Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When It Rains, It Pours

Still in Georgetown, and not headed north until June 27th at the very earliest - probably later. We've had a bit of a deluge of boat problems and projects, and I've been spending every waking moment working on the boat, except when I'm at work, which has been quite a bit lately. I actually picked up an extra 4-day trip starting late this week because we've been shelling out money at an insane rate lately. Here's the rundown:

Boat Canvas Project: The whole reason we're in Georgetown is to have our canvas replaced at Sharp's Custom Canvas (~$8000). I'm happy to report that our new dodger, bimini, connector and enclosure curtains are all complete and on the boat, and they look spectacular. We ended up having them more-or-less copy the existing canvas, except that we added a zip-open skylight to the bimini, added a zipper to the bottom of the connector, and added canvas strips with velcro to the bimini for securing our new solar panels. Sharp's did really nice work and the project was completed almost on-time despite incessant rain showers and thunderstorms that made patterning and fitting a bit challenging.

Batteries: Our five new Firefly Carbon-Foam AGMs ($2400) finally arrived during the second week of June, and I had two days off between trips to install them. I actually got the project done in a single day; it ended up being pretty easy. Hauling the three existing 140-lb Rolls batteries out of the boat was a bit of a bear but Dawn was able to help get them up the companionway ladder. I positioned the new Fireflies under our aft berth, installed chocks and straps to keep them from going anywhere, and connected them in parallel with beefy 2/0 AWG battery cables to create a single 550AHr bank. The new batteries look great; here's hoping their performance lives up to the hype.

Charger/Inverter: We shipped our faulty Xantrex Freedom SW2000 out to a service center in Bradenton, Florida, and they confirmed that we have a shot FET board and main logic board. Repair would cost $1100, or a new unit would be $2000 through them (I found it for $1600 elsewhere). This was only a 4-year old unit, and the Handleys had gone through another Xantrex as well; they simply don't have a very good reputation. I decided to switch brands and ordered a Victron MultiPlus 3000W inverter/120A charger ($1100) through eMarine in Ft. Lauderdale. It arrived on Monday and I installed it yesterday. As of right now I haven't decided what remote panel I want to get for it, so to switch the inverter on we have to remove a cover under our companionway ladder. But that aside, it seems to work great...and now that we can use shore power to charge our batteries, we have refrigeration again! And air conditioning, which has come in very useful as the rain has made it necessary to keep the boat closed up most of the time.

Solar Project: I originally ordered three 50-watt semi-flexible panels and one 100-watt panel for the bimini but the fit ended up being very problematic, so I returned the 100-watt panel and ordered another 50. Meanwhile I took our current solar controller out from behind our circuit breaker panel and relocated it to the locker behind our nav seat, just below the air conditioning equipment. We now have three solar controllers there, two Victron 75/15s for the bimini panels and one Victron 100/30 for the davit arch. We still have our old Siemens 85s mounted there but will replace them later this summer, and this bigger Victron controller will handle 320 watts just fine. I have all three controllers wired in parallel via a Blue Seas Systems bus bar / fuse panel and then via a very short run to the positive battery bus which starts under the nav seat. The PV wires run through a waterproof gland I installed on the cockpit combing, through the salon ceiling, and down into the air con/solar controller locker. I'm still working on wiring the PV wires from the panels through the bimini. I originally used the short stock lead wires and hooked up the PV wires via MC4 connectors right on the bimini, but it looked absolutely terrible. So instead I am splicing in longer leads that will hide the MC4 connectors in a zipped-up pocket where the bimini attaches to its frame. I worked on that tonight and should have it done tomorrow by noon, I think.

Leaky Water Pump: This seemed like such a minor project that I don't think I've even mentioned it until now. Our coolant circulation pump was leaking and it seemed to be coming from the cylinder return O-ring. So I ordered a new o-ring and two new gaskets online, but they took forever to get here. When I put them in last week and got the engine back together, it was still leaking. Closer inspection revealed that it was really leaking from a weep hole in the pump itself, which is indicative of an internal seal failure. So I ordered a new water pump from A&M Marine, a local repair shop, and on a bit of a whim decided to have them install it since I was leaving on a trip and we wanted to get headed north by June 20th. Can do, they said - since your cooling system will be apart, would you like us to go through your heat exchanger too? It was on my list for this summer but I figured yeah, as long as the system is apart, let's do it and be done with it. Fast forward to two days later when I got a phone call in London: two of the heat exchanger cover bolts were corroded frozen and snapped, so now I was looking at $3500 for a new water pump, heat exchanger and exhaust manifold, plus labor. They already had 7 hours into it at $125/hr and were estimating 8-15 more. I told them to order the parts but I'd put them in myself.

This morning we got the heat exchanger, exhaust manifold and associated parts, but not the water pump. That should be here tomorrow, hopefully. In the meantime I washed down the engine and replaced a few hoses that looked dodgy as well as all the hose clamps that my Skandvik ABA jihad hadn't reached yet, and then installed the exhaust manifold and heat exchanger. Hopefully by tomorrow night or Friday morning we'll have a running Yanmar again. But jeeze, those were a couple of expensive bolts. I don't fault A&M, persay - they tried everything they could to get the bolts loose without snapping them, including soaking them in penetrating oil overnight. But I think I would've been more patient, and if I had still broken them at least my labor would've been free. And in any case I'm learning a lot more about the cooling system by doing the installation myself. Eventually I'm going to get it through my thick skull that the only person that should really be working on the boat is me.

So yeah, that's what's going on. I'll have another few full days of working on the boat and then I'm off to lovely Lagos, Nigeria to pay for some of this! It could be worse. We're sharing the dock with one sailboat that just turned a bearing and is looking at a repower, a big cat that just took major damage from a lightning strike (I feel your pain, brother), and a new cruising family with a new-to-them, 17-year-old Beneteau that has absolutely everything going wrong. We're shelling out money, yes, but it's mostly on stuff that will make Windbird a better, more reliable cruising platform.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Back to Work

Well, the not hardly working thing was nice while it lasted, but my employer has shifted to its summer schedule, meaning a rapid uptick in block hours, and all our pilots are flying whether they want to or not. Besides, it's time for Dawn and I to rebuild the cruising kitty. We have a number of boat improvements on our plate for this summer and will be paying for a slip, so some income will be nice.

A few days after we arrived in Little River, I flew to Atlanta to report for a 9-day trip (which doubled the number of days I'd worked in 2017!). It was a trans-Atlantic international pairing with layovers in London, New York, Amsterdam, New York, and London again. Simultaneously, we sent Piper off to a dogvacay and Dawn flew back to MN/SD to spend a week with her family. Before leaving, we had befriended a cruising couple from Vermont, Ernie and Bette of S/V Iemanja. They had come up from Florida a half-day ahead of us; it was their Chris Parker forecast I was cribbing since Chris forgot to give us our own. Anyways, they promised to poke their head into Windbird every couple of days just to make sure everything was ok.

On my second New York layover, Ernie texted me to let us know our low-voltage alarm was going off. Our Xantrex charger/inverter was on and indicated that it was still in charge mode, but our house bank indicated 10.6v - dead flat. At that voltage our fridge and freezer don't work, and apparently hadn't for some time as all the food was warm and defrosted. Bette set to work cleaning everything perishable out and throwing it away, while Ernie dove into the Xantrex to do some basic troubleshooting. It had good shore power going in, and good 120v out to our main AC bus, but there was less than 1A being put out to the batteries. Ernie observed that it was almost like it was stuck in trickle charge mode. Once the engine was started, the alternator charged the batteries pretty rapidly, but by the next day the voltage was back down to 12.2 with no overnight loads. Our three Rolls AGM house batteries are 4 years old and evidently struggled with sulfidation issues during our Bahamas cruise, but I'd been hoping to get one more season out of them. This pretty well killed them, though. We've been operating with minimal house loads (lights, fans, USB charging, bilge pump, wifi, propane & CO2 sensors) totaling less than 30Ah per day and the batteries still regularly fall below 12.3v, requiring several hours of engine charging to top back up.

I'd already been considering switching to Oasis Firefly carbon foam AGMs when I thought the house bank might need replacing this summer, and decided that now was the time to do it. They're expensive at $480 per 110Ah Group 31 battery; a bank of five for 550Ah set us back a whopping $2400. Ouch. The upside is that they are known to be extremely resistant to sulfidation and can be operated at a partial state of charge (PSOT) as low as 10-20% without repercussion. Traditional AGMs like ours shouldn't be run below 50% charge, which effectively halves our house bank to 330 usable amp-hours. Carbon foam batteries don't lose capacity when you fail to charge them that top 5% absorption charge that takes forever, which was the problem with our batteries this winter (we were sailing everywhere and then running the engine for battery charging - and nobody runs their engine for several additional hours to put only a couple extra amps into their house bank). Carbon-foam longevity is also much better than traditional AGMs, being rated for a whopping 3500 cycles at 50% depth of discharge - and 1000 cycles at an impressive 90% depth of discharge.

The problem is finding anyone with Firefly batteries in stock; they're typically backordered by 2-3 weeks. That's fine for a planned replacement, but a long time to go without refrigeration for an unplanned order. Bruce Schwab at Ocean Planet Energy - a friend of Ernie and Bette's - didn't have any in stock, but gave me a hot tip that Fisheries Supply in Seattle did. They should arrive on Monday. That still leaves us with a bad battery charger, meaning we'll still have to recharge the batteries with the engine until it's fixed even though we're on a dock. I've done all the troubleshooting I can, I'm trying to get somebody local to take a look at it, and if that doesn't work I'll ship it back to Xantrex for repair. If that's not possible, I'm not going to replace it with another Xantrex - they don't have a good reputation for reliability. In that case I'll go with a Victron MultiPlus 3000W unit.

The other part of our electrical refit, which was already planned, is upgrading our solar. Part of this will be replacing our ancient Siemens 85w panels on the stern arch with new twin 160w panels, which will take us from 170w (probably more like 120w these days) to 320w. Additionally, we're adding 250w in flexible solar panels to our bimini top. Between 570W of solar and our BreezeX wind generator, we should be entirely self-sufficient using renewable energy with plenty of juice to spare for things like watermaking. There is nothing that irks me more than enjoying a fantastic sail only to get to the anchorage and having to crank up the loud, stinky diesel to charge the batteries. More than half of our engine time this season was for battery charging.

I ordered three HQST 50W sunpower panels and a single 100W HQST panel off of Amazon; they arrived at Lightkeeper's Marina while I was on my trip. I'll be using a separate Victron 75/15 MPPT charge controller for the port and starboard sides, to avoid shading issues. Before leaving on my present trip, I came up with a pretty good scheme for mounting them and running/hiding the wires; this will be incorporated into the new bimini top we're having made in Georgetown, SC, in the next few weeks.

Last weekend, Dawn and I repositioned Windbird from Little River to Georgetown. There was little wind, so we took the ICW, a repeat of a trip we did in mid-September. Being Memorial Day weekend, there was a ton of traffic on the ICW, but it was a beautiful day and everyone was in a great mood - lots of waves and mostly considerate skippers. We got a late start on Saturday - as we repositioned our Xterra truck to Georgetown early in the morning - but timed the tides just right so we had a mighty boost from the current plus outgoing tide on the Waccamaw River, and made it all the way to a peaceful anchorage at Butler Island, only six miles short of Georgetown. On Sunday it was a quick jaunt down the Waccamaw and up the Sampit to downtown Georgetown, where we docked at Harborwalk Marina. This has a really nice location but is pretty expensive in transient season; we only stayed here because the other marina didn't have room due to a marlin tournament. Tomorrow after I get back to the boat we'll be moving to Georgetown Landing, which isn't quite as proximate to the cute downtown but has much better weekly rates.

On Wednesday, Sharp's Canvas started patterning and building our new dodger. Once that is complete they'll build a new bimini, and then the enclosure curtains. They estimated two weeks to do it all, though I suspect that's a little ambitious. I'm done flying for the month on June 19th, and we'll head north to Annapolis the next day. We'll do as much offshore as we can, though it would require a pretty good weather forecast to go offshore around Hatteras. If that doesn't work, we'll go via the ICW. We've selected our home marina for the summer: Shipwright Harbor Marina of Deale, MD. It's about 20 miles south of Annapolis, within convenient driving distance of both DCA and BWI. I haven't done any sailing in the Chesapeake yet, & I'm really looking forward to it.