Monday, December 28, 2015

Building A Hard Dodger

          It took twelve hours of sewing to replace the vinyl windows of the canvas dodger that came with the boat. It took five minutes to see that it definitely wouldn't suffice. When we tried the canvas dodger on the boat, it fit (with ample coercing), but I could see that it wasn't strong enough to withstand the wind and waves of the southern ocean, or maybe any ocean. It was undeniable- we needed a hard dodger, and that sounded like a lot of work.

          After I talked Max into this idea, which would require a whole other storyline of work, we began our research. We knew we wanted a fiberglass structure, fastened to the deck, that would shield us from wind and waves while not reducing our visibility, and as always, we wanted to keep it cheap. Many cruisers see the necessity for a hard dodger, so it isn't hard to find blogs and online forums that detail different approaches. We decided to use the existing stainless steel frame that holds up the canvas dodger, and Max thought we should try, if possible, to make the hard dodger detachable in case we ever wanted to switch it out for the canvas option. I remember how hard this all sounded back then! I found a blog that suggested using Rigid Fiberglass Panelling like the material that one would see inside an RV shower. It is very thin, .8 millimeter, though it comes in a few different thicknesses, and can easily be bent over the steel frame. After a lot of discussion, we decided we could bend one sheet of this material over the top of the frame, cut it, and then wrap another piece around the front to act as a border around the windows and the connection between the upper dodger and the deck. After that we figured we could attach these pieces to the frame with zip ties, and then cover the whole thing with matte, roving, soaking it in polyester resin after each layer. Later, we could cut out the windows, sand, paint, and install plexiglass windows! So here is how it went....

          This is how the soft dodger fit when we tried it on. As you can see, a little too tight, and a little uneven. I find this picture embarrassing evidence of my sewing skills.

         This is the first stage of construction. We moved the doghouse into the wood shop to create a false deck and screwed the stainless steel frame to the table as far back from the doghouse as it sits on the deck of the boat. We were then able to bend a sheet of RFP over the top and fasten it with zip ties, repeating the technique for the front. It actually took a really long time, because nothing wanted to stay in place.

          Here you can see the beginning of the polyester resin. We put a strip of roving over the joint between the top and bottom of the dodger and then covered it in resin. We did two layers like this.

          We don't have pictures of the many layers of resin that we rolled onto each layer of matte and roving, but there are five layers and it took us about six hours to complete. The polyester resin smells awful but is much more economical than epoxy, at $30 a gallon for the 5 gallons we used.

          After the dodger dried, we mixed up some thixotropic powder with more polyester resin and used it to smooth out the inconsistencies of the surface. Max added this feature in the hope that it would protect us from rain running into the cockpit. We added two layers of this and did a lot of sanding before we began thinking about how to install the windows.
          The windows were challenging to install. We began by thinking that we could easily bend 3/8 thickness plexiglass into the curves of the window shapes we wanted. It was harder than we thought and we ended up breaking some plexiglass in the process. In the end we used 1/4 inch thickness glass which we were able to bend and bolt into place pretty easily. Max designed the window shapes digitally and printed out patterns that we used to pre-drill the holes. We then cut the glass with a jigsaw and slowly bolted it into place, using a heat gun to cajole it as we went.

          We finally cut out the window shapes, sanded, and painted on two coats of primer. After that, we painted two more coats of deck paint, always sanding between coats. We also cut out the zip ties and replaced then with pipe clamps.

           The windows were cut and bolted on top of a gasket we ordered from McMaster Car to create a water tight barrier to keep us nice and dry inside the cockpit. We added a stainless steel piano hinge to the front window so that we could open it for air flow.

          We were absolutely thrilled by the final product. It seems water and windproof, and looks pretty sleek. This particular project involved a lot of discussion and trial and error, so we felt particularly proud and learned a lot in the process.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Top Dead Center

March 21
Every mechanic everywhere likes to say three things about diesel engines:they are easy to work on, will run forever, and will start right up after periods of dormancy. So when we bought our boat, and knew that the engine was a big question mark, having not run in a long time, we fell back on that seemingly sage advice and didn't give it another thought. It would run, and easily, and forever.
The day we set out to "get her running" we made sure to arrive with two new deep cycle marine batteries. We cranked endlessly. Nothing. Well, to be fair, one little pop. We would revisit that little pop innumerable times in future conversations. Why did it happen? What could it mean? etc. Anyway, we called on all family, friends, mechanics known and unknown for help. One of our last ditch efforts was a mechanic in the Bronx who spent hours cramped next to our engine before finally telling us the sad news, that we needed to have the engine rebuilt. There was something more menacing going on than dirty fuel, poor compression, or insufficient battery power. But don't worry, there was a shop up the road that would do it for $9,000. I watched Max's face receive that number, and knew we would be doing it ourselves. But how?

 The next weekend we extracted the engine from the cavity of our little ship like a diseased organ. A greased up and filthy contrivance. We took it out on a cold December day with the aid of a fork lift, countless ratchet straps, a come along or two, and Max's dad. It came out, but inch by irregular inch. Truthfully, it could've been much harder, and often is damn near impossible. The removable floor of the Westsail's cockpit makes it easier, if not manageable at all. We lowered the engine, a Perkins 4.108 by the way, into the back of our truck and drove it upstate for a complete overhaul.

We had no idea what we were doing. None at all. It's amazing in retrospect. We knew what the front and back were, that it needed compression/fuel/air to run, and most consequentially, that we had a remarkable community of salts and grease monkeys to rely upon. We also knew that it was going to be cheaper to do it ourselves. By no means cheap, but by all means cheaper. And we are cheap!
Once we had the engine bolted to our homemade shop table, we began the rebuild by stripping everything we could off and labeling it. The starter and alternator went to be overhauled by a local guy in Kingston, NY who interestingly enough builds starters and violins, the head went to a diesel mechanic who would do a lot of work for us, and we were lucky enough to have a friend sign up to help us through the entire process. Thanks Greg for spending countless cold and frustrating weekends helping us put the engine back together!

The deisel mechanic who helped us out treated the head to a bath in Magnivox, which removes corrosion so that one may see if the head itself is cracked. in our case it was, as you can see here.
The mechanic, Paul Matthies, found a used (but not cracked) head for us.

Another major deal was rebuiding the raw water pump, which presented a bit of a challenge. You can see it here as it was when we first took the engine out.

In the end we did a tremendous amount of work on the engine, and it took a long time! We rebuilt the raw water pump, replaced injectors, valves, rings, bearings, pistons, sleeves, oil pump, all filters, fuel lift pump, engine mounts (not installed yet), replaced the head which came with glow plug holes which is rare for a Perkins, installed glow plugs, replaced all gaskets, and had the starter and alternator rebuilt. The project cost $6000, 4000 in parts and services procured from others, and about 2000 in additional parts, materials, and tools needed for re-assembly/getting her started.

One thing that is absolutely true, about sailing, sailboats, and definitely this engine, affects all things that we can choose to fix or have fixed, and that is that the real learning, and the real value is in the struggle of the process. We knew early on that if we rebuilt the engine, if we spelunked into her corroded and pock-marked inner chambers, then one day, out on the open sea, with limited time and only our own knowledge, we might know how to fix it.

Here are a few more photos...

The final painting.
After the installation.


Max Makes A Heater

           The first thought that crosses most peoples minds when they begin the search for a marine cabin heater is how beautiful they are.  Companies like Taylors, Cozy Cabin Heater, and Dickson Newport have produced some fine specimens over the years.  Beautifully polished stainless and brass formed into organic shapes with symmetric cutouts that help symbolize the luxury that is having an ambient heat source in what can be a moist, cold, and uncomfortable environment. The second thing most people notice is the price tag.  Given their marine classification and the limited market, marine heaters can cost up to 1000 dollars, maybe more, which is a lot for what could be considered a non-essential piece of equipment.  What is a boat heater anyway?  It’s just a heat source, of which there are many on a boat.  Is it worth spending that kind of money?           Turns out the biggest problem with heating a boat is removing the moisture created by burning whatever fuel you want to use.  Burning one propane molecule creates 4 molecules of water, burning 1 of kerosene creates 13 of water.  Thats a big problem if you're trying to dry out your boat and actually make it feel warm.  So you have to find a way of gaining the heat created while shedding the water vapor.  The first thing I thought of was an inverted flower pot.  Terracotta can radiate heat, it comes with a prefabbed hole, and it cost about 2 dollars at your local hardware store.  Heater manufacturers are always talking about the heating element, which is ceramic in most cases, and if that’s doing most of the work, how come they cost so much?  I couldn’t think of a good reason so I began designing my own with the help of my father, the portable stove expert, aka the “stovie”.

 The first step was to make a prototype as a proof of concept.  The process turned out to be pretty easy and didn’t take much longer than an hour or two.  I took a flower pot, enlarged the hole so a ¾” pipe would fit thru, tack welded a washer to the pipe and added a threaded coupling to support the pot between the bearing surfaces.  I inserted the assembly into an inverted champagne bucket, secured it in much the same way as the pot, cut a few holes in it and done… prototype complete.  We put the device on one of many stoves my father has lying around and set up a fan that would blow air into the bucket, around the pot, and out at hole at the top.

The thing worked great.  The air coming out was hot enough to begin burning your hands if you held them close enough and it managed to max out a thermometer we had close by which read up to 120 degrees.  Concept proven, I couldn’t stop thinking about building the real thing.
I have some experience in sheet metal design.  My first job out of school was for Kammetal, an architectural metal company that was kind enough to hire me even although I lacked a lot of the skills they were looking for in a new hire.  The fact that I became acquainted with the owner as his sailing instructor a few days prior to applying may have helped, but who knows.  I wanted to design a stove that was affordable to produce, used standard parts, and looked halfway decent.  I also wanted to design it as a platform to be developed rather than a product to be sold.  I came up with a simple design that is easy to assemble and modify.  Given that I had to make ten in order to make the venture cost effective, the idea was to sell the extra nine as kits to be finished by the purchaser.  You receive the break metal parts, a few bolts, a suggested parts list for completion, and perhaps a couple of directions for possible modifications.  I am hoping people get into tweaking the design and sharing information on how to boost the performance.  Maybe I'll create a whole line of low tech, modifiable gadgets some day.  I tested the platform idea by giving an unmarked drawing of the stove to an energy engineer I work with who came up with a bunch of suggestions that fell right in line with the DYI theme.  Having proven the concept and feeling relatively confident that I could sell any extras, I put in the order with Kammetal for ten, 22 gauge, 304 stainless steel, mill finish stoves with the hope that I wasn’t wasting well over 1000 dollars at a time when the boat could use the money.