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Remember the Rule of Threes

We’ve all heard about it. Things happen in threes, good things and bad. I recently was reminded of this “rule” delivering my new boat from North Carolina to my home state of Rhode Island. During the trip I learned, and was reminded again, of three important lessons. The first is that no matter how smart and fastidious you may be in evaluating that extremely complicated piece of machinery called a boat, you are going to miss something. That very something will not fail to surprise you on the delivery. I suggest that “delivery trip” be renamed the “discover what you missed trip.” Has anyone ever taken one and not had something unexpected happen?

The second lesson is that Mother Nature’s schedule will always take precedence over your schedule, no matter how pressing or important a calendar you have. A wise boater will never attempt to reverse that order, or face potentially dire consequences. The third lesson is that a custom-built vessel’s specifications are subject to change and estimation. No two builds are alike, even of the “same” model. If you want to be certain of critical dimensions or capacities, get out a ruler and measure them yourself.

I’ve found these lessons to be valuable and I hope you will learn something from them as well. Here’s my story to illustrate the “Rule of Threes.” Ready to cast off?

Yes, I was smitten again — this time by a 38-foot custom Carolina express built by Buddy Harris in 1996. Having owned a number of deep-vee and modified-vee hulls, I was always intrigued by the sensuous shape of the Carolina designs and their reputation as superior rough-water boats. Yet few of these boats ply New England waters, so it took several plane rides and sea trials to educate and convince myself that they would deliver the smooth and stable ride that my 53-year-old skeleton would appreciate now and for years to come.

As I was to learn, the world of custom boats is very different from production vessels. These creations are often made inside tin sheds in towns with unfamiliar names. The designs are built to eye, simply because it looks right and often eschewing CAD/CAM or fancy equations. Each vessel is truly unique. There are usually no reviews in the yachting press to guide you on your selection, leaving you to rely only on your own experience to choose the right vessel to suit your needs.

And did I mention that many of these creations are made of wood? In my case juniper strips saturated in epoxy and coated with a thin layer of fiberglass and paint to a shape that is nearly impossible to render from a fiberglass mold. A wooden boat certainly feels different at sea, somehow softer and quieter, and the anchor locker even smells like a cedar closet.

I had found the boat during the summer of 2006, negotiated a price in the fall and sea trialed her in January 2007. Not knowing a great deal about the intimate details of wood/epoxy construction, I then hired the best surveyor I could find. His report was exhaustive, close to 40 pages with photographs. Though solid, the vessel was lightly used in the last few years and, of course, required some attention. I set up a refit budget (then added 50 percent for contingencies), purchased the boat in February, and flew home planning to return to North Carolina in May.

I “watched” the refit take place over the next several months through e-mail. The project was on schedule. My crew had done a creditable job on the new paint, electronics, enclosure and teak covering boards. A week before I was to take Fine Line home, one of the networked electronic displays went blank. We would have to navigate with a single screen, but I was thankful that I had redundancy in this critical system. There is No. 1, I said to myself, and we haven’t even left the dock yet. I wondered what the other two would be.

The weather wasn’t particularly conducive to running outside and around CapeHatteras, so we elected to take the Intracoastal Waterway from Beaufort to Norfolk, Va.

There is a saying that North Carolina has a lot of water, most of which is spread very thin. My surveyor was available for the day, and I hired him as my guide for this first leg of the delivery. I didn’t want to go aground the first day with my new boat.

Leaving at dawn we covered more than 200 nautical miles, most with my heart in my throat in less than 10 feet of water. The Caterpillar diesels were smoking a bit on acceleration, and I made a mental note to investigate. At the end of the day I was relieved to be in deep water with the Navy vessels in Norfolk. I pulled into Bluewater Marina in Hampton, Va., to refuel and spend the night. I backed into the slip tired but happy to have put in a long run without apparent incident.

As we were about to go to dinner one of my crew, Erik, noticed that Fine Line was lying slightly bow down. That was odd, I thought, since I had just filled her up and the fuel tanks are aft. Lifting the hatch revealed nearly a foot of water in the forward bilge. Where could this have come from? It was dry when we left, and we didn’t hit anything.

After snooping around a bit I saw it was wet under the galley sink, which also made no sense since we didn’t use the sink. Then I noticed that the tailpipe from the sink was completely corroded. This allowed seawater, at certain speeds, to enter the overboard drain fitting, travel up the drain hose and spill out under the sink and into the bilge. No problem, since there’s a bilge pump there, right? Predictably, the bilge pump was teed into the same drain hose and essentially turned my forward bilge compartment into a huge live well. Imagine, a rusty sink drain causing a potential sinking hazard. I thought to myself, there’s No. 2.

The forecast for the next two days was nasty, 25-plus knots out of the northeast and confused seas. I was anxious to get the boat home but not on that forecast; I decided to leave the boat in Virginia and fly back for the next good-weather weekend. I made arrangements with the marina yard for some minor repairs and was back in two weeks.

I have made the trip from Hampton to Rhode Island several times. Isn’t it funny how making a trip just once before can make it more relaxing? My friend Brad and I headed out Sunday morning past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and pointed north for Cape May, N.J. The Cats were purring, not smoking, thanks to a new set of Walker AIRSEP air filters I had brought down. It seems someone had partially occluded the originals with paint overspray. This caused a restriction in air flow to the engines, which produced the black smoke on acceleration. It was an easy run of about 160 nautical miles to Cape May, and we pulled into Miss Chris Marina. After a delightful dinner at Lazy Bones we looked forward to a fair forecast and a daybreak start to the final leg of the delivery trip.

The last leg of the trip was the longest, a rhumb line of about 265 nautical miles that would take Fine Line up to 70 miles offshore. I cleared the Cape May Inlet, pointed her toward Newport, and didn’t touch the throttles for more than 10 hours. By 10 a.m. we were halfway to Block Island and our home waters. We rounded Newport’s spectacular harbor entrance, Castle Hill, ahead of schedule and proceeded under the NewportBridge and up the East Passage toward my home on WarrenHarbor. I was beaming and almost there. Then No. 3 showed up.

How quickly human emotions can change, like when the opposing team puts up a game winning shot in the final seconds of play and the deafening cheers of the hometown crowd instantly turn to deafening silence. I was about to get some deafening silence of my own, as two miles north of the Newport Bridge my starboard engine suddenly lost rpm and then stopped. No problem, I thought, I must have a plugged Racor fuel filter. As I descended into the engine room to change the filter, the port engine quit too, and just like that it was very quiet, indeed.

I hoped that the port Racor was clogged, but I knew in my gut that I had run out of fuel. Predictably, a southbound tug and tow were coming directly at us, so a quick call on channel 13 alerted them that we were dead in the water. I then called my towing service, Sea Tow, who expertly put Fine Line on her dock an hour or so later. At least she was finally home, although not exactly as planned.

The tow home gave Brad and me ample time to ponder how this could have happened. The listing sheet for the boat and the surveyor had put the fuel tank capacity at 375 gallons. The tanks were filled at Cape May, and I was getting better than 1 nmpg at cruising speed. We measured the tanks and did a rough calculation of volume in cubic inches, then divided by 233 to get approximate gallons. We calculated a little more than 300 gallons. However, due to the shape of a Carolina hull the tanks were only 10 inches deep, and the fuel pickup is never at the absolute bottom; a “dry” tank actually left about 25 gallons a side for a total usable tankage of about 250 gallons. Such was my lesson in fuel tank geometry and in purchasing custom boats.

My advice: When purchasing a custom boat, or a production boat that has been customized, get a ruler out and verify critical specifications yourself. There is a reason for the broker’s disclaimer, “Specifications thought to be reliable but are not guaranteed.”