by Erik Dolson

“Fixing” is fun for me. That’s a good thing because I’m living on a boat. But it can be a strength or a weakness, especially when it’s hard to let go and do something else. A little ADHD.

Okay, a lot of ADHD. But I compensate.

On sailboat “Foxy,” we burned through the water pump belt the first time we had the boat out. We limped back to port by running the engine for a few minutes until it was too warm, then shut it down to cool off. The trip took a while.

In Desolation Sound last summer, another belt failed and spewed shredded belt and dust throughout the engine room, to the point where it clogged the turbocharger and we limped home over the next 40 hours, breathing unburned diesel fuel and arriving 23 hours after Irish and I pumped shit out of the bilge at 3:00 a.m.

Wow, boating sure is fun.

I woke up at 5 a.m this morning, trying to sort out and write down a scramble of thoughts, solving puzzles about “fixing” things, reviewing my to-do list.

Irish is still sleeping, or rather, she’s fallen back to sleep after she woke when I climbed out of bed. She’s not slept much over the last few nights.

The boat had a history of chewing up alternator belts, the previous owner told me and it’s in the log. He had two large vents cut into each side of the engine room and a fan installed to pump out the dust and heat. That may have helped, but it was not a solution when the boat came to me.

Two large, 165-amp alternators sat out on the sides of the main engine, each driven by it’s own “V” belt (another 270 amps come from a “genset,” with a separate engine, and 30 amps or so from a small alternator charging the start battery). The main alternators fed two battery banks of 1,000 amp hours total (and that weigh about 1,000 pounds, 500 pounds each) that power everything: auto pilot, lights, radar, and the valves that turn propane on and off so we can cook, safely.

Our 600 amps of generating power could power a small village in Fiji, but making that much electricity is more subtle than just strapping on a few really big alternators connected to some really big wires.

Ron, a marine systems specialist who is also becoming a friend (we spend a fair amount of time together; Irish gave him his own coffee cup) discovered that the brackets holding the alternators were bent out of alignment from years of tightening, or perhaps were never in alignment to begin with. But even more important, half-inch “V” belts are not adequate to pull 165-amp alternators at full load. Between those two shortcomings, belt failure was inevitable.

Irish just said her soft “Hi” from the stateroom 15 minutes ago, and started to cough. She’s been coughing since she caught the flu on February 1, two and a half months ago.

I found a company in Canada, Electromaax, that makes a kit to change a “V” belt system to a grooved flat belt, or serpentine belt, system. With one alternator rated at 215 amps. Not that expensive, either, especially when put up against the 40-hour slog last summer from Campbell River, Canada to Anacortes, Washington without a turbo, and the planned three-month trip this summer to Alaska.

It took a little longer to install than Ron estimated it would take, even after I had pulled all the old pieces off the engine before he arrived. It took much longer than the “bolt on and go” literature from Electromaax estimated, too, but our system was a little more complicated than most.

Some of that time was spent on fine tuning past what the specifications called for, but that’s one of the things I really appreciate about Ron. He can’t do a half-assed job, not even three-quarters. He takes personal responsibility for everything, and he wants it right.

We fired up the engine and I swear, you could tell instantly that the equipment was much happier. Smoother. After an hour of run time, the belt was barely warm. The alternator wasn’t hot either, but that’s also because the load was low.

So now, the shaft seal is replaced — the one that sprayed salt water on the regulator for the generator and destroyed it. The regulator has been replaced and relocated. The leaking rudder shaft is repacked. There’s nothing quite like seeing water come into the boat miles from port to grab your attention.

There’s a new jib on the forestay. Battery charging is fixed, finally. I’ve re-plumbed the fresh water system, and Ron replaced the black water or sewage system, and he drilled and repaired the boom vang. The anchor has been checked and the windlass seems fine, except for a small oil leak. We’ll work on that. We added steps to the mast, and I’ve redone the mast climbing system. Irish hauled me two-thirds of the way to the top.

There’s something rewarding in bringing this boat back to where she deserves to be. It’s a lot like creating a race car out of a 1969 hulk, or rebuilding a run-down commercial building, fixing and improving and designing to find the sweet balance where pieces contribute to a whole that’s greater than the sum of parts.

I  love that feeling. I guess I’m just a fixer, by nature.

My God, I wish I could do the same for Irish. But instead, I watch her struggle with Parkinson’s and fatigue and fear and pain and I can’t fix a damn thing. To see her exhausted or hurting makes me crazy, and it’s even worse when she tries to smile and lies to me, and says she’s just fine.

Still, she’s doing this, despite the uncertainty, fatigue and the fear of dying paralyzed in cold water. I am in awe of her courage.

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