Saturday, November 21, 2020


We are tied up at the free docks at High Street Landing in Portsmouth, Virginia (map), a familiar stop for us. We arrived this afternoon after two full weeks docked at the Hampton Public Piers, a short distance north of here (map), with our steering inoperative.

When last I posted here, we were underway in the Atlantic, southbound for the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. At the end of that post I prognosticated we'd be in Hampton for at least a week and "may be longer," and you'd think by now I would know that all time estimates on a boat are to be doubled.

The view from our aft deck. We have the basin to ourselves, and the holiday lights are up.

The remainder of our passage was mostly uneventful. We ran the rest of the day and overnight at 1150 rpm to delay our arrival until my morning watch; we normally run at 1500, and 1150 is really just enough for the stabilizers and autopilot to do their respective jobs. As luck would have it, that put us at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which we have to cross in the same channel as the giant ships. just as the USS George Washington, CVN-73, was coming out, and Louise had to alter course to stay out of her security zone.

I came back on watch after all the excitement was over; as soon as I had some coffee in me I increased to 1500 rpm, and with the help of some incoming tide we were dropping the hook in the Phoebus anchorage, adjacent to Old Point Comfort (map), before 10am. The anchorage was uncrowded and blissfully calm, and we opted to stay right there for the entire three nights until our Sunday reservation at the Hampton docks.

Phoebus is now just a neighborhood of Hampton, but once upon a time was a town in its own right. A public dinghy landing is just a couple of blocks from the old downtown, and we enjoyed getting ashore during our stay and eating in a few of the establishments in town, all of which seem to be owned by the same consortium.

Welcoming committee; several dolphins escort us into Hampton Roads after a two-night passage.

Sunday we weighed anchor and headed to downtown Hampton, which was pretty close as the crow flies, but we had to go all the way around the bridge portion of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, cross over the tunnel, and then double back. We were tied up at the face dock just before lunch, and after lunch I descended into the tiller flat to remove the steering rams. I wanted to be ready to take them right to the shop first thing Monday morning.

The rams came out with little difficulty, and all the connecting hardware was in good shape. I stuck the ends of the disconnected hydraulic lines into a large container to drain, and I was quite appalled at what came out. It was black, almost like used motor oil. I think the leaky seals allowed a lot of dirt into the system. I worked both helms and the autopilot back and forth a few times to empty the entire system, about two gallons in all.

After getting the rams out and bagged up, we put both scooters on the ground for the first time in months, and got them both started and warmed up. We also filled the water tank, which was as empty as it has ever been when we pulled in, and our new batteries saw their first shore power outlet since they were first installed.

With the ram removed it's easy to see this bit of epoxy paint on part of the rod that travels through the seal.

Monday morning after coffee I strapped the two steering rams to the scooter floorboard, where they looked enormous, and rode the 45 minutes or so to the hydraulic shop in Newport News. The shop figured I was looking at about four hours per cylinder at a hundred bucks an hour, plus parts, but the guy who normally works on them was out until Thursday. In hindsight, I should have said thank you, wrapped them back up, and ridden another hour or so across the tunnel to the other shop, in Portsmouth.

They committed to putting me at the head of the queue, and I decided to leave the cylinders with them and chalk the extra three or four days up to bad timing. As long as it was on my way, I stopped at Costco on the way home, in what would turn out to be the first of three visits there. I returned later in the week to load up on fresh meat and some other provisions.

With no steering, we were committed to staying tied to the dock until they got the job done, and we settled in for the duration. On the mostly pleasant evenings we walked into town for dinner at one of the handful of establishments along Queen Street; on other evenings I would pick up takeout on my way back from errands, or we'd walk over for it to the nice brewpub at the end of the dock, which had excellent pizza as well as other items.

We had two solid days of rain, which led to a high reading on this gage right at our dock.

I jumped right in to some other projects that had languished. With full-time shore power available, I was able to replace the raw water pump on the generator, which has been leaking seawater on startup for a month now. Additionally I replaced the vacuum gauge on the generator fuel filter with a larger, oil-damped model. I also disassembled and repaired the Garmin GPS on the tender, which quit just as we left New York; it turned out to have failed due to water ingress.

In addition to parts that arrived at the office, I also picked up four separate shipments of parts from the nearby Amazon locker. Most of these were for a combination bleeder and emergency relief valve system that I designed for the steering, and I was able to get that mostly assembled while I waited for the cylinders to be ready.

A bit of explanation is in order for this last item. Like all hydraulic systems, including the brakes on your car, the steering must be completely full of nothing but hydraulic fluid; if there is any air at all trapped in the system, it will lead to spongy operation and possibly dangerous inability to control the boat. When you fill an empty system with hydraulic oil, there will inevitably be trapped air, and you need to work the air out of the system in a process called "bleeding."

At least we got a rainbow out of the deal.

I'm not sure how the original builders of the boat managed to bleed the system when they first filled it (and near as I can tell, it has never been emptied and refilled since). But lacking the sort of bleed fittings to which hoses can be attached, it most likely involved cracking open some of the fittings and letting them leak fluid until all the air bubbles were out. That's a messy proposition at best, and wastes a lot of oil. Perhaps they managed to get some kind of pan under it all, and with everything brand new and clean, they might have been able to reuse that oil.

I wanted to have some kind of fitting to which I could attach a hose, and a valve on each side to open for bleeding and then simply close once all the air was out. I would add the valves at the end of each steering line with a tee fitting. That, by itself, is easy enough: two tees, and two valves rated for 2000 PSI.

My other objective was to add a cross-over relief valve for emergency steering. This project has been on my list for a long time, but I've been putting it off because it meant draining down the entire hydraulic steering system, installing the cross-over, then refilling and bleeding the system. Since all of that was necessitated by the cylinder removal, now was definitely the time to get this done.

Cross-over and bleeding assembly, some $150 in parts. The brass hose barb at center gets removed after bleeding and replaced with a high-pressure stainless plug.

The purpose of this valve is to allow use of the emergency steering tiller, a steel I-beam about four feet long with a square drive on the end that fits over a square shank on the top of the rudder post. This permits some degree of control of the boat should the hydraulics fail a long way from help. Steering by standing on the aft deck with no forward view and throwing your whole body weight against a tiller bar is not going to let you maneuver into a dock or even down a narrow channel. But by tying the bar off to cleats on both sides of the deck you can hold something of a heading offshore and adjust course every hour or so and mostly get where you're going.

With the hydraulics still connected to the rudder, of course, you couldn't move this manual tiller at all. Heretofore, should we have needed the tiller, I would have had to open the hydraulic lines and let all the fluid out, or else mechanically disconnect the rams from the arms, a very dangerous proposition in any conditions other than flat calm. A crossover valve, once opened, simply allows the fluid to flow freely between the port and starboard steering lines, allowing the manual tiller to operate and providing the benefit of some viscous damping to the movement as well (at the expense of a bit more resistance).

Since I was already adding two valves for bleeding the system, rather than add a third valve and two more tees, I simply connected the two bleed valves back-to-back with a tee for the bleed hose. Once bleeding is done, the bleed outlet on the tee is plugged, and the two bleed valves can be opened together to perform the crossover function. One I had this contraption assembled, I went down to the local hose shop and had them make me a pair of hoses to connect it to the rest of the system.

The local hardware store, here for 125 years, keeps its history alive. I bought cotter pins.

Before the cylinders even came back, I was able to hook this valve arrangement up to the steering lines and use it to flush the lines with clean fluid until no more black gook was coming out. I used fluid that had been on the boat when we bought it; too old to want to use it for an active system, but good enough for flushing purposes.

By far the biggest project, however, during this enforced downtime, was cleaning out the tiller flat, also known as the lazarette, the compartment where the steering lives. We had some rust remediation done in this compartment in Bayou La Batre, and they got sanding dust everywhere. I think the dust was a factor in the failure of the seals, along with the paint they dripped on the rods after they were done making dust.

A quarter century ago, the city gave them a plaque for their centennial.

I completely emptied the compartment, and even though this is more a mechanical space than a storage area, there was a lot of gear down there: two 5-gallon cans of paint, two large ball fenders, two anchors, a 600-cone Jordan Series Drogue in two duffel bags, the emergency tiller, the entire hookah diving rig, three shore power cords, a box of shore power adapters, and some other miscellaneous gear. Every last bit of it was covered in a fine layer of sanding dust.

In the process of removing the rams and cleaning out the compartment, I discovered that, despite making a ton of dust and getting paint everywhere, the yard managed to miss an entire section of rust in the compartment, lurking under the mounting plate for the rams. That would have to be dealt with here as well.

After getting everything out of the compartment and onto the deck or the dock, I spent several hours cleaning every inch of the compartment, first with a dry shop vac, and then with our pressure washer. There was enough hydraulic oil residue in the bilge that I could not allow the pump to discharge the water overboard, so I had to periodically stop pressure washing to suck the bilge out with the 5-gallon wet vac.

Unremediated rust under the tiller rams, after a pass with the shop vac.

After two days of blowing dry air into the tiller flat I was able to put most of the gear back, after first cleaning each piece. The hookah rig was nearly ruined by salt air and mildew, so it is being relocated; I had to give away the two 50' hoses and buy new ones, and I still need to deep-clean the regulators. And then I spent two days dealing with the rust.

I don't have access to the same sorts of tools a yard would use for this. Chief among them, a worker much younger and more flexible than myself. I did the best I could with a hand scraper, a synthetic "wire" wheel, and a palm sander, mostly lying on my side on a skinny stringer. I made a liberal application of phosphoric acid before applying two coats of one-pack industrial primer. This will all have to be re-done properly at some future yard period using grinders, needle guns, and two-part epoxy paint.

I had plenty of time to do all this, including a full day between coats of acid and primer, once I learned from the hydraulic shop on Friday that they could not get seals for these units and had to have them fabricated. They hoped to have the seals by Tuesday and finish the job on Wednesday. This is when I began regretting leaving them at a shop that could not even start the job until the end of the week,

What it looked like after scraping off all the loose paint. Scraper shown for scale.

The extra delay gave us time to have the local diver inspect our running gear and bottom. There was no sign of the lobster float we had picked up or its line, and all the gear looked good. He cleaned the prop, which had some growth toward the hub, but said we otherwise did not need any bottom cleaning; not bad for almost a full year on this paint.

On Wednesday the shop called to say that one of the integral bleed screws on one of the cylinders was leaking under test. It's a special-purpose part, and they had four of them overnighted from the manufacturer in Vancouver, BC. A $24 screw (which is already a ridiculous amount for a tiny brass screw) ended up costing $143 in shipping and $124 in customs fees. But that was the last hurdle and the cylinders were ready for pickup Thursday afternoon.

The original estimate of four hours per cylinder turned out to be low by a factor of 2.5. The shop knocked the labor down from 20 hours to 16 and the rate down to 85, and still the total bill was just under $2,000 -- the price of two brand new cylinders. To be fair, those would have been several weeks lead time, and likely also involve shipping and customs, but lesson learned. These should last at least as long as the originals, but should I ever have this issue again, I will just buy new cylinders.

Rams reinstalled and new valve assembly added. It's held up with a string for now; I need to fabricate a mount.

After dinner Thursday night I clambered back down into the tiller flat, rams in hand, and re-installed them. I hooked up all the hydraulics and called it a night, hoping we'd maybe be able to shove off yesterday and get out from under a $100-a-day dockage bill. But filling and bleeding the system with fresh fluid proved more time-consuming than I'd imagined, in part because I chose to use 1/8" tubing to run from the tiller flat back up to the steering reservoir on the flybridge. That was to minimize fluid waste, but in hindsight, I probably should have used 1/4" or 5/16" tubing instead.

Lunchtime came and went, and then so did 2pm, and I was still bleeding and testing the system. We still needed to load the scooters back on deck, and also pump out, and so we opted to just spend another night at the dock.

With the scooters on the ground for two weeks we got lots of other errands done, including the aforementioned Costco run, two hardware store visits, grocery shopping, and our first ever on-line order for curbside pickup at Walmart, in this case a "neighborhood market." It was a productive stop, and Hampton was a fine place to spend a couple of weeks.

Bilge floor after two coats of paint.

This morning we decked the scooters, pumped out our tanks, and headed out for "sea trials." I did a couple of figure-eights in the small anchorage across from the dock, then we headed out the channel to the deep open water of the Hampton naval anchorages. Here I was able to give the autopilot a good workout, and test the rudder response all the way to both limits at speed. Helm effort is higher now and the autopilot is quieter, both of which I attribute to using higher viscosity hydraulic fluid as specified by the manufacturer.

Successful sea trials gave us the confidence to continue on to Portsmouth. The stretch of water from Hampton to Portsmouth is not only one of the busiest commercial harbors in the US, its also the home of Naval Station Norfolk, where even a slight diversion from the navigation channel can earn you a visit from a pair of menacing patrol boats with 50-caliber machine guns mounted. Not a place where you want to experience even a hiccup in your steering, let alone a failure.

We made it all the way here without incident, including some close-quarter maneuvering coming up to the dock. Today's weather was the nicest it's been in two weeks, and after tying up we had a nice stroll around town. The confederate monument that had been the scene of protests on our last visit has been removed entirely, fresh pavement the only evidence it had even been there at all.

The confederate monument stood on a small island in this avenue; that's the courthouse at left. Even the island is gone, and the street's been paved.

I walked next door to Legend Brewing and picked up a case of their brown ale, of which I am fond, and in the evening we walked back into town for dinner at Guad's Mexican restaurant. Portsmouth has already put up their holiday lights, and there's a large decorated Christmas tree right here at the High Street Basin. From here we will continue south on the ICW at least as far as North Carolina, where diesel is $1.58 a gallon; we're down to just ten percent.


  1. Great work Sean. I share the issue of no crossover relief valve, and I asked that one be put in at one of my boatyard visits. When I went to pick up the boat they had not done it and said they had no idea what I was talking about, so it is still unresolved.
    You'll beat me again with $1.58 per gallon. I saw that price in NC on the way south but it just wasn't a convenient time to stop.
    Safe travels! I'll be bringing Division Belle home from Charleston beginning next Sunday 11/29.

    1. Yards. I have yet to find one that is any good. Are you bringing DB all the way home to Ford? No idea yet if we'll be on the inside through GA, but if we pass through maybe we could swing by and I can help you get sorted. Even if you'd rather have a yard do the work, I could at least make a sketch and a BOM.


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