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Posted on January 23, 2019 | 1 comment

Escape Hatches – Recipe for Disaster

Escape Hatches – Recipe for Disaster

A catamaran unlike a monohull has the possibility of overturning and not coming back rightside up. A monohull can turn over too, but it will always right itself as long as the keel is still attached. A catamaran has two stable positions, right side up and upside down. Because it is possible for the boat to turn in the inverted position with people inside the hull, European boat manufacturers have required the inclusion of escape hatches which can be used to exit an upside down boat. To insure the hatch is as high above the water as possible when the boat is inverted, the hatch is placed at the waterline when the boat is in the rightside up position. All this is well and good, but for most cruising catamarans it is very unlikely the boat will turn over.

The hatch used on the Fountaine Pajot boats is manufactured by Goiot (another French company). It is specifically designed for use as an escape hatch and is rated to be used at the waterline. When we purchased Gemeaux, the marine survey highlighted that escape hatches leaked. It was also noted in the survey that these hatches often leak. I assumed the leak was between the seal and the lens of the hatch. While it is likely that many hatches leak there, I was soon to find out there is a much more serious leak potential.

After about 8 months of owning Gemeaux, we were in the Chesapeake Bay and the port hatch was leaking more than usual. Trying to pin down the leaks was difficult until I pushed slightly on the lens of the hatch and it moved outward. It was then I realized the hatch was not leaking at the seal but was leaking between the lens and frame of the hatch. This would require the hatch to be replaced.

After some work tracking down a US supplier for the hatch and having sticker shock of over $2000 for the hatch, I ordered the hatch and had the boat hauled out of the water to replace it (another $500 to get it out of the water). I carefully inspected the starboard hatch but it seemed fine, no movement between the frame and the lens on that side. Now, I felt prepared to brave the Atlantic on the way to Antigua, no more leaking hatches… or so I thought.

During our crossing all went well until about 500 miles from Antigua when at 8PM, Shiera noticed water on the floor in the starboard bathroom. It was then she saw water spraying across the companionway when Gemeaux hit a wave. The problem was the lens had become detached from the upper part of the frame and now was threatening to exit the boat altogether. If the lens did fall out, Gemeaux would be lost. It wouldn’t sink but it was very unlikely that we could do anything to fix a 3ft square hole at the waterline.

First order of business was to try to get the lens back into the frame. We had a 2-inch glass suction puller for lifting floor panels but couldn’t pull hard enough to get the lens back into the frame. The only viable option was to go in the dingy under the hull and try to knock the panel back in. How scary was that—to be in 6 ft seas at night under the boat? Each wave would drive the dinghy into the bottom of the boat. I was able to time the waves to get a fist on the lens and pound it back in place. Now we needed a more secure fix to finish our sail to Antigua.

In a scene right from Apollo 13, we dumped every adhesive we had on the table. After carefully discussing each choice, we decided on a ribbon of underwater 5-minute epoxy between the frame and the lens. Then we would put 5200 adhesive around the joint. Five minutes is not very long, so we carefully rehearsed our plan and then each of the crew prepared a strip of epoxy for a side of the lens while I went back underneath the boat in the dinghy. We pushed the lens back out, lined the epoxy in the joint and then pressed the lens back into the frame. We could see the epoxy had good coverage in the joint, but just didn’t know if was adhered well. Next, we lathered 5200 adhesive onto the joint between the frame and the lens. We decided to hove-to for the night to give the adhesives time to cure.

Completed repair

As I tried to sleep, I keep worrying that the lens would still pop out of the frame. At 4 AM I came up with an idea to adhere two plastic blocks to the lens with flathead screws drilled through. Then a board was fitted completely across the frame and the screws secured to the board. This effectively leveraged the lens into the frame. We tried several different glues (contact adhesive, silicone, superglue), finally settling on superglue to glue the plastic blocks to the lens. The problem is that acrylic doesn’t take very well to any adhesive, but in our testing, superglue seemed to work the best.

The completed fix held until we reached Antigua where I ordered another lens and had the boat hauled out again. We completed the repair on Thanksgiving Day and celebrated with a BBQed turkey dinner while Gemeaux sat on the hard.

Now I realized the severe safety problem of the hatch. It wasn’t just the hatch that could leak, the entire lens could fall out the boat! The irony is the frame of the hatch is secured with 20 bolts that go through the hull, but the lens is only secured with a thin bead of silicone to frame and silicone does not adhere well to acrylic. I sent a strongly-worded email to both the US Fountaine Pajot dealer and Goiot, the maker of the hatch. I explained that a boat could be lost because of this problem. Unfortunately I didn’t get much of a reply. Goiot said they had no knowledge of failures like this and offered to send new glue to adhere the hatch to the frame. That was not very comforting.

Inside view with fix installed in the upper corners

I decided I could rig a permanent fix for the problem along the lines of a temporary fix. I researched how to attach acrylic to acrylic and found that solvent glue would weld two pieces together. It works by effectively melting the surface of each piece allowing the pieces to join as one. Rather than fit a board across, I used 1/8” aluminum stock in the upper corners across the frame. This still allows the hatch to be fully functional but is impossible for the lens to come out of the frame. The specs on the solvent glue are nearly 10,000 lbs for each 2×2” block. I could lift the entire boat up with that!

In the meantime, our hatch failure was reported on the Cruiser Forum by a boat that had been nearby when it failed. On the forum, I documented the failure, the response from Goiot and my fix. A number of people requested drawings for the fix.

Helia with escape hatch failed

All was quiet for the next 6 months until on the Fountaine Pajot Owners Facebook page a Helia like Gemeaux was reported lost at sea off Africa. The speculation was the boat had hit something in the water and had a large hole punctured in the hull. Looking at photos of the boat, it seemed odd there was no damage to the bow of the boat. Pretty hard to hit something sideways. I tracked down the skipper in Norway and determined the problem was his starboard escape hatch had left the boat at 2 AM in rough seas. He tried many things to stop the inflow of water but ended up being rescued by the Moroccan coast guard and abandoning the boat. This was the exact problem we had, but his lens had completely left the boat.

I posted the information that this was another hatch failure like Gemeaux’s but the hatch had actually left the boat. I included the drawings for the fix and strongly suggested that all owners with the hatch immediately apply a fix to their hatch. Two weeks later another owner off the coast of Brazil had their hatch partially leave the frame. This was now three boats in less than a year that I knew about. I notified the Coast Guard of a potential safety problem (never heard back). Within a month, Fountaine Pajot was notifying owners of the problem and a fix Goiot had developed. I’m not a fan of the fix as it relies on an adhesive bond to acrylic rather than solvent glue to hold the lens in place. I would not bet my life on any adhesive bond with acrylic.

Over the past 6 months, I have been contacted by dozens of owners who want the fix. I have sent a dozen or so people a kit to install and the instructions to many others. Hopefully boats are better prepared now to secure a hatch that is very unlikely to be used for its intended purpose, but could be a disaster like the poor boat off of Africa, or what nearly occurred to Gemeaux in the Atlantic.

Escape Hatch Fix

Hatch Fix parts with Solvent Glue

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Posted on January 22, 2019 | 1 comment

The Trouble with Marine Plumbing…. a Shitty Problem

The Trouble with Marine Plumbing…. a Shitty Problem

After Shiera allowed me to have a corner for my own posts, I struggled with what to write about first. Lately I’ve been working with our marine waste disposal system, so perhaps that is a good place to start.

Running a boat is like running your own city, there is power generation, water systems and waste systems. For the waste treatment side of the city, on Gemeaux we have three separate toilet systems which for various reasons are all a little different, however the basics are the same. There is a toilet which uses either fresh water or salt water to flush (more on that choice later) and a holding tank to hold the waste till we are out at sea and can dispose of our waste without fouling the place we are anchored.

Toilet Schematic

The toilet is an interesting piece of engineering. It has a macerator to grind up the TP and poop so it doesn’t clog the tank. The toilet also pumps the result to the top of the holding tank. This prevents a hose or toilet problem from dumping the entire contents of the tank inside the boat.  It generally works well unless something other than TP and poop goes in. We haven’t had that problem yet because we try to educate our guests on the importance of not flushing what should not be flushed.

Calcium Cloride Deposits

Two of the toilets on Gemeaux use salt water to flush, the other uses fresh water. Sea water is plentiful and fresh water is hard to come by on the ocean. However, salt water has some downsides. One is it contains plankton and other small critters which die when they are in the system for more than a couple of days. This creates an unpleasant sulphur smell in the toilet and the sea water inlets into the toilet. The second problem is the reaction of salt water and urine. The ammonia in urine reacts with the calcium in sea water to create deposits of calcium chloride which is hard like rock and coats the inside of hoses, pipes and tanks. It can also break off and clog the outlet of the tank.

For the first year we owned Gemeaux we struggled with one of the port side heads (on the guest side of the boat) always getting the outlet of the tank clogged. To clear the clog was a very messy business of using the dinghy pump to force air into the holding tank outlet to push the clog back into the tank and allowing it to empty. It was a very unpleasant task. After this, we had all the tanks removed and replaced all the hoses. When the tanks were out we cleaned them to remove all of the deposits. We also switched the offending tank to fresh water. Those changes seemed to solve the problem in that tank.

To deal with the deposits of calcium chloride in the tank we tried vinegar which is a mild acid. That didn’t seem to help, so we switched to hydrochloric acid (muriac acid in the store) which we dilute and then pump into the plumbing system every couple of months. When left for several hours it seems to clean up the deposits pretty well.

Cleaning the toilet holding tank

After Gemeaux’s summer vacation out of the water, our clogging issue moved to the starboard side which is the toilet we use. First attempt to fix the problem was to remove the tank and inspect. Found lots of calcium chloride deposits in the tank with large sheets which had detached from the tank walls. Seems like more often use of acid is required. After a couple of hours of labor by David Thomas and me, including the use of some rebar, most of the deposits were removed and the tank returned to service. Well, more blockages occurred. Used a endoscope my surgeon brother gifted me to inspect the problem. Seemed like the blockage was above the valve to open and close the tank. Took the tank out again and inspected the outlet hoses and valves. All looked good. Applied an overnight acid soak and now the problem seems cured… till the next time.

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Posted on December 10, 2018 | 1 comment

Celebrities in Curaçao

Celebrities in Curaçao

We dress in our formal Gémeaux white shirts since nobody onboard has the requisite roman numerals in their name to don a blue blazer. We are parade celebrity newbies and feel a bit inadequate as we depart amidst fellow sailboats decorated in hundreds of colorful flags fluttering from their masts. We make up for it, however, and sail rather than motor to the parade start with our massive orange and white spinnaker sail that screams, “Here we come!

Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage City. This capital of Curaçao is situated in Punda on the St. Anna Bay with rows of pastel-colored shops, offices, and restaurants emulating the colonial architecture of their Dutch motherland. Locals and visitors sip coffee at the waterfront cafés as the Queen Emma floating pontoon bridge opens and our parade of boats enters in formation.

Few people are aware of our celebrity status and motive; most stare in curiosity and good-naturedly return our waves and enthusiasm. Through our VHF radios, we undertake a series of increasingly complex synchronized maneuvers up and back in the little harbor. We manage to avoid any embarrassing collisions with one another and finally declare our first Parade of Sail a success. The parade motive? Celebrating the inauguration of a new local tv station.

Our celebrity status does not grant us any exceptions from the mandatory step of clearing Customs and Immigration so our next stop is the 1-mile sweaty walk to officially announce our arrival to Curaçao. This bureaucratic protocol in the sailing world could fill a book with stories. Each time we arrive at (and also depart from) any one of the many Caribbean islands, we are at the mercy of a different system—some demand only the captain appear, others want all crew members and pets to come; some use carbon duplicates, others have computers; some require no money, others charge a fee for everything. You must always bring your own pen and never, ever come between the hours of 10 and 2 or you’ll sit outside until lunch is over. Offices typically are small and buried in mountains of paperwork, with a few small fans struggling to keep the sweat from dripping onto your official paperwork. Today, our entire party of six is required to appear. We enter a room painted in cool midnight blue with a temperature to match. Nestled in the corner of this walk-in refrigerator is a treasure that delights us all, brings smiles to our faces, and decidedly makes Curaçao the best Customs office on the planet. A drinking fountain. Pretty please…can we stay at Customs all afternoon?

Our celebrity status does grant us free docking in this capital city so we side tie Gémeaux to cleats mounted on the edge of the main street, amidst parked cars and gawking passersby who are as unaccustomed to seeing a catamaran in the city center as we are to being in this urban anchorage. The town is clean and quaint with many pedestrian-only alleys winding their way through attractions that serve both locals and tourists alike. I like the mix. There’s a Sketcher store next to a local pharmacy, fruit and vegetable stands along the water that sell souvenir spices but also crates of gigantic squash, roots, and tamarind. We discover Dagaz Gelato and enjoy the tastes of passion fruit and stracciatella inside another air-conditioned respite before the frozen treats liquify in the humidity.

The bayside balcony at Le Gouverneur restaurant with a bird’s eye view of our floating home, delivers exquisite service and deliciously-grilled meats on their Green Egg barbecues. Back onboard Gémeaux, we fire up the generator that disturbs not a soul on this festive Saturday night, and greet the perfect end to a perfect day…sleeping in our air-conditioned cabins.

The next several days in Curaçao are divided between chores, prepping for our upcoming sailing itinerary, and each day learning a new name—78 of them in our new circle of friends. Ruth and Allen have departed but David and Barbara are still on board, helping with projects and happy to read a book while we attend obligatory rally events. Having company on board prods us to race through chores, or abandon them completely, and get out to play.

Sources tell us that Playa Piscado is a must-see for snorkelers. Naturally, we make that a priority destination and sail north for about 20 miles to explore a different side of the island. Uncertain about the anchoring permissions in this little bay, our captain graciously agrees to send us off with snorkeling equipment while he circles around on Gémeaux. Secretly, Allen enjoys the peace and quiet. And funny enough, we enjoy everything but peace and quiet.

Once in the water, we wind our way through a maze of local fishing boats anchored around a small pier. The little wooden platform is overflowing with tourists, screeching in delight, clearly captivated by something in the water. We are as curious as they are and absolutely dumbfounded when we make the same discovery. Turtles. Not the solitary turtle you spot out of the corner of your eye who is gracefully swimming by. And not the giant Leatherback turtles we witnessed in the turtle sanctuary of the Tobago Cays, who alternate between lazily resting on the sea bottom and gracefully surfacing for air. The turtles of Santa Cruz are here for a sole purpose—to eat the heads and tails and unwanted pieces of the fishermen’s daily catch. We watch in astonishment as we witness the Jekyll side of about 20 of these sweet creatures aggressively chomping down on fish parts and gulping them down. A turtle feeding frenzy. Who knew?

Some describe Curaçao as a crowded, dirty island. And true, it’s a much more urban environment compared to its sister island, Bonaire. To us, however, Curaçao was a delight. We spent nearly two weeks on this island and as the official origin of our sailing rally, it became much like home. We loved our proximity to the Sunken TugBoat—just a short dinghy ride and walk to a shipwreck, making it an easy, daily event for some pretty spectacular snorkeling. Provisioning was a joy among a variety of grocery stores stocked with Dutch treats, fresh produce, and LaCroix Pamplemousse! Of course we tried Blue Curaçao—that liqueur we all know makes our drinks blue but didn’t realize until now that it’s made from the dried bitter orange peels of the Laraha tree native to Curaçao.

But like many of islands we visit, it’s the people who leave a lasting impression. Our very first night in Curaçao, we met a local couple who casually strayed from their own agenda and told us all about their island, the best restaurants, and sights not to miss. Celebrities or not—add this island to your list of places to visit.

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Posted on December 3, 2018 | 2 comments

Who Paints the Lighthouse?

Who Paints the Lighthouse?

Always anxious to explore a remote corner of our natural world before entering civilization, our first stop from Bonaire to Curaçao is Klein Curaçao—a tiny, flat desert island with a white sand beach, five huts, and a lighthouse.

The lighthouse seems an irony.

While its very purpose is to emit light for navigational guidance, the light that shines onto the lighthouse warrants nearly as much attention. Throughout the night, this 66-foot colorless monolith stands silhouetted against a black sky, dutifully fulfilling its job with its rotating beam of light. Hours later, dawn arrives and the sky quietly transforms this working vessel into a photographer’s dream.

It is the sky that declares this shift change, permitting its subject to finally rest while the artist decides which palette of colors to choose from. This morning, the selection is a combination of reds and pinks and oranges to compliment the lighthouse patina of white concrete blocks and peeling coral paint. Rays of emerging light shine through rock-lined windows as the sun rises from behind the Eastern horizon.

In an instant, the rays are gone.

The canvas is ripped from its easel and the striking bright colors spill together into a diluted, ordinary brown. The hot, bright sun takes over the brush, promising another cloudless day because that’s what the people want. With no job to perform, the lighthouse seems lifeless during the day. Even the sun seems to have taken an extended lunch break, leaving the tower rather colorless in its hazy light. The house looks hot and lonely, but it is not alone. The people have come to visit.

They clutter the canvas peering through windows and doors, waving and shouting, and photographing their new sunburnt colors against older fading colors of red. Up close, the lighthouse is cool to the touch and even cooler inside.The narrow stone staircase spirals upward to the rock windows, showing off a panoramic view that the lighthouse finds simply ordinary.

Puddles of stagnant water have collected beneath the broken floorboards, creating a breeding ground for mosquitos and sadly, a repository for plastic cups and cigarettes that the people have left behind. Shadows now assume the artist’s role and cast clear geometric lines of light across doorways and window sills. Flecks of paint are captured in the light uncovering colors during the brief 180 years when the people competed for the role of artist.

It’s not until evening, when the tour boats whisk away the people, that the sun grows weary of its job and begins to fade. Color returns to the sky. Clouds that have been waiting patiently on the horizon until the sun is finished, finally get their turn above the lighthouse. They race in, anxious to show off before the sky turns dark with nighttime. Large, overstuffed pockets fill heavy with rain. The sky is conflicted. Should it choose the long, stiff brush dipped in sparkling silver and draw zig zag lines across the roof of the lighthouse? Or should it angrily slam close the easel, smashing the billowing clouds into blurry droplets that nearly erase the house entirely?

The sky decides instead to allow the clouds and the sun to be the artist. With clouds still building in deep gray color and texture just above the tower, the sun casts a final glow onto the lighthouse, placing its subject in a spotlight of pale yellow. The contrast is extraordinary and the sky is pleased.

The easel is put away and the lighthouse resumes its nighttime duty. The beam of light begins again, warning the people not to come until the sky awakens.

In my mesmerized state, I realize I have forgotten my camera. Today I have been only a witness.

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Posted on November 25, 2018 | 6 comments

Rally Time!

Rally Time!

[ral-ee] noun, a drawing or coming together of persons, as for common action, a get-together of like-minded enthusiasts. verb, renew strength, revive spirits, inspire anew.

5:45am presents a beautiful orange daybreak in Curaçao. It is our last. Excitement builds. There is no quiet cup of tea and lazy scan of digital news. Today we are energizer bunnies flush with adrenaline—clean, stow, return rental car, laundry, repair… Today is the day we have been waiting for. November 21, 2018—the official start of our rally.

The rally unofficially began several weeks ago when the first of 40 sailboats began descending upon this Dutch Antilles Caribbean island of Curaçao. Planning for the rally began several months and maybe years ago when Suzanne and David Chappell aboard Suzie Too, their lovely Beneteau 57, collaborated with port authorities, government officials, and many, many locals to lay the groundwork for a 6-month sailing itinerary that would take us from Curaçao to Belize.

Take our anchorage, for example. Just months ago, this little inlet of water in Curaçao’s Spanish Bay sat mostly uninhabited. Through the efforts and cooperation of many, Anchorage C became home to 25 sailboats, complete with an underwater rope line to safely attach our boats, a dinghy dock, well-lit parking for rental cars, dumpsters, and the nicest 24-hour security officers.

Beach yoga, afternoon barbecues, musical jamborees, Beer and Bobs (aka happy hour in the water), wine tastings, and group taxis to the supermarkets became regular events on our calendars. Each day started with a 7:45am morning net where we synchronized our radios to hear weather reports, emergency announcements, and new activities. We welcomed new members and often, old friends, as they arrived into the harbor. We traded and bartered and helped each with repairs. We learned the names of each other, their boats, their children, their dogs. Friendships formed as we swapped stories of our passages and shared common woes in this life far away from our land homes in the UK, Canada, the US, Sweden. And there it was, the common thread—like-minded enthusiasts renewing strength, reviving spirits, inspiring anew becoming not just a rally, but a community. Not just a community, but a family.

Join us over the next six months as we explore more of our planet with the Suzie Too Rally, er…family.

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