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When Our Systems Overwhelm Us

By Shangri-La - Published October 15, 2007 - Viewed 762 times

It was April 7, 2007, and there I was in St. Maarten, alone, on the hard, in an armpit of a yard, aboard Shangri La. She’d been out of the water for a year, and the day she got splashed was exciting. Not only was I going to see my recent purchase floating for the first time, see what those lines actually looked like against the water, but I’d be able to use the head and sinks with impunity, run the engine, carry stuff off and onboard across a plank instead of up and down a ladder, really start feeling like I owned a boat and not a tree house.

Shangri-La, on the hard.

In reality, as soon as Shangri-La was in and the engine was turned on and put in gear, out popped the shaft, and flooding into the boat came Simpson Bay. Very exciting. We immediately lifted her, hammered the shaft back in, tightened some bolts behind the transmission box, refloated her, put the engine in reverse, and the shaft popped out again. Tony, the handy sailor-broker who was responsible for having everything in proper working order as per our sale agreement, was stumped. It was Easter weekend. He put in a call to somebody for help and, while waiting, I was back on the hard trying to remember where I might have gotten a bloody and throbbing finger, and trying to maintain a sense of humor for suppressing the rising anxiety. What had I gotten myself into?

On March 9, 2007, my father had closed on the family home in downtown Manhattan that he’d lived in for over 25 years, my brother turned 38, and the two of them went out with my sister for a celebratory romp on the town. If I’d been around, I would’ve joined them and might have been able to anticipate and prevent the fall that resulted in a sorely bruised coccyx for my father. But, I was in St. Maarten, making the date even more memorable by closing on Shangri-La, marking the beginning of my reintroduction to the anxiety, the setbacks, the work, the depletion of funds, and the unparalleled satisfaction of figuring out one problem after another, to what it means to be a boat owner.

Shangri-La gets ready to splash.

March 9 was a Friday, and I’d gone down for three days, enough time to complete all the transfer of ownership and funds paperwork, to unpack the tools and linens I brought, to start making lists. The plan was to do whatever I could over the long weekend, then go home while Tony finished the work he’d promised to do. I’d return in April to apply myself to the remaining tasks before sailing her down to Curacao where she’d go back on the hard and be stored until September when The Trip was scheduled to begin.

Those first days aboard in St. Maarten were hot and sticky in that grubby yard with no showers. Tony and his wife and son, Joanie and Jesse, were my only human contacts on the island, and they graciously opened their house to me for meals and washing up. But, there wasn’t much time to waste or to wish I could be home shoveling paths through the snow and out to the chicken coop, not with the lockers and cabinets full of gear that needed sorting, the familiarizing that needed to happen by taking Shangri-La completely apart and putting her back together, to make her begin living up to her name . . . as an ideal.

Two days were spent separating into designated boxes the hose clamps, shackles, blocks and tackle, nuts, bolts and screws, batteries, bungs, sail repair kit, power tools, electrical supplies, plumbing supplies, engine supplies, safety gear, harnesses, life jackets, manuals, navigational equipment, pots and pans. I purchased a new stove because the old one had been bachelor-used and likewise-maintained, and a new Caribe I-27 dinghy and 5 HP Yamaha outboard. Then, I packed up the mainsail cover and the cockpit cushion covers and flew home to repair and clean them with the sewing and washing machines, and booked a one-way ticket to return in three weeks for The Big Push.

While sweltering in the tropics, it’s easy to glorify the pleasures of snow in Vermont.

A hill formed by the downstairs door. What I didn’t buy or gather from around the house, my father drove up with in boxes of stuff he’d saved from his former boats. The hill turned into a mountain of plastic storage containers, plates, bowls and cutlery, baking equipment, sheets, towels, and pillows. Onto it, I placed my sextant, cruising guides, and other reference books, a hand-bearing compass, scissors, a chisel, whipping twine, tapes, glues, measuring cups, fishing tackle, snorkeling gear, my handheld VHF and GPS units, batteries, line. I consulted the list and added binoculars, a board measured and cut to the dimensions of a door for a cabinet in the head, a bosun’s chair, a watch, a clock, a medical kit, dried garden herbs, wasabi, soy sauce, pickled ginger, and anything else that could run up overweight charges at the airport. I knew that whatever I forgot or needed for boat repairs could also be found in St. Maarten with its huge and well-stocked supermarkets, hardware stores, Budget Marine, and Island Water World, but it would be better and cheaper to avoid redundance.

My dad and two of his grandkids.

While I was building and moving gear and snow mountains in the north, Tony and his guys were busy with their own lists. He emailed me regularly with pictures of them fairing and painting the hull and deck, cleaning out the contaminated fuel tank, fixing woodwork, painting and servicing the engine, restoring a rusted exhaust pipe, changing the cutlass bearing, repairing the mainsail, replacing bow and stern navigation lights, attaching a chafe protection metal plate under the anchor roller, installing my new stove. Though these were at my expense, he also delivered and picked up all the upholstery from a cleaners and brought the liferaft to a servicer for me—great time savers. The rest was my responsibility, things I figured I could manage—clean, get the head up and running, clean, make sure engine and pumps were functioning once she was splashed, clean, replace the furling line, gas bottles and regulator, clean, get pulled up the mast to make sure everything was okay up there and to know what it looked like, clean, service the windlass, organize and stow, measure out the anchor rode and mark it off in 20-foot increments, and clean some more.

Overall, especially given the mileage laid under her keel, Shangri-La was in great shape. However, during those first days aboard in St. Maarten, whilst wearing my fingertips down to scrubbed nubs and really delving in, the electrical system under the bunk in the salon became a major concern. The wiring behind the instrument panel was impressively organized, but below the settee, control central had six monster batteries, another for starting the engine, an inverter, transformers, fuses, diodes and all kinds of electrical components I actually knew very little about. Most distressing was the handful of green connections in the gnarls of wires connecting the whole thing together. It all worked, but it looked like only a matter of weeks before something corroded through and I’d have no idea about how to fix it.

Working under the hot round ball.

“What you want to do,” advised Tony, who visited often to check on progress, even though I always had another question or favor to ask of him, “is disconnect everything, snip the wires, sand the connectors that look okay, then dip them in muriatic acid and denatured alcohol, and replace anything that looks doubtful. Easy enough, aye?”

Easy, my foot. If you’re at all familiar with boat systems, you know there’s nothing straightforward about the electricity. Even with the best layouts, when you have to cram a lot into a small space, things are crammed. In order to access certain sections, whole other sections have to come out, and I had no idea how any of the sections functioned in relation to the others, and if I was able to remove one, by the time the area behind it was cleaned up, how to put the first one back together again. From the bottom of the electrical learning curve, self-teaching my way through this “easy” project looked like it could take weeks, and I wanted to be sailing away from St. Maarten in five days. The mere thought of that mess, compounded by all the other smaller projects on the list, ended up with me in tears of frustration.

Working on boats together makes for fast friendships.

Then came the shaft problem, a fortunate turn of events, as it so happened, because that was when the guy Tony called for help swept in, halo, hearty laughter, and all. Lindsay, a South African Welshman with a marina and haulout facility to manage, three dogs and their fleas to load and unload from his dinghy, and his Margie back on their boat to feed them all whenever they returned home, was the answer to my dreams. From the very first moment, it was like having a Nigel Calder aboard, the personal tutor I’d been spending fitful nights wishing for so desperately, as well as great companionship for a couple of days during the lonely ordeal of getting to know my new boat.

First he repaired the shaft, and as Shangri-La got splashed, he was there to approve of her lines in the water and to give the engine a once-over with me, flushing the internal freshwater system, changing the impellor, checking out the alternator, instructing me on what grades of transmission and engine oil to use when I changed them because I still needed to find an engine manual and Tony’s engine refit had been mostly just a paint job. Then, I pulled out the substantial spare-parts collection, and Lindsay named bits and bobs that had me perplexed—gaskets, injectors, rusted hypodermic needles—enabling me to get rid of the clutter. There was one important looking contraption of hefty metal and swivels that Tony and I hadn’t figured out. We’d even emailed a picture to the former owner with an unanswered query. Lindsay took one look and said, “Oh yes, of course. That’s the manual pump handle for the watermaker.” Oh yes, of course.

The amount of technical know-how I needed almost overwhelmed me, but there was no turning back now.

Then came the electrics. Together with him explaining every step of the way, we took the whole thing apart and put it back together all cleaned, organized, lubricated and functioning. I learned that the whole system ran on 220, that I’d have to always take that into consideration for future purchases with electrical needs. I never saw a guy sweat so profusely. Back home, everyone was shoveling out from under an onslaught of successive late-season snowstorms while, no kidding, we actually splashed through the puddles forming on the cabin sole beneath Lindsay. And still, he laughed and good-naturedly instructed and fixed while we both tried to fit in as many stories as possible. We discovered he had sailed for four months along East Africa with an old family friend, and another good friend of his had sold his boat to a good friend of mine, and so on, shrinking the world while knowing we had to say everything now because once I left St. Maarten, who knew when we’d meet again.

After several dismantlings and reassemblings of the head with new parts and vented loops into the wee hours of two mornings, acquiring a burn scar on my thigh from the heat gun, and losing some knuckle to the hose clamps, I finally had the driest toilet I’ve seen on any boat, a personal triumph because I hate what is implied by moistness in the head. After taking the bilge pump out three times and blowing onto its manky hose to build up activation pressure, twice right after showering, I finally figured out a way to keep it on a level where it wouldn’t trigger randomly, only when it was supposed to.

Just before the boys arrived, I put pictures up in Shangri-La’s main saloon, including this one, of our house.

I sweltered in traffic jams to purchase cleaning supplies, batteries, a pipe wrench, a handheld manual pump, a cordless drill, courtesy flags, charts, a toilet repair kit, a bucket, and provisions for the upcoming four-day crossing to Curacao. The days melted away, my kids got bumped off their plane down and came a morning later, earning a $500 voucher and giving me one more evening to finally hang some decorations in the main salon: a statue of Varuna, the Hindu god of the cosmos and namesake of my first boat, a protective evil eye from Turkey, an aerial shot of our house, and a Dali print of a long-suffering woman dragging a ship behind her.

April 14. Progress had been steady and strong and that last evening before my crew arrived and we prepared to check out, I invited over some people I’d met in the yard for drinks, to see my new ride all pimped up. With their appreciative comments, the way we were able to hang out in the salon and talk about boats and the world waiting out there, I leaned back against the chart table and realized that everything was working and I was about to head off over the horizon and into a world where all I’d done to prepare would pay off. At that moment, every drop of blood, sweat and tears, every moment of despair and regret sloughed away for me and my Shangri-La. I knew I had to enjoy the ideal while it lasted, and offered up another round of drinks.





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