Friday, February 22, 2013

A rocky end to the month

Today marks one month that we have owned our boat, Vector.  The time has flown by, and we are exhausted.  It's been just a week since I last posted here, but I have so much to write that I am not really sure where to begin.  I have a few things to say about Odyssey, so those lingering here for yet more news about the bus should probably read on.  Likewise, those of you who follow along for the schadenfreude, listening to me prattle on about various mechanical problems and how we solved them, will not be disappointed.

We are at Thunderbolt Marina, in Thunderbolt, Georgia, right on the Intracoastal Waterway.  Last week I posted that we would spend one night here, last night, after a short ride over from our last digs at Hogan's Marina, and that we would be departing here this morning for Hilton Head to begin training with a skipper up there.  Clearly we did not leave here this morning, and it was not simply due to the bad weather that was blowing through here (although that would have been enough, on its own, to give us pause).  For that matter, we didn't really spend last night in the marina, either, but we will get to that shortly.

First I should recap what we've been doing over the past week, which is, in great part, why we are so tired.  To wit, we've been getting the rest of our worldly possessions off the bus and onto the boat, in the week that they were still walking distance from each other.  While that sounds straightforward, frankly, the "easy" stuff had mostly been moved aboard by the time we left on our training cruise.  What was left on the bus was mostly in the bays, and every last item needed to be looked at and sorted.

When you live on a bus, or a boat for that matter, you have to use space efficiently, making use of every last nook and cranny.  That means that things go where they fit, and not necessarily where they are convenient or make sense, and that is especially true for seldom-used items.  Often this means that organizing items by use or purpose is difficult.  And so it is that bus-specific parts and tools were inevitably mixed in with general-purpose parts and tools, and I had to sort through every tool box and parts bin to separate out those items that needed to stay with the bus from the larger portion of tools and parts that came with us on the boat.  All the Neoplan- and bus-specific tools and parts stay with the bus, whether we sell it or keep it.

As part of the sorting process, I also tried to eliminate any items from inventory that are not useful, or even downright dangerous, on a boat, and so there are some parts and tools that, while not bus-specific per se, remained on the bus anyway.  Lots of things we have not needed or even looked at in nine years ended up in the trash or at Goodwill.

Some of the hard stuff involved dis-assembly.  For example, I had to basically re-cable the entire entertainment center, separating out the A/V components to remain on the bus (LCD TV, Bose surround-sound system, Panasonic A/V receiver, antennas, and interconnecting cables) from those coming with us on the boat (DirecTV receiver, Blu-ray player, MP3 player) and test the systems remaining on the bus.  Likewise, removing all of our computer network and components, including the router, WAP, file server, and printer/scanner, while leaving behind the satellite Internet system in a functional way, was something of a challenge.  Fortunately there was an old wireless router on the boat that I was able to press into service for the purpose, so I did not need to buy more hardware.

Between the sorting, the rewiring, and the schlepping of perhaps three dozen dock-cart-loads of belongings from bus to boat, we worked every day from after our morning coffee to just before bed time.  On top of all that, as I mentioned in the last post, I also built a make-shift mounting system for the scooters, which we hoisted onto the deck with the crane.

Getting the mounting platform up was a breeze, though, compared to the scooters.  Our crane is on the port side, and, fortunately, we were tied port-side-to, so we could easily hoist items on and off the dock.  But to get the scooters up onto the deck with the lifting tackle we had on hand, we first needed to remove the tender.  Getting the tender in the water with the boat port-side-to was quite the challenge without being able to just drive the boat out into open water.  We ended up swinging the bow into the dock and the stern away far enough to just squeeze the tender down between the boat and the dock, all by use of lines.  Moving a 52-ton boat by hand is not easy; fortunately, winds were light when we did it.

Having the tender in the water gave me a chance to practice with it a bit more, and to explore further up Turner Creek than Vector can go.  But it also made getting the scooters up a great deal simpler, important for the first hoist.  It took a bit of jockeying to get them into a suitable position on deck, which is right where the household-style Weber BBQ grill was, complete with two full 5-gallon LP tanks.  We lowered the grill to the dock with the crane before lifting the scooters, and I expect it will replace the clapped-out old BBQ that was on the porch at Hogan's when we arrived.  It was a nice grill, and I would have liked to have gotten a few bucks for it, maybe on Craigslist, but there just was not time, so it ended up being a donation.

The whole scooter mounting system, involving a sheet of 3/4" plywood and a bunch of #14 x 3/4" screws, is rather shaky, and it's all a tight fit, but it was good enough to get us out of Georgia.  With no BBQ now on the boat, I walked across the street to Ace Hardware with our trusty collapsible hand truck, and picked up a Weber electric model.  We don't want to have any LPG on the boat at all, so this is an acceptable compromise.  I made lamb chops on it tonight, and they tasted fine.  It just requires a bit more patience, as it takes 15-20 minutes to warm up to operating temperature.  I'm going to miss that Ace Hardware, though, which carried quite a selection of marine items, including a full portfolio of stainless and silicon bronze hardware.  The Weber Q140 was even priced competitively with online retailers.

I finally carted the last four bags of belongings, mostly computer-related items, down to the boat around mid-day on Thursday, just before our captain was scheduled to arrive.  It was really that tight.  At some point during the week I lost track of why we were busting our buns so hard to get this all done in so few days, and then I remembered that we had no way to empty our rapidly filling waste tank.  It reminded me of that old joke, where the brain, the heart, the (fill in various body parts here), and the, umm, anus are arguing over which of them is the most important.  I'll spare you the details, as you can Google it if you've never heard it, but suffice it to say that the posterior wins the argument, and now we can see why.

Absolutely the worst thing you can have on a boat is a schedule, even one dictated by your waste tank, so we were quite relieved when the weather Thursday ended up being gorgeous -- sunny, warm, and very little wind.  After a quick tour of the engine room, Captain Buddy and I went up to the flybridge while Louise tended lines for our final departure from Hogan's.  With such easy conditions, I took the controls and started backing out of the slip.  There is a tight turn to get out, and single-screw boats do not turn in reverse, so I used the bow thruster to bring the bow around.

We used the thruster plenty on last week's training cruise, and I had tested it as part of my normal checks before we cast off.  It worked fine for a few seconds, and then emitted a horrible screeching sound but no thrust.  By this time we were already well away from the dock and moving backwards.  Buddy, who cut his teeth on single-screw shrimpers with no bow thruster at all, had no trouble getting me out of this jam.  I learned a great deal just watching him.  While I understand the physics of it all at a core level, actually doing it is more of an art form, and watching years of experience at work was instructive.  Of course, shrimp boats hit all manner of things all the time -- it's hard to hurt them (or their docks), and all the shrimpers around here are lined stem to stern with used tires as fenders, something I tend to joke about doing with Vector to play on her workboat lineage.

After my blood pressure returned to normal and we were in the channel and under way to Thunderbolt, I went below and called the project manager at Thunderbolt Marine, Kevin, who had been responsible for much of the work on the boat under its previous owner.  He agreed to come meet us on the dock with a tech to look at the problem.  This problem could have happened anywhere, including in a tight waterway in a backwater town, so all things considered, the fact that we were already en route to a major repair facility with a lift capable of hauling us out of the water was fortuitous, and the fact that the yard was already familiar with the boat (and I had the project manager's cell number in my phone) was a bonus.

When we arrived there was no room for us on the marina side, so they put us over on the superyacht docks on the yard side.  Captain Buddy easily put the boat on the dock with no thruster at all -- we really enjoyed having him aboard, and he was definitely the right man for the job given the way things developed.  We called him a cab to get him back to Hogan's, and I hope we will see him again.

Kevin met us on the dock as promised, and a few minutes later, Ed-the-thruster-guy came down to have a look.  It sounded to all of us like a shorn key or a stripped gear, and after Ed looked at it he figured it was a coupling that might be fixed with the boat still in the water.  It was too late to start on it right then, so they scheduled us for 7:30 this morning, and I called Captain Gary in Hilton Head to wave off our transit up there today.

Of course, everything we had carted onto the boat but had not yet stowed in its proper spot (or otherwise disposed of) was stacked in the forward stateroom, and the bow thruster access is under the bed in there.  So we spent part of the evening clearing everything out so we could tip the mattress up on its side and leave a clear path for the technicians this morning.  Once everything settled down we took a scooter off the deck so we would have wheels while we are stuck here at Thunderbolt, as we figured it would be at least through the weekend.

We had tied up port-side-to again, but we did not want to go through the whole dance we did at Hogan's unloading and reloading the tender to get at the scooter.  So we spent most of an hour coming up with a different lifting arrangement that would let us get my scooter clear up over the rail, so we could miss the tender altogether.  We eventually managed to jury-rig a harness and bridle with tie-down straps, and now that we have the method figured out, I will get proper rigging to make something more permanent.

Taking a scooter off the deck made us fit right in over on Feadship Row.  I mentioned we were in the superyacht docks; right next to us was a  beautiful 60's-era canoe-stern 120' Feadship, Beija-Flor, that recently sold for around $4m.  I think the last owner spent nearly that much on the last refit, where much of the hull plating was replaced.  As we were working on the scooter, a 140' explorer-style Feadship, Andiamo, came into the next dock over.  She's the same vintage as Vector, a 2003, and is for sale for a cool $26m.  We could not even charter that yacht for two weeks for what we paid for our boat.

So there we were, the littlest boat on the biggest dock.  Still, we felt right at home, in the company of two other steel-hull, aluminum-superstructure boats.  Lots of the big yachts carry scooters, mostly used by the crew, who, incidentally, are the only other people sleeping aboard any boats here, other than, I think, one sailboat in the marina.  Georgia's strict no-liveaboard rules preclude the long-term tenant boats here from being occupied most of the time.  The superyacht crews (and us, for the moment) get a waiver because the boats are in for maintenance, which generally stops the clocks in most states.

We ended up riding over to Tubby's for dinner, and a much needed libation.  Then it was early to bed, because yard guys come aboard at 0730 whether you are ready or not.

This morning Ed and his accomplice got the motor off the thruster in just a few minutes, and then gave us the bad news.  It was not a coupling or anything else above the seal, and the gearbox and final drive, below the waterline, would have to come out, requiring the boat to be out of the water.  To make matters worse, winds were blowing 20+ knots, and with no thruster, no one at the yard wanted to chance moving the boat over to the Travel Lift.  We were grounded for the weekend, with the haulout scheduled first thing Monday morning.  The yard guys were off the boat before 9am.

I debated collapsing in a stupor for the rest of the day, as we are both dog tired, or maybe getting started on this much overdue blog post.  But after an hour or so of relaxing with my morning coffee, curiosity got the better of me and I spent a half hour in the thruster compartment, followed by a half hour with the manual.  While the yard seemed to think they were going to remove the final drive and send it off to the manufacturer for repair, which might take a full week even with overnight shipping both ways, the documentation was pretty clear that the drive unit was a sealed, non-repairable item that was replaced whole.  I decided to call them to find out.

Our thruster is a Max Power, made by a company in France that has since been bought and sold perhaps three times.  I spoke to an extremely knowledgeable service person, who is quite likely the entire department all by himself, and he confirmed from my description of the symptoms that it was probably the final drive unit and it would have to be replaced.  The replacement is $1,895 -- IF he had any.  Apparently the manufacturer, who has since relocated to Italy (the same plant where our Lofrans windlass is made), is once again emerging from reorganization under some sort of bankruptcy proceeding, and manufacturing of these units has stopped.  None is available in the US, and there are two other people ahead of me waiting on the same part.  I asked if it would be days, weeks, or months, and he said "weeks."

We are nothing if not resourceful here aboard Vector, and before I even hung up the phone, Louise was Googling around for entire used, new, surplus, or take-out bow thrusters with the same parts list.  Within an hour she had found a Sea-Ray surplus parts place near Cocoa, Florida that had a pair of surplus units with incompatible control systems and smaller motors than ours.  But I called Max Power back and confirmed that the final drive units were identical, and he also told me that the propellers were an exact match and I could also use the motor as a spare, only with less power.  Perfect.  The owner of the surplus place took pity on me and gave me the dealer price, and the whole kit and caboodle will be here Monday via FedEx next-day.

So we're here through Tuesday at least, as we've postponed the haulout to Tuesday morning so we will have the part on hand.  Kevin agreed to help us move the boat over to the pumpout and then a dock a bit closer to the marina, and by late afternoon the winds had died down to almost nothing so it was a good time to do it.

Kevin started out on the flybridge with me, but after we cleared back past the Feadship next door he said "you're doing fine" and then disappeared downstairs with Louise to handle the lines.  Gulp.  Somehow I managed to get the boat to the fuel dock, where the pumpout is, without hitting anything (and with no thruster), and we're safely tucked in for the night.  I already miss the Feadship neighbors -- it was so high class there.  But we're closer to the Krispy Kreme donuts the marina supplies in the morning.  Tomorrow, I think I will go back to the plan of collapsing in a stupor.


  1. Wow! That is stressful. It reminds me of the first few months of owning our bus and I almost hyperventilate. You are a brave man.


  2. I know you may not agree, BUT I think that having to learn how to maneuver without the thruster is the best thing that could happen.
    That way you won't become so dependent of having it all the time.

    Bill Kelleher

    1. Bill, we had always planned to practice maneuvering without the thruster, as I agree that a competent skipper should be able to handle the boat without one. But there is a time for all things, and right now when we are completely green we need to have every tool at our disposal. We've already had several people suggest adding a stern thruster as well.

      Bear in mind there is no marine equivalent to that empty abandoned parking lot where you teach your teenager to drive. We will be practicing our docking in real marinas full of other boats. One mistake and our 104,000 pound steel boat will crack a fiberglass center console open like a walnut.

      After we've each had a few hundred hours of tight maneuvering around marinas, we'll start to feel comfortable enough with the boat and how it handles to be able to dock it with no thruster at all.

      For any single-screw skippers following along, I will add that Vector does not walk. For the landlubbers, boat rudders are ineffective in reverse at low speeds (in forward, the rudder deflects the prop wash, giving you thrust in either direction), and when backing, a single screw boat will "prop walk" to one side or the other, depending on which way the prop turns. Lighter boats with larger propellers will walk more, while heavier boats with smaller propellers will walk less. Vector is so heavy, with a relative small-diameter (32") prop, that the prop walk effect is hardly noticeable, whereas on many popular boats such as the Krogen 42, the effect is so pronounced that a good skipper will make use of it to control the boat when backing.

      Our first training cruise a few years ago was on a 40', single-screw boat and we learned to use the prop walk to our advantage. I was expecting to make use of that technique with Vector, but it is just not a factor on this boat.

  3. After reading your desire for fenders made of old tires, I had a vision of y'all motoring away from a marina with two new sets of fenders (4 tires each), leaving poor Oddessy up on cinder blocks.

  4. I think this is a great time to learn manuvering the boat without a thruster. I captain a 36 ft. Albin with 1 screw and no thrusters. Just back up, crank wheel where you want bow to move and shift to forward. works great. have fun.
    barry and Denise aboard "0 Regrets"

  5. schadenfreude?? Ok, Sean, I confess I had to look it up, and yes, it sure fits, but we like you to have fun too. ha ha Just know we are with you in spirit even though we are not close enough to help twist wrenches or replace plasma. Handling that single screw boat will come natural with a little time and many great sunsets will prevail. Have a blast.. steve & carol

  6. Fascinating. You two are impressive. I am glad you were able to come up with the spare part. Very interesting. I love how you two approach things. Good luck.


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