Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Score at the End of Week 2: Team Cinderella 4, Entropy 0 (But Who's Counting?)

The "Black Box" Theory (image modified from Stanford.edu)
There's a theory that boats are like karmic black boxes:  every time you do maintenance or repairs before they're crises, or practice your sailing skills, or go the long way 'round to cut yourself a bigger safety margin, you have put "good energy" into your black box.  Every time you have a near miss, or narrowly avert disaster, you have spent some of that energy.  So the more preventative maintenance you do, the fuller your black box is, and the more resilience you have when things go sour.  And the more you let things slide into disrepair, get a little rough around the edges, delay doing things you need to do, then the less buffer you have when you need to count on the boat taking care of you.  At least, that's the theory.

Progress was slow last week, or at least not very visible.  We had the air conditioner in its new location, the big exciting part of the project, now it was time for the behind-the-scenes work to actually make it function properly there.  We had to route new ducting, make a new through-hull for cooling water, and modify the settee where the drawer used to be.  Dan spent the better part of a day scraping rust and painting the base of the a/c with special rust-preventing paint, and another day routing wires and hoses under the direction of Steve, the refrigeration expert here.   It amazed me the way Steve casually moved the unit around, telling us it was "only" 40 or so (bulky, awkward) pounds that he was reaching over and locating into its new locker. Thankfully we're in a boatyard that allows owners to do some of the work, which helps keep our costs down.  We were unlucky enough to do this work the week we had a heat wave, temps in the mid-90s and humid.  Reminded us of why we love air conditioning in the first place! We're still waiting for some parts, but at the end of three steamy hot days, we had lovely icy-cold air blowing over our sleeping faces.

And while we were doing this work we found several scary situations just waiting to bite us. Each of them could have become a disaster had we not discovered it before it had a chance to unfold -- our black box!

Here's the first: The diesel heater we rely on when we're at anchor in the wintertime had been installed ... get this, by the factory authorized so-called professional ... with the wires zip-tied to the air conditioner coil.  Huh?  Securing a loose wire to a working part of another piece of equipment?  A part that gets hot during use? The protective covering around the wires had melted.  Glad we found that one before it was too late!  You know what ticks me off most about this guy?  I had asked him to wire the unit to an electrical breaker, and he insisted that instead it be wired directly to the battery with a fuse so it couldn't be shut off by someone accidentally bumping into the breaker while the unit was in use.  Never mind that his approach was seriously messing up my energy management program.  One day we run the boat off one battery bank, and the next day we run it from the other.  Having the unit hard-wired to one bank, of course, did an end-run around that scheme. It meant the heater would always be drawing power from Battery 1 even on the days that we were intending to run the boat off Battery 2.  I was thinking about the installation that would be best for the boat as a whole, while he was thinking only about his little system, and a rather unlikely possibility.  I detest people "protecting" me from myself ... especially people who clearly aren't clever enough to know that you don't tie wires to things that will get hot!  When we rewired the electric panel, the electrician did listen and do it my way.  He put a simple safety cap over the breaker to prevent accidentally bumping into the breaker and shutting off the heater, while still letting me manage the batteries.

The second disaster waiting to happen was at least equally serious. There's a thick pin connecting the autopilot arm to the helm, and somehow the small retaining clips holding that pin were gone, and the pin itself had slid almost all the way out.  Had it completed its slide while we were underway, it would have dropped into the bilge. And the arm could have jammed the rudder hard over and stayed there, giving us no steering at all -- or rather, going nowhere, steering in big circles.  Ouch.

There was a third "find" that escapes me at the moment, but I can tell you about the fourth unexpected find adding to our score, which unlike the other three wasn't an averted boat disaster.  We had to install a bracket that required relocating the autopilot's compass, mounted in the locker that has held everything from Dan's shoes, to exercise equipment, to shrink-wrapped rice, beans, and protein powder.  While we were grumbling about having to relocate this part, and stressing over whether we had enough control cable for the new location, which could not be near anything magnetic that would affect its compass, I reached behind a flap of insulation and found a small stash of $20 bills, left over from the sale of our van a year ago, that I had totally forgotten about.  Instant payback from the black box!  Yes, we're getting frustrated with the slow pace of progress and anxious to sail away, but finding some problems before they occurred, and some party money, certainly took the edge off.
A simple fix: protective cover over the breaker in the lower left corner keeps the unit from being shut off accidentally while preserving our battery management scheme integrity

Addendum:  I finally remembered what narrowly-averted-disaster #3 was.  Battery bank 1 was not holding a charge.  The batteries were 5 years old so we weren't too surprised to need to replace them.  What did surprise us was discovering, after we moved them out to bring back to West Marine for recycling, that one of the cases was split up the side, and the innards were exposed.  So that was my birthday present, since we discovered them on August 11 -- a new pair of AGM Group 24s.


  1. It's interesting...some would call that luck but I like your theory that you are in control of paying into it and have to take some of the blame when you take out of it.

  2. Thanx RoseAnn. I believe that just as one can put oneself in harm's way, one can also position oneself in "luck"'s way.

  3. We recently made a large withdrawal from our black box on our recent cruise to British Columbia. Our exhaust pipe broke in two just as we entered our slip, finally home. Oy. We were very lucky. But also we were very prepared for that to happen while we were out. Now it's back to making deposits: I.E. boat work. Great post about how we make our own luck!

  4. Thanx, and hoping that by now you're fixed and ready for further adventures.