Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rules for Reliability

I read a post recently titled “40 rules for a reliable sailboat”. It was a good read that sparked some musings of my own. Most would probably not consider me an expert, but we are getting closer to pulling the trigger on this thing and having a boat I can trust is an issue that lies close to my heart. So, expert or not, here are some of the things I think I know after two boats and five years into The Retirement Project.

“Reliable sailboat” needs a careful definition. If a reliable sailboat means a hull that will float, can be moved considerable distance by the wind, can be steered to some useful degree, and is not easily destroyed by big winds and waves, then there is hope of finding such a thing. Hope. The friend’s C & C that sank recently while sitting at the dock speaks to how vain that hope can be. All indications are that the culprit was a valve on the head left in the wrong position. Are you kidding me? In my world (aviation) such a poor design would likely be considered criminal and would surly lead to someone being sued out of business. (Though it is unlikely such a stupid idea would pass the certification process in the first place.) Kintala has 5 holes in the hull below the waterline. Five places where a hack maintenance job or valve failure will sink the boat. Chain plates? Standing rigging? Running rigging? Steering failures? Just floating and moving under wind power is far from being a given “reliable” when it comes to a sailboat.

Now define a reliable sailboat as a hull that will float, move with and without wind, provide heat and light, keep one dry in all conditions, cook food, store and dispose of waste, generate DC and AC power for electronics, toys and refrigeration, steer itself, carry enough stores to keep a crew alive for weeks or months, and maybe provide hydraulic power for the hardware needed to control the sails and the autopilot. If I can keep most of that stuff working on Kintala most of the time I think I am doing pretty well. (Remember, I am a life a life-long aircraft mechanic. Fixing stuff is about the only thing where I can make some claim of knowing what I am doing.)

My experience is that sailboats are simply too poorly designed, constructed, and maintained to ever be considered “reliable” in the normal sense of the word. No. At best a reliable boat is one that it will keep us alive in most conditions while not making us so miserable as to take all the fun out of living.

With that rather low bar set, here are some of my rules for keeping a boat “reliable”

There is an old adage in aviation, “Never trust your life to an engine.” Not always possible but a worthy pursuit. It is the same with a sailboat. To trust one’s life to an engine is to trust in luck. To stack the luck in your favor try to keep the engine as perfect as feasible knowing full well it isn’t possible. Even one modest engine will require so much routine maintenance on oil, fuel, cooling, exhaust, starting and mounting systems as to be a nearly full time job all by itself. Do the best you can, but never count on the thing.

Even old, worn out sails will keep the boat moving right up to the moment they disintegrate. A brandy new racing sail is a thing of beauty, but a re-sewn, well-used but sturdy sail will move the boat at hull speed in any reasonable wind. Kintala may well head out with one main sail, two headsails, two stay sails, and two storm sails for a total of 7. None will be new when we leave but they will get the job done for a long, long time. And they don’t take a lot of maintenance. I wish we didn’t need engines.

Sails are more reliable than the rigging from which they fly. Standing rigging is a pain but it simply must be inspected regularly and repaired as required. Must. There is no getting out of it. I admit to being a slacker on the lake, but once we head out trips up the mast will become a regular thing, with a magnifying glass and a rag to rub over the wires. There is simply no other way to ensure that the mast will stay standing. Forced with a choice between fixing an oil leak or inspecting the rigging, inspect the rigging. I’m thinking if I’m not up the mast at least once a month once we go, I can’t possibly be on a reliable sailboat.

Electrical systems make the difference between living comfortably and living miserably, and do it on a sliding scale. The more elaborate the system, the more capable, the better the living. If installed properly they don’t take near the effort of engines, but that “installed properly” is the catch. The electrical systems on boats, particularly older boats, are a hacked together mash of inexpert efforts, poor planning, and even poorer execution. Getting the electrics up to speed will be the bane of your existence…but then it will get better. (Getting Kintala’s batteries, wiring, electrics and generating capacity up to speed looms over me like a doom yet to fall…and it has to be done soon. Worse, I know I’ll never get it where I want to be. To get there I would have to strip the boat and start from scratch. I’m neither young enough nor rich enough for that.)

The living quarters have to be dry, at least most of the time in most conditions. The boat simply cannot leak. It is somewhat depressing that hatches and ports were clearly not designed with that requirement in mind. But the effort to keep the boat dry inside is worth it.

The head system has to work or you can’t live there.

It is entirely possible to polish a turd to a high sheen, and a complete waste of time. On the other hand, if a boat looks like a turd, it probably is. Polishing metal and finishing wood helps keep them from corroding and rotting, respectively. Keeping ports clean and clear lets the light shine in. Everyone gets to decide for themselves how much polishing is necessity, and how much is vanity.

To live on a boat is to live on a machine, one operating in a hostile environment, often far from support, designed by people whose real goal was to make a buck selling boats to the charter market, and built by the lowest bidder cutting every corner that could be cut. Keeping it working has to be part of the fun or you need to move back into a house. Which brings me to another adage in aviation. A good pilot should never, ever, be surprised by an airplane. Disappointed maybe, but never surprised.

If Kintala never surprises me I'll consider her a "reliable sailboat."

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