Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Pulling Teeth (gear teeth)

disconnecting fuel, mechanical, and electrical connections to the engine
 in preparation for removing the gearbox
June 15

Monday is the Day that Mathias leaves, heading back to New York, then on to Europe to continue his post-discharge walk-about year. The problems with Ripple have distracted from the passing of the torch from my oldest son to my closest friend, but the three of us will have a couple of hours together in any case.

Wes arrived fairly early in the morning. We arranged to meet him on the town-side of the ferry that connects Ketchikan with the airport, which is across the channel.  Bar Harbor Marina is perhaps a half mile from the ferry dock, so Mathias and I walked up to meet him.

We got back to the boat, fixed some breakfast, and the three of us reminisced about previous trips we've shared, a rich collection of the best experiences of my role as a parent.

The highlight of the year for many years in our family was an expedition of some sort that involved both of my sons and any of my friends who had the time and inclination to go.  Wes was on most of them.  We undertook many desert backcountry trips in Southern Utah, canoeing in the Boundary Waters, and even a ski-camping trip in the mountains around Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The last of these was the shortest of all our expeditions, but perhaps the most intense. We pushed ourselves to the limits, we bivouacked in the snow when we couldn't make it to our destination cabin, crossed avalanche fields, finally found the cabin the following day, and had to turn around and go back the next morning. A sublime, unforgettable death march. All of us on that trip -- myself, Mathias, Brendan, Pete, and Wes -- would take their place on this one as well.

Pete, Wes, Mathias, Brendan, Stu
 at the Gros Vent WIlderness ski cabin in 2002
Wes has had an intimate connection to the upbringing of our sons: these memories, as well as a host of others, create a bridge between our families that has grown ever stronger down through the years. The voyage of 2015 would be different than our previous expeditions in that all of it was done two at a time.

Wes's segment took place amidst the uncertainty of the mechanical problems.  We still hoped we would get onto the water for part of the trip, but what we knew for sure is that we would have a good time, whatever happened.

Derek contacted us to confirm some engine model details, and later confirmed that the parts were available and would be on their way to Ketchikan later that day, and that he would be by that evening at 7 PM or so to take the gearbox out.  Hoping to make his job as easy as possible, Wes and I spent a good part of the afternoon disconnecting the various parts of the engine in preparation for its removal. We documented each step in writing and photographs so we could get it all back together.

When Derek arrived it took only a few minutes to rig a chain hoist from the boom to lift the engine. He made short work of getting the engine out far enough to detach the gearbox and then set the engine back on its mounting bolts.  That was that.

The chain hoist to lift the engine off its mounting bolts
It had been a long day at this point, but we had heard that there would be a party that night at The Fish House downtown to honor the early finishers in The Race to Alaska. Tired as we were, we almost didn't go, but we roused ourselves and made the trek, and were glad. It was good fun to see people dancing and laughing and eating and drinking, celebrating this first running of a very unusual event.

Having fun already at the R2AK party

The End of the Beginning of the Voyage

Ketchikan heritage sculpture at the cruise ship docks

June 13 - 14, 2015

John and Derek arrive at the boat in the early evening, and after introductions, we review the symptoms. Is the propeller OK?, Derek asked.  I assure him it has to be... my images are ambiguous*, but the evidence is unequivocal: no THUNK! no vibration!

We run the engine so Derek can hear it for himself, and engage the gearbox... forward, reverse, no bad noises, no untoward vibration. Diminished thrust is the primary symptom.

The prospect of pulling the engine out, removing the gearbox, rebuilding it at his shop, and re-installing it is straightforward to Derek. It is the smallest diesel that Derek has ever worked on (because it is basically the smallest diesel engine... period). The big unknown is whether parts will be available for an engine out of production for more than a decade. For myself, I am simply grateful to be in the hands of a good mechanic who is as comfortable at rebuilding the diesel engines of 56 foot purse seiners as working on my little lawn-tractor engine.

Truth be known, a problem as small as mine would not normally surface in his domain, except that John wants my problem to be fixed, and because they work together closely, Derek wants what John wants. They both inspire confidence.  As I learn over the coming week, these folks work very hard at challenging, difficult problems that are time sensitive. Breakdowns in the canning plant or on the boats that feed their stock to the cannery mean lost revenue for everyone. Lots of revenue. They make sure that interruptions in that flow are as few and short as possible.

This means that during the peak fishing months, they work 12 hours a day.  So, whatever Derek will do in the way of mechanicing for me is on top of a long work day.  I'm not only small potatoes, I'm a nuisance to these folks.  I'm cutting into their small slice of discretionary time after a hard day of work. In spite of this, both are solicitous and generous with their time.

Derek's plan is to talk to his supplier down in Everett, WA, first thing monday morning.  If they have the parts he'll have them shipped up by express air.  He'll pull the engine Monday when we know the parts are on the way, and disconnect the gearbox and take it to the shop. With any luck, Derek can rebuild the gearbox the following day or so. We could be running by Wednesday or Thursday.  In the meantime... nothing to do but take a deep breath and explore Ketchikan.

It is Saturday evening, we have a plan, expertise, and a schedule. Sunday, Mathias and I will relax, do a few errands, re-provision, and go out to dinner to close out our 5 week sojourn together.

I've enjoyed one of the greatest privileges a parent can have - 35 uninterrupted days of close cooperation and mutual learning with an adult son.  There are many lessons yet to learn on this trip, but I'm convinced the trip would have been stillborn had Mathias not been my first crew member. Both of us learned a great deal.  I know what to expect from myself, from the waters of the Inside Passage, and from Ripple.  We have checklists in place, our logging is sound and useful, my skills are stronger, and I am confident of myself and my boat, problems notwithstanding.

Whatever happens for the rest of the voyage, we have had an epic adventure an enduring memory for us both.


* of course, my images are not ambiguous at all, but (1) the lcd screen on the little camera is small and dim, and (2) the openness of my diagnostic brain is small and dim.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Network Effect

Sailing up the channel to Ketchikan.
The cruise ships are visible before the town is

June 13, 2015

Well, this is awkward.  Two days before a scheduled crew change, I have a serious mechanical problem on the boat, with no clue how difficult it will be to fix it. There isn't going to be any problem getting Mathias back to Ketchikan by the 15th, but Wes is scheduled to arrive that same day, and who knows what will happen?

The previous evening I had managed to get off a few texts by standing on deck and holding my phone as high as I could reach. I thought about sticking it a pelican box and hoisting it up a halyard, but there was no real urgency.

We left the mooring ball in Alava Bay at 0415, trying to make use of as much of the flood tide as we could to help push us up to Ketchikan. Before we could avail ourselves of that flood, we had to get past it, as it was not only flooding towards Ketchikan, but up Behm and into Alava Bay. So, it was slow going for a bit at 2 knots. An hour later we were out in Revillagigedo Channel, headed towards our destination, and with the tide.

We had a bit of a cellular signal at this point, and I called Wes to explain the situation, telling him about the problem and that I had no idea when the boat would be fixed and I would understand if he wanted to bow out. Wes told me he wasn't coming for the fishing, he wasn't coming for the sailing, he was coming to spend time with his friend, and whatever happened with the boat, he was sure the two of us would tell jokes and laugh and have a great time together.  He was coming. The first good news of the day!

Next, I posted to Facebook:
Approaching Ketchikan at the painfully slow pace of 2.5 knots... mechanical problem with the gear box. not good, but all safe
This simple note brought a cascade of well-wishes, but also, Ann, a colleague in Seattle from the time that I actually worked for a living, went into action. She has two brothers in Ketchikan, and before long we had offers of assistance from each of them. One of them manages a cannery in Ketchikan, and before we got to the dock that afternoon, John had sent me a message something like:
Stu, I understand you are having a mechanical problem on your boat.  I'll be down with my port engineer this evening and we'll see if we can get you fixed up.
Port engineer? Who has a port engineer? Well, John does. It is hard to overstate the relief that washed over me at that point. Whatever our actual problem was, there were good people I'd never met who were going to help me get it sorted out.

We snuck by the cruise ships at 1430 or so.
By this time, we had lost the wind and were concerned
about being able to stay out of their way as they left.
The trip into Ketchikan that afternoon was laborious, but largely free of the previous day's anxiety. We covered 25 miles in 11 hours.  The weather was favorable and pleasant, our spirits were high, and our outlook was optimistic. The difficulties had developed within 55 miles of a safe harbor with facilities (and contacts!). We were very fortunate indeed.

The last log entry on June 13th was at 1515, fast at the dock at Bar Harbor.  There would not be another for 11 days.

Self-Deception Passage

The Princess Bay excursion boat approaching us for the transfer of hydraulic fluid
June 12, 2015

We left our anchorage at Manzanita Bay at the late hour of 0815.  We had planned on a leisurely exploration of Rudyerd Fjord with no particular destination in mind.  Three full days remained to us before Mathias's flight out of Ketchikan, and we would not have to push very hard to get there. The barometer was at its highest point of the trip, and broken cloud coverage promised a partly sunny day for our tour of Rudyerd Fjord.

It became immediately evident that the thrust available from the engine and drivetrain were less than half of normal. Full throttle resulted in between 2 and 2.5 knots. Alarming. But the engine was running smoothly throughout its operating range. No parasitic oscillation, no strange sounds. If anything, it was smoother than normal. Puzzling. You can't hit a log or a rock with a propeller turning at 2500 RPM and not know it, right? We hadn't.  No signs of problems had emerged on the previous day. We had motored for 14.5 hours without apparent issues.

At least it wasn't engine trouble!  The engine sounded smooth and strong.  The prop could not have fallen off... that would have resulted in no thrust at all and too-fast shaft revolutions. A fouled prop, perhaps? We had the tool we needed to determine that, and used it: Mathias's waterproof camera would tell us if we had something wrapped around the shaft. I didn't take this possibility very seriously, as I presumed that anything that could retard our thrust by 50% would telegraph the problem through engine strain or vibration, of which we detected neither. It had to be in the drive train, no? But seeing is believing, and we took a couple pictures of the propeller.

Seeing is believing, but seeing is as cognitive a process as it is sensory
That day, I was blind... (but now, I see).
I will say in defense of my analytic failures that the screen of this camera is tiny and dim. We took a couple of pictures. Looking at them now, it is painfully evident what the problem was. But on the Behm Canal, with the growing sense that we had finally encountered a problem that we could not fix ourselves, tendrils of anxiety began to worry my judgment.

I got out the Yanmar service manual and read the chapter on the drive train several times. Hypotheses about what might be happening emerged. Guilt at having never changed the hydraulic fluid in the gearbox clouded my vision. The gearbox is 20 years old or more. Could the previous days of hard use have caused the gearbox to start slipping? At this point it was the only explanation that fit the facts as I understood them.  The murky images of the propeller were hard to interpret on that tiny screen, but rather than take more until I understood them fully, I had fixed on two pieces of evidence unsullied with ambiguity: (1) no THUNK, and (2) no vibration.

I know now exactly what happened, but I could not extract that understanding at the moment.  In setting the anchor the previous night, I had backed hard on it to be confident that it was set well. Normal procedure. Backing hard pushes the rudder strongly in one direction or the other, and in the picture it is plain that there is a propeller-sized scar on the rudder right where it would have been pushed against the prop.  I even have a vague recollection, fairly stronger than imagination, of having lost control of the tiller briefly as we were maneuvering in the stern-tie process.  No thunk, as what happened was the rudder was pressed against the prop blades, curling them in an almost symmetrical fashion.  It would be a six days and a rebuilt gearbox before I understood this.

We had seen only one or two boats on Behm the entire previous day of 14 hours, and there was no cellular connectivity in the area, but Rudyerd Fjord has frequent visitations from excursion boats and float planes, so I knew we could raise some attention via VHF radio if need be. I checked the fluid level of the gearbox, and it seemed low, though not dry.  The hope that adding some fluid might solve the problem was the only straw available to me, and I grasped it. As I had no hydraulic fluid aboard, I hailed one of the excursion boats in the vicinity and explained my dilemma.  Another boat in the area, the Princess Bay, heard my call and volunteered assistance, recognizing that they were closer and could meet our need more quickly.  We gratefully accepted and in only a few minutes they were alongside. It was gratifying, to say the least.

These boats are large, fast catamarans, and it turned out to be a bit tricky to make the transfer. The skipper explained that his idle speed was 4 knots, and our top speed at that point was about 2.  But we managed, and they went about their business. The addition of fluid was, of course, in vain.

New Eddystone Rock, an iconic fixture of the Misty Fjord area.
Looking at the charts, we felt we had a good shot at making the 30 nMiles to Alava Bay by the end of the day.  The now-ebbing tide gave us a bit of a push, and we even ended up sailing part of the way. Alava Bay is on the southeast corner of Revillagigedo Island, where the Behm Canal empties into the channel to Ketchikan, and looking at the tide charts, it was evident that we would have the benefit of a flooding tide for a good part of the 24 nMile run into Ketchikan the next day, so our prospects were promising.  I had no idea how long it would take to make Ripple right, but we could at least get Mathias to his flight.

Sailing south towards Alava Bay late in the afternoon
We were safe, we had some thrust, and we had sails.

Marguerite Bay to Manzanita Bay

Revillagigedo Island
June 11, 2015

Ketchikan is located on a narrow channel at the southwest corner of Revillagigedo Island.  The Behm Canal circles the Island from about 9 o'clock to 6 o'clock. You can count on rain -- the driest month in Ketchikan is wetter than the wettest month in Seattle. But the waters are well protected, and we expected a gentle, if rainy, circumnavigation of the island.

The payoff for motoring quietly through the rain is Misty Fjords National Monument. Several large fjords indent the eastern shore of the rugged mainland, storied for their ghostly grandeur. As Mathias's departure date neared, we looked forward to spending a day or two exploring the fjords before heading back to Ketchikan for a crew change.

The major challenge for traveling these waters is the dearth of easy anchorages.  The shores of the fjords are steep-to: that is, they drop steeply into deep water, affording few opportunities for safe anchoring. Fifteen fathom are the rule around here, and such anchorages are difficult for a small boat: 90 foot depths mean that even a 3:1 anchor rode scope requires almost 300 feet of rode.  All retrieved by hand, of course... no windlass on Ripple. When I replaced my ground tackle in preparation for the trip, I included 400 feet of nylon rode specifically for such conditions.

Ripple's Force 10 kerosene heater was useful on a single occasion 
With this in mind, we decided on a 60 mile day to Manzanita Bay, across from the entrance to Rudyerd Fjiord.  It rained all morning, gently but persistently. The boat was pretty wet, so we cranked up the Force 10 kerosene cabin heater for the first time in the trip.  I stayed below for some time, turning cushions and tending the heater so as to drive out as much moisture as possible. The results were desultory, but better than nothing.

The rain abated in the afternoon
The barometer had started the day at 1013 millibars, but rose gradually as the day went on, and by afternoon was up at 1019. The rain dissipated and we looked forward to a dryish evening.  By the end of the day we would have 14 1/2 hours on the clock, but we would be in position to spend the entire next day in Rudyerd Fjord, and have plenty of time to get back to Ketchikan.

Manzanita Bay is across from the entrance to Rudyerd Fjord
The red icon indicates out anchorage
The most secure anchorage spot in Manzanita is a protected notch open to the north with a depth of about 40 feet. The interior of the bay is just too deep - 20 fathoms (120 feet) is too much for me. The Douglas guide suggests the notch and a stern tie as an alternative, which is what we did.  Stern ties (bow anchored, line from a stern cleat to the shore to keep the boat oriented in a particular way) are common in British Columbia, but this was the first anchorage I had felt inclined to go to the trouble. We set the anchor, backed hard on it to be sure it was holding well, and carried a line into shore with the dinghy.

Dinner that night was fish tacos, made with canned salmon that probably traveled further than we had. We left the depthometer on over night to be sure we were ok on our hook, and the alarm went off around 0330 - 9.5 feet, at dead low tide. Not a problem. We hadn't budged. We had had a good night's sleep, as yet unaware that setting up our anchorage had set the stage for the most serious problem of the trip, one that would cost a great deal of time and treasure to resolve, and would teach an important lesson in diagnostics.

Meyer's Chuck and The Bully

Ernest Sound, calm and well protected, on the run into Meyer's Chuck
June 9-10, 2015

Berg Bay to Meyer's Chuck was a sunny, quiet trip through Blakely Passage and south southwest across Ernest Sound. We looked hard for bears along the shore, as they are known to frequent the shores along the Cleveland Peninsula. No luck. The barometer had been high all the previous day, though it started to slide as the day wore on. I think Clarence saw us coming

Meyer's Chuck is a small community of cabins strategically located on the Cleveland Peninsula at the corner of Ernest Sound and Clarence Strait. Coming north from Ketchikan, it is the first opportunity to get off Clarence, and going south, it is where you stay before you face The Bully.

Berg Bay to Myer's Chuck to
Marguerite Bay (Traitor's Cove)
Meyer's Chuck is a good place to await your fate or lick your wounds, depending on which way you're going. It is has a free municipal dock (rumor has it that this would change after the summer of 2015, and that the few free docks remaining in Alaska would be required to charge fees). Neither fuel nor provisions,  but there is an arts and crafts gallery open by appointment, and a local entrepreneur takes orders for sticky buns that are delivered fresh at 0700 or so in the morning. The dock culture is interesting: a large cross section of Inside Passage travelers stop here, and stories abound.  If you had to wait a few days for a weather break, you could do a lot worse; I enjoyed the stopover each of the three times I was there.

There are trails around the cabin community, and the walk to the town beach is a short trek through the spongy rain forest. This wild, rocky cove was sunny and serene for us, but the distressed shore, littered with Clarence Strait Tinkertoys, tells of menace as well.

The Meyer's Chuck beach, looking southwest
Now, about those sticky buns.  They are tasty and welcome, but it was a big mistake to wait for them in the morning. Going north? No problem, you'll slip around the corner into Ernest Sound and be fine all day. But going south, we should have left as early as possible to get down the 20 miles to the Behm Canal before the sleeping giant awoke. So near the summer solstice, 0400 would not have been too early.

A Clarence scowl
As it was, we got away at 0700. The first two hours of the day were ok, but Clarence was just getting started.  It took us 6 hours to cover those miles.  The chop went from 1 foot to 2, and then 3 and then more.  Our speed over ground went from 5 knots to 4 to 3 and was 2 knots or less for the last 2 hours of Clarence. The closer we got, the slower our progress.  We hobby-horsed through the chop at full throttle, anxious that we might have to turn back, even as we inched towards salvation (the mouth of the Behm Canal). Going back would mean all the way back to Meyer's Chuck.  An unhappy prospect.

At one point we bashed into a wave so hard it rang the hull like a wooden bell and stopped us dead. Stories of fuel line blockages from agitated fuel tanks came to mind, or parted stays or blown-out canvas. But Ripple stood fast to the challenge and finally we were able to turn the corner into the lee of Revillagigedo Island.

We stopped for fuel before going on up the Behm Canal to Traitor's Cove and Marguerite Bay. Traitor's cove is named for an episode involving Vancouver and natives more than 200 years ago. For us, it was just a peaceful anchorage with a convenient Forest Service float, a respite from another anxious dance with Clarence Strait. We made fast for the night at about 1730. 

Heading into Traitor's Cove for the night.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Rain, Rain, Go Away

June 7-8, 2015

We departed from Scenery Cove in Thomas Bay at 0530 in a steady rain that lasted for 36 hours without interruption, reminding us how fortunate we had been the whole trip so far. This was the first of several intervals on the trip that would expose Ripple's weakest cruising characteristic: it was nigh unto impossible to stay dry in a persistent rain.

The cabin is small, and condensation from our bodies alone is an issue. Anything made of cotton absorbs the moisture. The sleeping bags absorb the moisture. Everything in the cabin feels clammy to the touch.

We stayed another night in Petersburg, as much to plug in and dry out as anything else. We arrived back at the marina before noon and paid the extra $5 for shore power so we could plug the tiny ceramic heater in and run it all day. It helped.

I would happily have reprised our pizza dinner, but it was Sunday and it was closed! The hardware store on the main drag was open, though, and we bought a couple varieties of waterproof gloves in the never ending quest to keep our hands warm. The neoprene variety were effective, but did not stand up to abrasion very well. The heavy duty rubber gloves, of the sort used widely by fishermen, turned out to be the best choice over the duration of the trip. The fancy (and expensive) nautical gloves I had purchased a couple years previously were useless, rapidly sodden in the rain.

Petersburg to Berg Bay: 60 nMiles
We left early (0420) the next morning in order to hit high water slack at roughly the changeover point in the Wrangell Narrows, so we flooded into that point, and were flushed out on the ebb. The weather started to break a bit, and by the time we got down to Sumner Strait, we even had some sun. We brought out the sleeping bags and raised them on a halyard to dry them out.

The best thing for damp sleeping bags
Eastbound to Wrangell on Sumner Strait
Sumner Strait is oriented mostly east-west, and thus not much fetch in the prevailing winds of the Inside Passage. Nothing of the trauma and drama of Clarence. After a day and a half of steady rain, the sunny run eastward to Wrangell was welcome indeed. We stopped only for fuel in Wrangell, and as we headed out, got a call on the VHF from our friends Glenn and Becky on Wavelet. They had been at the municipal dock for the night, heading north to Juneau and a rendezvous with their son who was climbing in Denali National Park, and we didn't see them again on the trip.

Mathias at the helm on Sumner Strait
We took Eastern Passage (between Wrangell Island and the mainland) south, and ended up at Berg Bay for the night. There is a Forest Service cabin there and a float that makes for an easy moorage. Its use is restricted to permit holders for the cabin, but no one was booked into it and we stayed the night at the float. A plank trail leads from the cabin back to the marshy delta of Aaron Creek, and is well worth the trip. A side trail leads to a waterfall, but when we were there, it was far too marshy to use it.

Forest Service cabin at Berg Bay

The trail to the marsh
The Anan Bear Refuge is nearby, and we saw what I believed to be bear scat along the trail, but no bear. We passed up the Bear refuge the next day, as the anchorage there is apparently does not have secure holding, but it is a highlight of the natural history of the area, and excursions out of Wrangell are popular.

Aaron Creek Marsh