Sometimes a fix is easier than you think

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When a problem pops up aboard a boat, it’s often just before or during a trip. When you got up in the morning, all you wanted was a good day on the water. What you’re getting is either a lousy day on the water or a lousy day wishing you were on the water and a boating budget once again blown.

Tom was liberated when he discovered bunk boards. No more trailer rollers to replace!

But many of the things we dread dealing with — and that ruin the day — are easier to fix than you think. Other gremlin issues don’t necessarily fall into the category of ruining your day but into the category of “must-do maintenance,” which means money, pain and hours of pre-job dread and procrastination. I’ll touch on a few to give you an idea of how much easier it’s gotten to do “boat stuff.” Let’s start with one of the worst boating experiences known to man, woman or child but that, for some reason, nobody wants to talk about much.

Macerator pump and hoses

When the macerator pump fails you’ve either got a mess or you’re soon going to have one. It usually fails because it’s overloaded, the seals have deteriorated or the motor has overheated. You can fix them, but most prefer not to, thank you. The theory is that they’re not very expensive — maybe this has something to do with the high rate of failure — and it’s easier to just replace them, though not very easy.

The worst problem is the delightful deluge that floods the area when you pull the pump from the hose. Next time you feel inspired, pull that pump when there’s nothing to come out and install a quality, properly sized ball valve on the upstream side of the hose and perhaps the downstream side, depending on your boat’s plumbing. Next time the pump gives you trouble, it’s plug-and-play with the replacement … almost.

Sanitation hose is your enemy when you have to pull it off the pump’s hose barb — or anything else, for that matter. This typically results in bleeding hands, torn hose, broken barbs and general mayhem. There’s an easier way. Get an appropriately sized towel —a hand towel usually will do — heat some water in a bucket and drop in the towel. After it has soaked up all of the hot water it’ll hold, pull it out (wear thick rubber gloves for protection) and quickly wrap it around the hose at the barb. This usually will heat the hose sufficiently to limber it up so it’ll come off. If it doesn’t, heat more water and keep trying.

Many prefer to use a heat gun or hair dryer for this job, but there often isn’t room to direct the air all around the hose, and there might not be a safe 110-volt outlet available. Keep those gloves on when you start pulling the hose — they’ll give you a better grip. So when you’ve got the old pump out of the hose, it’s now plug-and-play. Unless …

If that old hose is so rigid that heat won’t make it supple enough to remove, it’s time to change it, anyway. Always carry a short length of new sanitation hose with you and a few correctly sized hose coupler fittings. It doesn’t cost much, and it can save your day. With this short piece you’ll probably be able to cut off the old hose from the barb. A good knife will do it, with patience, but if you’re lacking patience — and you probably will be at this point — an oscillating saw or the cutting wheel of a Dremel tool will do the job.

One of the things that makes sanitation hose rigid is the buildup of calcium-like deposits on the inner surface. This comes with use and eventually will clog the system and harm the macerator pump. Regularly pouring vinegar into the head can help combat the problem. The amount, frequency and effectiveness of this depends on your system and how often you use it.

There are also products, such as C.H. by Raritan, to clean this deposit from hoses. Raritan says C.H. is fine for the environment, and many use it as regular maintenance. Always follow the instructions of the manufacturer of your equipment and products. Once you get set up, this dreaded part of boat work is easier than you think.

Winterizing

Regular maintenance for you may include winterizing. There’s a new product that makes this much easier than before. Without it, you normally had to remove hoses from through-hull valves and extend or rearrange the hose so it could be inserted into a bucket full of antifreeze. This had to be done for engines, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, and any other systems that use seawater for heat exchanging.

The biggest problem with this job was usually removing the hoses from the through-hull. The ends often are difficult to reach, and after a few years they become stiff and difficult to pull over the ridges on the barbs. Enter the Sea Flush (www.seaflush.com). This tool allows you to winterize your engine, generator and air conditioner, as well as other jobs — for example, flushing fresh water through the saltwater cooling side of engines — without pulling off a hose. The concept of the Sea Flush is simple, and the execution is impressive.

Sea Flush winterization tool

The Sea Flush system uses a funnel-shaped device designed to fit into most seawater strainers, such as the popular ones by Groco and Perko. Close the through-hull, remove the strainer top and the basket and push the device in. You then fill the device container with antifreeze and turn on the motor to suck it through. Keep pouring it in so the container won’t run dry and ruin the impeller.

If you don’t want to do this or if your engine is large enough that it sucks faster than you can pour, the Sea Flush includes an adapter that screws into the funnel and a hose that mates with the adapter. With this, you can suck antifreeze from a bucket. You can also attach that hose to the output of a small Shop-Vac and blow air through the system to purge the line down to the through-hull. (You can’t blow air or liquid past the impeller in the engine.)

You can also use the Sea Flush to descale the interior of the heat exchangers on your engines, air conditioning and refrigeration. A few minutes of descaling with a manufacturer-approved product may vastly improve the effectiveness of the heat exchanger in any cooling device. Use an approved product because of the risk of damage if you use something too strong.

If you’re dealing with a seawater pump with a magnet impeller coupling, remember that these don’t suck well and may need to have a head of water above the pump. You can do this with the Sea Flush, according to the company, if the strainer is above the pump or by extending the Sea Flush hose up higher to create a water column well above the pump.

How you use it varies with the system, but the device offers a lot of versatility to make your day easier. As with any product and procedure on a boat, there are important safety precautions to follow. There’s a helpful set of instructions, and the bottom line is that the entire job is much easier and quicker than before.

There’s another product that, in the right circumstances, may help you avoid winterizing completely or augment the antifreeze with heating that protects your gear. This saves time and may allow you to use the boat in the winter or at least run your engines periodically. It’s called the Xtreme Heater (www.xtremeheaters.com). Yes, it’s a heater, and we have all been saying, with good reason, not to use space heaters on boats. I’ve seen space heaters melt down even when turned off. But the Xtreme Heater is not what we think of when we use the term “space heater.”

The best way to understand it is to visit the website. The manufacturer says it uses PTC technology (positive temperature coefficient) instead of a metal element. With a metal element, electricity flows through resistive metal strips that heat up (because of their resistance to the flow of current) and produce heat that is blown out with a fan. If the fan fails, there can be a fire. If the thermostat fails there can be a fire. If the strips become compromised (and they will with age) there can be a fire. And these things use a lot of electricity.

Xtreme Heaters use an engineered substance that looks like ceramic in an impressive heat sink. When current flows through it, heat is produced and blown out by a fan, but this substance, according to the manufacturer, is self-regulating. If the thermostat or fan fails, it’s designed to ramp down on its own. And it uses very little electricity, compared to other types of heaters, tapering down quickly after initial start. Its thermostat is factory-set to turn the unit on when the temperature in the boat around the unit falls to approximately 40 F and off when that temperature reaches about 50 degrees. The fan generally runs about 10 minutes after the thermostat shuts down the unit in order to get the most heat for the buck.

It is designed specifically for boats and built in compliance with various stringent safety standards, according to the manufacturer. The one downside to this method of winterization is that if you lose electricity, the heater won’t help. There will probably be enough residual heat in the boat to last for a time, but a longer period of power loss could be a problem. If you’re around to handle this — and can perhaps run your engine until the power returns — or if you’ve used a Sea Flush, as well, this isn’t such a concern. These tools turn winterizing into a much easier chore.

Trailer lights

Jobs we dread aren’t limited to more complex boats with inboards, air conditioners and plumbing systems. Some of the jobs I dread most are associated with my 1985 20-foot Mako center console. High on the list is keeping the trailer lights working. I hate trailer lights. I think the most oft-repeated lie of anglers has nothing to do with the size of fish that got away. It has to do with trailer lights.

“Well gosh, officer, they were all working fine when I left my house.” I can’t imagine how many times traffic police have heard this, but I also can’t imagine how many times they’ve used it themselves, if they’re into trailer boating. Let’s face it. The thing that trailer lights seem to do best is let you down when you need them. There are reasons for this. We leave them out in the weather. We dunk them under water. And all too often we forget to unplug the wiring harness from the tow vehicle just before we dunk them in the water.

And the lights and wiring harnesses are relatively cheap. Maybe everybody figures they aren’t going to last long no matter how well you make them. So soon we find ourselves on our knees beside the road in the blowing rain, holding a flashlight in our teeth, banging on the lens casing, wiggling wires, and removing light bulbs and breaking them in the process. But there’s an easier way.

Replace the entire set, wires and all, every few seasons. They’re not only relatively inexpensive, but they’re easy to find. And because they’re not expensive, get the best you can find. It won’t cost that much more, and it’s more than worth the extra expense.

Submersible Trailer Light Kit provided by West Marine

Replacing the set is easy. To get a set that works for your trailer, look at what you have and follow wiring harness guides, such as those provided by West Marine. You can use the wires already in place, which you are replacing, to pull through the new wires.

If you have wires of extra length in the new set, don’t cut, splice and try to seal them. Neatly and securely bundle them out of the way with wire tie. Avoid sharp turns in the wire. These may crimp the wire, harm the insulation and cause a break in the wire. Also, avoid installing the wires next to a sharp or rough edge on the trailer or in a manner that could cause chafing.

This painless job can save you hours of aggravation and, best of all, help you maintain your integrity. When you next tell the officer about the lights working before you left, you’ll probably be telling the truth.

There’s another product out to make life easier when you don’t regularly change your lighting system. It not only helps with trailer lights, but also the myriad other days ruined by poor electrical contacts. It’s called the Corrosion Buster Pen, and it’s from Star brite. (www.starbrite.com). It’s a collection of about 20,000 glass fibers held in a case that looks like the body of the pen. You turn the body and the little glass fiber brush extends out, like the lead in a mechanical pencil. They are very effective in removing corrosion that builds on electrical contacts of any type, particularly around the water. They’re far more effective and easier to use than the traditional methods such as using an eraser on a pencil or the tip of a screwdriver. One great feature is that it deals well with contacts that are recessed in some cavity, such as a bulb socket. The Corrosion Buster Pen seldom has trouble getting to the spot, unlike a bit of sandpaper or emery cloth on the end of your finger. It also helps to avoid inadvertent welding, such as when that screwdriver shorts out something. Follow instructions and beware that glass fibers can hurt you if you don’t use the tool carefully and as intended.

Star brite Corrosion Buster Pen

Trailer rollers

Over the years, I’ve hated this job. You usually have to take a hacksaw or Sawzall to the square brackets, then knock off the old rollers with a sledgehammer. I’ve found that this is true no matter how well I maintain my trailer. After a point, you’ve got to do something or you’ll suffer all sorts of problems because of the disintegrating rollers, including putting a nice hole in your bottom.

I recently found out that it’s easier than you think to replace the rollers with something that’s not only better for many boats but, in my opinion, is also easier to maintain. My solution: Use covered bunk boards instead of putting on new rollers. In older days, these were a cheap and undesirable substitution for rollers. They were usually covered with carpet and made it harder to get the boat onto the trailer and positioned well.

Now you can get bunk boards covered with slick surfaces such as Teflon or a similar material. If it becomes less slick, simply apply Teflon or a similar lubricant. If the slick cover becomes damaged, it’s easy to get a new cover and staple or screw it into the wooden bunk — much easier and less expensive than replacing those rollers.

If you launch from a trailer, replace the lights every few seasons.

I take my 150-hp Yamaha and Mako to Whelan’s Marine in Farnham, Va., for service. Keith Whelan introduced me to bunk boards instead of rollers when I purchased a new trailer from him several years ago. They were less expensive and work much better than rollers. He said many people are now replacing rollers with boards, and the old angle brackets often can be used if they’re in good shape.

If the boards are set up well, support for the hull is more spread out than it is with rollers, and the boards can make positioning the boat on the trailer easier. The trick is to position and align them so that the bottom strakes of the boat slip just inside or outside the bunks so that they guide the boat into place. This may involve some measuring and a little trial and error, but it’s not hard. The position of the former roller mounts may help with this adjustment. Keith set up mine, and it’s amazing how much I impress myself with trauma-free loading.

There are no moving parts with bunk boards and nothing to rust but the hardware that fastens them to the trailer and the covers on the boards. The cover hardware may be stapled. When rust starts eating at these, just replace them with stainless screws. I’ve heard that some people don’t like these boards and that some of these products have scratched boats or are too slippery. I’ve had no such problems, and I love this gear.

There are many different boats and rigs and ramp angles, and this may not be best for you. If you have questions, ask a shop and perhaps get it to do the installation the first time. Once they’re properly set up, replacing the covers or the entire board is easy.

Woodworking projects

Komatex replaced the teak veneer when Chez Nous got new portholes.

Problems that involve the need to fabricate with wood or fiberglass constantly arise. Generally speaking — very generally — I can do these jobs to the extent that the purpose is served, but it looks like hell. And if I don’t know it, my wife does. Now I no longer procrastinate, grinding my teeth in anticipation of another self-inflicted debacle.

There are products that aren’t overly expensive and make it easy to really “fix” something and have it look good. I’m referring to the products made with such esoterics as polystyrene, polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride. (I’m not a chemist; I just consider them “plastics,” which is probably inaccurate.).

They’re easy to saw, drill, sand and shape; don’t rot; come in various colors; and range from tough enough for structural applications to flexible enough to be used for veneer. You may have first noticed this type of product in a material called Starboard by King Plastic (www.kingplastic.com).

I first used this type of product to build a mounting base for my Raritan PH II heads. They had been bolted to wooden decking that deteriorated. Also, I couldn’t get under the decking to put a wrench on the nuts to remove the head. I cut a pad to the right shape, mounted bolts (threads up) in it to fit the pattern of the head, sealed the bolt heads in recessed holes on the bottom with epoxy, and screwed and glued the assembly to good wood. Now, no more rot, and it’s easy to remove the head.

A few years ago we used a product called Komatex by Kommerling (www.kommerlingusa.com) during a porthole project. We chose it for its flexibility and other qualities.

Porthole replacement nearly completed

There’s another job I’ve been fussing with for years on my Mako. It’s fastening a depth sounder/fishfinder transducer to the hull. This seems quick and easy when you read the instructions, but it’s not. Most units come with a simple transom mount that requires screwing into the fiberglass transom below the waterline, which often results in moisture leaking through the screw holes and into the core, no matter how well you seal them. This results in rot, delamination and, ultimately, structural compromise.

Whatever you do is temporary because transducers fail with time. So I refuse to put screw holes in the transom below the waterline, and I’ve used countless tactics to avoid this — tactics that usually have been a royal pain in the transom. One of these is to build a water box between the hull and the deck. This works if you can find the right spot in the hull, which can be a huge hassle, and if you can reach that spot through the access hatch.

Another is to cut a hole through the bottom to install a through-hull transducer, but I refuse to cut holes in my boat below the waterline unless it’s absolutely necessary. So I’ve come upon a solution I know will be easy. I plan to do it as soon as the weather up North is warm enough for me to go back there, and I’m actually looking forward to the job. It’ll work and I’ll probably even be able to make it look good. I’ll use one of the new “plastic” materials to mount the transducer. It’s a new product from Kommerling called CMG.

The company says it can be fiberglassed and is tough enough to be used for certain structural applications. For this job, I’ll cut a piece to the appropriate size and shape and epoxy it to the hull, its lower edge even with or slightly above the edge of the transom. I also plan to through-bolt it well above the waterline for good measure. I’ll seal the bolt holes, but I won’t worry much about them because they’re not below the waterline and won’t suffer the working stresses of a screwed-on transducer mount. Then I’ll just screw the transducer mount to the “plastic” board without compromising my hull below water.

A cover plate made of CMG did the trick when the gear shift for Tom's new outboard didn't fit the hole.

When I need a different type of transducer, I’ll just make new screw holes in the material rather than the hull. Another perennial boating problem made easy.

April 2013 issue