10 Tips I Learned From a Stupid Thing I Did

Stupid on the left, smart on the right.

During the some 35 years that I have owned offshore cruising boats, I have made some deeply stupid maintenance and gear decisions.

That said, I do like to think that I learn from those mistakes and make fewer of them as the years go by. That is, until I screw up again…spectacularly.

This post is about my latest blunder and what I learned from it:

When we hauled Morgan’s Cloud, our aluminum expedition sailboat, last fall, we discovered that the propeller shaft cutless™* bearing had bound onto the shaft and then wound its way a good 8 inches up into the shaft tube. (We have two bearings, the culprit and one in an external strut, which was fine.)

Wait, it gets worse. In the process, the cutless bearing had scored the shaft so badly that a local marine engineer and Lloyds surveyor, who we hired to take a look, condemned it.

I won’t burden you with the gory details of getting the cutless bearing out—if you are a gloating boat-maintenance voyeur you can read them in the posts linked to below—but suffice to say it was less than fun.

OK, I know you’re panting to hear how this turned out to be my fault. Be patient, there’s a story to tell first.

Repetition Sucks

Whenever we have a maintenance disaster, and this surely qualifies as that since it cost us three boat units and more hours than I care to think about to fix, the first thing Phyllis and I do is try to determine exactly what caused the problem so that we can take steps to make as sure as we can that there’s no repeat performance—fixing something once is a pain in the…neck, fixing it twice is a soul crusher.

First Guess

My first guess was that mussel shells had grown between the cutless bearing and the shaft during our winter storage in the water, resulting in the bind up. However, given that I had turned the shaft by hand at least once a week over the period, and we have often spent as long or longer stationary in the water without problems, that explanation never really satisfied, and in fact turned out to be wrong.

#1: If a theory just does not feel right, particularly if you have as much experience as we do, it probably isn’t.

Over the first part of the winter I ruminated…OK, obsessed…about this, before finally deciding that I needed to learn a lot more about the humble cutless bearing.

Crowd Wisdom, Or Not

My first approach was to do some Google searches. But, as I have so often found, the results were disappointing, since I ended up with a lot of crowd “wisdom”, the majority on forums, much of it in conflict, and almost all of it feeling to me like the authors knew less about cutless bearings than I did.

#2: The problem with crowd sourcing is that far more people have an opinion than have real knowledge, and sorting out the two can be challenging.

But I did stumble across a clue: Steve D’Antonio, AAC friend-in-the-comments and all around maintenance guru, has written on cutless bearings in detail and mentioned:

Yet another issue that afflicts some bearings is a swelling phenomenon. At first these scenarios may be mistaken for misalignment between shafts and bearings. However, I’ve encountered several vessels whose bearings inexplicably swelled, causing uniform shaft binding. This scenario can be avoided by using only high quality, name brand bearings such as Johnson Duramax or Exalto.

Could this be the issue?

#3: Zero in on the person who clearly knows what he or she is doing and discard all conflicting information.

Find a Pro

I then broadened my search by looking for a company or boatyard that specializes in running gear repairs and came up with High Seas Yacht Service. One look at their website and technique posts showed that these guys had the specialized knowledge I was looking for.

#4: Often the willingness to share real hard information about their area of expertise is a great indicator that a company or individual really knows what they are doing.

Next I wrote to Chris Brown, principle at High Seas, asking if he would be willing to advise me on a driveline problem for a fee, and also stating that, since he couldn’t actually see the boat or do the work, I was indemnifying him against any liability for the outcome.

#5: If I want help from someone who makes their living rendering that help, I always, always offer up front to pay. Otherwise my email will, quite rightly, be filed under the “just-another-damned-freeloader” file…otherwise known as the trash can.

As so often happens when I’m up front in this way, Chris said that he would be happy to have a quick phone call to help me sort the problem. He also refused payment. I suspect because, even with my assurances, he was worried about potential liability in our blame-oriented world.

I responded with profuse thanks, an offer to call him to save him phone charges, as well as stating that I was in no hurry and that we should only chat when he had time.

#6: If I’m begging for expertise I am very clear that it should be rendered at the expert’s convenience, not mine.

Mystery Solved

Several days later Chris called stating that he was in the middle of a long boring drive and had decided that chatting to me would be more interesting than listening to the Masters golf tournament commentary on the radio—clearly Chris and I have a lot in common.

I told my tale of woe, as succinctly as possible.

As I related the mussel theory, the noncommittal silences were deafening.

After I described the bearing that failed, he confirmed that it was a generic one, probably made in the Far East. And that said bearings swell over time in water, often to the point where they bind onto the shaft and deeply score it (due to heat build up), just as we had experienced—confirmation of what I was already getting suspicious about, thanks to Steve.

Why This is My Fault

So there’s my mistake, and it was a doozy:

I had bought a generic item for a mission-critical application.

In my defence, I didn’t buy this bearing to save money, but rather just because it was the easiest and quickest to source at the time. No matter, the outcome was the same.


How can we avoid this kind of mistake in the future? Here’s what Phyllis and I have resolved. When buying mission-critical parts we will:

  • #7 Take more time and care when sourcing parts like a cutless bearing where failure can really…suck.
  • #8 Whenever possible, buy parts from the manufacturer of the piece of gear in question. No after-market parts.
  • #9 Default to buying parts that are stamped with the maker’s name.
  • #10 Be very careful in selecting the source for a part we buy to make as sure as we can that we’re not getting a counterfeit. For example, we will continue our long term policy of never buying parts over eBay.

By the way, Chris says that at High Seas Yacht Services they only use Johnson Durmax bearings. And guess what? All of the bearings from that company are stamped with the company name and a serial number.

No, it’s not a 100% guarantee of quality, but if a company is willing to put their name, and better still, a batch or serial number on a part, it’s a good indicator.

The Real Mega-Tip

All that’s interesting and useful, but there’s a larger point here. Over the last few years there has been a general trend in consumer society, and particularly around cruising boats, to make saving money a point of honour, to the point of irrationality. Even something to boast about to our friends.

While being frugal is smart, overdoing it is not. This is a dangerous trend that we must guard against, particularly when maintaining an offshore cruising boat. Bottomline, small savings can result in big expenses and ruined cruises.

Or maybe even worse: That generic cutless bearing could have caused the driveline to fail at a critical moment on a lee shore, resulting in loss of our boat, or perhaps even our lives.

And even if we look at the issue purely from a cost basis, the cost of the repair, never mind my time, would pay the difference between good-quality name-brand gear and generic for a lifetime.


OK, you lot, fess-up, what stupid stuff have you done, and what can we all learn from it? Are you man or woman enough to come clean?

Further Reading

Thank You

A big thank you to Chris for taking the time to teach me a bunch about cutless bearings and how they should be installed—might share some of that in a future post, if there’s enough interest (leave a comment).

After talking to Chris, one thing I can tell you for sure is that if Phyllis and I were anywhere near Florida and had any sort of driveline problem, we would beeline it to High Seas Yacht Services to get it fixed by real pros—another way that spending more money up front can save money in the long run.

Yes, that’s the right spelling, at least when dealing with a bearing from Johnson Duramax since it’s their trademark, not cutlass, as one might think.
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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 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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