Friday, December 7, 2018

Was ignorance bliss?

The first boat I ever owned that was large enough to travel and sleep on was a 38-foot Californian that I bought in 1990 through a shady broker near Mobile, Alabama. I was 40 years old and newly single, and a boat that I could travel on had been a lifetime fantasy. The internet and its ability to search the world for every boat listing was not in existence. I just saw a boat in a marina with a "for sale" sign. I liked it, especially for the price. 

I had never heard of a survey or an engine survey, much less a full-blown pre-buy inspection, but the broker assured me he had done a survey and everything was perfect. He asked if I wanted to see the engine room, but I told him no. After all, I wouldn’t learn anything from seeing an engine room. The one thing I had going for me with boats was that I was a pilot and knew how to navigate and read charts. There was no GPS back then. I assumed any boat was like a car or the ski boat I had owned and wouldn't need much attention.

We did a sea trial that I called a “test drive” with the owner, a half-crazy Cajun from Louisiana. It was a Saturday morning and the broker brought his girlfriend along. She started drinking at around 9:00 am and continued all day, maintaining a perfect balance right along the edge of consciousness. 

When I closed on the boat, the owner said it was owned by various members of his family and requested several checks to different names, each under the $10,000 reporting amount. I was contacted about this a year later by the IRS and gave them the requested list of checks and amounts. I’m surprised no one from Louisiana came after me.

There were a lot of interesting features to that first boat. The sinks and shower drains had been cut off below and went straight into the bilge of the engine room. The broker told me it was a great system as the soapy water kept the engine room bilges clean. It sounded perfectly logical to me, but it was really pretty nasty. The previous owner also said it was unnecessary to use the “black water tank” and marina pumpouts for sewage, and to just leave the valve set to have the toilets flush straight overboard. I came to find out this is not exactly a legal or recommended practice, except when one is far out to sea.

Not long after I bought the Californian, while cruising, one of the engines started accelerating on its own, even as I pulled back the throttle, something I now know is called a “diesel engine runaway”. I was in the Intracoastal Waterway with my three children on board. I pulled the throttle all the way back while it kept accelerating. I pressed the "Stop" button and turned the ignition switch off, to no avail. I had no choice but to put it in neutral, as we were spinning around in a circle on one fast engine in the waterway. Being in neutral allowed the engine to accelerate even more, pegging the tachometer. It seemed to take a very long time running all out until it “threw a rod”, or whatever, and came apart internally. It stopped, with smoke billowing out of the engine room. 

I was standing there at the helm dumbfounded, with no idea what had just happened or what to do. Some kind and experienced souls from another boat rafted up beside me and a guy jumped on board with a fire extinguisher in hand to check the engine room, while another got my three kids into life jackets and moved them to his boat. Thank God someone knew what to do. There was no fire, but the engine was shot. I had not handled the emergency at all well, but everyone was fine. They pushed us over to the nearby marina dock, where we spent the night and figured out what to do next.

A few months after having the engine repaired, I got an unrelated call from my insurance company one day saying that they wanted to survey the boat the next time I had it hauled out of the water. I don’t think I even knew I needed to have it hauled out periodically, but told them I would set something up. Around the same time someone introduced me to the late Sonny Middleton, who was owner of Mobile Hatteras, A&M Yacht Sales, and the Dog River Marina (boatyard) in Mobile. I took the boat over to him and asked that he contact the insurance company to have their surveyor there and haul the boat out, fixing anything that needed to be done in the process. While I wasn’t there, it was reported to me that when the boat was lifted out, the hull was “flexing” under its own weight in the straps of the lift. The insurance company pronounced it not seaworthy and it was confined to port until the hull could be strengthened to the company’s satisfaction.

It’s a long story, but Sonny became a dear and trusted friend. He somehow got the hull strengthened with new “stringers”, got the boat put back together, and sold it to someone for me at quite a loss, but it was a cheap boat to begin with. He sold me a good 43-foot Hatteras that I used for about three years, and also sold me the next boat I owned: a Fleming 55’. That was followed in 2000 when I purchased a Fleming 72’. The Flemings were great long-range oceangoing boats, but their semi-planing hulls allowed them to cruise at around 16 knots. I came to love seaworthy boats with a long range, and the adventure of lengthy offshore passages.

Sonny also introduced me to Captain Alvin Stacey, who accompanied me on my first crossing of the Gulf of Mexico in the Hatteras, went on several trips with me on the Fleming 55’, and oversaw the commissioning of the Fleming 72’ in California. Alvin travelled with me on the Fleming 72’ up the coast of California, down to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, and then with two mates brought it through the Panama Canal and delivered it to me in the Bahamas. Everything I know about running and maintaining boats came from my relationships with Sonny and Alvin, along with learning the hard way from mishaps I had along the way. Sadly, Sonny passed away last year, although I was not aware of it until very recently.

Among the mishaps, I have suffered a small engine room fire, failure of a "shaft coupler" so that the engine was disconnected from the shaft and prop, several groundings, broken bow thrusters right when you need them to dock, crab trap entanglements, a boat sinking in the boatyard from a loose seawater pump hose, and a stabilizer fin knocked off. I spent a night on the Hatteras in Marker One Marina in Clearwater, Florida and was rescued by the Coast Guard there the next morning after the marina docks were destroyed in the "No Name Storm" or “Storm of the Century” in 1993. I’ve pretty much had every calamity you can imagine, but none of them have been life-threatening.

Today I am certainly no mechanic, but I have spent a lot of time in engine rooms figuring out problems and making small repairs on boats. Along the way I gained a captain’s license, and I have spent countless months cruising along the Gulf coast, in the Florida Keys, and from Maine to the Bahamas on the east coast. I do think I have learned to ask the right questions, to get expert help when I need it, and to deal with people I trust. For Division Belle, I dealt with Ray Currey as the broker, whom I have known for years at Burr Yacht Sales in Annapolis. I had a good survey and engine survey, and the most amazing inspection one could imagine done by Steve D’Antonio

Steve is well-known in the industry for his published articles in trade magazines, his seminars for boat owners on systems and maintenance, and for his very thorough pre-purchase inspections of boats. These inspections typically require two days, full-time on the boat. They cover every single component and system. I received a report with 168 observations and recommendations and 877 photographs of important components of the boat. The recommendations are divided up into the following sections: Cabin & Decks, Electrical System, Engine, Peripherals & Running Gear, Hull, Plumbing, and Systems. They are also placed into four categories ranging from urgent matters to more long-term issues. I would never purchase another boat without an inspection by Steve D'Antonio. While not inexpensive, it is a small price to pay to avoid very costly mistakes, and to help negotiate a price that is fair in view of the boat's condition. It has already saved me money and future trouble. The results not only tell the purchaser what needs to be fixed to be safe and reliable immediately, but also provide a blueprint for future maintenance and long-term improvement of the boat.

So I believe I have done this purchase correctly. This is a great boat with great systems, but it is 12-years-old and there are things that have not been maintained and needed attention. I think I now know most of the issues. I have spent the time since purchase sorting and assigning the list of projects. The most important safety and reliability issues will be fixed before I begin moving the boat south in January. The boat will be safer and more reliable as a result. But the question arises: is it more fun being blissfully ignorant or having the experience and knowledge to do it right?

The poet Thomas Gray said that: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." There was a pure rush that I felt when I first bought a boat, learned to dock it properly, first crossed the big bend of Florida from Apalachicola to Clearwater, crossed it from Clearwater back to Apalachicola with only our dog Moose aboard with me, and ran the Fleming 55' non-stop, alone, 500 nautical miles due north from Key West to Orange Beach, Alabama in 50 hours. No doubt part of the pure thrill in the early days was having no worries. What could possibly go wrong? But while ignorance might have been bliss, there is a kind of peace that comes with knowledge and experience, and a feeling the one has done everything possible to prevent mishaps.

Work continues on Division Belle, and the first primer has been applied to areas of the hull that were repaired. Those areas will be further sanded before applying primer to the entire hull, and after more sanding, top coats will be applied. We seem to be on a schedule to get the boat back in the water January 2. Can’t wait.

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