Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Getting finished...

The anchorage at Snead Island Boat Works
Finishing a task is the best part of the task. Most tasks however, get started, get interrupted, get restarted, then kind of bumble through to the end. The interruptions come in many forms, weather and scheduling among them. But waiting on parts seems inevitable.

There are a lot of old boats out there, boats built by manufacturers long out of business, who installed parts made by manufacturers now equally long out of business. Finding parts that will get the job done isn’t hard. Finding parts that will get the job done, use the same wires, have the same bolt patterns, fit in the same spaces, and fill the same holes? That is another matter. At one point last week every one of the five boat tasks assigned to yours truly was waiting on parts. A bait-well pump came in for one boat, but not the circuit breaker for its bilge pump. Mounting brackets for a TV antenna going on a mast came in, but not the associated coax cable. Lift struts to help carry the weight of the massive engine covers on a sport fishing boat are two weeks back ordered. We had a mixing elbow for a boat just surveyed, but not the associated exhaust elbow. In fact, no one has the associated exhaust elbow. That particular part for that particular engine is no longer available. But there is a different part that will work, using different bolts; and it was on the way.

The fifth boat is my “filler boat”, getting its autopilot system replaced. When other tasks get brought to a halt that one is waiting. All that needs done is to close whatever boat was being worked on, pack up tools, wind up extension cords, collect fans, load the golf cart, find a place to store parts for tasks interrupted, move, unpack tools, unwind the extension cords, deploy fans, climb aboard, and get started. Sometimes a task never does get finished, at least not by me. It isn’t the least bit unusual to get pulled out of the middle of a job, never to see it again. One might wonder how we manage the transition, making sure that everything gets done that needs to be done. In my old life there was a very definite “hand-off” procedure between shifts; and a paperwork trail that everyone involved in a task could follow. There are no such things in the marine industry but, somehow, things generally seem to work out. (To be fair, "generally seem to work out" would not be a standard most people would find comforting at 35,000 feet going 500 mph. At sea level doing 5 knots with land in sight? Different story.)

But Friday was a good day. The exhaust elbow came in. With it and the mixing elbow screwed tight to the adapter and the proper bolts, lock washers, and gasket located, I loaded up and headed over to the boat. It wasn't were I left it, a real puzzle since the engine was missing some serious bits. Turns out a paper trail might - at least once in a while - be a good idea.  And I have a new directive to "tag" a boat I have disabled by pulling parts off of it.

Boat located, along with another tech who was head down and waist deep, already in the hole where the exhaust was located. He was doing a different task. He had tools, fans, lights, and his own parts scattered around. Bolting up the exhaust would be no big deal. After all, he gets paid by the hour just like me. One task down. An easy pack up and move. (And yes, I was very careful to make sure he knew exactly what it was that needed done.)

Wiring in the new bait well pump wouldn’t finish that task, but there was hope that the bilge circuit breaker would arrive before the day was out. I knew the old pump was toast because I had jumped it straight across a battery and all I got was sparks, no spin. But the new pump wouldn’t work either. Curses. Literally, lots and lots of curses. The problem tracked to that pump’s circuit breaker being intermittently open as well. Wiggle the post to get power, wiggle it again to make the power go away. Both of these breakers are the kind that have little buttons on them, they can be reset but not opened. Poor idea on a boat. They just sit, inactive, year after year, slowly deteriorating. There are six in this boat, two are bad, the others can’t be far behind. Yes, the panel should be rewired with new, better breakers. No, no one is going to suggest or approve such a thing on a toy that is used to go fishing on weekends. Anyway, the new pump is in and secured and the two little open holes in the panel will get filled as soon as the parts arrive. Task two as far as it can go. Pack up and move.

I did think about leaving a note on the boat about the circuit breakers. But the open holes are directly in front of the helm and I talked to the owner on Wednesday, telling him we were waiting on parts. On Thursday he took the boat out anyway, with the circuit breaker for the manual bilge pump missing and the bait well pump screwed into its housing just hand tight. If he don't care, I don't care either.

The lift struts came in but that boat can wait a bit. No one is pressing to have that one finished…yet. Those parts stayed stashed behind the counter until later, but there was a new roll of coax back there as well.

Sixty six feet of it went smoothly into the mast.  A connector and a couple of clamps would see the mast ready to go back on the boat, after a quick check of the lights. Everything electrical in this mast is new: wiring, lights, antennas, and wind sensor. This often happens with lightning hits. But the quick check of the lights revealed that the deck light wasn’t working. Two wires, how could I have messed that up? But, as it turns out, the manufacturer didn’t bother to plug the light bulb in at the factory, just stuck it in the hole and put the lens on. Thank you very much. It was an easy fix with the mast on the ground, which is why I check them before the mast goes in the air. Mark this task as “done.” Pack up and move. (The boat itself is far from done, but the only monkey I have in that particular circus is reinstalling the alternator, which went out for repair.)

And with that, it was back to the autopilot install. This is supposed to be a “plug - ’n - play” job. The old system failed. Instead of fixing it, the owner decided to replace it with the new version. All of the parts are supposed to go in the same places, using most of the wiring already run. Which sounds like a really good idea, yes? (I can see some of you shaking your heads already.) Of course not all of the parts are exactly the same size as the old. The flux gate (yep that is its real name) is much larger than the original, connects to a network and not directly to the autopilot controller, and will not fit where the old one was located. The hole in the cockpit wall where the old control panel was located was cut too big for the new one to mount. It had to be filled and the mount holes re-drilled. Okay, not quite “plug - ’n - play” but not too bad. Except…

...what if the original problem is not a component failure? What if there is a jacked up piece of wire somewhere, a connector corroded, or a butt splice pulling free? What if someone ran a too-long screw into a wiring conduit while mounting a fan or something? No one really knows exactly why the system doesn’t work, and the problem is intermittent. It powers up, but that is only two wires out of dozens. There is no test box to install that will verify that signals are actually flowing from one unit to another. The assumption of a component failure is based entirely on what a guy who fixes autopilot boxes told us over the phone.  I sure hope he is correct. If he isn’t there is going to be one really unhappy boat owner, in spite of the fact that it was his call to replace the system rather than figure out, for sure, what the problem might be. We will not know until next week some time when that particular task is finished. Maybe the owner will be a happy little camper and all will be well with the world.

Or maybe there will be another task waiting to be finished.


drew sayer said...

Old aluminium framed hatches always make me laugh when a prospective seller claims that you can just buy another one and change it over just as easy as that. Usually the size or radiuses are not quite the same on the new hatch and so the drama begin$!

Phil Gow said...

Any boat job is a sweater waiting to be unraveled, but what excitement to combine that with a game of musical chairs