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Alaska 2005
  • Territory: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: May - August 2005, 6000 miles traveled
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Intent: Go where no reasonable person wants to go.

Copyright © 2005, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

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Boat Issues
"Teacup," Nordic Tug 37
I have owned only three boats over the years. The first was "Selene," a small Pacific Seacraft sailboat I sailed around the world alone between 1988 and 1991, a story told here. The next was a larger, better version of the same sailboat, which I tried to use in Alaska with limited success. In 2001, frustrated by not being able to travel very far in my sailboat, I bought "Teacup," a Nordic Tug 37.

There is no single experience more efficient at shattering illusions than buying and owning a boat. And there is no possession that requires more self-reliance, indeed demands it, and severely punishes its absence. With each of my boats I discovered how difficult it is to find people willing to carry out simple instructions, at any price, even after decades of experience. Even though in principle I could pay someone to perform a repair or a modification, over the years I have become resigned to doing most things myself, because that is the only way to see something done properly.

There should be a standard frustration form for boat owners. It would look like this:
  • I simply cannot believe the people at the boat factory forgot ________________,
  • In a boat with this company's __________________________ reputation,
  • Especially in a boat that cost _______________ megabucks.

Before I tell a few juicy boat tales, I want to emphasize I am not picking on Nordic Tug, not at all. I think it's a terrific boat, much better than most, and in the final analysis, based on where I go and what I do, I am very glad I bought this particular boat. I've met and talked to the skippers of boats built by Nordic Tug's competitors, and I now realize I made the right choice. But I do have some legitimate gripes.

Gory Details

Boat Heater

UPDATE: The conclusion I make in this section may be wrong. Read Here for an update on this issue.

My favorite gripe, about most current boats in its class, not just Nordic Tug, is that they all install a space heater (most made by Espar) meant to be run on kerosene, but they unceremoniously plumb the heater into the diesel fuel system. My second sailboat was set up this way, and most boats that compete with Nordic Tug do this. It's neary universal.

What's the problem? The problem is after about 100 hours of operation, the heater, not meant to be run on diesel fuel, clogs up and stops operating. I saw this happen on my Pacific Seacraft sailboat, a boat on which the heater had been added after the factory delivery, which takes the manufacturer off the hook. I had to take that heater off the boat several times and deliver it to a repair facility which, for a princely sum, rebuilt it, basically by scraping out the carbon deposits left by the comparatively dirty diesel fuel. But back then I had not figured out what was going on, I thought it was a defect in the heater.

On my new boat, same heater, same fuel, same result — after 100 hours, the heater gave up the ghost. This time I studied the manuals and figured out what was going on. I was shocked to discover that this class of heater cannot be reliably operated on the standard U.S. grade of diesel fuel (diesel number 2). The manufacturer's instructions very clearly call for kerosene (less carbon than diesel fuel). I thought I would simply start buying diesel number 1, which is in essence kerosene, but I quickly discovered that my boat'e engine (Cummins) cannot be run on diesel number 1, it must have diesel number 2. And, as you may have guessed by now, there is a single fuel system on the boat, to which both the engine and heater are plumbed.

This problem to some extent reflects a typically American way of doing things — we tend to try to repair our way out of what are design mistakes. But this problem has been around for years, and even though new boat models are being designed and introduced all the time, no one seems to want to offer a different heater, one designed for diesel fuel, or create a dual fuel system with diesel for the engine and kerosene for the heater.

Anchors and winches

This is actually a gripe about modern boats in general, not just Nordic Tug. Most boats come out of the factory with utterly inadequate anchoring systems. It is very clear that the factory people think the owner is going to move between one marina and another, and maybe drop the hook for a short lunch break in flat, windless waters. And if the truth be known, that may well be how a typical owner expects to use his boat.

Some boat owners drop their anchors at times and places where their lives depend on the anchor holding the boat against wind and waves. Even people who never intend to use the anchor might be forced to drop it, for example if the engine fails on a windy afternoon as the boat makes its way around a rocky point, and the skipper's list of options becomes embarrassingly short.

I regularly walk around in marinas and see anchors that could not possibly hold the boat they are attached to. And such anchors are often so clean and bright that one guesses they have never been dropped in the water. The owners of those boats might make a conscious choice to motor between marinas, but they are just not thinking about the prospect of engine failure, or disabling the prop against a rock or an abandoned net, or running out of fuel, or any other compelling reason to have a suitable anchor and winch.

When I accepted delivery of my Nordic Tug, I tried to use the factory anchor and winch, but I quickly realized both were boat-show decorations, not ground tackle, and I replaced both of them almost immediately. When I am in Alaska I regularly anchor in places where it is very windy, there are strong currents flowing, and I am so far from civilization that there is no realistic prospect of calling for help. An example is Kaflia Bay, part of the Katmai grizzly bear preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, where I spent several days at anchor this year, photographing thousand-pound monsters who stepped out of the brush from time to time. There are any number of things that can go wrong afer an anchor fails, but being eaten is not usually included in the list. It is primarily for places like Katmai that I carry a full-chain anchor rode and a reliable anchor.

If I were a better shopper than I am, when I shop for a boat I would say, "by the way, I actually drop my anchor. Do you actually have one on the boat?"

Watertight Integrity

When I first owned a boat, I was amazed by how many ingenious ways the water had of getting in. I had walked around the boat beforehand, and it certainly looked waterproof, but on a nasty day with wind and high water, the inside of the dripping cabin became mute testimony to the difference between theory and practice.

Of course, in an open-cockpit sailboat with a companionway composed of loose-fitting boards, one shouldn't expect to be dry on anything but flat water, that would be unrealistic. Indeed, purists among sailors may insist that getting wet is integral to the experience. Once I had acquired a power boat with a cabin, a cabin protected from the environment by more than loose-fitting boards, I sincerely believed I would be somewhat more sheltered from the weather and waves than when I stood outside and gripped the tiller of an uncoöperative small boat in a Pacific tropical storm.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that water waltzed into my new power boat's cabin with almost the same efficiency with which it slipped past my sailboat's famously leaky bronze portholes. Over a period of years I have located and fixed most of the leaks the factory had managed to overlook, but this year I finally located the worst offender, an experience that made me imagine filling out the generic complaint form above.

After a spell of rough weather, for example while crossing the Gulf of Alaska in 12-foot seas, admittedly not a typical use for this boat, I would notice water pooling in certain locations in the cabin, for example drenching all my clothes in salt water, which you may or may not know will never dry until they are washed all over again. While at anchor I would try to think of a way for the water to get in, and I would take the boat apart near the wettest lockers, trying to see an obvious culprit.

Finally I realized what I had to do. I needed to wait for rough conditions, conditions where waves are breaking over the cabin, and then observe the inside of the cabin with all the inside panels removed, while underway. This is a rather tricky job — even moving around in the boat in such conditions is a rather athletic activity, but I needed to set the autopilot, abandon the pilot house, and crawl into some small places inside the boat to see how the water was getting in, while it was happening.

And there is was. The water was leaking in from the portholes, not directly through their rubber seals, but between the ports and the cabin wall, in a sneaky way that I would never have detected if I had not been crawling around. As I watched the water pouring in, I thought to myself, "How on earth can the water be coming in that way? It's as if the port was installed without any sealant between the port and the mounting hole in the cabin wall. Surely they ...", at which point I stopped trying to make assumptions, and resolved to take the ports off the boat.

The next sunny, dry day while at anchor, I removed all six ports and discovered that someone had failed to apply an adequate amount of sealant between the ports and the holes the ports were mounted in. The holes had been created with a hand saw, as a result they were rather meandering circles, with rather large gaps between the perfectly round port and the imperfectly round hole. I was ... astonished. I thought I had seen everything while sailing around the world. I applied about two dollars' worth of marine sealant, reinstalled the ports, done.

The Perfect E-mail

An old boat on an Alaska beach
Not all my boat stories are gripes. Sometimes nice things happen, things deserving mention in their own right. During this cruising season my anchor winch (Lofrans Tigres) started misbehaving — sometimes when it stopped rotating, it wouldn't be able to start again from that position, and I would have to manually turn the winch to get it to run properly. Naturally I considered the worst possible cause, that one of the winch motor's armature windings had burned out and the entire motor would have to be replaced. I considered the possiblity of dirty or worn brushes, but this didn't seem a likely cause, since the problem only came up in certain rotational positions — brush problems tend to be indifferent to motor position.

But then, during my annual boat maintenance activity I discovered a replacement motor would be very pricey, so, wanting to consider all possibilities, I wrote an e-mail to the US vendor for the winch (Imtra Corp, New Bedford, MA) and asked their advice. A man named Jim Thomas replied with what I consider the most perfect technical reply I have ever seen. In his reply Mr. Thomas explained that they had seen a peculiarity in this motor, in which a brush will get stuck in its guide and no longer move freely. Then, as the armature spins and wears down the brush, instead of being pushed by a spring against the armature, the brush begins to lose contact in certain positions, which is exactly the symptom I had been observing. Mr. Thomas included enough practical detail that I was confident I could either fix the problem or rule it out as a cause.

So, armed with someone else's experience and advice, I disassembled the winch and discovered that, sure enough, one of the brushes had gotten stuck in its track. All that was needed was a tiny application of force with a screwdriver, and the motor was happy again.

The reader may wonder why I am including this accolade in what is very clearly a list of gripes. I have to say it's much more entertaining to complain about things, and there are plenty of justified complaint topics in the world of boating. But it has occurred to me that Mr. Thomas gave up a $700 motor sale in exchange for treating me fairly. Instead of quoting price and delivery on a replacement motor, something that would have required much less effort, he took the time to write a detailed explanation of the problem and a method for fixing it. He and his company deserve my thanks and a bit of public praise.

Over a long time, you either give up on a boat and get rid of it, or it truly becomes yours. You end up knowing all its secrets, all its good and bad points. All the space taken up by slick brochures is eventually replaced by some practical hand tool you thought you would never need. And in Alaska, all boats end up on a beach somewhere.


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