John's Tips, Tricks and Thoughts

Weekly Digest:

Lubricate Steering Chains and Cables

I mentioned in another tip that I have just finished a full maintenance on the steering gear on our new-to-us J/109 and that nothing was properly lubricated before I started and probably never had been.

On that subject, I have long noticed that the chain and steering cables on many boats are bereft of any grease, even if the rest of the gear is well maintained.

I think this is a mistake, particularly if we are putting on big-time miles, as Phyllis and I were for three decades on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56.

So I always lubricate the chain where it goes over the sprocket, and the cables where they go over sheaves, with my favourite Lubriplate 130-AA grease.

I just put a glove on and slather it on, although I guess a little brush would work too, but that way we don’t get it in our hair…a little dab’ll do ya—if you know what that was about, you are old, too.

Once a year or every 10,000 miles seems to keep everything well and truly slippery.


TZ iBoat Updated

I have used a bunch of iPad navigation software over the years, but TZ iBoat, by the same folks who have been doing navigation software on computers for some 30 years, is by far the best.

Lots of reasons, but the most important is that it’s the only app that I can enter and edit a route on without being driven to distraction. No, not as easy as a computer with a mouse, but way better than a plotter.

Anyway, TZ iBoat has just been upgraded with three new features, two useful, and one that should be avoided like the plague:

  • Autopilot Output: TZ iBoat is now able to send information to your Autopilot (NMEA0183 sentences via TCP) when a route is activated. Make sure to check out their user guide for more information under the “Help” section.
  • Bluetooth Mouse support: Many of our power users on iPad wanted a way to control TZ iBoat with a mouse. This is now possible.
    • This is a wonderful upgrade. A finger is just too blunt an instrument for entering waypoints and routes, and a mouse (or track ball) is best.
  • Instruments Damping and Offset: TZ iBoat offers new settings to offset and damp instruments (course, speed, wind…). Speed damping can be especially useful in some cases to stabilize the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA).
    • Probably useful, depending on setup.

Further Reading


A Good Hacksaw

Since I let all my old tools go when we sold our last boat, I have been upping my standards as I buy new tools for our new-to-us J/109.

One of my best acquisitions has been this premium hacksaw from CK Tools.

It’s quite amazing how much easier this saw is to use with its stiff frame, padded handles, and cool high-leverage blade-tightening mechanism that gets the blade ringing-rigid (it’s an engineering term if you didn’t know), without bursting a blood vessel turning a butterfly nut like on cheap hardware store saws.

I got mine from McMaster-Carr and chose the one that’s a little longer to get a blade storage compartment.

Highly recommended.


Are Auxiliary Rudder Self-Steering Gears Strong Enough?

I was really saddened to hear that Golden Globe Race leader Simon Curwen is probably out of the race due to a catastrophic failure of his auxiliary rudder self-steering gear in a broach.

I have long wondered if these gears that actually steer the boat with a separate rudder, rather than control the main rudder as servo pendulum gears like the Windpilot and Cape Horn do, are a good idea.

After all, the rudder and its attachment are one of the most strongly engineered parts of a good offshore boat. So does it really make sense to try and steer the boat with a comparatively flimsy rudder bolted onto the transom?

The other worry is that, even if the gear is up to the job, huge loads are being transferred to the transom, which was probably not engineered by the original naval architect, or builder, to take them.

There is even a suggestion, albeit by a source with an axe to grind, that it was exactly this problem that caused a sudden break up and sinking of another boat in the same race.

And, finally, auxiliary steering gears can’t pivot out of the water and thereby unload in a knock down the way some servo pendulum gears can.

Nothing definitive in all of the above, but definitely something to think about when selecting a vane gear.

Thanks to AAC European Correspondent Colin Speedie for the head’s up and some of the above thoughts.

Much more on self-steering, both vane gear and autopilots.


When Did Your Steering Last Feel The Love?

I’m just about finished rebuilding the steering gear, less the rudder since we did that last year, on our new to-us J/109.

When I pulled it apart half the bearings fell out and there was not a drop of grease or oil on any of it…except the brake pad, where we don’t want it!

I’m guessing Tillotson Pearson assembled it dry 18 years ago when they built the boat and it has not been looked at since.

A steering failure looking for a place to happen.

  1. So even if your boat is brand new, it’s worth checking that the steering gear was greased by the builder.
  2. And, in my view, the steering gear should be fully disassembled and checked over every five years or 10,000 miles, whichever comes first.

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Installing a Propane Detector

i just finished installing a propane gas detector with two sensors, one near the stove and the other just aft of the engine where gas would pool prior to kaboom, on our new-to-us J/109.

I settled on the above-pictured unit from BEP Marine. So far it seems like a well-thought-out piece of safety gear.

One of the things I like most about it is that it has no off-on switch, unlike many other detectors, including both of the ones I have owned in the past. Just way too easy to forget to turn it back on.

This is a sensor that should be on at all times when anyone is aboard, so, despite there being a breaker for a gas detector on the panel, I wired it through a fuse and directly to the main positive buss so it comes on the instant the boat is powered up with the battery master switch.

I guess one could argue that it should be on even when the master switch is off, but that would be a significant parasitic drain on the batteries and you gotta stop somewhere.

Also, as soon as the sniffer is off, the gas is off in the locker, too, since this model includes the solenoid control switch.

Further Reading


Q & A: Iridium Go! or Go Exec


The new Predict Wind Iridium Go Exec device does indeed have a subscription plan that limits data according to how much one pays, i.e: $159.95/month buys you only 50MB of data. That includes all data transfer including tracking data.

Do you happen to have a clue how much data you found that you used, on the average, per month with the original Iridium Go device?

I am just trying to figure out what size plan would be needed in order to not have to worry about constantly hitting the ceiling towards the end of the month. I believe you & I would have similar usage (that is forecasts & basic emails).


The exact amount of data we used varied a lot, so I don’t think that’s the way to make the decision.

Rather, what I can say is that we never had a problem getting all the weather information I needed, and I download a lot more than most people, as well as being able to handle all of our email, which, again, is a heavier load than most people, because of running AAC.

Sure, sometimes the GO! took as much as an hour to deal with all that, but so what? With good software you don’t need to sit around and watch it, and if there’s a drop-out it reconnects automatically and continues on until done.

So if it were me, I would stick with GO! to get the unlimited plan, given that I just don’t want the stress and aggravation of worrying about a hard data limit and the huge charges if that gets inadvertently breached.

I also would not want to have to figure out how to buy more data if I ran out while at sea.

So given that GO Exec is not fast enough to surf the internet, and does not have an unlimited data plan, I just don’t see the point of it against the original GO! with an unlimited plan.

That said, as I have said before, being able to make calls without the kluge of a connected smart phone is a nice upgrade, but not enough to push me into Exec. Rather I would recommend buying a secondhand Iridium handset for the emergency call function.

More on exactly how to use G0! For both strategic and tactical weather forecasting.


Good Wire Cutters

Normally I’m reasonably good at keeping track of my tools, but there is an exception: Every few years I lose my wire (diagonal) cutters—I’m not talking misplaced, but rather gone forever.

How this happens, particularly on a small boat like our new-to-us J/109, is beyond me, but nonetheless it’s true.

In the past I have tended to replace them with a cheap tool. But these days I’m enjoying my high-quality tools so much that I decided, when the wire cutter demon spirited away my last pair, to go up in quality and spring for a Knipex Vanadin-Super.

Highly recommended. Super-sharp high-quality steel blades, plenty of leverage for most jobs around a boat, other than battery cables, and a comfortable contoured handle. And maybe the bright red colour will help me keep track of them!

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The Rolls Royce of iPad Waterproof Covers

While I’m not a fan of relying on tablets exclusively for navigation, on smaller boats like our new-to-us J/109 they can be a good option, at least in conjunction with a plotter.

However, the big problem can be how to charge a tablet and still keep it waterproof. The product pictured above solves that problem.

I’m planning to order one for next season.

On the same subject, here are:


Dive Weights Are Useful In The Workshop

It’s amazing how often I use the stack of dive weights I needed to get neutral when wearing my Arctic-level dry suit, (bought when we were cruising the high latitudes) to hold stuff down or together while glue is kicking off.

In the photo above the weights were invaluable while I was splatting¹ new TreadMaster on our companionway top step.

The heft and curved surface of dive weights works great for this function.

Worth having a few around in the workshop even if we aren’t divers.

¹A technical term Phyllis and I developed while spending three months covering the deck of our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 with TreadMaster.


Winch-Cleaning Solvent

I have always cleaned winches with kerosene, but I hate the smell and I’m guessing that breathing the vapours for hours is not good for us.

So last winter I tried this water-based degreaser from WD-40, even though I don’t like or use their spray lubricant.

The stuff really works. After a good soak the old grease came right off. No smell, and probably better for the environment, although we did take the used stuff to a hazardous waste drop-off.

Is it the best water-based degreaser? Who knows…or cares. It was available at the local hardware store and solved (ouch) my problem.


Check For Correct Winch Pawl Springs

We have to check everything on a new-to-us boat.

The top spring is for Lewmar, the bottom for Harken. All of our Harken winches had a mix of both. Trust no one, least of all boatyards who will often use whatever is to hand.

Would the wrong spring cause the winch to slip? Probably not, but this is important stuff and should be done right.


Credit Where It’s Due: McMaster-Carr

Phyllis and I have been buying tools, fastenings, and half a hundred other things from McMaster Carr for decades, and are such fans that I often say that if the company goes out of business I’m selling our boat and taking up golf…and I hate golf.

Over all those years, and hundreds of orders, I can only remember McMaster-Carr making a mistake twice.

The second time was two weeks ago when I ordered a 5mm tap and got a 1/2″ drill bit.

I emailed them with the photo above and in less than half an hour they replied:

I apologize we delivered the incorrect item. We will issue a replacement for the material you didn’t receive. We will deliver a replacement on Thursday between 2- 4pm.

There is no need to return the drill bit to us. Feel free to keep or discard as you see fit.

And two days after that, I had the tap in hand. No fuss, no excuses, no requirement to return, no RMA bureaucracy, no customs clearance hassles (they always deal with all that), and zero cost to us.

All companies make mistakes, what differentiates good companies from bad ones is how they handle their mistakes. It don’t get no better than McMaster-Carr.


Navigation Where It Belongs

I don’t care how much butchery it takes, we are having a plotter/radar at the forward end of the cockpit where it belongs, to supplement and backup the iPad we use for navigation.

The plotter below-decks is useless when shorthanded and we don’t like plotters on the binnacle, either.

The new on-deck plotter will act as an autopilot control head as well as show strategic information like laylines, should I have a rush of blood to the head and go racing.

The new plotter is much smaller than I would like, but compromises are required on any boat, and the smaller the boat gets, the bigger the compromises.

More on making the most of these small-boat navigation compromises.

Mock-up of the fascia that I just made to assist the composite technician who is going to fix my butchery and make it look nice.

Yes, I could do the glasswork, but it would take me three times as long and look half as nice—know your limitations.