welcome to our blog!

This blog tells the story of our 22-month sailing journey from Oakland, California, to Bristol, Rhode Island, aboard our beloved Bristol 32 sailboat, Ute. Please feel free to browse through the archives (partway down the sidebar to your left) to see pics and read stories of our adventures in North America and Central America . (Sorry the first 3 months of the trip are missing - they vanished somewhere in an internet cafe in Mexico - but all you're missing is CA, Baja and Western Mex).

If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Finally, The Tranny!

So, lightning, it is really powerful. Maybe we were just too cocky about all the power the wind generator was producing? Maybe we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Maybe we didn’t have the boat properly grounded? Who knows? We were struck by lightning early Friday morning and were about to find out what else could go wrong.

Cora left off with Ute being towed into the marina.

After we got the lines all secured Hebe had cold beers, two kinds of cake and fresh popcorn to help bury our sorrows. We commenced a quick but very important debriefing session. Then we needed to figure out how we were going to approach the two very big problems we had.

1. The fact that our entire electrical system could be fried or at the very least most of our high priced gadgets were very hurt.
2. The transmission was not spinning the propeller shaft.

We decided the transmission was the first and most important problem to solve. It was also the most pressing, as we didn't want to spend any more money on the marina than we had to spend. Since we don’t usually go into marinas we weren’t too keen on spending money on this one. So, we put the lightning strike out of our heads, for the most part. Loud noises and flashes of light would make the hair stand up on our necks for the rest of the weekend and then some.

Cora and I sat down and decided that we would only focus on the transmission and if either one of us began to stress about the electrical system the other would gently place a hand on the others shoulder and remind them of the transmission and the problems it is having.

Since we were in the marina, we figured that we should make use of all their facilities, so Cora started our laundry, got all the trash and other stuff off the boat. She figured she would remain close by in case we needed anything but also remain busy so as not to dwell on the other things that one could dwell on, in a marina on a Friday afternoon, after taking a direct hit from lightning.

So we decided that the first course of action was to figure out what was wrong. Did the bolt back out again like in Nicaragua and Panama? If it did, did it strip the splines again? We had to get in there and figure it out. So, I started to pull the transmission coupler off the shaft. The coupler is made of two halves that bolt together and hold the shaft and transmission together. The shaft spins our propeller, which in turn makes the boat move. The output side of the coupler is held on to the output shaft of the transmission (which is different from the actual shaft) by a hardened steel bolt about 1.5 inches long. It is actually metric (as everything on our engine is, since it is Japanese and the transmission is German) but that isn’t important just yet.

Before we even got the marina, I knew this bolt had failed us in some way, I just didn’t know what way. So I squished myself into a pretzel and lay on the cockpit floor for about twenty minutes getting the coupler separated. I very carefully had my hand under the coupler halves because I knew there would be a bolt there and slid the two halves apart. The bolt fell into my hand and I carefully slithered myself back into a sitting position. With Cora, Timmy and Ariel gathered round we looked at the bolt.

Our hearts all sank at the same moment. The bolt didn’t back itself out, it sheared off completely. This was not good. It was 3:30 on a Friday afternoon and (cover your ears) we were TOTALLY F@#%ED!

This meant that the other piece of the bolt was still in the transmission. We couldn’t get a drill in there to drill the remaining piece of the bolt out even if we had a right angle drill. There just wasn’t enough space.

Timmy and I tried to come up with some options. I knew that the only one was to pull the transmission but I was willing, even eager to come up with something else. Was there enough thread remaining inside the output shaft on the transmission to reinsert the old bolt or even a new one and make it work for a little bit? Could we hand turn a drill bit enough to get an easyout in there? Was lightning going to strike twice in one day? How much was Ute worth without an operational engine and with fried wiring? We decided to have a bite to eat and think it over. Actually, I think we only had a couple of beers and some pasta that Ariel was making. We finally realized our only hope was to pull the transmission. So we decided that we would prep the engine to pull the tranny in the morning. We finished with the prep work around eleven and said our goodnights. Cora and I debriefed for about five minutes and fell asleep solidly soon after.

Let me try to describe the process of disconnecting the transmission from the engine and then getting it out of the boat. The tranny only weighs 38 pounds and is not much bigger than an averaged sized toaster, but the engine with all its oil and other fluids weighs 500lbs.

First, bunches of hoses, brackets, and control cables have to be removed. Then the coolant and the raw water have to be drained. Unfortunately, the transmission is connected to the bell housing from the inside so the only way to remove it is to remove the bell housing. The bell housing is on the back of the engine and connects the transmission to the rest of the engine. The unfortunate problem with that is the bell housing has the engine mount brackets on it. This means that the engine has to be lifted up and held there while the transmission is out of the boat. There are eight bolts that hold the bell housing to the engine and various other little pieces that need to be removed.

We did this in Panama, but it took us a whole day to get the transmission out, then it took a month to get it repaired and then a week to get it back in and aligned. Remember this time frame.

So at seven the next morning, we all got up had some tea and went to get pieces of wood to chock the engine and use as supports for our block and tackle systems to lift the engine off its mounts. We almost have to lift the entire engine out of the boat to get the transmission out. Boats carry lots of blocks (pulleys) and line (rope). We eventually had two 6:1 systems set up, one inside the cabin to lift the front of the engine and one in the cockpit to lift the back of the engine. We also set up a system to hold the tranny once it was free of the engine.

By nine, we had the transmission out of the boat. The engine was supported by some 4x4s and some climbing rope made by the company where my brother worked.


Looking at the transmission, we decided we need to get to Sears or some outfitted hardware store and purchase some E-Z outs and some reverse drill bits to get the broken end of the bolt out of its hole. Being a Saturday, we weren’t sure where we would find one or how we would get there. The marina had “courtesy” bikes available but no one seemed to know where we could find them. The guys in the front office even looked at me strangely when I asked if they knew of a machine shop that would be open on Saturday.

We then decided we needed to rent a car since we were back in the USA and public transportation is not so great. Also, we had no idea where anything is and knew it would take us twice as long as a local to find the tool store. We found a rental company that would pick us at the marina. They did so at 10:00 am and I needed to go back with them to the office to complete the paperwork. No problems. I made sure team tranny would be ready when I returned with the auto. Cora cleaned up from the morning’s removal and got us set up to reinstall when we returned. Timmy was cleaning the parts so we could get on them a coat or two of paint.

On my trip to the rental office, I brainstormed some, more and figured that in Florida there had to be some machine shop with a drill press open on Saturday at least until noon. On my return to the marina, I found yellow pages and wrote down every single machine shop that was in a 30-mile radius. There were only about 10-12 but I figured it was worth it.

Timmy and I immediately started dialing numbers. Answering machine, closed, out of order, no answer, misdialed calls. The last number we called, it had no address in the phone book but I wrote it down anyway, someone answered. Timmy began talking to him.

Uhhh, yeah we need a bolt removed from a transmission.
Oh you don’t? huh.
Do you know anyone that could?
Oh, okay well thanks,
What? Oh, you might, well we are stuck in the marina, it is costing us an arm, and a leg and we gotta get this broken bolt out of the transmission. Yeah it is out of the boat.
Ok, yeah where are you, wait let me get some paper.
Talk to my friend that is going to be driving.

Apparently the guy on the other end told Timmy they didn’t really do work like that and it was Saturday, but then he, for some reason, decided to help us out. He did tell us we need to be there (30 miles away) by noon. it was 11:22am. I got driving directions and the man’s name, Tim.

We hustled everyone together and rushed them out of the marina. There really wasn’t a minute to spare.


The shop was in a town 30 miles south of us called Port St. Lucie, home to the spring training facility for the NY Mets. The shop happened to be directly across the street from the camp and was in a classic American strip mall turned industrial park but over half of the strip mall was this machine shop and the other bit that was left over was some church. They told us there was a small black sign outside but none of us saw it as we passed so the guy had to come outside to wave at us as we drove past.

We pulled in and here is a classic machine shop guy, although he wasn’t dirty at all, he had on jeans and a Harley tee shirt. He smiled and asked us what we had. We knelt down on the grass in front of the shop and showed him. He gave it a look, told us he thought he could help us and asked us to follow him.

The four of us followed him through a nondescript door into the most amazing machine shopweI have ever seen. Most of the tools I couldn’t name but there were 4 C&C machines running. A C&C machine cuts metal very precisely and exactly. It uses a computer to tell it where and how much to cut. Something like .0000000001” variances! There must have been 20 drill presses doing different things and some of them were computer controlled. We followed Tim, the machine shop guy, through this shop out one door to the next shop over to only find more cool metal shaping, cutting and forming machines. We later found out that they make parts for the Space Shuttle, which we watched launch the previous night from our marina slip. Their current project was the final stage of an unmanned submersible mine hunter for the navy. We were sure it was some black project that we weren’t supposed to know about.

To be honest I don’t think any of us got the names of the other two guys that helped extract the bolt from the transmission. Nevertheless, extract it they did, they tried welding a piece onto it, hoping they could just spin it out but the bolt just broke again. Finally, they had to get one of their drill presses into the mix and that got it out. After looking at the bolt they agreed with us that it looked like the bolt had broken in three places and it could have been caused by lightning. We pretty much accept that as gospel these days.


They also rethreaded the hole and custom made us two bolts for the coupler out of some super strong NASA metal. Very cool.

I then asked them what is would cost and Tim looked at me and said Don’t worry about it, you guys have been through enough, just go out and have fun.
I looked at him is shock and shook his hand and walked out with a huge grin on my face. When I told everyone else, they were understandably totally shocked also. We thought maybe we could buy pizza for the whole shop but since it was Saturday, we weren’t sure how long they would be there. So Cora and Ariel ran back in the shop and asked Tim what we could do for them. His response was to let him go home so he could get out on his own boat. The girls then went into the shop and asked the guys what kind of beer they wanted.
We ran down to the quickie mart and picked up two twelve packs of Bud Bottles.
They wouldn’t accept anything else.
Coolest machine shop in the world, for sure.

We jumped back in the rental and hurried back to the marina so we could try to get out of there with only paying for one day of the marina. The only way that was going to happen was if we could actually get the transmission back into the boat and aligned so that the shaft was not shaking around.

We got back to the marina after a quick stop at the boat store. Immediately we painted the parts that were a bit rusty and started to get the transmission back in. With Cora and Timmy, maneuvering the transmission into a space that it barely fit into I was muscling the engine around on its two pulley systems trying to give them as much room as I could. Finally, it dropped into to place and after some futzing, we go it to slide into place on the back of the engine.

We then reconnected the bell housing and all the other cables, hoses and brackets we had previously disconnected. After that, we needed to set the engine down on its brackets and align the coupler with the shaft. It sounds easy but the shaft coupler and the output coupler on the tranny needs to be within .005 of an inch. You can see that gap but it is thinner than a piece of paper. We used a gauge called a Feeler Gauge. It has thin strips of metal that are different thicknesses. It took us until 5:30 to get it all done and everything back on the engine. With our fingers crossed, we fired her up and checked for leaks. Seeing none, we doubled crossed out fingers and slid the transmission into gear.

We slowly started to pull at our dock lines. Ute was mobile under her own power again and Kiki the engine was chugging along nicely. We all let out our breath and top fived. (our kind of high fiving)

We started to clean up and Timmy looked at us and declared that they were getting out of the marina. Cora and I looked at each other and we decided the same thing. Why give this marina anymore of our money when we could be on the hook for free.
Cora ran up to the marina office and tried to pay our bill, the office was just closing and we squeaked in there. I finished filling the water tanks just as Cora returned and we cast off our lines and were safely at anchor 20 minutes later.

We were so relieved to have that little tranny back and operating that we pretty much crashed in 20 minutes.

The entire time spent in the marina about 25.5 hours.
The time it took to pull the tranny and put it back in so that it was operational not including sleeping time: 14 hours.
The total cost of broken bolt removal: $12.99 + tax
The total cost of whole transmission episode: $350 for towing and towboat member ship, $50 for the rental car, $68 for the marina and $50 for food and other beverages.
Total about $500 to get our tranny pulled, fixed and replaced. There was no way that we could have found a mechanic to do the work in the time frame for that kind of money. Figure they get at least $60 an hour and still needed to get the bolt out. We rocked.

I would like to really thank Timmy for his motivation; he kept us on track and focused. There were many times where he had to stop us from drifting back to the lightning. He did a great job getting dirty and helping get it out and put back in.

Ariel kept us in food and beverage. She pitched in where ever she could, helped clean parts, and keep the troops happy.

Thanks to all of you that spoke to us in the first 48 hours and were there to support us and let us know that you would help us with whatever we needed.

Finally, we could not have done any of this without Cora. She was there every step of the way, handing us tools, lifting engines, cleaning parts, making sure we had what we need where we needed it. She helped me keep my chin up and made me smile when I thought the entire boat was crumbling around us. She is the greatest wife, co-worker, helper and lover ever.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

For some reason this reminds me of the James Thomson poem: "Give a man a horse he can ride, give a man a boat he can sail; and his rank and wealth, his strength and health on sea nor shore shall fail.”

CP

Anonymous said...

Great job, Allen!
The story, I mean.
The tranny, too, of course.

Dad

Anonymous said...

What an intense timeline. Throw in some kismet. Karma. Machine shop magic. You guys can handle, manage, fix, endure and conquer anything. This part of the story was worth the wait. Thanks AC.
love love love
j, v and lil g
(just one of so many babies rooting for Ute these days)

laura said...

epic!!! i found myself holding my breath while reading this installment -- can only imagine how you guys must be feeling at this point, with it all behind you -- sheer amazement at the power of luck, both on the bad side (lightning) and the good (NASA machine shop)

hugs!

Anonymous said...

Great transmission story. Really quite astounding after going through just part of the Panama experience: oops you mean you wanted to keep those splines on the shaft? Your recovery from the lightning was, well, very fast. You guys have become really seasoned cruisers to pull things together like you have. I'm afraid you may never go back!

Craig and Maia crew

Nancy said...

Great descriptions. Great Gramdpa MacLean would be proud. He was the head of a machine shop in Concord NH for many years. Mike has a tool check that belonged to him. tools of the era - 1920's to 1950's. Sounds as if you all have a great piece of genetic survival skills from the past families. Brains appear to me to come hardwired with much information that we don't understand yet. Maybe that is the puzzle for all of us - "just what the heck did I get that I am suppose to use in this stupid brain of mine."
Forget to read the blog now that I can talk with you all on the phone. hugs nmc