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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Chasing leaks

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I was in my favorite seat in the boat when I thought I felt something on my head. I looked up just in time to feel a very cold drip down my neck.

Last year we had replaced the two large cabin windows, but it was time to chase leaks again. This time we had water coming through the handrails on the ceiling, so we swore we’d actually commit a nice weekend or two for repairs rather than just sailing around while our boat continued to leak.

I wasn’t excited about dealing with all the wood plugs that were hiding the screws, but there was nothing to do except start drilling.

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Our rails were through-bolted from the inside of the cabin to the rails on the cabin top with the screw heads inside and the nuts outside.

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Unfortunately after 35 years, most of these screws didn’t want to budge. We managed to break about half of them loose, but then I had to deal with the tedious process of drilling the heads of the other half.

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After much longer than expected, we finally managed to get the rails loose.

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I made a trip to West Marine for new hardware, but of course the screws weren’t a standard length, so I had to buy longer ones. Meanwhile Mary was sanding the rails to clean them up. When I got back we gooped up the holes and started bolting everything back together.

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In retrospect I wish I had taken the time to paint the black spacers while the rail was off, but it never crossed my mind until we had it back on the boat.

The interior rails had the screw heads, so it was easy to get those holes plugged and leveled. We then rubbed the rail with teak oil, and it was looking pretty good.

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On the exterior I had to grind the extra length off all the screws, which wasn’t as terrible a job as I thought it would be. It took about 30 minutes to get all of the screws cut down. Then I started tapping in plugs.

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This was my first time to use plugs, so it wasn’t a flawless operation. I chiseled them down and then sanded them level, but I had two or three that split wrong or came apart and had to be redone.

Finally, I got it all sanded smooth and added another layer of teak oil.

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You would think that would have been enough leak fixing for the year, but we also finally tackled the broken opening port in the V-berth. When we bought the boat fit came with a tupperware container under that window to catch the water. A year ago we bought a replacement window. I guess after four years it was finally time to do something about it.

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The new window was the same size, but the interior screw holes weren’t in the same places, and the exterior trim had no holes at all.

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There was a long debate whether or not to drill holes in the new trim to make it match the old trim rings, but it was finally decided to mount it with sealant only the way we had mounted the fixed ports. If we really need it to match we can always glue screw heads on the trim.

On top of all that work, Mary also sanded and oiled the companionway as a bonus project.

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The good news is we’ve got no leaks from the re-bedded rails or the new window.

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The bad news is that our mast is leaking again. Guess we’ll tackle that next year because I need to do some sailing.

 

 

 

Sunday on the Bay

We tried something new last weekend. For the first time we loaded up all of Mary’s sewing stuff, and we set up a tent at the monthly Galveston Market near the strand.

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Unfortunately, weather wasn’t too great, and we didn’t have much traffic. We did manage to break even on the purchase of the tent and tables and even made a few dollars to put towards our annual WordPress renewal fees, but if we were having to pay ourselves, it would be far less than minimum wage. Now there are a few more bags and business cards out there in wild, so hopefully that will spur more online business for Mary. However, I think we both decided that sitting in a tent for seven hours isn’t our thing.

Thankfully the weather cleared up Sunday, so we had a few friends join us and got off the dock for a few hours.

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I have no idea what race/practice was going on, but there was a line of J boats going back and forth. It was quite interesting to see. I wish we’d been in the right place when they all turned around and popped their spinnakers. It would have made an amazing photo.

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There weren’t many boats out at Redfish Island. Our buddy Tony brought his inflatable SUP and impressively paddled his way to the island against 17 knot winds.

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None of the rest of us were brave enough to try it as we were all pretty sure we’d be swimming our way back to the boat.

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Eventually we had to weigh anchor and head back to civilization. I envy those who can cruise with no schedule, but for now it’s back to the office for me and back to sewing bags for Mary.

Rain Rain Go Away

Rain has been ruining all of our weekend plans for the past couple weeks. I’ll admit, there is nothing as enjoyable as laying around doing nothing while the rain pitter-patters on the top of the boat, but after a few weeks one does start to go crazy.

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On Halloween a combination of high tides and large amounts of rainfall led to the waters of Clear Lake climbing up over the bulkheads and clawing their way towards the pools and parking lots.

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The fixed piers were totally underwater, and the floating piers were above the bulkheads.

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We took a walk all the way around the marina during a lull, more to satisfy my curiosity than for the dogs.

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Most of the streets were full of water.

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But the boats in the shipyard still need a few more feet of water to float again.

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Overall we did get a few things done on the boat, but it was a damp lazy weekend.  Our boat is facing some serious leak issues that will need to be addressed immediately. Our mast is still leaking a little bit, although much improved. Multiple windows are leaking now, and our overhead hatch has started dripping, not from the lens Fred replaced last year, but from the actual bedding around the hatch itself. Unfortunately we can’t rip things out to start re-bedding them until we get some sun, and the forecast is predicting even more rain.

Converting an icebox into a refrigerator

The previous owner of Gimme Shelter converted the icebox to a refrigerator in 1985. I still have the receipt for the Adler-Barbour cold machine. However, after 30 years of service, it had seen better days.

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When it finally gave up the ghost we decided to start fresh, so we set about dismantling the system and cleaning out the icebox.

With the modern refrigerator kits from Isotherm and Adler-Barbour, converting an icebox is one of the easiest projects we’ve done.

The very first step when attempting a conversion is to measure your icebox and calculate the volume. Ours was 16″ x 20″ x 21″. With a quick conversion that’s 1.33′ x 1.66′ x 1.75’= 3.88 cubic feet.

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Knowing the size of icebox we needed to cool, we started browsing our available options. Based on price and reviews, we decided to try the $899 Isotherm Compact 2301 Icebox Refrigeration Kit. However, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between one brand and another anymore. They all use danfoss compressors, and the evaporators look mysteriously similar.

When the refrigeration kit arrived, the box was surprisingly small.

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In the box was the compressor, condenser and evaporator, pre-charged with r134a coolant.

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The unit also came with a bracket for mounting the compressor on either a horizontal or vertical surface.

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And the kit came with the thermostat, a fuse holder, and a short power cable, but we had to supply our own positive and negative leads to the battery as well as a breaker.

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The Isotherm unit turned out to be so compact that it could be easily mounted under the galley cabinets or a settee. However, since we already had a hole drilled and a location available in the lazarette, we decided to keep the new unit there.

That brings me to step two. Figure out where you want to mount the compressor and lay everything out BEFORE you drill any holes in the icebox.

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As you can see, we already had a hole drilled, but making sure you drill the hole in the right place is the most complicated part of this entire project. If you’ve got everything laid out and drill your hole in the right spot, you’re over the hump.

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For best results, you need to run power wires directly from the battery to a breaker to the mounting location. The instructions for you refrigerator will tell you the appropriate wire and breaker sizes.

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Wiring the new Isotherm unit was incredibly easy. Everything is very clearly labeled and uses push-on connectors.

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Once we had our wiring and coolant lines run, we screwed down the Isotherm mounting bracket where we wanted the compressor to sit. Then it’s vibration absorbing feet just slide onto the bracket and clip in.

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The coolant lines have self-sealing valves. In other words, they don’t open until you screw them together. And if you ever need to take them apart, they should seal themselves as you unscrew them. This not only makes install easy, it’s also much better for the environment not to have coolant leaking into the air.

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The lines are threaded with one male and one female on each half of the system, so that there’s only one way to hook them together. Just line them up straight and use two wrenches to tighten them.

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Meanwhile back in the icebox we need to mount the evaporator as high as possible while leaving space for an insulated lid. Trying to stick your arm down in the box while screwing at an odd angle can be tricky, so making a paper template of the evaporator and pre-drilling the mounting holes makes it easier. I was really surprised the unit didn’t come with a paper mounting template.

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The bare metal end of the thermostat lead needs to be screwed up against the bottom of the evaporator. (I forgot to get a photo of this, but I found out the hard way that it’s much easier to accomplish this before you screw the evaporator onto the wall.)

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Our unit also came with a lid that is held in place with a bungee cord. I’m not sure it really does much to make the icebox any icier, but it does give the refrigerator a more finished look.

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Our final step was to attach the positive and negative 12-volt leads to the control panel on the compressor. We flipped the breaker and were delighted when the unit hummed to life. However, it was an extremely quiet, barely audible hum. Our old unit had sort of a high-pitched bearing squeal that was audible anywhere in the boat. With the new unit we can’t hear it at all unless we open the lazarette and listen for it.

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As you can see, the footprint of the new until is less than half that of our old unit.

Once everything is connected and running, you can squirt a little spray foam into the icebox hole to seal it up. If your icebox lid isn’t insulated, it will also boost the efficiency of your new refrigerator to insulate that as well. Catalina Direct actually sells icebox lid insulation containers that just screw on to the bottom of your existing lid in a couple of sizes, but it’s easy enough just to make your own.

The 2015 Lakewood Yacht Club Harvest Moon Regatta

When you buy a boat in Kemah, Texas you can’t help but hear stories of certain things like Redfish Island, Double Bayou, and the Harvest Moon Regatta.

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It seemed like every sailor with even a little bit of salt had done the Harvest Moon at some time or another. It also seemed like a whole lot of them had suspiciously “won it” more than once.

The regatta is a three-day, two-night race from Galveston to Port Aransas. It’s been an event that I’ve wanted to participate in for years now, but it always seemed I was traveling for work or had some other major conflict.

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This year I thought I was going to miss it again because Mary was out of vacation, and I was already taking two weeks off for a boat delivery in November. However, we had friends in need of one more crew person at the last minute, and they didn’t need me to help sail the boat back. That meant I would only miss one day of work, and Mary agreed to drive down to Port Aransas to treat herself to a spa day before meeting us at the marina for the party.

The weather is looking a little bit scary. It’s probably going to be raining sideways the entire time. This will also be my first attempt at sleeping on a boat under sail. We’ll see how that goes.

When we start Thursday you’ll be able to follow our track at http://trackleaders.com/harvest15i.php?name=HIPPOKAMPOS

One thing is certain, we’ll have plenty of wind.

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UPDATE: Looks like I won’t be sailing in the Harvest Moon Regatta this year. We got this message from Lakewood Yacht Club a few minutes ago.

THE 2015 HARVEST MOON REGATTA® RACE SCHEDULED TO BEGIN OCTOBER 22, 2015 HAS BEEN CANCELLED.

Due to serious concerns about the safety of participants and their vessels due to hazardous weather conditions predicted by several weather authorities, Lakewood Yacht Club, as Host, and Bay Access, as Organizer, have decided to cancel the 2015 Harvest Moon Regatta® race.

Information regarding the other events scheduled to occur in Port Aransas as part of the regatta, including the Bacardi Rum Party, BBQ, and raffle events will be forthcoming.

The history and goal of the Harvest Moon Regatta® race is to promote offshore sailing in safe conditions such that the participants, whether seasoned sailing veterans or first time offshore sailors, can enjoy the race and trip down the coast with confidence and safety for all concerned. Race safety is paramount. Though it’s possible the weather could moderate during the time the race would have been held, the forecasts indicate the conditions will most likely remain such that race conditions, especially docking and vessel return conditions, will not meet the goals of the race as organized. Therefore, the 2015 Harvest Moon Regatta® race has been cancelled.

Sailing with Dolphins

Labor day weekend was a long awaited chance for us to take Gimme Shelter to new destinations and have a bit of real adventure. Dixie had been having stomach issues all week, so Friday morning we had her checked by the veterinarian to make sure she was ok to travel. She got some antibiotics and some anti-nausea medicine then we were on our way to Kemah.

I got to work unloading all of our food and supplies onto the boat and carefully stowing them away while Fred made runs back and forth to the gas station for diesel. Our fuel gauge was only showing slightly above 3/4 when our filter funnel backed up and stopped filling the boat. That spot just above 3/4 was where the gauge was stuck when we bought Gimme Shelter. Apparently 3/4 was as high as the gauge was going to show.

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Around 1:15 we cast off from our marina and started our slow motor into the wind towards our first stop for the weekend, Laguna Harbor on the Bolivar Peninsula.

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We watched patched of rain pass beside and behind us, but thankfully they all missed us.

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Our slow motoring turned into quite the adventure after passing Redfish Island. The dolphins were out in full swing surfing the bow wakes of big cargo ships.

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We were making better time than expected, and despite our late start we were nearing Bolivar around sunset. Something about sunsets really makes dolphins jump out of the water, and as we crossed the ship channel we saw several small families of dolphins doing all sorts of weird things in the water. I’ve seen them swimming around pretending to do what I can only imagine is “playing shark”.  I’ve also seen them sort of “wrestling” around in the water.  Every once in awhile we get a chance to see them doing some jumps just for fun.

We entered Laguna Harbor and rendezvoused with our friends Andy and Jayne aboard their Pearson 422, Hippokampos, who were also making the Labor Day trip but had managed to leave Kemah a little earlier.

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The dogs are always glad when it’s time to start grilling.

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As we sipped a few beers we saw dozens of jellyfish swimming around the marina. They seemed to be popping up everywhere. We decided we wouldn’t be swimming anywhere in the bay that weekend.

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We shared a nice meal of chicken fajitas with Hippokampos before taking the dogs for one last walk before bed. That’s when Dixie walked up in the grass to drop a load — except as she was squatting I noticed she was pooping on a huge black snake. The snake had its head up looking at us inquisitively. Dixie finished her business and trotted on ahead. She never even knew it was there.

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Repairing a cabin dome light with LEDs

I think we can all agree that the easiest way to convert your boat lights to LED is to just stick one of these adapter bulbs in the socket.

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However, not long after a recent “conversion” one of my dome lights quit again. I pulled out the multi-meter to see if I was getting power to the socket, and I found this.

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One of the contacts was missing. After 33 years the spring-loaded plastic bottom of the socket had become too brittle and finally snapped. While my dome lights aren’t particularly pretty, they at least all match. I was faced with either repairing this one or replacing it with a new style light that wouldn’t look like the others and would require me to drill new mounting holes.

Instead of replacing the socket I decided to just wire an array of LEDs to the switch. Since I wanted it done that afternoon, my only option was West Marine.

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The Dr. LED dome light conversion kit came with two sets of pigtails, one with bare wires on the ends and the other with a double bayonet connector. That seemed a bit unnecessary because anyone attempting this who didn’t need the bayonet could have just clipped it off and used the wires, but I guess they have to justify charging $30 for LEDs somehow.

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I turned off the 12-volt power, removed the light fixture from the ceiling, clipped the old wires, and removed the broken socket.

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Yep, it’s still broken.

I then connected the positive leads to the switch and the negative lead to ground. Then I plugged the pigtail into the LED array.

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Time to turn the 12 volt breaker back on and test the setup.

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The LED Conversion kit comes with two pieces of double-sided foam tape to stick the array into the dome. I only used one. I guess the other one is there in case you mess up.

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Then I just had to re-attach the lens and screw the fixture back into the cabin top.

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Theoretically I should never have to mess with this light again. I’ll let you know how it works out.

Throwback Thursday – Marina shopping (Originally posted: Sept 9, 2013)

How do you know when it’s time to leave your marina?

(Italics=Mary, Normal=Freddie)

A slip at Marina Del Sol in Kemah, Texas came with my first boat when I purchased it four and a half years ago.

Imagine a long winding road through million dollar houses.  At the end of the road, Surprise!, there is a marina out of no where.  It is completely surrounded by large houses and the land surrounds it in almost a complete circle, forming a little secret protected whole. Every night you can sit on your dock with your friends and watch the most beautiful sunsets setting over the masts.  Cheerfully saying hello, as friend after friend walks to their boat, everyone stopping to tell you the latest marina happenings.

There is a never ending supply of boat advice, both expert and questionable.  The parade of characters that we have been blessed to have thrown upon us has made the adventure feel much more real.  I won’t mention any names but we all know who they are….all of them.  

Hurricane Ike had just come through the year before, so all the marinas had suffered some damage. The cock-eyed docks with mangled, missing piers were forgivable at the time. It also had the least expensive floating docks in the area. Plus, when I bought it the Seahorse was a dilapidated piece of crap that didn’t run, so it wasn’t like I had the choice of moving anywhere else.

The years went by and all the other marinas in the area repaired things and rebuilt their docks. But not Marina Del Sol. It filled up with silt while the bulkheads surrounding it continued to rot away. The cock-eyed docks just stayed cock-eyed. They didn’t even make an effort to remove the destroyed piers that twist down into the water. The story is, someone took the insurance money and ran.

The first year I asked if we would be getting some pool furniture since there was only one lounge chair and a very strange assortment of half-broken chairs around the pool. Management said, they’d put it on the list. I asked again every spring as more and more of the plastic chairs broke and the seating dwindled. Four years later, you have to bring camping chairs with you to the pool if you expect everyone in your group to be able to sit down.

It was my third year there when my boat was finally running well, and I was sailing every weekend that I realized with only a 4’11” draft, I was sitting on the bottom of the marina and couldn’t move from December 1 until the third week of March. We had a massive drought in Texas that year and there had been water rationing all summer, so I chalked it up to the drought. However, when I happened again the next year, I asked the marina if they were going to ever dredge. Like the pool furniture, it was “on the list,” but they just couldn’t afford it right now.

Then came my rates with the 27′ Starwind

Year 1: $185
Year 2: Suddenly they wanted $285. I said I was leaving and desperately tried to get my boat into a condition where I could be accepted at another marina. However, the week before I was set to leave, they offered a rate of $225. I decided to stay.
Year 3: I complained about the $225 rate and they lowered it to $200.
Year 4: They raised the $200 rate back up to $220, but I sold that boat and Mary brought in the O’day 34 at a rate of $200.
Year 4.5: The six month lease for the O’day is up and they asked for $250. We said no, so they came back with $215.

They supposedly charge by the length of your boat, not by the length of the slip. However, our friend with a 32′ Endeavour on the same pier is paying $225, a friend with a 32′ Allied Seawind is paying $165, and a friend with a 27′ fishing boat is paying $165. I have no idea how they are actually setting the pricing, and I feel like a sucker for ever paying above $200.  I can only imagine how low some people may be paying.  

Then there’s the bathrooms. They’ve never been clean, but lately, it’s really bad. Many mornings you wander in to find no toilet paper, no hand towels, and poop smeared on the wall or floor of the stall. For almost two months last year the ladies room only had a rope for a doorknob. Then for three weeks last month there were no lights in the men’s room. Then this morning Mary went to use the ladies room, and the doorknob came off in her hand.  It wouldn’t have been that bad, but I still couldn’t get in and I had to walk across the marina to go to the bathroom.  

I understand if you don’t have the budget to buy new furniture or dredge or rebuild the docks, but if you’ve got four people on staff, you can at least clean the bathrooms every morning.

Not that all of our experiences at Marina Del Sol have been bad. We’ve met many nice people there and made some great friends. However, the maintenance issues have come to a point where I refuse to spend another dollar at that place, and I’m definitely not going to spend another winter with our boat sitting in the mud.  It really hurts because all the people that live in the marina love it so much.  Everyone dreams of us all coming together to save the marina like in a ridiculous teen movie, but the reality of the situation is that would cost more money than anyone has.  It reminds me of when I hear people who think they can buy a boat for nothing and then fix it for nothing.  The reality of life is that when you want to fix something like a boat or a marina, you have to spend the money to do it correctly or you’re just going to end up underwater.  

Saturday morning we set out on a mission to find the perfect marina. But first we had to stop by the farmers market and have breakfast at Skippers.

But AFTER THAT, we set out to find the perfect marina.  AKA Marina Hunters (I was doing behind the scenes, reality tv interviews in my head the whole time.) 

First stop, Portofino.

Portofino is a dockominium. All the slips are privately owned and the community fees are controlled by a board of owners much like an HOA. It’s gated with gate codes and bathroom codes changing monthly. The upside, we’d be right at the Kemah bridge and could literally be sailing in 15 minutes. They also have a great pool on the Kemah channel where you can sit and watch the the boats go by. The downside, it was right at the Kemah bridge, which was really loud, and the slip we were looking at was on the ugly, less protected side.  This is our low range priced Marina.  Coming in at 250 Portofino was well under the Fackers budget.  I was honestly ready to sign when I left, I am learning to look at all the options and talk things out now.  We learned some things from boat shopping…

Next stop, Seabrook.

Seabrook is across the channel from Portofino. It also has a pool on the channel. Bigger shadier pool. It also has floating docks — some of which even have covered walkways. It seemed well maintained. There’s free wifi and a discount at the shipyard. The view on the side closer to Clear Lake was better, but the bridge traffic was still pretty loud. We also heard the road in and out floods in heavy rain. The only slip available there that fell within our budget was near the fuel dock, and had a narrow fairway. The slip we would have wanted there was $450.  The cheap slip was very far away from all the slips big enough for our friends.  It turns out normal marinas don’t just stick boats randomly on different sized docks, and its hard for a 34ft and a 40ft to be together.  

Next stop, Waterford.

This is a fancy marina. It’s gated. It had great restrooms, a small weight room and a sauna. We liked it, but the pool is actually owned by the adjoining restaurant, Sundance Grill. Therefore you cannot bring any food or drinks into the pool area. On the upside you have a waitress in the pool area bringing you drinks. On the downside, we are not wealthy enough to pay $400 a month in slip fees and also pay for poolside margaritas. Walking the dogs would have also been a nightmare because it’s a half mile of no dog signs before you get to the designated dog walking area. We decided we were not fancy enough.  It’s weird how rich people think.  This place was not the most expensive, nor did it have the best stuff.  Its just like all the snobby people decided to go there.  Weird.  “hey guys lets all get together and build a marina with no trees or breeze where everything costs a fortune, and then we’ll all get our hair done to go to the pool.”  Awesome. 

Final stop, Watergate.

Watergate got destroyed in Hurricane Ike, and they don’t deny that their boats basically got massacred by the storm surge. They’ve replaced all the old fixed docks with state-of-the-art floating docks, and you actually get a finger pier on both sides of your boat. No more messy docking, where I fall in the water!  You get a dockbox and free wifi as well as the use of two pools. They keep both the marina and the channel through Clear Lake dredged on a regular basis, and they built a bigger breakwater between the marina and the lake, so that hopefully when the next hurricane comes along, they will fare better.  A higher insurance policy is on the to do list.  We’ll still have a 30-minute trek across Clear Lake and out to the bridge to go sailing, but at least we’ll be able to make it any time of year.  I felt bad because I knew being closer to the bay was important to Freddie, but the noise at those two marinas by the bridge was really a deal breaker.  Watergate is quiet and has much more green space than most marinas. I could tell from the look in Mary’s eyes as soon as we walked through it, she was going to vote for Watergate.  I really love all the trees and park areas and long walking trails.  That is real relaxation for me.  

Every marina was a trade-off. Some places gave you quiet and a nice view. Some places gave you easy bay access. Some places gave you security. Some of them gave you safety from storms. None of them had the whole package, but Watergate checked the most boxes on our list and came in on the lower end of the price list we had gathered.

We signed a one-year lease and will be moving at the end of the month. We’ll miss sitting on the dock late into the night with our friends or stumbling off our boat and right onto our neighbor’s boat for coffee in the mornings, but change isn’t always a bad thing. Hopefully we’ll spend much more time meeting up with friends in the bay while sailing instead of being stuck in a dilapidated marina all winter.  We have high hopes of all the things we hope to accomplish in this next stage of our life, we’ll see how far that gets us.  

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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