How to be Invincible

A childhood diet of superheroes, Nancy Drew, and Harrison Ford (he played Han Solo and Indiana Jones) instilled a dream of invincibility in young me.  It wasn’t until this adventure that I thought about what invincibility really means.  It is not an innate characteristic that ensures you are bulletproof or will never lose.  It is something that is grown from the injuries and losses.  Almost every superhero story involves the hero overcoming a major life challenge before attaining their super status.  

In terms of Mapache’s journey, experiencing and solving problems has given us the knowhow to solve things like leaking thru-hulls, running aground, seasickness, mystery oil leaks, failing dinghy outboards, and, now, broken propeller systems.  And as we learn to effectively solve more problems, we get closer to invincibility.  We will never be bulletproof or devoid of problems, but we might be able to attain the experience and knowledge to ensure that those obstacles will not stop us.  

Our most recent obstacle was our driveshaft (the part that turns the propeller, much like a driveshaft that turns the wheels on a car). The piece holding the driveshaft to the transmission (the coupler) failed, leaving us drifting off of Point Conception and eventually requiring us to tow Mapache into Santa Barbara Harbor. Specifically, the key, which ensures that the coupler does not spin without gripping and turning the driveshaft, had sheared off. The key is a specific shape—square and long, fitting in similarly-shaped keyways in the shaft and the coupler, which encase the key when everything is fitted together. In boats, the key is traditionally made from bronze, a soft metal. We later learned that bronze is used as a safety measure to allow the key to shear if the propeller is suddenly stopped, for example, by kelp wrapping it, ensuring that the transmission is not harmed from the force. All that said, we needed to find a replacement key.

After towing Mapache into the Santa Barbara Harbor, we set out to find a new key.  The marine supply store did not sell them, and we held our breaths as we walked down the hardware aisle of Ace.  To our relief, Ace Hardware offered an entire box of different-sized stainless-steel keys.  We bought several, returned to the boat, and started the repair. 

In order to access the coupler, Rob had to remove the cockpit drain hoses, the exhaust hose, the sea strainer, the exhaust pipe, and the water muffler and its support board from the engine “room,” which is less of a room and more of a crawlspace under the cockpit.  Engine work on Mapache is not for the claustrophobic or inflexible.  Rob had to fold himself in half and work in an area next to his feet for the transmission, coupler, and driveshaft repairs.

He discovered that the key was not just sheared, but the keyways were mangled (likely from Rob jury-rigging it on our passage to Santa Barbara by jamming a bolt into it).  But he filed the keyways and new key to make a perfect fit.  He put everything back together and tested it against the dock, putting the boat into forward and then reverse.  Everything worked, and the next day, we cast off the lines to head south to our next destination. 

As you might recall, a giant and expensive catamaran was docked behind us.  On the morning we cast off, the wind was pushing the boat toward the catamaran.  Seeing that Rob was unable to drive the boat forward to counter the wind, I grabbed onto the lines to pull us back onto the dock as he yelled that the propeller was not working again.  The wind had pushed the bow out and the stern over the dock, hooking our windvane onto a dock cleat.  (The windvane is a manual auto-pilot that uses the wind to maintain a course and is permanently attached to the boat.) That prevented me from pulling the bow back into the dock.  Rob was forced to grab the hacksaw and cut one of the stainless steel rods off of the windvane.  The alternative was to allow the boat to spin around and into the catamaran.

It turns out that when we tested the engine in reverse against the dock before leaving, the force of the propeller pulled the driveshaft back.  Two set bolts that work with the key to hold the coupler to the driveshaft also prevent that backwards driveshaft movement.  What we did not realize before is that the same act that sheared the key also wore off the ends of the set bolts, allowing them to slip along the driveshaft.  When the shaft slipped in reverse, it allowed the key to escape the coupler and, again, eliminated use of the propeller.  

We were back to having an undriveable boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor, which was costing us $46 per day, and would increase to $92 per day if we stayed longer than two weeks.  Rob took the driveshaft and coupler apart again, saw the problem with the set bolts, and realized that the underlying problem was that the driveshaft and engine were out of alignment due to damaged motor mounts.  The repair necessitated lifting the engine to replace the mounts, replacing the coupler, aligning the engine to the driveshaft, and hopefully not ruining the seal around the driveshaft, where it exited the boat and connected to the propeller.  We spoke to several people, and learned that the only boat mechanic in Santa Barbara was booked for three months.  We received the advice to tow Mapache into the ocean and attempt to sail her to a place where we might have more options.  The advice was accompanied by the warning that, to do otherwise, would lead us to being marooned in Santa Barbara, especially because the exponentially increasing slip fees would drain our funds long before we could pay for the necessary repairs.   

There was nothing left to do but pull on our coveralls, order new motor mounts and a new coupler, and brainstorm how to hoist the engine by ourselves with the boat in the water.  

Our friend’s parents (who we now count among our growing group of Santa Barbara friends) allowed us to use their address for the parts delivery, which we received within days through overnight shipping.  We ate about $200 in overnight shipping fees, but it made financial sense when weighed against the cost of another week’s slip fees.  We built a brace over the companionway using four 2×4 boards screwed together and resting on two different surfaces.  To the boards, we tied Dyneeema rope, which has a 27,000-pound breaking point.  And to that, we attached a chain come-along (hoist) rated to lift up to a quarter-ton.  We lifted half the engine at a time, replacing the forward two motor mounts followed by the aft two.  We carefully pushed the driveshaft through its seal and out the back of the boat, allowing Rob to remove and replace the old coupler.  But the coupler is built to be press fit, meaning its opening is smaller than the shaft so that it must be pressed on by machine or heated to an extreme temperature to fit.  Without the special machinery and the boat out of the water, those are not options.  Rob centered his inner MacGyver to create his own handheld machine from sandpaper and a cordless drill.  He sanded the inside of the coupler until it fit onto the shaft.  He used a file to clean the keyway in the driveshaft and shape the keyway in the new coupler to a perfect fit for the key.  Then, he used a Dremel tool to grind two new dimples into the shaft for the new set bolts.  He safety wired the set bolts to ensure that vibrations would not loosen them.  And finally, he spent hours aligning the engine to the shaft, which had to be within a .003-inch difference around the entire coupler-shaft fitting.  Each step felt like a new obstacle and, to top it off, we discovered and resolved an exhaust leak and missing shaft and propeller zincs.  But, with the help of homemade cookies from our friend’s parents and nephew, we endured.  

We finally set out from Santa Barbara one day before our slip rates increased.  As we headed through the night toward San Diego, we heard the sound that we heard the night the propeller failed.  After swiftly switching into neutral, and with our hearts in our stomachs, we saw violent splashing around the back of the boat from a huge piece of kelp.  It had wrapped our propeller, stopping it, and we did not have the breakaway bronze key to protect our transmission.

We checked the transmission, coupler, and driveshaft.  All looked good.  We dangled over the boat’s side with a flashlight and a boat hook, pulling pieces of kelp off of the propeller.  I offered to jump in and cut off the rest, but Rob assured me the water temperature would gift me hypothermia.  So, after pulling enough of the kelp off to gingerly motor into the closest harbor, we anchored for the night.  

The next morning, we found a dive shop, and Rob bought a wetsuit.  He dove under Mapache and cleared the kelp perpetrator.  

We are back on route, having made it to San Diego on Thanksgiving Day, two months and three weeks after we left the mouth of the Columbia River and our home state of Oregon.  We are six weeks behind our planned schedule.  But, if you want to be invincible, you have to embrace the obstacles.  Next stop: Mexico.

New key on the left; original, sheared key on the right

Box of keys at the hardware store

Old coupler with mangled keyway

Broken motor mount, visible as the motor is being hoisted

Rob bringing home the wood to make the engine hoist

The new coupler and motor mounts

Engine hoist set-up

Cookie delivery to boost morale

Makeshift machining of the new coupler

Filing the new key to fit

Kelp-wrapped propeller

Rob diving to free the propeller of kelp

We made it to San Diego!

Mapache sitting amongst the boats in San Diego’s cruisers’ anchorage

6 thoughts on “How to be Invincible

  1. This was the most anxiety ridden email I’ve read in a long time but I enjoyed every minute of the adventure. Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you. Things can only go up from here, right?

    Miss you! – Steph


  2. Wow! My heart is in my throat reading your Blog. Great persistence and problem solving. Keep it up.

  3. Resilience. You have WAY more than I do. Appreciate your writing and your overcoming of obstacles.

    Anthony C. Williams


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