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!