Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Call For Help
By Michael

NOTE: Rather than use the real name, I made up the boat name Pantheon for this story. Of course, everything is otherwise true.

"Pantheon" on the beach in San Evaristo.
I was all of the way forward, in the v-berth, focused on writing. I wasn’t sure what I heard on the radio, but I glanced up, listening for a response. Nothing.

We’re in La Paz* and 22 is the VHF hailing channel for a huge community of cruising sailors and liveaboards that span seven marinas and nearly one hundred anchor-outs. The frequency is busy and I normally tune it out unless I hear Del Viento. It was almost noon and I’d just spent an anxious 45 minutes in the companionway, the engine running and my eye on the wind speed indicator while the brunt of a dense front passed overhead, moving northward. Rain pelted and the wind topped out at 36 knots. It wasn’t severe, typical summertime weather activity for this area. But it did cause two boats to drag and a lot of radio commotion from folks saving those boats and protecting their own.

But the front had passed, the engine was off, the radio had been quiet, and I was writing. But the voice caught my attention, desperate and far away.

Then I heard it again, ten minutes later, the same scratchy transmission, the same voice, a bit more clear. “If anyone can hear me, please answer on 22." There was again no response and this time I caught a boat name. After 15 more seconds of silence, still not hearing any reply, I got up and went back to the nav station.

Pantheon, Pantheon, Del Viento, let’s go to 68.”

The response was urgent: “Yes! 68! 68!”

On 68 I hailed a few times and waited, but heard nothing.

As soon as I turned back to 22, I heard him hailing me, the transmission clipping and breaking up, still that voice, desperate. I answered and the response I heard back made my face flush and my heart race, my limbs alert and jumpy. But I didn’t move. I keyed the mic.

“Umm, okay. Pantheon, your transmission is rough and I didn’t catch it all, but I copied that your boat is wrecked, your crew is not injured, you’re in San Evaristo, and you need help. Is that correct, over.”

A transmission followed and I understood that Pantheon copied me, but nothing else.

I paused on 22 for a bit, I knew at least dozens of boats and businesses had copied my transmission. I figured someone would chime in and take over, or at least tell me what to do next. The radio was silent.

You’ve got to understand that this is La Paz. I could get on this same frequency any time of day, ask the most arcane question, and half a dozen people would respond with an answer. Here an emergency had presented itself and I half expected a net controller to jump in, tell me thank you, and then take it from there.

“Attention the fleet, attention the fleet. This is Del Viento. The vessel Pantheon in San Evaristo just issued a distress call over the radio. Did anyone else copy, over.”

I waited through ten more seconds of silence and then realized I had to step up.

“Okay. I just got a call from the vessel Pantheon. Apparently his boat is wrecked ashore in San Evaristo. All persons aboard are safe, nobody is injured. His transmissions are weak. I tried talking to him on another channel and that didn’t work. I’m going to have to ask that everyone stay clear of 22 while I communicate with Pantheon.”

I took a deep breath.

Pantheon, Pantheon, Del Viento.”

For the next ten minutes, the signal varied from strong to weak and unintelligible. It was mostly the latter and I asked him to repeat things over and over. At one point, after I’d asked further about the condition of his boat, he said he was having a hard time hearing me because the sound of his keel breaking off from the hull was drowning me out. In the background I could hear tremendous cracking and scraping noises.

He was obviously in shock, it may have been only an hour before that everything in his world was normal. At this point in our dialog, I think he was still coming to terms with the likelihood that his boat and home were irrecoverable. He asked me to notify the La Paz port captain of his predicament. He had family ashore he wanted brought to La Paz. He wondered if the Navy could come to save his boat.

I relayed his needs and concerns to the La Paz fleet and everyone’s help was urgent and efficient.** People talked to the port captain and the navy and got back to me with responses. San Evaristo is a small fishing community with limited resources. It is only 60 miles away, but the driving time estimate was four hours given the state of the long dirt road portion. Nonetheless, a cruiser got in his truck and headed straight there, to pick up Pantheon’s crew and get them back to La Paz.

I assured Pantheon that help was coming. I told him a Navy boat was coming too, and that both the truck and boat should be there by sunset. Pantheon’s batteries were getting weak and he was reticent to transmit. I told him I would relay info with the understanding that he was receiving.

An hour later, I told him the Navy had called back their boat, that their mission was search and rescue, loss of life stuff, and that his situation was out of their purview. By this time he’d come to the realization that his boat was lost and asked me what his responsibilities were. Could he just leave it there? I told him I didn’t know. I told him he should talk to whichever of the fishermen in that community is in charge. I told him he should salvage what he could. I asked him if he wanted another truck there with more people who could help in that effort. He said there was water everywhere and he didn’t know how much time was left. I worked with the La Paz cruising community to arrange for another truck and men and tools to leave the next morning, shortly after daylight. I told Pantheon the news.

He said he would stay with his boat overnight. Like us, everything he owns is aboard. Hopefully, unlike us, he has some kind of hull insurance. But I doubt it.

Most of the Baja peninsula is a deserted, inhospitable place—much like many parts of the world that cruising sailors venture. Things happen, things like this and things like injuries and illness and breakdowns. Especially in the blistering heat of summer, and when you travel beyond the few population centers, it’s a place where self-sufficiency is required. But when you are in a pickle, when you’ve tapped your own resources and you need the help of others, it’s available if you can communicate that need. But the lesson here is that even when you can reach the cruising community, nothing magic happens—and when I say magic, I’m talking about the magic of a 9-1-1 call in the United States, whereby events are set in motion and overwhelming resources are automatically brought to bare. No, instead, when you make that call for help on the VHF, you don’t get a trained and experienced person on the other end who can reassure you and do what is proscribed, you get me, another guy like you who has less experience with the trouble you’re having than you do. A guy who isn’t exactly sure what’s right, but who will do exactly what he would want others to do for him. And in a best case scenario, it results in a bunch of other self-sufficient folks coming to your aid as best they can.

I’ll provide an update to this post when the outcome is known. It’s early morning and I’m on my way to San Evaristo.


* Well, I’m in La Paz, Windy and the girls are six days into a three-week trip back to D.C.

** It’s crazy because during this episode and this evening I’ve talked to several people who were on the radio for the entire event and nobody could hear anything but my side of the conversation. Del Viento is anchored in a thicket of boats, right outside Marina de La Paz. I can see dozens of boats anchored out in the open in the direction of San Evaristo--60 miles north! Our mast is relatively tall, but it must have been a weird propagation thing that we were the only boat that could copy Pantheon.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rudder Knowledge
By Michael

A familiar walk through the yard,
Bean always in tow.
…the most curious of the projects by far.

When we hauled Del Viento in 2011, we did so only to paint the bottom. I also re-greased the Maxprop. We were back in the water in just a few days.

But I noticed that during those few days, the concrete beneath our rudder was wet, all the time. A slow drip from the lower hinge assembly was the source of the water. I did nothing about this and we launched.

The notion that our rudder was filled with water bothered me and nagged at me, for about a month. Then, the discovery of bigger boat problems pushed all thoughts of our water-logged rudder aside.

In 2012 we hauled again, this time for the express purpose of installing transducers for our new instruments, out and back in. But a persistent drip over those 48 hours reminded me that we still had a rudder filled with water.

I Googled about this and read everything from horror stories of rudder failures brought on by water intrusion to platitudes seeking to reassure me that all rudders leak. Accordingly, remedies ranged from rudder replacement to drilling drain holes and epoxying them up before launch. This year I resolved to cut a panel out of the side of our rudder to see what’s what.

Maxprop is all greased up
and clean.
Part of what informed my decision was my understanding that rudders are constructed with an internal framework comprised of a vertical post (the part that passes through the hull and which the tiller or wheel rotates) and flat bars welded to it (perpendicular) that transfer the rotational force of the post at the leading edge of the rudder to the rudder’s surface area that extends aft, to the trailing edge. Then this framework is covered in foam that is shaped like an airfoil. Finally, an outer fiberglass skin is applied over the foam layer.

The danger I read about with regard to water intrusion is corrosion. If the water enters the rudder at the difficult-to-seal place where the fiberglass skin meets the rudder post, then it can be assumed that bond is compromised. And if that same water corrodes the welds that attach the flat bars to the post, the rudder can fail such that the post rotates independently of the flat bar, foam, and outer fiberglass skin assembly.

So knowing we’d spend a couple weeks hauled out in a hot, dry place and craving the piece-of-mind I’d gain from seeing what was happening inside, I attached the cutting wheel to my grinder and went to town. Once I’d cut completely through the 3/16”-thick skin, it took only a small bit of prying to pull the cut panel off.

At the bow, between the boot stripe and
the bottom paint, I painted a small, stylized
E and F. Knowing the girls would be pleased,
I walked the family around to the starboard
side and announced that I'd painted an E
for Eleanor. I told them that it would be
there forever. I gave Eleanor a big hug and
asked Windy if she liked it. Frances stared
up at the E, quietly regarding it, before
something finally sparked and she ducked
beneath the bow to see the port side. Then
she beamed.
By this time, I’d read everything I could find about rudder construction and repair. There, beneath the panel, was foam like I expected, but not the foam I expected. This was foam from my childhood, that orange-colored 1970s stuff that is not very dense and turns mealy when you rub it between your fingers. I could poke my finger into it and leave a hole. And it was saturated so water squeezed out of it when I did. Only a portion of it was not delaminated from the fiberglass panel I removed.

I grabbed a big piece of it and pulled it out. There, halfway to the other side of the rudder was a thin wall of resin—I’m guessing polyurethane resin. It was cracked all over and brittle like the sugar melted over crème brulee. I suspect it was used to bond the two sides of foam, but there were wide gaps between the two halves.

I dug deeper, until I reached the other side of the rudder. I removed all the foam and resin. That’s all there was, no flat bar or webbing to connect all this to the post.

Where was the post?

I dug forward, removing all the foam I could towards the leading edge. It wasn’t a post I found, but a solid fiberglass wall. The post was seemingly encapsulated in a cavity immediately aft of the leading edge of the rudder and it seemed the skin was a part of this seeming exoskeleton.

I sent pictures to a respected colleague who works for Good Old Boat and Professional Boatbuilder magazines. He hadn’t seen this before, but asked if he could publish a picture I sent him, to solicit reader knowledge. That was good, and I am eager to learn more, but I’m on the hard in the Sonoran desert. It’s over 100 degrees every day, there are biting ants everywhere, and I’m struggling to stay hydrated and finish these projects so we can get back in the water.

Eleanor and Bean.
So with the knowledge that the rudder was working fine when I opened it up, and with a nod to the Japanese craftsmen who constructed it more than 36 years ago, and with the confidence that I could put it back together at least stronger than it was, I set to work.

First I drilled four drain holes near the base of the rudder and let everything sit in the dry air for two weeks while I attended to other jobs. Then I came back to the rudder and cleaned everything I’d excavated, vacuuming foam bits from the crevices and wiping the surfaces down with acetone. I mixed more than two cups of West System epoxy and poured it slowly into the spaces between the foam halves and the gap between the skin and the lower section of foam. Then I pushed thickened epoxy into the vertical gaps I couldn’t pour into, re-bonding surfaces that appeared to have not been bonded for a long time.

Once everything was cured, I sprayed nearly a full can of dense, closed-cell polyurethane foam into the spaces where it could stick and expand and harden without falling out. Then I epoxy-wetted big areas of the inside surface of the panel I cut out, pushed it into place, and used scrap lumber, rope, and clamps to hold it in place, with pressure.

This is one of the down days of the long
haul-out. About a week after we hauled,
I removed the main sail in preparation for
removing the mast. There in the folds, not
only had a couple finches built a nest, they'd
already left an egg. Frances was devastated.
I wanted to eat it, but instead there was a
proper yard burial.
I’d noted the areas still requiring foam and drilled five holes in the outside of the rudder to spray through, carefully working the straw up as I sprayed, filling every crevice until foam oozed out of the seam and holes. Once dry, I removed the lumber and clamps and used the grinder to expose just over 2.5 inches of raw fiberglass on either side of my cut, a shallow angle that would allow me to make a scarf splice-like fiberglass repair.

I cleaned the entire surface with acetone and then wetted it with epoxy before wetting and applying 5-inch-wide strips of woven glass over the seam. Then I built it up with a 2-inch strip, another 5-inch strip, and then coats of thickened epoxy the next day. Once faired and sanded, the rudder was stronger than when we hauled and all that was left was bottom paint.

I still don’t understand the construction—it may be that there are perpendicular supports attached to the stock down lower, or perhaps this design, as it is, is perfectly robust—but I am confident it is stronger than when we hauled and will probably remain so for the next 36 years. I do look forward to hearing any feedback from the Professional Boatbuilder readership.

We’re back in the water now, underway with a clean bottom, a rudder mystery solved, a transmission not threatening to dump all its fluid, and a mast that will never again interrupt a peaceful night’s slumber. Oh, and even close-up, Del Viento now gleams, looking prettier than ever.


If anyone has seen similar construction, I'd love to hear about it.

Our view for nearly a month--good to be back in the water.

Launching. Will you look at the reflection on that hull.

There is a restaurant in a house just outside the yard. Here
the girls lounge outside.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In Pursuit of Reflection
By Michael

Me, standing on an 8-inch block of wood to
reach the boot stripe I'm painting.
Standing ashore and looking back at her, I’m always pleased to note that Del Viento is a fine looking boat. But approaching her in a dinghy over the past couple years, the nearer we got, the rougher she looked. It became increasingly clear that she sorely lacked cosmetic attention.
Her hull and topsides were rough and chalk-like. Everything soaked into her porous surfaces and left a stain. Her 36-year-old gelcoat looked like 36-year-old gelcoat. The turquoise ornament and boot stripes were worn, chipped, and faded. Our pending haul-out represented an opportunity to remedy this.

Back in my 20s, when I lived aboard the first Del Viento, my liveaboard neighbors took sandpaper to the hull of their Passport 47. It was the first time I’d heard about very fine grit sandpaper and wet sanding. I was shocked to see this method bring a high shine to Mimosa’s gelcoat.

So twenty years later, I bought a lot of sandpaper, sheets and sheets of the 400-, 600-, and 1500-grit stuff suitable for wet sanding. For days in the Guaymas boat yard I stood on scaffolding and ran my 1/3-sheet electric sander over the hull with water everywhere (don’t do this at home, I nearly destroyed the cheap corded sander, went through nearly half-a-can of WD-40 to keep it going). White gelcoat residue ran down my arms and covered my hat. In the 110-degree heat, it felt good.

Slowly, a smooth, shiny finish emerged. At this point I taped and painted the ornament stripe and boot stripe a dark, dark blue. Then I used my buffer to first apply a liquid polish and finally a paste wax. It took more than a week of work and my arms were ready to fall off, but the results are astounding. Del Viento could almost slip undetected into a gaggle of new boats at the Annapolis Sailboat Show--sort of. I've yet to do the same to the gelcoat surfaces of our cabin top.

Next up is the story about the final major yard project. This one didn’t take the most time, but it was the most curious of the projects by far…

Caught in the moment--Frances reacts to something she ate
at a Guaymas taco stand.
Eleanor and Sophia (of Dawn Treader) and Frances at a fancy beachside
restaurant in San Carlos where we celebrated Carla's (Dawn Treader)

This picture sort of captures the shine of the polished gelcoat.
In fact, this picture captures everything, taken the
evening before we launched.
The girls feeding rice to pigeons in the pretty Guaymas plaza.
Windy insists it's an urban myth that you shouldn't feed
birds rice lest their little stomachs explode. If so, shame about all the
weddings where the end of the rice tradition resulted instead
in the manufacture and disposal of millions of little bubble-
blowing bottles. Think twice before you start an urban myth.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tranny Time
By Michael

Tranny out. The job was surprisingly simple,
just bolts around the bell housing. The
challenge was separating the coupling.
I sometimes vacuum my engine room. Sounds odd, I know, but the 25-year-old Yanmar and her surroundings aren’t made up of broad, smooth areas to wipe down; the surfaces are intricate and difficult to reach. So after gradual wearing of the belt has left a coat of rubber dust everywhere, I pull out our (excellent) 120V vacuum cleaner. They say it’s good for the engine to keep it clean.

I share this anecdote to say that I know this space. Anything new stands out.

“Look at this,” I said to Windy, “I think we have a problem.”

It was faint, but a fine pink mist had discolored the clean, white oil absorbing mats I keep under the engine and transmission. The pink mist had made a radial spray pattern, one line of pink just below where the shaft exits the transmission.

“That’s transmission fluid. I think it’s coming from the seal and spinning off the shaft when we’re under power.”

I opened our manual to see the seal in the breakdown diagram and then small-framed Windy contorted herself and used a headlamp and a mirror to explore underneath the transmission to find more evidence to support the bad seal theory.

Transmission re-installed. A big side benefit
of this job was being able to clean and
paint this half of the engine room.
I flipped the pads over and watched a new spray pattern form after about ten hours of engine run time. I checked the fluid and added two ounces.

“Good timing for this to happen, since we’re hauling out in Guaymas this week.” Windy said.

I emailed the Mexican boat yard for their mailing address and permission to receive a package. Then I emailed a Yanmar parts supplier in San Diego to have a new seal shipped down.

“You should replace the nut too.”

“How much are those?”

“Forty-five dollars.”

A week after we hauled, the parts arrived. I disconnected the transmission, realized there was no way I would be able to change out the seal with the transmission in the boat, and removed the transmission. Once out, I realized there was no way I would be able to remove the nut that attached the coupling to the back.

Then Omar appeared, a local mechanic who dropped by to coordinate the removal of the engine from our neighbor’s boat. Omar clearly knew our transmission and said he could remove and replace the nut and both seals in his shop and bring it back Monday morning. Sold.

Omar brought it back as promised and I went to work reinstalling the transmission and coupling inside a boat sitting on the hot earth. It was over 100 degrees inside.

So that’s it for the mast and transmission work. In the next post, I’ll write about the biggest job of all, the one that consumed almost half our time in the yard…


Frances with one of the sheep at the far end of the yard.

Father's Day in the yard. I woke to receive the larger
citrus squeezer I'd coveted, wrapped by the girls
to make it impossible to guess what was inside.

Eleanor and Bean with one of the friendly yard security guards.
As we go to press, his name is on the tip of all our tongues...

Frances and Eleanor out to lunch downtown with Windy.
They are no doubt keeping out of my way for 26 days
while I transform Del Viento to the extent possible.