If the Shoe Fits...
24 April 2009 | Whangarei, New Zealand
...Leave it the heck alone! That's the lesson I learned earlier this month when we hauled Meridian out of the water for some routine maintenance and painting.
"Hauling out" is an annual, or at least biennial, necessity for most boats. It allows you to inspect all the components that are normally under water; the propeller and propeller shaft; the through-hulls that allow raw water either in or out of the boat for things such as engine cooling and gray-water disposal;
the zincs, soft-metal pieces that serve as sacrificial anodes. In the presence of electrical current (a boat, sitting in salt water, with lots of dis-similar metals in contact with each other is basically just a big floating battery), these zincs will bear the brunt of electrolysis, a very destructive process that would otherwise eat away things like propellers and through-hulls; and the rudder. Ah, yes, the rudder...more on that later.
Hauling out is also the only way to apply bottom-paint to a boat. Bottom paint is a highly obnoxious, tremendously expensive ($200/ gallon) concoction of paint, copper, and secret ingredients that marine organisms find distasteful. Without proper bottom paint (also called "anti-fouling"), a boat's bottom would quickly become a dense underwater forest of grasses, algae and mollusks. Good for them, but bad for us. Taking the boat out of the water allows you to scrub off whatever growth there is, sand the hull, and apply coats of new anti-fouling paint. Not terribly fun, but a necessary evil.
The last time we hauled Meridian was in San Diego in 2007, just before we left for Mexico. About a year and a half ago. Time to haul again. We made our appointment with a local boat yard, researched and bought the appropriate paint, and took Meridian downstream to the yard. We motored into a special slip, the workers rigged giant slings under our hull, and, with a large travel lift, they pulled 40,000 lbs of boat clean out of the water.
After cleaning the bottom, the travel lift then lumbered over to a large cradle, where they slowly lowered Meridian. Its a bit bizarre, seeing your "home" swinging from straps, suspended 20 feet in the air as it slowly rolls across a parking lot. Soon, however, we were securely resting in our steel cradle, ready to inspect the various components, and begin preparations for the paint.
One of the things I wanted to inspect was the rudder. Months before, in the warm waters of the tropical South Pacific, I had noticed that there was a tiny bit of play in the lower rudder bearing. Not much, but more than I thought there should be. So I made a mental note to take a look the next time we were out of the water. Curse you, mental note!
Sure enough, there was some play. OK, lets drop the shoe, a big (like 60 lbs big) bronze boot the holds the lower part of the rudder to its protective skeg, or structural fin. Inside this shoe lives the lower bearing, the probable culprit that I was after.
These shoes are structural, and very important. They literally prevent the rudder from dropping off into the deep abyss, and therefore are constructed heartily, and mounted with a vengeance. Removing one, therefore, is not a simple task, but with some big pry-bars, lots of power tools, an acetylene torch, and a sledge hammer (!), we finally got the shoe off.
Have you ever heard the phrase "leave good enough alone"? Well, the shoe was "good enough", and I should have left it alone! Upon demolition, we could not physically see how the shoe had been attached to the structural skeg. Lots of heads-scratching by boat builders and yard-owners commenced. Comments like "unsafe", "half-assed", and "short-cut" followed. They were insulting our Meridian, and we would have none of it!
My better instincts told me that everything was fine, and that I should just re-mount the shoe and forget about it, but the image of a sinking rudder kept nagging at me, so we finally decided to continue the demolition until we either 1) found a solid attachment point, or 2) proved to ourselves we needed to create said attachment point.
Anyway, after digging deep enough into the lower skeg, we found what we wanted to see...a very beefy, stainless-steel, strut that formed the backbone of the skeg. The bronze shoe had been secured to this strut by five 1/2 inch copper pins, then further fastened by lots of poly-sulfide, a rubberized goop that is impervious to water. In other words, the shoe fit, and I should not have buggered with it.
Now, in boating, good news is always followed by bad. In this case, it meant that we now had to re-construct everything. Finally, after re-fiberglassing the support strut, and peening in the new copper pins, we were back in business. Yes, I remembered to install a new lower bearing. After all, that was the original purpose of this exercise.
When all was said and done, the rudder-repair cost us an additional 2 days in the yard, but it was worth it on the peace-of-mind scale. Meridian will now be able to fend off those pesky marine critters for another year, and I can sleep securely, knowing that our rudder is firmly attached.