Boat Luck and boat bucks go hand in hand

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Owning a boat can be like walking in the Everglades. You never know what’s going to rise up and bite you in the backside, although at least in the Everglades you know it’s likely to be an alligator. On a boat, all you know is that it’s going to be “Boat Luck.”

Tom learned about Boat Luck at an early age.

We all know about Boat Luck, which is seldom good luck. That’s why some of us, me in particular, go to great lengths to do good things, including spending boat bucks, to avoid bad things. But Boat Luck rules, anyway.

Recently I noticed that the circuit breaker for the starboard receptacles on Chez Nous had tripped. I flipped the breaker back on, and it tripped again as an arcing noise crackled somewhere in the boat. Somewhere is a big place. I started tracing wiring for the circuit but decided that was hopeless without a Sawzall and a stick of dynamite. When they built that boat, they didn’t want to leave anything exposed but teak.

I found the problem in plain view in the forward head. It was an expensive, high-quality GFCI receptacle I’d installed. It had shorted internally and blown its blackened guts out through the little slots. I removed it, capped off the three lines and flipped on the breaker. All was fine, and my DVOM showed 120 volts when I tested the line. Ahhh, the sweet feeling of success.

I installed a spare regular receptacle, and all was fine until I plugged in a table lamp to further test it. The light didn’t come on, and when I tested the line with the light switched on, the voltage was only at 7. This meant to me that when the receptacle shorted, the surge had damaged wiring somewhere in the circuit. This could have caused a fire, but for my trusty old, reliable circuit breaker. I decided to replace the entire run and disconnected the wire at the panel. After three days of emptying cabinets, drawers and storage bins, and pulling and pushing the new cable through the maze of bulkheads and behind cabinets and liner, the wire was in place. Mel, my wife, came to take a look. “What did you do … use dynamite?” she asked.

As the high-class, expensive GFCI demonstrated, even though you’re doing it right, you’re not immune from Boat Luck. Much earlier in my boating career I had performed a very fine upgrade on an earlier boat, shortly before our second trip to the Bahamas. While checking the systems, I noticed that the anti-siphon valve in the raw-water cooling line looked a bit funky, with some external corrosion on the body. I knew that interior corrosion could keep the valve from opening, so I did some research and found a new high-quality valve made by a reputable manufacturer. It seemed designed and built well, and the price certainly verified that. I shelled out the boat bucks, ordered one and installed it.

A few days into our trip we anchored out in the North River, which opens into Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. This is a real wilderness area. When we prepared to pull anchor the next morning, the engine gave a solid clunk when we pressed the starter button. This is something you never want to hear when you try to start an engine. After checking out all the other possible causes I could think of, I figured out that the new anti-siphon valve had failed, allowing seawater to flood the cylinders.

A strong cold front had blown through and was building. The wind forecast for the evening was for gale- to maybe storm-force winds. This wasn’t a place I wanted to be without an engine, and I didn’t know whether I could get the thing going again. There were no towing services in the area, but there was a Coast Guard station at Coinjock about 10 miles to the north. Those 10 miles were twisting narrow channels dredged through marsh and woods. The Coasties sent a boat and towed us back to a dock at Coinjock, where we could get a professional mechanic to help. The whole thing cost a lot of time and a lot of money. And it happened because I’d gone the extra mile and replaced a bad-looking part with a fancy new piece — sort of like replacing that regular receptacle with a fancy, expensive one. At this point I was getting used to Boat Luck, but I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Boat Luck sometimes leads to calling in the cavalry.

Boat Luck got down and dirty many years later in our current boat. Again, we were headed to the Bahamas, this time having made it all the way down to the Indian River in Florida. Chez Nous had an old Perkins T6-354 diesel. I liked the engine because it was a tried-and-true workhorse. One of the things I liked was that the exhaust manifold cooler and freshwater heat exchanger/reservoir were a unified aluminum piece. I’d had problems with a past Perkins 6-354; the cast iron exhaust manifold rusted out from seawater cooling. This could dump seawater into the cylinders. The newer rig was exceptionally expensive but had an aluminum manifold cooler using fresh water with antifreeze, so I thought that these problems were a thing of the past.

This day, as we were steaming along, we began to shoot steam from the exhaust. This is not a good thing. Then the engine began to protest, and it ground to a stop. We coasted over to the side of the channel and dropped anchor. The next day TowBoatUS got us to a marina, as I stood at the helm, eating my pride. I called Marine Pro of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and — many days, many dollars and a new engine later — it was all sorted out. This great chunk of aluminum had a casting flaw, as did others on that model engine. It caused a leak at the forward cylinder, allowing fresh water into that cylinder and sometimes others. Once again I was slammed because I’d gotten a “better,” more expensive boat thing.

Boat Luck doesn’t just happen in dark places. Once I got a device to protect against lightning strikes. I even spent double boat bucks and got two of them, one for the mizzen mast and one for the main. Following the directions, I screwed one to the top of each mast. Can’t do enough to protect my boat and my family, I thought. A few years later, lightning hit the top of the main mast a few inches from the “protector.” It didn’t hit the protector, so I left it up there. I thought at least it would discourage birds from sitting on the top of the mast and dumping on my boat.

It’s still there protecting, but I’m not sure from what. I’ve even seen ospreys balancing on the thing (no, I don’t know how they do it) as they profusely cut loose on my decks and Bimini. It demonstrates well that one of the effects of Boat Luck is that you constantly get the feeling that you’re being sh** upon. (That’s a biblical term). This is particularly so since it seems to have some synergistic relationship with the outflow of boat bucks, which I’d learned in order to avoid Boat Luck far back in my early days of simpler boats. Unfortunately, I just never learned that this didn’t always work.

My first boat was 12 feet and wooden. I loved to row it. You could see in the movies how this made you strong, and I was a puny kid (still am) who needed to look strong. When friends and grown-ups were visible on shore, I frequently succumbed to putting on a show. But sometimes I became so impressed with my skills that when I stopped, I’d simply let go the oars. Quickly and quietly they slipped out of the oarlocks and into the water. If I caught one before it got away, the situation remained under control. However, all too often they both hit the water at about the same time and scooted away from the boat in opposite directions. With the boat’s forward momentum, they were quickly a good distance away. On a calm day with no stinging nettles in the water, I could jump over and swim after one of them, swim back to the boat, climb in and paddle after the other. But you can never rely on such benign conditions.

So it wasn’t unusual for people ashore to see this small boy out in his small boat hollering for help in acute embarrassment. One rainy Saturday afternoon, I saw a pirate movie at the little theater in our town and watched the Hollywood sailors neatly ship their oars by sharply pulling them in, the handles hitting the opposite sides of the launch and sliding down to rest in the bilge, the blades angled out and up from the gunwales. This was class. I was impressed. If they could do it, I could.

I practiced so I could do it just like the pirates and soon had it down pretty well. I decided one Saturday to give the folks ashore a show. As I sped along off the beach I yelled “watch this,” then smartly and very aggressively shipped the oars. The handles hit the sides in a perfect execution of the drill, just below the gunwales. And kept going.

A casting flaw in Tom's Perkins T6-354 diesel led to the shelling out of big boat bucks.

By this time my wooden boat, built of local pine, was a few years old. Unbeknownst to me, the sides under the gunwales had gotten soft (rotten is a better word) underneath the thick coat of gray paint I’d applied. I didn’t have to swim after the oars this time as the crowd watched. I just sat there, staring at the handles sticking out the sides of my boat. They weren’t going anywhere, and neither was I.

I was just beginning to learn about Boat Luck. Swimming and ignominiously pulling my boat to shore was something I’d already experienced — I just hadn’t done it with two wings coming through the sides and such a big crowd on the beach. Now I learned that I shouldn’t try to save boat bucks by failing to buy stuff I need … such as oar collars. Or Git Rot. If I had used them, this wouldn’t have happened, which is probably why I went the extra mile and spent the extra money for that high-quality GFCI receptacle, the super-expensive siphon break and so much other boat stuff.

So the skeptical may be wondering: Rather than complain, why don’t you get off your boat and go climb a mountain and stay there? Well, that’s easy — because I love boats. And I have a lot of fun on boats. And I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from boats. (At least I like to think of it that way.) One thing is for sure: Even when you spend boat bucks, you can’t escape Boat Luck.

June 2015 issue