Starting the Boat with a Paperclip – Neutral Switch Woes


imageAbout a month after buying Rubigale, and with a boat full of crew, we were ready to leave the fuel dock after a day of sailing. After pumping out I went to start the engine, turned the key, and nothing. Not even a click. I knew nothing about engines-zero, zip. I could find the alternator and the dipstick. My knowledge of cars surpassed that of boats only because I knew where to put in windsheild wiper fluid.   I didn’t know how I was going to get back to my slip and had a half dozen people that needed to go home. My boat mentor J had his own boat full of crew and couldn’t help at the moment. Fortunately, T lives aboard a few docks away, and after I fished out a mystery set of wires with clips that I had found in the bowels of weird boat storage (had this happened before?), he jumpstarted the boat by connecting the battery to the start switch. Success!

I thought the crew would disappear as soon as we were back to the slip, but J and T started troubleshooting the starter and half of the people stayed, rapt with the process. I didn’t understand much of what I was hearing, but I was mesmerized by the problem solving. I photographed where to connect the wife to the starter just in case. Final diagnosis, probably a bad starter switch because there were loose connections and a little corrosion. J showed up with a new starter the next day and showed me how to put it in. It was much easier than I had expected and I photographed that as well. As a bonus, he connected a new engine hour meter to the  switch so I could keep track of hours since the previous meter had died at just under 4000 hours at some unknown point in the past. Everything seemed to work great and I put it away in my mind as a solved issue.

Shiny New Starter

Engine Hour Meter

Engine Hour Meter

A few months later I took Chilly and her friend on a day sail to Kingston to have lunch at one of our favorite pubs. When we returned to the boat, I turned the key, and again, nothing. Fortunately for them the marina was next to a ferry dock so I sent them on their way home. Fortunately for me, J hopped the same ferry in the opposite direction to find out what was wrong with the starter switch he just installed.  I tried not to think about the fact that I was going to be doing my very first solo sail the following morning out of necessity.

We checked the wire (happily labeled starter) from the battery to the starter switch – 12V. There was also current coming out of the starter switch wire which we traced to a bundle that took a dive under the sole and was lost to view. Next we went to the starter solenoid and again found the white wire which here had zero voltage. The wire which powered the solenoid had 12v. What I learned was that meant something was between the starter and the solenoid that was bad, but there was a lot of mystery territory in between.

Tracing that particular white wire was a bit more difficult because it disapppeared into a Chinese fingertrap holding a bundle of wires together. J thought perhaps there was a bad fuse or a loose connection. After an hour and a half of carefully slicing the webbing, and avoiding the wires, we hadn’t gotten very far.

Bundled Wires

Bundled Wires

Frustrated and tired, we took a break, and by a stroke of luck saw another white wire lower on the aft portion of the engine. Actually, there were two white wires terminating on separate screws. Based on the multimeter readings, one had current, one didn’t. Fortunately, J recognized this was a neutral switch, and suspected it was going bad. I had chartered at least two dozen charter boats but had never encountered a neutral switch. The current was getting to the neutral switch, but it wasn’t getting from the neutral switch to the solenoid, so the starter thought the boat wasn’t in neutral. J bridged the two screws with a screwdriver and Shazam! with a spark, she started!

Faulty Neutral Switch

Faulty Neutral Switch

There were plans to bypass this, but the problem didn’t recur so other projects took precedence. Didn’t recur that is, until a year later, just minutes before the start of the Leukemia Cup Regatta. We had done really well fundraising, had a blast decorating ourselves and the boat, and were sipping champagne from pink flamingo straws while preparing for a no-wind beer can race. I turned the key, and yet again, nothing, and my heart sank. Why did this always happen away from my dock? I jiggled the gear lever, nothing. I jiggled the wires at the neutral switch, nothing. I phoned J-these 5 ladies in grass skirts (one his wife) and flowers in their hair needed to get out there on the course ASAP and celebrate our hard won victory.

I went through what I tried already with J, and he told me to find something to bridge the two screws. I found a paperclip and put it on the two screws while Chilly turned the key. There was something about having my face next to a 50HP Perkins when it roars to life while holding a sparking paperclip in my hand that made me scream like a little girl. I yelled over the engine noise and cheers to L, “I LOVE your husband!” With a big smile she yelled back, “me too!” J was laughing over the speaker phone. We were off the dock in a hot second, and although DFL as usual, we had a great time being “spirited” and tossing candy packets that L had made with a tag saying “Kick Leukemia’s Ass! Team Rubigale”.

As usual, I procrastinated  again because the problem stopped happening. Then two months later, and also away from home it happened again. Remembering the big spark led me to be a little timid with the paperclip so I decided to tape it onto the end of the wooden dowel I found nearby, the other end of which held a pirate flag. My hastily created invention lent me more bravery and the engine started as soon as M turned the key.

Quick Fix Switch Bypass

Quick Fix Switch Bypass

My habit for procrastination had to stop here because I was leaving for an extended trip alone to Canada the following weekend.  Based on J’s instructions I moved both wire terminals to one screw and of course dropped the other into the bilge. Fortunately I had forseen this problem and placed a cloth underneath the area I was working on so the screw was easily retrieved. I was feeling quite proud of myself for this tiny little project, until I turned the key and heard a thunk and then silence.  I put the wire terminals back onto their original screws but the engine still would not start.

First Attempt to Bypass

First Attempt to Bypass

J came by the following day with Waterproof Heat Shrink Butt Connectors and made the two wires into one. No big surprise, but the engine started with the first turn of the key. A quick online search of neutral switches on boats leads to a large number of results of “why won’t my boat start?”.  Apparently this is a rather common problem and one I really hope I’m finished with. I learned a good deal about my engine as well as a little on troubleshooting wiring. I am very grateful to have patient friends helping me with the process along the way.

The Hopefully Permanent Fix

THe Hopefully Permanent Fix

After the Flood Part II

Plumber's Little Helper

A few weeks ago I had to do a little emergency plumbing when an old hose came off of a T-piece and my water pump emptied my tanks into the bilge.  http://www.tinysails.com/rubigale-antediluvian/ I still heard the water pump come on occasionally, although it was less frequent.  Dreading what I might find, I stuck my head into the hatch by the hot water heater once again and shone a flashlight into 2 or 3 inches of water that had collected again.  The hose I had re-connected was still connected, but there hadn’t been enough slack in the hose for me to trim a fresh end last time. Once they’ve been in place for awhile, they don’t always like to conform to a new shape, so that could still be my leak. However, another branch of that T-piece was showing a few barbs suggesting that hose was about to come off and I suspected the hose clamp was more of a fashion accessory than a compression device at this point. It was time to move on to the next step of this project.

Please note that I am not a plumber, just a newish boat owner learning things as I go.

Barbs on T-Piece Showing

Barbs on T-Piece Showing

I took a trip to the marine store and came home with 15′ each of 1/2″ clear polyester reinforced PVC tubing for the cold water side and rubber heavy-duty water hose good for temperatures of up to 190 degrees F for the hot side, new 1/2″ T-pieces, and stainless steel hose clamps. The same access problems still existed from the last temporary repair and that needed to be addressed as well.

Shiny New T's and Clamps

Shiny New T’s and Clamps

Again I stripped the contents and shelves from under the galley sink, and again I pushed my settee cushions out of the companionway door into the cockpit, pulled up the settee hatch and unbolted the hot water heater from the hatch that sat beneath it.

Finished Helping

Finished Helping

Since the lines were fed through holes that had been cut in the wall between the settee and the galley, I started by detaching the cold water line from the galley sink.  I moved it back and forth to identify it from the other side, then pushed it through the hole to make room for the new hose.  Once that was done and I was able to reach it from the hatch I gave myself ample length and attached it to a new T piece.

So Pretty!

So Nice and Clean!

I then connected a new cold water hose to the hot water heater and attached it to the same T-piece so I could now reach the connection just by grabbing the hose on the heater.  The same process was repeated on the hot water side of things, leaving plenty of extra hose for future changes or rearrangements. I left the old brass T-piece in place.  The photo shows the old hoses (yellow and red) and the new (white and black).

Brass T-Piece for Hot Water Connections

Brass T-Piece for Hot Water Connections

New hose with extra length and easy to reach

New hose with extra length and easy to reach

Next I trimmed the ends of the hose coming from the water tanks and replaced the T-piece that connected that to the strainer.  New hose also went from the strainer to the pump.  I was about to replace the hose from the pump to the accumulator, and when I tried removing the old hose, the outlet arm of the accumulator came off instead! I was glad to have found that now rather later when it started to leak.  I checked the specs on the Sureflo water pump I recently installed and it stated no accumulator was needed – so in the trash it went.  Note from the photos the state of the old hoses.

This is what happened when I tried to replace the hoses on the accumulator. The plastic tore as easily as a trash bag and was likely going to be my next problem.

Not a healthy accumulator

Last but not least, I cut the hatch board that the hot water heater partially covered so that a portion was alway free to be moved without unbolting the heater.

New Hatch Opening

New Hatch Opening

After all that was completed I made a diagram of what had been replaced for future reference when I get ready to replace the hoses that lead to the head sink and shower.  There will be a new set of access problems and even smaller spaces to work in, so I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m very happy to have this part done.  When I finished, I had to pump out the bilge under the galley again, and I’m estimating there were probably 10 gallons or more based on the time it took the pump to empty it.

Diagram for Maintenance Log

Diagram for Maintenance Log

Emptying the Water Tanks into the Boat

It was a curious thing when I came home to find my water pump running, but no water coming out of the faucets. I thought the water tanks must be empty, but the flow was good before I left a few hours earlier.  There’s usually a tell tale sputtering as they are about to run dry. It was late and I was tired, so I turned off the water pump and went to bed.

The next morning I filled the two 50 gallon tanks and turned the pump back on.  No water came out of the faucet, but it was coming out somewhere because I could hear it, and the bilge pump started. I had to start work in 10 minutes.

Unreachable Problem

I decided to check the water pump first since it was the most recent change, and my first pump installation. To get to the pump I have to take off the salon table (where I work) and then the whole heavy floor piece.  Everything was bone dry.  Hose connections to and from pump were good as well as the T going fore and aft.  I turned the pump back on…no water I could see, other than some draining into the bilge farther aft.  AFT is a really hard place to access because it is all under the galley. It was time to start work, so I turned off the pump and waited until my lunch hour.

The second the clock was at 1pm I was stripping all the shelves out from under the galley sink.  Tinfoil, boat rags, cleaning products, and boxes of ziplock piled up on the nav table.  My flashlight was dying so I used my phone and could see a light blue T piece missing a hose several feet from me, and several inches under water.  There was no possibility of reaching this from the galley cabinet.

IMG_4366

Not The Best Access

My next option was to go in under the settee. Oh, and moving a 5 gallon hot water heater (HWH). I had 45 minutes left. I detached the screws holding the HWH to the floor of that compartment (stewing over why they bolted this over two access ports to a half dozen water hoses) and lifted it with one hand while I got one panel up from under it.  Otherwise, I would have had to disconnect four very stuck hoses that looked like they were heat shrunk into place.  As I pulled up the access board, I found the fresh water feed to the HWH dangling down into the dark wet cavern with the hose clamp still on.  Further inspection showed that this was what was disconnected from the T piece, which I could now see better, but still couldn’t reach it. I also got a better view of how much water was standing in this section of the boat, apparently blocked off by the engine stringers. Thirty minutes. I cleaned and inspected the hose clamp – I couldn’t seem to find another at the moment.  It was grimy, but intact.

Hose To Nowhere

Hose To Nowhere

I ended up lying on top of the HWH and hanging from the waist upside down into the bilge, just far enough to grasp the T piece. Unfortunately, it really had no mobility to bring it up to an easier working position (why wasn’t there more hose??!!).  I put a folded towel on the edge of the HWH and inched farther forward, now hanging from my hips, to get the hose on and clamped. I sat up and caught my breath that I was apparently holding.  10 minutes.

There remained quite a bit of water that wasn’t going into the bilge. I rushed to the dock box and dug out the borrowed pump that’s for changing the oil, and pumped out 10 gallons of water. I have no idea how many gallons the bilge pump threw overboard beforehand.

Water Heater Intake

Water Heater Intake

Sweating and panting, I went back to work after I got the table back up, and started putting my home back together during breaks.  One hour, 15 minutes.  The following morning I realized I’d left my drill down by the HWH and had to pull up some cushions and hatches again. I also found two screws in my jacket and don’t know where they came from. Oy!  I went to the chiropractor and iced my back, but otherwise I felt pretty good about my troubleshooting and learning more about my plumbing. I had always avoided plumbing in the past – but it wasn’t an option this time.

The next week I had an engine inspection, and with the cabinet pulled apart I could still see a good deal of water still there, so either I didn’t get it all the first time, or there is still a leak. I believe it’s the latter as the water pump goes on for a half second here and there, so there is more work to be done in this area. I pumped out a few more gallons and put things back together.

My current plan is to have someone help me move the HWH to the port side, allowing better access to all of those hoses that go to and from the HWH and to the galley sink. I would like to replace all the hoses (with some slack!), T pieces and clamps and start fresh. I suppose that will morph into changing the water hoses to the head as well, but I’d rather not think about that just now – at least it will be more accessible.

 

Hole In The Boat, V. 2.0. Port Light Rebedding

“I’m so happy to have found a leak on my boat!” she says with a big smile. The expressions on others’ faces are astounded, confused, or horrified.

“OK, how about I finally LOCATED a leak on my boat!” The response is definitely more congratulatory, occasionally tinged with a little sadness or jealousy.  Rubigale’s starboard side has been plagued with leaks since I bought her in the summer of 2014.

Once the torrential downpours of the Seattle fall appeared, drips ran down the overhang in the salon and puddled on the shelf. One of the three screws that holds in my barometer would cry every time it rained. I started finding things in the starboard aft berth wet, requiring everything to live in a plastic bin.

I thought I had it solved when I replaced one of the larger windows in the salon after I spotted dampness at the corner, and although the leaking seemed to have lessened, it was definitely still there. I tried caulking the toe rail and honestly most anything that looked caulk-able. I had the rigging tuned, and the shroud plates were rebedded in the process.

Still, the insides of cabinets mildewed and were regularly vinegared and bleached. Every time it rained, a pile of boat rags came out to soak the puddles, and on a particularly hard pour, a few pots came out as well. The bilge pump would come on. The dehumidifier got a workout. The headliner remained mysteriously dry.

There was old water staining around the aft-most starboard port light, but all six of them were brand new when I purchased the boat and I assumed that the new ones were the fix for that problem. I began to blame the jib track and the bow hardware, and started to wrap my mind around how to do all of these things, or what it would cost to hire someone to do it.

Everyone knows it rains a lot in Seattle, but it is typically a persistent mist rather than the torrential downpours I remember in Mississippi. Recently, Seattle experienced one of those deluges and I caught the leak from the port light red-handed! I had already rebedded one window, and this was so much smaller and seemed easier. You can probably see where this is going.

Preparing to Wrestle This Port Light Out

Preparing to Wrestle

This Came off Much Too Easily

This Came off Much Too Easily

Since it was a different type of window, I watched a YouTube video on the process and felt I was ready to go. I unscrewed the inner portion of the port light with it’s spigot and removed it easily. I had expected it to be much more difficult because some veneer is torn away from a couple of the ones in the V-berth, suggesting it was going to be a bear. With the larger window, there had been screws attaching the inside frame to the outside frame to create compression for the sealant. None of that was here. The inside was screwed to the wood and the spigot extended to the outside of the fiberglass where a trim piece was simply adhered with some sort of sealant which was pressed into the gap. The trim piece was also easily (too easily) removed and staining on the underside and on the fiberglass showed where the leak was happening.

Staining Where Water Intrusion Was Occurring

Staining Where Water Intrusion Was Occurring

Area Where the Leak Was Damaging the Wood

Area Where the Leak Was Damaging the Wood

I’m fortunate to have solid fiberglass, so there was no soggy core. There is a small gap between the fiberglass and the wood walls which was where most of the water had been going. The side of the wood facing the fiberglass was soggy and spongy in the area of the leak. The uncharacteristic 90 degree weather helped it dry out over a day with the assistance of a fan. Meanwhile, I started looking for answers. Why didn’t the screws connect the inside to the outside? How could you achieve a seal without the compression?

It was time to phone a friend. John, who had helped me replace the larger window, came over and looked at it, and agreed that it just didn’t seem correct. We made a field trip to the marine store and described the problem and brought the port light. After tossing around some ideas, a solution was proffered to cut a larger hole in the wood so that the inside section of the window would be directly against the fiberglass! To say I was skeptical, and a little bit horrified was an understatement. I said I’d think about it and picked up the type of sealant that was recommended for plastic.

Through-bolting the Port Light

Through-bolting the Port Light

Sealant Used

Sealant Used

It was time for a glass of wine and more research. It’s amazing what you can discover when you read the instructions. There were very clear directions (with pictures) on how to through bolt the window for a solid wall as well as a multi-layered wall like mine. There is 1/4” of fiberglass, 1/4” of space, then 1/4” of veneered plywood on the inside.

The solution was to fill the gap as much as possible with closed cell spray foam to provide some structure for the gap under compression. I dreaded this part because I have had a few experiences with this stuff in old houses that were pretty messy. I made a part list of screws, barrel nuts, mineral spirits and the foam and went shopping.

Closed Cell Foam

Closed Cell Foam

Closed Cell Foam in the Gap

Closed Cell Foam in the Gap

The following day the wood seemed dry and I filled the gap with the spray foam. Every time I revisited the opening, more foam had expanded out and had to be cut away, but by the next morning it seemed pretty solid and ready to go. The wood felt dry. Now it was time to drill holes in my boat which scares the living daylights out of me, so I again phoned a friend.

 

Using the Trim Piece as a Template for the Fiberglass

Trim Piece as Template

That Side Whole was a PAIN

That Side Hole was a PAIN

Following the recommendations on the company website, we drilled holes through the trim piece and the fiberglass to match those in the wood where the spigot was attached. Due to the placement of one of the shrouds, lining up one of the holes was next to impossible which was remedied by making a slightly bigger hole (giving me slightly more anxiety). The edges of the holes and the main opening were chamfered so they could accommodate more sealant. The product recommended to stick to both plastic and fiberglass was Sudbury Elastomeric Marine Sealant.

Installation Complete!

Installation Complete!

Once the fiberglass dust was cleaned up and a dry fit done, it was a fairly simple job with two people to get it sealed and the bolts threaded into the barrel head nuts on the inside. I used plenty of sealant, resigning myself to a big clean up, but erring on the side of too much.

I’m very happy to report that after a couple of pretty hard rains, the window, the barometer and the shelf remain dry! There’s still the leak somewhere behind the oven, and I still have 5 more port lights to rebed, but for now, Rubi is drier than she has been in the last two years.