No matter how carefully you survey all the various systems on an experienced (older) boat, you are probably going to have to put time and money into extended upkeep and maintenance if you want to keep the boat updated, healthy and running. Add full time cruising (with kids) to that mix and you will very possibly find yourself having to do the extended maintenance + major repairs, sometimes when you are least prepared and not in a great financial position to do repairs. Some folks lean into these repairs and get them done, knowing the costs and weighing the time out of a cruising season. Some folks get repairs done soonest and some wait till they are in the right place and season to do repairs safely. Then there’s folks who delay or ignore repairs. If you cruise enough, you’ll start to notice the broken or abandoned boats in major cruising grounds.
I think delaying or ignoring major repairs could lead to cascade failure that we may not be able to handle, especially with my limited mechanical knowledge. So, we try to do major repairs before they go from urgent to emergent and welcome professional + experienced opinions to add to our own experience….but we always put it on ourselves to make final repair decisions.
Major Repairs (So Far):
2019: In 2019 we dropped a bearing under the 6th cylinder while still in California (US) so we embarked on a four month endurance exercise in which the engine was removed from the boat, waited on parts and fixing and put the engine back in the boat. The engine went back in the boat just four days before we left for Baha Ha-Ha 2019. And we were trusting enough that when the company told us they could not give us an overall written estimate of the work or tell us how long it would take to finish, but we believed it when they told us it would be four weeks to finish….in August. By the end of October, we finally had an engine back in the boat. This was a major repair as well as a brace of harsh lessons we will never forget. We hope our posts on these issues help others to avoid some of what we experienced.
2020: In early 2020 (pre-pandemic) I asked a trusted cruising veteran to come take a look at our standing rigging because he’s done multiple rigging inspections and has a conservative reputation in dealing with rigging issues. Ten minutes into the inspection was all it took to figure out that our existing standing rigging was trashed (he didn’t even go up the mast….a jewelers loop can show wire flaws clearly). Closer inspection of our veteran (probably original) chainplates also showed that we had some hidden issues with them as well…we had rust leaking down the inside hull of the boat, as the chainplates were fiberglass sandwiched into the inside of the hull (and could not be inspected). So we knew we needed new standing rigging and started thinking through the chainplates….when Covid hit. We did our best to keep away from Covid and stay off the grid the summer of 2020 (in the Baja), before heading into La Paz, Mexico to get the boat hauled, our standing rigging redone and new chainplates made for the boat. We took a recommendation for a Mexican Rigger from our experienced friends (Sailing Totem) and a recommendation for a custom welder from Mr. Rich Boren (La Paz Cruising Supply). These were really good recommendations, because after haulout and bottom paint there in La Paz, we settled in at a marina to get the hard work done by these experts. I don’t think I could have asked for a better job as we’re still really happy with the work and I would recommend both companies to this day. But this was another year of major repairs. Here’s our stories about those trying times….repairs that had to be done to upgrade, modernize and keep our boat safe:
2021: Spring and Summer of 2021 found us back in the Sea of Cortez (Baja) as the pandemic raged on and many countries were just hard to get through on a cruising sailboat. We planned on hunkering down in the Sea of Cortez to check out places we had missed the summer before and hide from hurricanes while we checked out the clear water and warm weather. This wasn’t to be, as we started to have a myriad of engine symptoms that our mechanic could not diagnose but Nigel Caulder’s book did diagnose…if only we had been clear headed enough to insist the mechanic check those signs first. Three months later, we were still getting work done as he danced around the actual problem. Finally in September he did one final test and it was abundantly clear that we did indeed have a major backpressure problem caused by our very large and industrial engine exhaust system. When the entire exhaust system came out, it became abundantly clear we needed to have a new system fabricated and reinstalled. But we were in Puerto Escondido, Baja, Mexico so our choices were limited. Our mechanic and his welder took the next four weeks to fabricate and install a new exhaust system. But it worked like a charm and the engine seemed to be extra happy; all previous symptoms of back pressure gone. In the actual summer of 2021, I didn’t write much about these engine challenges because we had put the boat up for sale, but took her off the market in late summer after figuring out how RAD and well equipped our boat actually was. So another summer, another major repair.
2022: In one of the latest posts by the HelmsMistess (which I put my comments on), I alluded to the fact that our trip from Costa Rica to the Canal Zone in Panama had some challenges. It did. We faced some challenging weather and sea conditions and the boat decided to thrown a test at us…just to see if we were paying attention. During a blustery off wind, larger swell passage under motor, I was checking the engine when I noticed movement under the engine. [Tulum has a V-Drive, so our shaft goes under the engine through bearings to the flexible seal inside the stuffing box. Basically, how the shaft from the our V-Drive connects the shaft to the propellor outside the boat without water getting into our boat.]
To my horror, I found the shaft moving 4-6 inches side to side INSIDE the flexible stuffing box, just waiting to rip through the rubber seal and come apart. This would have immediately taken the drama from urgent to emergent. So we slowed RPM’s and eventually got onto anchor. At this point, the use of our Iridium-Go email and text options became critical, as we were in remote islands in northern Panama where there was no cell, but we knew we needed a mechanic or we might not make it around Punta Mala to the first marina in Panama. So using email and text on the Iridium-Go, we found a reputable mechanic (Wikus and Ollie with Wikus Marine) from Vista Mar Marina who was willing to travel if we could meet him in Boca Chica (Panama). Three days later we limped into Boca Chica and he found us late one afternoon to work on the shaft. We thought we were going to have to lift the engine while at anchor in the river basin harbor of Boca Chica, but Wikus surprised us by being able to get himself under the engine and work upside down to tighten the bolts holding the shaft bearings.
This was the work we needed to be able to safely get around Punta Mala to Vista Mar Marina two weeks later; we had to go pretty slowly because of weather and no high RPM’s.
Once in Vista Mar, Wikus went under the engine again, but this time he couldn’t really tighten the bolts, as the reinforced fiberglassed crossbeams (probably original) under the engine (that the bearings are attached to) were turning to mush….and the bolts holding the bearings were literally pulling through the crossbeams. So we knew then that we needed to haul the boat out, move the engine and repair the crossbeams. But Vista Mar could not haul Tulum out. In fact, there’s no yard on the west coast of Panama that could haul Tulum out (that I know of)….so we knew we needed two more runs to get Tulum somewhere safe where we could haul out. These runs were from Vista Mar Marina to Panama City, then through the Panama Canal to Shelter Bay Marina.
Once in Shelter Bay Marina, we hauled Tulum out of the water to get repairs done on the bearings and a new bottom job done on her. Of course, being who I am, we have numerous concurrent projects going on at the same time…further complicating normal life on the boat with a large breed dog and kids.
- Engine Removal into our main salon so we could get to the shaft and bearings. Shaft broken apart and trued, bearings cut out of the boat and new fiberglassing done. New fiberglass supports custom made for the boat. Packing gland removed, inspected and repacked.
- Engine repairs done while it’s out of the engine compartment- new head gasket, new oil pan gasket, fuel injectors removed and tested….ect ect.
- Bilge cleaned and repainted after fiberglass is done and before engine goes back in.
- Fresh Water Leak detection done because it rains ALL the time here. Great testing was done and we found the leak source, fixed.
- Toe Rails stripped and prepped for light sanding, eventual varnish.
- New zincs put on the hull and prop while she was out of the water.
Here’s one of the stories I wrote already about one of my concurrent projects, strippin wood: Strip It To Get The Best Protection For Your Wood
So yeah, we have a lot of work going on at the same time. To me, this is normal maintenance that a boat should go through every couple of years, especially if you’re cruising a boat hard and plan to be far away from marinas where the boat needs to be in good shape.
Lessons we learned from these major repairs (most are our own fault, but you can learn from us):
- 2019: It’s OK and normal to ask for a complete project quote. When we could not get one, we should have considered walking away.
- 2019: It’s OK to ask for a project schedule. Here in Panama for our current major repairs, we were able to get a very professional project quote and schedule.
- 2019: Verbal promises are often BS. If folks are serious about what they will do for you, they will put it in writing. We learned this the hard way when we were told a 4-week timeline, only to learn later that part of the delay was the company moved warehouses and put our engine repair on the back burner.
- 2020: In Mexico and Central America, international wire transfers are expected means of payments in some cases. Credit Card fees are often so high that smaller companies may not accept credit cards or have the banking services to process payment.
- 2020: We were skeptical about great rigging and metal work out of the US. This was our own second guessing…as the work was excellent.
- 2021: Trust the experts and your own damn gut. If we had pushed harder to have the exhaust checked first we would have saved lots of time and money.
- 2022: When moving an entire engine, think carefully about where it’s going to sit. Once it’s down, it’s not moving till it goes back in the engine room. Duh!!
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*LF2SF received a very gracious sponsorship from FlopStopper.com several years ago and we’ve been loving our flopstopper since then. This gear is expensive but became essential for us along the coast of Costa Rica and northern Panama, especially when we didn’t want to fuss with stern anchoring.
* We do not have sponsorships from any other company mentioned in this story.