Magic Log #11: Preparing to Cross

For over a decade now I’ve wanted to sail to the South Pacific. Lisa came by this dream more recently but is also really excited by it. A few weeks ago we left Mexico for the 2600 mile crossing to the Marquesas. Now that we’ve arrived, we plan to spend three months in French Polynesia, leave the boat on the hard in Raiataea and return to the US in July. We’ll see where things go from there in future years.

We had a long list of projects to do for bringing the boat into as good a running condition as could be managed. We would be spending three or more weeks on the crossing and needed to be able to deal with any problems completely on our own. In addition, we hope to keep the boat in the south pacific for several years and getting parts there is complicated, time consuming and expensive. Planning out these projects, getting supplies for doing them, and actually doing them all took a lot of time, and preparing for this trip was a dominant feature of my life for half a year.

Starting in early September we spent a month in Salt Lake, looking for a house but also buying a large mound of equipment and supplies to bring down to the boat. In mid October we packed our van full of this stuff and drove down to the marina in San Carlos we’d kept the boat at over the summer. We spent a week there recommissioning the boat, after which Lisa returned to the US to close on the house, and I sailed down to La Paz. After a week apart, Lisa flew down and we met up in La Paz for a couple weeks of projects and a little cruising. We left the boat in La Paz for two months over the holidays, during which time I bought another, smaller mound of equipment for the boat. Returning to Mexico in mid-January gave us two months on the boat for remaining projects and preparations. The pace wasn’t too hectic but with a few hours a day over this much time the commitment built up.

Many of the boat projects were small things, a mixture of improvements to make the boat easier to live on and various maintenance tasks. Several projects were pretty substantial, the first of which I managed to get out of the way early on. Pretty much since we bought the boat (and probably beforehand, really) the port engine’s fuel tank leaked, about a gallon every couple of weeks. This diesel ended up in the engine room’s bilge, and I would keep having to go into the engine room and pump it into a jerry can for later disposal at a marina. This got old, especially after returning to the boat in the fall of 2015 and finding nearly twenty gallons of diesel in the bilge, coming up almost to the engine itself.

It took so long to get this fixed because for a while I was just stumped by how to do it. Once a fuel tank starts leaking it can’t really be repaired, and I didn’t know how to get the tank out of the boat (or a new one in) for replacement. Bringing it back through the engine room’s opening wouldn’t work as the opening was too small, and bringing it forward into the berth it was adjacent to would require removing lots of cabinetry. I thought about cutting up the old fuel tank in situ and then building a new fiberglass tank in its place, or cutting off the top of the old fuel tank and putting a bladder into the space, but both of these ideas seemed pretty desperate. Finally, last spring I realized that by cutting out a section of the bunk adjacent to the engine room I would have just enough room to lift the fuel tank up and out of the engine room. In the final days of the season I did this and measured the tank’s dimensions. Later in the summer I had a replacement tank fabricated, and we drove down to San Carlos with it.

In San Carlos we finished removing the old fuel tank from the boat, lowered the new one into the engine room, glassed it in place, repaired the cutout by grinding the edges of the hole to a bevel and glassing the removed piece back in, and finally reconnected the plumbing and started the engine up. This is the biggest project I have done on Magic, and it felt great to get it done in a timely fashion and without any big surprises or other issues. Lisa had already returned to the US at this point, so with two working engines I headed on down to La Paz to meet her there, sailing about half the 250 mile distance.

The largest remaining project for the boat was to haul it out of the water and service the two saildrives — the legs sticking out the bottom of the boat which the propellers are attached to, and which have gearing to transfer power from the transmission to the propellers. These are supposed to be serviced every seven years to replace various seals and gaskets that keep water from getting into the leg or the engine room itself, and we wanted to get this done while we still had access to all the people we knew and other resources in La Paz.

On return to the boat in January we started arranging for the haulout so we could get this done, but I guess I procrastinated on this as we didn’t haul out until nearly a month later. The yard employees would be putting new bottom paint on, while I worked with our mechanic, Colin, to get the drives off the boat so he could service them. This was a lot of work by itself: the transmissions and engines had to be separated, which meant the engines had to be removed from their mounts and slid forward, and owing to some non-removable bolts in the engine mounts we had to drill holes in the berths above the engines, lift the engines up using a spanish windlass (pretty neat and a new one for me, by inserting a piece of wood in a loop of rope and twisting it around you can generate a lot of force) and set them down on some wooden spacers we made to fit over the bolts. After getting the transmission separated it could be lifted into the cockpit along with the saildrive. We separated the transmission and the drives, Colin serviced them, and then I reassembled them, which took almost two hours per drive, owing to some new seals being installed (which I wanted to be sure wouldn’t leak) and a small pile of bolts with complicated installation and torque requirements. Getting the transmissions reconnected to the engine was somewhat maddening — a spline coming out of the transmission has to be exactly lined up with the engine before the two will mate — but with a lot of work by Colin we finally got them back together and got everything ready to go. In total we were only out of the water for a few days, but the pace of the work going on was pretty hectic.

After launching it felt great to be back in the water. We worked on other projects and also went out for a couple short cruises to make sure the drives were behaving well.

After the second cruise, I found that water had penetrated into one of the drives: the oil on the dipstick had turned a creamy off-white color with the emulsion, like chocolate milk. My heart sank immediately; I hoped it was something simple like a loose drain plug, and hopped in the water, cranked down on the plug, and changed the oil and ran the engine in gear a couple times. Each time the creamy oil came back after a few hours, and it was clear we needed to haul out again to fix this problem. Colin thought the problem was probably with the propeller shafts, which he’d looked at when servicing the drives and thought needed rebuilding (this would have taken several days, which I didn’t want to take the time for). Making things even harder was that we were running short on time — only about a week and a half remained until our planned departure date.

The most expedient solution, it seemed, was to order new propeller shafts and have them shipped overnight to San Diego. I flew up to San Diego, spent a couple nights in a hotel, went shopping in the incredible concentration of chandleries around Shelter Island (hearkening back to my 2012 trip through here on Grand Illusion), picked up the shafts and flew back to Mexico. All to avoid the, uh, unpredictable amount of time it can take for shipments to Mexico to arrive at their destination. An hour after getting back to La Paz we hauled out again, and the boat sat in the crane’s straps overnight while we removed the shaft assemblies, installed the new shafts (which Colin did at his shop), and reassembled everything. After launching we went to our spot in the marina and ran the engines in gear for nearly twenty hours each over the next few days to wear in the new shafts and check for leaks. Thankfully the watery oil did not reappear, and it seemed like we would be good to go for our departure.

Alas, our engine troubles were not over. I realized kind of late during preparation that we ought to have our engines’ injectors and valve clearances checked. After getting back in the water Colin came by and adjusted the valves (which were pretty far off from where they should be), removed the injectors and took them to a local shop to check their opening pressure. Out of the six injectors, three were seized open (they would constantly dribble fuel into the cylinders) and the others were in marginal condition; we had five spare injectors and tested these, too, but they weren’t in great shape either. Next began what felt to me like a never ending loop of installing injectors, fuel return piping, fuel supply piping, testing, then removing all this stuff to change out a problematic injector or fix a fuel leak. We got the port engine running well, but while working on the starboard engine I managed to crack some of the piping so that running the engine would spray fuel everywhere. Fixing this properly required high temperature soldering that I didn’t know how to do, and which Colin went back to his shop to take care of. Reinstalling the piping required bending it, though, and it had to go back to the shop two more times to fix cracks in the solder before everything was ok. At long last we had two functioning engines again, which were indeed running a lot smoother than before this work began.

What I find most interesting here is that the work which caused all these late breaking problems was basic engine maintenance; the engines were running alright before any of this began. While it is of course important to do this work, a big lesson for me is to never treat engine work as routine, except oil and filter changes I guess. Beyond that, I also have to recognize that with as much time as it took, our preparation for this trip was still pretty compressed and I shouldn’t be surprised by the stress that results.

We left La Paz just a couple hours after the engine work finished, and planned to use the 150 mile trip to Cabo to test all this work more thoroughly. In the end we were only two days behind our original schedule and would not be squeezed for time on our way to the Marquesas. It felt wonderful to get off the dock and start our trip.

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