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Old 03-28-2004
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Tania Aebi is on a distinguished road
Toolbox Lessons


That old adage about having 'the right tool for the job' has an intensified meaning when you're alone and 1500 miles offshore, as the author attests.
I found myself in a tight spot recently. With two hours before houseguests were to arrive, I had two acres of tall grass left to mow, but the blade on my lawn mower had broken, yet again. My eight-year-old son, Sam, was impressed as I earnestly flipped the machine over and announced my intention to fetch the necessary tools to correct the situation. I returned confidently with a socket set and a vise grip. Sam was now going to see how Mom could fix things that needed it. Alas, the bolt that fastens the blade had been tightened with a pneumatic driver and both the short handle of the socket wrench and the ill-fitting vise grip got me nothing but scraped knuckles and some choice new vocabulary words for Sam. With no time to spare, I abandoned my mower and ran off to borrow my neighbor's.

After years of breaking things and learning how to fix them on my own, I have been lectured repeatedly about the value of owning good tools. I know this is true, but good tools are expensive, and until an opportunity to feel their absence presents itself, I find this to be an easy truth to forget. Also, I know that when the right tool falls into inexperienced hands, it can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Most of my education on tools and things mechanical took place aboard my boat, which was serviced by a toolbox that was always being upgraded in step with my repair skills. I remember the day some time ago when for the first time I used a new socket set that replaced some less convenient open-ended and boxed wrenches.

I was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between the Azores and the East Coast of the US, a mass at rest with only 10 gallons of fuel and a seven-horsepower engine, dependent on wind to become a mass in motion again. For a weary sailor, a flat calm can be a thing of beauty, fostering thoughts of oneness with nature. The horizon, the sea, and the sky all come together in shades of blue, creating the picture of perfect tranquility. This is a time to reflect, to regroup, to write flowery prose and romantic poetry, and when it has been fully appreciated, to wonder just how long the lack of forward motion will last. With no wind, there is no need to navigate, to steer a course, to adjust sails, or depending on the tack, to walk on the walls. As capable as I was of delighting in this laziness and time alone with my thoughts, seven days of calm and inactivity were beginning to drive me up the walls I had been fantasizing about walking on.


When Neptune leaves you drifting for days, it's easy to postpone those important maintenance chores, but there's rarely a better time to accomplish them.
The mainsail was reefed and sheeted in tightly to control the boat's rolling on the glassy swells. The poetry of the moment had abandoned me. Each irritating slap of the sail was echoed by resonating shudders in the rigging, and I tried to concentrate more on the words of the book I was reading than on black thoughts that were brewing in my brain. Good humor out there waxed and waned with the level of cooperation from the weather, and once the novelty wore off, a flat calm became a slippery emotional slope. My mood had slid down to the briny depths and my poor cat's ear muscles were getting a workout perking up at all the incessant muttering and cursing. The mainsail flapping, the clunking of odds and ends being jostled in the lockers, the knocking of the blocks on the mainsheet were all making me feel powerless and crazy.

Suddenly, a new sound pierced the monotony. The hissing, blowing, and splashing of something big had the cat and me out in the cockpit in seconds. There it was, our first pod of about 10 truly gigantic whales, surfacing and sounding its way across our bow. Awed by the tremendous bulk of my fellow mammals, I stared for a minute until the thought that each one outweighed my 26-foot boat by several thousand pounds sent me right to the starter button. The engine rattled to life and I grabbed the tiller to steer a wide berth around the stragglers, simultaneously thrilled and wary of the unexpected company. Paying me not the least bit of attention, they continued deliberately on their northward passage and soon enough, they were gone. Once more, I was alone with the puttering engine that decided, then and there, to falter yet again.

In the course of more than two years of sailing long distances with this boat, I had become proficient with the process of bleeding the diesel engine fuel line, albeit reluctantly. This time, though, instead of cursing it out, I jumped down into the cabin eagerly to fetch the new socket set I had purchased in Gibraltar. Having recently discovered the beauty of this tool, the sound of the clicking ratchet still excited and empowered me. The wind could play games with my emotions, but with the socket wrench, the engine was all mine. Here was something beneath me in the pecking order, something I could control. I knew how to fix it with inferior tools and now better technology was going to make the task seem like fun and preserve the skin on my knuckles.


Bleeding a fuel line requires a little bit of knowledge and a delicate touch with the tools.
There were three stages along the fuel line where nuts had to be loosened to let air bubbles escape. Like a kid with a new toy, I savored the clicking as each bolt was loosened, watched until the fuel ran clear, and reversed the wrench action to tighten things back up because fittings and connections on diesel engines like to be tight. The first and second stages went very smoothly, as I knew they would. Then came the last one, the bolt on the fuel return. The fuel ran clear and I tightened, clicking merrily away until the bolt tightened itself right off. There it was, the copper washer and the bolt's head neatly severed from the threaded shaft. I had just used the new wonder tool to break my engine. How effective was that? Chastened, I put the sockets back into their respective slots, closed up the case, waited for the wind to come back, and sailed the last 1,500 miles to New York, engineless, but wiser for the experience.

As I have continued my journey of discovery in the world of tools and repairs, job by job, I've become more savvy about the nuts and bolts and what can happen if they are over-tightened. On a boat, when the right equipment can mean the difference between life and death—or skin or no skin on the knuckles—I learned that good tools are only half the battle. Knowing their limitations and how to use them is the other half. Don't get me wrong. I haven't turned into a gearhead. I just like tools that work easily, ones that make the process of fixing things as simple as possible. But, it seems there is always something more expensive that will work better.

I was reminded of this truth again with the lawn mower when a friend who owned a superior toolbox happened by and helped. His socket wrench had a longer handle than mine, therefore more leverage, and he had a huge pipe wrench instead of the vise grip I had been using to counter the socket wrench. As usual, the right tools worked like a charm, and I find that I have graduated to needing my own pipe wrench and a more sophisticated socket set. Too bad Mother's Day has come and gone already. 

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