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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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!!!!
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:
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.
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: