High and Dry

Sunday, March 3, 2019

It’s been an interesting few weeks for the Lucky Nickel. For a long time I’ve known something significant had to be done to address a persistent overheating problem with the engine. It’s been an issue almost since day one and makes moving the boat much more a fraught nail biter than a pleasant diversion. Any time I’ve spent extended periods of time on the boat in the last few years I’ve end up chasing problems and leaks around the system with depressing regularity.

To explain, here’s a brief GSWPL primer on engine cooling: All internal combustion engines such as the one in the Lucky Nickel are, of course, powered by combustion: tiny explosions of fuel (gas/petrol, diesel, whatever). That combustion creates heat that needs to be dissipated to keep the engine running happily. In cars (except Volkswagens, but that’s another blog) this is usually accomplished by circulating cooled water around the engine and through the radiator, which, as the name implies, radiates the heat out of the water, thus pulling the heat out of the engine. The faster the car moves, the faster the air moves over the radiator, enhancing the cooling effect. Radiators don’t work on a boat engine because there’s no way to get cool air moving that quickly across a radiator. Instead, boat engines take advantage of the fact that they’re surrounded by a ready supply cold water, and use that for cooling. A “wet exhaust” pulls water directly from the canal through filters, circulates it through the engine and then pumps it out the side. Wet exhausts are efficient but prone to clogging. Thus you usually find a closed system that circulates a fixed volume of water/antifreeze through the engine and in and out of a “skin tank” which is a large flat construction welded to the side of the engine compartment, pressed up against all that cold water. The water is cooled by circulating through the skin tank, thus keeping the engine happy. Easy, right?

The skin tank is the squarish thing on the left with the black hose connected to it. As opposed to the much larger squarish thing at the top with the yellow hoses running to it, which is the diesel tank.

Even though the Lucky Nickel came equipped with two skin tanks (starboard one pictured above) they’ve never been particularly effective or efficient. Any experienced engineer who sees them always comments that they’re too thick, meaning they hold too large a volume of water relative to the surface area available for cooling. Therefore the engine overheats frequently, causing the cap on the pressure tank to vent scalding hot steam and water, and meaning I have to top up the system frequently.

Opening up the system to refill also often introduces air bubbles which can prevent the water from circulating, because it’s a complexly routed system with a lot of high spots where air bubbles can hide. Thus I’ve become something of an expert at refilling the cooling system, to the point where I actually installed a bespoke filler hose and valve of my own devising that makes process slightly more efficient and lessens the chance of air bubbles being introduced. As you might suspect, through, none of this is ideal. Even less ideally, the starboard skin tank sprung a leak some time ago that I managed to fix with the magic of Araldite before it started leaking again, this time from a much less fixable place. Meaning I had to bypass that tank entirely, meaning that the already dodgey system became even dodgier. Really not ideal.

So, knowing that I’d be in London for a solid five months at least, I managed to get booked in at Uxbridge Boat Centre to have new, efficient, properly designed skin tanks installed. This is major work that involves drilling holes in the side of the boat, a task best accomplished with the boat out of the water. So a couple weeks ago I fired up the engine for the first time in more than a year and moved to the boatyard. With the assistance of trusty first mate Piran, we managed to creep along the canal at a speed slightly slower than an arthritic sloth while monitoring the engine temperature every 3 minutes and stopping frequently for coffee, biscuits and engine cooling breaks.

Thank you Piran for the moral support. I was exceedingly nervous about getting the engine running again and about leaving the isolated but comfortable surroundings of the marina after such a long time so it was great not to have to tackle that by myself.

Happily, we reached Cowley Lock without incident just before losing daylight. And there was a mooring spot just past the bridge and a very short walk from the Malt Shovel pub, which sits right beside the lock and served us several very nice celebratory pints.

The next day I puttered the last mile down the canal to moor across from the boat centre, all ready for the big event the following Saturday, when I steered my little boat into the slipway, cut the engine, and watched while two men pulled heavy slings under it and hook it up to a large green crane. And then this happened!

It was really unnatural.

And that’s how the boat sits now: high and dry for the first time since 2015.

With the boat out of the water I realised it was my opportunity to get the engine bilge properly dried out. (Quick reminder - the bilge is the lowest part of the boat, in this case the whole area under the back deck where the engine is installed.) In a newer boat the deck hatches covering the engine would seal out all the weather, supported by properly angled, self-draining steel channel that smoothly directs rainwater to the sides of the boat, where it can then escape out the scuppers. (Aside: I love that I just got to write a sentence that includes the word scuppers!) The Lucky Nickel has scuppers, but they don’t get much of a workout because the channel steel of the deck structure is bent and rusty and basically knackered, meaning that rainwater finds its way through the deck and accumulates in the bilge. (Also meaning that those bits of channel that support the deck are rusting and flaking away to such an extent that the upper edges have basically turned into jagged knives, meaning that when climbing in and out of the bilge - something I do with disheartening frequency - I have to be very careful not to allow a foot to slip and shin to land on said edges. I’m pretty sure I have scars to illustrate the inadvisability of this occurrence.)

Adding to the problem is the fact that engine overheating causes the pressure cap to release and expel water forcefully out into the bilges, as I mentioned. And even with the fancy Lucky Nickel Coolant Refilling System (patent pending), there is always a bit of spillover into the bilge during frequent refills. Oh, and the stern gland of the boat is also becoming quite leaky too, because the bearing is shot. So leaky deck, plus explosive expulsion, plus drippy refilling, plus leaky stern gland equals a LOT of water in the Bilge. Or at least there was a lot of water in the bilge, until I spent a few hours one Sunday afternoon vacuuming it out and carefully decanting it into large plastic jugs so it can be taken away by people who properly deal with water that has stewed for months along with a good measure of motor oil, diesel and antifreeze. All 140 litres of it. My much-abused, long-suffering shop-vac will never be the same.

Sadly, vacuuming up water was not the end of the project. In order to protect what steel is left in the hull of the boat it needed the same treatment that the cabin bilge got after I discovered the horror show of rust under the kitchen floorboards. That meant scraping out all the large loose bits of scaly rust, and then getting in with a wire brush attachment on a cordless drill to try to get even more out, and then vacuuming up the results. Then there’s the degreasing, and then the rinsing, and then the application of a special anti-rust treatment, which has to be left to dry thoroughly for many days before you can finally go in with heavy duty bilge paint. (And can I just pause here for a minute and ask, for the love of God, how long will it take autocorrect to understand that when I type bilge I genuinely mean BILGE and not BIKE? A thousand times? A million? Can I please just send Apple some MORE of my money and get this fixed??)

If that all sounds like a tedious process to you, then you are obviously an Astute Go Stay Work Play Live reader, but you still don’t know the half of it, sweetheart. As with everything on the boat, it’s not that simple. To start with, the engine bilge is divided into sections by the steel structure that holds the boat together, meaning you kind of have to tackle each stage separately for each section. In some cases this isn’t too bad, but in some sections the access is, shall we say... restricted. For one thing, there’s a rather large diesel engine taking up a lot of space. And there’s the diesel tank and the two cursed skin tanks and the six large batteries and the propellor shaft and the exhaust pipe wrapped in extra-itchy fibreglass insulation, and a merry assortment of wires, hoses, cables, ballast, and other crap all of which makes reaching some areas challenging indeed. Also, it is a trifle mucky down in the engine bilge because every possible surface you come in contact with is coated in a layer of grease and dirt.

What this meant, in practise, is that I spent two mornings pretzeling myself into the most ridiculous and uncomfortable positions imaginable in order to reach the eight different bilge compartments at least six or seven times each. It was like doing yoga in a dumpster for six hours while being pelted with the contents of a Screwfix catalogue. There was once, when I’d threaded myself alongside the alternator with a greasy wiring harness in my hair, copies of the Evening Standard duct taped to my legs as primitive shin pads, and at least eleven redundant wiring clips making divots in my right buttock when I seriously questioned the life choices that led me to that moment. Then I extricated myself to stagger over to the boatyard chandlery to pick up ANOTHER roll of rags and realised I looked like some kind of unholy cross between a bag lady and a Victorian chimney sweep, complete with Central Casting style black smudges on my face. Let’s just say that those instructions on the back of shampoo bottles that encourage you to “wet hair, later, rinse, REPEAT” where followed assiduously when I finally hit the shower later that day.

I’ve now just returned from what I hope will be my last dumpster yoga session for quite some time, having spent a few hours of Saturday applying a coat of paint to the bilge - at long last! Though of course not before tightening up a leaking connection from the diesel tank that managed to drip onto my formerly nice dry bilges, requiring a bit more cleanup before I could start. Because this boat will not stop defying me.

By now, 1900+ words in, your coffee is cold and you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about the actual work that precipitated this whole business - the skin tanks. Because that work hasn’t even started yet, meaning I’m homeless for another few weeks, and there’s more boat blogging to come. Until then stay tuned, and don't get any big ideas, because I've already registered the domain for dumpsteryoga.com. Coming soon to a strip mall near you.