Waterlines: There's a Hole in the Bucket

I’m not sure what madness made me decide to fix our generator myself. Maybe I was feeling especially talented that day. Or cheap. Or downright insane. Back on land, I would never try to penetrate the mysteries of our furnace—I didn’t even change the filters myself. But life aboard changes you.
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 Amy Schaefer sails aboard the 57ft yawl, Papillon, with her husband, Erik, and their two young daughters

Amy Schaefer sails aboard the 57ft yawl, Papillon, with her husband, Erik, and their two young daughters

I’m not sure what madness made me decide to fix our generator myself. Maybe I was feeling especially talented that day. Or cheap. Or downright insane. Back on land, I would never try to penetrate the mysteries of our furnace—I didn’t even change the filters myself. But life aboard changes you. Surely I’d absorbed something while watching my husband, Erik, fix things on the boat over the past three years. No, I hadn’t gotten my hands dirty with the actual “work” part of any job, but I can identify tools like a champion. And now, with Erik thousands of miles away on a job and only the solar panels to charge our battery bank, something had to be done. I just needed a little emailed guidance, a nudge in the right direction.

Or so I thought. In fact, what I needed was a game of “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.”

Amy: It died suddenly—no sputtering.

Erik: It sounds like it was overheating. How was the temperature?

Amy: It didn’t budge.

Erik: Did you turn on the instrument panel?

Amy: Oh. Yes, definitely overheating.

Erik: Check for a plugged intake.

Peering around the engine room, I could definitely identify objects on a macro scale: generator, fridge compressor, fuel system. Any closer, though, and things started to get a little fuzzy. In the absence of actual knowledge, I fell back on logic. Intake. Let’s see. Water comes in, cools the system, and gets spat out again. That means through-hulls. No problem, we only have about 30 of those! I followed hoses in and out of the generator, tracing the maze of lines that have accumulated in the engine room over the past 48 years, and located my targets.

Amy: The through-hulls are clear. Now what?

Erik: Check the strainer. Out came the operating manual. No good. Out came the service manual. Better.

Amy: I’m looking at the filter. Is that a lid? It doesn’t look like a lid.

Erik: It’s a lid.

Amy: How do I get that ridiculous thing off?

Erik: Use the big channel-locks behind the engine room door.

Amy: The door won’t open. Is there a trick to it?

Erik: Yes, you turn that little metal thing called a “handle.”

Amy: (unprintable)

I have seen Erik open that door a thousand times, but I couldn’t manage it. There must be some sort of secret button. Being immensely resourceful, I instead climbed out of the engine room, into the saloon, removed the companionway steps and crawled on top of the engine to grab the channel-locks. So simple. I wonder why I didn’t do that to begin with.

Back in my hole by the generator, I tried to use the channel-locks. I felt much like a baby learning how to master a spoon, but with more cursing and less applesauce. Like infants everywhere, I eventually succeeded.

Amy: The strainer is clean. Now what?

Erik: Check the impeller.

Out came the service manual. Impeller, impeller…oh, there. Inside the raw-water pump. That makes sense.

Erik: First, close the seacock.

Amy: Which is…

Erik: DO NOT tell me you don’t know where the seacock is.

Amy: Just kidding. It’s the big yellow handle beside the filter.

Erik: Moving on. Crack the cover plate, vacuum out the water, remove the cover plate, and there is the impeller.

By now, I was starting to feel good. Sure, I had blown three days on a 15-minute job. You can have speed, or you can have workmanship. Or you can wait around for remote handholding. Your choice.

I eased off the cover plate, and there, as advertised, was the impeller. I clawed at it in a hopeful sort of way for a few minutes. Then in a hopeless sort of way. Then I gave it a sharp poke and hurt my finger.

Amy: How do I remove the impeller?

Erik: With the impeller-remover tool.

Amy: #obviousanswer. Where is it?

Erik: Back locker, yellow toolkit, bottom compartment.

Amy: One last thing. What does it look like?

Tired of wearing out his thumbs on his Blackberry, Erik called me to describe the tool. Twenty minutes and a fully unpacked locker later, I plunked down in front of the generator, impeller-remover in hand, only to discover that the fuel filter was completely in the way.

And that was the end of my career as a generator repairman.

Two days later, the mechanic arrived. Within 10 minutes he had pinpointed the problem and removed the entire raw-water pump so he could repair it back at his workshop.

I didn’t fix the generator myself, but it wasn’t a total loss. I got to discuss the boat for three days straight with my husband. And, after all, isn’t that what cruising is all about? 

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