Mounting Satisfaction: Engine Mounts

Are boats objects of romance? Sure, they are. Just ask the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the movie Titanic, as they stand on the bow of the great, doomed ship, as Kate’s character makes like a bird in flight while Leonardo’s character embraces her from behind. In fact, since Leonardo’s character will

[SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!]

be dead by the end of the movie, that’s probably the best time to ask them.

But that doesn’t mean all the parts of every boat are filled with romance. Some parts are too grittily utilitarian to make any pretense of romance, as anyone who has ever rebuilt a marine head will tell you. And other parts, taken thoroughly for granted in their quiet, passive simplicity, fail to attract even the minimum level of attention required from their owners for their continued effectiveness.

Today, I discuss one of the most critical parts on any boat with an inboard engine: the humble, rarely considered engine mount.

Yes, that’s right. An engine mount is exactly what it sounds like. There’s no romance here.

Applied physics

The primary purpose of a boat’s inboard engine is to impart rotation to a propeller shaft to which it is connected through an intervening gearbox. At its specified maximum speed of 3,400 RPM, Meander’s twenty-five-year-old Yanmar diesel engine will turn our prop shaft through about 1,600 revolutions per minute, or about 26 times per second.

The shaft in turn will impart its rotation to the propeller at its aft end. The propeller in turn will exert a force on the water surrounding it, and the water will exert an equal and opposite force on the propeller. And those forces will push the boat through the water.

This image of how an engine moves a boat with respect to water is one with which most of us are familiar. But we are not, I suspect, usually conscious of a rather obvious assumption we’ve necessarily smuggled into that image: that the engine itself is not moving with respect to the boat.

It is here at this point in our happy oblivion that the engine mounts sit, sublimely (and subliminally) completing the picture. It is through these mounts that the forces generated by the propeller’s rotation are transferred to the boat, coaxing it finally into motion.

Two of our boat’s new engine mounts in situ.

Two of Meander’s new engine mounts in situ.

Really, it just makes me want to burst into song.

Oh, the Prop is connected to the. . . Prop Shaft! And the Prop Shaft connected to the. . . Gearbox! And the Gearbox connected to the. . . Engine! And the Engine connected to the. . . Engine Mounts!

And the Engine Mounts are connected, finally, to the hull of the boat.

Okay, it’s not as catchy as “the Legbone connected to the Kneebone.”  But the physics behind it is incontrovertible.

Engine mount anatomy and function

Meander has four engine mounts. Each one consists of a threaded stud welded to a specially formed metal top plate, which in turn is bonded (either by advanced adhesives or by arcane magic—our manual did not say) to isolators of rubber-like elastomer material, which in turn are bonded to a specially formed bottom plate into whose ends slotted holes have been machined.

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Sort of like this.

This design allows Meander’s mounts to provide three essential services.

  • Their bolted connections to the hull, as noted above, provide the means through which the motive forces developed at the propeller are applied to the rest of the boat.
  • Their slotted holes and threaded studs allow mechanics who know what they’re doing to align the engine, gearbox and prop shaft correctly with the stern tube through which the shaft exits the boat.
  • Their elastomeric components dampen the engine’s vibrations and keep them from being passed through to the hull.

With respect to this last item, engine mounts are not all the same. Rather, the amount of dampening and isolation a mount will deliver depends on how stiff its rubber isolators are. On Meander’s mounts, the isolators’ stiffness ratings are indicated by a number molded into their sides. Higher numbers indicate greater stiffness.

And the engines these mounts dampen and isolate are not all the same, either. Some engines, like Meander’s, require four mounts of equal stiffness. Others, however, may require two isolators with one stiffness rating on one side of the engine, and two with another stiffness rating on the other side.

So having the right mounts is important. Mounts that are too soft will not dampen the engine’s vibration sufficiently, while those that are too stiff will allow too much vibration into the hull.

But there’s no reason for you to make that mistake on your boat, because the engine mount spec that is just right for its engine can easily be obtained if you just know where to look.

I myself have no idea where that is.

For my part, I found all this stuff out from Mack, our knowledgeable ABYC-certified Master Marine Technician here at the Deltaville Yachting Center. Mack observed that although Meander’s specs called for mounts rated “100,” the mounts on which her engine was actually sitting were rated “200.” (I have no idea what these numbers specifically mean to engineers. But I’m sure they’re not just making this stuff up). Then Mac had to explain to me the significance of what he observed.

From my experience, I infer that your own knowledgeable marine technician would be a good source of this kind of information.

For the moment, however, just be aware that if you someday decide to replace your boat’s mounts without having paid sufficient attention just now, you might end up with isolators that are either too soft or too stiff for your boat’s requirements.

Engine mount replacement

Meanwhile, over at the Ocean Navigator website, author Harry Hungate  challenges us in his engine mount replacement article to fight that happy oblivion creeping over our own engine mount awareness by changing them every five to six years, whether we think they need it or not.

Simple as these parts are, they yet transmit large forces and absorb constant vibration in order to do what they do. As a result, their studs and plates are subject to fatigue, robbing them of their strength, and their rubber isolators can delaminate. This kind of damage is not readily visible. Mounts that look fine externally may in fact be in trouble, and the failure that is coming upon them will likely be catastrophic rather than progressive.

Other signs that it’s time for a change, however, are easier to spot. Hungate advises replacing mounts contaminated by seawater, engine oil and coolant, noting that the first substance will rust metal parts and that the other two will cause deterioration and delamination of the elastomeric blocks. If you see rust or peeling paint, corrosion is already underway.

Excessive engine vibration is also implicated in engine mount failure. Sometimes the vibration is a direct result of already failed mounts. At other times, vibrations emanating from another cause, such as a misaligned shaft, will accelerate the fatiguing of bolts and studs, bringing failure on sooner.

So stay out in front with your engine mount replacements. As with all your other maintenance items, choosing your own time and place for this work will be more convenient and less expensive than having a sudden failure choose them for you.

And having just watched as Meander’s engine mounts were replaced here in Deltaville, VA, I can tell you that it is not a difficult operation. All one needs is a set of new mounts, a set of combination wrenches readily available in any hardware store, and, to lift the engine off the old mounts, one of these handy-dandy cherry pickers.

Bigger than a breadbox.

Bigger than a breadbox.

If I could buy a used cherry picker, I would consider doing this job myself in the future. But I’m not sure I could get it stowed in our quarter berth.

Maybe if we cleared some other stuff out.

Maybe if we cleared some other stuff out.

When engine mounts go bad

Having established the role the mounts play in ensuring an engine is not moving with respect to the boat, let’s consider what could happen when they, for all practical purposes, go missing. And let’s do it with a true story Mack the Master Marine Technician shared with us.

The story began with a couple who were motoring several miles offshore one day in their sailboat when its propeller hit something that wedged and stuck, stopping it cold and simultaneously punching a small hole through their hull.

Now when a propeller is suddenly stopped, its engine, being a not-terribly-intelligent machine, will not notice. It will just keep working to send that spinning action down the prop shaft, trying to turn the prop. But since the stopped propeller cannot be turned, it will send an equal and opposite reaction back up the prop shaft, the result of which is to try to turn the engine.

You know, the one that is attached to the hull through the engine mounts.

In a smaller pleasure boat of fiberglass construction, the engine mounts are usually so attached by no more than eight bolts. And when a suddenly stopped propeller suddenly tries to turn the boat’s engine, it is around these eight bolts that all the engine’s mighty force is suddenly concentrated.

Now for all I know, there may well be fiberglass hulls in the world that can withstand this sudden concentration of force.

This couple’s hull was not one of them.

And so, Mack continued, this couple’s mounts were ripped from their hull, and their engine did a few revolutions of its own in the engine compartment.

In turn, those revolutions tore off the engine’s fuel line, flooding the compartment with diesel. They also tore off the wires between the alternator and the boat’s battery bank, disabling the electrical system and putting the automatic bilge pump, the one trying to contend with the water pouring in through the aforementioned small hole, out of operation.

And so the couple spent the next 36 hours issuing Mayday calls on their handheld VHF radio while working their manual bilge pump to keep the water from rising above waist level.

Mack’s story ended better than it might have. The couple were eventually located by a Coast Guard helicopter that dropped some self-powered bilge pumps. This allowed them to turn their attention from pumping out the boat to sailing it until they were close enough to shore to get towing assistance. In the end, they got out with no worse than mild hypothermia, a repair bill that probably exceeded what I’m currently looking at for Meander’s latest round of repairs by a factor of ten, and, if they are at all wired like me, a firm resolve to sell the damned boat and take up chess.

That couple, incidentally, cannot be faulted. Hitting something that can completely disable your boat in ten seconds is the dumbest of luck, and dumb luck can inflict itself on anyone.

But the story does put a point on the unquestionable importance of the lowly engine mount.

Mounting stress

“But Mike, boats being such objects of romance and all, whatever made you decide to write instead about the unquestionable importance of the lowly engine mount?” Glad you asked.

As it happens, Meander’s mounts had been on my mind ever since our marine survey, during which our surveyor, Frank, had noticed those visible symptoms of rust and peeling paint on the aft one to starboard. And our recent installation of a new cutless bearing here in Deltaville required us to pull and reinstall the prop shaft, which, in turn, required its realignment with the engine. And performing such an alignment over a questionable engine mount made no sense to me.

So, with Meander on the hard and getting related work done, all signs pointed to our getting that aft starboard mount replaced.

However, I’m a completist who likes all the members of any given set to be shiny and new and evenly matched all at the same time. Also, I’m made of money, as I’m sure we all are.

So, considering the price of $135 per mount excluding labor, and presenting the exhortations in Harry Hungate’s article to Pam, I argued, “Why stop at one?”

And we didn’t. We instead had all four replaced. And by the time all four were replaced, we were very glad we decided to replace all four.

Because when Mack and his workmate Tony were hooking up the chains that would lift Meander’s engine, the forward mount to starboard—not the horribly rusty aft mount previously identified, but rather the mildly rusty yet otherwise apparently quite solid forward mount—looked like this.

Yeah, you saw this before.

Yeah, you’ve seen this before.

And after they lifted the engine about an eighth of an inch (three millimeters), the mount looked like this.

But you didn’t see it like this. And at first, neither did we.

But you didn’t see it like this. And, at first, neither did we.

What we see here is a shear failure in the mount’s threaded stud. The years of constant vibration Harry Hungate had warned about had indeed parted the metal through about 95% of its sectional area, leaving the threaded stud hanging—shall I say it?—by a thread. (Sorry, but you had to know it was coming.)

Here at the end of its life, it had taken only the slight lifting of the engine to complete the break. And I, for one, am pleased as punch that the lifting was induced by a cherry picker on a clear day in a boatyard rather than by a fifteen-foot wave in a gale at sea.

Mounting satisfaction

And that, in the end, is why I‘ve gone on for 2,400 words about engine mounts. To celebrate.

First, to celebrate the vindication of our choice to spend the money on them.

But more importantly, to celebrate all the grave consequences we believe we’ve sidestepped by our choice to spend the time on them.

And the broken mount once again helps put our extended stay in Deltaville into a light we can live with. Because we certainly took a bullet three weeks ago when our latest troubles with Meander forced us to pull her out. But as we consider how our time here has revealed so much of what she was hiding, we are all the more grateful that so many other bullets have whizzed harmlessly by.

Back in the Water

So after more than two weeks with Meander on the hard here at the Deltaville Yachting Center in Deltaville, VA, this happened this past Wednesday.

It’s good to be back in the water.

Now then, south to the ICW and Florida, just two months behind virtually everyone else in a boat.

So we hope.

Nearly Thoughtless Thursday: Hailing Port

When the sun came up this past Tuesday morning, Meander’s stern looked like this.

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Before the sun went down Tuesday evening, it looked like this.

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Boats that are documented (that is, nationally registered) in the United States must display their hailing port conspicuously somewhere on their hull.

And we found Meander in Fairport, VA. But that’s not where we left her.

Completing a process that began with the filing of a small form and the payment of a large fee,  Meander is once again in full compliance with applicable U.S. maritime regulations.

Glad that’s done.

Bad Boat Puns I: Deltaville Edition

Welcome to our first installment of Bad Boat Puns, a seriously non-serious series inspired by what one finds oneself doing for cheap entertainment when one has spent too much time in a Deltaville, VA boatyard.

The essence of a pun is in the manipulation of words that sound similar in order to derive humor from the interplay of their different meanings. Often, as if at a demolition derby, the fun lies simply in watching Meaning Itself destroyed in the collision.

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Oh, yes, boat namers are virtuosos with the pun, second in the world, I think, only to hairstylists. Hairstylists are the best. Or the worst. Depends on one’s viewpoint, really. My all-time favorite? Philadelphia’s Julius Scissor. Located in Center City, two blocks west of Rittenhouse Square. Call for your appointment.

Uh, were we talking about boats?

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Not every boat name appearing in this series will qualify for inclusion solely on the basis of arbitrary phonetic wordplay. After all, there are many value-added ways to abuse the English language, and this is a value-added blog.

So we’ll look also for the forced literary allusion.

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And the silly corporate salute.

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And the name that forces its reader to reach through the closely spaced bars of its coiner’s obscure intention as if through a locked iron gate, grasping for some speculative interpretation just out of reach–say, for instance, for a connection to a family name or to the Industrial Era source of the family fortune–in order to ward off the creeping suspicion of a criminally careless misspelling.

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And finally, taking a step away from the device, either in its strictest sense or in its highest practice, the revisited cliche. No pun intended. None detected.

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It doesn’t matter much, then, that these boat names do not each function as puns in exactly the same way–or, in the last case, at all.

What does matter, and what I hope will bind them all together in this series, is one specific and singular quality they share in common: the power to make you go “What?”

And it is because of this quality that they each deserve their place in the sun.

If only, in some cases, for as long as the sun will need to bleach them out.

Deltaville

Welcome to Deltaville, Boating Capital of the Chesapeake.

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Whether or not this small town between Virginia’s Rappahannock and Piankatank Rivers is, as the sign suggests, the boating capital of the entire Chesapeake is a question I will leave to Marylanders in Annapolis and Rock Hall.

For my part, I was content to forego considering the question in favor of getting somewhat familiar with the place to which we repaired nearly two weeks ago to work out Meander’s latest and greatest kinks.

Don’t blink.

Deltaville is neither a big place nor a dense one.  It appears to automobile-bound landlubbers as a modest collection of churches, businesses, and residences strung out along Route 33, the General Puller Highway, just west of the end of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula at Stingray Point. You’d miss it if you were driving too fast, although you would risk ending up in the bay if you didn’t put the brakes on soon after hitting County Road 662.

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Looking west.

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Looking east.

Boats, implied

But if you pay attention to the business signs that adorn the road forming Deltaville’s backbone, you’ll soon see that every fourth or fifth one testifies to the importance this small town has for the Chesapeake Bay boating community.

There are places for people who own boats, or want to.

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And places to help the people outfit the boats they own.

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(Bay Canvas and Waterside Graphics, incidentally, went right to the top of Pam’s and Honey’s running list of Deltaville favorites. I wonder why.)

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And places to help build the places at which the people can dock their boats.

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And, finally, places at which the people can acquire joyful clutter with which to fill their boats.

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Let’s take a closer look at that last sign.

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I don’t know what to think about folks whose cheerful perversity could move them to promote their ocean-themed business with a pun on the French phrase for “seasickness.” But I know I’d like to meet them.

Boats verified

So these are the hints about the place that the place itself offers to those who constrain themselves to the road. But its motive force, as with all places that thrive on the water, is off the road and at the water’s edge.

It’s at the water’s edge that you will find the places where the people can dock their boats. . .

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. . . and the boats the people have docked. . .

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. . . and, finally, the people themselves. People like Mike and Mark, who last Saturday landed this big rockfish Mark is holding. . .

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44 inches. 38 pounds.    |    112 centimeters. 17 kilograms.    |    Yum.

. . . using this small net Mike is holding.

Big rockfish, little net.

Says Mike, “Next time, I think we’ll bring a bigger net.”

So this is Deltaville. What the people of this little town do on the land, they do in support of what people do on the water.

People like Mike and Mark, who clearly know what they’re doing.

And people like me, who just as clearly don’t.

So if the Southern Chesapeake should find you in a boat on the water that sorely needs support, Deltaville is a wondeful place to land.

Paying Attention

When I was growing up, I had trouble sitting still in school. I was a precocious little bundle of nervous energy, and I could not keep myself facing forward in class. If ADHD had been a thing then, I’m pretty sure I would have been considered a candidate for Ritalin.

The onset of adulthood—in particular, the middle-aged, slowing down part of adulthood—has somewhat relieved the mild hyperactivity I carried in those years, which is something, I guess.

But when we left our home port in Cambridge, MD last week to embark on our first-ever trip south to Florida, our first day out of port testified that my entrenched attention deficit is still with me.

Caution cuidado attention

Obstacle course

It’s not possible to spend any length of time on the Chesapeake without encountering the watermen who ply the bay every day with their boats, pulling up crabs, oysters, and all sorts of fish up from its depths and shallows. And when the boats are not in evidence, the presence of these men can yet be seen in the thousands of small flags and floats that mark their dredging routes, their fish nets, and their crab pots.

It’s a fully engaged life, one in which many watermen take pride. But it’s not an easy one. And when other boats run carelessly over their floats, snagging and tearing loose the lines that hold them to their traps, it gets a little harder. A submerged trap that has had its float torn loose can no longer be found, making it a dead loss for the waterman who placed it. Any Bay boater, then, who values his neighbor’s livelihood will take pains to avoid steering too close to the floats for that reason. And any Bay boater who doesn’t might value instead the avoidance of the potential complications associated with wrapping a line around a propeller.

So if I had remembered that the course I had charted from the mouth of the Choptank River would bring us directly through seemingly endless fields of the little bobbers, I might have tried a different route. I might also have played around with our travel hours as well. The midday sun in the southern sky having turned the thousand square yards of undulating surface directly in front of our boat into a coruscating mirror, the floats we were least likely to spot were also the ones we were most in danger of hitting.

They're much harder to see in the water.

They’re much harder to see in the water.

We did our best. Pam stood forward at the bow, pointing out the more distant floats as they glided off to port or starboard, and resorting to frantic hand signals when one appeared dead ahead, emerging suddenly from waves of light. And I, on the helm, switched back and forth between steering hard in response to her commands and mentally adjusting our course to account for our weaving and dodging.

No, I didn’t remember this course being strewn with all these floats. But I could have, and I should have, because this was the same course we had traveled two months ago to come to Cambridge in the first place. And it was as strewn then as it is now.

But two months ago, I wasn’t paying attention.

Attractive nuisance

Clearing those floats made for a long and lively morning.

But once they were finally behind us, we fell thankfully into a relaxed afternoon of motoring that brought us down the Bay.

And as we approached the western shore at Cove Point, the point’s charming lighthouse reached out and beckoned to us, practically asking us to take its picture.

Getting out the camera, I started taking snapshots from the helm, impressed both with the play of afternoon light across the structure and with the level of architectural clarity revealed by how close we had gotten to the point.

Cove Point Light. Pretty, but. . .

Cove Point Light. Pretty, but. . .

That’s when it occurred to me to start thinking about, you know, how close we had gotten to the point. And to glance at our depth finder.

Twelve feet, falling within seconds to ten. Then to eight.

And that’s when I throttled down and made the hard turn to port, tensely watching the instruments as I looked for the deeper water I had inadvertently left behind.

In less than a minute, we were back in thirty feet.

Drawing from my extensive grasp of maritime culture, I’ll just point out here that lighthouses were conceived and constructed not for the purpose of drawing boats onto land, but rather for keeping them off it.

So a photo of one, charming as it may be, would constitute a pretty stupid reason for risking a grounding under motor at seven knots. But, again, I wasn’t paying attention.

Room for improvement

Florida is, give or take, a thousand miles in front of us. And we are planning to get there by one of America’s most heavily used recreational routes over water: the Intracoastal Waterway or ICW.

That’s a thousand miles of wide-open sounds alternating with improbably narrow channels, dozens of low bridges that will require us to call in advance to coordinate with their opening schedules, and more boat traffic in tight spaces than we’ve ever seen before.

So I’m going to have to learn to bear down and focus.

And I hope that somewhere within me, there’s room for improvement in my attention span. Because very soon, there will be no room for mistakes.

Salvage
________________

PHOTO CREDITS

–Caution cuidado attention: Stéfan, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.
–Floats: Mike Webster.
–Cove Point Light: Mike Webster.
–Salvage: David Krieger, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

Southbound At Last, Sort Of

When we first moved aboard Meander this past August, we had expected to spend two months getting her, and ourselves, ready for a trip that cruisers on the U.S. East Coast have been taking for decades, a trip of more than one thousand miles to Florida’s Key West via the fabled Intracoastal Waterway, or ICW.

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Florida bound.

Formally, the ICW runs roughly from Boston, MA to Brownsville, TX. But boaters who think of the waterway primarily as a route south from snow country usually have in mind the portion of it that runs from Mile Marker Zero in Norfolk, VA to Mile 1,095 in Miami, FL. In keeping with the practice of more experienced cruisers (and with insurance company requirements that prohibit our going south until hurricane season is over), we figured we would arrive at Mile Marker Zero on November 1, and start making our way south immediately thereafter.

We did not know then how much time we would lose to big things like waiting out Hurricane Joaquin and other storms, and to little things like fixing our engine’s starter circuit and replacing a major portion of our fuel line.

But the waiting is over. Six days ago, Pam, Honey the golden retriever and I left our home port of Cambridge, MD and began our four-day journey southbound to Mile Marker Zero.

Of course, we’re not there yet. And if you did your math in the paragraph above, you’ll have inferred there’s a reason for that.

Cambridge, MD to Solomons, MD

On our first day, we left Cambridge, headed west out of the Choptank River into the Chesapeake Bay, and motored down the Bay to the town of Solomons on the Patuxent River.

We strive to make each of our days on the water blessedly uneventful, and this was almost one of those days. More or less.

We had clear skies, a pleasant but uselessly weak wind from the east that veered as the day went on into a stronger but equally useless wind from the south, and waves just high enough to send some spray over our decks and onto my sunglasses. (Note: When eyeglasses are covered with salt water, do not rub, lest the salt scratch the lenses. Rather, rinse thoroughly with fresh water and pat dry.)

However, since I have a compulsive need to keep things needlessly interesting, I also contributed two moments to our first day linked by the theme of Me Not Paying Attention. But that’s a subject for another post.

Solomons MD to Ingram Bay, VA

Coming off the dock Thursday morning in Solomons was easy. We motored into another clear day with even lighter winds and lower waves, with Virginia’s Ingram Bay as our goal.

Soon, we were passing the light at Point No Point, now under rehabilitation. The scaffolding surrounding it and the temporary construction platform erected next to it have changed its profile for miles, making long-distance identification tricky; and we contemplated how the ever-changing maritime environment keeps prudent sailors on their toes.

Point No Point Light

Point No Point Light.

Shortly thereafter, we were at the Smith Point Light, a classic profile at the mouth of the Potomac River not obscured by recent construction activity.

Smith Point Light

Smith Point Light.

From there, we started our ten-mile crossing of the Potomac.

We weren’t two miles across when the trouble started.

What now?

Meander was cruising at 2,800 RPM when her engine speed dropped sharply and inexplicably, without throttle input, to 2,500 RPM. Then, from 2,500 RPM to 2,400 RPM. Then back to 2,500 RPM.

Thinking we had wrapped a stray piece of line around our propeller, I hoped to unwind it. I throttled down, slipped into neutral and then into reverse, throttled up hard a few seconds, throttled down again, slipped back into neutral and then into forward, and resumed at 2,800 RPM.

After less than a minute, the engine speed dropped sharply again, this time accompanied by a pounding that made us think something was going to come through the engine compartment hatch in the cockpit floor.

I then reduced throttle to 2,200 RPM and listened intently as the pounding receded to nearly, but not quite, nothing.

“All right, what the hell just went wrong here?”

Pam and I speculated freely. Did we, in fact, wrap a line in the water around our prop? Other cruisers who picked up lines often reported their engines being stopped cold by them; if our prop was wrapped, why didn’t our engine stop? What if it hadn’t been a line, but something like a submerged log that hit and bent the prop?

Oh, and on a note we hoped was completely unrelated, hadn’t the pump that automatically drains incoming water out of our bilge been running a little more than usual in the past two weeks?

We also reviewed our options. Go on to Ingram Bay as planned, or turn back into the Potomac and try to find a marina there? And where in either location would we find a boatyard to look at the engine?

As we talked through all this, we noticed the engine continuing to hold its own at 2,200 RPM.

And recognizing that Deltaville, VA, the southern Chesapeake Bay’s most important recreational boating center, wasn’t very far south of Ingram Bay, we decided to go on rather than turn back. The decision would move us further south, and closer to a wide range of service options.

Ingram Bay, VA to. . .

Friday morning, we woke up with a plan to take Meander out, run her up to various speeds, and watch the propeller shaft rotate in the engine compartment. We also clung to a faint hope that our original plan to make it to Horn Harbor, VA, halfway the remaining distance to Mile Marker Zero, would still be on the table afterward.

Leaving Ingram Bay, we entered the Chesapeake as Pam observed heavy fog rolling in from the north. So we got down to it. With Pam on the helm and Honey the golden retriever below in the cabin, I opened the hatch in the floor.

Fortunately, prtevious experience has made me well acquainted with the location of the engine compartment hatch.

Fortunately, previous experience has made me well acquainted with the location of the engine compartment hatch.

“Bring her up to 2,200 RPM.”

The propeller shaft whirred away, seemingly content. But I noticed a certain amount of water coming in through a fitting around the shaft called a stuffing box.

Normally, this is not a cause for alarm. The fact that the engine inside a boat must connect to a propeller outside it necessarily suggests the “hole” in the hull—actually, often, a tube called a “stern tube”—through which the propeller shaft must exit. Near the internal end of the stern tube, the assembly known as the “stuffing box” is fitted around the prop shaft and is packed with I Don’t Know What to keep water out of the boat when the shaft is not rotating. When the shaft is rotating under power, often at speeds as high as 3,400 RPM, the stuffing box is designed to allow a little water to pass over it and into the boat to keep it from overheating.

How much is “a little water?” One of the Pack-Your-Own-Stuffing-Box-For-Fun-And-Profit books we keep on hand for rainy-day reading tells us, “About six drops a minute.”

But what was coming in through Meander’s stuffing box at 2,200 RPM sure looked like more than six drops a minute to me.

“Take her up to 2,800.”

At 2,800 RPM, the propeller shaft appeared to try to throw itself out of alignment with the transmission, the rear end of which in turn was shaking. And the water that should have been dripping gently into our bilge at six drops per minute was now whipping itself around the engine compartment in a 360 degree arc.

“OK, then. We’re stopping in Deltaville.”

An hour later, that thick Chesapeake fog caught up with us, reducing our visibility to about three hundred feet. Being prudent mariners, we reduced speed, relied on radar to spot traffic, sounded our hand held air horn when the radar showed something closing on us, tracked our position closely with our paper chart and our handheld GPS device, and blessed the mist as a ratification of our decision not to press on to Horn Harbor. Steering toward the Windmill Point Light at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, our navigational precision was rewarded with the sight of its form emerging from the gray mist forward of our bow.

. . . to Deltaville, VA

Deltaville is on the Rappahannock’s southern shore, just west of Stingray Point, and its water-accessible boating services are concentrated heavily around its Broad Creek. As we headed across the river toward the creek, we picked a phone number out of an old cruising guide left to us by Meander’s former owners and ended up connecting with the Deltaville Yachting Center, a marina that had a service department.

Shortly after we landed, the marina owner, Lew, came down to us at the dock, and we discussed our troubles on the water with him. After running through our already intimidating list of speculative causes, he then added one more possibility.

“It could also be failing engine mounts.”

Oh, great.

On to the work plan, then. It was obvious that one of the marina’s mechanics would have to come down to take a look at Meander. A cost estimate and work schedule would be determined in part by the price and availability of any required parts and equipment, the roster of which in turn would be determined by the mechanic’s diagnosis.

And since our conversation was happening late on a Friday afternoon, it was also obvious that none of this could even begin to happen until Monday morning.

After the owner left, I opened the engine compartment hatch once more, there at the dock without the engine running, largely to contemplate all the things I don’t understand about sailboats.

And that’s when I noticed that the stuffing box that shouldn’t have been admitting any water at all around a propeller shaft at rest was instead dripping at a rate of about one drop per second.

Well, at least that explained our overactive bilge pump.

The investigation

And so we started our southbound journey six days ago. But as of last Friday, we weren’t actually traveling south. Rather, we were here in Deltaville, listening to our bilge pump whirr and waiting for the weekend to pass.

Monday morning, the mechanic came by as promised, and found nothing too badly amiss internally—not even, thank heaven, the condition of the engine mounts. But all this finding did was to transfer our suspicions back outside the boat.

So we ordered Meander pulled out. And as she hung in the slings of the travel lift, we found the following.

  • The cutless bearing, a fitting around the shaft at the stern tube’s external end, was driven up into the tube and out of sight. By what, exactly, is anyone’s guess.
  • The three-blade folding propeller, a $4,500 piece of metal magic that had been tight to the shaft and moving with precision at our marine survey three months ago, was wobbly in all its several joints and parts.
  • The zinc anodes that protect the drivetrain from the corrosion that stray electrical currents passing through seawater can create were broken or missing entirely.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say what caused all this damage in such a short amount of time. We still would love to blame some invisible, unidentifiable One-Time Object that hit us, did its worst, and fell away. Because a lot of vigilance and a little luck could steer us around any such objects that might float past in the future, while no amount of either would alleviate some invisible, unidentifiable Chronic Problem left to reassert itself in another three months.

But for the moment, we at least had the smoking guns that shot our trip south in the foot.

The waiting

So for now, Meander is out of the lift slings and up “on the hard.”

DSC_0001

And once the marina people drop our rudder, pull our propeller shaft, examine it for irreversible damage, remove our folding prop and ship it off to its manufacturer for refurbishment, install our spare two-blade fixed prop on what will either be our current shaft or a new one that would require custom machining, replace the cutless bearing, put the shaft back through the stern tube, reconnect it to our transmission, repack the stuffing box, and run some sea trials, we’ll know how many more days we’ll be here in Deltaville. And what it will finally cost us to leave.

Then we’ll be southbound at last all over again. Mile Marker Zero, here we come.

But not yet.

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PHOTO CREDITS
Key West pano: James Willamore, via photopin under a Creative Commons license.
All other photos: Mike Webster.