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Old 08-12-2003
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Mark Matthews is on a distinguished road
The Beauty of the Jury Rig


Problem solving on a small boat sailing through open waters requires a delicate blend of ingenuity and creativity.
It had been one of those passages. What we had hoped would be a pleasant 60-mile sail with favorable winds had transformed into a test of wills over the course of a few hours; the will of tiny, mortal sailors versus the swirling elements and their relentless onslaught. As the engine slowly decreased its rpms and conked to a halt and the boat went pitching through the black night under double-reefed main against a headwind and contrary setting current, the elements officially held the upper hand.

We had sailed our mighty 26-foot Radiance from California to Panama and were on the final approach to the Canal. A mere 60 miles separated us from the last of the Pacific Ocean and a new sea. But life had changed since rounding the aptly named Punta Mala, now some 20 miles aft, and the remaining miles ahead looked to be hard-won. Heavy ship traffic for several miles loomed off the starboard side, signalled by the masthead lights of container ships, freighters, tugs, and tankers heading to and from the Canal.

To add to the fun, the autopilot had also recently given up the ghost, meaning we had to hand steer when running the engine. A few days earlier I’d noticed that the tiller pilot had gotten hot, so I unplugged it, and was somewhat surprised to hear small parts rattling around inside— never a good sign. Attempts at repairing it did not go well, despite the willingness of several enthusiastic Chinese-Panamanian stereo repairmen that we met in our attempts to get it repaired. The autopilot might as well have been a raygun from another planet, and although it started working intermittently, repairing it was clearly beyond our capacity. Now, with my better half standing watch, the windvane on duty, and the boat hove-to, I delved into one of my least favorite scenarios—hunched over a hot, uncooperative engine aboard a small boat in short, steep chop at 2:00 o’clock in the morning.


The author maintains that few chores top the torture of repeatedly bleeding a hot diesel engine in a pitching seaway.

Armed with a flathead screwdriver and a 13-mm wrench, I began the arduous process of bleeding the engine. My first thoughts were that air had somehow gotten in the fuel line and created a vapor lock. I first loosened the bleed screw on the secondary filter and then reached forward to pump the manual fuel pump before closing the bleed screw and then working my way up to the injector nuts. By the time this was done, a slick film of diesel coated both the engine and myself, while a relentless wave of heat radiated off the 350-pounds of iron and steel below me. Bilge water sloshed. The boat pitched. Wrenches fell into hard to reach places and became slippery to hold. Knuckles met metal. But finally, the engine started again. It ran for a full and glorious 20 minutes before conking out once again. I found the screwdriver and wrench, assumed the position, and repeated the process. Take cockpit grate off. Take engine cover off. Scrunch into place. Place screwdriver, open, pump, close. Wrench, open, pump, close. Blisters formed on my thumb from the manual fuel pump and I remember thinking diesel fuel made a poor first-aid remedy.

By the third, or perhaps it was the fourth cycle, I began to wonder what was really going on and, having no other ideas, took the fuel line off the tank. Large black chunks of a gooey substance came out fostering an epiphany torn from the pages of Nigel Calder’s Boatowners’Electrical and Mechanical Manual.

Banging more of the gunk out, I realized that it had been awhile since we’d been in short steep chop like we were experiencing. Either we’d recently taken on some questionable fuel—unlikely since we filtered all of our fuel before we put it in the tank—or the sediment in the tank was there after years of mysterious maintenance by a previous, unknown owner and never shook up in quite this fashion. Whatever the case, enough sediment had made its way to the fuel line to stop it up. Around daybreak, with the fuel line clean, the engine started and chugged merrily away beyond the crucial 20-minute mark as though nothing had happened. The sun rose and we headed off on a beam reach—crossing the Canal traffic scheme during daylight hours—for an unscheduled stop at the Las Perlas Islands, some 30 miles to the east.

My story now flashes forward two days (days filled with considerably fewer aches and pains). We were then anchored with 10 other boats from Holland, France, Italy, and the US along the causeway just outside the Panama Canal—a free anchorage—opting against taking a mooring at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Not only had the Yacht Club recently burned down, but the mooring field presented a rocky ride as boats bobbed wildly in the huge wakes set off by the constant stream of ships, tugs, and pilot boats going by. Dinghy landings were not allowed there, and paying visitors were at the mercy of yacht club tenders whose service to and from your boat was directly related to how well you tipped the launch drivers.


When the Port Captain came out on the Pilot boat, it wasn't just to say hello. All the boats in the anchorage ending up getting the heave-ho.
Our clogged-fuel-line adventure had prompted me to take the fuel tank out of the boat in order to clean it and install an inspection port. Lacking power tools, cutting into the tank meant spending quality time with a hand drill and hacksaw. With this done, we were cleaning out the 13-gallon tank when we noticed that a pilot boat had pulled up into the anchorage. While the pilot boat wasn’t unusual—the Panama Canal Commission used these 40-foot steel boats to ferry personnel out to sailboats waiting to make the transit—there was something a bit strange going on. The pilot boat began going to every boat in the anchorage. Surely, not every boat was going through the Canal at the same time, I thought.

"A few boats began hoisting anchor and  motoring out and it became apparent. The entire fleet was getting the boot."
Then a few boats began hoisting anchor and started motoring out and it became apparent. The entire fleet was getting the boot. The large pilot boat rumbled to a halt half a boat length from Radiance. "You can not stay here. This is an illegal anchorage," said someone who we later found out was the Port Captain. "All these boats must be gone by noon."

"Thanks," I said. "That should be no problem, since this is my fuel tank," I glumly pointed out. But by then the pilot boat had rumbled over to a neighboring vessel to spread the news. Amid the oily rags, leftover gunk, solvents, grimy tools, and the tank itself, I realized that there was a lot of work to do were we to meet the Port Captain’s mandate.

For starters, the tank needed some work. Ideally, it should be replaced, but we had yet to find a machine shop and the chances of finding a taxi and a machine shop and having a new tank fabricated before noon were astronomical.

Morale sagged as the clocked ticked, and before long there were only two boats left in the anchorage. I poured a tonic water and we tried to brainstorm a plan. Right about then, the gods of jury rigging sent us a message. We could make a temporary tank big enough to get us across to the other anchorage.

First, I cut the bottom off the tonic bottle. This would serve as my "day tank," which actually had a capacity closer to 20 minutes before it had to be refilled. A stainless steel drink holder that we ordinarily clipped to the lifelines found temporary service in the engine room suspended on a wire tie. I inserted the day tank into this and attached the fuel line to the day tank with some fast drying gasket sealant, and voila, as soon as I had bled the tank just one more time, the engine started and we were underway.


With the drama left far behind, the soothing scenery of the San Blass Islands proved the perfect antidote to the author's clogged fuel line anxiety.

Flash forward two more weeks and we've got a repaired fuel tank and a quiet berth at anchor near an isolated island in the San Blass chain. The preceding struggle seems a distant memory. So, what’s the point of the story? I suppose there are a couple. For starters, clean fuel is next to godliness when the weather turns rough. Even a professional tank cleaning can leave particles that have the capability to clog the fuel line, but only seem to do so when you need the engine the most: bashing into headwinds and seas.

Secondly, every voyager should have intimate familiarity with his or her boat’s systems, particularly when they're headed beyond the confines of the marina. There’s no such thing as Sea Tow out on the wild blue and when the lights start to flicker and dim or when the engine starts making a strange sound (or in our case, no sound at all), that's when your knowlege can be most helpful. The average cruiser relies on his or her boat’s powerplant more often then they like, and like to admit, whether it means punching through headwinds or dealing with light air.

Finally, it's important to think outside the box when it comes to making do with what you have on board. The art of the jury rig demands creativity and know how, and the right combination of each can keep your cruise going when the chips are down. The vast majority of jury rigs don’t make the headlines, but are undertaken by resilient sailors everywhere. The boat owner who bribes the skippers of two similarly sized boats to raft up next to him and uses their halyards to raise or lower his mast. The mariner who manages to time the tide and current and tow his boat via an oar-powered dinghy. The sailor who uses a blow torch to signal distress when there's nothing else at hand. All of these instances describe the beauty of the jury rig. It's that can-do aspect of seamanship that shines when the determined sailor blends ingenuity with the materials at hand to save the day.

Jury Rig Hall of Fame

There are jury rigs and then there are jury rigs. We've compiled a short list of some that have impressed us sufficiently to include them as members of the SailNet Jury Rig Hall of Fame. Surely you know of others, so feel free to pass them on to us. In the meantime, take a gander at what these sailors managed to accomplish through their own tenacity and resourcefulness.


Few have improvised with as little and sailed as far as French jury-rigging maestro Yves Parlier. Here, he shows off the "oven" he used to fuse his mast back together in the middle of nowhere.
Yves Parlier's Acquitaine Innovations was dismasted in the last edition of the nonstop round-the-world Vendee Globe, but the 43-year-old Frenchman managed a high-tech fix in a low-tech setting. Using heat lamps to catalyze resin, he fused pieces of his broken carbon-fiber mast back together again, and then restepped it and continued on to France. Parlier also made a raft from empty jerry jugs lashed together, which he piloted ashore to collect mussels for food while wearing his survival suit and using flippers for oars.

Michel Desjoyeaux, racing aboard PRB in the same Vendee Globe, managed to restart his generator in an ingenious manner. He needed the generator to power the autopilot so that he could stay in the race (and eventually win it). Desjoyeaux loosened the injectors in the generator to decrease the compression in some of the cylinders. Then, using a combination of block and tackle rigged to the boom for pulling power, he ran a line down to the flywheel and when he released the mainsheet, the boom went out and the line spun the flywheel, starting the engine outboard-style.

Andrea Scarabelli and his crew aboard FILA in the recent EDS Atlantic Challenge saw their mainsail disintegrate before their eyes. The team sent crew aloft to weave small strands of spectra line between the headboard and the first top batten, thereby rendering the sail serviceable enough to carry them to the finish of this transatlantic race.




Last edited by administrator; 06-18-2008 at 12:24 PM.
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