Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Locations

As the azure water of Nassau Harbor glistens in the tropical heat, I think of how my friends and colleagues imagined I would be spending my days when I quit my job three months ago to go cruising. “It’s going to be all Mai Tais and Jimmy Buffett,” a co-worker said without a hint of irony or sarcasm.

Noi and Scott after clearing immigration and customs at West End, Grand Bahama Island.

Noi and Scott after clearing immigration and customs at West End, Grand Bahama Island.


Of course, I knew the challenges (and rewards) from my years of sailing. Even so, if only they could see me now—feet wedged in past the rudder post, steering cables poking into my back, engine soot and grime to the elbows. My next thought: how the hell am I going to reach that motor mount, let alone get a wrench on it?! It’s a dirty (and greasy) little secret that cruising is fixing your boat in exotic locations.

Sure, my wife Noi and I have had our magical moments, but we’ve also had our share of breakdowns and bad luck. And those “issues” have necessitated some pretty fundamental changes to our plans. After a pleasant several days sailing leisurely from Severna Park down the Chesapeake—what I thought was our shakedown cruise in which nothing major broke—things started going awry on the Intracoastal Waterway between Norfolk and Morehead, N.C.

The first occurred in one of the worst possible places: the middle of the 20 mile-long, razor thin Alligator-Pungo Canal. Going at nearly full throttle to reach an anchorage on the opposite side before dusk, the alternator suddenly vibrated off its bracket, causing a heart-stopping clatter followed almost immediately by an overheating engine. After a failed attempt to maneuver over to a private dock, we ran aground. Since there was no cell phone service on the canal, we tried reaching TowBoatU.S. on Channel 16. No response. It seemed odd to use it in the middle of North Carolina, but our sat phone finally saved the day!


Scott emerging from the port lazarette after realigning engine prop shaft.

What followed was a week in Belhaven for repairs. The proximate cause of our situation was easy enough to fix (or so I thought), but it turned out not to be the only problem. Although I’d had the heat exchanger serviced only a few years before, it also needed to be cleaned and rodded. That was the first of many breakages.

Entering Morehead, the hose on the reinstalled heat exchanger popped off, filling the bilge with seawater. In my desperate attempt to replace it while Noi stayed on the helm in an impossibly narrow channel, I managed a pretty bad burn on my arm. Later, a “water ingress” problem that we could not identify (and which turned out to be as simple as an open hawse pipe and a pinched bilge pump hose) caused us to turn back after crossing the Gulf Stream on our way to the Eastern Caribbean.

As a result, we are now on Plan B, the “Thorny Path” through the Bahamas. Less dramatic: a fickle chart plotter, lifelines determined to come loose, ripped reef points, broken mic cables, and a fried charge controller. And my project du jour: realigning the engine shaft. [caption id="attachment_93883" align="alignright" width="350"]

Tropical beach near Nassau on New Providence, Bahamas.

Tropical beach near Nassau on New Providence, Bahamas.

Inadequate preparation? Bad luck? Surely both. But, it’s uncanny the number of cruisers we’ve met along the way who’ve had in many cases exactly the same issues. Add failed electronics of every description, broken water makers, electric windlasses, shaft glands, and deck hardware. The “budget” cruisers, such as ourselves, perhaps bear the brunt, but the folks with more resources are certainly not immune. The biggest difference seems to be how we approach the fix. The wealthier cruisers wait on the mechanic or the electrician. The rest of us roll up our sleeves.

What have I learned from all this? Even if you’ve got the cash to get someone else to do the (inevitable) repairs, mechanics and boat electricians aren’t cheap, especially in remote areas. And sometimes they just don’t exist. You need to be familiar with all of your boat’s systems, at least enough to do an emergency repair that will get you to the next port.

The second lesson is that any high-tech system that’s vital to the boat’s safe operation should have a lower-tech backup. Old-school paper charts are a must. We have and use the binoculars, less frequently, the hand-bearing compass and a lead line. Yes, the electronics age—and particularly the advent of the GPS—is almost certainly what’s transformed cruising from a few rusty salts into a global phenomenon.

Knowing where you are with the kind of precision possible with satellite triangulation is a game-changer. But salt water and carefully corralled electrons don’t always coexist peacefully. All our troubles aside, we are enjoying the adventure. But self-sufficiency is our watchword!

by Scott Neumann