Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Putting a damper on things.

It's been nearly three weeks since I posted here, and I have some catching up to do. With no long days under way I actually have to make time to write, and it's been very busy here. Not to worry, though, from the travelogue standpoint, as we've been in the same spot for over two weeks and we haven't left Jacksonville.

Shortly after I last posted here we weighed anchor and rode the flood upriver to downtown Jacksonville. We were pleased to find plenty of room at the free city docks at Jacksonville Landing, even though the docks have still not been repaired from the damage of hurricane Mathew two years ago and, with large swaths of the docks closed off, room for cruising boats is limited.

The tree at Jacksonville Landing, with a Reggae band playing one of the numerous free concerts.

With the flood now running swiftly, I spun the boat around to head into the current and come in port-side-to. It was a picture-perfect approach and we would have made it in a single shot if not for Louise reporting through the headphones in a somewhat alarmed voice that there was a large line in the water threatening to foul our running gear. I quickly abandoned the approach and turned back out into the very deep water of the river with as few control movements as possible.

We always have the windlass on and the anchor ready when approaching a dock, in case of emergency. With the river 70' deep in this swift-moving bend, it would be a challenge to get the anchor on the bottom before the current could sweep us into the railroad bridge. I stayed as far downriver of the bridge as I could while we did circles clockwise and counterclockwise to see if the line in question was already fouled on the boat. We could not see it in either direction and so we made our way back to the dock and tied up (map).

Apart from the docks, which the city owns and makes available for transient boaters and the water taxi service, Jacksonville Landing is actually a shopping mall with a heavy emphasis on dining and nightlife. That said, it is dying on the vine, with fully half or more of the storefronts vacant. In the five years we've been coming here at least four restaurants have closed, and the nightlife venues are dead. None of what's left has more than three stars on Yelp, and several places have fewer. An Irish pub and Hooters bookend the place and appear to be the only truly going concerns.

All of that said, what they seem to do well here is run public events in the massive, semi-circular waterfront courtyard, and they always have a spectacular tree at the holidays with dancing lights. Long-time readers may remember me writing about this in years past; we've spent both Christmas and New Years (and Thanksgiving) in Jacksonville before. This year was no exception, and on a lovely Saturday afternoon we enjoyed strolling the courtyard and taking it all in.

Vector at Jacksonville Landing. You can see the hurricane damage on the docks.

When we returned to Vector we found the mystery line floating alongside. It was about a 1" or so diameter poly hawser, and so it floated to the surface once the current slackened enough to keep from towing it under. After tugging on it for a bit we concluded it was well jammed under our port stabilizer fin. Well secured at the dock, we decided to head off to dinner and not worry about it.

The Irish joint right next to the boat did not call us, so we hoofed it a few blocks to an old favorite, Casa Dora, an Italian place downtown. It's right next to the Florida Theater and on performance nights they forgo the regular menu in favor of a buffet service. This Saturday night turned out to be a concert with, umm, not our music, and while we might have just put up with the buffet, the fact that the very business-savvy proprietor was blasting the band's latest album at volume setting 11 throughout the restaurant drove us right back out.

That turned out to be serendipitous, because it sent us down the block to Cowford's Chophouse, a very nice place that heretofore we have skipped because we are seldom both in the mood for expensive steaks and chops. But with few other options, we reasoned we could find something lighter and more reasonable on the bar menu, and we were not wrong. We even caught the tail end of the happy hour menu, and everything was delicious. Next time we stop, if the weather is nice, we'll try to eat at their very nice rooftop bar.

The line caught under the fin aced out the transmission rattle to take first place on the must-fix list, and I spent a good bit of Sunday working on it. There was no way I was going to don dive gear and jump into a 60-degree blackwater river to put eyeballs on it or try to cut it out, even if I timed it for slack. So instead I manipulated the fin hydraulically while Louise tugged on both ends of the line to see if we could free it. No dice. In the process I could see the hydraulic actuator struggling, and so, not wanting to risk any further damage to the fin, I pinned it in the center position and disconnected it, a fiddly undocumented procedure that I learned the first time we had fin difficulties offshore.

Having conceded defeat, but not wanting to move the boat with the line still attached unless they booted us off the dock, we resigned ourselves to another couple of nights at the Landing (one or two is plenty, especially with the daily accumulation of foul river foam between the boat and the dock). I spent Monday calling around to find a diver willing to have a look and maybe free us of our hitchhiker. At least one diver, who was recommended by a number of other boaters, after initially saying he would help us, called back to say he had reconsidered and that he didn't want to jump into a cold, swift, industrial blackwater river either.

This mess of foam accumulated during every ebb, and made a mess of the hull that required scrubbing.

When I wasn't getting recommendations for or making calls to divers, I continued to work on the transmission problem, which, from the symptoms and the number of running hours on the unit, I had concluded was a worn damper plate. I spent an inordinate number of hours just trying to get a part number for the damper; it's not called out in the transmission service manual, nor is it listed in the engine parts book from Lugger, who put the two together to begin with.

This powertrain is rare enough that few boaters post about it online in the various boating and maintenance forums, and I was beginning to think that no one has yet replaced the damper, even though it seems to be common knowledge among Nordhavn 50 owners, who have this same combination, that the damper needs replacing at 5,000 hours. None of the N50 owners I asked had done it or knew the part number. Ultimately I called Lugger, gave them my serial numbers, and asked them to look it up. It was not in their computer, and they told me it might be a few days while they asked around.

By the end of Tuesday morning I finally had a diver committed for the afternoon, and no real progress on the damper. I did find a number of nearly identical transmissions with Vulkan Torflex dampers, and the good news was that those are fail-safe and can be run at lower power output even when the rubber has disintegrated without fear of parts going all over the bell housing and threatening to get caught on something.

The diver and his assistant arrived as planned mid-afternoon, and it took him less than five minutes, including gearing up, to cut the line and free it. He reported that it was caught between the fin and the "diverter," which is a little post ahead of the fin intended, ironically, to deflect lines so they will not get caught under the fin. That five minutes' work (well, plus probably 45 minutes of travel round trip) cost us $200, which we were glad to pay after another experienced professional had refused the job altogether.

The line we had caught, after the diver removed it in three sections.

Technically the limit at Jacksonville's free docks is three nights in any 30 days, and by this time we'd used them all in one fell swoop. But this is seldom enforced when the docks are not busy, and it was late enough in the day that we decided to take our chances and spend another night at the Landing. We finally made it to Casa Dora, which is dark Sundays.  We had enjoyed the bistro next door Sunday night.

Somewhere in all of this I had started making calls to marinas in St. Pete, Fort Lauderdale, and a few second-choice options for an extended winter stay. But trying to book a marina stay over the holidays when already into December is challenging, and none of our preferences was available until January. It did not help that we were reluctant to make a major financial commitment to a holiday marina stay without a more definitive answer about whether or not we should run the boat another 300+ miles before fixing the transmission.

At some point in the process I ended up calling the Marina at Ortega Landing right here in Jacksonville to see if they had space. Jacksonville had been on our C-list for winter stays, falling short on a few of our criteria such as having a number of restaurants in walking distance and a wide array of marine vendors and services available. A little to my surprise, they had a space just open up for over the holidays and indefinitely beyond that. And then we realized that even if we spent the rest of the winter further south, spending a month in Jacksonville would take the pressure off on the transmission front and get us through the busy holiday period, so we booked it.

Vector at Riverside Park with the Jacksonville skyline in the background.

We've been up the Ortega River before, and we know there's a hump at the entrance we can just barely clear only at high tide. High tide Wednesday would have put us there before they opened, so we agreed to arrive Thursday morning instead, which left us with another night to spend elsewhere. We were well past ready to leave Jacksonville Landing, even if the city was not asking us to leave, and so we shoved off and headed less than a mile upriver to the Riverside Park dock (map), another free city dock where we often landed the tender when we anchored in the "suspicious boat" anchorage in front of the hospital.

The dock has good depth and is plenty sturdy for Vector, with room even for another boat or two. And it's conveniently located within walking distance to the lovely Five Points neighborhood, with many decent restaurants. I enjoyed a nice walk around the area, including a stroll through the Olmstead-designed Memorial Park, and we had a nice dinner at one of our old stand-bys, Hawkers Asian Street Fare. On our way back we stopped in to the Cummings Museum of Art, which is free on Thursday evenings. We've walked past it many times and it was nice to finally stop in. If the city would rent us this dock for the season, Jacksonville would ratchet up a few notches on our list.

Winged Victory statue in Memorial Park, dating to the end of World War I.

Friday morning we dropped lines early for the 40-minute trip to Ortega Landing, with a fair current the whole way. We cleared the hump with four inches to spare and sailed right through the Ortega River Bridge which happened to be locked in the open position for maintenance.  We drove right up to the dock and were secured alongside shortly after 9am (map). I think I surprised the dockmaster by walking into his office at 9:30; few boaters arrive without assistance.

It turns out our good friends Barb and Steve aboard Maerin are spending a month here, and they showed up within minutes of us getting settled to inform us that we were coming over for dinner. We last saw them in the Bahamas and we had some catching up to do. We've since gotten together several more times, including two full games of Mexican Train dominoes, which we have to divide across two evenings if we don't start early enough.

New Maerin crewmember Joey stands in front of long-time stalwart Molly.

Moving the boat to Ortega Landing quite fortuitously caused the damper plate to stop in a different position, and when I went down to measure the bell housing again to inform Lugger's investigation into our build sheets (it turns out they had the wrong one listed), I could see a label on it through the narrow vents in the housing. A closer inspection with a flashlight and moving my head around copiously allowed me to read it in its entirety, and it turned out not only to list the model, part number, and serial number of the damper but also the original purchase order number, order date, and date of manufacture. It is the original damper, in there since the power train was assembled in Seattle.

Armed with a part number I could get availability and lead times, and I found one in stock at the ZF distributor in Fort Lauderdale. I was also able to call three itinerant transmission service specialists who could help me change the damper out, most of whom thought the job could be done without hauling. Disturbingly, however, all three, along with the distributor, thought the sound should vary with engine RPM more than it does if it was really the damper.

That did not disturb me very much until one of them suggested it sounded a lot more like the bearings were going than a damper issue. That turns an in-boat plate replacement into a major project to remove the whole transmission from the boat and send it back to ZF for a rebuild. Yikes. He asked me to pull the filter screen out of the unit and see if there was any metal debris in it. A simple enough task except I needed to run out and buy a 36mm socket and use my impact wrench to free the stubborn screen cover plug.

Transmission screen and cover plug with magnet.

After draining the transmission oil and removing the screen I was very, very relieved to find it clean as a whistle. A small magnet embedded in the cover had a few tiny flakes on it, but those could well have been in there since initial break-in some 5,000 hours ago. Nothing looked to me to be consistent with bearing failure in progress. The oil was a bit dark, though, and so just to be safe I ordered a sample kit on Amazon Prime and sent a sample off to the lab.

The sample analysis came back yesterday and it read normal on everything including wear metals. The oil was due for change anyway so no harm, no foul, and now I have the wrench I need to inspect and clean the filter screen at every change. It did, however, cost nearly a full two weeks, during which we could have made progress on the damper (it makes no sense to change the damper in-place if the transmission needs to go out to the shop).

The holidays are upon us, when shops are either closed or ridiculously busy, and we now know that the transmission wear is normal and the damper plate is the fail-safe type that can be operated, carefully, in its current state. And so we will defer the damper plate replacement until we reach Fort Lauderdale, where more assistance and resources are available.

I'd love to tell you that we've spent our days lounging by the pool and soaking in the hot tub (this is actually a pretty nice marina), but of course I've mostly been busy getting other projects done. Opting to spend a month here gave us a good address for Amazon and eBay, and so several projects that have languished for lack of materials have moved forward. And, of course, something new breaks every week.

Shortly after arrival we set about lowering the scooters so we'd have wheels for around town. Other than a Publix grocery store and three half-decent restaurants, not much is walking distance. I usually start each scooter while still on the boat deck, because I have access there to a 12-volt supply for charging or jump-starting. After months of sitting unused, and especially with Louise's bike, they can often be difficult to start, and more than once I've run the battery down trying.

Jacksonville by night: Vector at Riverside Park.

Mine started right up and we lowered it to the dock, but Louise's would not start at all, and shortly I traced the problem to a blown fuse. When the spare blew instantly I knew the problem was deeper, and we left it on deck until I could work on it. I was still hip-deep in the much more critical transmission issues at that point, and we could get around two-up on my bike easily enough, albeit in less comfort.

Getting the scooter working ultimately took me several hours spread over multiple days; it turned out to be a burned-out voltage regulator, which would blow the fuse even with the ignition key off. I found a used take-out on eBay for 12 bucks and, once installed, it started right up. We enjoyed riding separate scooters for several days, but the warranty on my "new" Kymco expires on Christmas Eve and so yesterday we took it down to the nearest dealer, in Orange Park, and dropped it off. Riding back two-up on Louise's much smaller bike was definitely not comfortable.

In the middle of dealing with sending things out, like the oil samples and Louise's unending stream of charity quilts, our ancient el-cheapo Brother multi-function printer decided it would no longer print all the black pixels. I'm certain that Brother would say it's because of all the cheap aftermarket ink I've been using instead of their branded items. I paid just $50 for this thing seven years ago - like razors, they practically give them away to sell you the ink - but everything else was working and I didn't want to have another monstrous piece of e-waste around the house. So I found a YouTube video on how to deep clean the print head and ink plumbing. I used generic window cleaner rather than the mystery cleaner that everyone who makes these videos wants to sell you; it worked like a charm and the printer is printing like new, better than it has in years.

After five years of use we needed a new toilet seat, and I've had the order just sitting in my Amazon cart for weeks waiting for a good delivery address (you can't just run down to Walmart or Lowe's -- household seats don't fit). An easy, five-minute, slam-dunk project. LOL, no. The marine-standard-sized seat I had ordered and which looks identical, in the photos, to the one that came with the head, right down to the "Bemis" brand name, is actually a half inch or so smaller in diameter than the head itself. It turns out that Tecma uses a custom size and has Bemis custom make the seats just for them. It's not in the Bemis catalog and can't be ordered except through Tecma.

That was going to take another week and cost about a fifth of what I paid for the whole head, seat and all. It took me a couple of hours of research to figure out that the seats that Dometic uses on some of its Vacuflush models are almost exactly the same size, and while it was still four times as expensive as the "marine standard" one I had originally ordered, this one was available on Amazon Prime. So now we have a nice new seat with "Dometic" stamped on top.

New toilet seat. A perfect fit but with the wrong brand name on it.

The main engine coolant was also due for change after two years. The pre-charged stuff we use is hard to find in stores and so I ordered six gallons of it on eBay. Another dirty project that takes the better part of a day, but we're good for another two years. Now I have six gallons of used coolant I need to find a way to dispose of.

The new dinghy crossed its 20-hour break-in mark before we reached Charleston, and I finally got nice enough weather to do the 20-hour service up on the boat deck. That includes changing the engine oil and filter as well as the transmission oil, and lubing the mount. My first time for everything on this motor, so there was something of a learning curve. I had to use a pipe wrench to get the diminutive oil filter off; I've since run out and bought the proper filter wrench for it.

While I've been very busy, it has not been all work and no play. We did get out a couple of times to the massage school right around the corner from here, where student massages are just $30 for an hour. We discovered this place when we were still on the bus, where it was a much longer scooter ride from the Elks Lodge. In the last year they've expanded into another building and the facility is much nicer. We've also enjoyed going down to the quaint Avondale neighborhood for dinner a couple of times, and the marina threw a holiday party with a nice spread as well as a dock crawl of holiday lights.

Sunset over the Ortega River.

Our month runs to January 5th, and we have the option to extend a few days on a pro-rata basis. After that I expect we will make our way to Fort Lauderdale for a few months. Most likely my next blog post will be after we shove off, and so we wish all of our family, friends, and readers a safe, comfortable, and joyous holiday season and a happy new year.

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