Sunday, November 21, 2021

And Then It Went Bad, just as fast


My last post was called "It All Happened So Fast ... ," as in a good thing. As of last week, it all kinda went bad, unexpectedly and just as quickly.


I had a running joke with Hung Su, one of the senior clergy at the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple. During one of our Thursday morning discussion group sessions, I confessed that I didn’t think that I was a very good Buddhist. With a wry smile, Hung Su reminded me that the Buddha taught that there was no such thing as good or bad, but that thinking made it so. I told Hung Su that I thought he was proving my point. In much the same way, I’m probably a little better mechanic than I ever claim to be, but I am now confronted with a catastrophic, plan-altering problem with Ruth Ann’s Yanmar diesel. And it may not have anything to do with my skill level as a diesel mechanic. The short version of the curious problem is that I should be able to turn the crankshaft of the engine, but I can’t. And(!) the propeller shouldn’t turn easily when the transmission is in gear  …  but it does. Somewhere between the engine and the gearbox something has gone terribly wrong. And none of the diesel experts around here can explain how such a thing could happen. 

So, if I contributed to this tragedy it was that I’ve been ignoring the engine. I’ve had lots and lots of other things to do during Ruth Ann’s refit. But obviously, I should have paid it a little more attention. Nevertheless, when I brought the boat here from Little River, a trip of about 65 miles, the engine never coughed, never hiccuped, never smoked or made any unusual sounds. It ran like a champ; and I pushed it real hard the first day. That story is here.

I actually moved the boat in July 2019, but I went right back to Michigan to finish helping my Dad. It was March of 2020 when I finally returned to Navassa, NC where Ruth Ann was waiting for me. I started work on getting her into ‘Bristol’ shape and making her mine. It was a lot. There was so much wire in the boat, much of it no longer even in use, that I spent a couple weeks tearing out wire before I had the space to run new wire through the nooks, crannies, and wireways. I took out the tank and toilet of the old system and installed a composting head. Six thruhulls were removed, some by brute force, and new ones installed. One thruhull was no longer necessary and after some grinding and glassing that hole was shut. By far, however, the most hours (many, many) were spent grinding out and repairing blisters on Ruth Ann’s hull. I probably fixed more than I needed to, but I had become obsessed. I was insulted by the mere presence of the blisters. I never had the heart to actually count them, but there were hundreds of blisters. I must have spent two months on the whole process. Nevertheless, I am super proud of how the hull looks today. Most people, even fellow salty sailors, would have no idea how the hull looked before I completed those repairs. Her hull is smooth as a peach and the hull story starts here.

And then COVID hit. For a good while, I never left except to run into town to grab a few provisions or boat parts and supplies. A lot of boatwork got done. After a while though, money was getting a little tight but also the world had changed and my original plan wasn’t such a good fit. 

My plan had been to invest whatever it took to get Ruth Ann rigged for cruising off-the-grid for long stretches of time. I was going to cut it close with my personal capital but after getting the boat in the water, I planned to find some work to refill my cruising budget. With millions of people suddenly out of work, I could no longer be certain that I could find a fill-in job when I needed one. It was time to reevaluate the plan, so I decided to go back on the road for a while, make a little money, and hide out from the pandemic. I was back behind the wheel in late June. 

After a time, things seemed to settle down in the world and I was itching to get back to my boat. So last April after about 10 months, I quit the trucker life again and came back to North Carolina. Reunited with Ruth Ann, I got right back to work. Solar panels and lithium batteries were installed; the mast was pulled and rewired; new navigation lights were installed, and the Dyneema rig I had made was prepped for when the mast went back up.

I could have given the engine a little love along the way. I could have turned the crankshaft a few times. However, I did not have a starting battery or the cooling water connections hooked up, so running the engine was not an option. When I finally got around to servicing the engine, it all began fine. I replaced the fuel filter and bled the fuel line; then replaced the oil filter, the impeller, and the belts. When I tried to start the engine, however, all I got was one loud clunk from the solenoid …. and nothing else. I started troubleshooting; checked the wiring, and tested the starter and the solenoid. The battery was brand new and checked out fine, but when I tried to turn the crankshaft I realized that I had problems. The crankshaft should turn easily. It didn’t. 


A boatyard neighbor had resurrected an engine that had seized from sitting and so I followed his advice. I pulled the injectors from the top of the engine and poured “Metal Rescue” into the cylinders. They soaked for two days, but nothing changed. I tried adding PB Blaster. I got a breaker bar to assist the socket wrench … and nothing. Big trouble. Trouble that was killing my schedule. In a cruel irony, I was counting on moving south and then finding some work. Getting Ruth Ann back in the water was going to use up most of the money I had made this last summer. 

My inventory project was done and I was out of work. I thought I was going to be in the water by the first or second week of November … and then this. All I’ve had to do was work on the engine and haven’t had to buy much in supplies, but my money wasn’t going to last. I have no debt, so I can bet on my plans and push my limits, but when the plans start to not work out, it gets a little sticky. Luckily, I recently got a little help from a friend.


“Another man might have been angry. Another man might have been hurt.”

     -Harry Chapin

One would think that maybe I would get the hint and stop chasing this dream; sell the boat or light it on fire. Y’all have heard me say, more than once, that I’d rather be lucky than good. Frustration was setting in, of course, and I was flabbergasted that the one thing that could hold me back was, in fact, holding me back. But after a few deep breaths and a cuss word or two, the magic started to happen. 

The land pirate who bought my campervan had an engine for sale from a sailboat he had owned. His engine was a different brand from mine but it was just the right size; mine was 15 horsepower, his is sixteen. Repowering with a different brand engine is certainly possible, but it would have to include some engineering and modifications to the motor mounts and likely the propeller shaft as well. Along the way, I had kept Sam, the boatyard owner, up to date on my troubles. He kept trying to sell me a motor out of an orphaned sailboat in the yard; a thirty horsepower motor he said. All I could think was that his engine would burn more fuel and probably wouldn’t fit into my boat anyway. Sam is a card and he kept bugging me about the deal I could get on his motor. 

Finally, one night last week, I dragged my ladder across the boatyard and leaned it against the orphaned boat which is right next to a friend’s boat. I explained to the friend that I had to crawl into that boat so that I could tell Sam that his engine wouldn’t fit. After chatting for a while, it was getting dark, so I excused myself and climbed aboard. I slid back the hatch, removed the washboards, and climbed down the rickety steps into the dank cabin. I slipped the barrel latch and pulled open the door to peer into the engine compartment. I twisted my little Maglite to light the space, blinked, rubbed my eyes, and stared in amazement at the model tag on the motor. I retreated back into the cockpit, closed the hatches, and stumbled back to my boat; ladder in hand, shaking my head. 

The next morning I caught Sam in the office. 

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” I said, smiling.

“You’re finally leaving,” Sam teased. 

“Bad news is I’m fairly certain that your engine is not thirty horsepower,” I continued, ignoring his poking at me. “The good news is it is identical to mine. I want to work out a deal on that engine and maybe those winches in the cockpit too.” 

We made a handshake agreement, right then and there. 


But …

I like to play with my cards out on the table. No bluffs. No hidden agendas. Sam probably already knew, but I told him that I could not buy that engine just then. Regardless, our deal is good for both of us even if I have to go back to work for a while in order to afford it. I will help strip the orphaned boat and prep it to be crushed and sent to the landfill. For that I will get a good price on an engine that will drop into my boat onto the existing motor mounts. I have already turned that engine’s crankshaft and it turns so smoothly, without effort that I can hardly stand it. Along with the engine, I’m going to get a couple nice self-tailing winches, a couple sails, and a matching clock and barometer. 

My mast is still on sawhorses but I want to get it back on the boat before I start working again. With the mast out of the way it won’t get bumped or knocked over, but it will also be easier for the boatyard to move Ruth Ann while I’m gone if they need my spot. 

And about that back-to-work part, I’m going to go back out on the road for six months so that I can afford to buy that engine. The slightly tarnished silver lining is that I should also be able to buy a watermaker when I return. A watermaker was the one missing component in my off-the-grid plan. Once I have one, teamed up with my solar panels and lithium batteries, I will be able to make my own freshwater from seawater. Without having to find a marina or other source of water, I will be able to stay out sailing for very long periods. 

This new situation sucks, but it also doesn’t. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I’ve basically been living on the boat since I sold The Moose, my campervan, and I know that this is the life for me; living aboard is where I belong. 

Please note: this blog will be inactive and my Patreon page will be suspended until I get back to Ruth Ann next June. I will be working on my book and might post a preview here. 

See y’all soon. Thanks for your support. 


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And Then It Went Bad, just as fast

My last post was called "It All Happened So Fast ... ," as in a good thing. As of last week, it all kinda went bad, unexpectedly ...