01 March 2012 | Thompson Bay, Long Island
One thing I've noticed about cruisers who've been at this for a while is that they don't get too excited about having to fix things. It is, it seems, all part of the experience and the more you do it the more confidence you have when the next problem presents itself. I say that knowing full well that a) the next thing that presents itself will be something we've never dealt with before and have no idea how to fix, at least until we start to dig into it and b) some things can be so bad that they end your cruise, or even your boat.
But to get back to our experience, I was pretty nervous when we discovered the leaking rudderpost while crossing Nurse Channel in the Ragged Islands. Salt water was coming into the boat! The bilge pump was coming on every 15 minutes or so and we were 80 miles from any parts and 100 miles from the only place around to pull the boat out of the water. When we got back here to Thompson Bay I was no longer afraid, but I was worried that we wouldn't be able to fix it without hauling the boat. Especially after Bud adjusted the stuffing box twice and the leak persisted.
Today, however, we tackled the problem and learned a few more things about our boat. The stuffing box consisted of two halves. There is a lower flange on top of a cylinder with a lip that turns in towards the shaft. There is an upper flange with a thick cylinder that also fits loosely around the shaft, but the upper cylinder drops partway into the lower cylinder. Then you put packing material (flax impregnated with wax or Teflon) into the lower cylinder, the bottom lip keeps it from falling out. You push the upper cylinder down so it compresses the packing material and you bolt them together. Tightening the bolts compresses the packing material and squeezes it more tightly against the shaft, sealing the water out but allowing the shaft to turn.
The instructions in the owner's manual say to use a small drift or similar pointy item to dig the old packing material out. What they don't say is that after 28 years the top layer of the packing material is so compressed that it's rock-hard, and falls into almost dust as you try to dig it out. They also don't tell you that almost no tool will actually fit in the space you have to work in. We ended up taking turns at the digging, using a small screwdriver, a piece of wire hanger, and a large upholstery needle as our tools. It took about four hours to finally get all the old material out. The good new was that the top of the rudderpost was above the waterline, just. The bad news was that the autopilot, that has a steering arm attached to the rudderpost just above the stuffing box and below the regular steering quadrant, was obviously installed some time after the stuffing box had been in use for a while and adjusted. With the new packing Bud couldn't get the stuffing box compressed enough so the autopilot arm would clear the stuffing box bolt. He ended up having to grind a bit of the bolt off! There's room on the shaft above the installation point, so the arm could have been installed higher, but it wasn't.
But, the job is done, the rudderpost no longer leaks. Although we still have to test it at sea under load, the condition of the old packing was so bad that we have little doubt that the new packing will have solved the problem. Probably the most amazing thing about this repair is that is cost us $6.50 for a second package of packing material. So I was feeling pretty happy as the sun set on this day!
Late-breaking News! Bud told me the Internet had a good signal late at night, so it's 1 AM and I just finished uploading the photos from the Jumentoes & Raggeds. They are in their own album.