A Season for To-Do Lists

CW editor Mark Pillsbury puts the winter season to good use. "Editor's Log" from our February 2012 issue.

Last summer, our diesel developed an annoying habit. Out of the blue, the cooling system would lose its prime, and water would stop pumping through the beast, sending the temperature gauge soaring and me scrambling to tear apart the companionway to get into the engine box. This didn’t happen at convenient or predictable times. Nearly always it was after we’d furled and flaked the sails and were chugging along between a tight breakwater, through a crowded mooring field, or past a bustling pier.

Luckily, I was never alone when I heard the dry chug-chug-chug of the exhaust and looked astern to see, well, nothing. To correct the problem, we’d unfurl the genoa, reach off to open water, and then I’d head below to close off our intake through-hull, crack open the water strainer, fill the intake hose with water from a measuring cup, and reattach the several hose clamps involved in the hopes that when we started the engine, it would, indeed, pump water again.

Sometimes it did. The most vexing time it didn’t was the afternoon we’d just finished motoring 20-something trouble-free miles home and were about to fetch our mooring. With the temperature gauge suddenly in the red, we spun the wheel back toward the bay, and I spent the next 45 minutes cooing sweet nothings to the little Volvo as I filled and refilled its hoses, all to no avail. In the end, we rode the gusty breeze to the mooring under sail. Once all was tied up and secured, I gave the key a turn just to curse the devil one last time. Immediately, the splish-splash of cooling water poured forth.

Captain Murphy was in his prime on Labor Day as four of us sailed into a very busy harbor in Newport, Rhode Island, to see the sights. Twice I reprimed the cooling system when it gave up the ghost, but each time we passed Fort Adams, the system would fail again, sending us scooting back into whitecaps and headlong into the fleet returning from the Classic Yacht Regatta. Finally, on the third try, all went well until a spare halyard fell down through the companionway and into the still-open engine compartment, where darned if it didn’t lodge itself firmly between the flywheel and starter, creating an impressive amount of black smoke.

We finally learned the cause of our infrequent dilemma when we hauled out a day for Hurricane Irene and a neighbor in the yard mentioned that his Volvo had once done the very same thing. The cure: Replace the water strainer’s little cork gasket—now flattened by 30 years of use—with a fresh piece of cork from the local autoparts store. Problem solved, and for just a couple of bucks!

It was then I swore to put this winter season to good use and go on a hunt for rusty hose clamps, corroded wiring, loose backing nuts, and the slew of other little things that can ruin an otherwise splendid afternoon.

Dock-bound (or yard-bound) weekends are perfect times to install new gear or just maintain what you have. If you're lucky enough to have a short to-do list, we have some projects you might want to consider in our Hands-On Sailor section this month. Meantime, be sure to check out the new Hands-On Sailor e-newsletter that we've just launched. In each issue, we'll send you tips about projects and tools that you may find useful on your boat, both during this off-season and in the months to come.

For most of us, fair weather and the time allotted for cruising pass all too quickly. All the more reason, then, to prepare now so you’re ready to get out there when it’s finally time to go sailing.