Upgrading my Universal/Westerbeke Heat Exchanger: The dumbest repair I’ve ever made

This is a tale of folly and failure. My lack of research and trust in manufacturers led me down a long path of woe.

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The Universal 5424 in our 1982 O’day 34 was overheating. The 3-cylinder diesel motor was rated to run at 2800 RPM. However, if we pushed it past 1900 RPM, the temp needle began rising and never stopped.

Decades ago, Universal/Westerbeke admitted that the 2″ diameter heat exchanger was too small for the 5424 and the M-25 and recommended upgrading to a 3″ heat exchanger. Despite our engine allegedly being rebuilt in 2008, that never happened.

At the very beginning of this debacle, a friend said I should just buy a cheap generic 3″ heat exchanger with screw-in bungs, so I could size them to my hoses and just do a quick swap. I decided against that because I wanted to keep the engine as OEM as possible with an “official” upgraded part, and I thought finding the barbed bronze bungs might be a pain. Oh, how foolish I was.

Catalina Direct had factory style replacements heat exchangers starting at $500, but I wasn’t ready to pay that much, so I searched eBay. One seller claimed he had a 3″ Universal heat exchanger. It looked very similar to the one I had. I made an offer at $150 (plus $20 shipping), and he accepted! I probably should have paid more attention to the last line in his auction that said, “measurements are not exact.”

A few days later the eBay exchanger arrived. It did look very much like the one on my boat — because it was the exact same 2″ diameter heat exchanger mounted on the back of my motor.

I contacted the eBay seller, and after a photo with a measuring tape showing that he had definitely listed this part incorrectly, he agreed to refund my money. Unfortunately, I had to spend another $20 to ship it back.

Before the project even started, I was down $40.

I browsed the Universal/Westerbeke options on Catalina Direct, and they all had the same hose inlets/outlets listed. I took that to mean they were standard sizes that would be the same as the heat exchanger I was removing. That was a terrible assumption.

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Approximately $550 later, I had this 3″ x 17″ behemoth that didn’t share a single intake or outlet size with my old unit. In fact, despite being the “factory” upgrade, some of the outlets didn’t even point the correct direction.

I slowly began the process of adapting the hose sizes and directions to make it fit.

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Why have four hoses and eight leak points when you can have 15 adapter pieces, nine hose sections and 63 leak points?

The worst part of it all was the 7/8″ raw water intake port. My oberdorfer pump had a 1/2″ barb and hose coming off of it. I found a 3/4″ barb, but a 3/4″ hose will not fit on the 7/8″ intake — even if you boil the hose first. There are no 7/8″ fittings available ANYWHERE.

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I ended up running the 1/2″ hose to a 3/4″ adapter and then triple clamping the 7/8″ hose onto that to keep it from leaking. However, since the soft 7/8″ inlet got slightly out of round as the heat exchanger was being moved around for three weekends, the 7/8″ hose doesn’t make a perfect seal on it, and I’ve now got an ever-so-slight drip of sea water leaking into my bilge for the rest of my life.

Another $500 in adapters and hoses later, I finally had the entire coolant system put back together.

Since I had to drain all the coolant anyway, I decided to replace my thermostat.

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That was an easy process, but you have to special order the molded hose that connects the thermostat housing to the water pump. Be aware of this fact ahead of time because if you’re not, you have to put the project on hold for another week while you wait on that hose to show up.

Once I finally got it all back together, I fired up the engine, and it promptly overheated.

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Yes, I had an airlock. I did not know that after filling the coolant system, you must remove the bolt in the top of the thermostat housing and then pour more coolant in there to remove the air pocket.

After overheating the engine twice dealing with the airlock, I finally got it running. We ran it in the slip long enough to verify the thermostat was opening correctly, and that she wouldn’t overheat anymore.

It took three weekends and about $1200 after the expense of the heat exchanger, hoses, adapters, clamps, thermostat, and impeller, but we can finally push into the wind at 2200 RPM without overheating.

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Our last time out in that type of wind we were running at 2 – 2.5 knots. Making trips down to Galveston in a strong headwind were completely out of the question. Now we should be able to plan trips at an average speed of at least 4 knots no matter what the weather is like.

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We still don’t have one of those speed demon sailboats that can motor at 6.5 knots, but four is twice as nice as two. However, if I could do this project again, I definitely wouldn’t be so freaking dumb.

Don’t be like me. Get the generic heat exchanger and screw in the barbs that fit your existing hoses. You can even get 90-degree nozzles and twist them to the exact direction required.

I’m going to apologize now to any future captain of Gimme Shelter. Projects like this are the reason people hate previous owners.

 

 

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Going Offshore for the First Time

Well to be perfectly honest this wasn’t our first time offshore, but it was our first time by ourselves, and in our own boat which counts for a lot.

We left Laguna Harbor at 7:15 a.m. It took us a couple hours to navigate past Galveston Island and past the jetties out into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time you get past the jetties in Galveston you are already about three miles out, and a decent distance from land. We stayed on this line pretty much the whole way.

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This is me happily steering before I got a taste of the real ocean.

I was helming the boat, and I was terrified.  My eyes were just going from the charts, to the wind direction, to the other boats, to the waves cycling quickly and continuously, taking it all in.  As I made the turn out of the ship channel and around the jetties Fred is second guessing everything.  “Are you sure it’s deep enough?  We are very close to the shore.”  I don’t blame him for one second, but I was so intensely calculating every possible variable that his thinking I would run us aground was infuriating.

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Turning onto our course the wind direction was not the broad reach we had been promised but instead a 45-50 degree close haul with winds at about 10 knots.  We were tipping a bit, and the waves seemed so big on our sides.  Ever so gradually I got better and better. For the first 15 minutes I could not let go of the wheel, not even to take a drink. After 30 minutes or so I was comfortable with both sails and the engine off. It wasn’t until about an hour after we set sail though that I was comfortable enough for Fred to stop steering and turn on the autopilot. I just don’t trust that thing.

This Hypokampus speeding off as Fred tries to coax me into putting the jib up.

This is Hippokampos speeding off as Fred tries to coax me into putting the jib up.

Even though we were only about 3 miles offshore I put on my PFD and kept it on the entire time. I also made the dogs wear their life jackets for the first couple hours, but when the winds started to die, and the dogs were more likely to die of heat stroke than drowning, I let them take them off.

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A few hours into the trip we got hit by a small squall.  We weren’t sure what to expect, so we were at ready to reef the sails.  Not knowing how much wind might be coming, we decided to go ahead and reef. Fred went up to the fore deck, and knowing I was already scared, decided to go ahead and put a double reef in. That’s when we found out that our second reefing point doesn’t actually reach our boom, and therefore does nothing. So we just decided to take down the main sail all together. Good to know! The wind didn’t end up getting any faster than 12 knots, the rain only lasted a few minutes, and before we knew it we were putting the sails back up.

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Taking sails up and down turned out to be a real trend for the trip.  As the winds continued to diminish, we slowly saw our projected arrival time on the chart plotter creep to midnight, and then 1 a.m. We knew we had to switch on the motor. Thanks to our wind direction indicator we know that with wind at least 30 degrees off the nose, we can motor sail no problem, but anything closer than that and our jib is flapping wildly. With winds shifting off our nose we were furling and unfurling the jib frequently trying to maximize our speed.

Tex had zero issues with our slow rolling speed.

Tex had zero issues with our slow rolling speed.

We ended up at the Freeport jetties around 6:30, making our time offshore a little over 8 hours. We went right past the Freeport LNG terminal where Fred made one of his first corporate documentary videos and where he hosted Magnum Photographer Jean Guamy back in 2007. (Confession, I’ve never seen the video or the photos.)

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We had reserved slips at Bridge Harbor Yacht Club, and it was only a short trip down the ICW, and under the bridge to get there.

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After some vague directions, and no slip or pier number we were very happy to see BHYC’s team waiting for us in bright shirts to help us dock right out front.

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We were tied up on the finger pier at 7:15 p.m. making it exactly a 12-hour trip. After a few drinks and some delicious food some of us were falling asleep at the dinner table. It had been a long day full of firsts. Longest sail, first time offshore, Andy and Jayne’s first time making a long trip just the two of them on this boat, first time in Freeport, and first time being checked in by a parrot.

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A night on the hook at Redfish Island

It was one of those weeks when everyone needed something. Long hours at the office were followed by evenings of errands and projects. Then there was a dentist appointment and an auto inspection. Even when we reached the marina Friday night, the work didn’t end.

I had pulled up the cabin sole the previous weekend, so I was immediately tasked with the job of running a NMEA cable through the bilge, so that we could have a floor again. Saturday morning I spent an hour up the mast cleaning contact points on a steaming light that, despite having voltage and a good bulb, just wouldn’t turn on.

I was tired of working. It was time to escape.

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We left in the heat of the day and motored through the burgeoning traffic of summer boaters, their vessels just freed from winter storage. We passed the boardwalk as the smell of fried food wafted across the channel and tourists waved to us, hoping we’d wave back. To them we weren’t just another person gawking at the bay, we were a part of it.

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We fought our way through the wakes at the mouth of the channel where every passing motorboat captain immediately throttled up to display his power to anyone he hoped might be watching. And then, we finally raised sails and cut the motor.

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A six knot breeze out of the south was carrying us along, close hauled, at almost four knots.

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We slowly wandered back and forth across the bay, making a bit more forward progress with each tack, heading for Redfish Island.

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We crossed the course of a late afternoon rum race with dozens of sailboats of all shapes and sizes pushing for every ounce of speed in the light wind, beating a path in front of us. Then as they rounded a marker and headed north, we watched them deploy spinnakers, creating rainbows of billowing fabric as they pressed on downwind until they disappeared along the horizon.

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After three hours of sailing, we furled the jib and dropped the main, motoring into the crowded harbor. Weaving our way in between fishing boats, ski boats, trawlers, and every other sort of craft you can imagine, we inched our way towards the south end of the island and dropped anchor.

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Families swam, jumping off the gunwales of their vessels and bouncing around in inflatable tubes beside swim platforms. People cast fishing lines from the stern of their small boats, hoping to catch … something. Classic rock competed with rap music at deafening volumes from boats full of women in bikinis, dancing and posing for pictures on the bows.

We paddled the dogs ashore for a walk on the rocky island as we bided our time. Like clockwork, as the sun set, the anchors were raised and one by one the families, the fishermen, and the partiers all fired up their motors and headed for home.

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We weren’t left completely alone in the anchorage, but our few remaining neighbors were cut from a different cloth. The sounds of nature replaced the thumping radios as darkness shrouded the island. We ate dinner in the cockpit and sipped on rum and coke as we watched the waning strawberry moon rise in the east and climb across the sky.

Only the occasional whir of a wind generator or speckle of laughter from another sailboat would rise to compliment the sound of waves lapping against our hull and washing up on the island.

When you unplug yourself from the grid, and you remove the artificial lights that fill our cities and line our streets, it’s hard to ignore your natural circadian rhythm. It had been a long day, and an even longer week. The darkness of the night told my body it was time for sleep.

The wind had picked up to ten knots, and the open hatch of the V-berth was funneling a cool breeze into the boat as I stared up at the stars. It was a moment impossible to photograph. Even barring the technical difficulty of capturing stars from a floating platform, a perfect photo of the view couldn’t have preserved the feeling of independence created by swinging on the hook or the warmth of my wife lying next to me.

Just as I began to drift to sleep, the wake of a passing container shipped rolled me awake. I got up one last time to make sure we weren’t dragging, and more importantly, that none of our neighbors were dragging into us. As I stood on the cabin top a shooting star crossed the sky, and as I returned to bed I knew, this was the life man was meant to live. For centuries, this was the feeling that had drawn so many men to sea.

The charts claimed sunrise would take place at 6:20 a.m., but light filled the cabin long before the sun made an actual appearance. Neither of the dogs could be convinced that it wasn’t really morning yet, and they wanted to walk.

I put a life vest on one dog and promised the other I’d be back for him soon. Then I pulled on my own PFD before descending the swim ladder into our old kayak and for a paddle to shore. The heat of the day hadn’t yet set in, and the air was so clear that you could distinctly see the Kemah Causeway seven miles to the west as well as the entire Galveston skyline ten miles to the south.

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We walked slowly down the island as unburdened tugboats headed north in the Houston Ship Channel to pick up new barges and shrimp boats crisscrossed the bay. There was a dead calm.

Gimme Shelter’s anchor rode hung limp in the water as she bobbed in place.

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With Redfish Island being a barren pile of rock and oyster shells, both the dog and I were taken by surprise when we suddenly came upon a life and death struggle. A Graham’s crayfish snake was stretched out across our path, unsuccessfully attempting to swallow a very large mullet.

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With the fish still twitching, desperately trying to escape, the snake slithered down behind a pile of rocks to continue his breakfast with a little more privacy.

I took one last moment to marvel at the beauty of the morning before I paddled back to our sturdy little boat. Upon my return I found Mary had brewed a pot of coffee, so she made the second trip to the island on the kayak with Big Tex while I lit the stove and began flipping pancakes.

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After my warning of snakes eating fish the size of her dog, her walk was rather brief. When she paddled back, we sat down to not just a breakfast on the hook, but what happened to be our one-year anniversary breakfast.

As the sun continued to climb in the sky, we took refuge in the V-berth for a short nap before the heat of the day became oppressive and the motor boaters returned to the anchorage.

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The refrigerator had run our house batteries flat over night, but it didn’t matter. Replacing them would just be another project added to the list when we returned to the real world. The starter battery was still fully charged, and the motor cranked right up for a windless journey home.

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As we approached the boardwalk, we took a selfie and toasted our anniversary with sodas to commemorate the occasion – holding on to that moment of freedom before we began fighting traffic in the channel, before we began washing and repairing the boat, before we returned to work.

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