Two Steps Forward…

…and one big step back.  *sigh*.  ain’t it always?

new LED lighting, and the knife rack
new LED lighting, and the knife rack

In the ‘step forward’ department, I’ve now got all of my lights installed and wired!  This is a huge step; I’ve been bragging to friends and – well ok, anyone who’ll listen, really – that I can finally brush my teeth without the use of a flashlight.  Not that light is really an absolute necessity when brushing one’s teeth, but it’s nice to be able to visually gauge the amount of toothpaste used, spit accurately into the basin, etc.  You know, the little things.

I think I’ve written about the lighting here before, but I’ll recap anyway.  The lights are custom 12v bulbs that I found at Lee’s Electronic Components on Main Street up around 29th Avenue.  The owner (Lee?) assembles the bulbs by hand; each one contains three 1w LEDs (read: bright) fresh from China, each having the interesting property of throwing by far the warmest LED light that I have seen yet.  The bulbs are around $20 each, though he dropped the price a buck or so each when I ordered eight of them at once.

more LEDs - Ikea ran out of white "Beryll"s
more LEDs - Ikea ran out of white "Beryll"s

As for fixtures to put these bulbs in – I searched long and hard for appropriate mounting fixtures, and had actually resigned myself to hacking together manufacturing my own fixtures from dollar-store components.  The fixtures I wanted would need to be articulated, so as to point the light where I want it, and they’d need to be made of a material that wouldn’t corrode in the marine environment, so stainless steel, brass or plastic.  Ideally, they’d also have a switch mounted on the fixture so that I could turn the lights on or off individually.  After searching for the ideal fixtures for a couple of months to no avail, I finally stumbled upon the Ikea ‘Beryll’ fixture, which met all of my specs, and weren’t crazy expensive at $24 each.  Better yet, the Ikea fixtures actually used a 12v wall adapter, so the bulbs they came with were already 12V and the LED bulbs fit perfectly with no modifications at all!

So, pricewise – thirteen bulbs at $19/ea, thirteen fixtures at $24/ea – simple math says I’m into these lights for a grand total of $559, plus taxes.  Let’s call that an even $600 and promptly forgot that we ever did that math – honestly, if you keep too close a track on how much you spend on a sailboat you’d very likely have a nervous breakdown.  I placate myself with the knowledge that I’m saving about $1000 on rent, though who knows how long that’ll last.  Nothing on a boat is cheap – but having to subject everything to the harsh marine environment certainly makes you aware of how much cheaply made, disposable stuff we use in our daily lives.  I’m starting to notice a growing disdain for things that aren’t built to last – my upper lip curls a bit when I see, say, a door handle made from polished but not stainless steel.  Why cheap out?  That’ll rust in a matter of weeks if you leave it outside.  Oh, you, uh, aren’t planning to ever leave your bathroom door outside?  Well, I guess that’s ok then…

As for my second step forward, both of my furnaces are now working!  The furnace in the forward cabin, aka the ‘bedroom and bathroom’ cabin, has been working for about two weeks, while the furnace/stove in the aft cabin shuddered to life this past weekend just in time for Halloween.  I had planned to install a low-pressure fuel pump to supply diesel to the two furnaces, but after running the furnace in the forward cabin over the span of a few chilly nights, I realized that my little twenty-gallon main diesel tank might be better left to supply just the engine, and decided to reinstall the respective gravity-feed tanks instead.

the diesel stove poses with the propane burner
the diesel stove poses with the propane burner

The diesel furnaces are equal parts fascinating feats of engineering and twitchy, sullen, temperamental old grouches.  With no moving parts, they work by heating up a “superheater” element, which vaporizes incoming diesel fuel on contact.  The vaporized fuel is then drawn upwards by the flue draft into a second chamber, where it is fed fresh oxygen from an intake port and burns clean and hot – these machines were clearly designed by someone who really paid attention in physics class!  The twitchy part comes mostly from the nature of the task at hand; the ambient temperature, the ambient humidity, the viscosity of the diesel fuel (which can vary greatly from supplier to supplier), the amount of carbon buildup in the burners – hell, for all I know, the phase of the moon – can all affect the superheater performance.  Using this equipment is an organic experience, with several knobs, levers and dials to adjust the burn.

Things I have learned since getting my main furnace/stove running again:

  • the cast-iron stovetop is lovely for cooking, but very slow.  I’ll still be keeping my Coleman propane burner around.
  • cooking eggs and/or pancakes directly on the stovetop is AWESOME.
  • post-halloween blueberry and Twizzler™ buckwheat pancakes are AWESOME.  maybe I’ll post the recipe soon.
  • just because you season a stovetop grill with lard one day doesn’t mean it’s still non-stick the next day.
  • the stovepipe may have been cool to the touch all summer, but now it’s VERY HOT.  see the toonie-sized burn on my forearm for details.

Probably my favourite thing: the stove stays gloriously warm for an hour or so after I turn off the diesel burner.  Gotta love cast iron!

As for the step backwards – apparently my engine is dead again.  I’m not sure what’s wrong with her this time – I noticed a little drop in power the last time I had her out to get water, but hoped that it was just a momentary glitch.  This, you may realize, is absolutely not the sort of thing one can afford to do when one lives aboard a boat, especially if one is noticing some fundamental change in one’s only method of locomotion.  Realistically, it’s the boating equivalent of smelling a gas leak in your kitchen and hoping that it’s just a forgotten egg rotting under the counters or something.

Actually, I have a pretty good idea of what’s wrong – the main diesel tank is made of aluminum, and the temperature has been fluctuating quite drastically for the past month or so.  Temperature changes and a not-quite-full metal tank mean condensation, which in turn means it’s very likely that there’s water in the fuel lines.  This isn’t too difficult to deal with, but it does mean that I’m going to have to drain the fuel-water separator and bleed the fuel lines, which on my engine is an eleven-step process requiring three different sizes of wrench.  I’ve watched a mechanic do it once – several months ago after having almost the exact same engine death happen to me – and with any luck I’ll be able to duplicate his work myself.  I hope so anyway, because the last mechanic visit cost me $180 or so.

Maude, relaxing in her cubby
Maude, relaxing in her cubby

Of course, there’s no reason for me to have noticed such a problem while sitting at anchor in False Creek, as I don’t often run my engine – my house battery bank isn’t hooked up to the alternator, and I have a fantastic Honda EU2000i generator to charge the house bank up to handle my day-to-day work electrical needs.  So of course it took a voyage for me to notice; I had been out of water in my potable water tanks for a day or so, and I needed to travel down to the underside of the Granville Bridge to dock and refill them from the public hose.

Normally when I go for a short trip like this, or head out for a daysail or something, I leave my anchor firmly attached to the bottom of the ocean floor and tie the anchor line off to my dinghy, leaving the dinghy to mark my “spot” in False Creek and saving me the hassle of re-anchoring upon my return.  Re-anchoring can be a real hassle, as you don’t really know exactly how your boat is going to swing until you’ve gone through a tide change or two, and if you’ve screwed it up you might end up bumping into other boats.  Scratching up your neighbor’s paint isn’t really a great way to maintain a nice neighborly friendship.

So without hesitation, I tied off my anchor line and set off for the Granville Bridge.  I hadn’t even made it a hundred meters yet when my engine began to slow down, just a little at first, but then more and more and finally she came to a shuddering stop.  I raced down below to restart her, and threw the gearshift into reverse to avoid drifting into a neighbor’s sailboat.  The best plan of action at this point would clearly be to turn her around and get back to the anchor, so I could figure out the problem without the stress of drifting, powerless, through the busiest bay in the region!  I managed to get her turned about somewhat, but the engine was having none of it, and while she would start she’d die again as soon as I gave her any throttle.

As an aside I have decided that, like my autopilot (“Steve”), the engine is a separate entity, in cahoots with but distinct from “Tie Fighter”, the sailing vessel under which she serves.  As such, the engine deserves a separate and unique name; I believe that any machinery that is given great responsibility must have a name in order to have the pride needed to take on that responsibility.  I have decided to name my engine “Maude”, a fine Teutonic name meaning “mighty in battle”.  “Maude” is also my mother’s middle name.

So, drifting free in False Creek with Maude disabled and cranky, I felt justifiably stresssed – though without much reason as it turned out.  The sun was shining, the temperature was lovely, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the incoming afternoon tide pushed me slowly eastwards in a straight line directly back towards my dinghy! When I came within reach I leaned out and grabbed the dinghy with my boat hook, tied off Tie Fighter to the anchor line and breathed a massive sigh of relief.  I didn’t have to call the Coast Guard for a rescue!*

(*: well, technically, last time this happened I didn’t have to call them either – I broke down directly in front of their outpost, and they came out of their own accord…)

a rainbow at sunset - one example of why I'm still out here
a rainbow at sunset - one example of why I'm still out here

Anyhow.  I have now enrolled in a five-week marine diesel engine maintenance class with Cooper Boating on Granville Island, beginning next Monday evening.  Maude is one of the last big ‘mystery’ systems on Tie Fighter, and if I’m planning to do any long-term cruising (more on that soon), I need to become both her master and her servant – or at least her family doctor.  Maybe just her trusted friend.  Regardless, we need to able to count on one another to perform adequately when needed, and the first step towards that is for me to learn a lot more about what to do to keep her happy.

Overall?  The nights are getting colder, but the natural scenery is still stunning.  My windows have proven to be mostly weatherproof, and the odd day of sun here and there has allowed me to patch up the remaining leaks as I find them.  My list of needed boat “repairs” grows steadily shorter, though the list of needed/wanted “upgrades” stays pretty much the same length no matter how many I knock off.  The diesel heat is warm, if a bit smelly, my pantry is full and my bed is dry.  My internet works, I’m (mostly) keeping up on my bills, and for some reason I’ve been a lot more musically productive over the past few days.

I believe I will survive this winter.