A sailboat is a collection of systems, some systems make the boat go, others make life a little more comfortable on board, and still others allow us to live independent of utilities that make our home more than just a roof over our heads.
In the time that we have cruised on board one of our four sailboats together over the last nine years, I have learned a great deal about many parts of these systems. With the dual goals of conserving our cruising funds and also being more independent we have both sought out the knowledge and experience to maintain and repair the systems onboard. It serves to minimize the expense of bringing in technicians to do the work for us. Unless one has deep pockets, you have to work on boat systems yourself to the fullest extent possible
That is certainly not to say that neither Carrie nor I are experts on any one of these systems. The sheer weight of the things I still don’t know about the systems on this boat could probably sink it. But I have learned many things, and more times than not when I have undertaken a repair or installation, I’ve found that it really isn’t rocket science, and that I am fully capable as long as the right tools and a little experience are at hand.
Recently I became much more familiar with the outboard motor that powers Brilliant’s dinghy. It had been running rather sluggishly so far, but it worked. However when we pulled in to our most recent anchorage and lowered the boat into the water to go ashore, it wouldn’t start, despite my best pulling efforts and more than a few unkindly words. It’s pretty difficult to get to shore from an anchorage without a dinghy, and if yours doesn’t work, it’s likely you’ll need to use someone else’s.
I’ve worked on several outboards in nine years, so I’m somewhat familiar with how they operate, yet each model has its own unique characteristics. Common to just about all of them however is a carburetor, and I was pretty sure that this was a good place to look for the problem. The carburetor is where life begins for an outboard. Fuel mixes with air, vapor feeds chamber filled with electric spark and bada-boom, engine comes to life. Pretty simple.
After looking around the engine under the protective cover (my first look at this one), things looked pretty familiar and I could see what it should take to remove it. Then I’d need to disassemble and clean it.
About the time I had the unit out and in my hands, another dinghy with my neighbor driving it wandered by and said hello, and a new friendship began. He and I traded pleasantries and our mutual understanding about outboards suffering from the environment we force them to work in.
Before long he was freely offering his personal experience in working on his own outboard (same brand as mine), offering a diagnosis of the problem given the symptoms I described, and I could tell that he had done this more times than I had. When I opened up one of the compartments of my carburetor, his reaction was immediate. “That diaphragm is shot”, he said, “You’ll need to replace it”. Since I wasn’t aware of what a “shot” diaphragm looked like, I would have just cleaned the compartment up and reinstalled it, so I’m quite thankful that my neighbor happened by. Granted I likely would have come to this same conclusion eventually, but I’m not fond of reinventing the wheel, and getting to the solution in the shortest path possible always leaves more time for fun and friends.
As luck would have it, my neighbor also knew of a nearby parts shop and offered to call and see if the correct repair kit was in stock there. It was and with a ride to the dock and some directions to the nearby shop, it seemed I was on my way towards a likely resolution of my outboard problem.
I returned an hour and a half later with a parts kit, fully willing to replace all of the diaphragms and gaskets in the carburetor to know they were all good. Besides, these little parts aren’t sold individually; they only come as a set. Just as well. By the time I finished replacing all of the parts in my carburetor, the day was pretty much over and we had a dinner date with another cruising couple also in our anchorage. They gladly offered to pick us up and return us to our boat, so I would be able to complete the repair job in the morning.
When morning came and the re-installation was complete, my outboard started (good) but still ran very rough (bad), and would only run for a few seconds at idle (also bad). That’s progress, but it seemed that the repair wasn’t over yet. I had replaced the gaskets but not cleaned out the carburetor jets, and as Carrie and I were discussing this my neighbor drove by on his way to work, and we all agreed that another removal of the carburetor for jet cleaning was in my immediate future.
Working on an outboard motor while in your dinghy tied astern offers some interesting highlights that technicians working in a shop don’t get to enjoy, namely trying to hold your tool still while the dinghy bobs about in the wind and waves, as well as the constant threat of losing a nut or bolt overboard. It would be understandably prudent to haul the motor onboard the boat and spread the repair work out on deck, but where’s the adventure in that?
Yes, I did lose a nut overboard when removing the carburetor for its jet bath, but Carrie came through for me, finding a replacement in our supply of spare nuts before I was even ready to use it. When the unit was reinstalled, our motor started right up and idled nicely. Success!
After cleaning up we dinghied in to shore and ran some errands before lunch, then motored across the waterway to a nearby grocery store in the afternoon. Mobility is a wonderful thing. Help from fellow cruisers is also a great part of our life, and now I’m a little less clueless about keeping the dinghy motor running both consistently and efficiently.
I hereby pledge to pay that kindness forward to some other boater in need down the road. Life on the water is good.