't gonna suddenly grab a wrench and a set of nose plugs and tackle the job. He was overcome with a rare fit of motivation (hope that doesn't happen too often) and tackled it himself.

Actually, it wasn't that bad once he got started. We already knew the problem was on the intake side which, as you can imagine, would be much less unpleasant than a problem on the other side (where stuff is expelled).

And, as it turned out, it was pretty simple. There was quite a collection of black mud and gunk in the hose and check valve immediately before the impeller (which was still in good shape). It completely clogged the intake line so only a tiny trickle of water was reaching the impeller. It took less than half an hour to locate and clear the obstruction.

Ok, so far there's nothing inept here to report! And Phil was really proud of that.

But this posting isn't really about the head. It's about the generator.

You see, when we anchored off of South Manitou Island, we couldn't use the generator. It started and ran just fine for about three or four minutes, and then abruptly shut off. It then wouldn't start, after trying to crank it for several minutes.

That put a pall on the whole anchoring thing because it meant we had to be really stingy with electricity. The inverter could handle the refrigerator just fine, but we couldn't cook or heat water. The nagging worry about the generator lessened the whole experience.

The next morning, after verifying that the engines would crank (and then running them for a while just to ensure a more fully charged battery bank) Phil tried to crank the generator. It started just fine, but again shut off after a couple of minutes.

We motored on to Northport just a little less excited about things.

So yesterday at Beaver Island, Phil changed the oil in the engines. And while down in the engine room, he started thinking about the generator. When looking at the strainer, he noticed a lot of black mud. And then, he realized "Hey, wait a minute, when we were running the generator, I never checked to see if water was being expelled out the thru-hull."

Now that's one of those basic things that you're supposed to check every time you crank the generator. Apparently the excitement of doing something for the first time (anchoring overnight) caused us to deviate from those operational procedures that Bernie claims Phil is so annoyingly fastidious about.

So he did a quick check by cranking the generator again and, sure enough, no water out the side.

Once again, it was the black mud. It had completely clogged the strainer reducing the flow of water to the impeller, which then broke into a bunch of pieces. The high-temperature shutoff was kicking in.

Phil cleaned the strainer, installed a new impeller (after finding and removing all old impeller pieces), cranked the generator and - voila! - all is working now.

Had we checked for water the first time on South Manitou, we likely wouldn't have needed to change the impeller. And now we need to find another spare impeller for the ye olde generator. And, most importantly, we'd have avoided all that consternation about not having a working generator.

My, how Meridian disliked sitting on the Chicago River!!!

Looks like it's time to check the intake lines for the AC/Heater. We haven't needed to use them on the trip yet, but the nights are starting to get cool. And the water in the strainer looks kind of black!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The $50 O-Ring

If you were reading our earlier Great Lakes Cruising posts, you may remember us mentioning having to stop periodically in order to add transmission fluid.

And if you've followed the posts more recently, you may have noticed we haven't mentioned the need to add transmission fluid.

Don't think for a minute it was Phil's mechanical skills that solved the problem. Of course he attempted it . . . he couldn't help himself. But, give him credit for at least acknowledging his level of expertise, he wasn't about to take anything apart. So it was basically "look for the leak and if it's a fitting or something easily changed, attempt to correct it."

He did discover a little filter on the inside of a fitting that was full of black gunk. And there appeared to be a stream of transmission fluid coming down from the fitting.

So now we had a clean filter and a sealed fitting. And still a bad transmission leak. That stream was coming from above the fitting. But with close inspection while underway, we at last found the source. And it would require a mechanic, because there's no way Bernie would let Phil lose transmission pieces (or, put them on backwards!).

The Port o' Call says this about Snug Harbor Marina in Pentwater: ". . . a first-class stop for mechanical work and fiberglass repair . . . "

They're right, and we can't say enough good things about their mechanic. He's really good.

It was late Friday afternoon. But with Phil's explanation of the source, and a quick visual inspection, they analyzed it as most likely being an o-ring inside the top assembly. They were then on the phone with a parts distributor who faxed a parts diagram of the transmission (which I got a copy of - no more mysterious black box transmission) and from the diagram determined what parts to order. It wasn't much, only a couple of o-rings and a few other tiny pieces.

We didn't mind staying all weekend - after all, Pentwater is a great little town and it was Homecoming Weekend - but hoped to leave first thing Monday. We wanted the part there waiting for the mechanic, so we paid for overnight delivery. Bernie would hear of nothing else.

Monday morning came and the mechanic worked on it for 2 1/2 hours. Apparently the assembly was a bear to take apart and put back together. We're really glad we used them. And the old o-ring was in a million pieces, so more than likely that was the problem.

When the bill came, we ended up paying over $50 for that o-ring. Not counting labor of course.

But, hey, it solved the problem. And we got a transmission diagram out of the deal!

Red Awning Right Return

If you have read our post about Muskegon, you may have thought we had no trouble entering Hartshorn Marina. After all, we didn't write anything about it. Well, not so. Ok, maybe not "trouble", really just a little "confusion".

The cruising guide that we use the most, Lakeland Boating's Ports o' Call, usually provides an aerial photo of the marinas. One wasn't available for Hartshorn. Just a photo of the lake, with Hartshorn way off in the distance. But once you clear the breakwater, you see that Lake Muskegon is a pretty big lake. As we entered the lake we realized that, yes, we could use the charts to find the marina but we'd also like a little better feel for the landmarks around it. After all, this was only the second strange port we'd ever entered. And really it was the first, because we'd been to South Haven by car many times.

Bernie called the marina on the cell phone as we were entering Muskegon Lake in order to obtain a slip. At that time, she also asked for some landmarks. The key directions were to "go past the mooring field and look for the red and green canvas".

As we approached the general vicinity, we saw a mooring field and, maybe, a harbor entrance way back there. But we didn't see any tents or awnings or big flags or anything else that would have colored canvas. But clearly something was back there because of the buoys marking a channel through the mooring field.

So we motored around, wondering whether or not to enter the channel. Adding to our hesitation was that it looked like a pretty narrow channel. We didn't want to get back in there and have trouble turning around. Nothing else in the area looked promising, and time passed as we discussed what to do.

After a while, the light bulb went off in my head.

"Uh, Bernie, are you sure they said red and white canvas?"

"That's what it sounded like."

"Could they have said read and white cans?"

"Oh, maybe that was it."

We motored down the channel, keeping the red buoys to our right, and entered Hartshorn Marina.

In all fairness, cell phone reception wasn't the best in that area!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hello . . . is there anybody in there? Just nod (or raise the bridge) if you can hear me . . .

While confidently traveling along the Chicago River, we get to the Amtrak bridge about 4:50 pm and radio the much-used line: “South Branch Amtrak Bridge, this is Power Boat Meridian requesting a lift.” Then we patiently waited. Now, we figured it would take a while due to the time coinciding with evening rush hour on Amtrak and Metra trains. So we waited some more. Amtrak trains went by. Metra trains went by. Ducks and Geese went by. Other less-tall boats went by. A sightseeing boat came down the river on the other side of the bridge. Surely, the bridge has to open now! But the tour boat only goes up to the bridge and turns around so there is no need to raise the bridge for it. At 6:15, a Metra train with our friend Steve on it went by – we waved. During this time, Phil radio-ed periodically but we never got an answer. Bernie started to be concerned that we weren’t asking nicely enough, so Phil changed the line to “South Branch Amtrak Bridge, this is Power Boat Meridian. We would really appreciate a lift, Thanks!” We still waited. We finally got out the Coast Guard Guide and called a Chicago Harbor Locks general number listed to try to find another way to raise the bridge.

Chicago Harbor Locks Guy: Hmm. We monitor radio calls and I haven’t heard a request come over for that bridge. Are your antennas up?

Bernie (confidently): YES

Chicago Harbor Locks Guy: Are you sure your radio is working?

Bernie (less confidently): Um, yes. We can hear transmissions.

Chicago Harbor Locks Guy: Have you done a radio check? You should do one every day on our lake.

Bernie (meekly): Actually, no.

Chicago Harbor Locks Guy: Well, let’s do one now. Answer my check.

Radio Check Conducted

Bernie (excitedly): Did you hear us? We heard you!

Chicago Harbor Locks Guy (patiently): No, I didn’t hear you respond. Your radio doesn’t seem to be sending. Here’s the number for both the Monroe Coast Guard and the Wilmette Coast Guard. You should be able to reach them – either should have the numbers you need - but call back if you have any problems.

Bernie (embarrassedly): Thanks so much!

So we called the Monroe Coast Guard and got the new cell number for the Amtrak bridge. We called them. They told us we’d have to wait for the next Amtrak train in about 5 minutes.

The train went through.

The bridge went up and we sailed through.

Now a number of you are probably saying, “But you got the bridge up on the way to the Chicago Yacht Yard – wasn’t your radio working then?” Probably not. The bridge went up only after we called Chicago Yacht Yard and explained our predicament – thinking they may have a new phone number for the bridge tender – and they put in a request for us. We thought this was actually a repeated request when, in reality, it was the first request to raise the bridge that had been heard by anyone.

Lesson learned: Do a radio check every day!

We now have two brand new VHF radios. A hand held and a fixed-mount.