Size Counts

By Tom Neale, 3/31/2011


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You’d be surprised what a difference an inch makes.

I remember when I was hard aground going into the eastern entrance of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s always been notoriously shallow around there, and we were practicing safe navigation, but we stuck our Gulfstar 41’s keel into the sand shoal anyway. Well Damn, I thought. (Actually, I think I said it out loud. And a few other things.) The tide was falling and there weren’t any TowboatsUS around then. This was a long time ago. I’d read all the books (the ones that say don’t go aground) and knew just what to do. I needed to take out my anchor to the side where I thought (hoped) the water was deeper and kedge off. This I knew was going to be a real pain in the gazoo because the anchor was far too heavy to just throw out and I knew the sandy bottom was pretty hard. Besides, I had already thought I knew where the deep water was and obviously I hadn’t had a clue.

Measure first!
Nevertheless, with a lot of misgiving, I jumped into my little dinghy that we were dragging behind. I pushed off, ready to row around to the bow and get the anchor aboard. I didn’t weigh much then, but as I pushed off, both the dinghy and “Chez Nous” moved. All it had taken was the removal of my puny weight to raise her an inch, maybe less, and she was free from the shoal and gently sailing away on the growing breeze. You can imagine my ecstasy. Until I realized I’d forgotten to put the oars aboard the dinghy.

If an inch can make a difference, more inches can do even better. Take the cheating bar, for example. (Please don’t take mine. I’d never be able to turn a bolt without it.) This is a big NO NO tool that most good mechanics use anyway on occasion. And some very lousy mechanics, like me, also use them. Get the picture: You have a socket wrench or a regular wrench on a bolt head and you just can’t turn the thing. You’ve sprayed on about a can full of stuff that’s supposed to break up the rust and lubricate the threads, but still no joy. You’re afraid to apply heat because you’re in the engine room. So you pull out your faithful cheating bar. It’s just a piece of pipe that you slip over the handle of the socket wrench or wrench. If you’re really sophisticated you’ve got several pieces of different lengths and diameters to suit different circumstances. This simply adds more length to the handle of your wrench and provides you much more leverage. If you’re not careful you can bust the gears in a socket wrench or pop off the head of the bolt, but if you’re careful you’ve got the job done and are sitting there thinking about kissing that pipe.

Yes, size does count, and increments of feet and yards can also be important. I remember when we had our Tartan 27 sailboat in the Chesapeake. We loved that boat and I still miss her. We had many great times aboard. But I had even less sense than I do now and we had plenty of rough trips. Soon we began to feel that she was just a tad short to be comfortable when we had to motor into the type of waves we so often experienced in the Bay. The waves in any body of water depend on water depth, fetches, currents and bottom configurations, as well as wind. Eventually we got that Gulfstar 41 I was talking about above and we found a marked improvement in comfort (less hobby horsing, for example) because of the greater hull length. The longer water line simply handled that type of wave better. In later years, we had a Gulfstar 47. We loved her (and still miss her). We often crossed the Gulf Stream in her and made other ocean trips. Then we got our present Gulfstar 53 motorsailer which is not only longer, but heavier. She’s bigger, in other words. Not much bigger, but just enough to make a really big difference in typical seas on the Stream and other areas of the ocean.

To look at this from a different perspective, depth of penetration is quite important during boat work. I once heard, from a very reliable source, of a boatyard worker who was installing something in a boat while it was in the water. His drill penetrated not only the teak liner, but also through the hull before he realized how thin that hull was. A nice stream of water followed his drill bit out into the inside of the boat. (This makes a good case for using battery powered drills.) The worker jumped overboard, plugged the hole with some underwater epoxy, (this was summertime in the Chesapeake area) and I heard that the owner never knew because when the yard hauled the boat in the fall they did a full repair.

Once we personally witnessed such an incident. Drug enforcement agents drove up in a Cadillac to meet a sailboat that had just entered US waters and tied to a marina to clear in. They apparently had some suspicions and proceeded to conduct a too thorough search, which include drilling into cavities to see if they contained any illegal stuff. Soon we noticed that the owners were even more agitated than they’d been at the initial boarding. It seems the agents had drilled right through the hull. They went to their car, opened the trunk and pulled out a tank and diving gear. One jumped over with a plug of underwater epoxy and stuffed it in the hole. They left explaining to the owner that they were a full service agency. Except that they weren’t planning to get the boat hauled and repaired more securely.

This tendency of drilling too deep has manifested in other boat work. In that Gulfstar 41 I talked about above, there was a Perkins 4-107 diesel. I wasn’t too impressed with how it had been built. For example, I kept noticing lube oil down in the bilge. I checked around the seals and both ends and in a lot of other places but I couldn’t find a leak anywhere. So finally I just lay down beside the motor determined to watch until the next drip hit the water and try to trace it back. In due course, I saw a drip. But I didn’t even have to wait for it to hit the water. It was running down the block right in front of my eyes. Most engine blocks have various bolt holes drilled in for the mounting of accessories. This block was no different. But one bolt hole had been drilled so deep that it had just barely pierced the wall of an oil passage inside. Boy, was I bummed. Until I realized how easy the fix would be. I just got a bolt that matched the hole and threads, put some sealant around it, and threaded it in. No more oil leak and I had a nice bolt sticking out that I could hang things on. Like rags for the next drip.

Tom’s Tips About Figuring Depths During Boatwork

1. Never drill or nail or screw on a boat unless you know exactly where the drill, nail or screw is going. Penetrating the hull is bad enough, but you could also penetrate an AC power wire, a radar cable, a VHF cable, air conditioning lines and lots of other things that can result in harm to you or at least some very expensive repairs.

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