Monthly Archives: July 2018

A Bigger Mess Than We Thought

In an earlier post titled  “How We Broke The Boat,” I described how I managed to part our topping lift while cruising in the Bahamas a few months ago. At the time, a temporary repair was the best we could manage. Now that we’re back home for the summer, getting this properly repaired was high on our to-do list. After ordering the parts from Rig-Rite, we scheduled a date with our rigger.

We only have two lines that go to the top of the mast. One, the topping lift, was broken, and the other, the main halyard, needed some adjustment as part of the repair. That meant there was no line available to haul someone to the top of the mast, so we had to take the boat to the shipyard in order to use their boom truck to hoist someone up.

When ordering new axles and sheaves for the top of the mast, I’d ordered a few extra, “just in case.” It turned out to be a good thing, because once our rigger got to work, he determined that we were dealing with a much bigger mess than we thought. Not only was the sheave (small pulley) and axle for the topping lift destroyed, but the ones for the main halyard as well. Basically all the little pulleys and the axles they rode on at the mast top were trash.

Suddenly it all became clear. I thought I’d broken the topping lift by over-tightening the mainsheet and pulling the boom down too far. But our problems probably started a year earlier when we’d had trouble with our mainsail head swivel. For some reason (I can’t really remember), we had taken the mainsail down. Perhaps it was in order to ship it off to SailCare for cleaning. When it came time to re-install the sail, it refused to go on. The top swivel, which attaches to the head of the sail, wouldn’t go up the track inside the mast. It would hang up about a quarter of the way, and then refuse to go another inch. We continued applying more and more force with the winch, until the halyard was as tight as a guitar string, but the swivel just wouldn’t budge. Eventually I gave up and called the riggers, who diagnosed and fixed the problem (a loose screw on the swivel that had backed out enough for the screw head to catch on something inside the mast). But unknowingly, when we were trying to force the swivel to go up the mast, we applied so much force to the halyard that we crushed the sheaves and axles at the mast head.

Hoisting someone the easy way – using a cordless drill

No wonder I’d almost had a heart attack down in New Providence while trying to winch someone up the mast to do our temporary topping lift repair!  I had 160 pounds of French Canadian hanging from a line that I thought was running freely over a pulley at the top of the mast. But it was actually just dragging over a crushed pile of pulley and axle parts that were no longer capable of doing their job. I feel much better now about having needed five rest breaks to get him all the way to the top!

In any event, all is now squared away at the top of Eagle Too’s mast. The efficient folks at Zern Rigging finished the job in a little over two hours, and then we were back out on Pensacola Bay, where we rolled out the sails and tested everything out. We’re good as new and ready to go!

Red, White & Blues and Broken Boat Bits

Our cruising off-season is bookended by two signature events. In mid-July, shortly after we arrive in Pensacola to wait out hurricane season, the US Navy’s Blue Angels perform at the Pensacola Beach Airshow, part of the Red, White & Blues 4th of July celebration week. In early November, the Blues end their season with their annual Homecoming Airshow at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Shortly after that, we’re on our way south again.

This past weekend was the beach airshow, and for once the weather was perfect, or at least as perfect as the Florida Gulf Coast in July can offer. While it was HOT HOT HOT with little breeze and a heat index in the triple digits, no thunderstorms interrupted the performance. The warmup acts all flew as scheduled, and the Blues performed their entire show all three days (practice flight on Thursday, dress rehearsal on Friday, and the airshow performance on Saturday).

We headed over on Thursday morning with plans to return to the marina after Friday’s show, because we’ve learned that the on-the-water drama ramps up dramatically from Thursday to Saturday as the number of boats crowding into the prime viewing areas increases exponentially. That part of the plan played out perfectly. Thursday was a mellow and uncrowded day, Friday saw some breakdowns, dragging anchors, and marine rescues, and by Saturday when things got truly insane we were safely tied up back in our slip.

When we left the pier Thursday morning, we had a fully functioning boat. Unfortunately, by the time we returned late the next afternoon, the windlass deck switch for raising the anchor had quit, and our refrigeration seawater circulation pump had expired. The windlass switch problem wasn’t completely unexpected, as we have had issues with it and already have the parts onboard to replace both the “up” and “down” deck switches. But the refrigeration pump, now that was something new. It was running just fine, up until the moment it wasn’t. Oh well, that’s life on a boat. You’re always just a few days removed from something breaking, failing, quitting, or otherwise making demands on your time and repair budget.

It was a great show though, and I’m glad we were able to experience it again. The pictures don’t begin to do it justice!

Mercury Air Deck Dinghy Long Term Review—Just Say No

It looks like the writing is on the wall for Eaglet, our Mercury dinghy. At just seven years old, I expected quite a bit more use from her, but we’re starting to suspect that she doesn’t have another cruising season in her. Since buying pretty much anything is much cheaper and easier in the US compared to down in the islands, that means we’re probably going to be buying Eaglet’s replacement sometime this summer. So for those who are considering a dinghy purchase, here’s our long term review of life with an air deck inflatable.

When we bought Eaglet, we had a short list of requirements. We wanted a CSM (Hypalon) boat, because they’re supposed to last much longer in tropical sun. Our home state of Florida is pretty tropical most of the year, and we had plans to eventually go cruising, so we wanted the durability of CSM rather than PVC. At the time, I was reading that PVC dinghies will fall apart after about 5 years in the islands, while a good Hypalon boat can last 15 years or more.

We wanted a fairly light boat, because we knew we’d be lifting it onto our foredeck for passages. We also wanted to be able to roll it up for convenient storage, but we didn’t want to have to find a place to store a removable plywood or aluminum floor. And we had hopes of being able to get the dinghy to plane so that we could travel faster and thus further, which ruled out a flat-bottomed sport boat. It needed to have a V hull.

Some of these requirements are sort of contradictory. But our research indicated that an air deck inflatable would check all the boxes. Rather than using plywood or aluminum for the dinghy floor, it has a high pressure inflatable floor, similar to an inflatable standup paddle board. The floor requires 10 psi, which is actually quite a challenge to pump up using the included manual air pump. With the floor and keel inflated, the boat has a V shaped hull, and thus should plane. But with everything deflated, the boat rolls up and stows easily. No heavy wooden floor meant it should be easy to winch onto the foredeck. So in 2011, we bought a new Mercury 270 Air Deck dinghy.

Life was good for a while. Eaglet was light enough to hoist with our spinnaker halyard, and when the floor, keel and hull were deflated, it could be rolled up into a fairly small bundle for transport or storage. She would plane with one person, but our six horsepower Tohatsu couldn’t coax her up on a plane with both Rhonda and I onboard. Maybe an 8 horsepower might have worked, but a 6 hp was what we had, so we lived with it.

But then one day, the floor went flat, rendering the boat practically useless. The bottom of the boat is too soft and flexible to walk on with the floor deflated. It cost almost $400 to buy a replacement. It was at that time that I discovered that while we had paid the money to buy a CSM dinghy, the air deck was actually PVC. Nowhere in the online literature or advertising for the boat did Mercury ever mention this little fact.

Less than six months after receiving the new air deck, it also went flat. It failed at the exact same place as the first one. The floor has about a 5” hole in it (I call it the doughnut hole) to access the valve to pump up the inflatable keel, and the tape around this hole had developed a leak. Since the floor came with a 12 month warranty, I was able to get a replacement, but it required me to pay to ship the flat one to the warranty center.

Attempting to repair the leak at the doughnut hole. The repair didn’t work. I really didn’t think it would.

After another 7 or 8 months, floor number three also went flat, failing again in the same area. Since the warranty period for the floor dated to the purchase of the first replacement, it was now beyond 12 months from the original purchase, and was no longer covered by warranty, even though this particular floor was less than a year old. Funny how that works.

Doughnut hole closeup

So now we’re looking at having to spend  yet another $400 for air deck number four. And we probably would, if we had confidence that the boat would hold up. But about a year ago, we noticed that the outer skin of the tape strips used to hold the seams of the boat together had started peeling off. At first it was localized enough that I actually tried gluing the peeling skin back on, but it would just peel off again after a month or two.

Then it began spreading to larger and larger areas, and I finally gave up and just starting cutting off the flapping ribbons.

Then the underlying layer of reinforcing fabric starting peeling loose, leaving just a gray rubber strip. It’s beginning to look like it’s only a matter of time before a seam splits.

So at this point, it seems like good money after bad to buy another air deck for poor old Eaglet. Our time in the Bahamas has taught us that a rigid floor RIB is really the way to go, as it’s much better at covering large distances. They’re a bit heavier, but only by 20 or 30 pounds, so we should still be able to hoist it onto the foredeck for passages. And now that we’re full time liveaboard cruisers, we really don’t need to roll up and store the boat in the off season.

So in the final analysis, we’re giving the Mercury Air Deck inflatable dinghy a thumbs down for reasons of poor durability. For starters, Mercury should be more upfront about the fact that the CSM boat you’re buying is actually a CSM/PVC hybrid since the inflatable floor, a critical component, is only available in PVC. Next, a CSM dinghy that’s only used about six to seven months of the year and then kept under a cover the remainder of the year should not start falling apart after seven years. It should have lasted at least twice that long, in our opinion. And finally, you shouldn’t have to buy a new air deck every 18 months or so. The warranty center said the floor should last 10 years. I just laughed. Maybe if you never inflate it, possibly. But in actual use, they blow the same seam just slightly after the warranty runs out, which tells me we’re either dealing with a significant design defect or a deliberate revenue generating strategy.

So if you’re shopping for a dingy, we recommend taking a pass on the Mercury Air Deck. It’s just not worth it.