Thursday, June 4, 2015

Lucky break

OK, after all the hand-wringing I did in my last post about the tender breaking and how that might impact our plans, I now must humbly report that it was a five-dollar part and took me less than an hour to diagnose and repair. Good thing, still, that it happened here in the US and even Palm Beach, where there are no fewer than five Mercury dealers, more than one of which had the part in stock.

Here's the culprit:

Busted heim joint. About the size of a quarter.

This is a rod-end ball joint, sometimes known as a "heim joint," which connects a lever inside the engine cowling to the operating rod for the transmission that comes up from the lower unit. The ball part of the joint, which is metal, is on the lever, which in turn is moved by the shifter on the helm console.

I found this damaged one as soon as I opened up the case. What I could not tell right away was whether this damage was the original cause of the problem, or was itself caused by the transmission seizing up somehow. I could not move the rod end just by hand.

Threading a larger tool onto the rod end allowed me to shift the tranny back into neutral as well as reverse, implicating this joint itself. It took a good deal of pressure to move the linkage, all of which is transmitted to this plastic part by a tiny metal sphere. No wonder it broke after a dozen years -- plastic becomes brittle with age, and that's a lot of pressure every time the shift is moved. This really should be a lubricated metal joint.

Fortunately this part is common to a lot of Mercury outboards, and after calling around town I found one at a shop that was just two blocks from Light Harbor Park, which has a boat ramp with a dock. If only I could get the tender over there.

There are three of these joints in the motor -- the one that broke, which works the transmission, and two more which connect the throttle linkage. The throttle is subject to much less force, basically pushing against a light return spring, and the joints are also easier to access than the one for the tranny. I ended up moving one of the throttle's joints to the transmission rod, and then jury-rigged the broken end back onto the throttle linkage to get us to the dock.

Jury-rigged throttle linkage involving four zip-ties.

I'm sure my jury-rig would have held up for days or even weeks, and had this happened somewhere in the Bahamas we would have had to just run it that way until we could find a place to get the part. I did have to re-adjust the throttle linkage to set the idle before we were able to cast off; in all the fiddling and jury-rigging the linkage ended up a hair too long and the idle was way too high.

Louise stayed with the tender at the 10-minute-limit dock while I hoofed it to the parts store and back, and we were back at Vector within a half hour. They only had a single one in stock, or else I would have bought three and replaced them all, keeping the two intact take-outs for spares. I installed the brand new part back onto the transmission linkage, reasoning that the newer part should be on the higher-stress application. I'll order spares today.

New part. $5 plus tax locally.

After a quick throttle adjustment, all is back to normal. Total cost, $5.20, a couple of hours, and a round-trip dinghy ride. Way better than about $700 and a couple of days for a used lower unit, or $150 and a day for a new shifter cable linkage, either of which seemed more likely to me when this failed in the first place. Plastic. SMH.

All done and back together, before the cowl went back on.

Now that the tender is again operational, we have more options moving forward. We'll still need a dock within the next week to get some deliveries and do some laundry, and we have a much more immediate need for a grocery store. Blossom has also just arrived in North Palm Beach and we'd like to get together with them.

The Grand Celebration pushed back just as I was finishing the repairs.

We spent part of the morning hammering out a plan, which involves staying here in the Palm Beaches for another week. This morning we will motor up to North Lake Worth, a familiar spot, and drop the anchor for the weekend. There is good dinghy access from there to a nice Publix grocery store, several restaurants, and various other services. It's also a close dinghy ride to Blossom's berth.

On Monday we'll steam the other direction, right past this spot and on to Palm Harbor Marina in West Palm Beach. It's a bit out of our way, but they have a favorable summer rate and a "second night free" deal that makes the extra few miles well worth it. It's also a short walk to the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront with great restaurants and nice public spaces.

With any luck we will get a multi-day weather window sometime next week for the outside run up to Beaufort, NC on the Gulf Stream. It's a three-day trip, but it saves lots of miles and even more fuel with the push from the Stream.


  1. Jury rigging is a necessary talent when boating or RVing. The fridge door fell of our RV deep in mexico where there are no parts available. In our case, a PLASTIC door hinge which we repaired in the middle of the night with a small metal angle bracket and a tube of epoxy. It is still holding today, probably stronger than the under engineered plastic original. Why spend $.50 on a strong metal part when you can use a $.10 plastic piece?

  2. Is that a plastic heim joint?
    Funny they'd use plastic rather than an alloy. But then I guess a metal part wouldn't wear


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