Dream Cruise

Retired racerThis is less of a story of a technical undertaking, and more of a muse on human nature.

A few years back, I had occasion to work on a couple of run-down sailboats whose owners remained stubbornly blind to their vessel’s overwhelming list of flaws.

One of these boats was a retired 50′ ocean racer whose technology was no longer competitive.  The owner picked her up at auction for low price that must have seemed like a steal.  I was hired to install a new diesel engine.  The job was interesting enough; she had evidently been re-powered a few times over the course of her career, and the engine bed had been hacked and carved to oblivion, The original engine, long gone, was undoubtedly sized to the needs of racing under sail, and not as powerful as the owner desired for her new life as a live-aboard cruiser.  The engine space was therefore quite small and nestled well down in the bilge. The shaft angle and some built-in water tanks eliminated the option of changing the engine’s placement, and so the constraints of the job were defined.

The other boat was a 60′ Taiwan-built ketch that had been sitting high and dry in a repair yard for several years.  I came on board to sort out her bilge pumps.  My first discovery was that despite being on dry land, the bilges had so much water in them that the engine was almost submerged.  My first act was to run to the store and buy a 110 volt sump pump and a garden hose.  Extension cords connected it to a receptacle in the parking lot, and it pumped out water for hours.  The decks leaked rainwater so badly that the pump ran regularly long after I was no longer involved.

I don’t have any decent photos of the ketch.  I would often poke the camera into an otherwise inaccessible spot and snap away to capture a serial number on some component, or to get an idea of what was in there.  I did that on the ketch, but that was it; I was too busy to go sightseeing.   That’s a shame, because, because what I witnessed throughout the vessel was a reality of cracked hoses without clamps, frozen valves,  layer upon layer of corroded wiring and rusted homeowner grade fittings and automobile parts wholly unsuited to life on a saltwater vessel.  I stress the word ‘reality’ because that’s what was in desperately short supply elsewhere in the boat.

In the case of each boat, I finished the task I was hired to do, began working on another part or system of the boat, and wound up waiting for the owner to authorize a continuation of the repairs.  After a while, during which I assume the owner decided he couldn’t afford to proceed, I moved on to other jobs and more or less lost touch with them.  In each case, years went by, and the launch date that had been so optimistically chosen faded slowly into the past

On the ocean racer, once the engine was in place, I removed the badly rusted fuels tanks.  The owner was mulling over the quote to have new tanks fabricated, and that was the end of that.  Never even discussed was the non-existent electrical system, the crack in the shaft strut or the fact that the stainless steel rigging was kinked, frayed and dangerously fragile.

As for the ketch, I had sorted out the pumps and taken care of a little extra electrical work, and was bleeding the steering system when about fifty feet of corroded hydraulic steering line split wide open.  I replaced all that, and was waiting to get the go-ahead to make some recommended improvements to the steering system when, again, I waited, moved on and eventually forgot about it.  And again, the to-do list included a number of critical items, including the corroded wiring, neglected plumbing and old wooden masts so far deteriorated that the yard refused to step them.

But that’s the negative.  The owners’ vision gazed far beyond these inconvenient details.  The ocean racer had a navigation station stocked with a full complement of brand new charts and state-of-the-art electronics, doomed to be outdated before they were ever used. Rum was at the ready in a crystal decanter with matching tumblers, and a humidor stood nearby filled with cigars.  As for the ketch, she had linens and pillows on all the bunks, a fully furnished galley with granite counter tops, a gourmet spice rack and a variety of flavored olive oils in a specially built teak stand.  Both boats also had shelves of books to help pass the time, and each sported clever nautical-themed lamps and other cute accessories.

Maybe that was enough for the owners of these boats.  Maybe the dream was real enough without ever having to be tossed about in heavy weather, seasick and tired.  Maybe getting lost in the dark and fog would have detracted from the ideal they were seeking.  Reality can be damned inconvenient.  Again, I lost track of these boats, and maybe they each caught up with their launch date eventually, and made it out to sea.

Or not.  I think in the end that what may bother me most about my intersection with these loosely tethered souls is that I can see myself in them a little too easily.

Anyway, here are a few photos of the engine installation.  The engine bed was originally built by reinforcing the the hull with some light timbers.  After re-working these oil saturated oak pieces, I  needed to tie together the flapping remnants of whatever the original setup had been.  There wasn’t really enough left of it to understand what the builders had done originally.

I built a mold based on the dimensions of the underside of the new engine, and laid up a fiberglass repair piece that would also serve as a tray to prevent oil and antifreeze spills from landing in the bilge.  This ‘tray’ was positioned with whatever clearance could be found and tabbed in temporarily, then tested for fit by setting the engine into place.  There was so little wiggle room that this inconvenient step was absolutely necessary.

Once the fit was confirmed, the existing fiberglass work and the tray were joined together with enough layers of mat and roving to turn it into a stout structural element, and finished with a nice coat of pigmented resin.  After that, the engine was aligned and bolted in place, with the expectation that a final alignment would occur after the strut had been repaired and she’d been back in the water for a while.  I don’t know if that ever happened.

Partial update: the old racer did in fact make it into the water.  She was last seen idling down the harbor, her engine running with a short hose stuck into a small pail of diesel fuel.  I still have the drawings for the replacement fuel tanks.

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