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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Sixty-Four

A funny thing happened while we were preparing to leave Trinidad. Actually, it certainly wasn't funny, but a sense of humor really helps now and then. I tend to have to work on mine, but some people come by it naturally, which brings to mind a great passage from "A Moveable Feast," by Ernest Hemingway:

"They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure."

How could anyone disagree with that? Anyway, several days before our planned departure, we were out sailing to test the adjustment of our new standing rigging, when the hydraulic steering failed. We have a back-up tiller system, so we weren't overly alarmed, and besides, it was a beautiful sunny day with 15 knot winds and three to four foot waves, which meant we had plenty of wind to sail, but not too much to prevent us from drifting while taking care of the problem. Our experience has led us to believe that failures such as this usually happen at night, under sail, during the rain and with high winds and seas. For once, we had near ideal conditions to effect repairs. I was able to diagnose the problem as a leaky hydraulic line connection that fortunately enough was easy to see and easy to reach. Temporary repairs were made utilizing copious amounts of electricians tape and a hose clamp. We then returned directly to our anchorage.

When we purchased Sojourner in December of 1998, she had two autopilots. One was a relatively new Robertson system and the other was an old Solent system that was inoperative. After a year of sailing around with the old Solent system still in place, I removed all of it except the hydraulic pump. After all, Solent was out of production and a "dinosaur" by today's standards. However, I left the Solent hydraulic pump in place because it was plumbed in to the same hydraulic system as the Robertson pump. At that time I had no experience with hydraulic systems except brakes on cars and I was reluctant to disconnect anything without knowing how to bleed air out of the system upon re-connection. Now I had my chance to learn about hydraulic steering.

Removing the old pump and replacing its hose connections with end caps was no problem. I should have done it years ago. Upon inspection of the leaky connection I discovered that the hydraulic lines had steel cord embedded in the rubber hose. Over the years, the rubber had aged and allowed moisture to reach the steel, which rusted causing failure of the hose where it joined the brass connector fitting. Now all I had to do was add fluid and bleed the air out of the system. It is interesting that cruisers will tackle projects that they would never attempt while living on land. On land, we have the luxury of calling in an expert to do the difficult work, even if we have to wait a day or two. Unless one never leaves a marina, where technicians are handy, one had better either have the wherewithal to obtain expert assistance quickly or learn how to do it oneself. With rare (usually very wealthy) exception, cruisers learn how to fix their boats. So, Jan and I learned slowly, over several days time, a variety of wrong ways to bleed air out of a complex system. Finally, after much trial and error and many four-letter words, we hit upon a system that worked.

The air bleeding technique that finally worked required four people. One (me) operating the bleed valves, a person at each helm, turning the wheel back and forth rapidly so as to pressurize the system forcing fluid and air out the bleed valves and a fourth person pouring fluid into the reserve tank. Until we learned to turn both wheels at the same time, we were merely pumping air bubbles from one helm pump to the other. Oh yes, along the way we also discovered a leaky seal around the outside helm steering shaft. Thankfully that only took a few hours to replace. So, we learned how to bleed the hydraulic steering, there are no leaks, it will be easier to fix next time because now we have bleed valves and of course, the system has entirely new hydraulic fluid in it. And while installing the bleed valves, I discovered a cracked fitting on the hydraulic piston actuator arm that probably would not have otherwise been discovered until it failed. Naturally you ask, what's the big deal about a little air in the hydraulic system? Two problems. First, the wheel turns with a "spongy" soft feel while the air compresses before the rudder begins to turn. So, you don't have instant and continuous steering control. Second, the wheel "bounces" back after a turn as the compressed air expands again. Not good.

Since we had spent over a week fixing the steering, it was now only two weeks until the annual HAM licensing exam session. So, we volunteered to help out, which required some study to pass an exam to become a Volunteer Examiner. It also gave us a chance to upgrade our ratings, so we also studied for the "Extra" classification exam. I passed it, but Jan failed by one point, which is an extraordinary achievement in that she only had two weeks to study and I had the advantage of having been an electronic technician when I served in the USAF many, many years ago. Jan is very competitive, so I am confident that she will take the exam again at the next opportunity and pass it.

It is a known fact that cruisers get stuck in Trinidad because they start fixing stuff and don't know when to stop. The condition must be very contagious, as it has afflicted us also. We decided we would replace our propane powered "demand" water heater. Demand water heaters are not popular in the states, but they are real energy savers and work extremely well. Basically, they are small, about the size of a small microwave oven and they turn on and heat the water as you use it. The one we had was eleven years old, out of production and was getting hard to turn on. So, we contacted friends, who have a boat exactly like ours and asked their advice. They had replaced their heater a year previously. Following up on their recommendation, we found what we needed in England and had it shipped to us. Fortunately, it bolted right in where the old one had been. No adjustments to the water lines or gas line. However, we did have to extend the stainless steel flue one and three quarter inch, as the new heater is slightly shorter than the old one. This was accomplished in a few hours at a local machine shop. Now and then one gets lucky and a replacement or repair goes suspiciously smooth. Stay tuned.

Dates: ,
Locations: Trinidad
Keywords: hydraulic steering, autopilot, quote

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.