The Dremel Affair

By Tom Neale, 3/1/2012


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The wind had been building all day. It was now howling in the rigging and hurtling tops of whitecaps through the air, hitting Chez Nous with the noise of a spray of sleet. Sleet it wasn't, because this was April and we were crossing the Great Bahamas Banks, heading for the US. But the early morning's calm day had proven to be a deceitful beckoning as we left the shelter of the Berry Islands and headed west across the Banks to position ourselves to cross the Gulf Stream the next day. Now we knew that wasn't going to happen. Our goal had become to simply find a sheltered anchorage at the end of the day, to wait.

Narrow Cut Between Gun and Cat Cays.
Gun Cay was our intended destination. Rocky and surrounded by shoal and reef, it lies generally north-south, to the south of Bimini. Normally we'd anchor to its east, but not tonight, we fervently hoped and prayed. The easterly gale would be blowing down on us from hundreds of miles of open water and we would have to hunt carefully in good light, maneuvering carefully, to find one of the patches of sand that would hold an anchor. No, we needed to get through the treacherous rocky cut between Gun and Cat Cay to get around to the other side. To do this, or even to anchor to the east of the island, we needed daylight.

So we weren't minding the winds too much as they drove us westerly, and we were appreciating our big 165 HP Perkins that was adding to our speed. Chez Nous is a motorsailer and when she has a good wind added to her power she seems invincible. We felt good about making the Bimini Chain in plenty of daylight until we heard a noise. I don't like to hear unexpected noises at sea, especially in weather like this, and especially from the engine room. Especially if it is a metal sound. We stopped talking and listened. Maybe it was nothing. We waited. Then it came again. I swung down the companionway and turned to port to head back along the hallway to the engine room door. I always leave the lights on the in the engine room while motoring and I peered through the fire window. All looked well. I opened the door and stepped into the roar and the heat, not donning my headphones. I wanted to hear anything strange. All was well. And then I heard it again, loud now, forward on the engine. Holding on as we lurched in the swell, I moved up and looked at the engine. I saw nothing amiss. But then a strange motion caught my eye. It was the wobble of something that should not have been wobbling. The pulley wheel on the fresh water pump was running amuck. Not only was it wobbling, it began making a louder metallic complaint. It was coming off the shaft. I still have no idea why the pulley wheel came loose. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. There was no one else around to help and we had to handle the situation.

I ran out of the engine room and yelled to Mel to "Shut'er down." Suddenly it was quiet except for the roaring of the wind and water. Chez Nous was still forging westward, under sail alone. She was in her element and glorious, but we feared losing her if we tried to get through the cut without power. And we knew with the loss of speed we might arrive in the dark. And we also knew that anchoring unprotected in that wind, maneuvering to find good holding, under sail alone, would be very difficult. But without that pulley the engine wouldn't run.

Tom’s Tips About Another Great Tool

1. Within recent years the oscillating tool has come strongly to the fore.

2. These at first were tiny saw blades mounted on a tool that essentially vibrated, although the correct definition, as I understand it, is oscillation. The blades made very precise cuts.

Click Here for More Tips

With Mel handling the storm I dove into the job, first loosening the alternator bracket to remove the belt, then pulling the wheel the rest of the way off. Thank Heavens!! The water pump shaft was still OK. But the hole in the wheel was distorted and the key had disintegrated. I had a spare pulley wheel, but, the shop that had sold it to me hadn't included a key. I dug into a bin of parts like a Terrier in a mole hill and soon found a shaft of stock metal close to the size of the keyway. But not close enough; it was a little too large. Those things must be precise. I dove into my tool closet and pulled out my package of Dremel tools and attachments. I set up my bench vise and went to work.

With the stock metal clamped in the vise I began using the Dremel tool to cut and grind the stock into shape. We were rolling and heaving as I worked below, bent over the job. I didn't even think of getting seasick. I only thought of getting into safe waters before dark. After over an hour of trial and error, cutting to the tolerances of the keyway in the wheel and running back and forth to try it out in the water pump shaft, I had a key that would fit. Then I had to get the wheel back on. This involved holding a board against it and tapping it with a hammer, taking care not to lose my precious makeshift key. Then I had to install the belt and tension it. Then we were on our way again with both power and sail. We made it OK, which was good, because the winds continued to blow unbridled for another day and night.

It took several pieces of equipment to solve our problem. This included, of course, the shaft of key stock. That was "raw material" which cost next to nothing. We had to have it aboard and know where it was. We knew because I had entered it in an Excel spreadsheet of parts and supplies. The bench vise is carried in the engine room but can be quickly bolted down, if needed, to a board outside. You're familiar with Dremel tools. They are indispensible for many projects. The only tool that would have been better in this situation would perhaps have been a mounted grinding wheel. I have one for a drill and a large portable grinding tool, but these would have been too imprecise in that much motion. Also a vise grip came in handy. I would have had some very bloody hands without it. And a good pure sine wave inverter allowed me to use the AC powered Dremel quickly and conveniently. A battery run Dremel wouldn't have been as powerful and, in my opinion, wouldn't have done the job as well. Also, a head light (such as the Streamlight 3AA Haz-Lo) so that I could reinstall the wheel with the key, using both hands while directing light exactly where I needed it, was extremely helpful.

There are many different types of boats and boating. Much of this story may be irrelevant to what you do and your boat. Some of this equipment may be considered a bit unusual to carry on most boats. But once again, we were reminded that within the context of our type of boating, we need to be prepared when we go out on the water perhaps more so than with anything else we do.



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