Monday, September 27, 2021

Another Survey

Up until we took the plunge into the world of boats I always thought a survey involved two folks. One walked around with a big stick. The other took sightings on the stick with a fancy looking boxy thing mounted on a trip-pod. If it was along a road there was usually a sign that warned of the "Survey team ahead." A boat survey was a bit of a mystery.

I know a little more about boat surveys than I did. We have been through a few. There was the original disaster survey done when we bought Kintala. There was another disaster survey when we sold her. Between those two were a few more that had to do with insurance. As I recall only one of them went off without a hitch of some kind. And then there was the recent one on First Light. (I still think of it as a pre-buy inspection. Aviation talk.) Instead of two people walking around with a stick and a box, there were 8 people poking around the boat. Two person hull team, two person engine team, two brokers representing the seller, and the two of us actually buying the boat.

As most who follow our story know, I'm not exactly a novice when it comes to things mechanical: a life-long aircraft mechanic, Chief inspector, shop foreman, Director of Maintenance, plus nearly two full years spent working in a boat yard trying to keep our cruising life afloat. I know which end of a screwdriver goes in the hand. I was pretty open about my background when interviewing people for this survey. It only seemed fair to warn them.

All gathered at the beginning of the appointed day for First Light's inspection. My opening statement was clear.  I was writing the checks. I was looking for a reason to walk away. All except the seller's brokers were working for me. I asked the questions. I got the answers. If I didn't like the answer, we were going to talk about it some more.

They got to work, poking and prodding, making notes, taking pictures. Believe it or not I managed to stay out of the way...for the most part. The engine team took fluid samples of everything, engines, transmission, and generators. They did leak down checks, pushed on this and pulled on that. Later, during the sea trial, they pushed the engines hard and we discovered an overheat problem on the port engine at full song. Nothing major but we got a bit off the asking price to get the heat exchangers overhauled and the water pumps serviced.

At full song, First Light made something like twelve knots while towing a huge wake. Nose bleed territory for a sailboat driver. Just off idle she did six. Six knots all day long regardless of the wind? Inside if necessary, warm and dry? I'm still getting used to the idea. Talking with the engine guy as he went about his work made it clear he was an expert. We dove pretty deep into the trawler engine world and I got answers that made sense. I was a happy man. Later all of the oil samples came back clean. Never, ever (ever!) buy a boat without having those samples done. I was a bit less happy with the hull guy, mostly for a reason that is not his really his fault. It is a marine industry thing. There are a lot of composite structures in an aviation world. 

Fiberglass and carbon fiber mostly. I have extensive experience inspecting and repairing both. The simple, first-pass inspection of composite structures is a "tap test". Go along the structure with a very small hammer or even a coin, tapping as you go and listening carefully. The first sign of composite damage is when the layers start to separate. Layers...that's why it is call composite in the first place. There are layers stuck together to form a solid piece. A light tap on good composite makes a bright little "tink" sound, the layers are all stuck together and sound. A dull little "thunk" sound means one needs to look a little deeper. The layers are coming apart. It could be that the core is going soft. It could be that the structure has taken an impact load the wrong way and delaminated. What you do not do is pound on the structure with a big rubber or plastic mallet like you are trying to drive 10 penny nails. That is a good way to cause the damage you are trying to uncover.

Yet that is exactly the way boat surveys go about their "inspection". My guy was beating on First Light so hard that the engine guy (apparently having been through this before) put on a set of ear protectors. The hull guy hammered the hull, deck, and flybridge like he was trying to knock pieces off the boat. I held my tongue because this wasn't the first time I've seen a boat assaulted in such a manor. Of course later he pulled out a cheap looking little plastic box, swept it over the decks he had been pounding on, pointed at the little needle waiving around, and said "wet deck here, wet deck there." I had already walked all over those "wet decks" looking for soft spots. The deck was / is as solid, more so in fact, then the floor in our two room apartment over the garage. I have walked the deck of many a far-flung cruising boat whose decks were not near as stiff. Nor have I have ever heard of a "soft deck" sinking a boat.

But I didn't argue. Not because I thought he might be right, but because I knew he thought he knew. Later we had a bit of a chat about his "findings." He did allow as the decks were in pretty good shape for an older boat and likely wouldn't need any "attention" for years. I didn't suggest it would have been a few years more if he hadn't taken a plastic mallet and spent the better part of the morning beating on the boat as hard as he could. 

Truth to tell, the next time a hull surveyor starts beating on my boat with a hammer, I think I'll borrow it for a minute to go beat on his car. See what he thinks of that.

That being said, the hull guy did find stuff that really does need attention. A lot of it electrical. I'm not sure how this happens in the boat world. In the aviation world, everything is important, but wiring is kind of special important. Heat shrink, chafe guard, tie wraps, clamps, terminal covers, routing, grounding, circuit protection...all done to perfection, every time, all the time. In the boat world? Positive posts on batteries left "open." Switches with no markings as to what they are supposed to switch. Wires zip tied to fuel lines. Other wires hanging without a zip tie in sight. Breakers the wrong size for the circuit. Electrical tape strung like party favors. AC and DC wiring all jumbled together in the same panel. Who does this kind of work? (Don't tell me, I don't want to know.) I'll be spending many hours getting First Light's electrical system squared away to the point where I'll sleep at night. (Boats seem to catch fire a lot. I'm pretty sure I can guess as to why.)

No boat is perfect. Not even new ones. We have done what we can to prove to ourselves that First Light is  fundamentally sound. But there will be surprises and unexpected costs. One of the reasons I will be sticking with the job for a while. Ideally the boat would be close enough to reach for weekend work, but that isn't how it panned out. We will be diving into the murky world of contract work while chewing up every vacation day I have to make trips east. The first of those will happen in a week or so. We will start to get to know our new old boat; see how much trouble we are in. 

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