Suddenly Sailing: The Great Haulout of 2018 - Part 3

Suddenly Sailing: The Great Haulout of 2018 - Part 3

Blackthorn’s now back in the water, anchored in Eagle Harbor just across the sound from Seattle. I’ll be writing about our experiences living at anchor soon, but I wanted to wrap up the write-up on the haulout first.

Engine Plumbing

During the fall of 2016 we applied a makeshift solution to fix a leak on the heat-exchanger’s raw-water exhaust. We had forced a 19mm hot exhaust hose onto a 22mm outlet, where a small copper section of tubing had developed a pinhole leak. During this haulout, installing a more permanent solution was one of our tasks.

In the original installation, the 19mm hose was almost immediately reduced to 3/8” diameter hose, which then ran up to an anti-siphon vent before returning to the main exhaust line. The severe restriction wasn’t ideal, so we decided to use a Vetus adapter to reduce the unique 22mm sizing to the more common 19mm, and then run the rest of the system as 19mm hose.

If you ever do plumbing on a boat, you can expect some amount of shenanigans. Bronze fittings are ideal for plumbing raw water, and they are only available in certain sizes and configurations. This means that it can take several hefty fittings to accomplish a seemingly simple task. We made a few trips to gather supplies for this project, and what emerged were some pretty hideous assemblies that will hopefully last us a good, long while.

An assortment of bronze pipe fittings and hose clamps.
A side-by-side image showing hoses inside an engine box before and after replacement.
The old, restricted engine plumbing (left) and the new, larger diameter plumbing( right).

Aside from actually finding the parts, it was also necessary to enlarge the holes that the old, undersized hose was running through. Using a rough-toothed rasp was the most practical solution given the cramped quarters, though it didn’t treat the plywood shelving particularly well. I spent hours crammed into the space enlarging the series of 8 holes, and even pulling the hoses through wasn’t easy. I realized too late that I should have worn gloves and had developed some blisters before the job was done.

Heat-Exchanger Cleaning

The heat-exchanger was also due for a cleaning. The heat-exchanger is a large cylinder filled with copper tubes. Cold sea water flows through it, absorbing heat from the engine’s fresh water cooling system, which circulates a 50/50 mixture of distilled water and antifreeze. Mineral deposits from the sea water build up inside the tubes and will eventually block them entirely if they aren’t regularly cleaned.

The first step of cleaning the exchanger is draining the antifreeze mixture out of the system. If you happen to not drain the system, coolant will start gushing out as soon as you budge the tube stack. Ask me how I know. I at least had the presence of mind to have a diaper handy when I began this task. As odd as it sounds, diapers are great for tucking into small spaces when you’re working on things that may leak or overflow. Some of the fluid got into the bilge regardless, but it could have been worse. Then, I proceeded to drain off the coolant from the wrong point in the system. I realized my mistake later, when we were refilling it, and had to re-drain things properly. It really wasn’t a complicated procedure, but for whatever reason I wasn’t paying close enough attention during this particular task.

On our engine, the exhaust elbow blocks the aft end of the heat exchanger, so you can’t remove the tube stack that way without pulling off the entire elbow. Instead, it’s simpler to swing the alternator out of the way. I’d never really messed with an alternator and didn’t realize that it had such a wide range of motion. We removed the exhaust elbow at first, but this ended up being a waste of a gasket. Once the way was clear, removing the tube-stack was as simple as undoing two bolts.

There was a good amount of build-up in the tubes, but only one or two tubes were mostly blocked. A combination of soaking in vinegar, pipe cleaners, and bamboo skewers cleared out the mineral deposits. The o-rings were replaced with fresh ones, and the whole system was re-assembled and eventually filled with coolant.

A side-by-side of a heat exchanger. In the before image, many of the tubes are clogged with build-up.
A side-by-side of the heat-exchanger, before and after cleaning.

Bottom Paint

Re-doing our bottom paint was our original reason for hauling out. To apply new bottom paint, everything below the water line has to be sanded, creating a consistently rough surface for the paint to adhere to. Then, 2-3 coats of anti-fouling paint are applied, and the boat can go back into the water.

The paint is generally toxic and only allowed to be removed using a vacuum sander locally. We put together an assembly using a 5” Makita orbital sander, a Dust Deputy dust separating funnel, and a borrowed Rigid vacuum for about $100. The alternative was to rent a high-end sanding system from the yard for $40 a day. The Festool systems cost over a thousand dollars and have a 6” sanding pad. However, we weren’t sure how long everything would take us, so we decided to build our own little system so that we could go at our own speed.

Our system wasn’t great, all said and done, but it removed paint without making a mess. We had the incredibly good fortune of making friends with a machinist who lived in the yard and happily lent us his Mirka sander. The difference between the two set-ups was night and day.

Shortly after assembling our little sanding system, I discovered that most of the paint on the bottom of our keel was failing. The barrier coat, which protects the metal and acts as a base for the anti-fouling, was blistering away from the metal. That meant that 16 years of built-up antifouling and the extra-tough barrier coating would all need to be sanded away over an area of about 30 square feet. (While a portion of the anti-fouling erodes over time, some of it still remains.) To make things more challenging, the keel was resting just over the ground on blocks, so any work there had to be done while laying on the ground with the sander above your head. The neighbor’s Mirka could easily remove in an hour what would take at least three with the Makita.

A person under the keel of a boat. They're wearing a face shield, respirator, and gloes.

We had access to the Mirka for most of our sanding work, and it was incredibly helpful. If it hadn’t been for the issues on the bottom of the keel, the entry-level Makita would have worked alright. Our setup is at least fairly portable and all said and done, we’ve kept the parts for future projects and haulouts.

There were a few places that we sanded back to bare metal aside from the keel. These areas needed to be cleaned of rust, primed, and have a barrier coat of epoxy built up before they could be painted. We also pulled the rudder off, partially to see if we could, and also to take a closer look at some of the areas that needed painting. We were able to lift the rudder off using a combination of ropes, ratchet-straps, and a chain fall. We could have done it with a block and tackle setup, but my father had brought a chain fall along. The rudder probably weighs two or three hundred pounds. It’s hefty, but not unmanageable.

Painting was relatively straightforward. Thankfully, the manufacturers of these hundred-plus-dollar-a-gallon paints write very comprehensive instructions: it’s in their best interest that customers get great results. The first gallon had set on a shelf for a long time and required some effort to mix up, but eventually it cooperated. The few stubborn chunks that wouldn’t mix got flicked off of the boat’s hull between applying layers. We thinned the Hydrocoat SR with water according to the directions, and after wiping down the sanded surface, rolled it on with a short-nap(3/16”) roller. Some of the more challenging areas were brushed on by hand. Some people obsess over their paint-jobs, wanting everything to look perfect and pristine. So far as we’re concerned, this part of Blackthorn had better stay beneath the water and out of sight, where it belongs. So long as we get a good, functional job done, we’re happy.

I’m not giving the details of the application because honestly, they’re fairly boring and vary widely from product to product. Overall, the Hydrocoat SR was probably easier to work with and clean up than any other paint product on our boat. It was extremely forgiving and flexible. Of course, we’ll have to see how it holds up in the long run.

While painting wasn’t particularly challenging, we had also made the mistake of focusing on our other projects first. The problem was that the weather began changing. Our clear, hot summer quickly turned into a cold, rainy fall. Most of the paints aren’t meant be applied in temperatures under 50°F. What should have been painting at our leisure turned into a very cramped schedule towards the end of our time in the marina, including tenting parts of the boat in plastic and running the heater underneath the keel to make sure the paint would cure properly.

Solar Panels and Battery Banks

The final project that we decided to take on was upgrading our solar and battery systems. With our major maintenance for the immediate future taken care of and both of us becoming more independent and flexible with our work schedules, we expect to spend a lot more time on the water. For us, meeting our power needs is critical to spending more time away from the dock. We spend a lot of time working, learning, and playing on our computers, which are massive power hogs, despite being fairly power-efficient for laptops. As a comparison, our anchor light consumes about 1 amp in a 12 hour period, while my laptop’s power adapter consumes over 3 Amps an hour, left to its own devices. Instead, it’s usually run off of batteries in energy-saver mode for several hours between charges to avoid overtaxing our batteries.

When we purchased Blackthorn, she had a bank of three 110 amp hour flooded lead-acid house batteries and a starter battery. The starter battery kicked the bucket about a year ago. We spent some time researching it and found a suitable replacement. However, the house batteries were getting older and generally having a difficult time with the colder temperatures.

For solar, we had about 100 watts of panels, or we had at some point. There was a set of highly flexible Spectraflex32 panels that lived on top of May, our dinghy, out on the foredeck and a set of Spectralite20 panels on the “turtle,” a compartment for storing ropes forward of the companionway. Unfortunately, the Spectraflex panels were from 2004 and more than a decade of service had done some real damage to them. All of these panels were feeding into a single PWM charge controller. This type of charge controller is cheap and simple, but doesn’t always fully utilize all of the available energy coming in from the panels.

Two worn solar panels strapped to the top of an upside-down dinghy on the foredeck.
The original panels that were tied to May.

There are many types of batteries available for boats: flooded, gel, AGM, and even Lithium-ion batteries. Each has different advantages and disadvantages. Flooded batteries are cheap and can have a very long service-life in the right circumstances. However, they don’t cope very well with cold weather and can’t accept a charge very quickly. When we were looking at our options, the relatively recently developed carbon-foam Firefly batteries caught our eye. These expensive batteries can be very deeply discharged, quickly charged, and seem to cherry-pick many of the best qualities from the different battery options. Unfortunately, they’re also in very high demand. You can’t just go buy them at present. Distributors periodically get shipments, shipments seem to be delayed, and our local distributor wouldn’t allow us to buy them unless they had a shipment on the floor. The only option would be to pester them until a shipment inevitably showed up and hope everyone else hadn’t beat us to the punch.

We may eventually upgrade to Firefly batteries, but we found a solution that should treat us well in the meanwhile. While discussing our power needs at the boatyard, we learned about an unconventional source for batteries: A local company reconditions the batteries the Metro service used for less than a year and sells them for a fraction of their normal price. We purchased three of these group 31 AGM batteries for the price of one new battery. Even if they don’t give us a full 5 years of service, I’ll consider the money well-spent.

It’s worth noting that not every boat is equipped to handle different battery types. We have a quality charger installed that can be switched to different charge-profiles, according to the battery type. We also have a device which connects the batteries in parallel for charging when a sufficient voltage is detected. It isolates the starter battery out to keep it from being discharged when we’re using the boat’s “house” systems, such as lights or the laptop-charging inverter. It’s also worth noting that our starter battery may suffer as a lead-acid battery subjected to AGM charging profiles. I’ll be keeping an eye on it to see how it fairs and make sure that the water levels are topped off regularly.

There was one more complication with the new batteries: They weigh nearly 80 pounds each. For reference, The Sir weighs about 20 pounds more than one of these batteries. I had a heck of a time hauling them up the boatyard’s stairs onto the boat, and it was a challenge for us to wrangle them into the battery boxes. Even if it’s money well-spent, I really, really hope that we don’t have to replace any of these soon.

A man with a headlamp crouched in a quarterberth next to a large battery.

Updating our solar was the next step. On Blackthorn, we have limited real-estate for panels. We don’t have a large dodger or bimini, where many cruisers mount panels on a frame. Instead, we have the top of the dinghy and the top of the turtle. Any other locations are only available temporarily: we can always lay panels on deck if we’re going to be at anchor awhile, but they would need to be stored while underway. Because we’re working with such limited space, we decided to make the most of it and get some high-efficiency semi-flexible Solbian panels to replace our old dinghy panels. The new panels more than double our old output, at 72 watts each. Thanks to new solar tariffs, we had to pay a premium on top of the already premium panel prices, but the build quality on the panels looks phenomenal.

In addition to new panels, we purchased MPPT charge controllers for all of our panels, new and old. The full array of charge controllers is more than we really need right now, but it made sense to future-proof things somewhat. We can now easily upgrade our older panels when the opportunity presents itself.

The new panels weren’t ready for installation out of the box: they needed a supportive backing and a few other modifications before they could be installed. While they are flexible, they aren’t meant to be bent as much as the Spectraflexes. For this project, we purchased 1/8th” thick polycarbonate sheets, cut to size. It turned out that the Solbian panel backings were not the exact size listed and our sheets didn’t quite match up with them. Lesson learned: Measure things yourself, even if someone gives you measurements. We affixed the panels to the slightly mis-matched backing with some permanent double-stick adhesive tape from the same company that sold us the polycarbonate sheets: TAP Plastics.

The underside of a solar panel. It is lined with orange tape.

Once the panels were affixed to the backing, we drilled 7/8” holes for grommets in six locations, away from the edges of the solar cells. In order to drill the holes nicely without blowing out the front or back of the plastic, we drilled a small guide-hole in a piece of wood and gently clamped this along the edge of the panel, along with a wooden backing. Once the small guide-hole was drilled, we repeated the process with another piece of wood that had a larger hole. It wasn’t perfect, but given our limited resources in the yard, it created quick and fairly clean holes.

With the holes all drilled, we affixed some rubber grommets and appropriately sized trim-guard that we had ordered through Grainger using Sikaflex 221 as an adhesive. The process was messy, but the sikaflex cleaned up with enough wiping, we’re pretty satisfied with how the panels came out.

Aside from preparing the panels themselves, we also had to wire everything. The panels came with MC4 connectors at the ends of their leads. These waterproof connectors are very popular, and after looking at how the old panel connectors, some spade terminals wrapped in splicing tape, were faring in the weather, I can understand why. The dinghy panels have a fairly long run: It’s nearly 50 feet from the controllers to the panels and back. And because the Solbians are low voltage panels, they’re more susceptible to the voltage drop caused by running DC voltage through a long length of wire. In order to preserve as much power as possible, we needed some beefy wires. We settled for 8 AWG wires.

The Sir also had the very good idea of rerouting our solar wiring through the back of the turtle and onto the deck. Previously, all of the wires had run up and out the companionway, preventing the door from being totally closed. It looked ugly, added length to the run, and interfered with the door opening. And I was still grouching when he decided he wanted to do this.

I’ll take a little break from the technical side of the installation to discuss a very real aspect of hauling out and doing major maintenance: It’s stressful. On more than one occasion, I was downright pissed off about how things were going. We had hauled out with a very clear, concise plan of what we’d do and how we’d do it. Things kept coming up and getting more complicated. The weather was turning and neither one of us wanted to spend the entire winter stuck in a boatyard. Throughout the haulout, I had several projects and obligations unrelated to the boat that I had to keep on top of. There were also several tasks, such as soldering wire terminals, that only I could handle due to prior experience. I can say with confidence that I was not always fun or easy to work with during all of this.

For our next haulout, which involve several more substantial projects, I plan to totally clear my calendar for at least a full month. I hope that by that point that we will be able to support ourselves completely through our own efforts—It’s a lot easier to take a month off when you’re your own boss. Anyways, we definitely butted heads more than once during the process. We’re both pretty reasonable people, but not without our own limits and shortcomings.

The Sir’s decision to punch a hole through the turtle was definitely a good one, but at the time, it was one more task we hadn’t prepared for that would require time to properly execute. Really, the delay was caused by needing an appropriate fitting that we could run the wiring through. It eventually got sorted, and we were able to continue along with the installation.

I built a lot of wires for the updated installation. MC4 connectors were added to our old solar panels, and 12 gauge leads were built to run to the batteries. The old wiring was a much smaller gauge, and we wanted to future-proof things. For the Solbian panels, we ran 8 AWG wires up into the turtle with MC4s, then built (what we hope are) extremely sturdy extension cables that run the distance between the turtle and the dinghy. The additional MC4 connector adds some possible points of failure to the system, but it also makes it easy to replace the segment of wiring most likely to be destroyed by the elements. We put the extension cables inside lengths of liquidtight flexible pvc conduit. They’re bulky and a little ugly, but hopefully they’ll survive at least as long as the panels.

Two wire leads with fuse holders in them. There are soldering supplies in the background.

All of the terminal connections were crimped, soldered, and covered in heatshrink, except for the 8 AWG terminals. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the right equipment to do those crimps, and an MC4 crimper for 8 gauge wire is an expensive and large tool that we don’t really want on the boat. We settled for cup soldering these connections. It wasn’t a technique I was familiar with, and my tiny soldering iron had a hard time with it, but we managed, and I’ve since upgraded the iron to something with a little more oomph.

Odds and Ends

Aside from the big projects, there were some miscellaneous tasks to attend to. We needed a few new zincs. It should be simple now that I know the exact zincs to use, but it was a little challenging to figure out the zincs that had been completely eaten away.

We also needed to clean the speed sensor. This device is basically a little paddle-wheel that protrudes slightly from the boat’s hull. It’s designed to be removed while the boat is in the water, but we weren’t very confident about testing it out for the first time on Puget Sound. The whole device had been colonized by mussels and other sea-critters, but it cleaned up without too much effort. We thought that the device had stopped functioning due to fouling, but now that we’re back in the water, we realized that there’s something more going on. It looks like we’ll get to test out our in-water removal techniques soon.

A plastic device with a paddle-wheel mounted to its end. It is being held above a through-hull fitting.

Another task not directly related to the haulout, but critical to us going out to anchor was replenishing our stores. Over the course of a few days, I made several trips to Grocery Outlet and Cash and Carry to stock up on bulk goods. Rice, black beans, lentils, and steel cut oats are staples worth buying by the 10+ pound bag. I also picked up some better bulk food storage containers, for storage in the bins and lockers, as well as small containers for the main cupboard. Finding containers that are just the right dimensions for strange boat spaces requires a bit of research and persistence. Aside from the staples, we also stocked up on fresh vegetables.

A somewhat non-sequitur observation from our time spent in the boatyard: Boatyards are often where boats go to die. Sure, there were some boats that were brought there specifically to be scrapped, but there were far more boats spread throughout the yard that had been brought there for normal work and eventually deteriorated to a state where scrapping seemed inevitable. Most of the time when we asked about a boat, there was a sad story behind it: Someone’s health had suddenly failed them and their work in the marina had to be set aside: sometimes for years, sometimes forever. A rotting hull that had once been a beautiful sailboat belonged to a widower who couldn’t bear to part with her late husband’s passion project. Others were less tragic: The owner had started a family and had kids, but the boat was left behind.

It really wasn’t a reassuring line of thought, though it was motivating. Hopefully our future stays in the yard will be much shorter in duration.

Anyways, that was it, with all our maintenance managed, stores refreshed, and some fresh paint, Blackthorn was ready to go back in the water. We were scheduled to launch on Thursday, November 29th at 10 AM.

Blackthorn sitting on a trailer. The bottom has been repainted.

Thank you for taking the time to read through, and I hope you found some useful tidbits! If you have any questions for me, or just want to hang out with some cool folks, feel free to hop on the Creaturista Discord server!