Thursday, May 28, 2015

Air Draft

  You may know that we are members of the Americas Great Loop Cruisers' Association. The AGLCA has a members forum on their website that we can use to find out information about "Doing the Loop", or just to discover other tidbits concerning the boating public. Some of the items that members publish makes you wonder how they ever become equipped to leave the dock.
  One recent question a member posted had to do with how he could best measure his "air draft". For anyone who doesn't know, this would be described as the measurement from the waterline to the topmost part of a vessel, or "how much does my boat stick out of the water?"
  The responses were many...and varied; from using string wound around a stick, poles made with tubes filled with water (to ascertain it being level), to using a laser scope. On and on.
  Give this a thought when you consider joining others in a "buddy boat" situation; If a fella can't figure out how to measure how much his boat sticks out of the water, do you really want to be tethered to someone like that on a Gulf of Mexico, or Gulf Stream crossing?
  Wanting to know the height of ones boat is necessary, however, for the very important reason that many bodies of water have bridges on them that don't raise or move. The "Loop" has some low bridges along the route that may determine whether or not you can even make the trip in the boat you have, or at least may dictate which route you take. But this post isn't about informing you how to go about making that Loop trip. That would require research, and I don't do research. It may be about dumb questions, but since I ask the occasional dumb question, I don't want to shoot myself in my own foot.
  Even though our immediate plans don't include leaving Florida waters anytime soon, we still need to know what our air draft is. There's lots of bridges around here.
  We don't drive around saying, "Hey, there's a bridge over there, let's see if we can fit under that!" But for instance, if we want to go over to the Bayside, we need to get under the Seven Mile Bridge, and we can go under at the closest point to us, which is "low", or we can travel nearly three or four miles to the high point passage and not worry about it. We have always gone out to the high point.
  Why go out an hour out of our way when the "low point" is somewhere around 21 feet and are "air draft" is a few feet lower? The answer to that is because there are no markings on the piers at the low points showing the distance between the water and the bridge structure, and we have tides, waves, and strong currents to consider. Plus, we don't ever have to get over to the Bayside in a hurry.
  If we ever have a need to get under a bridge, we would lower our VHF antennas and our wind generators and stern light, maybe even the radar dome. This would get us under any bridge on "The Loop", but not under some of the bridges along A1A. For some of them, the dinghy air draft may be too much.
  One question that was brought up on the AGLCA members forum did prompt a response from me. One guy asked if the extra buoyancy of salt water was significant enough to make a difference in the air draft of his boat. I think it's a good question, I even anticipated having some extra freeboard once we got to salt water, in order to compensate for all the extra crap we had onboard, but it was not to be.
  In fact, before we left St. Louis, we raised our waterline on the boat by an inch. We were floating that much lower in the water after bringing all our "stuff" onto the boat. Chugging along the inland rivers, our waterline for the most part only changed when we ran light on fuel or water. The depth of the water due to floods, etc. is more of a concern.
   With a full load of fuel and water, Swing Set has water lapping right at the edge of the swim platform. When we got to the ocean, this did not change.
  I'm not saying that salt water does not make a boat more buoyant, it does, but it's not enough to make a difference when one is considering whether or not they can take their boat under a low bridge. I wouldn't even let it be part of the equation.
  Swing Set is 17 feet, 6 inches from the waterline to the tip of the wind generator blades. That measurement was made with a  full load of fuel and water. She sits about 4 inches higher in the water with a light load. Does this mean I'd run under a bridge as low as 18 feet without worrying about it? No, it doesn't. I pay attention at anything under 21 feet, and then I still pay attention.
  Do you see where any of my approach to a fixed bridge takes in the consideration of a few inches here or there in relation to fuel and water load, or added salt water buoyancy, or whether I measured the air draft with the boat tipped to one side or the other? Maybe if the boat is squatted down at speed we would have more room to get under a bridge. If nothing else, if you hit something going fast, anything that falls off has a better chance of landing in the water and not back onto the boat.
  The message I have here is: Go slow, give yourself lots of wiggle room, and don't take chances.
  Anyone who knows me also knows I don't take the helm with a slide rule in my pocket and a heat sensor gun on my hip. Hardly. Leave that for the engineer types. But you can measure and calculate only so much down to the nth degree and there is still an unknown out there sometimes. (At this point, I don't even know if I'm making sense.)

  Speaking of air draft, it would appear that we added some to the dinghy with our new bimini top, but not really. The new top is about even with the stern light. Even so, the top easily folds down, and the top part of the stern light comes off. We can get under some pretty low bridges around here which definitely saves us some time getting around in the dinghy.
  We ordered the top from and it was shipped free. I upgraded the material, but still the bows are aluminum. I don't mind the aluminum bows because weight is an issue when we hang the dinghy on our davits.
  The top, and the material to make a new dinghy seat came to just under $300. The little green umbrella that we had been using to give Holly shade on our trips to the beach would blow around in the wind and make her skittish, and our supply of $4 umbrellas was running low. They do tend to rust.
  How many $4 umbrellas can we buy for $300, you may ask? The answer is seventy-five, but then we'd have to get permission from Holly to share her umbrella when we want to get out of the sun too, skittish or not.

  We thought that the marina would be clearing out after the holiday weekend, but it seems like for every boat that leaves to head north, a new one takes its place. The air temperatures are heating up and we are running the A/C full time now, taking advantage of the fact that our electric is included in our rent.
  As we watch some boats depart, I do get a twinge of regret that we are staying put, but as long as it's just a "twinge", it's outweighed by our sense of luxury and contentment here. We have friends coming down for the Superboat races here over the 4th of July and we're looking forward to that. Now that traffic has settled down on A1A, we'll make more trips to Key West on the scooter and maybe take Swing Set to A & B marina for a few weekends this summer. We'll make do.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Caterpillar 3116s Overheating - No More!

  It's only been about two years, but we've finally gotten some real success in our search to find out why the engines on Swing Set have been overheating. One may wonder, admittedly so, why it would take so long to figure out a seemingly simple problem. Without repeating all of what I've been writing about since we discovered the problem while we were in The Bahamas way back in 2012, I'll try to explain.
  I needn't say here that I'm no mechanic. Just reading this blog will be testament enough to that particular fact, but I try. A friend recently said, after I had been recounting some success at a minor repair, that he "pays people to do those type of things". I replied that given our economic station in life, it's necessary that we do at least some of the maintenance on our boat, because if we didn't, there are two certainties; either us or the boat would remain broke.
  So...the story:
We know that Swing Set was capable of running at cruising speed (2500 RPM) for hours at a time, at least until we had to run from Highbourne Cay in The Exumas over to Nassau when our steering went out. I did replace an impeller on the port engine when we were in Spanish Wells because the port engine was running hot. It wasn't until we were leaving Rum Cay in the far Bahamas that I discovered an overheating problem on our starboard engine. I replaced the impeller in the raw water pump on the starboard engine, but from that point on, both engines ran marginally hot, and remained that way until we got back to Miami. Then began my lengthy trial and error attempt at cleaning in place the raw water systems on both engines.
  This process took a great deal of time. First is doing the process itself. Then, typically we would have to wait for a weather window to sea trial in order to see our results. We did get some improvement of the time duration it would take for the temperatures to creep up. Sometimes this would happen faster on one engine than the other. When that would happen, then another process of determining a root cause would begin by pulling sea strainers, checking for proper water flow from the exhaust. (The exhaust actually exits below the water line, but the spent cooling water leaves the boat right at our water line, making an actual determination of just how much water is flowing a difficult one.)
  Over the last several months, I improved my method of cleaning the heat exchangers, learning something new at each attempt. I did lots of reading on social networks, which will leave a person thinking everything is broken, or the engines are worth nothing but scrap. But you have to get ideas from somewhere.
  I installed new thermostats. I changed out temperature transmitters to see if the issue would migrate from one engine to another. (This is when one engine would be running considerably higher than the other.) During this time, there were times when we went out for a sea trial only to find we couldn't get on plane, so that problem would have to be resolved before resuming our search for the overheating issue.
  Every time I would have a conversation with a fellow boater who had similar experiences in the past, or a well meaning blog reader would pass along some advice, I'd try something new. I pulled exhaust elbows, tightened fresh water belts, and inquired about our "after coolers" with our Caterpillar mechanics, all with no results, but learning new things each time about how to avoid scraping all the skin off of my knuckles when doing mechanical work.
  I began to suspect our coolant. We had been using an extended life coolant, installed at least five years ago when we were in St. Louis. The Caterpillar books stress the need to use fresh coolant, along with the proper additives, or else all kind of horrible things would happen to our engines, overheating was one of those things, along with the threat of our descendants for many years being subject to all kinds of calamity.
  But the Caterpillar reps down here dismissed the "old coolant" theory. So, I recently replaced both radiator caps, and the raw water pumps entirely on both engines. (The raw water pumps were pumping water, each with newer impellers, but both pumps were leaking water at the seals, a warning sign of impending doom regarding the seals on the oil side.)
But here is what kept nagging at me; a mechanical issue regarding both engines at the same time would be coincidental at best. I could understand both engines needing the heat exchangers cleaned as they would accumulate scale at the same rate, but since both engines were now overheating at the same rate, I suspected a common denominator, and the stale coolant was common to both engines.
  Last week I drained the coolant from both engines, getting most of the seven gallons from each engine without spilling any into the bilges. This alone is an accomplishment, folks. I replaced the coolant with fresh water temporarily. We had to wait again for a weather window, and yesterday was the day.
  We ran straight out towards the Sombrero light, just about at the three mile limit, and then kept going. Within just a few minutes, I knew I was on the right course. Both engines reached no more than 190-195 degrees and stayed there for 45 minutes, running at 2500 RPM. Sweet!
  This morning I flushed the raw water systems on both engines, checked the oil, and sent our Caterpillar a note detailing the success of our sea trial. We're keeping our service appointment. I want to pressure test our coolant systems, do an oil analysis, and just have a qualified mechanic on board to give us a preventative "check up" in the engine room. After pressure testing the cooling systems, we'll install Caterpillar Coolant at the recommended coolant/water ratio.
UPDATE: For anyone foolish enough to follow any mechanical advice I may give, I wanted to add some thoughts to this post after talking to a different CAT mechanic and some boat neighbors who seem to know what they are doing.
  No one except the CAT manual agrees with the older coolant being the issue with overheating. However, I do think additives and coolant viability (or newness) can play a part in how the coolant reacts to the metal in your engine. Straight water, over time, can pit the insides of an engine and cause mucho, mucho problemos. So putting new coolant in was a prudent thing to do.
  I wish I would have installed the new raw water pumps and ran the boat before draining the coolant...because the old pumps were leaking at the weep holes due to the seals going bad. Now...I've known before...but somehow forgot, that if water is leaking out, then air can be leaking in, and air leaking into the raw water pump can cause cavitation which disrupts the water flow, hence reducing the efficiency of the cooling system.
  There's more. Even though I am very happy with our engines running at 195 degrees, I'm being told that if we have 180 thermostats installed (which we do) then the engines should run at 180 degrees at all speeds, not just our leisurely 9 M.P.H. when not on plane.
  For now we're standing pat. From the factory the 3116s come with a 195 degree thermostat, so I don't think running at the temperature at cruise is going to hurt a thing. But I'll be paying close attention to any future temperature increases.

  Last night might have been one of the first in a long time that I didn't spend at least a few minutes, or hours, laying awake wondering why we were having overheating issues.

  But it hasn't been all about engine problems. My "systematic" painting of the aluminum trim in the cockpit has still been ongoing, and I made another dinghy seat improvement. Check out the picture above.
  Our dinghy seat is on the fourth generation. You might recall how the original seat began to de-laminate and fall apart while we were in The Bahamas. I repaired, then replaced the seat when we got back to the U.S., using plastic fence board. I've used plastic fence board for some structural items in the engine room, but the dinghy seat needs to flex some, so the stiff plastic fence board broke as we were pounding over some waves last year. I again replaced that seat with one made of wood, priming and painting it to protect it from the elements. I thought that that seat would last as long as the dinghy would.
  While we were in Key West a few weeks ago, I noticed that the wood was rotting under the paint! I decided right then that I'd bite the bullet and spend the money on Starboard and do the job right. A few days ago we took the scooter to Home Depot and bought a 2' x 4' sheet of Starboard, had the nice folks there custom cut it for us, and then we rode home on the scooter with the seat tucked under Rosie's arm, along with some aluminum angle we bought to add as bracing. An alternative would have been for Rosie to bring a cab home to the marina with our purchases, but what's the fun in that?

  Rosie and Holly are posing in the dinghy when it still had the "old" seat. The sun is getting hot down here now, and the small umbrella we have been using to provide some shade for our little buddy has been getting blown around on some windy days, and the big umbrella that we had also used occasionally does not have the support needed at the base and has cracked the fiberglass surrounding the mount on the dinghy. I ordered a bimini top for the dinghy, so I made the new seat so the top could attach to it, meaning it had to be wider.
  Making it wider seems like a no brainer, right? Well, the seat can only be so wide so it fits into the straps on the dinghy made to hold it in place, and you don't want the seat to rub anywhere on the single layer of the tubes, so I made the seat "float" over the tubes, wide enough so that I can mount the bimini rails on the outside edges of the seat. I needed a width of 48" and the dinghy seat mounts are 40" apart. I'll post some pictures of the new top once I get it installed next week.
  Basking in the success of our sea trial, and without any other immediate problems hanging over our heads, we're going to enjoy our Memorial Day weekend starting this afternoon when we take the dinghy out on what is predicted to be one of the last calm weather days for a while. We'll take at least a few minutes to remember why we have this holiday. Hope you do too.

Monday, May 4, 2015


  This Friday will be three years since we left our hometown of St. Louis, MO to head down the Mississippi River. I could retell the tale here and repeat three years of blogs so that anyone reading this post can avoid researching my past posts to find out some specific details. But I won't.
  The blog has a search engine. Is there something specific that interests you? Perhaps you want to read about our time in The Bahamas, or maybe get some information about some of the marinas and anchorages we've visited. It's easy. Go to "search this blog" and type in the subject. A list of blog posts will appear that pertain to that particular subject. How easy was that?
  Anyway... Three years! Not tired of the life yet, but admittedly, living at a marina is not as exciting as traveling on a daily basis, and the stories aren't as good either. But our intent has always been to bring the boat to Florida to live on it. We just didn't know when we left St. Louis, just where that place in Florida was going to be. Right now it's Marathon. Who knows where we'll be in two or three years?

  Last Saturday we took Swing Set out for a quick sea trial. In the photo, we're heading into Boot Key Harbor, about to pass through the abandoned bridge that goes out to Boot Key.

  The Boot Key Mooring Field is home to a variety of vessels. We've spent a few months "on the ball" over the last three years, and it's a life that takes some getting used to. Some people have been anchored in there for years. And years.
  The vessel in the picture above is just one example of what can be found in the harbor. Some are worse, but I wouldn't be too eager to be moored next to this fellow when a storm blows up. Everything piled onto the decks of this houseboat is a potential missile.
  Some recent legislation being considered in Florida would restrict anchoring near developed "upland property" from the current 50 feet to 200 feet. If I had to step out onto the deck of my waterfront home each morning to be greeted by someone on a houseboat like this one, I'd prefer the anchoring restriction be increased to about a half mile. If you disagree with this opinion, start your own blog.
  Our sea trial was necessary because I'm still chasing an overheating issue on our engines. When I descaled the heat exchangers (again) a few weeks ago, we ran Swing Set for 90 minutes at cruising speed without any temperature alarm sounding, but the gauges were reading at 210 degrees, still too hot in my opinion.
  I started researching the subject again after discussing the issue with a friend who had some experience with the same problem on his boat a while back. He replaced the exhaust risers on his gas engines and the problem went away. I began to zero in on our exhaust elbows as a source of our problems.
  Last week I pulled off the exhaust elbow on our port engine and found no blockage. I was actually disappointed.
  My research got me to start thinking about the drive belts on our fresh water pumps. They're called fresh water pumps, but they actually circulate the engine coolant that is cooled by the raw water via the heat exchangers. I hadn't tightened these belts since having them installed before we left St. Louis. I was overdue.
  Several hours, and a few bleeding knuckles later, both belts were tight. (And the belt guards on both engines were now residing in the dumpsters here at the marina.) The belts, having been just a little loose, were the culprits. I just knew it.
  Even though the weather on Saturday was just a little "sporty". (We seafaring types refer to "windy" as being "sporty". I guess it gets tiresome referring to weather conditions as being windy all the time.) This is why we cruised through Boot Key Harbor to emerge into Hawk Channel out of Two Sisters Cut. This put the easterly wind at our backs to make a good run out toward Bahia Honda State Park on the other end of the Seven Mile Bridge.
  As soon as we got on plane I knew I still hadn't solved the issue. Twenty minutes into our run, the port engine temperature alarm sounded. Pulling back on the throttles immediately brought the temperature down. I was disgusted.
  "If a problem can be solved with money, there is no problem". No, we don't have exorbitant amounts of money to throw at problems, but believe me, it could be worse. We now have an appointment with the crew at Key West Engines in Key West for them to perform a complete diagnostic of our engine cooling systems. My shotgun approach has not worked out.
  What is disappointing to me is that solving complex problems is something that I've been pretty good at in the past during my working years. The difference here is that the potential solutions are a result of my own labor and financial expenditure, so I'm trying to solve it as cheaply as I can. It's the way most people approach mechanical issues when money is an issue.
  Key West Engines has a one month backlog, so we have to wait. When the time comes, we'll either take the boat to their shop on Stock Island, or they will come here if the weather won't permit travel to Stock Island. If they come here there is a mileage and travel time charge. Yes, there are mechanics here in Marathon, an even a Caterpillar Authorized Service Center, but we had an overall good experience with Key West Engines when they replaced our turbos two years ago, so I feel comfortable with them.

  To celebrate our three year anniversary, not to mention my birthday and our wedding anniversary, we had planned to visit Key West with the boat next weekend, but we had some  friends visiting Key West a week ago and the weather was perfect for a trip to Key Weird.
  We split the 50 mile cruise up into two parts, spending the night on the hook in Newfound Harbor near Picnic Island, which is pictured above. I took this shot early in the morning as we left to continue onto the A & B Marina in Key West Bight. Still, one of our favorite things to do is get underway just after sunrise, sipping on a cup of coffee, especially when the sea conditions are as calm as they were on this morning.
  We had a whirlwind three nights at A & B Marina. We spent two days at Dante's Pool and we took our friends Steve and Krista on a cruise out to Boca Grande on Saturday and the weather couldn't have been more exquisite. On our last night we treated ourselves to dinner at Berlins Steak House in honor of our upcoming anniversaries, and no, their steaks were not as good as we can make right here on Swing Set.
  We ran straight back to Marathon on Monday, taking over five hours to make the trip. Some westerly winds had packed seagrass into all the western facing slips and we had to grind through a couple hundred feet of weeds to get docked.
  The next day I flushed our engines with fresh water and then I pulled the sea strainer on our air conditioner units. I don't know how any water was getting through them at all. I even found some dead clam shells in the bottom of the strainer. I had to use our wet vac to suck them out of the strainer body.
  Rosie and I both reaffirmed our opinions that we enjoy living here in Marathon better than living in Key West, at least at any of the marinas we currently have to choose from in the Key West area. Like they say, "It's a nice place to visit...."