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Sea Savvy - Low-budget cruising

Click here to read the regulations for transiting an opening bridge, as referenced in July's Sea Savvy.

Low-budget cruising

 I don’t know why people call me tight. I’m not tight; I’m just a poor man with a boat. If you read some of the slick magazines, this is like being a pig with wings: If you’re a pig, you’re not supposed to have wings, and if you are a pig that does have wings, you’re sure not supposed to fly. But like a pig that figures out it can fly, I’ve found that even I can have a boat and keep it afloat.

Making do

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A friend with a long, heavy boat rebelled at the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a bow thruster. Instead, he purchased a side thruster. Two of them, in fact — one for each side. They are 2-by-4s, each around 7 feet long. Where a boat hook would be too short and crumple when pushing off a dock, these work just fine, thank you. They look quite yachtie too, because he rounded off the corners and applied several coats of Cetol. Savings: probably around $10,000.

There are countless opportunities on a boat for saving money by doing it yourself. For example, when our fenders become sticky and dirty, my wife, Mel, makes Sunbrella covers for them with our Sailrite sewing machine ( ). When UV deteriorates the yellow color of our horseshoe buoys, we repaint them with an appropriate bright enamel. When antennas sprout fiberglass strands, we coat them with epoxy and then paint them. (We’re now using Digital Antenna units — — that last.) And Mel makes Sunbrella covers for the plastic gasoline jugs and tanks for our tender to protect them from UV deterioration. In South Florida and the Bahamas they only last a few years before they start getting brittle. When we use these covers the jugs and tanks last and last … until I drop them on a sharp corner and punch a hole in them.

Tools are money in the bank

Going to sea without the proper tools is like riding a tiger without a prayer book. I’ve found that the right tools seldom come in those velvet-lined cases — the ones advertised as the ideal tool kit for “the perfect yachtsman.” The right stuff includes some things that might be surprising.

An excellent example would by my Dremel tool with flexible extension ( ). It has saved the day on our Gulfstar 53, Chez Nous, many times in many ways. For example, when a woodruff key on the engine’s freshwater pump pulley disintegrated in the midst of the Great Bahama Bank, I fabricated another one with this tool and some steel stock. On another occasion, I had to replace the bracket holding the raw water pump while under way. When I found a rounded bolt head (courtesy of an expensive certified mechanic) I was able to cut a slot for a straight screwdriver to remove the bolt.

My Raytek infrared heat-sensing gun has enabled me make diagnoses that have saved me a fortune ( ). An electric impact wrench has removed nuts, as from alternator pulleys, that I could have never tapped off. My impact screwdriver — you hit it with a hammer — has saved many jobs and dollars. A discussion of my favorite tools would take more space than is available here, but suffice it to say that if you have good tools and know how to use them, you’ll save a fortune.

Parts are money in the market

If you want to guarantee that a part won’t break on a cruise, bring a spare for it. At least that’s the way it seems. But over years of cruising, I’ve found that, as a general rule, the more parts I have on hand the more money I save. This is because I can shop competitively for them rather than buying them in a state of distress, I don’t have to get my boat to a mechanic or vice versa, and I don’t have to get parts shipped to difficult destinations. And if several years pass before I use a part, I’ll know that its cost now would be much higher because of inflation — some of it real, some created by parts manufacturers.

The issue of which parts to keep on board is controlled by the specifics of your boat and bank account. And there are two other important issues to consider. The first is to keep a list of your spares. If you don’t, several years later you’ll have forgotten what you have and where you’ve stowed it, so you’ll probably buy another.

The other is to store the parts in a manner that will preserve them. Of course, this will vary with the part. Cast-iron engine parts, for example, need to be coated with a good rust preventive like CRC Heavy Duty Corrosion Block ( ). They then need to be wrapped in plastic, wax paper or similar material. Some parts with synthetic or rubber gaskets may need to be coated with a silicone spray rather than an oil-based spray. Electrical parts may need to be coated with a lighter oil or, in some cases, not at all. However, they must be stored in a dry place with as little humidity as possible.

Low tech techniques

It goes without saying that you should get training so that you can replace parts. But learning about fixing engines in a controlled environment is far different than knowing how to fix them on a boat. You often need to know special tricks of the trade.

Pinpoint tapping technique — One of the worst problems with regard to replacing parts is getting them off. If your boat is like mine, there is always at least one bolt that’s stuck tighter than a fat tick on a skinny dog. Applying extra torque may break it off and then you’ve got a really big problem. But if you know how to tap, you may save the day.

The art of tapping is a good example of technique. There’s what I call gross tapping (see section below on stuffing boxes), and something I call precision tapping, which is also is important. The key is patience. I tap just a little, setting up a vibration to break that bonding deep inside the threaded bolt hole. If I am using a closed wrench, I make sure it’s well-seated, and tap squarely near the bolt so that it works the bolt in the appropriate direction.

But wrenches absorb too much of the impact and vibration, and can slip off and distort the head. Often a drift pin seated on an appropriate corner of the bolt head is best, because of clearances and the need to pinpoint the impact. You may need to spray a product such as Blaster PB ( ) on the bolt, let it sink in, tap some more and repeat the process. (Heed all the product warnings and be careful.) Sometimes it takes 12 to 24 hours of squirting and tapping to get a mean one out, but it’s better than the alternative. If it’s a rounded bolt head requiring a screwdriver, pull out that impact screwdriver, set it to counterclockwise, and give it a few taps.

Then there are the jobs where you’ve gotten every bolt out, but the part you’re trying to remove still isn’t moving. This typically occurs when you’re removing a freshwater pump on the front of the engine block, for example, or the cover plate of a raw water pump. Usually this is because the gasket material has bonded the part to the mounting surface over years of compression. You can pull and tug on that thing all day, and it will still be holding like you never got the first bolt out. Instead, just a slight tap or two on the pump body or at the edge of the cover plate will usually loosen the part.

Choose your tool carefully; hitting a bronze cover plate with a heavy steel maul will probably mean that you have to buy another cover plate. A light tap with a rubber maul or with a ball peen hammer through a block of wood should be just right.

Broad brush technique — All boats have one thing in common: a bottom (or one hopes). Usually I haul my 53-footer only every three years, which saves a lot of money. There are two factors that allow this. First, I keep on the move. When the scum begins to thrive, I move to water of different salinity, composition and temperature. That usually kills whatever’s growing there. Second — and of more relevance to most people — I dive the bottom between haulouts. This allows me to change zincs and inspect through-hulls and metals.

I also clean the bottom if it begins to need help during the second and third years. But the technique for bottom cleaning is critical. I try to avoid cleaning it the first year, when the paint should be doing its job. The second year I carefully use a broad paint scraper and remove slime and any other growth. I don’t scrub with a brush or scrubbing pads to avoid taking off paint. The third year I begin using a brush or 3M cleaning pad. This takes off outer layers of paint, exposing what’s underneath so that it can do its job better. I’ve found that this staged method of cleaning works well with both hard bottom paints and those designed to wear away, although I scrub less vigorously with soft paint.

It’s also important to use good bottom paint and put on at least two or three coats (more near the waterline). My choice is Interlux Ultra (www.yacht It has consistently worked well for me in waters ranging from the extremely salty seas of the Bahamas to the brackish waters of the Chesapeake to the cooler ocean waters of New England. Once you find a bottom paint that’s formulated for your use, do a good job putting it on and dive your bottom; you’ll have a much better shot at skipping at least a haulout or two.

A note on safety: It can be dangerous to dive under your boat, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t in shape for it. Boating is risky, and sometimes we must weigh the risks and decide which to take to avoid worse peril. If you have a problem out in the boondocks away from imminent help, the ability, training and skill to dive and fix a leak may save your boat — and possibly your life. But don’t try it if it’s not safe for you. Although I’m not talking about scuba diving here, you should take a certified scuba course. This will teach you many things that you should know before doing any type of diving. Some equipment can make underwater work easier and save you big bucks if you use it properly (see accompanying story).

Outside the (stuffing) box

In the category of huge savings, I learned long ago that a boat doesn’t need to be hauled to do some of the things normally associated with being on the hard. One such job is repacking a waxed twine stuffing box. This can usually be done while the boat’s in the water, similar to the way it’s done in the yard; you just get a clean bilge in the process.

Before starting, be sure there are no sources of electrical shock. Water not only sinks boats, it increases conductivity (as when a wet hand touches something charged with electricity). It also can create conduction along its path if it connects to a hot point.

Have your tools and materials in place. You don’t want to be looking for things while your boat is simulating a sinking. Cut the appropriate number of pieces of new twine to length. Be sure it’s the right diameter. If you don’t know the diameter required by your stuffing box, don’t try this until you find out. If you don’t know how many pieces you’ll need, cut too many rather than too few. You can always use the excess later.

Back off the locking nut, then the gland cover. Yes, water will start coming in between the shaft and the tube, but it shouldn’t be excessive and your bilge pump should easily handle it. If not, you’ve got other problems, such as a damaged stuffing box or inadequate pump. It’s good to know this now. Pull out the old pieces of twine with an ice pick or a “dentist’s pick” — you can find these in most well-stocked tool stores — and tamp the new ones in. The joints of the new pieces should be staggered on opposite sides of the shaft or at least at thirds.

Retighten the nuts, though not too tightly; the heat generated when running could damage the stuffing. A small drip is OK, but check soon after you begin running to see that nothing has backed off. You’ll need to torque down more on the gland cover after running for a while.

Often the locking nut can be difficult to back off. This is the type of “unexpected problem” that can send a yard bill skyrocketing. If yours has a lot of green corrosion, assume it’s going to be stubborn. I squirt it liberally with a product like Blaster PB, which usually helps considerably. (Again, heed the warnings on the can.) Don’t underestimate the value of this type of product. Those mechanics to whom you’d be paying big bucks an hour use them regularly.

Before applying a lot of torque with a wrench, try tapping the nut with a hammer. Tap lightly on a corner of the nut so as to rotate it in the off direction. Take care not to distort the corner. Usually this will move it, almost imperceptibly but enough for it to turn easily when you begin using a wrench.

Never hit anything too hard, especially if it’s below the waterline. This is risky. If you hit the packing nut too hard or if you apply too much torque with a wrench, you may tear or otherwise damage the hose connecting the stuffing box to the shaft log. Even if you don’t tear the hose, you may break the seal between the hose and the shaft log and/or stuffing box. (Check the hose and hose clamps to be sure they’re of high quality and in good condition.) You should always have a backup plan when you attempt these projects while afloat — whether it’s a second bucket or a nearby Travelift — but this is the case with most aspects of boating. And never compromise safety to save money.

Speaking of “risky,” I’ll next turn your attention to dynamite, which is what I generally want to use when the head gets stopped up. But there are less-expensive solutions. One is to hire someone, though most boat workers aren’t eager for this type of job and charge dearly for it. Ingenuity can save your day.

I had a friend who had a “stoppage” that was clearly in the discharge line. Through a series of odorous trials and errors, he found that the blockage was in the through-hull valve. All the books say to close your through-hull valve before working on the head, but my friend couldn’t get the valve closed because — you guessed it — there was something in there blocking it. Needless to say, this didn’t improve my friend’s prospects for having a nice day.

Not being a good swimmer, he didn’t want to dive in to go poking in the hole while under water. Not being a rich man, he didn’t want to pay some yard to do the job. (There wasn’t one around anyway; there are none in many of the isolated harbors in the Bahamas.) He carefully pulled the hose off the through-hull barb — towels in place and pumps ready — and found no water coming through. Now this was a real blockage. If he reamed it out with a screwdriver, the resulting flood of success would have been overwhelming.

Instead, he got a large, heavy-duty Ziploc bag, carefully inserted a screwdriver partly into the through-hull barb, covered the end of the barb and the screwdriver with the bag, and tightly sealed it around the barb with triple wire ties. (You can also use caulking under the bag if you’re particularly finicky.) He liberally spread towels about in case his theory didn’t work. He grabbed the screwdriver through the bag and used it to ream out the hole.

Upon success he had water flooding into the bag, but he could then close the valve, which he did with great dispatch.

I should emphasize that this was a particularly diligent friend who regularly worked his through-hull valves, so he knew this one would turn freely if unobstructed. If this valve hadn’t been well maintained and had been stuck from calcium or other deposits, my friend would have been facing a bulging bag of very dirty water … for a brief moment. After it burst he probably would have been delighted to dive over the side and, while there, stuff a wooden plug into the hole. As it was, he saved a good deal of money with ingenuity. (One last note: obviously, you should never discharge illegally.)

Doing good

This dramatic example of saving money while not getting in over your head illustrates yet another important money-saving tactic. My friend wouldn’t have been able to do this if the valve had been stuck from lack of maintenance.

We all know the value of preventive maintenance. It’s the “good” thing to do. But I have a problem with this, just like I did when I was growing up in the country. The good folks in Bible school made sure I knew what was good, but they didn’t teach me howto make myself do good when I didn’t want to do good, which was a lot of the time.

Some of us don’t like to do things that aren’t fun, no matter how good it is to do them — for example, changing the oil in that engine. It’s one of the best things you can do for your engine, and it costs next to nothing. But what a pain. I used to change oil with one of those pumps that you attach to a drill. The guy in the picture on the package held the drill with one hand and a hose with the other hand. They left out the part about the third hand. And the fourth hand.

The pump turns with the drill. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing that steady stream of black lube oil gracefully slinging around your clean engine room and spreading over every surface, including you. I ended up holding the little hose in the dipstick hole with my toes, holding the pump with one hand, and the drill with the other. I’d stuff the fat hose into the container and hope for the best, which usually was that the fat hose slipped out and gushed oil into the bilge. So, I didn’t change the oil as often as I should have.

Enter X-Change-R and other oil changing products

( ). You spend a few bucks (nothing like the cost of a new engine), hook it up, and all you have to do to change your oil is push a button and turn a few valves.

My ITT Jabsco impeller puller is another example ( Getting an impeller out of a raw water pump mounted to the engine can be a horrible job that I used to avoid at all costs. But not changing them regularly can result in expensive repairs. An impeller puller costs a few bucks but saves many more.

If you have a recurring preventive maintenance task that saves money but is a royal pain to perform, you can be confident that someone has come up with some product that’ll make it easier. Go buy it. It may cost you money, but in the long run it may save you much more.

The hole truth

A boat’s a boat, and it’s difficult to always hit the money on the mark in describing in advance the best way to do something. Anything I say here may be inapplicable to your boat; the same is true of others. Each of us has to know enough (or find someone who does) to make the best calls for our boats in our circumstances.

An example that comes to mind is the instructions for various types of equipment that blithely tell you to put a hole in the bottom. One way I’ve saved money is to steadfastly refuse the urging of the experts to make a hole for my depth finder transducers. I’m sure it’s true that when you use a hole the depth finder can see maybe 2,000 feet instead of 900, but I don’t particularly care. I can drown just fine in either.

The experts say that if you don’t make a transducer hole, you must find a solid section of your hull without voids in the layup (we’re assuming fiberglass here), then epoxy the transducer to that. Maybe I’m missing something, but there’s no way to know your hull section of choice is without voids unless you make a hole there first. And if you’ve epoxied the transducer to a spot with a bubble in the laminate, you’ll probably ruin that expensive transducer when you try to break it free.

In response to this problem some experts then describe in tedious detail the making of fiberglass water boxes in which you mount the transducer, including the tedious task of shaping the box to fit the contours of the hull. Do you ever eat yogurt, cottage cheese, or any of the other stuff that comes in round 24-ounce plastic containers? (You can use a bigger plastic container if you can stand to eat that much of the product.) There’s your answer. For years we’ve made “water boxes” by attaching that plastic container to the inside of the hull with silicone sealant (not good, say the manuals), filling it with water, and dropping in the transducer. If we get a bad spot, it’s easy to start anew.

On the rounded hull surface of our motorsailer, we haven’t even cut out the bottom of the container because it was too difficult cutting it to follow the shape of the hull so that it wouldn’t leak. We do put plenty of sealant between that bottom of the container and the hull. Our motorsailer makes only around 8 knots, but in a faster boat it’s more important that there be less interference under an inside-mounted transducer.

In our Mako, which makes 30-plus knots, we’ve found it better to cut the bottom off the yogurt container and contour it to the relatively flat hull. A few minutes with a knife or scissors does the trick. We seal the edge/hull joint with silicone sealant. And if we mess up the job we don’t have to drill another hole or bust up an epoxied transducer. All I have to do is eat another big bowl of yogurt. (I think I’d rather make a hole.)

You may be wondering why I don’t use a transom-mounted transducer on my Mako. This brings up another example of how following the instructions sometimes may cost you money. You’ll frequently read that you should screw a mounting bracket for your transducer into the transom. But this will eventually allow water into the coring material, probably wood, which then will probably rot. Sure you would “apply sealant to the screws,” as the instructions may suggest, but if sealant were eternal we’d all be squeezing tubes instead of going to church.

I also wouldn’t put stainless screws into an aluminum hull below the waterline, as on my dinghy. This will cause electrolysis, no matter how well I provide insulation. I mounted the transducer to the transom of my aluminum tender using a PVC pipe that I attached to the transom with a stainless U-bolt well above the waterline. Yes, it looks ridiculous, but it works and it’s cheap, easy to replace, and there’s little worry about electrolysis.

This illustrates a far more fundamental point in the quest of saving money on a boat. It seems to me that some of the instruction writers and product manufacturers think that the long-term consequences of what they suggest won’t really matter because I’ll have sold the boat and gotten another before, say, the transom rots. I never assume I’ll own another boat. I always assume that the boat I have is going to be the boat I’ll continue to have for the rest of my life. (Unless, of course, it’s sinking at the moment.) So I always try to figure out a way of doing things aboard that will last and won’t cause future harm — even if it does make my dinghy look like a pig with wings.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at .