Tag Archives: small business ownership

2009 Week 19 in Review

Breaking down the party

I spent the first part of the week finishing the big M4 Party. Volunteers and I worked around the clock to clean up and return all the stuff, following the amazing show. Thanks to all those who helped this year!

If you want to be involved in the next M4 party, please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with the crew.

M4 Factory Party

Preparing for Illinois

I talked two weeks ago about how I’d been talking with the Indian Grave Pump House in Illinois about installing re-babbitted main bearings in their Fairbanks-Morse engines. I ended Week 17 hearing “we’re waiting for the bearings to come back from the shop,” and by this week they were back to “hurry hurry hurry,” so I’m getting ready to go to Illinois again.

I picked up more lapping compound (a big 5lb bucket this time), and cleaned up the shop. This time, the trip is indefinitely long, so I had to be sure the bills are paid and the chickens have feed. It’ll probably be two or three weeks, so stay tuned for blogs from the Midwest.

Business as usual

OTM Inc got audited by the insurance company. Lame.

Elliott Bay Tugboat Races

On Saturday, OTM Inc went to the tugboat races on Elliott Bay aboard the Maris Pearl. It was a great day for racing, and we had a blast:

Tugboat Races on the Maris Pearl

We also saw the Fearless out in fine form:

Western Towboat tug Fearless at the Elliott Bay Tugboat Races

Tugboat Night!

We had another session of Tugboat Night aboard the Arthur Foss. The next session is June 13, so we’ll see you there!

Labor versus Capital

There’s been lots of talk about our ideas of labor changing these days, but I want to know if our ideas of efficiency will change. I think it might have to.

Let’s say we give billions to the auto industry so that they can keep people employed. We as tax payers will pay them to make cars, but then no one wants to buy them. Did it work? No but if we give billions to an auto industry that makes cars by hand, using hand tools. And turn out less cars people keep their jobs.

By the same token, if we give billions to highway improvement, it will be under the banner of creating jobs and employing people. It sounds like a good idea, but I’m worried that what will happen when the government starts awarding contracts. If the lowest bidder is the company that wants to buy a big automatic highway re-paving machine that was made in China and can be driven by one person, then did the plan work? I say that it didn’t, if the original plan was to create jobs (unless we’re counting off-shore manufacturing jobs).

I’m worried that billions will go to replace old diesels for no reason except to keep the Chinese who build Caterpillars employed for another day. Ultimately the money earmarked for a cleaner and better running fleet should be spent to have engineers and mechanics replace the rings and injectors. A billion dollars can service a lot of engines and keep people employed right here – plus it will help protect the environment by both cutting emissions and preventing new engines to be shipped around the world and old engines to be shipped to the scrappers.

Really, if we clean up the engines that are already in use, the benefits will be compounded. We’ll have cleaner air, more work with less capital investment, a better life for mid-level educated folks, and no artificially-created demand for the new products. All the equipment serviced will already be in demand due to the fact that someone owns it.

So, government folks, please stop creating meaningless capital investment and buy labor, instead. There are millions of ways to improve the world with out making anything.

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2008 Week 52 in review

Work continues on the Catalyst

This week, I finally finished up filing and sanding and polishing the Catalyst‘s crankshaft journals. I also continued fitting the main bearings in using plastigauges. The project is coming along nicely.

Ever expanding the web presence

To better serve you, dear readers, I joined the Media Bloggers Association and took one of their online media blogger law class to further educate myself about this medium.

I also signed up for a Twitter account, under the username oldtacomamarine. Now, you’ll be able to keep up with my on-the-go status reports even easier.

Annual board meeting

Every year on December 25th, Old Tacoma Marine Inc’s board of directors and share holders meet to elect officers, review the past year’s activities, look at the budget, and forecast the next year. The president also buys a round or two of drinks for the shareholders to get into the spirit of things.

Topics on this year’s agenda included:

  • continuing to balance jobs between commercial, pleasure, and museum boats and engines, but in the up-coming year increase customers in the collecting sector up to 10% of the annual gross.
  • hiring Diana the museum specialist as a part-time employee, instead of continuing a contractual arrangement for technical writing, interpretation, and online presentation
  • continue to expand the company’s web presence and weekly blogging

These were all great things to report and reflect on during the yearly meeting. Unfortunately, the final topic was to announce that the president (me) will receive a pay cut – but there will be occasional bonuses.

All in all, it’s been a good year. We’ll release the annual report and 2009 objectives very soon.

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2008 Week 31 in Review

Sobre las Olas on display

I finished up most of the work on the Sobre las Olas just in time for the “Old-Fashioned Day in the Park” in Marina del rey. It’s a free annual event at Chace Park , right near where the Sobre is moored. Lots of different “vintage” clubs – yachts, cars, motorcycles, etc – come to the park with their neat old stuff for enthusiasts to drool over:

Leading up to the show, I had to split my time between getting the engines running well and making the engine room shine, but it all went well and we had a good time. The engine room tours were only for those who really wanted to see it, as the dangerous ladder, small spaces and running equipment kept the engine room off limits for the masses. I gave about a dozen tours that went really well – but it’s hard not to be dazzled by two beautiful Atlas-Imperial diesels running at the same time:

After the show, I finished up work on the Sobre, and ran the engines many times at the dock. Everything is working really well, the engines are holding water just fine, and I added some antifreeze and rust inhibitor.

an Update from the Maris Pearl

I heard from Jay on the Maris Pearl. The summer went great and the brothers islands were a favorite of course. Jay then single-handed the boat for some of the trip back down from Alaska to Seattle. I think that’s awesome, because I dream of doing that with some of the boats I’ve run. It sounds like a lot of fun.

An Update from the Briana Marin

Ron Lopez is in town, so everyone thinking about owning the perfect little tug boat can visit the Briana Marin in Ballard.

Surprise news from the Catalyst

After I got back to Seattle, I thought I could sleep in and get caught up on my paperwork, but I got a call from Bill on the Catalyst. His engineer was sick and he needed a relief for six weeks starting Saturday. It was a hard choice: spend August in my shop, or keep the prettiest Washington diesel clean and running while leading glacier tours on the side… plus, Lia’s already signed on as the naturalist and nature guide for the month.

I had to scramble to get everything in order before I flew out Saturday.

Off to Alaska!

We were ready by Saturday morning, but we missed our scheduled plane and had to catch the next one. We arrived in Juneau hungry. Since we knew that the captain would put us right to work once we got to the Catalyst, we stopped for lunch on the way and blamed our lateness on luggage problems. As predicted, we were rushed into meetings, training, cleaning, and preparing for the next trip without a pause for lunch.

By evening, we were very glad we ate the big lunch, but the sleep deprivation set in and we began making bad decisions like drinking and dancing in the Alaskan bar all night. We were very surprised by seeing some good friends we knew were up here but didn’t expect to cross paths with. We closed the bar and oozed back to the boat like jellyfish on the beach at low tide.

Memories of the Mist Cove

The Mist Cove, another charter boat, is moored next door to the Catalyst in Juneau. I dropped by for a visit and to check out her Cleveland diesels. The boat has a very nice engine room with lots of space, and the stainless steel engines shine. Her Clevelands are 1,200 horsepower two-cycle engines from 1955. I’ve heard that they’re only running one engine at a time to save fuel since they burn about 50 gallons an hour each at full. Whether or not that’s true, she’s still keeping her summer schedule of week-long cruises between Sitka and Juneau:

I spent three years working for The Boat Company as the Mist Cove‘s engineer, starting just after her first season out. The engine room was very cluttered and the boat, being brand new, lacked the attention to detail and comfort that I wrote about back in Week 28. One of my favorite projects was when I moved all sorts of equipment and gear away from the main engines. The Clevelands are historically significant and pretty interesting to look at, so I made them into showpieces and made the engine room look bigger and more inviting as a result. Now, you can roller skate around the engines, and every week, I polished every thing to give our twenty-four guests an amazing engine room tour.

I also reduced the electrical load so that an entire trip can be done without splitting the bus. This was a lot of work to gain no flickering lights with only one generator running at a time, but this continuing attention to detail is what makes a boat comfortable.

My three years aboard allowed me to fine-tune the engine room and all the boat’s systems. I felt like it was dialed in really well, until the boat had to be prepared for Costa Rica. Outfitting a boat purpose-built for Alaska charter work for a company who has 25+ years in giving a great Alaska vacation to operate in completely different waters was very difficult. We had to install air-conditioning and a third generator, which cost a fortune and created a lot of problems to work out. In the end, the Costa Rica program was cut after only one season. I’m glad to see her back in Alaska, an area she’s perfect for.

The tyranny of poorly-planned insurance requirements that are killing small businesses

Before I begin the Alaska trip, I need to get this off my chest.

My shop partner (an excellent shipwright who I’ve worked with for a long time) and I have discussed insurance many times this week under the rollup door. We determined that the insurance requirements are killing everyone—small business owners, yacht owners, and the workers in all maritime trades. We also decided that a small business is the best business model for maintaining yachts and workboats-turned-yachts. In addition to being self-sufficient, available when needed, and having a closer customer-to-contractor relationship than the big yards, the small businesses have cheaper rates. This is great for both the owners and the workers, but when it comes to insurance we get screwed. To make it worse, our customers have less money to pay us, because the insurance companies are screwing them, too. It’s a double whammy.

I really believe that insurance is the foundation to good financial well-being. I also believe in only insuring that which you have, so if you do not have anything, spend your money first on getting stuff worth insuring. Start with health insurance if you’re healthy and you are required to stay healthy to work. The self-employed already know that no one—corporation or yacht owner—cares about their health. Employees should understand the same is true for them no matter what “benefits” they get with a job. Everyone is responsible for themself and should get their own health insurance (and make sure to read the fine print! Adjust the options often to be sure cost of the benefits is fair).

As you acquire more stuff, you need more protection, which is when you should start insuring your stuff. Some small businesses choose to incorporate, so that their personal assets are protected from business decisions. This turns an “owner” into an officer and an employee (when Old Tacoma Marine Inc incorporated, I became the president as well as the lead mechanic, and I stopped being the owner). While this protects the people in the small business, it changes the insurance requirements. All employees must be insured by Labor and Industries, but state L & I will not insure anyone working on boats over 65 feet. Instead, a business must carry industrial insurance at the very high price of 25% of payroll. An employee making $48,000 per year in wages costs a small business an additional $12,000 per year in industrial insurance alone. It would cost even more, but the federal government subsidizes a small business pool that one underwriter carries, which lowers the premium down to the “reasonable level” of 25%, which is still very high for small businesses. (Incidentally, my rate as a mechanic is the same as those who work on nuclear submarines)

Now, I fully understand that boats can be dangerous, but I work mainly on yachts or charter boats—all with a much higher standard for safety than workboats. To me, the 65-foot insurance limit does a huge disservice to the contractors who work on them—especially small business. How does the length of the boat change the risk when you’re working dockside in the engine room? Furthermore, the premiums are also based on payroll. I would think that this means the higher-paid workers are more experienced and more careful, making then expensive to insure, but the way the regs are written it means that a higher-paid employee needs more insurance.

These regulations keep me and other small businesses from hiring any other employees. With the rates that I work at, I can’t afford to, even though the work is there and going unfinished!

A small business owner has still more woes, though. A normal wharf rat making $40,000 to $90,000 by working on old boats over 65 feet needs legal liability insurance in addition; to the industrial insurance discussed above. The minimum liability premium is $2,000 a year. Those on the $40,000 side feel that—ouch! This type of insurance is required for all types of businesses except sole proprietorship.

A final nail in the coffin for small businesses is that they’re required to hold shop space leases in most marinas and shipyards. These costs add up to way beyond the actual costs (labor, materials, tools), and cause a chain reaction that undermines the small-business model ideal for yacht maintenance:

• Some businesses insure themselves and others do not
• Those who do insure themselves are in a small pool, so their rates are high
• The insured can’t always compete with the uninsured rates, so they lose work
• The insured often can’t hire help, so they try to do the work alone, which causes more claims
• More claims from one-person businesses raise the rates
• It severely punishes those who try to follow the rules and leaves the others afraid for their lives

And these are just the issues for the wharf rats and contractors doing the work. Owners of old boats are also taking a beating across the board. Old boats are too often sold at a low price. This allows people to buy a boat way outside their means. Many new boat owners don’t realize the significant ongoing maintenance required to keep these boats going, and then seem surprised when the boat sinks (see Living the Tugboat Dream from Week 11). This information, which show old boats to be a major risk, is used by the insurance company to determine rates, which leads to an even greater downside.

Due to this statistical risk, many insurance companies will not consider underwriting an old wooden boat, regardless of its actual condition. This could turn off a potential buyer with everything it takes to maintain an old boat.

How do we beat the system and keep boat maintenance and ownership costs down? Well, it takes teamwork, but here’s what I think:

Owners: ask your workers to get insurance and show proof. This will increase the pool of insured workers, which will bring the price of labor down. Insist your workers keep good safety practices while on your boat (which will reduce claims), and pay the slightly higher price for your insured (and legal!) worker. Then, tell you congressional representatives to change the insurance requirements so pleasure boats and museum boats over 65 feet can be insured by the much more reasonable Labor and Industries program than the industrial insurance carriers. Last, be a safe boater, strive to meet Coast Guard requirements (even if not required), and constantly show your insurance company how safe you are by the classes you take and the systems you maintain.

Workers: get insurance. Learn the requirements, keep good records, and charge more for the peace of mind you offer the owner. If they do not want to pay for you to be insured, then don’t work for them. Also be safe and minimize claims. It is very important to be insured, as it protects what you have earned.

Last but not least, Insurance Companies: you are the enemy. Your need to provide quarterly dividends and show growth is what is killing us. That is why I want to use the government’s L & I program instead of the industrial insurance: it’s not-for-profit. You profit by breaking our backs, so don’t ever think that my pushing for compliance is to favor your “services.”

I urge all of you to contact your congressional representatives to ask them to change the L&I 65-foot limit to a boat designation (yacht, supply boat, charter boat), and allow more small businesses to utilize the government’s insurance programs that do not need to show growth and offer dividends.

OTM Inc Weekly eBay Auction

This week’s prize from the OTM Inc shop is two El-o-matic Pneumatic Actuators for ¾” valves:

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2008 Week 24 in Review

Not a lot going on this week. I spent a lot of time in the shop, either doing work work or doing office work.

An update on the Duwamish

The Duwamish’s air compressor is in pieces in my shop:

fireboat DUWAMISH's air compressor, under repair at the Old Tacoma Marine Inc shop

I’ve been cleaning and honing the cylinders, but I still do not know the make or model. I’ve found a few numbers stamped into it, but that’s all.

Clamor about the John Cobb

Everyone is talking about the NOAA ship John Cobb – there’s a lot of interest in what will happen to the boat now that its engine is damaged (details last week). I won’t repeat all the rumors I hear here, but I don’t think that NOAA will just walk away from the boat even with a broken crankshaft.

It’s still slated for decommissioning this fall, and I’ve heard lots of speculation on what’s next for the boat. I hope that whatever happens, the engine will be repaired or replaced with a heavy-duty from the same era – maybe a direct-reversing Enterprise diesel.

Old Tacoma Marine Inc on eBay

In our latest effort to take over the internet one site at a time, OTM Inc is now open for business on eBay. We hope to sell some miscellany related to heavy-duty diesels and other old-time engines, starting with some neat things we’ve had around the shop forever but will never use in any of our projects.

First up: a vintage brass grease cup for engine bearings. We’ve got more information and pictures on the listing, so check it out – or buy it.

We hope to sell a new item each week, so keep checking in.

Slope of Grain versus Runout

While acting as a consultant to Northwest Seaport regarding the lumber purchase for the Lightship #83, we’ve been learning about the language used by shipwrights to define wood grades. Two terms we’ve encountered are “slope of grain” and “runout.” We’ve found that these are often mis-used even by the experts, so it’s been difficult defining them. While researching, we found that there are plenty of sources out there that tell you what causes slope of grain and runout, and how to cut boards to achieve a good slope of grain and runout, but not many firm definition of what they are in the first place. Different people and books also define the terms differently.

Despite all that, we’re now pretty sure that runout is the grain running off the top side of a board and slope of grain is the grain running off the sides. These definitions don’t leave us feeling very much more enlightened, though. If we’ve gotten them confused, or if you have a better definition, please leave a comment on this post – we want to get it right.

I think that maybe the reason it’s so confusing is that the only people who really care are the folks at the mill, who are known as “sawyers.” The slope of grain and runout have a lot to do with the strength retained in the board, so a sawyer will try to produce the best quality (strongest) wood by getting a good slope of grain and runout they can anyway. It’s rare that a wood buyer needs to include those figures in an order.

We did need to include them in the Lightship bid request, though. Our client is required to accept the lowest cost bid, so it had to specify exactly what quality wood they need for the job.

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2008 Week 22 in Review

Back to Business

I started this week with a lot of catching up in the office and at the shop. This meant billing, several trips each to the bank, Kinkos, and the post office.

I also spent several hours on the phone, including straightening out the mess I got into with AT&T for using my new phone in Canada. I can tell you all cell phone companies are jerks, but if you really hold them down you might get someone on the line who is really helpful. It can be entertaining.

I stalled the person who first took my call with all sorts of inane questions. He would tell me there wasn’t anything he could do and then ask “is there anything I help with, sir?” and I’d ask another question to keep him on the line. I also insisted that I want the same top-quality service that Tom Cruise gets (though this guy said they treat all their customers with the same respect) and I guess they wrote it down in my file. After stalling for another half-hour, they handed me off to someone who finally straightened it all out (and told me that all their customers receive the same great service).

The trouble all started because after ten years of abuse I just switched from Sprint to AT&T (to use my new iPhone). New customers are treated like untrustworthy criminals for 90 days, but I got around that by hanging on and had about $700 in “roaming charges” knocked off my statement.

Lightship Lumber Planning

I finally started the real work on writing the bid request for the Lightship #83 deck lumber. Brian Johnson of Ocean Bay Marine Inc and I took measurements and discussed quality requirements for the deck lumber. We also took some samples:


We need over 10,000 board feet of planking, plus nib planking, coverboards, marginboards, carlins, and winch pads.

We should have a draft to Northwest Seaport for review by next Wednesday.

Work on the fireboat Duwamish

Also this week, I disassembled the aft air compressor in the fireboat Duwamish. From looking at the make, I think that the aft air compressor was installed with the Cooper-Bessemers and the forward one was replaced more recently. After inspecting it, I don’t think that the replacement is able to produce the 600 psi required for the Duwamish’s high-pressure system. I’m going look in to repairing the damaged one, which has been stored on deck under a rain cover, but it looks like it’ll be a lot of work.

An interesting thing about the original air compressors is that they’re mostly brass, and may have been the same make of air compressor used to start the stainless steel Clevelands in minesweepers. These engines use the same high-pressure settings that the Cooper-Bessemers in the fireboat use, so it’d make sense that they have the same kind of compressors.

If anyone has any information about air compressors like those used in minesweepers, contact me, or write about it on the discussion board.

Old Tugboats Changing Hands

Craig stopped by for a tour of South Lake Union last week. He’s got some neat stories of large-bore Sulzers and crossing oceans on container ships. He is still looking for his dream steel tugboat with a heavy-duty to cruise the Sound with. Comment here with your recommendations.

I also learned that Skip bought another old tug: a Miki tug named the Galene down in Portland, powered by a 1,200 horsepower Superior. This sounds like a gigantic project and I hope he can handle it.

A Visit from Captain Jake

Captain Jake, currently of the San Diego Maritime Museum’s Californian, stopped by for a tour of South Lake Union. I sailed with him back in ‘96 on the Lady Washington. He’s still driving tall ships and has recently taken over the steam yacht Medea for the San Diego Maritime Museum. I showed him around the Arthur Foss and the fireboat Duwamish, and he rattled off a bunch of heavy-duty powered boats in southern California (with gossip). I’ll have to follow that information up now that I’m done with the Pearl.

New York Planning

I made some plans for the New York trip later this month. We’ll be visiting three fireboats (including the two powered by Enterprises that posted about here), South Street Seaport, and hopefully Staten Island and some of the cool boats over there.

July work on the Sobre las Olas

I’ve re-scheduled a trip to LA this July for some more work on the Sobre Las Olas, the Atlas-powered fantail yacht. The Sobre’s mechanic John got most of the snifters and all of the blow-down valves off of the two engines, and he’s going to send them up for me to overhaul in my shop. I’ll bring them down with me to reinstall. I’m looking forward to seeing the guys and the boat this summer.

International Retired Tugboat Association Party

On Saturday night, we attended the International Retired Tugboat Association party in Everett. Most of the party was onboard the Olmstead, a 95-foot retired Navy tug of the same class as the Maris Pearl and the Red Cloud. I took a picture of the hold, which I uploaded here.

Lia and I arrived just in time to take a ride on a 60-foot tug (I can’t remember its name) for a cruise on the Snohomish River, followed by drinks, snacks, and tugboat stories. We passed by many neat old tugs, one of which I know very well: the Island Champion.

tugboat Island Champion, powered by a Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine, in Everett

The Island Champion is a classic 100-foot wooden tug from 1944 with a (6)33f14 Fairbanks-Morse main. Hilbert and Jeanne, the proud owners, have had lots of work done in the last few years on the engine, the deck, and the hull, but unfortunately the boat spent one tide exchange under the Snohomish Slough.

Here’s the sad story:

Last spring, I was helping Hilbert move the boat back to her very inconvenient moorage, where she regularly sits in the mud (the Snohomish River has lots of space for old tugs to tie up, but it’s a tidal estuary and I wouldn’t call the moorage great). When arriving at the dock a little late on the tide, we decided to turn the boat around and quickly learned that we couldn’t rely on the prop-walk when we’re in such shallow water (the wheel is too close to the bottom). This made turning around very difficult and after using up all the air and failing to pivot the boat with the bow in the bank, we thought we’d better get back to the dock even if we were pointed the wrong way. While backing up to the dock, the boat got hung up on something – maybe a root ball. Even with the Fairbanks wound up at 350 rmp (50 over max rated) we couldn’t get the boat loose. A bystander took a video of our fruitless efforts from the riverbank that’s on YouTube here.

We put all ashore except for Hilbert and I. I called Global Dive and Salvage, who I worked for back in ‘98 and ‘99. Hilbert and I prepared the boat for listing over and hoped that she’d float again on the next tide.

Then the Global guys arrived with trucks and boats and big pumps. We got the pumps off the trucks and into the small boats and got to the Island Champion just as the tide came up over her decks. Before we could get the pumps installed, the water started flooding in through the salon doors and galley doors and completely filled the engine room. By the time we had the pumps set up, it was too late to make any progress against the tide and we shifted our efforts to containing the fuel and oil. We anchored an oil containment boom and plugged the fuel tank vents, trying to keep petroleum out of the river:

the tugboat ISLAND CHAMPION, aground in the mud in Everett Slough

Later that night, we saw fuel begin to appear in the containment boom and found that the base of the fuel tank vent was completely rusted away. The Global Dive crew and I worked through the night to soak up the fuel with pads. I don’t know how many piles of soaked pads we bagged up, taped closed, and hauled up the dock.

the ISLAND CHAMPION, while aground in Everett Slough

Around 7 AM, divers showed up to seal the tug up and pump out all the tanks and the engine room. That’s when I left, totally exhausted. The Island Champion was raised on the next tide and delivered to the Everett Shipyard to be cleaned out.

Since then, Hilbert and Jeanne have been working very hard to put the boat back together and have had lots of good work done. I wouldn’t say that the incident helped the vessel, but in a way it’s boosted the progress: they’ve had to work a lot faster to keep up with repairs and maintenance on the Island Champion. I look forward to seeing her cruise again soon.

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2008 Week 18 in Review

This week was sort of boring compared to last week’s whirlwind tour of Northwest Washington’s heavy-duties.

An Update on the Maris Pearl

On Tuesday afternoon, we moved the Maris Pearl to pick up the new cover for the aft end of the boat deck. I call it the “wing.” I’ll try to post pictures later. Then we moved to Charlie’s tug, the Sea Devil, to pick up some fuel. We ended up spending all day there because they miscalculated the delivery rate. After griping a bit, Charlie and I called up some friends to come hang out on the tugs while we waited, so we had a nice night anyway.

This week, I also tried to seal some persistent water and oil leaks in the engine with little success. It’s a low priority for now, but hopefully next winter I can take the time to make sure the connections are all tight.

Business as Usual

This week was quarterly tax time. Ouch.

I also visited Striegel Supply again, where Steve is doing all kinds of interesting things (like having bearings made) and making deals with owners of awesome engines. I finally traded some of the Maris Pearl’s unuseable spare parts for a store credit. I hope he finds a customer for all those R model parts.

Party Planning

We got the word that the big party that OTM Inc co-hosts has been bumped back a week. It was very difficult to get the word out and we lost some of our performers. We worked day and night to find new performers and get the word out to the partners and guests, so hopefully the party will be a success anyway.

Helping out the neighbors

South Lake Union had its grand opening celebration this week. Several of the big historic boats in Seattle are moored there, including the Arthur Foss with the big old Washington. Northwest Seaport, the group that owns the Arthur, was invited to blow the tug’s horn (which is very, very loud) for the opening ceremony.

Usually, when Northwest Seaport wants the horn blown or the engine run or whatever, they ask me to come down and set things up. Since this usually coincides with the classes and demonstrations that I run on the Arthur, it’s usually not a big deal. This time I was just too busy to help out, so I talked Diana the Museum Specialist through starting up the AC generator (a modern Jimmy, not very interesting) to run the air compressors and fill up the tanks. She’s watched me start the generator plenty of times before but is really nervous about breaking parts of “the artifact.” I say that the worst thing that a museum can do with its ships is treat them like glass and that it’s actually better for the boat and its systems to just turn things on, but I guess I’d rather have the museums ask how to do it right than just think that they can treat it like an old photograph or a set of tools.

Anyway, since I couldn’t come down to Arthur, I had to describe the process over the phone. This was challenging, because the DC generator is located between the aft fuel tanks, which block cell phone reception. Diana had already gone through the first part of the generator’s pre-start checklist I wrote for Northwest Seaport (check water level in the main expansion tank, check oil level, check fuel level, open fuel valves), but called when it came time to push buttons. She would confirm what the next step was, put her phone down, go back and fuss with the generator, then come back and go through the next step. She was doing great on her own until we realized that the battery was dead (another reason that the generator should be run more often). Luckily, the Vice President of Northwest Seaport’s board had his truck right there on the dock, so they pulled its battery out, brought it down to the engine room, jumped the generator, and made it all work beautifully. Diana sounded like she was going to pass out from the stress (museum people are weird), but I told her that the next step after starting the generator was to go get a cup of coffee while it warmed up for a few minutes.

Compared to starting the generator, turning on the air compressors was uneventful (though apparently she turned on the big tow winch instead of the compressor for a few seconds) and the tanks didn’t need that much air anyway. When it came time to blow the horn for the big celebration (the Virginia V had steam up for her whistles and everything), though, the valve stuck after just one short honk. Lame. Diana called me back to ask how to fix it, but when I got to “climb up on top of the wheelhouse with a pair of needlenose pliers,” she decided to save that for a different day and welcome visitors aboard instead.

What I thought was neat about this process is that Diana said she was able to figure out some parts of the DC generator by comparing them to Arthur‘s Washington, which she’s very familiar with:

The checklist just says “hold governor in while cranking.” At first, I just went “shoot, don’t know anything about modern diesels,” but then I started looking and thinking about how the main is put together, and figured out that the knob sticking out of the horizontal bar must be the governor, since the main’s governor is the lever sticking out of the horizontal bar. I know, I know: obvious to mechanics, but this was the first time that I really understood how the parts connect in a modern engine.

This really reinforces my point that working on the big old heavy-duties is a great way to learn about diesel engines in general, because you can see everything that’s hidden or tiny on a modern engine. I can’t think of any diagram or lecture that would explain how pushrods work half as effectively than coming down to the Arthur or any of the other boats or stationary engines and just looking at how they sit on the camshaft and connect to the rockers. If folks actually start the engine, they learn that much more from the heavy-duties by watching how the parts interact.

I’m also glad that Northwest Seaport has people interested in learning how to run Arthur‘s engine again. We need more heavy-duty engineers if we want to keep these engines running.

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Filed under museums, washington iron works, week in review

2008 Week Nine in Review

An Update from the Sobre las Olas

This week started with a great call from the guys from the Sobre las Olas. Owners Sean and Jeff and engineer John were all very excited to tell me about how they ran the engines for the first time without my help. I am very excited to hear about this boat coming back to life. It’s a long way from where it was about four years ago. Sean and Jeff have put a lot of work into the boat – and twice as much worry.


I had met Sean and Jeff a few times while working with Dan, and heard about the repair estimates for the engine overhaul, but I first talked with Sean about four years ago when a rumor swept the very tight old engine community about how the owners were considering replacing the original Atlas-Imperial engines. Apparently, the sticker shock of Dan’s proposed $300,000 overhaul made Caterpillars look really good.

When I heard that, I called Sean immediately. He was blown over by my rant on the importance of preserving treasures like the Sobre intact, since just a few days earlier he’d talked with the San Diego Maritime Museum about donating the engines. He couldn’t believe how important it was to the old engine guys that the engines stay with the boat, and was amazed by how they all immediately got on the Red Phone and to sound the alarm. I had a feeling that I was not the first to talk him out of pulling out the Atlas-Imperials.

I also wrote a very convincing email to Sean on how to own two heavy-duties with less fear. The conversation, the clamor, or the email must have worked, as I have been flying down to Los Angeles regularly to repair and maintain the Sobre’s engines ever since.

The Sobre is a huge project that has the potential to go completely out of control at any moment, but the guys are doing a great job in my opinion. They take a few big steps then rein it all in and take small steps for a while, but they never let the health of the boat go backwards. That’s the way to do it: slow and steady, just like these old heavy-duties. I hope to see Sean and Jeff cruising soon in their treasure of a classic yacht.


Another update from John in Maryland

Early this week I had another conversation with John in Maryland. He is really excited that other people care about these old engines. He also wanted to brief me on the condition of a light ship he is volunteering on and how maintenance is often neglected. It’s a common story in the non-profit and museum world of historic ships – many people don’t realize that these boats were decommissioned or retired when they ceased being cost-effective to maintain. Museums and non-profits need to realize that if the government or a business can’t afford the ship any more, then they may have an even harder time maintaining it. Keeping an old ship as a museum vessel is possible, but you have to know what you’re getting into and have a plan for how to keep it going beyond “but people love her!”

And back to the Maris Pearl

On board the Maris Pearl, we removed the old heat exchanger and lowered in the re-tubed heat exchanger. I also cleaned the bilge really well and painted the port side bilge with two coats of epoxy paint. The end is almost in sight.

Old Tacoma Brokerage?

We also had a visitor looking for an old tug powered a heavy-duty to use as a live-aboard. This is the third call I have had for a tug in the last two months. I think OTM might want an classified advertising portion of the website, but until then, all you tug boat owners who are looking to pass the boat on can email me at adrian@oldtacomamarine.com. I will try to play match-maker.

OTM Inc also had to do taxes this week… Totally lame.

An update on the Catalyst

The Catalyst won’t be overhauling a cylinder this year after all; they’ll just change the leaking grommets under number three head, inspect the bearings, and adjust the propeller’s pitch so that they can run the engine up to normal operating speed.

Lugging is a common problem with the heavy-duties, caused by over-pitched propellers or too many parasitic loads. Engines with caged valves don’t dissipate heat very well, so we recommend not exceeding exhaust temperatures of 600 degrees. All the cylinders should have this exhaust temperature at the highest comfortable running speed, not exceeding the rated speed.

This all sounds vague and technical, but an engine might be rated for 450 RPM and so the fuel and load (propeller size and pitch) should be set to achieve 600 degrees at 450 RPM. However, if at 450 the engine starts vibrating uncomfortably, then back it down until it’s comfortable again – maybe at 442rpm – then use that RPM for all your calculations. Okay, so no one is going to take the propeller off every trip until its right; I’m just recommending that owners get familiar with their engines and try to adjust them, rather than just running them up to the number written on the side.

And remember the pitch of your wheel has nothing to do with your manliness.

An update on the David B

The David B is going with the machined plastic bearing without removing the shaft. I hope it works! Don’t forget to align the engine afterwards.

A new owner for the J S Polhemus?

Kate emailed for more information about the J S Polhemus and its Enterprise diesel. She got our number from John Callahan in Waterford, New York – a great tugboat guy. I’ll be showing Kate around the Polhemus sometime next week. It’s currently in Ballard at the Ewing Street Moorings.

Castings from Keith

Finally, OTM Inc got an email from Keith Sternburg with pictures of his amazing castings for a steam engine:

Keith’s Casting Keith’s Casting

It may not be a diesel, but those look great, Keith.


Filed under atlas-imperial, enterprise, museums, washington iron works, week in review