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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Inflating a Dinghy for the First Time

This past spring, we bought a used 12 foot inflatable Sea Eagle
sport boat. We keep it on Weaver Snap-Davits on the swim platform, tilting it up when not in use. The electric trolling motor that came with it won't break any speed records, but it gets the job done.

After using it around the harbor for several months, we've become pretty proficient with operating it. So much so, in fact, that our initial experience with it is now just a distant memory.

And that's probably best for everyone involved.

But, for anyone contemplating buying an inflatable for the first time, here are some of the things we experienced. Not that anyone else would actually be this klutzy.

Initial Preparations

After purchasing the dinghy, we thoroughly read the owners manual. It also came with a rechargeable battery operated pump, with a separate manual. We read that as well. We skipped the DVD. After all, what could be on the DVD that isn't clearly spelled out in the manual? This was all over a month prior to spring launch, so the dinghy itself was still in the bag. We impatiently waited for that month to pass.

Inflation Preparations

This was an exciting time. So exciting, in fact, that we neglected to review the manuals which we had read over a month before. Ok, we did take out the owners manual and we referred to it while inflating the dinghy. But that wasn't until we ran into problems.

And what was the point to rereading the air pump manual? After all, how hard can that be? And we were way too busy putting it together to take time to watch the DVD.

Initial Inflation

The dinghy has a polyethylene floorboard assembly that snaps in place after the side air chambers have been inflated to "about 20%". Ok, here was our first challenge. What's 20%?

Under our standard "we're doing things for the first time" practice, we spent the next fifteen minutes in heated debate about the meaning of 20%. We finally decided that whoever was operating the pump got to decide what 20% was. That accomplished two things. It put an end to the argument (for a little while at least), thus letting us proceed. It also gave the other person someone to blame in case things didn't go quite right.

And, of course, they didn't. Despite what was obviously (to one person at least) a 20% inflation, the stringers (side reinforcement bars that fit between the floorboard and the inflation tubes) simply would not go into place. We pushed, pulled, pried, etc., all to no avail. Finally, we used the brute force approach, ignoring the skinned knuckles that resulted. We got the stringers in place and took a break to find some bandages.

Looking back on it, our lesson learned here was "Watch the DVD, genius!!!". Had we done that, we'd have actually seen what 20% looked like. And it looked one heck of a lot like, oh, maybe 1/3 of the pressure that we used.

Since this is my blog, I don't have to discuss the "I told you sos" that floated around for the next day or so.

But, hey, at least we had it all put together. Now it was time to finish inflating to 100%.

Now, this was supposed to be the easy part. The air pump has a dial that you set to the correct pressure. When that pressure is reached, the pump stops putting air into the chamber. How hard is that??? Um, at least, that's how we remembered it from having read the instructions a month before.

So we hooked up the pump, set the dial, turned it on, and waited for it to stop pumping. After a certain point, the pump stopped going "Vrrrrrrrrr" and started going "Whoppa Whoppa Whoppa". Clearly, it had stopped pumping air. So we turned it off and untwisted the tube from the dinghy's air valve.

And about half the air leaked out.

So we spent the next fifteen minutes learning how to quickly close the valve after pulling the air pump's tube off of it. No matter how we tried, we couldn't get it closed before substantial air leaked out. Yet, we knew there must be some secret to it, because all the other dinghies in the harbor are inflated pretty darn full.

And, as usual, that secret is "read the manual, you dummy". Had we done that, we'd have learned how to operate the Halkey-Roberts valves. It's pretty simple, really. Pull the stem out, and it retains air, both during and after inflating. Push it in, and it won't retain air. Guess where we had it positioned . . .

But that's not the end. Because, even after we learned the inflation secret, it still didn't seem to inflate as fully as it should. The sides of the dinghy were still a bit soft the first few times we used it.

It wasn't until later, when I finally gave in and read the air-pump manual, did I learn that the "Whoppa Whoppa Whoppa" sound from the air pump was really just Phase II of the inflation process, where it performs the high-pressure "top off". When reaching the desired pressure level, the air pump literally cuts off. Just like it says in the manual!

Initial Operation

After finally getting the dinghy fully inflated, we said "Hey, let's take this thing for a ride!!!"

All I can say about this portion of our experience is that it's a good thing the dinghy is an inflatable. It's also good that the electric motor only pushes it along at about 3 mph. Otherwise, we'd have damaged those other boats when we hit 'em.

Yes, we hit other boats in the marina. Well, technically, we just gave them a little nudge here and there. On that first ride, we kept wandering to the side of the channel (which is only sixty feet wide) and, every now and then, bumping into some of the boats that stuck out of their slips a little. Think of us as the "slip size enforcers".

There may have also been a few adult words exchanged between the two of us, and something about "quit telling me how to . . . " But I could be wrong. Lately, my memory of this has been fading. In my mind, I only see the seaman-like manner in which we presently operate it.

I just hope no pictures exist.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Learning about engine cooling

About a month ago, I finally learned a lot about how Meridian's engines are cooled. The way I learned is pretty typical of how I learn anything new about that boat.

You see, I didn't start out trying to learn about the cooling system. My plan was to clean up the port engine a bit in order to locate an oil leak.

But once I thought about it, I decided I should also paint the entire engine and exhaust manifolds. After all, they were beginning to rust, and that rust was starting to accelerate.

Here's a photo of the port engine, prior to cleaning. As you can see, there's nice easy access all around it.

So I started out by cleaning up and painting the front of the engine. I removed all the hoses and belts, as well as the sea water pump, circulating water pump pulley cover, and alternator. I cleaned those up as well as the surrounding engine block, then taped (and newspapered) over the stuff that shouldn't be painted, and finally painted the front section of the engine. I then put everything back together. It looked great.

Now, in the middle of all this, while parts were strewn all over the engine room, Bernie popped her head through the hatch, took one look at the scene, and gave me one of those "Oh boy, here he goes again" looks. Attempting to head off the certain "are you sure you know what you're doing" comment that I knew was on its way, I said in my most confident sounding voice "Hey, you know the great thing about having two engines? If you aren't sure about how to put something back together, you can just take a look at the other engine."

It seemed to work, because she nodded "uh huh" and left.

Armed with my engine manual that shows exploding parts diagrams, and confident that I also had access, if necessary, to an internet full of information about these engines, I forged onward.

Then, after completing the job, I took a minute to bask in the pride of accomplishment.

I eventually started the engine just to ensure everything was well. I was primarily checking for water leaks after having removed and reinstalled all the hoses. What I found was, well, pretty much the opposite of a leak. No water was coming out of the boat's exhaust pipe.

Now, water from the exhaust is one of those "must have" items. If no water is coming out, that means water isn't flowing through and cooling the engine, and that means it will overheat. Fast.

So I shut off the engine and started looking for the problem.

Over the course of the next two days, I used all those exploding parts diagrams in the manual, as well as a good chunk of that internet information, while trying to diagnose the problem. I learned how and where water flows through the system, where the pressure valves and thermostats are, how to check a thermostat, where blockages can occur, and, basically, how it all fits together and works.

It was a frustrating two days though, because I still wasn't getting water to flow through. I had convinced myself that there was a blockage or air pocket I had created when removing the hoses and watching the water drain out.

About the middle of the second day, I decided to be more systematic about it. I started at the very beginning - the water intake on the bottom of the hull - by diving under the boat to see if a plastic bag or something had clogged the intake. I then moved to the sea cock, and made sure water was flowing through it. I then moved to the water pump to make sure water was reaching it. Next I moved to the water pump outflow - and found no water was leaving the water pump.

At first that didn't make sense because I knew the pump was working just fine. I had changed the impeller, and had even switched it with the pump on the other engine.

That's when the "Phil you're an idiot" lightbulb went off. Ten minutes later the problem was solved.

You see, the engines are clearly marked "right hand" and "left hand" rotation. That means they rotate in different directions. Once I cranked the starboard engine and watched the belts operate in the opposite direction from those on the port engine, I really regretted that comment I made to Bernie about "the great thing about having two engines . . ."

But I have to admit, I'd never have learned so much about the cooling system IF I HADN'T MOUNTED THE WATER PUMP UPSIDE DOWN.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Our First Boating Mistake

If you're reading our other blog, Great Lakes Cruising, you may get the idea that, although we're a bit inexperienced, we still sort of know what we're doing.

Don't let us fool you.

We've found that, no matter how much reading, studying, discussing, preparing, etc. we do, there's really no substitute for experience. And for us, experience means "screw it up a time or two before getting it right".

So when we say things like "We bought and outfitted a dinghy", there's a long sequence of goof-ups between purchase and proficiency. In fact, I'll be posting about that dinghy soon.

But our first mistake? Why, it was buying a boat this size and age in the first place. Now don't get me wrong . . . we love this boat. But despite years of reading about boats, going to boat shows, boat yards and marinas to look at different ones, and untold hours studying magazine articles and books that describe "How to buy a boat", when I look back on it, we knew virtually nothing. We certainly had no idea what we were getting ourselves into as far as how much effort it takes to maintain something this size and age.

But what we did know was that this was a lifestyle we wanted to experience. And Meridian fit the bill for that.

It wasn't until after we purchased her that we realized just how BIG and just how COMPLEX this boat really was. Here, take a look at this picture to get an idea of the size . . . that's a real adult person hopping aboard - after climbing the steps on the dock. And a couple of people who hadn't operated anything more complicated than a canoe were going to be the new owners? Are they NUTS???!!!

But looking back on it, I believe this was a mistake that we had to make. We wanted a boat this size, we liked this style, and there was really no other way for us to get that experience. So we jumped in with both feet, and have been bungling our way through maintenance, repairs, upgrades, operating experience and handling, and pretty much everything else related to the boat for over four years now. And I do mean "bungling".

So now we've finally reached the point where we're ready to graduate to a whole new level of ineptness . . . cruising around Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. So while Great Lakes Cruising will (hopefully) be full of beautiful photographs of lake scenery and glowing descriptions of the various towns and markets along the way, The Inept Boater will tell you the real story behind those adventures!