Some Things Work and Some Don’t

It is 24 years since I launched Fiona, my Westsail 42, which I bought as a hull and deck and finished over an eight year period in the backyard. In some ways she might be considered old-fashioned; for example, I like a sturdy gallows to drop the boom into, and she is heavy–I added extra reinforcing in many spots. Since launching, she has racked up about 240,000 nautical miles, including two circumnavigations, once each way, and trips to the north and south high latitudes. This arduous schedule has afforded me a chance to discover just what gear really performs and what holds up. Not too much of the equipment which I originally installed has survived to the present day. An important factor in keeping the boat functional is the ability to make repairs during a cruise and even under way. This means carrying a good many spares, not only replacement parts but also wood, cordage, sailcloth, rigging and electrical wire, metal stock and a good selection of screws, nuts and bolts and chandlery items. I carry a sewing machine and in the engine room there is a workbench with a vice. I have accumulated on board many hand tools over the years including swaging tools for rigging repairs, a multimeter and several power tools such as a saber saw, a 3/8th inch drill motor with bits to ½ inch, a Dremel tool and a soldering iron, up to 1000W of ac is available to power them.


Fiona is a cutter rigged sloop, the usual inventory consists of a 105% Genoa jib, a Yankee jib, a spitfire jib which hanks on the forestay, a staysail, a fully battened main and a storm mainsail. The Genoa has a high cut foot, designed to maintain a constant angle to the sheet fairlead from the clew as the sail is reefed using the roller furler. The staysail is club-footed and originally the lower hanks were attached to a jackline so that the sail could be raised without jamming. This arrangement made the staysail difficult to reef, now the staysail is hanked on the forestay in the conventional manner and the clew is attached to the outhaul car by a small tackle, which is eased when the sail is raised and then hardened when the luff is taut. The full-size battened main is only used in temperate latitudes, for high latitude sailing the storm main is bent on. It has only two reefs but the second is very deep and when rigged the sail is virtually a storm trysail. I did have a storm trysail but it is too much bother to set it in heavy weather. On average the sails last about 20,000 nautical miles before they become too worn for economical repair, but some sailcloth lasts lot longer than others, regardless of the weight. When repairing a tear at sea I mark the area with a fiber pen and cut a patch to size and then seal the edges of the patch on the stove burner. It is then glued in place with contact cement, I use wooden blocks and ‘C’ clamps to get a good bond. When dry I complete the repair by stitching near the edges on the sewing machine.


The 50 foot aluminum mast is stepped on deck. Four shrouds on each side provide lateral support using one spreader. The shrouds are 5/16 inch diameter. Fore and aft support is provided by the headstay, forestay and backstay. The forestay wire is similar to the shrouds but after breakages I increased the diameter of the head and back stays to 3/8 inch. The headstay is fastened to a four foot bow platform braced by a bobstay. I do not use running backstays, care must be taken to prevent chafe of the mainsail on the after shroud when running. In addition it is possible to bend the mast out of column if the forestay is tightened too much. I always set the after shrouds to a very high tension to offset this tendency. The presence of the forestay has undoubtedly saved the mast from collapsing on at least two occasions when the headstay broke and probably another couple of times when the bobstay let go. The original specification for the bobstay called for 7/16 inch diameter wire but this started to shred on my first circumnavigation and I replaced it with 3/8 inch stainless chain. This chain snapped unexpectedly in relatively mild weather during an Atlantic crossing; now I use ½ inch stainless chain.

I use slab reefing for the mainsail. All the cleats, cheek blocks, etc are on the port side of the boom, this has the minor disadvantage that the boat must be on port tack in order to reef the mainsail. If on starboard tack we generally jibe over and then jibe back after reefing. With practice a good crew can accomplish the maneuver and be moving again with the shortened sail in 15 minutes. The topping lift and outhaul are connected to 2:1 purchases inside the boom and fed to jam cleats at the mast end. The halyards are all 3/16 inch flexible stainless wire and usually last five to six years, although breakage is not uncommon due to fatigue at the sheaves. When reeving a new line and swaging a thimble on the end, the cut-off wheel on the Dremel tool yields a perfectly squared end for pushing into the sleeve. The halyard winches are the old-style reel type, unfortunately no longer available. I know these types can inflict a nasty knock to the operator if the ratchet brake is slackened with the handle still mounted when lowering sail. The cure is emphasizing the correct procedure to the mast hand. In all the years we have used them only one person got clobbered, fortunately without serious injury, although he had a sore wrist for a week. For a quick trip to the masthead or the spreader I mounted ratlines on the lower starboard shrouds made of 1×1½ inch ash, grooved at the ends to fit the wire and seized with stainless wire. These proved useful in high latitudes for stationing an ice spotter. They are also handy when the occasional failure of a jib sheet happens; I simply bring the sail near the ratlines using the remaining good sheet and shinny up to tie a new line because the clew is not accessible from deck level. Above the spreader are steps. These are great halyard snaggers and I rigged small lines from the steps to the upper shroud to prevent a halyard getting caught behind a step when it might flail around as the sail is lowered.

I fitted a roller furler for the jib several years after I started cruising on Fiona, I had begun to wonder why I was always wet; I guess it took that long to figure out that the wettest job on the boat was changing headsails. There is no doubt that with this gear the crew and I are considerably drier. The downside is that when it fails it is usually a major headache to fix. I now have my fourth roller furler fitted; before the last cruise I was so fed up with the set screws working out of the foil couplings that I drilled them out and tapped in aluminum pins that were then welded in place. This worked fine and I never experienced having the swivel jam halfway down when lowering the sail. Of course, the problem with this approach is that the foils don’t come apart very easily if one needs to be changed. On my circumnavigation via the Capes, 2002 to 2003, the lower unit split vertically into two; the drum above and the foil bearing a three inch gap below. A call to the dealer on Iridium confirmed it was not repairable on board, but they offered to replace it under the warranty, small comfort with Cape Horn 2000 miles downwind. The replacement unit is now showing distinct signs of suffering from the same problem after about 40,000 nautical miles, it is caused by wear in the circlip mating groove. Probably my most dramatic horror story is the one about the furler that demolished the headstay. We were heading up the Atlantic from the Horn and stopped in Brazil. On a masthead inspection I noticed that a couple of wires were broken on the headstay. Well, that left 17 wires still intact and I figured we would get home. I didn’t realize that the upper bearing of the topmost foil had come adrift and the top 6 feet of the tube were unsupported. As we sailed north a ‘V’ shaped slot developed at the top of the foil and as it was rotated it behaved like a pipe-cutter on the headstay. One day half way between the Cape Verdes and Bermuda we rolled up the sail and suddenly the headstay fell towards the deck, held up only by the halyard. We had to jettison most of the gear overboard, make and rig a new headstay and convert the jib to ‘hanked on’ using every shackle on the boat. That took two days and a lot of masthead time for me in a bosun’s chair. The headstay failed again a few years later because the rigger making the replacement stay overswaged the tang and partially cut through the outer wires. Now I use screw together compression fittings with no failures to date.


We have two dinghies on board; a 7 foot rigid fiberglass dink stored on the foredeck, upside down over the forward hatch. It acts as huge dorade and permits us to keep the forward hatch except in the heaviest seas. It can be launched in a few minutes using the staysail halyard. I have small outboard for it but it rows very easily with one or two aboard. For heavier work I carry a 10 ft inflatable with an 8 hp outboard. This dink is useful when we are spending a few days at anchor and possibly reprovisioning, but it takes the best part of an hour to get it fully assembled and the same to deflate. It has an inflatable floor and keel; I found wooden floors a pain to install. In temperate climes I keep it lashed to the aft cabin coach roof (deflated) but in high latitudes it rates a bunk to itself below. I built the rigid dinghy when I was building Fiona and it is still in good shape, but the PVC inflatables have a 5 to 7 year lifespan, in my experience the seams begin to go first.

The upper lifelines are vinyl covered 3/16 inch stainless wire; the lower lines are the same but without the vinyl. Once the vinyl is punctured the wire inside rusts much more quickly than the bare wire. I have replaced the lifelines three times during the life of the boat. An important safety modification was to incorporate a permanently mounted collapsible boarding ladder in the starboard gate. On a trip to Bermuda in 1987 I was knocked overboard at about 1 a.m. by a swinging boom; I made it back to the boat OK but the crew could not find the boarding ladder, which in those days was kept underneath a bunk. That won’t happen again.

The anchor windlass is a very robust design with a one-horsepower electric motor: it has to be able to lift the 280 ft of 7/16 inch chain I carry together with the heaviest anchor – a 65 lb fisherman’s. The baked-on paint finish deteriorated years ago and twice I have had it sand-blasted. The only mechanical problem has been failure of a thrust bearing. I replaced it with a washer during the cruise which functioned fine until I was able to buy the correct metric bearing when I returned home.


At the stern sits Victor the Vane; the much traveled Aries wind gear which has handled the steering for much of Fiona‘s mileage. Chafing of the steering ropes at the sheaves is ongoing and typically calls for replacement after several thousand miles. I have rebushed the moving spindles a couple of times. The only major mechanical failure has been a fracture of a 1½ inch diameter mounting strut when we ran our easting down between Cape Town and Australia in 2002. The heavy swell for day after day put immense strain on the steering system. We had no material suitable for a repair and put into Hobart where I ordered a replacement from England. Now I carry a couple of feet of aluminum tubing which can be cut to size should that failure reoccur. One idea I tried to increase the versatility of the Aries was to replace the plywood vane with an autopilot designed for use with the tiller of a small boat. This greatly improves performance downwind in light airs. An adaptor has to be made to convert the push-pull motion into the rotary action needed for the Aries, but that is not the major problem; the pilot I chose was simply not designed for day in, day out service. After a few weeks at sea the plastic drive gears and toothed drive belt wore out. I modified the unit to fix this problem but it is not something I recommend unless you are an inveterate tinkerer.

I bought the engine, an 85 hp Perkins diesel, when I got the hull. In 2005 I pulled it out for a major overhaul after about 12,000 hours of running. The oil pressure had dropped to 20 psi and it was using a quart of lube oil every 12 hours. When the engine was disassembled the mechanic showed me the reason; the bushing had seized onto the oil pump shaft and was happily machining away the housing. During the 22 years of service prior to that, major failures include disintegration of the fresh water pump and failure of the injection pump and the starter motor. The fresh water pump failed shortly after I fitted a high current alternator, I think the extra tension on the pulley to prevent slipping was a factor as both share the same belt. It is a fairly good record for that much service which is why I elected to have the engine rebuilt instead of fitting a replacement. Small improvements were made during the rebuild, such as fitting spin-on filters instead of cartridge type for the engine-mounted lube oil and fuel filters. By far the major cause of the many hours I have spent toiling in the engine room is dirty fuel. I suspect this was the culprit in the failure of the injection pump; a subject I shall return to. Because I have an engine-driven cold plate freezer, the engine is operated almost every day during cruises for periods of 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the cabin temperature. Although this lightly-loaded running is reputably bad for the engine, the valves and injectors were still in good shape when the engine was stripped. I did not notice any significant reduction in sea miles per gallon after all those years. I was punctilious about changing lube oil and filter every 100 hours or so. When I started cruising I was unaware that the engine is fitted with a sacrificial pencil zinc, this fact is not mentioned in the manual, and after two years the core plugs started to leak. One near the air intake leaked a fine water spray that got ingested and blew a head gasket, fortunately with no other damage. Every month I check the zinc, on average it needs replacing every two to three months.

In most parts of the world diesel fuel is often contaminated with water, dirt and goodness knows what else. Commercial users, such as trawlers, employ elaborate filtration including centrifugal separators. Yachties have to get by with a simpler approach, but the price is often engine stoppage. For a while I carried a ‘Baja’ filter, so called because of the fuel in Mexico, it is used directly at the intake deck plate, but its problem is that the fuel filling rate is very slow and most dock jockeys don’t like to wait hours while you fill up. So I abandoned it. I depend on four filters to deliver clean fuel to the engine. I have seen installations, mostly on power boats, with two duplicate filter systems, selected by a ‘Y’ valve. When one clogs then use the other, but I simply don’t have the room. The system on Fiona is shown in the diagram, it evolved as problems arose. Fuel from either of two tanks is selected via shut-off valves and fed to a small wire mesh filter which can be disassembled and cleaned quite quickly. From there the fuel is led to an electric pump which is usually switched off, but which can be used to pressurize the system when purging air or refilling a filter when a new cartridge has been installed. The next filter is a combined cartridge type filter and water separator. The water collection bowl at the bottom of the filter has two terminals connected to an electronic alarm which signals a warning if the resistance between the terminals drops below a preset level due to the presence of water. I usually fit 10 micron cartridges in this filter and 2 micron units in the other filters. The filter/separator is followed by a conventional filter which incorporates a manual pump. After that the fuel is led to the engine lift pump, a vacuum gauge is teed into this line. After the lift pump the fuel passes to the engine-mounted high pressure filter, also fitted with a 2 micron element. From there the fuel enters the injection pump. In normal operation the electric booster pump is off, the lift pump produces suction to pull the fuel from the tank and the vacuum gauge shows how hard the lift pump is working to get the fuel through the low pressure filters. Typically the gauge indicates less than 5 inches of Hg when the filters are clean. As the filters become contaminated the vacuum will rise, I clean the mesh filter and possibly replace the first filter when the vacuum hits 10 to 15 inches. Above 20 inches the engine is in danger of stalling due to fuel starvation, if it does stop almost certainly air will be drawn into the fuel system and a lengthy purging may be needed to get it going again. The vacuum gauge doe not indicate the condition of the high pressure filter after the lift pump. When the injection pump failed I suspect I had allowed this filter to become too dirty and particles broke through causing the problem. Replacement on a routine basis is the only cure; injection pumps are expensive.


At the end of the 2002/3 cruise, 20 years after the boat was launched, I smelt diesel in the bilge and I could not find an obvious leak. I reluctantly concluded the fuel tanks were leaking but they were completely hidden out of sight under the cabin sole in the galley and dinette area. That winter I demolished the cabin furniture in this region and removed the tanks. Close inspection showed that one tank had developed a few pinholes along the bottom corner, originating from the inside. The tanks were black iron, I had bought them from Westsail at the same time as the hull as they were custom designed to fit the inside curve of the bilge. I had new tanks made to the same design using aluminum, epoxy painted on the outside. At the same time I changed the fuel gauges from an electrical/float type, which constantly failed, to the pressure gauge type which reads the head of fuel above a tube in the tank. This has worked reliably except when the tanks are actually being filled, so a careful reading must be taken before filling commences in order to know how much to add.


Like most things on the boat this has grown in complexity over the years, I shall try to keep the description simple. The main engine-driven alternator feeds two battery banks which are isolated from each other. One is used solely to start the engine, the other runs all services including the anchor winch, heater, refrigeration, etc. The batteries are lead acid; three batteries can be connected in parallel via switches if needed. Two of the service batteries are intended for golf cart use, but even so there is a noticeable drop in capacity after two years. Both battery banks can be connected by a bolt-down link in an emergency. I have had to use this feature a few times in high latitudes to get enough oomph to turn over the engine in very cold weather. While under sail an alternator driven by the free wheeling propeller shaft keeps the system charged enough to support the refrigerator, lights and the GPS receiver. There is a built-in battery charger which is used with shore power, but a 1000W ac generator mounted on the engine can also be used to power the charger if the main alternator fails, although I carry a spare alternator.

At sea I use an inverter rather than the generator to obtain 115V, 60 Hz power at a nominal 1000W. The newer synthesized models have proved rather unreliable and I have replaced the inverter several times. I have a small inverter of low power, 300W, which uses the older style switching power transistors and a step-up transformer; it has never failed and is the back-up for the synthesized kind. Incoming shore power is directed to a transformer, rated at 200W, so that 115 or 230 Volt sources can be connected to the battery charger. The major problem in keeping the electrical system serviceable on an ocean-going yacht is not equipment failure but corrosion of all exposed conductors. Terminal strips and plugs and sockets are vulnerable. Use plenty of grease and WD40 to keep that creeping green slime at bay. I carry plenty of spare wire and crimp terminals and a good meter. A problem with modern digital meters is that they draw virtually no current to operate and thus may well indicate that 12 Volts is present on an open circuit that will not energize a load due to a resistance further back, often caused by corrosion. In this case a bulb with clip leads is a better way to track down a failure.


Over the years I have fitted four 12 V refrigerators with a capacity of about 1½ cubic feet, these commercially made units are not particularly well insulated, they draw about 3½ Amps and in the tropics can run for as much as 75% of the time, I usually turn the ‘frig off at night. Next to the refrigerator is home-made freezer of about 2 cubic feet with 4 inches of foam insulation. Even in the tropics it will maintain a temperature of about 20 to 30ºF over 24 hours with an hour of engine time. I built it using the reciprocating compressor from a car air conditioner, reliability was not great and it used R12, which I always stocked up on when I was in Brazil. Four years ago I completely rebuilt the freezer using a commercially available kit with a rotary compressor which used R134A. Although this refrigerant is not widely available outside the US the system has never failed or needed a top-up. I do carry a few cans of refrigerant and a technician’s gauge set.


When I was building the boat I installed a forced air heater that burned diesel fuel. It worked quite well for many years but died as I was rounding Cape Horn for the first time in 1992. I replaced it with a similar model, about 8,000 BTU, from the same company. In the intervening years the designers had added many knobs and whistles to shut the unit down should a variety of perceived unsafe conditions arise. So many, in fact, that after a shut-down a code is flashed to let you know why it shut down. The upshot, of course, is that it is hard to keep it going, particularly in really cold weather, which it doesn’t like at all. Some years ago I bummed an old heat exchanger off a car from a friend who runs a garage. I installed it behind a riser on the companionway steps, tapped into the engine hot water and mounted a blower at the back. It works like a charm when the engine is running.


The boat has two heads, one at each end. At the urging of my wife I originally installed an electrically powered type in the forward head. It was the same as the manual type with a husky motor to crank the handle. It did not work very well and in the damp environment the motor soon turned into a rust ball. Now the heads are all manually operated and apart from replacement of rubber parts from time to time have worked reliably, although the original units have been replaced over the years. Originally the waste treatment was a chlorinator/macerator, which drew a high current but seemed to work OK. Then this type of treatment became illegal and I replaced the unit with a 20 gallon holding tank. I was quite concerned that in most parts of the world there are no pump-out stations, so I mounted the tank above the water line and installed a ‘Y’ valve so the tank can be emptied either via the deck plate or into the sea when offshore. To facilitate this, a pump can be turned on to inject seawater into the top of the tank. A curious thing I have noticed for many years is significant salt build-up on the inside of the discharge hoses to the toilets during a cruise. This build-up can effectively halve the diameter of the pipe, necessitating replacement or a thorough cleaning every year.


For many years I used four burner stoves intended for an RV in the galley. They tended to rust out and require replacement every half dozen years, but they were simple and very reliable. About four years ago I decided to splurge and install a stainless steel beauty certified for marine use; its name implied you could make yourself a cup of tea hove-to under storm conditions. It has proven a disappointment, the safety system intended to shut off the gas in the event the flame goes out is very touchy and frequently prevents the burner from being lit at all. It is not easy to service; the burners are fastened with very small stainless screws that corrode in place and break when some torque is applied. I carry two aluminum propane tanks; the one in use is located in a gas-tight lazarette at the stern which is vented to the outside. The other is carried on deck. If I am uncertain about the amount of fuel remaining I weigh the tank on a 50 lb fish scale. Typically with a complement of three on board we use 2 lbs a week. Next to the tank in the lazarette is an electrically operated shut off valve. This was installed at the insistence of an insurance company, but the valve itself has failed twice due to electrical malfunction, resulting in the solenoid burning out. Conditions in the lazarette are very damp due to condensation when the propane is expanded during operation of the stove. Next to the stove in the galley is a most valuable item; a gimbaled counter. The stove itself is not gimbaled; I use stainless one-inch wide flat stock as fiddles to keep the pans in place.

An abridged version was published in Ocean Voyager magazine in March, 2008