Tag Archives: free advice

2009 Week 14 in Review

We started this week by cleaning the shop really well, since I was headed out of town. I also tied up loose ends on the Arthur Foss and gathered parts for the Maris Pearl.

Tug for sale

The tug Earnest is for sale here in Seattle. It’s a great tug, 91 feet long and built in 1942. It used to have a 600-HP Atlas-Imperial just like the one owned by the Florida Flywheelers. It’s been re-powered with a 1,125 Caterpillar D-399 engine, but it’s still a good boat. Contact me if you or a friend is interested.

Enterprise R-Models for sale

We’ve heard that there’s two 8,000 horsepower Enterprise Model-R diesels for sale in Maryland. They’re part of a genset and that was supposed to power an island, but apparently the deal fell through. We’ve heard that these two were the last off the Enterprise manufacturing line, so we hope someone grabs them. Contact OTM Inc if you’re interested.


I just found out that an old neighbor of mine is a descendant of the guy who invented the Metal Marine Pilot, which was later turned into a Wood Freeman Autopilot. Huh.

Public Trust

We at OTM Inc have recently heard of a tugboat collection getting pushed around by the government.

Steve is a tugboat guy in Waterford, New York. He’s a little reckless, a little eccentric, and very passionate about what he does, which is to collect old tugboats. I can see you rolling your eyes out there, but if the tugboat collection is doing okay and not harming anyone, why bother him?

Well, the New York State Canal Corporation is apparently planning to remove Steve and his vessels from “their” waterways by systematically attacking him with court orders, restraining orders, fines, and the other non-violent weapons available to bureaucracies. The Canal Corporation is a state-owned operation designed to manage the public trust that owns the canal and river systems in New York. According to Steve, they recently changed the state law to say “no living on boats in the canals.” We at OTM Inc have not looked up the law, but find it unlikely that they made it that general; instead, we speculate that they changed the state law to read something like “no living on a barge called Pennsylvania No. 399 within 100 yards of Lock E-2.”

Anyway, Steve continued living on his boat, so the Canal Corporation had him arrested and issued a restraining order to keep him off the boats. Interestingly, the Canal Corporation then assumed care of the boats, until they can safely acquire title to them through the doctrine of adverse possession. I think we all can guess where they’ll end up after the Canal Corporation has title to them.

Steve is planning to strike back by accusing the Canal Corporation of “interfering with the safe operation of a vessel” and “forcefully taking control of a manned vessel.” Both of these are federal offenses and typically taken very seriously.

While researching this article, OTM Inc tried tirelessly to contact an official with the Canal Corporation, but received no response to any of the voicemails or messages left with the secretary. I can only assume that they are uninterested in making a statement at this time.

While I understand the need to put some vessels out of their misery, and that there are some situations in which a boat collector must be saved from himself, setting a bureaucratic precedent like this is disturbing. The idea that the same entity that obtains the restraining order can gain control of the vessel through taking care of it in the owner’s court-ordered absence is pretty scary, and a scenario I don’t want to see played out.

At the same time, there are some boat projects that really are hopeless and should be shut down before they end up costing a lot of taxpayer money to clean up. These projects are the one that linger for decades, with lots of time and energy and love and hope and money all wasted in the end because the project was hopeless from the start.

From my perspective, it comes down to how to define what projects are “hopeless.” Who gets to make the call on that? What’s their training? Who trained them? Are they licensed, and who licensed them?

Even more, are there any objective criteria or scale that this person or persons can use to judge boat projects as a potential success or failure at the beginning? Someday, I will assemble an interdisciplinary panel of experts in a variety of related fields, including psychologists, psychiatrists, economists, curators, drum circle hippies, demographers, maritime attorneys, navel architects, ship captains, surveyors, and boat repair specialists. This team will develop just such a scale to judge boat projects on, so that we can stop wasting years of hope and work only to lose it all to scrappers or government agencies. No old boat project should be judged without such a panel – one that includes both boat people and realists.

Until then, Old Tacoma Marine Inc will offer unbiased mediation services to assist parties with resolving such disputes.

Old Tacoma Marine Inc goes to Mexico

See you next week!

Old Tacoma Marine Inc goes to Mexico

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2009 Week 11 in Review

Work continues on the Maris Pearl

We started this week at Old Tacoma Marine Inc by finishing up the service on the Maris Pearl‘s generators. Jay’s got more work lined up for me next week, though.

Field trip to the Washington State History Research Center

Later in the week, OTM Inc went to Tacoma to sort through the Washington Iron Works company collection at the Washington State History Research Center (remember back in Week 7 that we volunteered to put the collection in order). Diana and I put in two whole days organizing glass plate negatives from 1890 to 1924 or so. We took each negative out of its original paper file folder, found its original number, wrote its unique sequential catalog number on an acid-free paper sleeve, looked up the information in the original company catalog and wrote that on the sleeve, looked at the negative to make sure that the information matched the image, entered the number and the information into the computer, put the negative in the sleeve, and put it in order with the rest. This ensures eternal safe keeping and makes sure that the right information stays with each negative.

Diana as the museologist set up a system and continually streamlined the operation to process as many negatives as possible during our allotted time in Tacoma. She’s done a lot of museum cataloging and set up a whole system of sorted piles so that each negative passed back and forth across the work table three or four times. By the end of the day, we could both tell a skidder engine from a loader engine (which are apparently easier to tell apart than embroidery motifs from Golden Triangle cultures):

sorting glass-plate negatives at the Washington State History Research Center

The most fascinating discoveries were plans and photos of the first Washington-Estep diesel, which went into the tug Elmore. It was beautiful and had interesting parts that I haven’t seen on any other engine, like two injectors set at an angle in each cylinder head. It also had an intermediate head that gave the firing chamber a very round shape, which maximized the fuel combustion. Designer Adrian Estep was clearly a fanatic about efficiency and had the drafting department, the pattern shop, the foundry and the machine shop all at his disposal. It seems to me he intended to build “the perfect engine,” and no one was going to stop him. None of the later Washingtons that I’m familiar with have those two angled injectors or the intermediate head, though, so I wonder what happened. Maybe we’ll find out next time.

Unfortunately, we had to stop just as we were getting to 1924, just before Washington Iron Works started putting out its diesel line. We probably processed about a third of the collection over those two days, but the good stuff will have to wait until next time, which will be when we find funding to continue.

Programs on the Arthur Foss

On Saturday, I helped Northwest Seaport run a session of Tugboat Night on the Arthur Foss. Sadly, we had to cancel the earlier Engineer for a Day program because of low participation, but next time I’ll advertise more to make sure we can run it.

Tugboat Night went really well, though, and I feel like we caught up on a few maintenance items. We serviced the batteries and the air compressor, and did a little cleaning – not to mention exercising all the equipment. We ran both generators and the main engine, and turned the rudder back and forth to work the steering system.

Make sure you come to the next Tugboat Night, on April 11!

Limited-availability Winton parts

I’ve heard rumors that the Circle Line 11 and the Circle Line 15 are slated for demo, and their Winton diesels will likely be scrapped… unless folks from the tug Luna or the lightship Ambrose can use them. I hear through the waterfront telephone that neither organization can find the resources to get the parts. This is the sad truth about owning and old diesel engine: it actually takes a lot of effort (both time and money) to get spare parts even if they are selling at scrap value.

Keeping the past relevant

Historians have an up-hill battle to keep the past relevant to the masses. People and culture are growing at a rate too fast to look back, but looking back to see where we came from is as important as looking forward to see where we’re going.

Looking back is my business. I spend a lot of my time hammering on old engines, but I have to spend an equal amount of time trying to explain why it’s worth keeping the old heavy-duty diesels running. With records broken every day, new ideas shot down by newer ideas, and innovation trumping tradition, it’s easy to ask “why bother?” Why spend a lifetime taking care of a dwindling handful of old junk that society says are worth more as scrap than as artifacts? These are questions that I share with museums and other institutions that are struggling to reach out to six billion people to try to make some kind of difference in the world.

When I was working in Alaska on the Mist Cove, I went with Ted the Chef to the Sitka Historical Society and Museum, which had a native “halibut hook” on display:

a Tlingit halibut hook from the Burke Museum's ethnology collection

I had seen them in tourist shops and museums and never cared, but Ted the Chef pointed to it and said that these hooks are designed to catch the perfect-sized halibut. He said that the Tlingits and Haida traditionally targeted the 30-pounders because they taste better, are easier to manage, and were most likely males. These folks realized that fewer male fish were required to keep a healthy fishery alive, so they let the females grow old and hatch more fish every year.

All through that summer, Ted the Chef and I had constantly tasted and judged fish caught on the Mist Cove. We agreed that a 30-pound halibut tastes better than any other size, even though everyone wants to catch a 300-pound fish and get their picture taken with it. Well, the next week Ted and I made a halibut hook (though I used a nail instead of a piece of bone) and tried it out. It took a few tries, but I did land a nice twelve-pounder and it was delicious.

Now, I do like museums, but my fishing trip with Ted the Chef taught me more about halibut hooks than looking at a hundred hooks in a museum. Using an artifact (or at least a replica) really helps you understand its significance, especially if it’s something as finely and carefully designed as a halibut hook or a heavy-duty diesel. I think that experiences like this are really the best way to interact with historic artifacts, but not everyone can go fishing with Ted or turn over a heavy-duty with me. What can I do, and what can museums do, to reach out to everyone else and share how significant history is?

It takes a personal connection like this to make any kind of artifact relevant and interesting, but there are so many distractions that get in the way of making that attachment. I wish fewer kids and adults were content sitting in their basement playing Grand Theft Auto and more were interested in venturing outside to a museum or an old boat. I’m finding that the internet is a good way to reach some of these people with some of this connection. A video on YouTube, a picture on Flickr, a paragraph on this blog – they all help bring some of the relevance to the “general public” out there living their lives without looking back. Still, it’s hard to make a real connection over the internet, just like it’s hard to make a real connection through a glass display case.

Readers, what are your thoughts? This is a big topic to take on, and this won’t be the last you hear of it.

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Filed under museums, programs, washington iron works, week in review

2009 Week 9 in Review

OTM Inc did a lot of work with the Northwest Seaport this week – both hammering and teaching. But first:

Control head for the Maris Pearl!

I did a little bit of getting ready for working on the Maris Pearl next week. Jay’s got a laundry list of little things that need to be checked up on in the engine room. He is super-organized and has it all in an online database.

I didn’t start hammering this week, but I did finally purchase the “new” control head for the main. As you may recall, Rick on the Red Cloud had a spare control head that’s perfect for the Maris Pearl. This week I picked it up and brought it to the shop, but I didn’t get a close look at it yet (just close enough to see that it’s missing some parts). I’ll take it apart and clean it and figure out what work it needs, but it isn’t going on the boat this year, anyway.

Reinstalling the Arthur Foss‘s throw-out bearing

I’ve started getting stuff together to reinstall the Arthur Foss‘s throw-out bearing. I would have gotten more done this week, except that I had to get ready for the Engineer for a Day program:

High School Engineer for a Day

Every February, I run a session of Engineer for a Day for the Ballard Maritime Academy. It’s a four-hour field trip that gives the kids a chance to start the Arthur Foss and the Duwamish, and learn about steam on the Virginia V. I wrote about it last year here and here. It’s a really neat class that I look forward to, even though getting ready for it is a lot of work.

I checked in with the instructors at the end of last week. Gary said that he was all ready for the Virginia V steam lecture, but Grant had a potential hot date on Friday and backed out of teaching on the Duwamish. Instead, he volunteered our friend Dave, who Grant and I went to diesel school with a bunch of years ago. Dave has spent decades on the water and has done a fair amount of teaching, but he was hard-pressed to learn the admittedly crusty systems on the Duwamish well enough to teach them to high-schoolers – plus, it was his vacation. He helped me get the boat ready for the class, including the first start-ups since last year’s air-compressor rebuild, but backed out of the actual teaching part.

After some negotiation, we got Grant back and the class went smoothly. We got all the preparation done just on time, with the latest version of the startup checklists finished minutes before the kids arrived. They all seemed like they had a good time and learned a lot.

When the class was over and the kids heading back to Ballard, we all met up with Dave at the Zoo to share a pitcher or two.

Grant writing with the Virginia V

While I was getting the boats ready for the Engineer for a Day class, Doug from the Virginia V saw the lights on and came over to talk. We don’t currently do engine demonstrations on the V-5, since getting up live steam would double the cost of the course, but both Doug and I want to change that. It happened that the V-5 was in the process of applying for a grant to get live steam up, and they asked for OTM Inc’s help. We met up with a couple of the board and staff members and talked about ways to make the grant work, and helped out with the writing. Now, it’s the usual waiting game to find out if they got the grant, but I think they’ve got a good chance.

A rant about safety

While working on the Duwamish with Dave, I found that old crusty boats don’t easily gain people’s confidence. Safety is always a factor, all around us, in everything we do, but one man’s safe is another’s hazard. Some people dismiss the old boats, saying “that’s old and unsafe; we should replace it,” while at the same time other people say “they don’t build them like they used too.” I think that both statements are flawed, since not many of the enforcers bother to understand the systems on old boats and therefore overlook things or crack down on something much lower on the list. Many inspectors have their pet issues, like writing up the hydraulic leak next to a pile of asbestos on the deck. Meanwhile, people don’t think about how they’re a bazillion times more likely to get maimed or die in a car accident than they are to get hurt in an old boat, but that’s another rant.

Where is the line between maintaining safety and preserving a boat more-or-less “as-is”? This is an issue that we must deal with every day on the old boats. It’s a judgment call that owners, insurance inspectors, and local agencies – not to mention the engineers – have a hard time making. Nothing is entirely safe, not even doing the best you can do with the resources you have is enough to ensure some old systems are relatively safe.

What is relatively safe, and who can make that call? Many organizations are out there to help with safety, including OSHA, WISHA, the USCG, Underwriters Laboratory, and your parents – but no one wants to invite them over because of the fines and nagging that accompany their recommendations.

That often leaves it up to the engineers, who do what they can. I can’t help but think that there must be a better way, so I’ve come up with a few recommendations. I can’t guarantee these as ensuring safety on the old boats but it’s a start:

  • keep the boat clean
  • keep as many systems operational as possible, and exercise all functioning systems regularly
  • retain engineers who have many years of experience on that particular boat
  • constantly work to keep communication open between owners, captains, and engineers

If all that is working, then I recommend carefully inviting regulatory agencies to the boat to help find ways to up the safety, but without ending programs or breaking the bank. Then make a timeline to accomplish these tasks, get them done, and invite the agencies back to make more recommendations. I know it’s scary for those on the line, but another set of eyes can really help increase safety on these old boats

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2009 Week 4 in Review

Work continues on the Catalyst

This week at OTM Inc, we finished fitting the rod bearings on the Catalyst and cleaned out the crankpit really well.

Then, we installed pistons. On most engines, you put the pistons in through the top, which means you have to have the heads off to get at the piston. On Washington diesels, though, you can put the pistons in through the bottom. This is yet another reason that Washingtons are the best engines ever made.

They actually have a recess in the liner on top – right where the top ring stops – so that there is never a ridge going forming that might break rings. This means that if a piston is loaded from the top, the rings will get caught. In other engines, you might need a fancy ring funnel to get around this, but on a Washington that’s unnecessary since the bottom of the liner is a ring funnel itself. Washingtons are build with the base doors big enough to lower the piston and rod right through and sit the piston on the crank throws at a 90-degree angle. You then rig it to be pulled right up into the cylinder. It’s really easy and can be done with the cylinder head still on. Wow. That Adrian Estep sure knew what he was doing.

An update from the Red Cloud

Rick on the Red Cloud is selling its air compressor and the fire pump, which are both very powerful. Contact me if you’re interested, and I’ll put you through to Rick.

A visit to the Maris Pearl

I helped Jay refuel the Maris Pearl and bring her out to Kirkland this week. It was nice to see the Pearl and talk with Jay again, and we talked about the project I’m starting there next month.

A rectifier for the Olympic?

Nobby from New York pointed out that a rectifier might be a good option for the Olympic (talked about in 2008 Week 49 in Review). A rectifier turns AC power into DC power, which would let the owners use the two DC electric air compressors, rather than waiting to for a replacement AC generator. That’s a good recommendation – I hope that the owners are interested in cranking the engine over soon.

Upcoming Engineer for a Day

I talked with John and confirmed the date of this year’s Engineer for a Day field trip for the Ballard Maritime Academy. We’re on for having 25 kids aboard the Arthur Foss, the fireboat Duwamish, and the steamer Virginia V. It’s scheduled for the end of February. This year is going be great, since the fireboat’s air compressor now works at full capacity. We might even get all three engines going for the first time in years.

Ongoing web updates

Here at Old Tacoma Marine Inc, we’re working hard to bring you more content in 2009. We’re adding more content to the website – more engines, more manuals, more photographs, and more articles. This week, we started making some behind-the-scenes changes to support new content, and in two weeks we’ll be meeting with Ed at the Washington State History Museum Archives to get more information on Washington Iron Works.

A disclaimer from Old Tacoma Marine Inc

I received a call this week from a reader who’s a fellow mechanic. We talked for more than an hour about what I do, and how he doesn’t blog and it’s pretty gutsy that I’m putting it all out there for the world to see. I got the feeling all through the conversation, though, that something was eating him, and I finally asked what was bothering him.

He asked me straight up “Did you really put valve lapping compound on your bearings and jam that on the shaft?” See, if you put valve lapping compound into a babbitted bearing, it’ll embed itself into the bearing and will grind away at the crankshaft while the engine is running. I told him that I was using Timesaver, which is a lapping compound specifically for soft metals, which won’t embed itself into a babbitted bearing.

I view this episode as a failure of me as a blogger: I didn’t provide all the information that made the story complete. If someone was trying to follow along at home, they might well have poured regular valve lapping compound onto their bearings and wrecked them. I’m glad that this reader called me on it – I view this blog and everything I do as a conversation. I’m trying to get as much of what I do up onto the web as I can, but it’s not all up there yet.

Until then, I want to warn everyone reading that all information from Old Tacoma Marine Inc – posted to the web, printed, photographic, and spoken – is for the purpose of discussion, not to be the sole source of information concerning rebuilding engines, managing museums, or succeeding at life.

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2008 Week 49 in review

Inspecting the Olympic

This week, OTM visited the Olympic, a 200-foot decommissioned Washington State Ferry with an eight-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine. It’s currently tied up at the ferry graveyard in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, as it has been since the mid-1990s. It’s starting to show:

retired Washington State Ferry Olympic

We were asked to inspect the engine room systems to evaluate whether the engines were still operational. Apparently, the boat is currently owned by a non-profit foundation that sells boats at a profit to fund scholarships and other worthy causes, and they have a buyer lined up on the condition that the engine works and she can be re-commissioned. We started the process with some background research. As usual, the Evergreen Fleet proved invaluable, as did the venerable Ferryboat Book.

The MV Olympic was built in Baltimore in 1938 as the Gov. Harry W. Nice, with a riveted steel hull and a direct-reversing Fairbanks-Morse engine rated for 1,400 horsepower at 300 RPM. She and sister ship Gov. Herbert R. O’Conor worked the Kent Island-Sandy Point Bay route across the Chesapeake Bay. In 1952, the route was replaced by the Bay Bridge and the two ferries were sold to the Washington State Ferry system. Renamed Olympic and Rhododendron, the ferries went into service in 1954 to work the Clinton route. In 1969, the Kulshan started on the Clinton route, and the Olympic became the overflow boat. In 1974, she was moved to the Port Townsend-Keystone route, but when the new Issaquah-class ferries took over the route in 1979, the Olympic was scheduled for retirement.

In 1983, the Rhododendron was mothballed, but the Olympic kept running despite Coast Guard concerns over operating a single-engine ferry (following an engine shut-down that left her drifting in the Sound for three hours before engineers brought it back online). She was moved to lower-traffic routes (mainly the Point Defiance run) and scheduled for refurbishment with the Rhododendron, but cost over-runs on her sister ship meant that the Olympic was mothballed in 1993. She was surplused and auctioned off in 1997, and has been in Eagle Harbor since.

I don’t think that the boat’s been touched since she was mothballed the second time – she even has newspapers from her last cruise laying in the lounge:

passenger deck of the retired Washington State Ferry Olympic

More importantly, she still has the original Fairbanks-Morse diesel, an eight-cylinder with a 16″ bore and 20″ stroke:

Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine in the retired Washington State Ferry Olympic

The only major problem that I found is that the main diesel-powered air-compressor is missing. This is really the key to the boat, as, like almost any boat powered by a heavy-duty diesel, the Olympic needs compressed air to power nearly all of its major systems, including the generators and main engine. It still has two electric air-compressors, but they require 120 volts DC electricity to run, which in turn can be supplied by one or both diesel generators, but these each need compressed air to start. Oi.

As far as I can tell, everything else is in decent condition and looked like it had been well-maintained during its working career, but without that main air compressor we couldn’t turn it on and tell for sure. Anyone getting the boat back to operational condition will be fighting corrosion every step of the way, and that every valve will need to be exercised and every pump will need to be freed up before putting the systems back online. It also means the new crew will need to do a lot of cleaning to make it possible to work in the spaces:

Engineer's office in the retired Washington State Ferry Olympic

After the trip, I put together a list of recommendations for the organization and any potential buyers. Most importantly, I told them to change one of the small air compressor motors to AC power and a voltage that can be provided at the dock, in order to let them exercise the machinery and demonstrate that the main engine runs (or doesn’t run, whichever the case may be). Both DC air compressors look like they’re fine, so just switching out the motor should be pretty easy:

AC air compressor in the retired Washington State Ferry Olympic

Here’s the total process that I recommended:

  • clean the vessel, giving it at least a once-over
  • change the air compressor motor
  • start the auxiliary generators
  • put systems on line and test
  • install switches for steering and jury rig manual wheel; test steering
  • blow down main engine; bleed fuel lines; repair oil filter
  • tow the vessel out and test-run the main engine
  • re-assess the condition and determine the next steps

This would be a great project, since the Olympic is a great boat in very good condition, considering that it’s been basically untouched at the dock for over ten years. It’s also pretty historically significant as an example of state-run ferries from the 1930s to 1970s, since most of the other ferries of this era have been re-powered, scrapped, or otherwise lost. I hope that the potential new owners get as excited about the project as I am, and that they call me in as a specialist to help re-commission the boat. Stay tuned (I hope)…

Work continues on the Catalyst

I spent the rest of the week on Catalyst, continuing to file and sand the oil hole ridges off the crankshaft. I feel like I’ve been sanding forever, and I’ve still got some left.

The rod bearings also came back from Everett Engineering, freshly babbitted and looking good. I inspected them again and found two things. First, one of the check valve balls was rusty and sort of pitted. These check valves are in the top half of each rod bearing, right against a hollow tube that runs up through the rod itself to the wrist pin. This keeps the rod full of oil after shut-down, so that oil gets up to the wrist pin as soon as pressure comes up. Since balls for the check valves are cheap, I bought new ones for all six bearings and put them in.

Second, some of the peel packs, which are a set of shims stuck together with solder that fit between each half of each bearing set, were replaced with plain shims. This isn’t really a big deal, except that I like peel packs better. I might get new ones, but I haven’t had the time to look into yet.

We also decided to send some of the cam followers and wrist pins to be flame-sprayed. In preparation, I stripped the followers and sent the wrist pin bushings to Asco to be honed down. The bushings (which are made of brass) wear down unevenly during normal operation, so it’s important to get them straight and round before the wrist pins are fit in. Honing is done with a specialized tool made up of three or four stones (they’re sort of leg-shaped) that push against the outside of the bushing and grind a small amount of material off while they turn.

I sent the wrist pin bushings off while they were still in the rods:

Connecting rods on their way to be honed

OTM’s tips for getting your heavy-duty through the economic crisis

All owners of heavy-duty engines are going to feel some pain from the current tough economic times, but OTM has some easy tips to help your engine (and your boat) survive the recession.

Get to know your boat, and want to get to know your boat. This will not only save money, it will make cruising safer and more pleasant. Get a flash light and get under the deck plates.

Clean the whole boat – especially the engine. I cannot overemphasize the importance of cleaning. This simple task addresses nearly all problems with the engine or other systems. If cleaning doesn’t actually solve the problem, it at least will keep the problem from getting worse – plus it makes it much easier to find and note problems so they can be addressed before they get worse. I have heard customers say “I haven’t wiped down the engine for a while so you [the mechanic] can find the leaks easier,” but I then have to spend the whole day cleaning the engine in order to find the leaks. This adds to the bill. It’s also just easier to work in a clean engine room, so the mechanic will be more efficient and productive than in a dirty engine room.

Simplify. In all situations, it’s important to just keep it simple. Good examples include:

  • selling the crane and using davits and block and tackle instead. It looks more elegant and is not much more work (and you hardly ever lower the boats, anyway)
  • removing the hydraulics in a small boat, because you don’t need them. Hydraulic systems are very powerful and few small boats need that kind of extreme power
  • forget about the second radar unit, and clean the windows in the wheel house instead
  • insist on smaller systems. Try to install “normal” systems: no one thinks a whiz-bang radar-guided autopilot is impressive unless the rest of the boat operates flawlessly, is used often, and has demonstrated a need for the device

Focus on need. Often the neatest-looking boats are that way because of how the owners meet their needs simply. I mention often how I like the “lived in” feeling of any structure that is well worn in. Another example is a small line attached to a door and frame to keep it from opening too far and slamming, which is a simple and elegant solution. A megayacht outfitter will try to get you to spend $2,500 on a mechanism to accomplish the same task, which needs to be greased monthly and rattles at full speed.

Break down jobs. See the trees in the forest and make a list with four-hour tasks. Don’t put things on the list like “rebuild engine”. It’s okay to cruise with broken parts as long as you know your limitations. Break the jobs into manageable pieces, and do some now and others next year.

Stay busy. If laziness sets in, the complacent attitude will sink the boat. Stay on task, look at the list, and keep making forward progress – even if it’s slow.

If you follow these tips, you’ll both keep your engine in good shape without spending too much money, and get greater satisfaction out of being proud of the work put into your boat.

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Filed under fairbanks-morse, repairs, washington iron works, week in review

2008 Week 48 in review

Work continues on the Catalyst

This week at Old Tacoma Marine Inc, I spent most of my time on the Catalyst, continuing this year’s big winter maintenance project. I did a lot of cleaning this week, mostly on the cylinder heads and pistons. Washington engines like Catalyst‘s have a lot of very elaborately shaped parts on them that makes the engine interesting to look at and beautiful, but also makes cleaning the heads pretty labor-intensive. I have several cleaning tools to get into all the curves and surfaces to take the carbon chunks off and polish it all up.

3M pads, which are scratchy like a dish scrubber, come in soft, medium and hard pads that attach to a die grinder at the shop. I use the hard ones for the combustion chamber parts and the soft ones to polish the tops of the head. Flapper wheels are pieces of sandpaper glued together in a wheel shape, which also attaches to a die grinder. I use different-sized flapper wheels to clean up the cylindrical parts, like the valve cage holes and the water passages. Wire cup brushes, which are a wire brush shaped like a cup, are good to get into little curved places that are hard to reach.

I got through all of the pistons and most of the heads, and also started filing the oil hole ridge off of the crankshaft journals on the bearings that we’re replacing – all of the rod bearings and half of the mains. The oil hole ridge is a ridge on the center of the crank journal, which is created by the crank wearing down everywhere except for the places where the bearing doesn’t contact the crank:

Oil hole ridge on the CATALYST's crankshaft journal

This happens because the bearings are recessed to allow oil to continually flow around the crankshaft and up the rods. Since we’ve re-babbitted so many of the bearings, all of these ridges need to be filed off to make the journals fit smoothly against the newly babbitted surfaces.

I spent a lot of time filing off these ridges. I used a regular metal file to take the ridge off, then sand it, and polish it with an emery cloth to get all of the scratches out. I stopped and measured the journals for roundness a couple of times during the process and shaped them as close to round as I could. This is a very, very slow process, but it makes fitting the new bearings easier.

Part of why it’s taking so long is because I’m a little inexperienced with this kind of work and I’m being really careful – too careful, if you ask Dan. He says that I’m “gilding the lily,” but agrees that the complexity of this process is worth the caution.

I’ve also kept in contact with St. Louis Bearing about the work they’re doing for me, and am still waiting for Everett Engineering and Utah Babbitt to finish the rod bearings.

Waterfront credit reports?

When I apply for a loan, the bank gathers a lot of information about who I am and how I plan to pay back the loan. They have me fill out questionnaires and pull three separate credit reports. Since I plan to borrow and pay back banks for the rest of my life, I work hard to pay on time and be completely honest with the bank. This is a relationship that I value very much, since it helps me do business and make a living. There’s a similar credit report on the waterfront. It’s called gossip.

Sometimes I see sloppy financial decisions and practices that affect people’s waterfront credit report. For example (hypothetically, of course), I might get asked to start another job before I’m paid for the last one, or get complaints about the quality or speed of a project that’s getting done at a reduced rate in between real jobs as a favor. Commonly, someone may be just slow to pay their bills, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize that I’ve had to take out a loan to cover the expense of a job until I get paid for it.

I’m often surprised that people who do this seem to think that no one else notices these sloppy practices. The waterfront gossip amazing: everyone knows everything about everyone else, and often about their family. I know lots of people on the waterfront who hold grudges from decades ago, people who still follow boycotts that originated in the sixties, and some people who won’t work with someone else because their father had a reputation as a jerk. Like any gossip, this kind of stuff goes around and stays around, and people love to add new stories that reinforce the old ones.

This is not to say that all of these waterfront credit reports are negative, though. There are plenty good owners with good waterfront relationships that get a lot of attention. People follow success stories and want updates on their favorite boats that have gone to good new owners. I have a lot of people ask me “So how’s [name] doing?” because they’re genuinely interested in a project or a boat with a good reputation.

If after reading this you’re worried that your waterfront credit report isn’t as good as it could be, don’t worry; there are things that you can do to improve your score. In fact, I urge everyone to do all they can to improve their score, since waterfront relationships directly influence the buoyancy of individual and organizational operations. Here’s just a few ways:

Get in the game. Get to know other boaters and owners; ask for opinions and advice – even if it goes unused it can help guide you in other projects. This is a community that everyone should participate in.

Pay on time. At least act like you know what you got yourself into, and minimize the whining (though we all know some is necessary).

Educate yourself. Read and take classes so that when you do call on people for help, it’s help that you appreciate and can use.

Take care of your boat. No one likes to help a lost cause or give someone advice that they’ll ignore. Your boat may be your most visible contribution to the community, so it should reflect your sincerity. This doesn’t mean that it has to be perfect and the brightwork all sanded every year – it means that you need to demonstrate that any work that goes into your boat is valued and maintained, whether you do it yourself or have someone else do it.

Help others with their boats. This can be as simple as sharing any new tricks that you discover.

Bonus points: call in with a report and some gossip on other boats, stop by the shop with some coffee, maybe take some classes or donate money to local maritime museums and heritage groups. These all get you involved in the community and show that you care about other boaters and other projects. You’ll meet people, word will get around that you’re a neat person, and people will be happy to work with you.

Above all, everyone needs to realize that even though our unique waterfront community is made up of individualistic and self-sufficient people, we all need to get to know and respect each other more.

Open position at OTM Inc

We at OTM Inc are very interested in creating 3-D computer models of old engines. If you’re a graphic artist with experience in Vector Works or similar rendering programs and are interested in a neat project, we want you!

We have a limited budget and we don’t know much about 3-D renderings, but we think it’d be neat to do engine fly-bys and add heavy-duty diesels to some online communities. Something like this would be awesome:

Contact us if you’re interested.

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Filed under repairs, washington iron works, week in review

2008 Week 35 in Review

Here’s this week’s cruising schedule aboard Catalyst, from Petersburg to Wrangell:

Sunday, August 24 – Petersburg to Ideal Cove: Kayak paddle in Ideal Cove (overcast with showers)
Monday, August 25 – Ideal Cove to Scenery Cove: Visit Le Conte Glacier, full height calving, skiff and hike Baird Glacier (rain)
Tuesday, August 26 – Scenery Cove to Portage Bay: shore walk at Cape Fanshaw, fishing group in Portage Bay (rain)
Wednesday, August 27 – Portage Bay to Roosevelt Harbor: transit Wrangell Narrows, explore Roosevelt Harbor in skiff and on foot (rain)
Thursday, August 28 – Roosevelt Harbor to Canoe Pass: kayak Canoe Pass, transit Zimovia Strait, (some sun and some rain, otters)
Friday, August 29 – Canoe Pass to Berg Bay: visit Anan Bear Observatory, bears are fluffy, paddle Berg Bay/Aaron Creek, slide show
Saturday, August 30 – Berg Bay to Wrangell: last run, pack and prepare to return to what passes for civilization (but isn’t)

Here’s the crew:

And here’re the passengers:

A major highlight of this week was visiting the La Conte Glacier. I hadn’t seen it from a boat before, though I did see it from a float plane once. It’s a very neat tidewater glacier – hard to get to because of a sand bar terminal moraine, which is shallow and keeps out the cruise ships. After that, we went back through Wrangle Narrows to explore some new places, like Canoe Pass and Anan Creek:

We hiked up Anan Creek to a “Wildlife Viewing Site,” which has a bear observatory for people to watch bears feeding in the salmon run without getting rained on (and without feeding the bears). We didn’t see any bears at the observatory, but on the way back a black bear crossed our path. We sat and watched it for about ten minutes before it ran up in to the forest:


We arrived in Wrangle on Saturday to drop off passengers, then headed to Meyers Chuck with just the crew and Bill’s wife and daughter. Coming into Meyers Chuck at night was a little tricky, since it has a very narrow entrance. Luckily, it was one of the clearest nights we’ve had on the trip and we made it in safely. We shut down the engine and watched the stars for hours.

On the subject of cruise ships

I know that there is a lot of hatred for cruise ships (and that I sometimes do the hating), but I do have some other thoughts on them.

I think cruise ships are an efficient way for lot of people to see some amazing sights and relax. They get people to see Alaska (and other places) who would never otherwise get somewhere so remote, and offer a fun vacation. They also are a way to give trees and glaciers an economic value, since people will pay a lot of money to go see (or walk on) “wilderness.”

On the other hand, the get-rich-quick boom-town gold-fever is in the blood of many Alaskans. The process used by cruise ships to transform a town just the next big thing following the gold rush, the clear cuts, and the salmon canneries. It may be a natural thing just like the fishing booms, the timber cuts, and the gold rush. I think the best thing that can be done is to research, document, publish and advertise the changes and relate them with other booms and the impact they made on towns, the environment, the local economies, etc, to try to get the positives out of the cruise ship industry. It is a little icky how some of the towns have turned whole neighborhoods into Disneyland diamond strip malls, but Alaskans have been making a profit off the latest boom for more than a hundred years.

Now, I’ve never actually been on a cruise ship, but someday hope to. If I go on an Alaskan cruise, I want to sign up for the bus trip to the Museum of Alaskan Booms. For me, though, the attraction of a cruise is in the boat itself. Ideally, we’d leave Seattle, motor out about a quarter of a mile, and then drop anchor. I would drink in the casino, hear live music, and play shuffle board. Then at the end of the week, we’d motor back to Pier 66 with a lifetime of memories.

Business as usual

The engine’s oil pressure has been gradually decreasing over the last few weeks, so I started up the auxiliary oil pump to maintain the pressure until we got to Petersburg. Once we were tied up, I changed the oil and filters, flushed the system, and sucked out the residual oil in the base. None of this changed the oil pressure, so on Monday I took all the doors off the crank pit and ran the oil pump to see if any single bearing had way more oil coming out than the others. I found that number six had oil coming out from under the rod foot, and it had bits of babbitt under it in the crank pit.

Oil from under the rod foot might mean that there isn’t enough oil getting to the wrist pin, and babbitt in the crank pit could mean at least two things: that the bearing is going bad and throwing off little pieces of broken babbitt, or that the last mechanic to work on the bearings was lazy and didn’t clean all the pieces of babbitt out of the crank pit. A little leaking oil and babbitt in the crank pit doesn’t tell me much except where to start looking for problems, so I “bumped” number six to see if the rod bearing was out of alignment. It had a little extra clearance – not too bad, but I took out a shim and bumped it again. This time it was within the specifications. I did the temperature test (checking to see if the bearings are heating up, which indicates a problem) at one, five, and 20 minutes, and it’s okay. We’re not losing the oil pressure out of the rod bearings. We’ll take a close look at the main bearings during the winter when we have more time to take the engine apart.

I also removed number five and six’s valves, cleaned them, and swapped them. Since I joined the Catalyst, I’ve taken out all of its exhaust valves and most of its intake valves out for cleaning. I’ve also replaced two of the exhaust valves with spares. Overloading is harder on the valves than any other part of the engine, since overloading makes a lot of heat and soot. First you see pitting, then carbon starts creeping up the guide, and eventually ruins the stem. It’s really important to clean the valves regularly – every year if you’re running the engine a lot.

While we’re on the subject, here’s another maintenance item that many heavy duty owners and mechanics forget. I noticed a lot of gunk in the camshaft bearing cups when we were looking at the rod bearing. All heavy-duty owners should clean out these cups frequently enough that oil actually flows to the bearing. Atlas-Imperial owners should also clean out the tops of the latches, too. This is an easy task to put off, since the first time it’s done it’s messy. After that first time, though, the job will be a lot easier if you keep up with the maintenance. It’s a pretty easy job –hose the cups out with solvent and fill them with fresh oil. Doing this save you some expensive repairs in the long run.

Breaking news

The MAK is gone!


The next stage of construction at Lake Union Park is starting soon, so all the old maritime junk is getting scrapped – including the old MAK that I helped deliver back in the ’90s.

The art of discarding

Boats, like all things, someday need to be thrown away. However, since all the owner’s energy is focused on keeping the boat floating and running, little thought is put into how to eventually get rid of it. This usually leads to a problem: how does one throw away a boat?

The value of things and boats is a weird idea that requires shared opinions and is constantly influenced by enumerable factors. It’s not pleasant to prepare for the worst case scenario, but planning for a variety of possible situations might give you the same piece of mind that fire drills and man-overboard drills do.

A few years ago, I gave my brother a car. My brother, in some respects, is not very good at planning ahead. Since he knew nothing about car ownership, I had to teach him all the rules that they do not show in the commercials. First, licensing, then insurance, then how to drive it, then how to clean it and check fluids.

Next, I showed my brother what to do with the car when he’s done with it. I guided him through many steps and actually practiced each disposal scenario. We backed out at the last minute, just to drill on what he might have to do. Here were our scenarios, each dependent on the condition of the car (we called each person, so they took our word) and prioritized:

1) Car looks good and runs – advertise on Craig’s List to find a buyer – $1,800
2) Car looks good and runs, but there’s no time to find a buyer – cross the street to the Armenians and take their best offer, probably about $50
3) Car looks bad but runs, no takers – the junk yard will offer $35
4) Car looks good wont run, no takers – the junk yard will pick it up will offer $10
5) Car is a total piece of junk – a guy will take it away for $75

I reminded my brother in all cases to accept or pay cash, and immediately send the bill of sale to the licensing department, to make sure that he’s really rid of the car.

This exercise showed that the most likely worst case scenario was to pay $75 to dispose of the car. A similar list of scenarios for even a small boat can have a huge worst-case payout. In order to get rid of it, you need insurance or at least savings and planning. Boats take a lot of work, and there needs to be more emphasis on the art of discarding when that work gets to be too much. I am a planner, which is sometimes hard to notice due to some overlaying personality traits. Seeing through to the end is easy for me and I am surprised when others can’t see huge potential, trends or catastrophes.

If you’re planning to buy a boat, please do some drills on discarding it – for everyone’s sake. Remember that it’s always harder than you think. Here’s how you should do it: first, try to sell you boat. Next, try to give it away. Then, try to pay someone to take it away. Do each drill with the boat in a different theoretical condition – and don’t let your dreams of how the boat will be after you’re done fixing it up interfere with the drill. Make up a couple of bad scenarios and see how hard or how easy it is to get rid of it in each. Sometimes, the only way to get rid of a boat is to pay someone else to break it up for you.

Without planning and drills, owners can get delusional about what the boat is worth and might even think it is worth the same as what was paid for it. This reality check can also help guide maintenance and repair priorities. It might also encourage owners to get rid of boats before they become more of a liability – or someone else’s mess to clean up. There are government-funded programs out there just to get rid of derelict boats (like Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources’ Derelict Vessel Removal Program), and they keep pretty busy. Breaking up your own boat when it’s beyond hope is a neighborly thing to do.

By the way, the car in our anecdote was actually a very nice 1977 BMW 530I. It looked good and it ran, so the Armenians got the car for $50 minutes before my brother moved to New York.

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