Familiarity Breeds Competence and Speed


While we were on holiday (vacation) we stopped by to check on Morgan’s Cloud all tucked up in a shed at Billings Diesel and Marine and discovered that her steering was seized solid because the new type of dripless packing that we tried out for the first time had dried out and frozen to the aluminum rudder shaft.

Note to self: when you have been using a packing material (ordinary flax) for years without problems, it’s not broken so don’t fix it! But that’s not the point of this post.

To get a puller on the stuffing box gland we needed to remove the autopilot ram, steering cables, quadrant, top bearing, and top half of the rudder shaft (it’s in two parts threaded together so that the rudder can be removed without digging a hole under the boat half way to China).

What a pain in the neck. But Phyllis and I have had the rudder off the boat at least five times over the 22 years we have owned her, so we knew exactly what tools to lay out next to the lazaret hatch and the steps to take.

Two hours after finding the problem, we had everything disassembled. I was a little disappointed in myself in that out of the eight or so different wrench (spanner) and socket sizes I asked Phyllis to pass me I got one wrong. I’m being facetious…my point is how smoothly it all went.

Now imagine that the boat was new to us, or that we, like many owners, had never taken the rudder off, or that we paid others to do these kinds of tasks for us. How long would it have taken then?

The Tools

Would we have had the 1-1/8” and 1-1/16” long handled wrenches that it takes to remove the bolt holding the ram to the quadrant? Or the deep reach 7/16” socket with extension it takes to remove the top bearing? Would we have been able to quickly lay out every tool we needed within reach?

The Knowledge

Would we have known that the rudder shaft is in two parts threaded together with the joint hidden by the quadrant? Or the exact sequence of bolt removal, that takes two people, that makes the top bearing easy to remove without dropping half the parts?

The First Time

I have a vague memory off the first time I took the rudder off the boat some 20 years ago to check the bearings. I remember multiple trips to the hardware store to buy tools. I remember arranging with the boat yard to lift the boat high before I discovered the two part shaft—thank you John Merrick, builder of Morgan’s Cloud.

I remember my confusion, despite copious notes, about how the steering cables ran. I remember not understanding that the top bearing must be accurately shimmed to allow for wear, a mistake that meant I had to take it all apart again…twice, before getting it right.

Now imagine that we had been in some remote part of the world with the steering down. Imagine that there was no local source for those two large long-handled wrenches that it takes to remove the ram. Imagine that we were anchored in an open bay with bad weather coming. It’s not a pretty picture.

Familiarity is Great

Sometimes we think about changing boats. Maybe a smaller sailboat, or even some kind of efficient expedition motor boat. And maybe we will, some day. But I have to say that the reasons to make such a change would have to be awfully compelling to outweigh the safety and convenience conferred by having disassembled just about every part of Morgan’s Cloud over the years.

And if we ever do make a change, we will budget at least two years of cruising in well-equipped and familiar places, interspersed with plenty of maintenance time to pull things apart, before striking out for anywhere remote.

We suggest you do the same with any boat that is new to you. You will be glad you did.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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