The Zen of DIY


One thing I learned early on in my bluewater sailing career is that there are, in fact, just two sorts of bluewater sailors: there are poets, who become engineers in spite of themselves, and there are engineers, who become poets in spite of themsel ves.

I count myself among the former. From the very beginning, one of the things that most attracted me to sailing was the simplicity and elegance of its apparatus. When we were boys, my brother could amuse himself–and confound me–by tinkering with the innards of such things as lawn mowers and outboard engines. Meanwhile I prided myself on being able to get a boat to move with just some sticks, rope, and canvas. To me this was beautiful. It wasn’t until much later, while pursuing the dreamy poet’s ambition of sailing across an ocean, that I realized how complicated sailboats could be.

One of the first bluewater boats I crewed on was skippered by an ex-Navy engineer. He had no real interest in sailing, but was ecstatic whenever one of the boat’s systems failed. He liked nothing better than to take apart some broken machine or electronic device and coax it back to life while drifting helplessly hundreds of miles from shore. To maximize such opportunities, he maintained his systems poorly. On passages consequently we rarely had the use of our engine or the autopilot, and in the end it was usually my sailing ability (there was just the two of us) that got us where we were going.

For a while then I had some contempt for engineers and thought it much better to be a poet, but my prejudice quickly died when I acquired my own cruising boat, Crazy Horse, and started preparing her to go offshore. I subscribed, of course, to the Sacred Principle of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) and kept onboard systems to a minimum. Even so, I was lucky in that I had more help than I deserved. With much support from friends and crew, I managed in just six weeks to rush through a long list of jobs and then–literally–cast my fate to the wind.

At Bermuda the first gremlins appeared. A cleat pulled clean out of the deck (it had no backing plate), then the pedestal bearing for the steering wheel axle shredded itself to bits (it wanted lubricant). I dismissed these events as anomalous. I let my crew make repairs, pretended to supervise them, and cast my eyes eastward.

There followed, amazingly, a 19-day passage to the Azores during which nothing on the boat failed. The wind was often contrary, we had trouble keeping our puny battery bank charged up, we ran out of Ramen noodle soup, but nothing actually broke, and for a brief period I was allowed to suffer the delusion that this wonderful, beautiful vessel of mine was that rarest of specimens–a boat that works. But in the Azores, sadly, my crew left the boat, and I was forced to confront the technology that sustained me without assistance.

The engine was first to rebel against the Regime of the Poet and one day spontaneously filled the boat’s bilges with a foul stew of seawater and motor oil. In the reluctant fit of awareness that followed, I opened the Racor filter (its bowl, alas, was not transparent) and discovered also there were plants growing in the diesel fuel.

Zounds! I had read of such things in boat magazines, just as I had seen stories about space aliens and Loch Ness monsters in supermarket tabloids, but I had never expected to encounter them face to face. Somewhere in this universe, I now realized, there must be a planet covered with an ocean of diesel oil, and on the shores of that ocean intelligent creatures might be found lounging in beach chairs while sipping on carbonated kerosene cocktails garnished with maraschino cherries and little paper umbrellas.

That the seeds of such an evolution could be found in my fuel filter seemed horrible to contemplate.

I nervously asked my two neighbors in the marina at Horta what to do. They were clearly engineers, as both had built their boats themselves and liked to humiliate me by asking absentmindedly if I had built mine, too. On their advice, I quickly ended the biology experiment in my fuel tank with a strong dose of algicide. I then summoned Mario, a Portuguese mechanic with a wry smile and a spotless blue uniform, to address the mess in my bilge. The leaking raw-water cooling pump was sent out and rebuilt, and Mario himself replaced the leaking main seal on the engine’s crankshaft. At the conclusion of all his abolutions, he ordered me to start the engine and with great pride held a clean white towel under its head to demonstrate that the leaks were fixed.

I attempted to depart Horta under power the very next day and had not gone far when I saw that the needle on the oil pressure gauge had dropped to zero. I instantly shut down the engine and discovered that, again, the crankcase was empty and all four quarts of multigrade were down in the bilge. Inside me I felt the fusion of desperation and resolve that often inspires poets to heave their engines overboard.

I raised my sails and waited for wind. As I waited, poised inert between the high green islands of Faial, Pico, and Sao Jorge, there came a slight stirring on the glossy membrane of the sea. Not the wind, but the more spastic ripples of a school of tuna fleeing predators, blemishing the water with their fear. The ripples slowly intensifed, and by the time the sun was setting 20 minutes later, bathing the scene in glorious hues of red, purple, and gold, the tuna were in a vast angry boil all around me. And in a vast, tempestuous circle all around them there were dolphins–not by the pair, or in tens, or by the dozens, but in the hundreds–all leaping through the water up-and-down-up-and-down like ponies on a carousel. It seemed a raw and infinitely beautiful confirmation of everything we poets are supposed to be about.

But when I returned to Horta the next day, after a long windless night spent watching the shotgun blasts of starlight in the sky, I did not hurl my engine overboard. I suspected–somehow–I might need it. Instead, I reluctantly summoned Mario, and he obligingly replaced the crankshaft seal he had installed, which had not been quite the right size, with one that was. When he was done, I again prepared to leave Horta, and as a last precaution before starting the engine–you see, I was learning something–I checked the oil and found the crankcase was now full of water. With an appraising frown, I cursed the engine impotently and thought of all the extra storage space I’d have if only it wasn’t there.

But if I was ignorant, I realized, I was also at least literate and so could educate myself. So instead of calling Mario again, I pulled out my copy of Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual and was astounded to find in it a section entitled “Water in Engine.”

I had assumed this must be a terminal condition, but in fact the prescribed cure was quite simple. I turned the engine by hand to pump the water out of the cylinders, then alternately changed the oil and ran the engine for very brief periods a half dozen times. When I was done, the engine worked perfectly and seemed to have suffered no ill effects. The feeling of accomplishment I experienced was every bit as profound as the joy I had felt at the advent of the dolphins just a few days before.

Over the next two years, as I finished sailing Crazy Horse across the Atlantic and back, I had many more such adventures and slowly but surely I became more intimate with most of the equipment aboard than I had previously thought possible. These internal odysseys of repair and maintenance were just as compelling and important to me–at times even more so–as any external odyssey of boathandling, navigation, or meteorology. My tracks through the wilderness, like the courses marked off on my charts, were memorialized in the greasy fingerprints I left on the pages of Nigel’s book. My graduation, as it were, into the ranks of the engineers came when my brother, now a real engineer working on U.S. Navy warships, joined me in the West Indies for a time and pronounced his approval on finding that everything aboard (well, almost everything) was in working order.

How the engineers turn themselves into poets I have no idea, but I do know this: we poets have little choice in the matter.

You can throw your engine overboard, rip out the head and use a bucket instead, read at night by oil instead of electric light, and haul your anchor rode by hand, but still there will be technical issues you must master. You’ll need to know how the hull of your boat is constructed, how its rig is supported, how to gain a mechanical advantage in handling lines aboard, and a myriad of other things. And the fact is most of us aren’t willing to suffer without basic modern conveniences, and each such convenience presents a different challenge. Plumbing, electricity, chemistry, internal combustion, carpentry, computer software–these are just a few of the many disciplines in which you must apprentice if you want to truly call yourself a sailor in this day and age.

Ironically, this now is one the things I most like about the sport. Whereas I was drawn in by its apparent beauty and simplicity, what keeps me in it is that there is, inevitably, always something new to learn.


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1 Response
  1. Peter Doane

    Almost all engineers are joined by a fascination/curiosity about how things work. I remember asking my father (at the ripe old age of 10) how the engine in the family station wagon worked. Either he didn’t know (which is doubtful since he went to school for civil engineering before switching to business), or knew I wouldn’t understand until I got older. I never could write very well in school and never really wanted to. I was more interested in working on cars. While I have not become a poet. I have managed to figure out how to get my thoughts out in some logical order, because even engineers have to write reports. The harder part was learning how to abbreviate all those words in presentations to Navy customers. This is commonly called viewgraph-eze and does not resemble writing at all.

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