Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thorsson's Oyster Farm


I used to have a sailboat.

Those of you who have seen my slip in the marina in recent times would know that the boat is still there. Before anyone asks, no I haven't sold the boat.

A definitive attribute common to all sailboats is that they all posess some manner of sail. Last year, scant days before I was due to ship out to Durkadurkastan in search of the elusive Afghan Whale, Ana and I were sailing across the slot in San Francisco Bay when almost every seam in the Heart of Gold's entire suit of sails started to let go. So suddenly I didn't have a sailboat.

Also last year I inadvertently left the bilge pump switched off for a few weeks. Because there's no such thing as "completely watertight," the bilge pump is set up with an float switch that turns it on whenever there's more than an inch or two of water in the bilge. With the slow dripping of water around the propeller shaft (one drop every few seconds) the bilge pump only needs to run every so often. Leaving it switched off for a few weeks meant that instead of a few inches of water in the bilge, I had a few feet. It was deep enough in fact that the engine was completely submerged.

Once I'd reset the switch for the bilge pump, the water was evacuated in no time at all. The problem was that I had no time for any other corrective actions even though I'd just tried to sink my boat, my home, my dogs, and myself all in one fell swoop (albeit a very slow swoop).

In the months that passed while I was out at sea and in Afghanistan I got the sail problem fixed thanks to Rui at Rooster Sails. I've already written about that. What I didn't mention was that in the same time frame all of the delicate little steel, rubber, and copper parts on the front of the engine had begun their long, slow, seawater-induced death throes.

At this point, lacking sails, I'd ceased to have a sailboat. Lacking a functioning engine I'd ceased to have a powerboat as well. Lacking the strength to row twenty tons around the river I didn't even have a rowboat. I had a barge and it was destined to sit for quite some time.

Ask anyone who's ever seen a pier at low tide and they can tell you that sitting still in seawater invites all sorts of flora and fauna to make themselves at home. Aside from one brief weekend trip, my barge was about to sit still for the better part of sixteen months. At the end of all this sitting it wouldn't be a boat or a barge so much as an oyster farm. Thorsson's Oyster Farm


For the most part, these problems were easy to solve. A bit of work with a pipe wrench and I'd freed up all of the rusty, rotten, spinning parts of the engine and at least made it possible for them to work again. The main problem was the alternator.

For those of you who don't know, an alternator is a miniature little generator that is driven by a belt off of the engine. Just like in your car, the alternator provides 12-volt power for things like charging the batteries, running the electronics, or keeping the lights on. The internal mechanism is a pairing of a field coil which generates an electromagnetic field and an armature which blah blah blah. In short, it's a bunch of tiny wires wound around a bunch of stuff that doesn't react well to weeks of immersion in saltwater followed by months of sitting still. Oops.

Because I wasn't going anywhere soon, I decided to put off engine room work in favor of straightening out the standing rigging. The standing rigging is the collection of wires that keep the boat's masts from falling over when the wind blows. Given the type of stainless steel that my standing rigging was made of and the type of environment the boat's been kept in, people who know what they're talking about recommend replacing it every ten to twelve years. Mine dates back to the Carter Administration and has shown signs of impending failure ever since I bought the boat. Needless to say, it was due for a changing.

I was a little over one-third of the way done replacing the standing rigging when I found out I was full of shit. Since it's illegal to dump raw sewage while on inshore waters, I have to store mine on board in a holding tank. When the tank is nearly full, there's a little light that comes on to let me know that it's time to find a pumpout station to offload my mess. Suddenly I had a deadline for putting the engine room back together.


Working in my boat's engine room is no task for the claustrophobic. Calling it a "room" is really far too gracious. "Engine trunk" is probably the more apt term. It's a space roughly the same size as the passenger cabin of a Toyota Corolla turned on it's side and filled with a 4-cylinder diesel engine, water heater, 3.5kW generator, freezer, freshwater pump, several seawater intake strainers, two large exhaust mufflers, and seven car batteries arranged into two separate banks. Every one of these things is covered in sharp edges or hard corners or rusty points just waiting to gouge whatever flesh comes in contact with them. This space was not designed for comfort.

The only way to do any sort of repairs on my boat's alternator is to lay a plank on top of the engine valve cover, lay your body down on top of that, and reach down somewhere under your chest and feel around until you find it. In this case I would be replacing it completely. I'm not proud to admit it, but this is the fourth time I've replaced this alternator (each for varying reasons), so I've got it down by now.

Unfortunately, not all of these alternators have been quite the same. As a result, the mounting arrangement that's in place on the engine block has grown into a fascinating array of frankenhardware. It includes household, automotive, marine, and aviation fittings in steel, stainless steel, bronze, and aluminum as well as a few bits and pieces of unknown origin and composition.

While I was removing all of this assorted junk, I was careful to place each part securely in the passageway, just at the edge of my reach. That way I wouldn't accidentally knock it into the bilge. The bilge is that little portion of the bottom of the hull where water collects. In my engine vestibule there's no way to reach the bottom of the bilge without removing the engine, so unless you get lucky with a magnet on the end of a string, whatever goes down there is lost forever.

Once the whole assembly was unbolted, I began to disconnect the wires. Out of the five different wires attached to the alternator, one is called the "exciter." This is the wire that provides voltage from the batteries to the field coil to generate the blah blah blah. Suffice it to say, it was live. When I had disconnected them all from the dead alternator, the exciter passed close enough to the engine block to arc, making a bright flash and a loud ZAP that made me jump enough to almost drop the alternator carcass into the bilge.

I don't think there's anything in the world that frightens me as much as electrocution, so I hooked the insulated part of the wire against a bulkhead where it was out of the way and I could keep clear of it. Then I grabbed the new (fifth) alternator and set it in place so I could start re-assembling the frankenhardware to mount it to the engine block. Since the new alternator was slightly different than the previous one* it turned out that the bolt I was using was too long and I would need a spacer.

As luck would have it, I had in the collection of frankenhardware an aluminum spacer of unknown origin that would do the job perfectly. So holding the alternator in one hand, trying not to impale myself on any of the sharp parts in the space, and avoiding electrocution by bumping the exciter, I wriggled my way around to where I could just reach the aluminum spacer.

This is when Ana decided to call.

It wouldn't have been a huge problem except for the fact that my phone was in my chest pocket and set to vibrate before ringing. My mind was so preoccupied with trying not to electrocute myself that when I felt a little, tingly buzz near my heart I jumped, squealed, and lost the little aluminum mystery spacer into the bilge.

After throwing my phone, punching the nearest bulkhead, and inventing several new curse words, I decided to take a break. Since being folded into the engine locker wasn't helping my mood, I needed fresh air too. I figured nothing would be better than getting back to work on the standing rigging out on deck. This is when I found out that I had a bunch of fittings that were all the wrong size and I was going to need to haul myself up the mizzen mast AGAIN, pull the shrouds off the mizzen mast AGAIN, and find a functioning drill press to get them to work together. The cards seemed to be stacked against me.


About the same time as I was starting to build up overwhelming levels of frustration, my old friend Matt Herman called me. It turns out he was getting off work soon and his wife Jen wasn't due home for a while so he wanted to see if I had any projects I needed help with. His timing couldn't have been better.

We ran out to get a few more tools and when we returned to the boat his twin brother Chris turned up with a few extra power tools and we were back to work. We were able to clamp down the shrouds and drill out the fittings without the use of a drill press (hooray for small victories). Then we went ahead and reattached the shrouds to their respective turnbuckles and chainplates while throwing around as much nautical terminology as we could think of.**

Then it was time to go back into the engine coffin and get the alternator set up before someone flushed the toilet in the head and blackwater ended up running out onto the deck. With someone else there to hand me tools and fittings, it actually went fairly well until it was all assembled and it turned out that the fan belt that drives the alternator was too big and would need to be replaced. But even that was worthy of a chuckle:

ME: Dammit.
CHRIS: What's the matter?
ME: The alternator's all the way at the end of it's arc and we're still going to need more tension on the belt.
CHRIS: Alright, belt, we're gonna be handing out pink slips next week, so you'd better shape up.
ME: What are you doing?
CHRIS: I'm trying to add tension...

Chris then went on to explain that he doesn't much understand mechanical things.

Anyway, once the alternator was bolted on and plugged in, we tried firing up the engine. It cranked right over and lit off on the first try with no real drama. For once, things seemed to be going well.

Thorsson's First Law of Physics

A while back I started noticing a phenomena that I've since labelled Thorsson's First Law of Physics: the Conservation of Broken Shit. It states that for every item in a complex system or colletion of items that is repaired or replaced, another item will fail. This law governs much of how I live my life.

Once we had the engine running I went below to make sure that all was swell. It was not. The new alternator was working like a dream to be sure, but the raw water pump located below it wasn't turning. In fact, the belt that was supposed to be driving it was just slipping right over the pulley without moving it at all. The raw water pump provides cooling water to the engine. Since we all know that a diesel engine operates on the principle of having lots of little explosions inside, keeping it cool is important. Without a working raw water pump, it's only a matter of time before the whole thing turns into a lump of molten steel and burns its way through the bottom of the boat, boiling the ocean and killing everything within a 2-mile radius.***

So we shut down the engine and I got to spend another twenty minutes arm wrestling with a pipe wrench to free up the pump. Once all of the rust inside had been knocked loose (which I'm sure will cause me problems later) I was spinning well enough to do the trick.

With all of the readily identifiable engine problems solved, it was time to cast off.


The pumpout station is at the opposite end of the marina from where I'm moored. Before we let go all lines and headed over there, we let the engine run for a good ten minutes to exorcise its demons and then tested the transmission going ahead and astern.

This was the first time I'd put the boat in gear in almost a year and a half. During that time every kind of living sea-thing you could imagine had attached itself to the hull and the propeller, so as soon as the prop started turning, the boat lurched noticeably forward, the docklines took an audible strain, and all sorts of random chum started bubbling up to the surface. Yummy.

The results when I shifted into reverse were less spectacular. I didn't think much of it at the time, but this will come into play soon.

Now that the engine and transmission had been tested it was time to go. We took in our lines and we were off. The wind was running along the dock from stern to stem and when I started to get close to the boat on the endtie ahead of me I threw it in reverse and... nothing.

A little more throttle... nothing.

A little more... nothing.

Cranked up to full speed with the engine screaming away... the stern starts slowly drifting to port.

With Thorsson's Oyster Farm now living on the propeller, there was just enough useful prop area left over to drive the boat ahead. But since most propellers don't work nearly as well going backwards, the critters living on mine had basically robbed me of the ability to use reverse. After wrestling the boat around into the wind, bumping loudly against one of the empty docks, and generally making a fool of myself, we were finally headed over to the pumpout.

As I made my approach on the pumpout dock, I was barely crawling into the wind when I tried to stop and back down. I ended up making the sloppiest dock landing I've made since junior high school, but at least I didn't break anything. Once we were all fast it was time to suck the shit out of the boat.

Head pumping stations are fascinating. They have a vacuum hose arrangement to remove the sewage from your boat. The hose is typically fitted with a little clear plastic window so you can watch the "effluent" go by and ask yourself, "Self, when did I eat that?" and so you can be sure of when tank is empty and the hose is done sucking.

After the tank was pumped clean, we cast off again. I put the engine in gear, gave it a bit of throttle, and heard it die. Fortunately we were still close enough to the dock that Matt was able to jump over and tie up the boat again.

This bought us an adventure in troubleshooting. Clearly the problem was in the fuel system. After nearly two hours of bleeding this and cleaning that and checking the other thing, we figured out that one of the fuel tanks was empty and the supply valve from the full tank had been shut off. I'm sure that makes sense somehow.

Once we were up and running again, the trip back to my own dock was uneventful. At least it was uneventful right up to the point where we came alongside the dock and I put it in reverse to check our headway and ended up coasting almost far enough to collide with the office building at the North end of the marina.

So at the end of the day at least I've got a working alternator and an empty sewage holding tank. I've replaced about 40% of the standing rigging, and the remaining 60% will be taken care of with three more trips up the mast and over to Alameda. Painful as it was, this was actually a decently productive day.

The next day I noticed that Chris had gotten a hold of the few action figures I'd had sitting on the boat somewhere:
Boat Toys

Giddy with exhaustion, I quaked with unfeigned mirth.

*These alternators were all basically found items taken from old projects and leftovers that Dad has lying around his shop. Believe it or not, this is actually not a causal factor in my constantly having to replace them.

**Unfortunately, at this stage in the project we were unable to use the word "baggywrinkle." That's my favorite navular thing to say. Baggywrinkle.

***This is an exaggeration.

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