The Prop-er Thing To Do
Your boat may be tricked out with electric winches, carbon-fiber masts, 80-gallon-an-hour watermakers, 25,000-BTU air conditioning, full-color integrated radar/GPS chart plotters, plus every high-tech, mega-giga-gizmo known to creation, but if you dont got a dinghy to get around in, youre just toast. Everyone out here relies on them totally; your dink is your workhorse, limo, motor scooter, escape pod, ticket to the reef, pick-up truck, and the lifeblood of social experience in any anchorage. Families with kids soon conclude they need at least two dinks, and couples without kids often wish they had that many as well. Sure, sometimes you swim over to a friends boat, but mostly you drive the dink. So, when the dinghy motors not working, even though you can still get from here to there by rowing (which soft-bottom inflatables barely tolerate), its mighty slow going; you dont go as far, you dont go as fast, you dont go in risky weather, a strong current or at night. In questionable moments, when its row-only time, you dont tend to go at all. See where all this is leading?
Edwin Shermans Outboard Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair-Be Your Own Outboard Mechanic, a first-rate diagnostic and how-to manual, is our Outboard Bible. Shermans a terrific teacher, and its easy to make sense of what hes talking about, even if you know as little as I do. My only beef is that he and all the other how-to authors always tell you the right way to do stuff, and Id place my money on ol Ed, that he could give Scotty a pretty good race for reinvigorating antimatter-propulsion systems, even if all he had on hand was bubble gum and chicken wire. But Ed, mman, I just know youre hoarding those "Now-kids-dont-try-this-at-home" fix-it-on-the-spot secrets so you dont have to sweat law suits and stuff. Sure. Sure. ABYC standards are just ducky, but out here in the real cruising hinterlands, when it comes to do-it-now-with-whatever-you-got-on-hand repairs, those standards are as useful as a handshake from your insurance company. Sometimes, the wrong way is the only way. You gotta make it up as you go.
In general, how-to-books assume you have access to basic and esoteric supplies, an infinite set of tools, brand-specific replacement parts, and a stable platform on which to work, which for cruisers is wishful thinking on all counts. Id like somebody to come out with a book that include a series of tips on how to fix stuff with only baling wire, Elmers glue, and fish scales. Take, for instance, dinghy propeller shafts. Props fit onto a shaft, hug it closely, and spin around, pushing water one way and you the other. What keeps the prop from sitting still while the shaft turns wildly is the fact that its snug against the shaft, and held in place, in part, by a sacrificial pin that gives way if you hit something. This is a pretty clever idea actually, because it protects everything, and if the pin goes, you just fiddle with the prop and pop in another sheer pin.
Technological progress, however, is often the archenemy of sound-and-simple, and this time its really buggered the moose. In recent years many outboard manufacturers have kissed sheer pins good-bye in favor of a cylindrical hub made of vulcanized rubber with splines (a kind of multiple tongue-and-groove pattern that mates with a complimentarily designed shaft). Sounds great in theory. But inevitably the rubber comes loose, or gets all soft and wiggly, or disintegrates altogetherproving again the warnings we got in high school sex education lectures. Anyhow, after your vulcanized rubber bites the dust, you can race your throttle till the cows come home, but all youre left with is the outboard equivalent of one crazed hamster jacked on a load of high-test coke, sprinting toward death on its treadmill.
The rubber-hub system is a perfect example of product made to break, an unnecessary, potentially dangerous, and predictable failure merely awaiting an inopportune moment in your already maintenance-filled life. When that little sucker gives way, usually you cant repair it properly, or quickly, and to read the how-to manuals youd think you either need to buy a new prop, or in the felicitous jargon of the industry, you gotta get "rehubbed." I imagine one prop commiserating with another: "Yeah, man, I hit some hard times, and now Im in rehub."
Our prop gave way the other day when Bernadette was in the dinghy. Ithaka was anchored in the middle of nowhere, between two uninhabited cays (Ukupsuit and Kalugir Tupu), and around us were the beautiful reefy shallows that make the waters of the San Blas so turquoise. Nearby, our friends Frank and Lynda were anchored on Simba. Bernadette and Lynda had taken off in our dinghy to explore, and according to my beloved, the shaft suddenly started spinning without communicating to the prop. They were more than three miles from Ithaka. Not ideal, but not the end of the world either, luckily. Bernadette found she could keep the prop rotating very slowly in lowest idle, and with that littlest bit of propulsion, she and Lynda were able to slowly row the chubby inflatable back to Ithaka. Against a strong current this could have become a serious problem.
Being reasonable planners, we had a spare prop at the ready when our hub disintegrated. Id bought it from the Nissan dealer when wed bought the motora little over two years agoand foolishly I figured it would fit. But of course it didnt, and in the middle of the San Blas Islands, we found the spare to be useless.
Frank came over, and together we tried to figure a solution.
"Screw it," declared My Personal Commodore. At first I thought this an uncharacteristically indelicate comment from someone so proper, but Bernadette meant it literally. She thought we should set some screws through the prop into the bronze sleeve that fits onto the shaft. Being guys, we couldnt accept a girls advice immediately. No, we decided. That was too radical, and wed run the risk of scoring and stripping the shaft, causing permanent damage. Instead, as a first step, Frank and I decided to reinforce what rubber was left with two-part epoxy. We removed as much as we could of the softened rubber, grooved some channels in it to accept the epoxy, then filled it and let it dry for a day. Finally, we put the whole rig back together and engaged the prop.
To paraphrase Yeats on outboards, the center wouldnt hold. Bernadette had the grace not to say, "I told you so," which made it easier to follow her plan, which was better than ours to start with. We drilled holes and tapped them, then inserted three machine bolts as set screws, going in only as far as the bronze sleeve that fits over the shaft. For the past month, its been holding fine, and on our next visit to the States we hope the outboard dealer will do the right thing and exchange our spare prop for one of the correct size.
But our repair is temporary, and not ideal, and when it fails Ill follow the advice offered by Yarif, a long-time cruiser on an Israeli boat named Carne. We met him a few days after we made our so-far-successful prop repair. Yarif told me that after several rubber-hubbed props had stranded him on distant reefs, he came up with a more radical and, so far, permanent solution. "I dont trust these new props at all," he said. "Your set screws will buy you a couple of years. But heres the only thing to do to really fix the problem. The moment you get home from the store with a brand new prop, gouge out every molecule of that stinking rubber and replace it with inflexible two-part epoxy. Its the only way to go. Ive done that on mine and havent had a problem in years." I think of him as Yarif McGyverstein.
No doubt Yarifs system would never gain approval from the ABYC or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but keeping it in mind may help get a few people back on the roadafter they row themselves the three miles back to the mother ship.
Yesterday, as Bernadette and I were getting our diving gear ready to dinghy to the reefs to go spear fishing, a Kuna ulu full of fisherman whom wed met the day before paddled up to Ithaka. When wed first met them, they were under power, their ulu full of fish, octopus, squid, conch, crabs and lobster, and wed happily lightened their load, buying crab and fish. Now, here they were paddling, one man waving their prop in the air. Sure enough, they had the exact same problem as wed had... "Little do they know, theyve come to the prop doctor himself," said Bernadette, as we examined and nodded. The rubber hub on the Kunas shaft had given way some time ago. As a repair, theyd drilled several holes11, to be preciseand inserted what amounted to poorly-fixed set screws (some as large as 3/8"). But all of them had slipped away, vibrated free, sheered, rusted out, or for some other reason just skipped town. I radioed my partner in prop crime, Frank on Simba, whom I knew would enjoy helping these guys as much as I would. We sent the fishermen off to fish and went to work on the project. From our grab bags, Frank and I found several bolts that were fairly close to some of the holes. We drilled out three that were roughly 120 degrees apart, tapped them for our bolts and screwed them down with a hope, a prayer, and some Loc-tite, a chemical that hardens like glue in grooves and stalls things from vibrating loose before nightfall.
After several hours of work, Frank and I motored off to find their ulu, which was a mile or so away at the reef. We returned their prop in the best working order its known in some time. The lead Kuna dropped it atop the fishing net in the center of the boat, next to several dozen good-sized yellow jacks and a dozen or so conchs. I figured hed toss us a couple of fish and say thanks, but in fact, as the various guide books point out, and as others cruisers have told us, the Kuna dont have a word for thanks. (Although they can be highly articulate with sentences like "Aga be imar uda moka?" Do you have a gift for me?) Noticing me eyeing the fish, the Kuna leader asked if we wanted to buy some. We declined. At first I was peeved. All this rubs against the sense of gratitude I expected, even craved. Frank and I talked about this as we motored back to our boats in the dinghy.
"I guess thats more my problem than theirs," I said. "Maybe helping out should be such a regular part of the fabric of daily life, like breathing, that theres no need to say thank you."
"Maybe so," said Frank. Then he added, "But a fish wouldnt have been so bad either." This is one of the things I love about Frank. Hes willing to spend endless amounts of his time to help anybody out, while maintaining a keen sense of the absurd. Franks a walking how-to book of technical informationin fact, he chaired the international commission that developed the NMEA standards, and hes personally designed many of the marine instruments we all rely on. But hes far more creative than any how-to book, because he loves to use whatevers at hand. But most importantly, hes one of the most generous people Ive ever met. Next week, Simba and Ithaka will be heading up the coast to Linton and Portobello, and then going our separate ways. Ill miss him enormously and hope one day hell read this and see it for what is: a prop-er thank you.
e-mail the Bernons: Ithaka@CruisingWorld.com