Boats and Houses, May 2008
"Cruising consists 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 it?

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 Puerto Rico.

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 welder.

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 story.

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?