November 9, 2021 – January 4, 2022
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
In fact, it fit two criteria for being an absolute.
RULE #1: Setting a deadline is one of the most effective ways to prevent something from getting done, especially on a boat.
It had been twenty months since our arrival into Panama with the ultimate intention of getting to the Pacific Ocean. A lot had happened during that time. For nearly six months we had been lurking right on the doorstep of the Panama Canal, poised but seemingly unable or at times even unwilling to cross the threshold. Only fifty miles. We could have walked by now.
Finally, after all this time, we had committed to a Panama Canal crossing which included paying over two thousand dollars in fees. It allowed for sixty days to schedule a transit date. A deadline sometimes can’t be avoided.
RULE #2: One of the most successful strategies to avoid having to fix something is to have a spare; the parts you will need are almost always the ones you don’t have.
Having just returned from a visit to the U.S., we had brought back to Exit a substantial number, and even more substantial weight, of spare parts to add to our already substantial onboard inventory. Furler parts were no where among those.
Anticipating the obvious question of why not just have spares for everything, I would have to point out we’d literarily be buying and traveling with an extra boat.
While we were in the States for six weeks, poor Exit sat tied to a dock without moving at all. Once we got back, she really needed to get out.
After finally making the big leap of completing the process to register for our Canal transit, we decided to return to San Blas. We were in agreement that we hadn’t explored the spectacular area nearly enough. We had sixty days and this was most likely our last chance to make a return visit. Once the Canal gates closed behind us, it would be far too expensive to open them again. At that point we’d be looking forward anyway, not back.
Our time in Panama had not been a stellar example of frequent sailing. It wasn’t just that we weren’t moving. Even when we were, it seemed there was always something stepping in the way of being able to get out the big, white floppy things.
Departing Shelter Bay Marina, we were ecstatic to see fifteen knots of wind on the beam… a perfect day for sailing. Not typical. The running joke aboard Exit is we usually know we’re going in the right direction because the wind is on our nose.
Once the mainsail was up, we went to unfurl the genoa.
It wouldn’t budge.
Kris reminded me to release the clutch.
It already was.
For us, there’s always a funny moment here or there after being off the boat for a period of time when you find yourself saying “Now how did that work?” with something that normally would be very second nature.
This was one of those moments.
When it doesn’t work, I have to walk my self through every step; even the obvious. Especially the obvious.
If it still doesn’t work, Kris has to walk me through every step; even the obvious. Especially the obvious.
If it still doesn’t work, Kris experiences both the satisfaction and annoyance of showing me what should be obvious; especially the obvious.
In the rare case it STILL doesn’t work, we either start laughing or swearing.
Everything was as it should be. The genoa just didn’t budge. We started laughing. After a few more minutes of verifying we weren’t crazy, it was determined the drum of the furler itself was completely seized up. Possibly the bearings inside. We started swearing.
Two options. Turn around or keep going. We had already spent a total of twelve weeks in Shelter Bay Marina during 2021. We had literally just gotten out of there. Better to keep going to San Blas, try to better assess what the problem was and what the options were.
San Blas was a much more pleasant and much less expensive place to be for the subsequent weeks spent assessing and researching.
As far as we could tell, the Profurl N52 furler currently on Exit was the original, which made it nearly thirty years old… quite long in the tooth for a piece of equipment sitting exposed on the bow to all the elements. A failed seal had allowed those elements inside the drum itself, eventually causing corrosion of the bearings which had finally seized completely.
Any hope of sorting things out in San Blas slowly disintegrated once it was determined that the bearings weren’t the only thing seized on the furler. Dissimilar metals, an aluminum drum with stainless steel bolts holding the assembly together, had completely corroded in place as well, which implied this was going to, at a minimum, require an impact wrench and possibly need drilling out of the bolts and re-tapping the holes. This was quickly gravitating away from the prospect of a do-it-yourself project.
The fortunate convenience of modern internet connections and cell phone coverage even in some of the most remote locations on the planet allowed all of the necessary access needed for referencing resources, researching options, and ordering parts from right in the middle of nowhere.
As we have repeatedly learned, the overbuilt approach strategy implemented during Exit’s construction often resulted in exceptionally heavy duty and nearly failsafe systems that inevitably are now more expensive when replacement becomes necessary. This was currently the situation.
With the diameter of our forestay and size of the genoa, we were looking at seven thousand dollars for a complete replacement of the furler itself… ouch. And, of course, newer components were in no way compatible with the older generation. It wouldn’t work to integrate a new drum on the existing system. The entire foil would have to be replaced as well. Of course.
Attempting to repair the drum was looking like the only real option. Luckily, replacement bearings were still available from Profurl. Unfortunately, they were incredibly proud of those parts. Five hundred dollars seemed ludicrous for a replacement bearing set; but not as ridiculous as two hundred dollars more for fasteners. However, when all additional research proved a dead end for outsourcing the very specific and obscurely sized parts, the end decision was that seven hundred dollars for a rebuild was only one tenth as ludicrous as seven thousand dollars for a replacement.
Sometimes it’s all about perspective.
With parts ordered but weeks away, it turned out a blessing to be in San Blas where we could enjoy the wait. We just needed to sit tight. All attempts to disassemble the furler had been completely thwarted by the seized bolts. While we were in San Blas, there was very little that could be done, but we also didn’t see the logic of paying for a slip at Shelter Bay Marina while we were waiting for parts to arrive.
It later became more fully apparent, as everything on the furler slowly came apart, exactly how fortunate it was that I didn’t get any further in San Blas. The furler drum couldn’t come off without disconnecting the forestay from the deck. Early assumptions that it could come apart without actually removing the entire forestay from the mast were sorely mistaken. Once the forestay was disconnected at the deck the whole thing would have become an absolute bitch to deal with. Fifty feet long and heavy. By the time I would have figured out it was all going to have to come down entirely anyway, it would have been partially taken apart and I would have simultaneously figured out there was no way this could be done on the deck. Plus, all this at anchor in thirty feet of water… right.
Which all would have culminated in a situation of us having to return to Shelter Bay Marina anyway, only now having to travel nearly a hundred miles in what would more than likely be sloppy conditions, with our forestay partially disassembled. Offshore with compromised rigging… the perfect scenario for having the entire mast come down. Almost an invitation of challenge to the powers that be. Not smart.
Instead, it became time to step back for a humble moment of realization – better to not overextend; sometimes it is very possible to fuck things up well worse than they already are.
One of the many benefits of meeting so many experienced sailors over the years is having a bottomless well of knowledge and advice to draw from when you find yourself beyond the scope of comfort and in desperate need of assistance. Even in remote San Blas, we were able to correspond with friends all over the world who provided invaluable insight and expertise. Without their help we would have found ourselves repeatedly at a loss.
Conversely, one of the many challenges of always being on the move is trying to determine who to place your trust in when it comes to recruiting hands-on support. Opinions are one thing, but when you are paying by the hour to have someone fix things for you, oftentimes involving following recommendations which may have far-reaching safety and/or monetary implications and then letting them hammer, drill, or cut your home, it becomes even more critical to trust that person is making sound decisions and has both the resources and skill set to justify what they are asking to be paid. Not to mention a good chance of success with the task at hand.
After wrestling with the furler continuously with no progress, we had arranged to have such a person meet us when we returned for the replacement bearing kit currently being shipped to Shelter Bay Marina. Numerous messages went back and forth between San Blas and Panama City. He knew we had parts coming and needed an impact wrench to get any further with the frozen bolts. We knew he was gonna to be available for fifty bucks an hour plus thirty more for gas. We just had to let him know when we got back to Colon and the parts arrived. No problem.
An unanticipated silver lining with the situation while we sorting out the genoa – unless we were willing to burn unlimited amounts of diesel, we needed to finally get out our solent sail, which we hadn’t used in four years. Being hanked on, it had always made for a much less convenient option than simply partially furling the genoa, which was currently not an option. We had used our stay sail, also hanked on, a number of times but its substantially smaller size made it easier to deal with in terms of getting it out, moving it around, storing on deck, and working with in general.
We now had a legitimate excuse to justify the extra effort required to deal with the solent sail, which likewise meant we had the opportunity to better understand the benefits of utilizing such a sail. Another tool in the box, as they say. Silly to try to drive in a nail with a wrench or a screwdriver only because your hammer is inconvenient to get at. Why approach sails any differently? The solent sail, though inconvenient, perfectly bridged the gap between the limited horsepower of the smaller stay sail versus the unwieldy size of a 130% genoa.
Of course, almost as soon as you start realizing the incredible benefit of one thing, you feel a tap on the shoulder. It’s reality reminding you not to get too distracted.
Killing time in paradise? But the clock is ticking.
When we first received word from our parts supplier that some of our order would be delayed by back orders, we took notice. When the ocean freight was subsequently postponed by another week, we started getting nervous. When they screwed up the order, the ticking clock became deafening. We were running out of time regarding the sixty day window we were allowed by the Panama Canal Authority to complete our transit.
After a great deal of nail biting and a number of terse exchanges with the supplier, we received word that the order was correct, complete, and en route. It looked unlikely that we’d be able to get the repair completely sorted out before our Canal deadline passed; however, our Canal agent indicated the situation should not end up costing more than an extra hundred or so dollars.
With our parts not more than a few days away, we bid farewell to beautiful San Blas and returned to the same slip we had occupied when we first arrived at Shelter Bay Marina in May 2021.
Despite the relative blessing of an uneventful return to Colon and the opportunity to sail more than half the distance there, we could only be so happy about our return. There was shit to fix and deadlines to keep.
We knew we were returning to Shelter Bay Marina and the dirty reality of civilization when we had traded the postcard photo images of uninhabited tropical islands on the horizon for those of cargo ships.
Our rigger arrived at Dock E on time the following day. Unfortunately, as he limped along, he spoke to just about every single person he saw on the dock. Forty minutes later he stood in front of Exit. He offered his left hand to shake and an explanation… the pins holding his right arm together from a motorcycle accident years ago were falling out.
He obviously would not be going up the mast if it became necessary.
He also had no tools with him… zero.
But he did have a lot of advice….
And even more stories…
And even more opinions… about Covid health policies; about the marina’s business choices; about motorcycle gang ethics.
Three hours later we were no further along with the repair.
He concluded the bolts were frozen and we needed an impact wrench which he did not have. Exactly what I had told him two weeks ago. He suggested we leave the marina, get through the Panama Canal and anchor nearer to him in Panama City which would give him easier access to us. He was planning on leaving Panama, which is why he had no tools; but if that happened he could put us in touch with a “colleague” at anchor who had a lot of experience as well. He’d need twenty bucks for gas each way, but wasn’t going to charge us at all for his time that day.
Not only did he cost us forty bucks and a couple of beers, we had to cough up another fifteen dollars after learning that he had stiffed the marina office for their fifteen dollar contractor fee.
If this was a fictional story, I’d have killed off his character at this point.
As it was, the best I could do was never contact him again.
Now, with the parts in hand but literally dead in the water, we opted to put our tails between our legs and introduce ourselves to Steve – a gregarious South African with a shaggy white beard dyed bright fluorescent pink living on his sailboat, also currently on E Dock, working part time as a rigging contractor for Shelter Bay Marina.
We should have started with him, but we didn’t have any contact with him while we were in San Blas. It would have saved a painfully infuriating step.
Turned out, as offbeat as Steve looked and cantankerous as he could be, he really knew his shit when it came to rigging.
He offered advice, explained his thinking of the process, and wanted to know we agreed before going on. He had tools. He showed what he was doing and welcomed help. It was worth the sixty bucks an hour to be done right… and we were learning.
Originally, I hoped we would be able to remove the furler drum, rebuilt it, and replace it; all without having to remove the forestay and foil assembly that surrounds it. Which could have been possible if the bolts securing the drum to the forestay had not been corroded and frozen.
In the end, removing the forestay required South Africa Steve at the top of the mast as well as four people walking the entire fifty foot long foil assembly down the dock. It was big, awkward, and heavy as hell. Trying to have done this all at anchor would have been an absolute disaster. Once the foil assembly was laying on the dock, we could concentrate on getting out the bolts.
There were four bolts and they were all completely frozen. No amount of WD-40 or PB Blaster had made a bit of difference over the past month. Two, it turned out, didn’t actually need to come out. We could work around them. That left two; and, one way or another, they both had to come out in order to get access to the bearings. There was no way around that.
The impact wrench didn’t break them free initially; but we didn’t strip them either. Which left options. Heat.
After applying generous amounts of heat with a small propane blow-torch borrowed from another boat owner, miraculously one of the bolts broke free and began to slowly turn. Woohoo! The second one never budged. Eventually, the walls of the large 8mm hex shaped hole gave way and in an instant all that was left was a still stuck bolt with a now round hole in the center.
Stripped. Which meant it had to be drilled out completely.
Just like that, it turned into a whole lot more work.
We were actually quite lucky and managed to successfully drill and grind the bolt out cleanly without, in turn, damaging the threaded hole in the drum at all. Having to re-tap the threads as well would have added even more work and made things far more complicated.
The stripped bolt caused extra headaches, no doubt. But with the whole furling system physically off the boat and lying on the dock, instead of hanging precariously from the top of the mast, we had the luxury of a much better space to work. Again and again, it became undeniably apparent the decision not to try to undertake all this with the furler still attached on a boat at anchor had been a very wise choice.
Both luxuries of the marina and a competent rigger came at no small price; but the job was getting done.
Finally, with a great deal of effort and fenaggling, we had managed to get the furler drum disassembled enough to commence with the main event – replacing the steel bearings and seals.
A failed seal had, over time, allowed the bearings continued exposure to salt water and the harsh elements. The corrosion had become so rampant that, when left unused for a couple of months, the bearings rusted into a completely seized state. It was a good thing we had gotten the replacement kit. These were not going to be resuscitated.
Keeping close track of the order things came apart, we disassembled the remaining components.
After cleaning and inspecting everything, the new bearings were slathered with grease and the extremely messy combination of bearings, spacers, and circ-clips had to be reassembled. Without the luxury of a machine shop or hydraulic press, this meant driving the bearings and seals in carefully by hand. The only real nightmare occurred with the massive and unbelievably strong circ-clips which were so heavy we were unable to compress them enough to get them positioned back into their groove deep inside the drum, even with the special pliers purchased for this exact job.
After a frustrated and curse-filled hour, a desperate MacGyver maneuver involving holding the circ-clip in closed position tied with heavy wire welding rod and then snipping the wire with side cutters after the clip had been carefully slid into its groove proved to be the only way to prevent Steve from throwing the clip into the water… either Steve.
From that point on, things seemed to go impressively smoothly and suspiciously quickly.
By the end of day two, the forestay and foil had been reattached to the mast with the rebuilt drum assembly, the backstay had been re-tensioned, and the furler seemed to work perfectly.
We just needed to wait for a wind free day to reattach our genoa , which had just come back from its own minor repairs at the marina sail loft.
When all was said and done, paying five hundred dollars for the bearing kit that revived our furler from the dead was painful, though well worth it. On the other hand, what was a ball-breaker was finding out we couldn’t use any of the four bolts that had cost us nearly an additional two hundred dollars. They were the wrong size. Two didn’t even have to come out. One we got out. The one that had to be drilled out was replaced with a generic bolt that we already had in our bolt inventory and had cost us less than a dollar at a hardware store.
It required more effort and certainly more money than we would have liked. But, most importantly, our genoa was once again functional.
And… it turned out not only was South African Steve a damn good rigger, he was also a great guitar player and singer with a fine Martin acoustic.
Pickin’ and drinkin’… always preferable to swearing and repairing!