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Old 07-13-2000
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Gary Kirkpatrick is on a distinguished road
Strange Contraptions in Foreign Boats

 
The wheel—but what does it do?
 
This past February we bought a Dutch steel hull boat built in 1974. This purchase was preceded by several exploratory trips looking at boats in Holland, Ireland, France, and Italy. Before venturing far from where we had purchased the boat, we planned several months cruising in the canals and rivers of the tiny country of Holland, known for its picturesque villages and readily available services, all delivered in English with a smile. After the purchase was made, and a trip back to the States completed, we drove to Oude (Old) Loosdrecht. We were anxious to get to know our new boat, but we didn't know exactly what to expect.

As we began poking around our new home, we found a number of strange contraptions. One was a four-inch wheel sitting under a staircase, which apparently screwed onto a one-liter container nestled below it. Another was a steel tube that was residing under the aft berth. On its top was what looked like a clock's spring winder.

One of the first things we wanted to do was to check the oil in the diesel engine. However, we searched in vain for a dipstick. A steel tube ran out of the engine from where a dipstick would normally be, but it was connected to a small diameter hose that in turn was connected to a knob on an instrument panel labeled "Oil Check." Even though noting with satisfaction that the label was in plain English, we had no idea if it was working, though a green something or other appeared when we pulled on the knob.

Another thing we wanted to check immediately was the antifreeze mixture in the engine's cooling system. Our new boat has a closed system, meaning that it does not draw in outside water into the boat to cool the engine, but pumps coolant through tubes on the bottom of the hull instead. We do know that this is called 'keel cooling,' but I couldn't find an expansion bottle or some other obvious way of checking the coolant.

Rather than fiddle with these engine mechanics in ignorance, we placed a call to the broker who sold us the boat seeking assistance. He promised to come, so we went on to other jobs on the list.

A third thing we wanted to do was to plug in the nice, new 10-meter electrical chord we had just bought for 120 florins (about $50). Sure enough, the end didn't fit. We tried to explain what the receptacle looked like to the clerk at the chandlery, to no avail. So I removed the whole inlet assembly from the boat and took it with me on a second trip to the chandlery. The first clerk still hadn't a clue, but a second one removed the original fitting from our new power cord and installed an old style receptacle that fitted our boat's inlet.

However, once back to the boat, there still was no electricity on board. "How can a system so simple not work?" Peg asked me. "This boat doesn't even have a shore power electrical panel and it has only one outlet! There just isn't anything else to go wrong as long as the plug is connected to the wire which is connected to the receptacle."

I checked it again and it was connected. After more fiddling about, I found two 10-amp fuses in the receptacle, one for positive and the other for negative. One of them was blown. Back to visit my two new friends at the boat store and then back to the boat. Voila, we now can plug the computer into the one and only receptacle!

Yet a fourth job on the list was to find a way to look at the forward bilge. That one was easier and I hand pumped the gallon or two of water from it into the kitchen sink and removed the wet playing cards and cardboard boxes that we found there. It is quite common in Holland for boats, especially steel ones, to not be fitted with bilge pumps. I can only hope that it is less common for owners to store playing cards and cardboard in the bilge.

Instead of thru-hull fittings, on most steel hulls, the Dutch weld in a pipe for the sink and toilet fittings. Water does not enter the boat from outside, of course, as long as the top of the tube is above the water line. I can't quite understand how this arrangement allows liquids to drain from the sink into the water, but that's a mystery I don't need to solve—"it ain't broke," so I'm not going to fix it.

I had carried a few tools with me from the States—metric ones. Why carry American measure wrenches and sockets to work on a European boat—right? I can tell you why. I have found a half dozen or so bolts of American measure. Back to the chandlery—there I discovered that the socket drives in Holland are mostly American measure: 1/4, 3/8, 1/2 inches and presumably, 3/4 inches as well. I left my good half-inch drive at home.

After several days, the broker, whom we came to call Godot, had still not made the promised appearance—nor had he called. Eventually I decided to start back at the top of the work list, taking the matter of determining how to check the oil into my own hands.

 
Depending on how you read the dipstick, there may or may not be enough oil.
 
With a pair of channel locks, I yanked hard on the tube that reached into the oil pan and finally got it out. It was not lipped on the end as I feared it might be, so there was no damage. Peg had earlier found a dipstick hanging on a partition wall and it appeared to fit perfectly. Depending if we stopped pushing at the joint where the stick doubled, or pushed as far as possible, it showed either that the engine was slightly overfilled with oil, or way overfilled. I found a way to fit the tube of the oil-removing pump and out came the old oil. The oil filter canister was easily removed, but the new oil filter did not fit it. This engine—it turns out—has a washable oil filter.

So now, instead of an answer, we had a new question. Why did the previous owner buy an oil filter if it didn't fit? I had previously noted that there appeared to be two fuel filters on the engine and was wondering why there weren't two spare fuel filters on board—the previous owner had two of every other filter. After yet another trip to the chandlery, I learned that it was a "diesel oil filter," which means "fuel filter"—how obvious. I also discovered that this engine has no air filter. I am not sure how common that is and I'm afraid to ask.

I tried for two hours to find someone in this tiny town who would clean the washable oil filter. A shop could do it better and easier than I could. No luck. So Peg had to take the bus to Hilversum (30 minutes each way) to buy a small fuel can so I could bicycle 10 kilometers round-trip to Nieuw Loosdrecht to buy some diesel fuel. All this to wash out the filter.

The next project involved finding and installing a battery charger. Our boat did not have one, which is not uncommon here. In small towns like Nieuw Loosdrecht, the choice of chargers is not exactly vast. Our friendly chandlery had two, one eight amp, another 15—the latter at 799 florins (about $350) was twice the price of the former. Both had three or four stage charging, depending on how you interpreted the instruction manual. Our new charger came with instruction booklets in four languages, one of which was a kind of English. It states that, "the three stage charger" can be adapted to all types of battery (sic) thanks to its four integral charging curves.

 
Mystery pipes lurked beneath the cardboard and playing cards.
 
Godot had still not arrived, so I forged onward with new-found confidence. Eventually I solved the mystery of the antifreeze by just following the tubes, pipes, junctions, and hoses. We had earlier assumed that the port side tank filler labeled 'Water' was for filling the port side drinking water tank. How silly of us. Instead, it is where you add and check the antifreeze. How you change the antifreeze is another matter, since this tank is higher than the engine.

Cees, pronounced Kass, is a Dutchman who has owned his nine-meter steel-hulled sailboat for 27 years. We met him while we were docked next to a pasture filled with sheep and their aromas. Cees told me that you haul the boat, remove a plug, and out comes the antifreeze. As if to reassure me, he said that no one ever changes the antifreeze. I think I know why.

I finally found a mechanic to check our butane system for leaks. He said he would come "this week." Ten days later he still had not come. Another Godot. After a month of doings and fixings, we embarked on our journey. We moored in Eemdijke. The Eem is a little river off the Isjellmeer, and 'dijke' means 'dike,' so this little town is logically located at the dike on the Eem. It is here that we met Cees and his wife, Ada. We invited them over for an after dinner drink and they offered lots of advice about places to go and things to do. Among their suggestions is Harderwijk (don't pronounce the 'j'), where we must stay at the marina next to the Dolfinarium. Cees said we must go see the 'flippers' (the dolphins) and the seals.

I asked Cees how people maintain their batteries during the winter if they are not near their boats. "Ah," he says, "this is a problem. You must know someone—a friend or worker, who will come aboard to charge the batteries, open and close things, start the engine, etc. Peg suggested that since we don't know anyone in Holland to do this, we should just buy a new boat every year. I simply mumbled that, personally, I suspect that getting to know one boat is difficult enough.

This somehow triggered Peg to ask Cees about the mysterious giant valve under the stairs. Cees, a recently retired engineer, leaped up excitedly to see it. He immediately said he must look in the engine compartment and asked for a torch (British English for flashlight). He found, as I already had, the copper tube that led from the container, and using my handy mirror, followed it aft, as I had already done. He then pronounced, "I know what it is. It is for fat!" Fat? I saw myself elbow deep in whale grease with large-eyed whale widows eyeing me, planning their revenge.

It turned out he meant 'grease.' In Dutch "grease" and "fat" are the same, as are "long" and "tall". In otherwise perfectly understandable English, we've been directed to long buildings that are actually tall ones, and tall ones that are actually long.

The container in question is packed with grease—a ton of it. "You turn this valve and it adjusts a plate," Cees explained. "It squeezes grease into the tube, which apparently leads to the cutless bearing." Cees stuck a screwdriver in an opening and it came out with grease on it, supporting his theory that this is indeed a fat cell.

He also took a look at a large metal tube, about four inches in diameter. It had a metal plate on top, with a rubber gasket, all held on by a screw-down clamp. He said he thought it led to the propeller, so you can remove rope and other obstructions wound around it. A few weeks later, we heard a bump in the water and the helm started vibrating. There was no mechanic in town—everyone we asked said so. The Almanac said so. So explain the 10-meter yacht hanging in the air, which we later saw while eating dinner. The friendly crane operator pulled our boat out, we saw that the prop shaft was probably bent, and I also saw that Cees's theory was wrong. Where the metal tube should have exited was solid (I hope) steel.

 
If Godot ever gets there, maybe he can explain how to refill the fat cell.
 
Getting fat into the fat cell is another source of joy. No, there is no handy grease zerk. You just push grease through a hole until you can't push in any more. But the hole I could see was tiny so I backed out the wheel that moves the plate up, and off came the wheel—completely detached from the plate! Instead of an answer, we had another question, and this mystery remains, like the one about how the grease you pour down the galley sink gets out of the pipe.

These are things we ponder while waiting for Godot.


 

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