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Lessons from a Circumnavigation Part V: Equipment

By webmaster last modified Aug 18, 2002 06:17 PM

Published: 2002-08-18 18:17:21
Topics: Equipment


by Michael Frankel

If there is less to go wrong, less will.

Like any sport or recreational activity, sailing has its share of specialized equipment. In sailing, however, equipment failures can be extremely important, especially when cruising far off shore and far from help.

It was surprising to hear on the daily radio hour the horror stories of equipment failures. Upon arrival at each port, calls went out to sailmakers, refrigeration experts, boat electricians, diesel mechanics. A rally of thirty some boats is good for the local economy. In addition to local expertise, there was also a sizeable flow of parts by express couriers from the United States and Europe to distant ports. This all added up to big bucks. Someone once defined yachting as, making repairs in exotic ports. It was certainly an apt commentary for this rally.

HORNBLOWER was very fortunate in that few failures occurred and none resulted in an emergency situation. I attributed our good fortune to the care that was taken in selecting and installing the boat's many systems. Bob and I did all of the work ourselves knowing that our comfort and safety depended on good workmanship.

The following is a listing of the few failures we experienced, their probable causes, if known, and what was done to remedy the situation.

Spinnaker pole: Early in the trip the internal line controlling the telescoping feature of the spinnaker pole (Forespar) failed. It was a new pole purchased for the trip. The problem was traced to screws securing a small pad eye holding the line inside the pole. The screws had come undone. The second time the pole failed, with the same problem, the screws were replaced with longer screws. By the third failure, we decided to abandon the control line. Several holes were drilled into both tubes for different length settings, and a long screw was used to fasten the telescoping pole at the desired length. It was an awkward operation to set the length on deck, insert the screw, and then hoist the pole, but it worked for the remainder of the trip.

Spinnaker pole car: This failure was unrelated to the previous failure. It involved the car used to guide the butt end of the pole up and down the mast track. The car is assembled with plastic ball bearings to smooth the travel along the track. The ball bearings are held in place by a metal cap screwed into the body of the car by two, much too small, (No. 4) screws. The screws fell out and the bearings scattered over the deck. From that point on the car was used without the bearings. It was more difficult to move but not a serious problem.

Refrigeration compressor: HORNBLOWER had an eighteen-year-old freezer and refrigeration unit (Crosby) driven by either a main engine compressor or a 110 volt compressor. During the first half of the voyage, experts from five different countries came aboard for repairs. We finally gave up on the engine driven compressor and on the thermostatically controlled on-off switch. During the second half of the voyage, the unit was run manually with the 110 volt compressor while the generator was on, about one hour twice a day. Late in the trip, the freon leaked out and the unit was serviced a sixth time. That service lasted about a week. The last long passage of 2,000 miles through the heat of the equator were sailed without refrigeration. A seventh repair in Grenada located another freon leak.

Main engine water pump: The main engine (Perkins 65 HP) is eighteen years old. Despite its age, the engine only had about 200 hours of operation prior to the trip. The water pump bearings and seals failed about a third of the way into the trip. No reason for the failure except age. A new Perkins pump was shipped from the United States.

Diesel fuel pump: The diesel fuel pump on the generator (Kubota 5.5 KW) mysteriously failed. The generator and pump were new at the start of the trip. A new replacement pump was shipped to Tahiti.

Watermaker: A ten-year-old watermaker (PUR 40) failed repeatedly for mysterious reasons. The unit had been completely overhauled by the factory in spite of the fact that it was a working unit up until the start of the trip. The output of the watermaker was barely sufficient for our needs and we kept it running almost continuously. This may have contributed to its demise. The unit was replaced with a PUR 80, which worked well for the remainder of the trip.

Water generator: HORNBLOWER trailed a ten-year-old water-towed generator (Hamilton Ferris, Neptune) for the entire trip. It was surprising how much of a contribution the towed generator nicknamed Mark Spitz for his frequent comebacks made to the boat's total electrical demand. We did manage to lose two of the towed propellers either to a worn line or some sea critter having bitten it off. One of the permanent magnets glued to the inside of the generator shell came free and was reattached with Marine Tex epoxy. The unit deserved the name Mark Spitz.

Sail flaking system: The main sail had a new flaking system (Dutchman) installed with monofilament guide lines and a set of plastic guides glued into the sail. Several times the individual plastic guides came loose from the sail and had to be reglued. At one point, the unattached guide was not noticed for quite some time allowing the monofilament line to "saw" through a few inches of sail material. The monofilament lines also parted several times. This system is not suited for the inevitable chafe of long distance cruising.

Windlass: The haws pipe cover on the new anchor windlass (Maxwell 1200) broke loose due to the action of the chain passing through it. One of the 1/4 inch screws holding the cover plate sheared off, the other loosened. The broken screw was replaced with a larger 3/8 inch screw and no further problems occurred.

Anchor roller: The plastic or hard rubber anchor roller at the stemhead was sliced through by the constant chafe against the sharp edges of the Delta anchor's stock. The roller was replaced once during the trip and was ready to be replaced again by the end of the trip. A better solution would be a stainless or bronze roller.

Hydraulic steering: The seals on the eighteen-year-old hydraulic steering arm (Hynautic) leaked and were replaced twice on the trip. It was not clear what caused the leaking seals. The second time may have been the result of a misalignment during the previous installation that caused a filing action and a roughening of the stainless ram.

Drifter sail: A new and infrequently used 1.5 ounce nylon drifter (UK Sailmaker) deteriorated from the sun to the point of ripping in modest winds. The sailmaker concluded that the pink material in the alternating white- and pink-striped sail was not as UV resistant as the white material. He went so far as to say that pink is the least UV resistant sail cloth. The sail was replaced with an all white drifter.

Main sail: Late in the trip, the clew ripped out of the main sail either due to age or not being properly covered and out of the damaging sunlight when stored. We were able to reef the sail and use the reef point as the temporary clew until reaching port. There it was repaired by a sailmaker for the remainder of the trip.

Pelican hooks: Three new pelican hooks (West Marine) for the boat's lifeline broke. In each case the spring-loaded plunger came out of the hook assembly after being pulled by the lanyard. The hooks were replaced.

RADAR: We started the trip with a small 1.5 KW RADAR (Furuno). It was far too weak to see anything that was not readily apparent to the naked eye. About halfway through the trip we upgraded the RADAR to a 2 KW unit. It was better at "seeing" things further away, but it still felt superfluous to naked vision, especially since our route was far from fog shrouded areas. At night it was much easier to spot masthead lights on freighters long before the RADAR picked up the target.

GPS: During the infamous August 22, 1999 "Rollover" date, one of HORNBLOWER's four GPSs (Garmin) gave erratic readings for a few hours, two stopped working for a day, until we received an e-mail message with instructions on how to reset them, and a fourth worked throughout the "Rollover." The experience made Bob and Judy nervous enough to quickly order a fifth unit for the boat. I suspect they were secretly lusting for the newer model and this was a good excuse. There were no problems during the much ballyhooed Y2K rollover.

Handheld VHF radios: HORNBLOWER had two rechargeable handheld VHF units packed in two separate abandon ship bags. Both units needed charging every so often. It is impossible to determine when exactly these units needed charging. We usually did it before long passages. However, short passages can be just as accident prone as long ones. A better solution would have been Lithium batteries with a five- to seven-year life when not in use, such as in storage in an emergency bag.

Flashlights: We carried several Super PeliLite (West Marine) submersible flashlights with Halogen bulbs. They were excellent and worked flawlessly for the entire trip. They were also included in the abandon-ship emergency bags. As in the case of the handheld VHF, these flashlights should have been equipped with Lithium batteries to avoid the uncertainty of slow discharge during storage.

Inflatable dinghy: The roll-up inflatable dinghy (Avon) worked well for the entire trip. Two small leaks developed. One was repaired and the other was too small and left to leak. The rubber rub rail came off. We tried to glue it back but with no success. In the intense tropical sun, it would have been useful to have a permanent canvas covering over the dinghy to reduce UV deterioration from the sun and to add chafe protection from boarding ladders, rough concrete piers, and barnacle-covered pilings.

Outboard motor: HORNBLOWER carried a two-stroke 5-HP outboard motor (Nissan). Like most single cylinder outboards it was cranky. After long passages it usually refused to start without a lot of maintenance. This, in spite of the fact that the gasoline was always allowed to burn out of the carburetor and the motor was always covered during passages. Our gasoline may have been allowed to sit too long in the tank. Replacing spark plugs more often may have helped. I also think that two-cylinder engines are much easier to start with twice the sparking opportunities.

Waste tank: The stainless, pump-out deck fill cap developed a mysterious leak due to corrosion in the cap's detente holes. The tank filled with salt water whenever seas washed over the deck. Once we discovered the source of the water entering the waste tank, the holes were plugged with epoxy.

Jerry cans: We left on our trip without jerry cans for fuel. Early on we realized the need for jerry cans to transfer diesel fuel. We purchased two cans but unfortunately they were ten gallon cans and far too heavy to haul around. Six gallon cans seem to be the limit for convenient lifting in and out of a dinghy and over lifelines.

Ensign: We went through three ensigns (West Marine) that tattered in the modest wind conditions on our route. Bob finally decided to keep the ensign furled while at sea. Unfortunately, we occasionally forgot to unfurl it in port. I would have simply continued replacing the inexpensive ensigns because flying the flag continuously is a sign of pride and respect. However, we both agreed that the flags were cheaply made.

(Several years ago I recommended to the chairman of West Marine that they replace ensigns free of charge as a patriotic gesture and a marketing promotion. They replaced my ensigns but failed to make it a storewide policy.)

MOB: The lanyard connecting the Man Overboard Pole (Jim Buoy) and the life ring was made of white, floating polypropylene line. We had a new line at the start of the trip. It deteriorated from the sun and broke down within a year. We replaced it with a dacron line that is more UV resistant.

Jacklines: Fortunately, no one ever had to depend on the jacklines to keep them on board and alive. The jacklines were made of webbing and ran from bow to stern on both port and starboard decks. The more I read about disastrous storms like the Sidney-Hobart race of 1998, the more I realized that webbing is not the ideal material for jacklines. Webbing stretches too much. A person clipped on to the webbing would be dragged overboard and drowned before someone could haul them back on board. A non-stretch dacron line, although annoying underfoot, would keep the unfortunate victim dangling above the water rather than dragged through the water.

Feathering propeller: HORNBLOWER had a new feathering propeller (Hydroline) installed at the start of the trip. It is hard to make specific comparisons with a fixed propeller but the assumption was that the feathering action gave us more speed while under sail. However, it is also somewhat less efficient than a fixed propeller when under engine power. What that meant for our trip was that at least twenty percent of the time the feathering propeller was detrimental to our progress and eighty percent of the time it was an improvement over a fixed propeller. I also suspected that the propeller did not completely feather in neutral because the transmission had to be put into reverse to stop the shaft from turning. Given our slow progress as a result of being heavy, under canvassed, and conservatively sailed, I doubt that the feathering propeller was worth the cost.

Night vision glasses: The value of our night vision monocle (Generation Scope) on this trip was at best marginal. There was nothing important out there to be seen that couldn't be seen with the naked eye. As in the case of the feathering propeller, I did not feel it was worth the cost. Duke on DISTANT DRUM confirmed my assessment when he said the best use of his night vision glasses was for stargazing.

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