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Old 09-04-2003
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Gear Failure 101


Murphy will sign on for nearly every voyage says the author, whether the boat has been perfectly maintained or left to fester in the back of a boat yard.

In my early days as a delivery skipper, gear failures were an intriguing part of every voyage. Of course, being immortal and chronically short of cash, I was willing to move any reluctantly afloat vessel to just about anywhere that fringed an ocean. I wasn't particularly selective, if the job paid, I took it. The gear on these boats was nearly always suspect and it was good sport betting what system would fail first—the electronics, the engine, or something important, like the steering system or the rig? Most of these dream machines had been recently purchased and surveyed. The joke among delivery skippers was that the real survey began as soon as the surveyor cashed his check and land faded from view for the poor delivery crew.

I remember one clumsy ketch, an early Taiwan-built boat that my good friend Captain Bob Pierce and I picked up in Key West and delivered to Newport, RI. The boat was rigged with four electric bilge pumps, a bad sign to begin with. Naturally, all four and the manual pump failed as we tried to clear the bilge after clearing the reef. With the boat leaking through the stuffing box Bob suggested we return to port to repair or replace the pumps. I am always reluctant to delay a voyage once underway and pointed out that we still had two sound buckets and four strong arms aboard and…that there wasn't much money in the budget for repairs anyway. So, we carried on. The surveyor by the way, had noted the seller's good safety sense by having four pumps aboard.

Eventually I evolved into moving better boats, often ferrying charter boats to and from the Caribbean islands. The boats heading into charter purgatory were usually brand new, sparsely equipped, surprisingly cranky and beset with engineering quirks that could drive you crazy. The boats coming out of charter were tired, and often covered up with paint and band aids that the charter company proclaimed was a complete refit.

Lately, I have been sailing very nice, privately owned boats, mixing deliveries with training passages. And yes, despite the high-quality equipment on board, diligent owners with healthy checking accounts and regularly scheduled maintenance, gear failures continue to add intrigue to most every voyage.


The author's most recent mishap at sea took place when the autopilot packed it in, an occurence that he says happens frequently enough to put this item at the top of his gear-failure list.

Just a few days ago I returned from my annual fall training trip, the 1500-mile passage from Annapolis to Antigua in the West Indies. I had a great crew and the Hylas 49 that we were delivering scoffs at conditions other lighter, less seakindly boats fret over. The first six days were ideal as we enjoyed swift sailing, good food, and plenty of rest with the autopilot handling most of the helming chores. Day seven was squally, and the boat surged south riding mountainous swell spawned by not too far away (but far enough) Hurricane Olga. I clicked the autopilot onto standby and steered through the worst of the squalls by hand. With the sky beginning to brighten, I let go of the wheel and pushed the ‘auto' button. Nothing. My heart sank, the dreaded event had happened, the autopilot decided to take the rest of the passage off.

We quickly traced the problem to the drive unit under the bunk in the aft cabin. Experience has taught me that the huge task pulling these units out to work on them only adds to the mounting frustration. Autopilot drive motors are usually sealed and very difficult to repair at sea. With four people aboard, hand steering for the next four days wasn't a crisis by any means, still nothing changes the dynamics of a passage faster than around-the-clock steering duty. Suddenly, the casual watch system maintained during daylight hours becomes as regulated as the night watch schedule. Time for reading, learning celestial navigation and other projects gives way to grabbing a few extra hours of sleep between watches. For my part, I would gladly give up GPS, Radar, chart plotters, sailing instruments, electric razors, and every other type of electronic equipment for a reliable autopilot.

Twenty years of very unscientific research gives autopilots the dubious number-one ranking on my list of gear most likely to fail during an offshore passage. Of course, autopilots have a tough assignment as most of us expect them to steer day after day without complaint. It is important to set up the pilot properly and make its job easier by trimming the sails to ease the load on the helm. A close inspection of many pilots reveals that, despite the fact that a below deck unit can easily cost $5,000 or more, most are simply not manufactured well enough to endure long passages. I know this to be the case as I have had most major brands in pieces on the saloon table at one time or another. Experienced blue water cruisers carry a spare pilot, often a cockpit mounted, belt-driven model like the rugged CPT made by Scanmar and, if the budget can stand it, a wind vane self-steering system as well. Never underestimate the importance of self-steering on a long passage.

"After suffering too many cold-food-only passages caused by an ailing generator, I concluded that I would rather die in a propane explosion with a full belly than slowly starve to death while working on the generator."
In the battle for top gear failure status, autopilots have plenty of competition, however, and a close second is the marine generator. Fortunately, the new trend of providing 110- volt power with larger, efficient invertors is limiting the use of auxiliary diesel generators on many boats. However, for years I delivered 40 to 50-foot Gulfstars, Morgans, Endeavours, and others, and they all seemed to be fitted with a generator. Although the generator typically is used for nonessentials like air conditioning and refrigeration, it is also a back up battery charging system. Also, many of these older boats used electric ranges for cooking, reasoning that propane was too dangerous. After suffering too many cold-food-only passages caused by a misfiring generator, I concluded that I would rather die in a propane explosion with a full belly than slowly starve to death while working on the generator.

One of the problems with generators is that they're often shoehorned into the engine room, or a cockpit locker, sometimes mounted athwartships and usually improperly vented. These babies are just waiting to overheat. If a boat I'm delivering is fitted with a generator, I only use it if it's absolutely necessary.


Altenators can be finicky, says the author, and carrying a spare one has become one of his passagemaking imperatives.

Unfortunately, it often is necessary to use the generator to run a battery charter because 12-volt charging systems also rank high on the gear failure list. Alternators can be finicky; they don't like to get wet or put up with corroded parts. Carrying a spare alternator is essential on long passages. Many boats today are fitted with smart regulators, which work terrifically when they work, but are a nuisance when they don't. Last year while delivering a friend's Beneteau 44 up from Charleston, SC, to New York, we were unable to charge the batteries. The expensive, high-volt alternator was putting out, but no current was reaching the batteries. We ended up bypassing the smart regulator and running a lead directly to the house battery, which, enabled us to keep the autopilot, yes the autopilot, running.

Sailing instruments are notorious for not working, especially the knotmeter. This is not much of a problem these days as most of us watch the SOG (speed over ground) function on the GPS anyway. What is annoying is when the wind instruments fails. Many of the boats that I deliver cover the center cockpit area like a bomb shelter. A dodger, bimini top or other full enclosures make it virtually impossible to feel the wind, much less see a tell tale or windex. The wind direction and speed meter is quite helpful. Yet, they almost never hold up. Earlier this fall, on a delivery from Connecticut to Palm Beach, the recently installed wind unit on the masthead vanished. On recent passage from St. Thomas to Ft. Lauderdale, the wind meter only worked on wind angles from 60 to 90 degrees apparent. Although I knew that the instrument was inaccurate, I subconsciously trimmed the sails by it anyway.


Even the best-prepared vessels will suffer equipment failures from time to time, but if the sails, rigging, and steering are sound, at least you can keep making progress.

Systems that send up a red flare when I first inspect a boat before a delivery include hydraulic steering, v-drive transmissions, and external mainsail furling systems. The rush to use electricity for more tasks on boats includes powered-up sheet winches, electric furling systems, and push-button bow thrusters. Unfortunately, it often includes converting or replacing stinky yet functional manual heads with electric models. Few items have been as troublesome for me over the past years as these miserable creations. I know, it only seems civilized to push a button and watch your waste disappear, after all, if we can now zip around on a "ginger," shouldn't we be able to use electric heads at sea? Yet they not only don't work, they consume a lot of voltage. Typically, the alternator has given up the ghost, the generator won't start, and the batteries are too weak from running the autopilot, which just died, to run the electric heads, which can't be converted back to manual mode. When faced with this calamity, it's good to know that at least you've still got those two buckets. 

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