Monday, March 9, 2009

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Chris here... OMG! What a week, and not a fun one. We finally sorta completed six projects today - the installation of a third reef, a halyard replacement, new batteries, fixing the solar panels, new charger/inverter and a Sirius weather unit for interfacing with the GPS/Chartplotter. Kids, don't try this at home. I think it was a few too many projects to be working on at once. I made 8 visits to West Marine in 5 days, and when I walked in there today they greeted me by my first name. That's never a good thing. If they had offered me a personal shopper I'd know for sure that I spent way too much time (and money) there.

The bad of it - we spent a lot of money, skinned a lot of body parts, ended up taking wayyy too much time in Ft. Lauderdale and now we have to wait a few more days to get to the Bahamas. The good of it? We know A LOT more about Pelican, have double the battery capacity we did before, can charge faster (maybe - more on this later) and can get weather information from the middle of the ocean (along with satellite radio! nifty!). One thing we found out for certain - it pays to have a very well stocked toolkit with high quality tools, and it helps to be a reasonable distance from West Marine and other marine stores!

We hired a local company in Lauderdale to do the halyard replacement (a line that goes all the way to the top of the mast used to raise sails or other implements off the deck) and third reef (to reef a sail means to reduce the amount of sail you have out, and the reef "points" are prestitched into your sail). The halyard we had to replace was very chafed and worn, and unfortunately was wrapped around the top of our genoa halyard (our front sail), so we had to raise the rigger to the top of the mast to fix it. The third reef required new blocks (look like pulleys) to be installed on the outside of our boom. These projects, while not cheap (blocks can be pretty expensive, as can the line - and we used a lot of it), were straightforward.

Kristen already told you about the batteries. All I can say is that I'm married to wonderwoman. Not only did she load the batteries onto the boat, but she chiseled, sanded, carved, cajoled and did a million other things to get them to fit. After all my measuring, we were slightly off and they didn't exactly fit, but Kristen made them fit. OK - so breaking through the bottom of the battery box with her foot wasn't exactly what we had in mind, and the result is another "list" item (epoxy and paint the floor of the battery box), but at least they fit now!

Because of all of the new batteries and their capacity, we had to replace the battery charger with a higher capacity unit. There are a lot of options out there, but I figured the best unit to get was the larger capacity version of the unit we already had. We had a Xantrex Freedom 15 (1500W Inverter and 75A charger), and we've replaced it with a Xantrex Freedom 25 (2500W Inverter and 125A charger). The install was actually fairly straightforward - even the chassis screw holes were in the same spots. We had to increase the size of the battery cables, but other than that we could reuse all of the old cables. The install of this unit went well.

OK... here's where I get into excruciating detail of our next install. I hope I don't bore you.

We were going to have our contractor install the Sirius weather unit. It had a whole bunch of cables and electrical connections and needed routing to a bunch of different places so we were a bit intimidated. Our contractor got bogged down in the battery and charger install, so I decided to tackle the Sirius unit myself. I've always been very hesitant to drill holes in the deck of the boat (I'm sure you're surprised) and one of the cables was to an antenna we had to mount on the rail. We already have two GPS antennas mounted there, so the one thing our contractor did was pulled off the cover where the GPS wires went through the deck. I had been hesitant to do this for some reason. Well, not for some reason. I'm just always nervous taking things apart for fear that I'll damage them beyond repair. Well, he pulled off the cover, and there, staring me straight in the face, was a hole big enough to run the new cable through. I quick dropped the antenna cable through, and Kristen easily pulled it to the spot where we were mounting the "gray box" containing all of the brains of the unit.

The next battle was the wire leading from our binnacle (the spot in the cockpit where the wheel and all of our electronics are - see the above picture). The first problem was opening the "Navpod" (a brand name for a fancy and expensive plastic box our GPS is mounted in). They use a security screw that requires a special tool to remove. We checked with West, with an electrical supply store, with Boatowner's Warehouse, with Sailorman (a used marine store here in Lauderdale) and one or two other places for the tool. Nobody had it! Is this how far we'd get? We couldn't even open the stupid box the GPS is mounted in??? One of the places we stopped at recommended a tool store in a warehouse a few miles from where we were at. It was a longshot, but we decided to try it out. After spending 20 minutes trying to find the place (keep in mind that our contractor is driving us around, and we're paying him hourly for his time), we finally pulled into their parking lot. In we went - "Do you have an allen wrench with a dimple in the middle of it?" "A security bit?" they responded. OMG - someone actually knows what we're talking about and isn't looking at us like we're crazy!

"Yes! Do you have them?" "I think we have a kit around here somewhere. Let me look." He spent a few minutes looking around and found a box containing a bunch of bits. "What size do you need?" "Ummmmm... small?" OK... so we didn't know exactly what size we needed. "Is it 5/32 inch?" "I think so!" "Then someone beat you to it, because that's the only one we don't have." He had to be kidding. "Well, let me look in one more place." He spent a few more minutes digging through tools (this place was VERY cool - I could have done A LOT of damage to my bank account - "All American Tool" in Fort Lauderdale) and finally pulled out a screwdriver with a little corrosion on the shaft. He popped open the end, and there was our bit! Well, one roadblock down, we must be out of the woods, right?

We got back to the boat and tried the tool. Voila! The Navpod came apart like... hmmm... kids read this blog so I better keep it G rated. Well, it came right apart. So, anyway, the binnacle is basically a hollow tube, 1" in outside diameter and about 7/8" in inside diameter. There are holes cut in it in the section the Navpod hides so you can push cables through it and then run them under the deck. We opened the Navpod and found that the hole cut on the left side was pretty much full, so we decided to run the cable down the right side. Here's where we hit roadblock number two. The cable supplied by Raymarine was a special cable with three ends. End number one plugged into the GPS. End number two was composed of two bare power wires that needed to be connected to power on the inside of the Navpod. End number three was the end that needed to be routed below deck. There was a big "Y" connector in the middle of all of these wires. There was no way the "Y" would fit into the drilled hole, so we only had about 5 feet of cable that we could actually run the 15 foot distance to where we were mounting the grab box under the deck. Thanks Raymarine! That makes sense!

Well, while we figured out what to do with the cable, we could at least start the process of readying a lead to pull the wire through the binnacle. Our contractor brought a snake with him. Not a real one, silly - they bite! One of those flat steel skinny wires in a retracting case that you can fish wires through walls with. I stuck the snake down the hole on the right side and hit something solid. Hmmmm. I pulled it out, and tried again. Surprise! I hit something solid again! I was going to try a third time, but then I remembered the definition of insanity - trying the same thing twice and expecting different results. Well, we are living on a boat, so we probably qualify as slightly insane, so I shoved the snake down the binnacle again, but this time wiggling it a whole bunch, and to my amazement... I hit something solid again. "Well, this just won't work, " I thought to myself. "Hey hon... can you try feeding this from the bottom up?" Well Kristen went into the condo under the cockpit and pushed the snake up from the bottom, but, yet again, hit something solid. Our throttle control goes down that side of the binnacle, so we can only surmise that there are a bunch of connections jutting into the tubing. Nifty.

So, since there are only two sides to the binnacle - a left and a right - and one side wasn't working, we decided to try running the snake up the port side. I wasn't feeling too chubby about the possibility of it working. The cable hole was completely filled up, so there was absolutely no way we were going to fit a new cable into it, but we had to try something. So Kristen pushed the snake up the port side and I watched for it. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it. All of a sudden I saw it pop out the right side hole! I didn't even think of it, but since the binnacle is U-Shaped, she passed the full hole with the snake and kept going around the top until it reached the other side! Awesome! I tied a piece of line to the end of the snake and Kristen pulled it back below the deck, and we were ready to run the cable. Too bad we didn't have one!

I called Raymarine up and asked them how to extend the cable. "You can't do that, " they said. What???? They give us a four foot cable on a boat and expect it to work? "There's got to be something I can do, " I replied. "Hold on a minute," the technician side. A few minutes later he came back and said "Buy cable xyz and connector xyz and it should work." Cool! It was already past 3, and I didn't feel like paying a lot of money for overnight delivery, so I figured I'd call a bunch of electronics companies in the morning. Someone in Fort Lauderdale had to have the cable. In the meantime, Kristen mounted the gray box under the cockpit and continued to work with our contractor on the battery install.

The next day I grabbed my laptop, went to Raymarine's website, and then, over the next 3 hours, proceeded to call EVERY Raymarine dealer in the Fort Lauderdale area. You'll never guess it - nobody had the parts! I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't get the parts that day, and I called up West Marine and had them order the parts from their local warehouse. They'd be in the next day. Kristen went to the art museum with the kids, and I went off to Sears to buy more tools that I needed.

The next day rolled around. I jumped on the bus (I'm great at taking the Broward County Bus's now!) and headed to West. The part was supposed to arrive sometime between 10am and 2pm, and it was currently 10am. I arrived at West at around 10:15 and asked if the deliveries had arrived yet. "You're on the early side, but let me check." A few minutes later they came back, and amazingly enough, the van had already dropped off the parts. Yippee! I grabbed a few other items and then headed out to the bus stop to head back to Pelican. I remembered that the dive store where I had ordered my new "prescription" dive mask from was right across the street, and the new mask was supposed to be delivered by UPS sometime that day, so I figured I'd check to see if it was in yet. I walked into the store, asked about the mask, and found that it had been delivered a few minutes earlier. Wow! Two for two! What a great day, especially after several days of roadblocks! I hopped on the bus and headed back to Pelican.

Back at Pelican, I attached the new cable end to the string we had run through the binnacle and had Kristen pull from under the deck. Now, keep in mind that there are already a bunch of cables run through this thing. She pulled and tugged, and tugged and pulled, and yanked and yanked, and after a few minuted she was rewarded by an empty string! The cable had slipped off the pull string and was now one end was lodged in the binnacle. Great. So I pulled and tugged, and the thing was STUCK! I mean, I was yanking on this cable with all my might and I could barely get it to budge! All of a sudden my great day was starting to turn a bit sour. Well, after playing with it for about 20 minutes and putting a ridiculous amount of force on it, I FINALLY got the cable out. There were only a few chunks of the insulation missing - that's OK, right? Well, I wasn't sure, so I thought I'd test it out before trying to run it down the binnacle again, so I went to connect it to the too short four foot cable. "Hmmm... these aren't going together." I looked at the end of the supplied cable. Six pins. I looked at the end of the cable I waited two days for and was recommended by Raymarine. Five pins. Once again, this is a G rated blog, so I can't repeat everything I said, but there are a few manatees in Florida that have a whole new set of vocabulary words to use.

So, we got Raymarine on the phone again. "Can we cut the supplied cable and make our own extension?" "We don't recommend that." "So it CAN be done?" "We don't recommend that." *Snip* *Snip*. Recommend this, bud. We cut the cable apart to see what we needed to extend it, and it turned out to be a fairly unique cable on the inside. Figures. Once again, the hunt begins. We finally tracked down a similar cable, but not the exact one, at a local electrical supply store. To get slightly technical, the Raymarine cable had two pairs of wire - one pair for power, one pair for data - each pair with their own shielding. The cable we found bundled all the wires into one twisted run, so if there was "noise" coming from the power cables there was the potential to disrupt the data side. Oh well, it's all we could find.

We got back to Pelican, and after three tries we finally got the new cable pulled through. I worked for a couple of hours cutting, whittling, splicing and putting butt connectors on all the cut parts of cable until I had one long cable. I asked our contractor to make a three way splice in the Navpod for power. Later that evening I ran the power below decks. I connected up all the cables to the gray box. All excited to see if it worked, I turned on the GPS switch. Nothing. a black screen. Once again, another set of manatees increased their vocabulary. I yanked off the splice from our contractor and put a temporary wrap on all of the cables, and then hit the switch again. On goes the GPS! I waited 90 seconds, and finally the Sirius message showed up on the screen! It sees it! I was ecstatic.

The next day I called up Sirius to activate our service. I find it hard that these guys can stay in business. The first time I called, I waited on hold for 15 minutes, gave the guy all of my information, and then he had no clue how to activate my weather system. The second time I called, I waited on hold for another 15 minutes (I actually timed it), gave the guy all my info, and he then hung up on me right before we were done. I'm assuming it was an accident, but I was disappointed they didn't try to call me back right away since they had my number. Oh well. Try three - fifteen minutes on hold. "OK sir - turn on the system, and I'm sending the activation signal through the satellite. You should be good in five minutes." Twenty minutes later, no weather. Great. Well, I had to go to West again to get some new butt connectors to fix the splice our contractor had put in, so I stopped troubleshooting things and then went to run the errands. I realized while I was out that it took a good 90-120 seconds for the unit to spool up, so perhaps the activation signal was sent before the unit was fully online. On my way back to Pelican, I called Sirius again and asked them to send another activation signal. When I stepped back on Pelican, I checked the unit and found - it worked! I can't even begin to describe how ecstatic I was. I was about as happy as you will be when you finally finish reading this blog entry!

I put the new splice in the power, and asked Kristen if she could ziptie the cabled under the deck. She wrapped tape around the spliced connections, and all of a sudden we lost the connection between the GPS and the gray box. I won't bore you with the details, but 3 hours later and 4 resplices later, we finally had a solid connection and everything was cleaned up. We added the satellite radio subscription to our weather subscription, so we can now get satellite radio AND weather anywhere we go! Another project wrapped up.

The last project, I thought, was to figure out why our solar panels weren't charging our batteries. After a lot of testing and disassembling, I finally pulled apart the plug on our deck that our panels connect to and found a completely corroded wire separated from the plug. That would explain things. I headed to West AGAIN, got a new plug, and then spent 3 hours connecting the ridiculously oversized and difficult to work with cable to the new plug (which wasn't designed to take such a large cable). With everything back together, I measured the voltage and found we were back in business.

I came up with the grand idea yesterday that we should test our new battery and charger installation before we headed to the Bahamas. I'd hate to get there and find that something didn't work - marine stores and supplies are few and far between, and are expensive over there. I disconnected the shore power (a big extension cable that connects to the land based power grid and supplies our boat with power while at a marina) and we ran off batteries for the night. The next morning, we hooked our shore power back up to recharge the batteries with our new charger. I noticed two hours later that our new batteries were 50% discharged and that the breaker from the shore power had tripped. Ut oh - this isn't good. We were at 100% power just an hour ago. I flipped the breaker back on, and it tripped back again. We realized that the breaker must have tripped very soon after we reconnected the shore power, and that the air conditioning was on and was running through our batteries and inverter! For those of you with air conditioning on your boat, you'll know that you are only supposed to run the air conditioning when your generator is going or you're on shore power. We drained half our batteries in one hour!

Well, I turned the air conditioning off and turned the breaker back on again, and this time it stayed. Our batteries were 50% depleted, so I wanted to see at what rate our new charger would try to recharge them. Hmmmm... the charge light is on, but I show we're still draining our batteries. That's not right. We grabbed our manuals and our voltmeter, and over the next two hours we proved every single connection on both the AC and the DC side of our electrical system. Yeah - that was enjoyable. We just couldn't figure it out. After a few minutes I decided to recheck the BIG (200Amp) fuse between our charger and our batteries. It was at this point that I realized that I was seeing 14.4V of charge coming from the charger side of our fuse, and 12.35v of charge coming from the battery side of the fuse. If the fuse was working, you should see the same voltage on both sides. We took a closer look at it, and found that we had blown our 200A fuse! Back to West Marine, and now we have four of the fuses, but we've upgraded them to 300A. I mean, if you blow a 200A fuse, you should just toss a larger fuse in there, right? OK, OK... the manual recommended a 300A fuse - we didn't just decide to use one on our own.

We put the fuse in and the batteries started to charge. I turned the air conditioning on, and POP! The circuit breaker tripped again. Great. Well, for the moment I have dialed back the charge rate and I'll be calling Xantrex tomorrow to find out what's going on.

So that brings us to today and our plans. I am soooo sorry to have made you read all of the above, but I wanted you to get an idea of how busy we've been over the past week. It's a lot of work to live on a boat - it's not all fun and relaxing. As a matter of fact, we haven't had too many truly relaxing moments since we started this trip. I guess that's what we get for leaving in a hurry and not spending a significant amount of time refitting our boat before we left.

Our original plan was to head to No Name Harbor in Key Biscayne earlier last week and be ready for a weather window to the Bahamas. The weather window is actually arriving this week and Wednesday/Thursday are supposed to be good days to cross. I'm disappointed, but after the problems we just had with our electrical system we feel it's better to spend a few more days here in the US, at anchor, just to prove out our new installations. We'd hate to get to the Bahamas and find out that we're having problems. We're very glad we decided to test out the new systems before we left the marina! Anyway, I'm hoping the weather window stays open for longer, and that we'll still be able to head over this week. We're really late in the season and I don't know how much time we'll get to spend there, but I'd like to at least touch and feel it. So, our plans? Tomorrow (Monday), I'll be finally getting our satellite phone and a few more LED lights, and Kristen will be cleaning the boat. We're waiting for a package to arrive on Tuesday, and then we'll head to No Name on Wednesday. Once in No Name, we'll spend 2 nights or so at anchor, proving out our systems, and then we will take the next weather window to Bimini. We'll get there yet!

By the way, there are a number of things we can recommend as being very important for cruising. A very well stocked and organized tool kit with high quality tools is critical. Craftsman tools from Sears are a good idea since they have a "No questions ask" replacement policy on all of their tools. We've used it. I'll do another post talking about what tools have been handy for us to have. In addition, having as many alternative energy means of recharging batteries (solar, wind, etc.) is a definite plus, as is having a large battery bank and a good and solid charger. There are lots of other recommendations I can make, but I'll save them for another post.

Pictures will be forthcoming, and thanks for your continued patience!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Labatt! Just a note to say I'm enjoying following along and watching you guys overcome all obstacles with good cheer! Pay a visit to our new forum next time you turn on the SPOT and let us follow is about 250 of your old sailnet friends on the site right now.
Anyway...keep on blogging and good luck with the crossing! Are you going to head up to the Abacos in the later spring? Best...Cam