and Houses, May 2008
of sailing from exotic port to exotic port, repairing your boat."
We're often asked what it's like to live on a boat, and how it
differs from living in a house. We joke that we spend our time repairing
things, and friends often ask why that's the case. They, after all,
don't spend most of their time repairing their houses.
We recently did a repair that may show both the difference between
living on land and living on a boat, and why we seem to spend an
inordinate amount of time on repairs. The problem was a leak in
our hot water heater, a piece of equipment common to both boats
and houses, so a comparison is easy to make.
For land-dwellers, the first sign of a broken water heater is probably
the rude awakening to a cold shower in the morning, followed by
the discovery of a flooded garage or basement. (We won't even think
about ruined carpets or soggy grass seed for now.) The next step
is to turn off the water supply valve to the heater and decide what
to do: fix it or replace it. Unless it's under warranty, which is
unlikely because the things are pretty sturdy and fail-safe, the
decision is almost surely to replace it. If it's a few years old,
improvements in energy-saving techniques make this worthwhile. Besides,
who repairs these things anyway? So, pretty quickly, you decide
to buy a new one. Maybe you'll do a little internet shopping to
find out good deals, or call friends and relations for advice. By
mid-morning, you'll know where you're going to buy a new heater.
You call the store, or drive there on a lunch hour to make the deal.
The store generally offers a delivery service for a few extra dollars,
and includes haul-away of the old heater in the deal. They bring
in the new one, plug in the electricity, screw on the water pipes,
haul away the old one, and voila! With luck, you should be able
to enjoy a hot shower the next day, or at worst, the day after.
Let's compare this to our experience on Akka:
We were in Boquerón, Puerto Rico, about to depart for the
Dominican Republic. The first hint that we had a leak was that our
fresh water pump kept cycling on every few minutes. Rob had gotten
up early and was sitting at the computer and noticed the "purr"
from the pump under his seat. Lucky thing he was up and noticed
it: We don't have an unlimited supply of city water, as we would
if we lived ashore; our tanks hold 200 gallons and we hoard those
gallons carefully. The leak, if undetected, could have drained half
our water supply! So Rob checked every faucet to make sure they
were all turned off, then crawled into the quarterberth and opened
the cupboard at its end, to find that the bottom of the hot water
heater was all wet.
Next step: turn off the water supply, i.e., the fresh water pump.
On the boat, of course, this meant that we had no water at any sink
or shower, except the galley sink, which has a foot pedal back-up.
We now faced the same decision as if we had a house: fix it or replace
Our water heater is 20 years old, so replacing it is definitely
a reasonable option, but a difficult one, especially in a foreign
port. We need a 100V AC heater, but fortunately that was not a problem
in Puerto Rico. We would have to pay the price for a "marine"
tank, as marine hot water heaters are specialized: in addition to
the usual water intake and outflow hoses, they frequently have --
as does ours -- another set of hoses to circulate the coolant water
from the engine through a set of pipes inside the hot water heater,
so we use the engine heat to heat our hot water -- an ingenious
way to save on electricity and make use of an existing resource.
We knew that there was a West Marine store in San Juan, a three-hour
drive away, and they would certainly have water heaters for boats.
Of course, we'd have to rent a car to get there, and there would
still be a question of fit, and whether they had one in stock or
had to order one. A house-based heater generally sits in a garage
or basement, easily accessed; our 15-gallon tank is tucked away
behind a locker door, sitting on a special bracket. Finding another
that would fit into that space and onto that bracket could be difficult,
if not impossible. For comparison with life at home, imagine if
you went to the store to replace your water heater and they said
"I'm sorry, but we don't have a heater to fit your house. You'll
have to rebuild your garage (or re-plumb your house)."
Another option for replacement would be to telephone Balmar, the
water heater manufacturer, in Seattle, provide the size and model
number, and see if they had a replacement. (Notice another difference
here: If your car has a problem with, say, a thermostat, you go
to a parts shop, tell them the make, model and year of your car,
and THEY look up the part number. You don't actually know the name
of the manufacturer, let alone the part specifications. Boat parts
have no such handy cross references -- we generally need to know
the manufacturer and part number, or take the actual part to the
marine store, in order to find a replacement.) If Balmar did, in
fact, have the identical hot water tank, or one similar enough to
fit, they could ship it to us. Since we were in Puerto Rico, this
could be relatively easy, and duty-free, unlike most other places
we've been. But hot water tanks are heavy, so shipping would be
expensive and time-consuming. And we're on a budget, and it seemed
as if repair would be quicker and easier. In addition, we have a
natural inclination to repair rather than replace; the more we know
about the boat and its systems, the more self-sufficient we will
be -- a virtue when we're not in relatively convenient places like
So we explored the repair option first. Where would we find a welder,
one who could work on stainless steel? We had no local knowledge,
and there was no cruisers' community we could turn to for help.
And, unlike people back home, we had no Yellow Pages and no experience
in the community, which would give us clue where to find our specialty
We were anchored near the Club Nautico de Boquerón, and
the dock there was filled with sports fishing boats. With all those
big shiny tuna towers, we figured, surely someone there knew where
to find a welder who could handle stainless steel. So we dinghied
in to ask, and got 2 references from some locals for welding shops
"only about 10 minutes away." Ten minutes appears to be
a universal guess at distance, all over the world; but of course
the people we were talking to owned cars. In general, we find that
even the most sympathetic and helpful people ashore don't grasp
the difficulties we boaters have with transportation. The "10
minutes away" distances were, of course, in terms of car speeds,
not pedestrian time. Our sources were dismayed when we said we were
on foot, and basically said we needed a car -- there was no public
transportation available to these places. But Rob took off anyway
on foot to find the first of the 10-minutes-away welders. After
walking more than 2 miles and asking everyone he met, he was unable
to locate the welding shop. (Later, when we had a rental car, we
searched for that welder, just out of curiosity, but never found
him -- we must have misunderstood the directions.)
Next morning, Rob took off on foot again, to find the second welder.
The instructions to that place were much more explicit, and Rob
found the shop after asking only two neighbors. Alas, it turned
out that they didn't weld stainless steel (though they did do precision
machining, which proved valuable on another repair job). They were,
however very helpful in telling Rob where such a welder could be
found, not far away -- less than a mile, they guessed. This time,
Rob got lucky; a car that was stopped at an ATM offered him a lift.
When he got to the third welder, he saw two signs: one assuring
the world that they did indeed weld stainless steel; and the other
saying that the shop was closed for a week, reopening 2 days hence.
So far, it had been two days and we hadn't yet found a welder.
This is not to say we had made no progress; we had climbed into
the lazarette, pulled off the hoses, cut the wires, unbolted the
water tank, and wrestled it out through the quarterberth. (Note
another difference: your home water heater unplugs; we had to cut
the electrical supply wires and re-splice them.) Meanwhile, we had
located a rental car agency (Hertz, as it turned out) so we rented
a car, drove to San Juan to see the sights and pick up some stuff
from West Marine, and returned to the welding shop two days later
with the tank in the rental car trunk. The welder was back at work,
and he said he'd look at our tank and fix it. But, he said, we should
take the tank out of its insulating sleeve first.
Imagine if you took your car to your local mechanic for some problem
behind the dashboard, and he said "OK, I'll fix it; but first
you have to take the car back home and remove the panel, then drive
it back here for repair."
In any case, we heaved the tank out of the car, into the dinghy
and onto Akka once more. We removed a few machine screws from the
sheet-metal casing and slid it off of the tank, exposing the (soggy)
fiberglass insulation, wrapped around the inner tank and tied into
place. Not sure if we could buy replacement insulation (it turned
our we couldn't), we carefully unwrapped it and clothes-pinned it
to the lifelines to dry out, trying not to get fiberglass on ourselves
and not succeeding too well -- we itched for days! But we got the
tank out, dinghied it to shore and delivered it to the welder as
our last act before returning the rental car. The welder's son (who
worked with him) had agreed that, when the tank was repaired, he'd
deliver it to the Boquerón town dinghy dock at 8 a.m., after
he'd brought his kid to the school in town.
By now, we had blocked the end of the hot water tank intake hose
with a cork held in with a hose clamp, so at least we had pressure
water around the boat, albeit cold. It was now 5 days since we had
found the leak.
Late on Day 6, the welder called us on our cell phone. (The cell
phone was a luxury we had in the Puerto Rico, making communication
easier than in some countries we've been in; in many other places,
we would have had to make our way to the welding shop to ask about
progress -- and in many third-world countries, there would BE no
progress until we showed up!) The welder reported that he'd found
and repaired the leak and his son would bring it the next morning.
Cost: $25. A great deal! We got the tank in the morning, paid the
$25, and noted the nice weld around one of the water outlet elbows
-- where we'd suspected the leak to be. Back on the boat, Andi rewrapped
the fiberglass and slid the outer shell back on. (This time, despite
the heat, she wore a windbreaker and long pants to avoid the itchy
fiberglass!) We wrestled the tank back into place, hooked up the
hoses, reconnected the electricity (this involved splicing wires
that were located around strange angles) and ran the pressure pump
to fill the tank with water. Ta-da! Back in business. But wait!
There was still a leak!!!!!!
As we removed all the hoses, drained out the water (we'd need to
replace it at $.15 a gallon), cut those newly spliced electrical
connections, and took off the outer shell and fiberglass, we remarked
on how much better we were at the job this time than previously
-- and noticed that we'd made that observation quite a lot; it's
amazing how rarely a repair (by us or by others) works the first
time. Again, this is different from getting something fixed at home
-- a car repair place, for example, not only fixes the car but tests
it. That's almost never the case with repairs of boat equipment.
This time, we added water and located the other leak ourselves,
and marked it on the tank. We called the welder, who would pick
it up from the dock in the morning, repair it and return it the
next morning. Which he did, charging us another $10. This time we
re-tested the tank before re-wrapping the insulation, wrestling
it into place, resplicing the electrical lines (getting pretty short
now), reconnecting the hoses, and now, again, ta-da! We were back
in hot water, as it were.
It only took about a week, in all. Then we were able to turn our
attention to installing the new windlass motor we got on special
order from New Zealand, and the fancy-Dan starter we got from Charleston.
Neither of those jobs went smoothly, either; but that's another
Oh yes, it turns out the tank wasn't stainless, so we could have
had the second welder do it after all. But who knew?