Travel versus sailing

Among cruisers, there’s a tendency to self-categorize between those who sail to travel–experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, seeing new things;  and those who are in it for the sailing–feeling the breeze in your face, listening to the sound of the waves, moving your boat through space with just the power of the wind. Michu and I can’t quite seem to take sides.

Certain sailing t-shirts were recently sacrificed...we needed some rags!

Certain sailing t-shirts were recently sacrificed…we needed some rags!

Michu and I met while teaching sailing. Our non-sailing friends seem to think this is wildly romantic and adorable and somehow unusual if not unique, but our experience has been the opposite–we know dozens of people who’ve met and then married thanks to sailing, and meeting someone while covered in stinky lake water with a shocking sunglasses tan is not particularly meet-cute. We were both deeply sunk into the sailing life before we met, and while we might have individually harbored rose-colored ideas about the live aboard life, our focus was on going fast. Especially on Lake Michigan keelboats, E scows, or Badger Techs (ok, maybe there was not a lot of “fast” going on in that last fleet, but…pretty fun!).

Certain sailing team hats...remain

Certain ancient sailing team hats remain

Nothing about our boat is set up for racing, including the two available sailors for a boat designed to be raced by eight, but the racing mentality is hard to shake. This summer, we were motoring past Sheboygan in flat water when we were joined by two other boats, both motoring. Of course, we immediately started racing them. While motoring. “Looks like the blue one is gaining…should we maybe put up the main, try and catch this little bit of breeze? It might be filling in a little bit further out…”

We totally dusted them, by the way. I can’t believe they didn’t pop their kite.

The best day we had this summer was not a day spent exploring a new town, or relaxing on a beach, but a 10-hour reach down the Wisconsin shore in 12-15 knots. We baked bread. We read. We played games. Mostly, we sat in the cockpit and stared at the sails…because we love it. Our hearts sing and our minds clear and it is our best place.

Happy place

My happy place

However. That’s not why we’re taking our kids on this adventure. Having lived abroad for a few years in my impressionable youth, I know something about the character-forming nature of travel. We’re driven to expose our kids to other worlds, and broaden their experience beyond this lovely little patch of Wisconsin we call home. Two of their four grandparents were born in Cuba, but they couldn’t tell you anything about that country; this way, they’ll be able to spend a whole month there.

Preferred vantage point. Milwaukee Art Museum from the water

Preferred vantage point. Milwaukee Art Museum from the water

At the same time: we love traveling for ourselves. Since having kids and putting the lockdown on our finances, we have barely left the state. Our kids haven’t been on a plane since T was a baby, and Michu’s previous passport was issued when he was not long out of high school. Michu has lived in Madison for twenty years straight, and I’ve now spent more years here than I lived in my hometown growing up. We feel the need to move, to shake things up, to change the view.

Bottom line: we’re in it for both. It’s pretty much the best mix for us–sailing, exploring, and having a home to stay comfy, with a kettle on the stove and all.


Engine Part 3a: Converting to Closed Cooling (the beginning)

Until last spring and for the first 31 years of her existence, Milou’s engine cooled itself by sucking up water from the outside, circulating it through the engine and spitting the now-warmer water out of the exhaust. Up until now, this has not really been much of a problem. Actually, even now, including the 31 years of calcium/mineral buildup clogging the cooling passages, direct cooling would probably work just fine for us as long as Milou remained in a body of freshwater. The problem with direct cooling is that once we make it to the Atlantic, the saltwater will eat our motor.

As an aside, I’d like to know if anyone has actually seen a marine survey worth the paper it was printed on? If so, I think it should be put in a museum. Before becoming a nurse, I spent ten years of my professional life working on boats. I did both mechanical and fiberglass work, ended up writing service and I managed a couple of shops. I am a little bit boat savvy, but the amount that I don’t know is still much larger than the amount that I know about boats (well, any subject really). When I flew down to Texas to check out the cheapest boat we could find that satisfied our list of basic requirements, I hired a marine surveyor to go through it with me. I did this because I wanted an objective observer and frankly I hadn’t spent much time on 40-foot cruising sailboats with inboard diesels. At the time, I assumed that the motor already had a heat exchanger; and when I asked the surveyor where the antifreeze was kept, he patted the exhaust manifold and said, “It’s in here, this is the heat exchanger”. I said ok and paid more attention to the batteries that were venting hydrogen sulfide gas.

Well, the spring after we took possession I went to run up the motor. I checked the oil level, and the transmission fluid, but I could not find a cap for adding or checking the coolant. After a little more research on the Perkins 4108 I realized that our motor was missing a circulating pump, and that it was set up for direct cooling.

Engine coolingWhat is this engine cooling he keeps yammering about? Lets go back to our friend the less-environmentally-friendly-then-advertised VW. Every combustion engine makes heat. The one in the VW has a radiator. The VW circulates antifreeze through the motor, where it picks up heat, and then through a radiator, where a fan blows cool outside air on the hot radiator and the heat is carried away on the wind (there are also air-cooled motors, but they all still need fresh air). A boat motor lives in a small confined space below deck–very little air movement. A radiator would just heat up the engine room until the engine overheated. Marine motors get around this by dumping the heat overboard in exhaust water. They can either do this directly by sucking the water right into the motor, or indirectly by sucking up seawater (or lake water) and passing it through a heat exchanger–basically a radiator, but it radiates heat into water instead of air. The advantage of indirect (or closed) cooling is that it keeps the motor separated from the corrosive effects of salt water. It also lets heat flow through the motor in more of a controlled manner, leading to a happier, longer-lasting engine.

Math and Trade-Offs – At this point I had already decided I wanted a big alternator; to do that I needed to upgrade to a serpentine belt. The $600 serpentine belt kit included a new, beefier water pump, which I also needed to convert the cooling system. The other thing I would need was a heat exchanger and some plumbing parts; that kit cost an additional $1800. A well-cared-for Perkins 4108 should last about 10,000 hours before needing to be rebuilt. Our hour meter reads 2929.6, and I’d wager that it has not been well cared for. Was it worth $2500 and who knows how many hours to convert the motor? Well, a new motor with closed cooling would be around $12,000. I could probably find a used rebuilt 4108 with closed cooling for $5000 – $7000. In the end I elected to spend $2500 to upgrade a motor that is probably worth about the same amount.


Parts to convert motor to closed cooling.

Obviously it is now time to start bolting on some new parts. Hey–they came as complete, expensive kits from an authorized dealer. I’m sure this will be as easy as removing some 30-year-old bolts!

Engine cooling 1

Ok, this is easy; take off the fan belt and remove the alternator…

Well, this cover has to go. It is where the new water pump is supposed to be. Wow that is gross behind there.

Well, this cover has to go. It’s where the new water pump is supposed to be. Wow, that is gross behind there.

Cooling 3

Uh huh, thermostat housing is off. I hope these studs are the right size for the new housing. Time to move over to the port side of the motor and remove the exhaust manifold.

Here is the first of many problems. The bracket that holds the throttle cable in place is bolted to the old manifold, and there is no way to attach it to the new Bowman combination manifold/heat-exchanger.

Throttle cable adapter

Where there is a will there is a way. I manufactured this bracket and was done for the day.

I realized that if I didn’t come up with a solution for the throttle cable now, it would be much more difficult once the new manifold/heat exchanger was in place. There was an unused 3/8 inch threaded hole machined into the side of the block. I had a bolt and a sleeve that fit to act as a stand off from the side of the motor. Then I took a walk around the boatyard looking for a piece of scrap. I found a nice little piece of galvanized bar stock. Using my hand drill, I machined it into a bracket to attach the cable clamp to the offset. The picture shows the first version; I didn’t like the alignment of the cable. I ended up taking the assembly home and tweaked it a little to get everything lined up well. Admittedly, the fix has a very “agricultural” feel to it, but hey it works.

Easy out

Starboard side of the motor. I need to get this bushing out.

Part of converting to closed cooling involves installing a pipe that transfers coolant from the heat exchanger to the engine block, upstream of the circulating pump. After hours of internet research, looking at pictures and YouTube videos of running 4108’s, I determined that this was where I had to attach the pipe. The coolant pipe is large diameter, 3/4 inch. After removing the 3/8-inch plug, I was concerned the restriction would cause problems with the cooling flow. One of the issues I had with this !*##@! piece of bronze is the I could not directly eyeball it; my head doesn’t fit between the motor and wall of the engine room. I had a quick phone consult with a good friend who has rebuilt a bunch of Land Rovers (English diesels). After telling me there are absolutely no guarantees, he thought the bronze thing was a bushing that I could maybe unscrew.

The above pictures show me destroying the plug thread with an EZ out and a large crescent wrench. I used a MAP gas torch to heat up the metal of the engine block around the plug and repeatedly doused the whole thing with penetrating oil. The bushing didn’t budge. I went back out to the boat yard to grab a piece of pipe I saw when scrounging for throttle cable assembly. With the pipe in place as a cheater I managed to move the whole engine block up, unweighting the pressure on the forward engine mounts, and I broke the big wrench in the process. The EZ out really dug into the bronze bushing, but the thing would not move. Another phone call to Gustaf (childhood friend of 42 years and Land Rover enthusiast); his advice:

“The bronze threads are probably corroded into the cast iron of the engine block. Well, you could take a hacksaw blade and cut through the softer bronze right up to the peaks of the cast iron threads. Don’t mess up the threads in the block. The cut may relieve enough tension to unscrew it, but you will probably need to cut out a pie piece and then pry out the bushing.” I swear I heard laughter as he hung up.



Remember I can not visualize this hole. (In nursing, when I come at you with a hose that is going to go somewhere uncomfortable, I always visualize the hole.) I have like 50 pictures of this, because I would run the hacksaw blade back and forth in two inch strokes until my forearm hurt too much or I got nervous about ruining the block. Then I stopped and took a picture, to see where I was–each picture a little more horrifying the the one before. I made the relief cut. Heat. Lube. EZ out. Nothing. I spent another six long hours hand cutting a second relief until I could knock out a small pie piece. Heat. Lube. EZ out. Nothing. Man, at that point I was done. Done.

It would have been easier to pull the motor out of the boat and be able to see what the heck I was doing. I was kicking myself, thinking that I was going to have to tell Deb I had spent three days away from my family creating a new, expensive problem. I went home thinking I was going to have to pull the motor to fix this horrible mess I had made. I was also thinking it was too bad I went at it blind with a hacksaw, when I could have simply drilled out the bushing a little and cut new larger threads in the thing.

...and after

Last shot. Leaving after three days of maybe making things worse. Feeling as glum as the rain.

Fortunately, Kris is good at the sewing.


Impressive, right?

Impressive, right?

Hey! I sewed something! Look at these beautiful…dishcloths!

From there, it’s just a short leap to recovering the settee cushions, yes? Uhm……nah. There is zero question that I would have lost my mind trying to figure out the zippers, bolsters and buttons to spruce up the saloon. Fortunately for everyone, there’s Kris.DSC_0631

Recovering the cushions is absolutely on the list of luxury items for our boat. Some of those seat cushions were actually full-on torn, however, so something had to be done. Fortunately, Michu’s mom–an amazing seamstress herself and appreciator of nice things–sponsored some upholstery work for us. To get everything done would have been budget-busting enough to make us blush, so we compromised and redid the seats.

Comfortable AND good-looking

Comfortable AND good-looking. The cushions, too.

The fabric's actually stripey.

The fabric’s actually stripey.

We bought some fabric on sale from Joann’s that we thought would complement the dark blue, not show stains too badly, and not make us seasick (a surprisingly small sample size). Kris added a little foam to the tops. They look amazing, and I wish we’d had everything recovered, but I think that $1000 we didn’t spend will be put to good use elsewhere.

Engine Part 2: Winterizing Mistakes.

After fixing the stuffing box/coupler and fuel supply system, Milou’s diesel motor had a pretty uneventful first season. This was back in the summer of 2014 when we had managed, by Deb’s wiliness, to secure a very good deal on a fancy marina slip.

Wave Pointe Marina

Milou at a fancy marina slip. Wave Pointe Marina. Big. No boat yard. Not dusty. Pool. French fries. Bad place to work on your boat.

The engine spent about four hours crossing to Little Sturgeon Bay, maybe an additional 15 hours over the summer motoring in and out of our new marina and then again the four hours back to Hi Seas Marina in Oconto. The motor ran like a top.

Oconto to Wave Pointe

Oconto to Little Sturgeon Bay

I had yet to change the oil–the most basic of all routine maintenance. Every time I went to the boat I was feeling guilty about the unknown age of the oil sitting in the motor. I had meant to change it in the spring, honestly I did. But then a lot of other projects came up, and as crazy as it seems, I simply could not find the time to change the dang oil. I needed to rig the mast, remove and get the rudder repaired, sand and seal the rusting spots on the keel, install the windlass, and pull off all of the items that froze and broke thanks to the not-so-great “winterizing” job performed by the Texas yard where we bought Milou.

Hi Seas Marina. Dusty. No pool. No french fries. Best place ever. Great for working on your boat.

Hi Seas Marina. Smaller. Working boat yard. Dusty. No pool. No french fries. Best place ever. Great for working on your boat.

That summer, every time I went to the boat I brought the oil and the filter. And still it never got done. Fall of 2014, the boat was hauled out at Hi Seas marina. We had a small issue with the mast. But that would have to wait; the boat still needed to be winterized.

I am in there pumping out the oil.

I’m in there pumping the oil out of the motor.

I built a frame, sturdier than the one I made the year before. No flimsy line strung between 2x4s: a solid wooden 2×4 ridge pole supported by the modified stands (no longer needed) I had built to hold the mast, and then I covered Milou with the o-so-chic classic blue tarp. The Perkins 4108 has a built-in, hand-operated oil sump pump. It has a T handle, and after 15 – 20 pumps it removed about three and a half of the four quarts of oil that the engine holds.

For some reason the oil filter is mounted upside down; when you remove it, all of the oil trapped inside the filter runs down the side of the motor and into the bilge. Luckily, I had some oil absorbing mats in place to catch the mess. And now I know about the little drain screw in the oil filter housing that lets you drain the trapped oil into a small paper cup before you unscrew the filter.


White thing bottom left. Inverted oil filter. Yes the motor is missing an exhaust manifold. We will revisit this scene in the next post on closed cooling.

Now with the oil and oil filter changed the only routine maintenance item for which I had no record of the last service was the primary fuel filter (well that and the transmission oil, which I have yet to change–it looks good).

Changing the primary filter is a pretty simple affair. You unscrew the retaining bolt, spill diesel all over the place, throw out the old filter, put in the new filter–making sure all of the various o-rings and gaskets are in the correct position–and retighten the retaining bolt. Then–before you run the motor–you open the vent screw on top of the filter housing and manually prime the system until the filter is full of diesel and there in no air at all in the system.

I didn’t talk about it in the last post, but the Perkins 4108 is a mechanically fuel injected motor. Unlike a new VW diesel (are they still making them?), which a has computer-controlled electronic injectors and a self priming fuel circuit, the 4108 relies on a Swiss-watch-like complex mechanical fuel pump to deliver pressurized fuel to the mechanical injectors. These mechanical injectors rely on a high pressure shock wave traveling through the fuel to pop (or jerk) them open so they can spray precisely the correct amount of atomized diesel into each cylinder. Here is the problem: a gas is way more compressible then a liquid. When air gets in the fuel system the shock wave created by the fuel pump travels through the fuel until it hits an air bubble. The compressible air bubble is a shock absorber and stops the shock wave so the injector can not jerk open (these are commonly referred to as jerk injectors). The VW doesn’t care; the high pressure fuel pump circulates the fuel and any big air pockets are sent back to the fuel tank, and if a little air gets to the injector the computer still opens it up (it doesn’t know)–for one cycle one cylinder is just slightly lean. In the same situation, the 4108 stops cold and stares at you until you fix the problem.

It was a warm for October day when I changed the fuel filter. Before I did the mechanical work, I did some temperature-dependent fiberglass work, leveling out the interior of the transom where the radar arch backing plates go. By the time I got to the engine work it was dark, the temperature had dropped, and I was cold, tired and hungry. So naturally I switched out the fuel filter…

The last step of winterizing is to get all of the water out of the motor. I removed the drain plugs from either side of the block and the water barely trickled out. I fished around in the drain holes with the end of a plastic zip tie and got the water to move slightly better. The cooling passages of the engine were pretty clogged up with 30 years of built up scale from direct cooling with Lake Texoma water. I replaced the drain plugs, removed the thermostat, removed the raw water intake hose from the seacock and stuck it in a bucket with four gallons of pink RV antifreeze.

I went up to the cockpit to fire up the motor and I got a two second run, then it stalled. I tried again and it coughed once and was done. Oh crap, I never primed the filter.

This is when I learned how to bleed the fuel system.

Bleeding the fuel system involves opening a series of small, well camouflaged, very hard to find bleeder screws in a precise order and priming the fuel lever at each screw until all of the air bubbles are out before moving on the the next screw. If you miss one you have to go back and get it before the motor will run. Six hours, and multiple starting attempts later, I got the motor running. I ran the engine until solid pink antifreeze was coming out of the exhaust. Winterized.

Last summer, after getting the motor hot (closed cooling with not enough antifreeze) I created a vapor lock situation. That time it took me 15 minutes to bleed the fuel system.

Next up in Engine part 3: Converting to closed cooling.

Let’s talk about privilege. It’ll be fun!

Gratuitous boat photo, to prevent complete Wall of Text.

Gratuitous boat photo, to prevent complete Wall of Text.

We’re still thinking about how to discuss money on this blog. When we were in the early planning stages, we searched everywhere for budgeting advice more specific than, “It’ll cost whatever you have.” We found some helpful info herehere, and here, and we’d like to throw in our two cents about how we’ve made things work for us, but without disclosing all the fine details of our cash situation. Suffice to say, for now: we’ve pulled together enough to purchase our boat, outfit it, and sail for two years on a very middle-class income, with a little outside help from family.

That might lead you to think that anyone can do this. And we’d like to agree! Downsize, sell your stuff, pinch your pennies, live your dream! But I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading blogs by owners of 50-foot catamarans complaining about being overcharged cab fare by $2, but I’m feeling a little snarky about unacknowledged privilege this week, and I want to take a moment to mention ours.

I’m very attached to an article I read in the NY Times a couple of years about poverty. The article interviewed Harvard economist Sendhil Mulleinathan talking about three different types of scarcity: poverty of money (cut and dried, right?); poverty of time (most of us can relate to that); and poverty of bandwidth. That last one is something I’d never considered when internally ranting about people who never volunteered for the PTO, or being pissed when people show up 15 minutes late. But we ALL experience decreased bandwidth at one point or another. There is no other possible explanation for Dancing With the Stars, other than reaching the point where you just flop down on the couch and say, yes: this. Fine. Whatever is on this channel is what I will watch, because I Just Cannot Deal.

Having more money means you can outsource to gain time–babysitters, takeout dinners, housecleaners, personal chefs if you’re in that much-maligned one percent. Having time but less money means spending some of that extra time to save cash by organizing a babysitting co-op, cooking from scratch, growing your own food, and scrubbing the toilets yourself. (That’s how we roll, for those of you keeping score.) But both of those things impact your available energy for doing fun things or making smart long-range plans–bandwidth. And if you lack both money and time, forget about it–you’ll be lucky to leave the house.

So here’s how our bandwidth has been increased to fit in our audacious plans: we are healthy–no doctors’ appointments clogging up our schedule, fights with insurance companies, exhaustion from ailments or worries about illness; we were both born to educated parents–giving us a huge leg up in terms of wealth, health and stability when we were kids, and supporting us into adulthood as well; we were born in the United States of America–one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where we received excellent medical care, education, safe homes and good food throughout our lives; we are white–and haven’t had to deal with overt racism or the kind of microaggression that can wear down your day and your life; we are in a stable marriage–and able to take advantage of the institutional benefits therein. There’s more, but I think I’ll stop there.

While a few of the things in the above category have been influenced by our personal choices, most of them are luck–things we were born into, the code of our DNA, chance of place.

I was talking to a friend not long ago, and mentioned that we’d never be taking this trip if I hadn’t been able to be a stay-at-home mom. I hope I didn’t offend my friend; she’s an artist with an amazing career, who raised a great family, and I don’t want to malign anyone’s choice about whether to work or stay home; but FOR OUR FAMILY, it couldn’t have happened otherwise. If I were working, I would have been focused on my career and my family; there would have been no leftover energy for planning something like this. Restaurant work is not lucrative, for the most part; our money would have increased a bit, our time would have decreased a lot, and our bandwidth would have dropped to something less than zero.

So: it is possible to ditch everything and go sailing if you have a ton of money, and can pay for comfort and convenience, having the work done for you. It is possible to ditch everything and go sailing if you have the time to save every cent possible and do the work yourself. But it is probably not possible to ditch everything and go sailing without that precious bandwidth to plan and dream and act, and we are incredibly lucky to be able to make the cruising life work for us.