The Gift of the Cruising ChristmasTree

By Tom Neale, 12/24/2008


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Chez Nous Christmas Tree

We home-schooled our daughters on “Chez Nous” while cruising. One of their courses was “Small Engine Repair,” which involved disassembling and rebuilding an internal combustion engine, and making it run again.  For first Melanie, and then Carolyn, I bought a very old small gas engine and each went to work on them, having first read a good text book on the subject.  Melanie’s course came around Christmas time.

We’ve always had a live Christmas Tree on “Chez Nous” and so, although she did much of the tear down up on deck, she began the rebuilding down below, away from the bitter winds of the cold fronts sweeping across the Bahamas and under the warming boughs of the tree. The colored lights and good smells coming from the galley added a special aura to the event.  It would be great, we knew, to have the job done and the engine running by Christmas Eve.

Melanie worked very hard on getting that thing back together.  If you haven’t ever completely torn down and rebuilt an engine, you may not appreciate that it’s a work of art. But it is. And the feeling you get as you begin to understand the principle and see how it works is very good. That coupled with Christmas cheer made the job even more exciting.  I, of course, was there to help. Our daughters did the work and called the shots, but I was the “teacher” in this particular course, not to mention the proud father who loved seeing his daughters learn, and who was already getting a vicarious thrill of imagining the young ladies being able to know when some mechanic in some garage might be trying to rip them off some day.

Christmas Eve was approaching and we were getting down to the final phases of the job.  This included installing the valves, valve springs and valve spring retainers.  On this engine the retainers were held in place by what I call little “snap rings” or “circlips.”  The stems had an indentation near the end and the circlip flexed out and snapped around the end into the indentation. I’ve worked on other valve assemblies where you depress the spring to fit the retainer onto the groove and then push it into place, with no circlips involved, but this engine also had circlips.

Melanie was down to the last one. She was using a special tool needed for this. These tools are essentially like reverse pliers with small points at the end. You hook the points into little holes in the circlip, open the tool to spread the circlip apart, and slip it over the stem and into the slot.  Sounds easy—you might think. A really good tough mechanic can often simply push the circlip on with his calloused fingers. But this circlip had to hold under really difficult circumstances, and it was built accordingly. There was no way that I, nor Melanie, had the strength to do it without a special tool designed for the job.  We weren’t in a shop with a tool for each job. We were on a boat anchored out in the Bahamas with no stores, shops nor much of civilization, for that matter, in sight.  So my tool was designed for multiple sized circlips because I had lots of jobs around the boat that might need it. This meant that for the job you had to install the right set of points into the tool, so they’d fit various sized circlips.

She carefully inserted the points into the holes of the circlips, pried it open, and began to slip it down into place over the stem. It looked like we’d be able to start cranking that engine soon. Until, above the sounds of Christmas carols on the tape deck, we heard a tiny metallic ping.  The circlip was gone. The point on the tool had slipped and the circlip had just disappeared.  Vanished.

There was no way we could get another circlip until we got back to the States, and that would be in several months.  So we started searching. After all, the main salon on “Chez Nous” was not an infinite space, and it had to be there somewhere. We couldn’t find it. We extended the search into the galley, down a level and forward. We even looked through the cookie dough and pot of soup.  Nothing. We scoured the hallway leading aft to the master stateroom. Nothing. We looked on and under every piece of furniture and into every crack and crevice. There are a lot of those on a 47 foot motorsailer. Nothing. We looked under every present under the tree and we even looked in the bows and ribbons and loose folds of Christmas wrappings. Nothing.

We were stunned. It would have been such a nice Christmas gift to get that engine running. But it just wasn’t going to happen without that tiny part.  It was crushing to Melanie, I’m sure. If we’d been in civilization it would have been no problem to get another part. But we weren’t in civilization. We were in paradise.  So we just did what we could do.  We moved the engine up on deck, covered it carefully, and began to enjoy Christmas and our tree.

None of the other boats had real Christmas trees. People would come over to enjoy ours. We always told them of the incident and that if they saw any little metal rings, to tell us. No one did. Each of us always had it in the back of our minds that it might just turn up somewhere, and we never really stopped looking. But it didn’t, and Christmas came and passed.

Tom’s Tips on Looking for Things You Just Lost on a Boat

1. Consider whether anything has moved since you dropped or lost the piece. Usually it has. You probably moved when you dropped it. Odds are your foot or rear end may have moved it or something else that may be covering it.

Click Here for More Tips

On New Year’s Day we had a tradition.  We removed the decorations from the Christmas tree, brought it up on deck, cleaned up all the debris that had come off as we had hauled it up the companionway, put it into the dinghy and carefully took it to a beach ashore and planted it upright near the surf.  Of course it wasn’t going to grow in that climate, and at that point, having survived a trip across the Gulf Stream, the Great Bahamas Banks, the Tongue of the Ocean and much more, it had had its day. We “planted” it in the beach sand near the water’s edge for another reason.  The night of the first day of the year, we and other cruisers in the harbor would come ashore and have a bonfire of that Christmas tree. It was a fitting end for the tree and a wonderful new beginning for another cruising year.

So New Year’s morning we set to work carefully removing the decorations from the tree and storing them to survive the storms at sea that we knew we’d have before next Christmas. People ashore often put stars on the tops of their trees.  We always had a starfish on the top, lit by a special light.  Our favorite decorations for the rest of the tree, in addition to the usual stuff, were small sea urchin shells fitted over light bulbs, and sand dollars, carefully hung, each one reminding us of the beautiful sand dollar legend. Removing decorations like this takes awhile.

Finally, Melanie, being the tallest (oldest) of our daughters, reached up to remove the starfish. First she started laughing. Then she started cheering. We couldn’t imagine what was going on. Then she started pointing to the top of the tree. There, back in the green foliage, hanging like an ornament from a branch, was the circlip.  It had snagged on the branch when it had flown up in the air over a week before.

On January 2, we had the engine going and the tree had helped us celebrate Christmas and the New Year, and also a job delayed, but well done.

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