So you want to work on boats?

When I began the Marine Systems course back in September, I really had no idea what sort of industry I was getting myself into.  I blindly jumped in without hesitation and my aim was to work as hard as I could to learn as much as possible.  Upon arriving at the school that September day, one of the first questions my instructor asked me, with a hint of a smirk, was “So you want to work on boats?”  My response was unreserved enthusiasm and a romanticized idea of the industry.  He gave a supportive grin quickly followed by an amused chuckle.  I immediately knew that he knew something that I did not.  After only a week at my internship at Baltic Boat Works in Bristol, RI, I now know what that was.

Last Monday when I arrived at the shop, I was determined to prove that I was a competent intern up to any task thrown my way.  The task given to me was to review the electrical/plumbing systems on a 27′ sailboat and present my plan for repair/replacement of any components that I deemed necessary.  Easy enough, I suppose, right?  Once I got on board it became immediately clear why my instructor had laughed at my vocational choice.
Luckily, this particular sailboat draws enough that I was able to stand up down below.  That is where the ease of maneuvering stopped.  Naturally, every component on a boat is meant to be kept out of sight.  No one wants to stare at a hot water heater while they entertain guests or dine.  I understand this completely.  But man, when designers prioritize living space over equipment space, things get tucked away in some pretty awesome places.  Awesome in the sense of how impressively inaccessible they were.
My first goal was to take locate the battery compartment and trace the wiring to the distribution panel.  Upon opening the hatch to the engine “room” I was a bit confused as to where I was even supposed to stand.  There was a three cylinder Yanmar, fuel filter, raw water strainer, fresh water pump (for the rest of the boat, not the engine), and exhaust manifold all in a 3’x4′ space.  I made myself comfortable on my perch, very aware that a misstep would send a leg 6′ down into the bilge.
The only footholds available.
I then found the area designated for the batteries, tucked away on the port side of the engine.  Thankfully, it appeared that I was facing a factory wiring job.  This meant that it was extremely neat and bundled, but absolutely nothing was labeled.  I suppose it was wishful thinking that I my first gig would be on a boat with tidy wire runs that were nicely labeled.  Before I could do any accurate troubleshooting, I needed to trace the wires beginning at the distribution panel.  I have to say that I have never seen so many zip ties used.
The back of the distribution panel.  It may look overwhelming, but this is actually fairly neat.  The AC portion on the right should be covered by something to prevent accidental shock.
 It was here that I discovered a few add ons – obvious in their disorderly runs.  Luckily, most were in close proximity to the panel, so I was able to identify the wires despite them being on spare, unlabeled breakers.  They should be easy enough to tidy up.  The worst was the run for the GPS unit.  It was only a matter of time before this run cause a fire.  Instead of using the proper heat shrink butt connectors to join the wires, they were simply twisted together, poorly soldered, and wrapped in electrical tape.  Solder is not off limits in marine applications, but it is the least best option.  It needs to be properly protected and secured to prevent breaking as the soldering process turns a once flexible length of wire into a very brittle piece.  Wrapping it in electrical tape and then attaching it to a fuel line is not a solution.  It is lazy and dangerous.  Even if you aren’t an electrician, I do not think it is hard to understand why fuel and electricity don’t mix.
Come on now.  There’s a wire run against the hull right there!  Whoever did this made a poor, potentially lethal decision.
Soldered wire runs.  At least the larger 14 AWG red and yellow wires could handle the combined amperage of the GPS and fan.
 After working through the DC side of things, I began working on the AC components.  There was of course a shore power connection which led to the distribution panel.  Easy enough.  I figured there would be a battery charger somewhere on board but boy did I have a time finding it.  It was no where near the shore power nor was it crammed into the engine room with the batteries.  I realize now that I should have just traced the triplex wire (green/black/white) attached to the batteries, but those are normally “AC” colors and the whole point of a charger is to convert AC to DC current.  As the output of the charger is DC current, I was looking for the red and yellow wires typically used in DC systems.  Long story short, I found the charger tucked in the corder of the port cockpit locker, behind a jerry can of diesel fuel and buckets of cleaning supplies.
There it is!  The wires on the left should be red and yellow, but as they are still in good shape, I won’t run new wire.  I will, however, label the crap out of them.
 For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am 5’10”.  Fitting myself into that cockpit locker to inspect the charger was not an easy task.  Luckily, I could squat down inside relatively easily, but in order to reach the charger itself I had to prop myself up on some fenders to prevent myself from sliding down into the low side of the locker and getting stuck under the LPG locker.  Fully extended, I could reach the unit with a screwdriver, but only with one hand at a time.  If you haven’t tried to screw in a 1/2″ #4 non-magnetic screw with one hand while trying to keep your balance, it may be a useful exercise.  This is basically how it is with every component on this boat: accessible, barely, by only one hand at a time.
I feel like I’ve learned a great deal during this first week of my internship.  Aside from all of the experiential job-related instruction, there are a few practical nuances to my newfound vocation that were unexpected.  First – I need to stretch out my arms on demand.  No, I don’t mean that I need to do yoga on the regular (although I definitely should), but proper Inspector Gadget-style stretching.  Second – figure out how to have a third hand, or second elbow, or maybe built in flashlights in my fingertips.  Any of these would make working on boats immeasurably easier.  Third – prepare myself to better handle hanging upside down.  Maybe this just means looking for things under my bed by hanging off it a few times a week?  Regardless of how I accomplish these tasks, once perfected, I will be adequately prepared to tackle any task thrown my way.  Any tips/suggestions/ideas are welcome.

Down and dirty with diesels

I grew up watching the men of my family work on various projects around the house.  Sure, we girls (I am one of three) would step in where we could, but it wasn’t until we were much older that I felt that I had any appreciable impact on project progress.  Pops and Granddad took care of all things woodworking/gardening/structural and my Uncle Keith handled the plumbing/electrical/HVAC work.  We were very lucky to have such a talented crew.  There was one specialty, however, that remained elusive to our clan:  automotive.

The furthest we got dealing with our cars was the classic routine maintenance: new wipers, topping off fluids, and oil changes.  The latter made me feel like a had a glimpse of this other world – where folks asked you to describe the sound your car made when something was awry and fixed things behind the curtains of their shop doors.  I always answered their questions with a bit of skepticism.  How could you diagnose an issue with a car you had never seen purely based on my description of the strange sounds from under the hood?  And do I really need to keep my gas above a quarter tank in the winter?  Was that tip from my Pops just about safety or did it actually make a difference in the life of my trusty Oldsmobile?

After a month of intense study, it is pretty remarkable to me that I can not only answer many of these questions but can appreciate the living, breathing quality that engines take on.  When you hear the rasp in someone’s breathing, you know they are sick.  The same goes for engines.  If something is off – you’ll hear it.  Who knew that the sound of a well running diesel engine would make me excited to a level akin to Christmas morning?!?  I certainly would never have expected this reaction.

The day our engines were distributed amongst the class, I really had no clue what I was looking at.  Unbeknownst to me, we ended up with what I believe to be the best engine in the group: an Isuzu Pisces.  While she wasn’t the prettiest in the bunch, she has THE best sound (check out the video on my IG account for a listen).  Unexpectedly, it didn’t take too much to coax her back to life after months out of commission.  Once she roared to life I was hooked.

The line up. All of the major players in the mix here but we all know who my favorite is.
There she is: Pisces!!!! Yeah, she’s wrapped up in her fuel/water hoses but we had her running in no time. She was also the only engine in the mix that had all of her glow plugs working up to par.

We immediately dove into learning about every single piece of the diesel engine puzzle.  We cleaned up the spark plugs, compression tested cylinders, and eventually refit the raw water pump with a whole new set of parts.  Here are a few photos of the highlights:


One of the glow plugs in front of the exploded view of the cylinder head assembly. While the two cylinder model is shown, we were working with the four cylinder model. We eventually cleaned these glow plugs up to decrease resistance in the circuit and increase heating efficiency.
My bench partner at work setting the valve clearance for one of the exhaust valves. This is definitely a finicky process but essential to extending the life of your engine!

I was so grateful to have one of the IYRS boats in the shop to reenforce the skills we were learning at our benches.  This boat works really hard all season long to take folks around Newport and was definitely in need of some love.  We found some pretty critical issues – one of which was the same raw water pump issue we had on Pisces.

Classic discoloration around the weep hole of this raw water impeller pump. The bearings were shot so we gave her a whole new set of parts. Pressing the new bearings was easier on this Yanmar than on Pisces.
This exhaust elbow was pretty rusty. It’s not a surprise that the paint couldn’t withstand the high temperatures this part encounters. We rust busted the whole engine and gave her a new coat of Yanmar Grey. Yes, this is mostly an aesthetic fix, but we felt that deeper investigation could wait as there were no other red flags with the exhaust system.
Just one angle of the severe belt wear on this Yanmar. There was black dust all over the place. We realigned the pulleys and set her up with a fresh belt.


Not only am I going to have a much better appreciation for the trucks at the next tractor pull I attend with my brother in law, but I will be able to diagnose issues from improperly sized propellers to misfiring cylinders.  I can’t wait to volunteer as the family grease monkey next time we have an issue with one of our vehicles.  No – I’m not an expert yet, but at least I’ll be able give my educated two cents when I visit the mechanic.  And who knows – maybe there’s a shop of my own in cards!  I feel much better equipped for work in the marine industry with this specialty under my belt.  There is nothing worse than feeling stranded on your boat because engine trouble feels beyond your control.  I’m sure y’all have some stories on this front.  I’d love to hear them!

In good company

December was quite the month.  With some things going on off screen, it was a bit tough to remain focused each day in class.  I’ve got to say, I am so grateful for my amazing classmates.  They keep the atmosphere light and know exactly when to crack a joke or two (or three or four).  There are plenty of goofballs in the mix who make it really hard to remain in the doldrums in which I may have started my day.

Fiberglass tug of war. You know…standard day in the shop.
I was also confronted with the fact that having the right folks on your team will make even the hardest challenges seem attainable.  Such was the case with the hydraulics install on our sim boards.  Hydraulics sure make steering easier, but getting them installed sans leaks and with the correct fittings is not such smooth sailing.  My first learning curve was simply bending copper tube with the appropriate fittings.  Things need to be in the right place and completed in the correct order if you expect to get anywhere at all.  As usual, with a bit of focus and practice things began to fall into place and it looks like I was set up for an easy install.
Gotta place the fitting BEFORE you bend the tube! Got it.
That is a great flare if I don’t say so myself. Pressure’s holding. Looks good!
Then I realized that I had chosen an industry in which components are normally hidden behind cabinets, just out of reach from hatches and access ports, or only accessible by touch not sight.  Such was the locale for our hydraulics install.  Luckily I could see where I was working, but once I got my hands in there along with tools, the line of sight was far from ideal.  After I had completed installation of the first set of fittings and tubes, it all needed to be removed to accommodate a fresh fitting since there wasn’t enough copper hardware to utilize my copper bending skills (the original plan).  Then, due to the inflexibility of the steering tube we were using instead, additional hardware needed to be added (and removed and added) to allow it to bend in the correct direction.
View #1: behind the Racor. Not ideal.
View #2: from above. I can see the back one now, but I’ve lost the other two. Also, not ideal.
View #3: behind the Racor but higher – so you can see SO much more…not.
While this all sounds like a huge waste of time, it was actually about as close to a real world experience that I have come thus far.  Each step (literally) presented its own challenge that required an adjustment to the “plan” and time spent searching for the necessary components.  It also tried my patience to the max on a day where the behind the scenes business was on the forefront of my mind.  After an hour or two working solo, my bench partner timed the completion of his projects perfectly and stepped in to help me finish the install.  He somehow instantly cleared the air of all my stress and the rest of the job just felt like a giant puzzle: a fun not frustrating one.
Sometimes you can’t even get the right tool in spaces to tighten fittings. Nick to the rescue.
Needless to say, I have realized that surrounding yourself with the right people is one of the most important things that you can do.  Whether it be in your workplace, amongst friends, or even inserting yourself amongst a great group of strangers (shout out to all you fantastic Instagramers!), it makes a world of a difference when they have your back.  I could not have switched gears so drastically three months ago without the knowledge that I had the support of so many wonderful friends and family.  Thanks for making this a remarkable first few months in the industry.  I can’t want to see what 2016 has in store.

Inspiration from Diana, Stevie, and Marvin

It’s remarkable how seemingly nondescript objects can hold a disproportionate amount of weight in one’s life.  To the general populace, the item may fade in to the background noise of a place, but to that certain individual, it is the root of that place.  The radio in my parents’ garage holds this weight for me.

The garage also doubles as my Dad’s shop.  He has very creatively carved out storage for his tools and hardware amongst the canned goods and cars.  As soon as the light is turned on, an extension cord is powered and the radio starts blasting.  Many times, I have been looking for my Pops and heard the radio through the wall of the family room and knew exactly where to find him.  It is always tuned to the “Oldies” station and thus is guaranteed to play quality tunes.  This radio taught me to love the Temptations, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson, amongst countless others.  Apparently this station now considers the Bee Gees and Wild Cherry to be “oldies,” so I am no longer guaranteed my go-to Motown classics.  The radio is old and the reception is a bit spotty so the music always comes through with a hint of a crackle.

Version 2
The Radio. I don’t think the dial has ever been changed and I am realizing I have no idea what that “Tone” switch is for…

I know that I am droning on about this silly radio for way too long, but it not only defines the space where my Pops spends much of his free time, but also the period of my life when I began to build a love for working with my hands.  Pops and his dad would work on various projects together and finish the day with a cold one or the very occasional cigar.  I always wanted to be a part of their club, where you got to build useful things to the sound of Motown.  During holiday gatherings, the men would step outside to enjoy a glass of scotch (if you can call Famous Grouse scotch) or Seven & Sevens and a cigar.  When they got too cold they would retreat to the garage.  Eventually, my sister and I infiltrated “man time” and joined in this very special time of storytelling and fellowship.

Heading home this Thanksgiving was a bit different, but that dang radio brought all of this back.  My grandfather has since passed and many of my family members were scattered elsewhere around the country.  With a smaller gathering planned, it was up to Pops and I to carry on the tradition.  Pops has been working on replacing the deck with the help of a few folks, and this weekend we were finishing up the railings and the skirt.  My granddad helped build the original deck about 15 years ago and it was great to be a part of this process as more than just a bystander.  Pops brought the radio out onto the deck and we soon found ourselves in a groove.

The railing on the stairs was definitely a challenge.  Pops’s priorities for the deck are to get it done in a reasonable timeframe and to make it aesthetically pleasing for folks, but mostly for my Mom (smart man).  Progress is made quickly and with wiggle room for “character”  as he calls it.   Seams aren’t always perfect, but it looks really sharp nonetheless.  This railing could have been approached from a mathematical perspective, but we simply used a bevel gauge, level, and a compound mitre saw.  Angles were established with a bit of trial and error (and I will confess a belt sander was used to massage a few joints), but when you don’t have time to bust out mortise and tenons, you make do.

Checking angles. These posts weren’t square to each other so things were a bit tricky.


We opted to cap the post rather than dealing with that cut. We’ll see if my mom bugs him enough to complete the top rail. May be a quick Christmas project.

We finished after a few hours and were both fairly impressed with ourselves.  Pops called it a day and the cigars came out.  Coffee replaced the scotch, but it still felt like the days of my youth.  The fact that I am able to participate in every step of this process, putting in the work and enjoying the hangout afterwards, is so satisfying.  I am so grateful to become a part of the tradition of craftsmen (and women) in my family.  I know that Granddad would be proud.

The skirt in progress.
Skirting the stairs. You can see our tools of the trade scattered about.

Slow and steady

This week was spent finishing up a couple of projects that have been in the works.  Many of my classmates had already finished them, moving on to other things, but my bench partner and I are absolutely content to take things slow and steady.  We feel completely at ease taking advantage of the school atmosphere to take the time to get things right the first time.  We are being very intentional with how we prioritize tasks and I think the results are quite telling.

The first project that has been slow to develop was the bracket on which we were mounting our Racor diesel filtration unit.  The idea was to get practice welding and designing solutions to installation issues we may face.  All of us took surprisingly varied approaches to this task.  Our approach was that of simplicity.  Create a piece with enough strength to support the unit but nothing too over engineered.  We took some extra time to smooth out our welds with a die grinder.  This particular tool was surprisingly effective (and fun) but made quite the mess!  Lesson learned.  We then drilled our mounting holes and sandblasted it smooth.  Second lesson learned:  sandblast first, drill holes second.  Finished it with some slick blue paint (the only color blue acceptable, ps.  Go Duke!).

Steel cut and ready to weld. We beveled the edges to allow a “slot” for the weld to set into. Providing this space helped us keep our bracket square.
Sandblasted and ready for paint! We spent a good bit of time shaking the sand out of these holes since it could have fallen out onto the wet paint. This was a waste of time.
Installed! We had to redo our paint job once since the alcohol we wiped the bracket down with post sandblasting somehow got “stuck” under the paint leaving a scaly finish.

The other project was a custom made fiberglass cover for the AC portion of our distribution panel.  The separation of AC and DC components is required per ABYC standards, but these panels will likely not come with said separation included.  We painstakingly sanded our mold and sealed it for easy removal once the fiberglass dried.  We laid our fiberglass with care only to have to beat it up to get the mold to release.  So much for our beautiful mold.  After a bit more sanding and some more blue paint, we had a pretty good looking panel cover.  While I do not see myself getting into the fiberglass side of boat building, it was great to get a bit of experience for these smaller tasks.

AC panel in place. Please keep in mind that when we moved onto our Marine Systems module, we switched benches and sim panels. We have rewired some things to tidy them up, but not all.
Up close in personal. Had we used a different type of fiberglass we could have sanded the face much smoother. Having to go at this aggressively to release it from the mold did not help texture.

I am grateful to have a bench partner with a similar desire to learn good habits and maintain results of acceptable (at this stage in the game anyway) quality.  It is very hard for me to cut corners to speed up processes at the expense of quality.  But I really don’t think this will be a hindrance in this industry.  If I can consistently deliver excellent products in a reasonable timeframe, products which are durable and stalwart, I would consider the extra time well spent.

Next week I head home for Thanksgiving and will be finishing up the deck with my Pops.  Get stoked for some actual woodworking!!!!

Water, water everywhere…oh, and tons of plastic too!

For the past month, we have been working to understand the concept of electricity through analogies to water.  The books we read said that amperage is like the rate of water flow past a certain point, that corrosion acts like a blockage in a pipe.  Somehow, I have felt better about dealing in metaphors than with the actual wet stuff.  Since receiving our electrical certifications, we have moved on to our next phase: Marine Systems.  This includes tankage of all kinds: diesel, potable water, even the infamous black water.

Yes, I will soon know how to fix that pesky head of yours.  Will I enjoy doing it – no, but will I be happy to take care of it so you don’t have to – absolutely.  I will also be able to fix any other pump issues you may have, whether it be the macerator pump for said black water tank, or the centrifugal pump that maintains the pressure out of your faucet.  Well, I suppose this isn’t entirely true.  I could fix your pump, but in today’s day and age, why fix when you can buy a new one?  This is apparently the mentality of the industry, and frankly, a one which I find very disappointing.

I understand that in some cases a replacement is often cheaper than a fix, but this will not always be the case.  In those latter instances, I suspect that 90% of the time, I will be told to replace anyway because it is easier and “we can.”  It is very difficult for me to put my biology degree aside at times like these.  We are already filling up the planet with piles and piles of seemingly useless items.  These piles grow and grow until they are buried or until the bits and pieces that make them up find their way into some stream, or lake, or ocean.

I am sure that many of you boaters out there have spent many a gorgeous day out on the water and had some surprisingly intact piece of plastic float lazily by.  The throw-away culture that has become the norm today only adds to the pollution of the planet that we share with so many other creatures.  Chris Jordan has taken some shocking photos of albatross that illustrate this point.  You can check them out here.  This is just one of many examples of a culture that prioritizes speed over longevity.  Longevity not just of the task at hand, but of the global picture as well.

We spent time taking apart all of the various pumps we installed and the task was remarkably simple in all cases.  Nothing like the dreaded shore-power outlet from last week.  I know that I am preparing to enter an industry with set ideas about the way things should be done, but I have not resigned myself buy into these ideas wholeheartedly.  I would love to see a shift from the careless castoff culture that comes so easily to so many.  Hopefully, this inadvertently pessimistic post will be proven inaccurate in the real world.  If you have any insight, I would love to hear it in the comments!

Check out some photos of our systems installations below:

Testing how sound our fittings were. You can tell by my bench partner's pants that we didn't get everything as tight as we thought the first time around.
Testing how sound our fittings were. You can tell by my bench partner’s pants that we didn’t get everything as tight as we thought the first time around.
The macerator pump. One of these hose clamps needed tweaking quite a bit before we could stop the leak. No shrink wrap protection here...
The macerator pump. One of these hose clamps needed tweaking quite a bit before we could stop the leak. No shrink wrap protection here…
A broken down macerator pump - surprisingly simple. Engineers are the best.
A broken down macerator pump – surprisingly simple. Engineers are the best.
Our sim panel - post
Our sim panel – pre “winterization.”  Pipes don’t always sit as nicely as electrical wire, dangit!

When shore power isn’t a sure thing

Inventive problem solving seems to be a common thread in the trades.  In woodworking, this could present itself in creative clamping or hiding a mistake so well that no one knows it was even there.  Our electrical module presented me with countless challenges that required innovative solutions.  Some were overcome quite quickly, like rerouting a wire run, while others only appeared simple.  I’ll admit, I take on these deceptively simple issues with so much focus and determination that the daylong execution of the solution doesn’t feel like a waste of time in the slightest.

Case in point: the shore power outlet, aka, My Nemesis.  This is the outlet that you will plug your shore power into to recharge your batteries or shamelessly use all of your AC equipment at the same time.  It’s a pretty important component to wire properly or else all kinds of bad things could go down.  Our goal in this course is to learn to install/maintain/repair different systems in compliance with the standards set by the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC).  This is the main body that regulates marine systems.  One of their main goals, across numerous systems, is corrosion control.  Whether it’s making sure your zincs keep your propeller shaft from wearing away or keeping water from pooling on fuel tanks to keep them sound, it’s almost always about corrosion.

The electrical components are no different.  If you’ve ever seen that lovely green crusty junk on your battery terminal, you know what I mean.  One of ABYC’s best recommendations to prevent corrosion in your wiring connections is to use heat shrink terminals to secure the end of your wires.  These captive terminals hold your stranded wire to the desired stud, rather than wrapping wire around the stud directly (like you would in your house, for example, except with solid wire).  All it takes is the proper crimping tool, some butane and voila, your wiring is safe and protected for a long, long time.

Now, back to that pesky shore power outlet.  Many of the components used on boats aren’t necessarily designed for marine environments, and if they are, they do not comply with the relatively new ABYC standards.  Such was the case with the shore power outlet provided to me.  The thicker, waterproof heat-shrink terminals just wouldn’t fit in the housing and my daylong adventure began.  Step one: take it apart.  Easy right?  Nah.  Yes, protecting these wires is of paramount importance, but how many separate components does it really take to do so?  You’ll see the guts below.

Shore power in pieces
Shore power in pieces.

The white and black housings on the top of the photo are the main recipients of my contempt.  Exposed wire fits neatly through the holes and is flexible enough to allow all the components to fit snuggly back together.  Key word: exposed, i.e. – corrosion heaven no matter how many pieces of plastic are involved.  Throw on the proper terminals (you can see them at the end of the three wires) and you’ll get nowhere fast.  They are too thick to fit through the holes on the black portion and too sturdy to allow for the twisting required for lining the white portion up properly.  After run in with the drill press and at least an hour wresting with various screwdrivers, my partner and I were able get it all back together.  Now, modifying the outlet housing is generally poor decision, but like I said before, I was going to overcome my nemesis one way or the other.

It is my hope that component manufacturers will begin to take into account the ABYC standards in their design stages.  That way, electricians like me can install their products with confidence in boats around the world and ensure quality work.  Work that you are certain will last and will have a much lower chance of burning their legacy to the waterline.

Check out the rest of my wiring undertaking below:

In the zone.
In the zone.
Yet another poor excuse for marine equipment. This time the shore power switch.
Yet another poor excuse for marine equipment. This time the shore power switch.
All finished! Bilge blowers, relays, inverter, starter and house batteries, fiberglass control panel, etc.
All finished! Bilge blowers, relays, inverter, starter and house batteries, fiberglass control panel, etc.  I am VERY pleased with how neatly we were able to keep this!
Behind the scenes. Nice and neat.
Behind the scenes.