Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fixing Aboard

Adding new parts
to a worn out cruiser.
It’s way too hot to even think of lighting the oven, so no loafing these days. Instead we sailed from Baltimore's six weeks of engine and bottom work to Havre de Grace, where we are doing even more maintenance. This cruise has turned into the art of applying substantial amounts of money and lots of effort to address a long list of broken and worn out things, while firmly tied to a dock. Twenty years of cruising have made quite an impression on us and on Sweet Pea. We all are a little worse for the wear.

The most recent fixing started in the quiet of early morning as I dawdled over a second cup of coffee. A repeated electronic distress chirp announced that some gadget had fallen out of the nest. It was the refrigerator, complaining about the compressor’s refusal to start. 

This reminded me of our two girls on some long-ago car trip. One of them was always complaining about the other's being over the back seat's center line or not sharing the book that went along with the cassette tape or not turning the page exactly when the chime rang on the tape. Why couldn't they just get along? 

Googling the symptoms quickly led to the advice to examine the LED blink pattern to determine the underlying cause. LED? What LED? Twenty years ago diagnostic LEDs, controlled by integrated circuits and routinely included in everyday appliances, were in the distant future. This model was not nearly smart enough to blink, though it could make a single chirp each time it tried to cycle. Its smartest part, the module that controlled the compressor. was whining unintelligibly and simply wouldn't stop. This sealed black box was decorated with cooling fins nearly as prominent as those on a 50's Buick and may have been filled with glowing vacuum tubes and hissing steam valves for all I could tell. 

There wouldn't have been much point in bolting on a new control module, even if they still made such a thing, because the compressor uses a type of Freon that has long been outlawed. As I understand it, all those 1990's refrigeration fittings are now thoroughly obsolete. The original installation manual called them "one-shot fittings" and, in my experience, that was how many chances you got to get it right. I recall that trying for a second shot resulted in a hiss as the refrigerant escaped on its way to depleting the rest of the ozone layer. I’m sure that I could hire a licensed professional to do a conversion. But after experiencing the painful aftermath of trusting Mack Boring to rebuild my Yanmar of the same vintage, I’m reluctant to go down that path. 

My Yanmar fixing saga began several years ago when Deaton Yacht Service in Oriental, NC, yanked my Yanmar 3GM30F out of its cozy den, caged it in a crate and shipped it off to Mack Boring for a complete rebuild. When it returned, spiffy in a gray paint job with its Yanmar label picked out in gold paint, I was pleased that I had invested in maintaining this vintage treasure rather than casting it aside and pursuing the illusion of a tighter, fitter, younger model: a new trophy engine to keep me company in my geezer years. 

One injector o-ring escaped being
 crimped in the Mack Boring rebuild.
Unfortunately, two were unlucky
 and suffered a crushing fate.
At first everything was much better, though starting did require some extended cranking. The mystery of why was not to be revealed for several years. I learned to cope with hard starting. It seemed to be my mysterious fate.

However, the joy of the rebuild gradually turned to dismay as the engine started oozing oil from various joints. In the Bahamas the first small drip began to emerge below the fuel control lever. Deaton responded to my photo of this surprise with the opinion that a buried o-ring might not be sealing as it should. Why? No real answer other than the acknowledgment that this can sometimes happen. Had I been in Oriental I'm sure they would have made it right. As it was, I learned to fold a napkin into a triangle and pin this tiny, improvised diaper to my trusty Yanmar. Old engines dribble a bit, I supposed. 

Then oil began to appear in other places, looking like trails of black ants crawling down from many seams. This despite a 50-hour service and re-tightening all major engine bolts at 250 hours, as recommended by Yanmar. Deaton advised that this shouldn't be happening. It was annoying but Deaton Yacht Service was still in Oriental and by then we had migrated into the Chesapeake and pushed farther north into Narraganset Bay. I was resigned to occasionally adding oil and using a fuel pad as a full-size diaper. It helped make mopping up the black drips that crawled down to land in the sump less a chore.

Then, at the start of this summer's cruise, the ooze accelerated alarmingly. The diapers looked as if the Yanmar had a seriously upset internal tract. Even worse, I saw an oil sheen when I peered under the radiator cap and the antifreeze reservoir started accumulating an ominous black sludge.

We limped into Baltimore for our appointment with Tidewater Yacht Services. The service order already included checking out some oil leaks.  Suddenly that became the purpose of the visit rather than a casual, "Oh yeah, while we are getting the bottom paint could you have someone look at the engine?"

I was dumbfounded by this turn of events. Three years prior, that same antifreeze oil slick was what prompted Deaton to declare that my Yanmar was in need of such serious maintenance that a rebuild was required.

Tidewater Yacht Services, an excellent yard in Baltimore, explained that the engine again needed serious maintenance. I protested that it had already been to the Mack Boring spa and a mere 600 hours seemed a bit thin in terms of faithful performance. The gold paint was still bright on that Yanmar label, the gray paint not even scratched. How could this be? The Tidewater service manager, Brett Steinmiller, diplomatically suggested that these things can happen, even though the engine had not been overheated or otherwise abused. It was time for yet another major maintenance.

Tidewater's diesel mechanic found the head gasket leaking at cylinders two and three, two crimped injector o-rings and no output from the injection pump to cylinder three. He replaced the head gasket, replaced the improperly-installed o-rings and sent the malfunctioning injection pump off to Mack Boring for a re-re-buildI raised the concern that Mack Boring had done the original work on the engine, which presumably included the injection pump. Why would this time's results would be different than last? Brett helpfully explained that Mack Boring is, after all, the gold standard for that sort of thing and if you can't trust them to do it right, why bother?

Now, after re-investing half the cost of the original rebuild and six weeks of being tied to Tidewater's dock rather than heading for Maine, it is comforting that I no longer see oil when I check the antifreeze and the engine starts with much less cranking. Well, yes, injector o-rings installed without being crimped, a sealed head gasket and a fully-functioning injection pump should make a difference in how fast those two slacker cylinders wake up and do their part.

I wince at how the starter motor must have felt about all that extra grinding. So, I am sorry for that unintended insult. I do apologize for the neglect. Now, just start, damn it and quit whining. Is that too much to ask? My patience for this sort of thing has worn thin. Poor starter . . .

Ooze from the starter is just one of many oil leaks
that still need to be fixed.
However, all is not as it should be. The press of time and dollars and the lure of getting out of the sultry Chesapeake into much colder waters made me decide to forego having the engine yanked out of its hole once again so that Tidewater could attend to its leaky bottom end. 

As a result of this neglect, Yanmar still oozes oil from its lower half and just about anywhere else a lever or a shaft penetrates its hide. I'm resigned to mopping the sump every day and visually gauging just how much oil accumulated, so I'll know whether it has sprung a serious leak. 

I've asked Deaton to pass the results of my Tidewater experience on to Mack Boring. I understand that Mack Boring’s warranty for fluid leaks is 30 days, which expired long ago. The mechanical warranty has evaporated, too. So, on paper they have no obligation. None at all. A contract is a contract and let this buyer beware of the fine print. Still I believe that the particular gold standard proved to be dross and I should never have let them do the rebuild.

Yeah, checking the oil involves mopping the sump
every six hours of running.
I don't yet know whether this reputable company is concerned about customer satisfaction. Will they tell me that they did a professional job of the highest quality, sometimes oil leaks just happen, all warranty has expired, and there is nothing they can do? Or will they restore my confidence in their being best in class at marine diesel maintenance? I certainly intend to find out and then voice my opinion to other cruisers.

As Sweet Pea's maintenance manager, I find a real challenge in knowing when to rebuild and when to start new. There can be a false economy in the Yankee sentiment of use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. Sometimes in my mind it goes, spend a little, spend lots more, realize it's still not right, start over and buy brand new. After having spent 75% of the cost of re-powering with a new Yanmar, I'm wondering if a new engine still might be cheaper in the long run. I keep imagining how I'll explain this daily mopping up when I eventually decide to give someone else the pleasure of being Sweet Pea's owner.

I find that I'm a gambler whose last roll of the dice affects his next bet, despite statistical theory's claim that these are independent events. In much the same way, I let my last fixing experience affect my next decision. Since having Mack Boring rebuild the engine has been such a fiasco, I decided to ignore that Yankee mantra. Instead of using it up or doing without, I will replace that chirping refrigerator with the latest model. Perhaps this is the boomer mantra: damn the cost, full speed ahead toward the marine store.

I am amazed at how cheerfully the marine industry conspired to help me out by efficiently delivering the new fridge the next day. In this instance, West Marine's ability to take an order and ship to the local store was a well-oiled machine that cranked up during a short phone call and had absolutely no leaks. If they sold engines I might be sorely tempted by the prospect of chucking a vintage Yanmar in favor of that tighter, fitter, younger model.

These fittings are tiny
compared to the original ones.
Fortunately, the new Super Cold Machine was an exact fit – thanks are due to Dolmetic, nee Adler Barbour, for using the same footprint twenty years later. Plus the connections between the compressor and evaporator got even smaller over time so all the existing holes worked.

Not having to stuff my head and shoulders way down into the icebox or pretzel myself into a corner of the cockpit locker while drilling was a terrific benefit. Not hearing the ominous hiss of a Freon leak when I connected the compressor via these cleverly redesigned fittings was a delight.  Seeing frost form on a spotlessly clean evaporator was near ecstasy. 

As a bonus, we got new ice trays to replace those we misplaced years ago, freeing us from the tyranny of the dockside ice machine and its odd assortment of frostbitten bags of refrozen cubes, sometimes decorated with a package or two of bait and someone's leftover lunch. Surely the luxury of not having to tote leaking bags of crushed ice will more than offset the guilt of having invested in a new fridge rather than making do or doing without. Not really, but Anita does love the ice cubes.

Enough of my moaning about engines and iceboxes. The forecast is for westerlies and the moon is in just the right alignment to start the Delaware River's ebb at dawn. It's time to take my new straw hat to Cape May, Sandy Hook and beyond. Damn those maintenance torpedoes, full speed ahead. 

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