Sunday, May 31, 2015

It's the little things that matter...

Finally, here as promised is a summary of our first journey during the 2015 season.

It was a trip that reinforced some old lessons, and taught us some new ones. It was also a trip that rewarded the investment in a few pieces of safety gear that I thought I would never ever need.

Lesson #1: We learned long ago not to rush anything for the calendar.

Lesson #2: We've also learned that the boat is always trying to break. It can break in a million ways, big or small, and our job is to try to stay ahead of the game and outsmart it. You can't fall behind.

We ignored that calendar lesson due to the fact that according to that very calendar, we had only 9 days to get Morpheus out of the EU Customs Zone (for a day). If we were a day late, we would be liable for the "your boat has been in the EU for more than 18 months" Import Tax.

(Somehow, the EU laws have evolved to the point where visiting Gibraltar for a few hours resets the boats 18 month clock?? Sound stupid and unnecissary? It is!)

(Cruising the Med requires navigating more than the water, it requires non-EU citizens to wade through a tangled mess of laws that ultimately allow non-EU PEOPLE to visit for a length of time not to exceed 90 days in any 180 day period, and allows BOATS to visit for 18 months prior to triggering a law that requires the boat to be imported into the EU, and the owner to pay a tax of aprox. 20% of the boats value! I don't know who sets the value, but I'm pretty sure thats not my job.)

I digress...

So, not wanting to even discuss the potential need to pay a 20% import tax, we shoved off from Barcelona after only 5 days of prep work. Last year required more than two weeks. We were pushing it.

The good news is that we left with a great weather forecast for the expected 3-4 day trip. Light winds from behind were forecast, with an expected 50/50 mix between motoring and sailing. That's a pretty good mix.

Most of the first two days went according to plan. We had a few trivial issues onboard as everyone got used to living on a moving boat again. But, overall things were good.

Late on the second day, the winds began to build beyond what was forecast and they also decided to swing around and blow from where we were going. This is not what we ordered, but typically not a problem. We rolled up the jib, double reefed the main, and turned on the engine. With this setup we could motor slowly into the wind and waves in relative comfort. Comfort probably isn't the word that Debbie would use.

Problem #1 - Attempted Sinking

This sounds worse than it actually was, but things could have unraveled I suppose.

There I was sitting at the Navigation Station doing my Navigator thing while we pounded our way upwind under motor. At some point, I felt a strange thump under the floorboard that my feet were resting on. I remember thinking about it and trying to ignore it, but I've spent "a few hours" at that nav station and never felt that particular "thump". So, unable to ignore it, I decided to get up and look under it to see what was happening. Not sure what I expected to see, but I certainly wasn't expecting to see the entire bilge full of water up to about an inch below the floorboard. We are probably talking about 100s of gallons of water at this point.

Why wasn't I expecting to see that. Well, for one its never happened before. And two, I was sitting right next to the bilge pump automatic switch. It should have kicked on as soon as there was more than a gallon of water in the bilge, now with over 100 gallons, it was resting easy and giving no indication of water in the bilge.

In retrospect, I'm not sure that I prioritized my steps properly. There are two things to do. One is find the leak and stop the flow of water into the boat. The other is get the water out of the boat. I chose to focus on pumping the water out first.

Here is a lesson from one of my Safety at Sea Seminars that I never thought I'd put to work on Morpheus. We have a "normal" relatively low volume bilge pump install permanently, but we also carry a large high capacity submersible pump with a custom power cord and exhaust hose that can reach anywhere on the boat. Our batteries have a short utility cable installed with connectors that allow us to plug this extra pump in quickly. Getting that pump working was my step one while also trying to calmly wake Deb and Dan to let them know that even though it looked like we were sinking, all would be well. That was sort of the tricky part!

Then, with Deb and Dan managing the pump (which worked remarkably well), I started the search for our leak. "Lucky" for us, we'd had a similar issue at some point in the past, so I had a pretty good idea about where to start.

The leak was actually a fairly slow "spray" of water coming in from the area where the propeller shaft enters the boat. Historically, most boats have a stuffing box here where basically a box is built around the shaft and its "stuffed" with material under pressure that "seals" the hole in the hull that the shaft passes through. These stuffing boxes always seem to leak. So, when we had the boat built, we chose to follow the lead of the US Navy and installed a new high tech solution that involves some very finely machined plates held together under pressure to create a perfect seal. Well, unless you are careful and check that device each year at a minimum, things can slip a bit and that perfect seal becomes a bit less perfect.

To solve the problem, all I needed to do was to tighten a couple of quarter inch set screws to get things back where they belonged. This is something that we've checked in the past, but let slip this time around. Calendars are dangerous!!


Problem #2: Engine not running well under load

Another thing that we normally would do after leaving the boat for a while would have been to open the inspection ports on top of each fuel tank to check for any water, dirt, or algae growth in the diesel fuel. This is a problem that we've been lucky enough to avoid over the years, but one that I've heard absolute nightmares about from others.

Anyway, somewhere around day #2.5 after pounding into the waves for several hours, the engine started to run very badly. We assumed the worst and figured that we must have very dirty tanks that were clogging our filters. I ended up changing our primary filters (which were new and yet very dirty) and saw no improvement. The decision was made then to shut the engine down. The rest of the trip would be done under sail only, and we'd hope that the engine would give us enough runtime to safely get into our slip once we arrived in Gibraltar.

Of course that's when the wind died. The remainder of our trip was easy but slow. Very light winds added an extra day to the trip, and of course right after we arrived and dropped our sails, a huge British submarine shows up escorted by a fleet of safety boats. The boat in front of us was the last boat to enter the breakwater before the Navy shut things down for the submarine. Great!! Now instead of the expected 10 minutes of engine time, we circled slowly with great stress onboard, which the Navy took its sweet time getting the sub tied to its dock.

Once the Sub got out of our way, the engine did get us to the dock. The next day, when we opened the tanks we were surprised to see that the problem was not water, dirt or algae. In fact, what had happened was the 12 year old rubber gasket used to seal the inspection port holes had degraded, broken off into pieces and fallen into the tank. Rather than its typically solid state, those pieces in the tank had the consistency of liquid mush. They got sucked up along with the fuel and ended up clogging all of our filters which then restricted the flow of fuel. Slow speeds were "ok", but normal cruising speeds....no way.

The solution to this one was not much fun. We had to drain the tanks (luckily not much fuel left!), clean the tanks, blow the fuel lines clear, change the primary and secondary fuel filters, and then add clean fuel. Deb says Uncle Dan was betting against me, but in the end the engine started and has been running like a champ ever since.

Bottom Line

Boats are always trying to break. Boats are clever. You need to be smart and vigilant in order to prevent the boat from winning the battle. Cutting corners for calendar related events, or employing the "hope & a prayer" methods will not result in success.

Ultimately, we were almost completely undone by two loose 1/4" set screws, and some rotten rubber gasket material. It's the little things that matter!!

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