“What was one of the scariest moments of your Bahamas trip?” a fellow cruiser asked us the other night during our first post-Bahamas reunion. Ironically, he had asked Phillip first while I was in the restroom, so he got to ask me separately and it was quite interesting for Phillip and I to see how differently we both answered that question. Apparently—and this was unbeknownst to me then—THIS incident was the scariest part of the trip for Phillip. Granted, it happened before the trip, but Phillip deemed this his biggest scare. That, and the knowledge we gained during the process, I felt made it worthy to share.
Our boat, you see, has quite the sense of humor. It’s like she senses a coming departure date, and she knows she’s about to have to work really hard to carry us across the Gulf. So, to balance things out, she likes to throw a little wrench in our final prep plans and enjoys watching us work really hard for a few days figuring out her last-minute equipment failure before we leave. This time it was one of the most important systems on our boat: Lord Nelson.
Many of you may already know who that is. Lord Nelson is our auto-pilot—an HLD 350 hydraulic drive with a Simrad AP26 control head and an AC20 computer—named after the gallant Lord Nelson boat he came off of when we acquired him in 2016. Previously, we had an Auto Helm 3000, a belt-driven wheel helm that was, well, pretty much useless. It was weak and unable to hold in any winds over 10 kts. For this reason—when we were hauled out during our extensive mast stringer repair and re-rig for three months in 2016, we built a new fiberglass shelf for Lord Nelson and had Brandon with Perdido Sailor help us with the install. Lord Nelson is a very strong, below-decks hydraulic auto-pilot that Phillip and I have been very impressed with. That guy’s got a grip, I will tell you! But, as with any “new” system on the boat, you have to work out the kinks, and it became clear to us, not long after his install, that Lord Nelson’s got a little sense of humor of his own.
During our voyage to Cuba, our first long offshore voyage using Lord Nelson, he initially unthreaded his own arm. Phillip and I were beating into some pretty heavy stuff during that passage, so it gave us a great deal of alarm when the auto-pilot’s Simrad device began cackling out and Lord Nelson gave up the wheel. Thankfully, Phillip was close enough to the helm to get control of the boat before we got backwinded (or “all f&*ked up” as Annie would say). Don’t ask me how this weird un-threading happened, because it’s still a mystery to us. We were simply thrilled it was a super easy solution. I hopped down in the port lazarette (we spend a good bit of time in the lazarettes on our boat),
threaded it back on, Loc-tited it for good measure (we love Loc-Tite), and we were back in business. Finding the problem is usually 80% of the battle. All too often on the boat it is a very, very simple fix (i.e., tightening a loose bolt) that causes a very, very big problem (i.e., the auto-pilot’s not holding).
That was Lord Nelson’s first snafu (that’s the word of the day today). Another time, also during our infamous voyage to Cuba—you can tell we learned a TON about our boat during that bash-across. Yes that one …
Lord Nelson started beeping and braying and telling us he was having “rudder response failure.” After an embarrassing amount of tinkering and troubleshooting that did not involve the basics—i.e., making sure all the nuts and bolts and connections are tight—Phillip found the nuts holding Nelson’s base plate steady had wiggled loose during our rambunctious voyage. Imagine trying to push something to exact measurements while your feet are on shifting sand. Thankfully, again, this was a stupid-easy fix (tighten the nuts). Lord Nelson was then able to steer us all the way—through some serious wind and seas across the Gulf Stream—to the entrance to Marina Hemingway. We knew then we had made the right decision in upgrading from our wheel helm to hydraulic Lord Nelson.
When we hauled out in 2018 (to, among other things, reinforce our rudder post, replace our coupling and cutlass bearing, and switch to a composting head) Phillip noticed Lord Nelson appeared to be leaking out of his rear bushing on the rod. As with most any other problem or issue we discover while we’re hauled out, we try to tackle it then and there, when we’re knee-deep in “boat project mode” and have the help, expertise, and tools of Brandon and his crew at Perdido Sailor at our side. Brandon recommended we take Lord Nelson to a local hydraulic shop to have them open him up and replace all the bushings. “While you’re in there,” he reasoned. Sage advice. While that seemed like a simple task, it was anything but. I’ll spare you the entire saga by simply sharing this post and saying once again how unbelievably patient and persistent this guy at Industrial Hydraulic Services in Pensacola was. I am so grateful we fell into his hands.
So, with allll that work we put into Lord Nelson in the prior years, we had very high hopes he would perform beautifully on this voyage to the Bahamas and for many more passages and years to come. I mean, it’s an old (which we prefer), strong system that—when fully-functional—is powerful enough to hold our boat in virtually any and all offshore conditions. Lord Nelson was definitely not a system we had any worries about when we were preparing the boat this past February and March to leave for the Bahamas in April. Apparently Lord Nelson felt differently about it.
During one of our last day sails before we were going to untie the lines and sail south for the season, Lord Nelson shocked Phillip and I both when he beeped out this strange ACXX warning (meaning he required too much voltage to turn the wheel, so he shut off) when he was holding while we were raising the main. After we got the main up, and put Lord Nelson back on, he was fine. No other issues; he held for several more hours in light and some sporty winds under engine and sail. Then again, as we were coming back in, Lord Nelson gave up the ghost (oddly again when we had him holding while we were dropping the main) with the same ACXX warning. It was just … strange. There’s no other word for it, and there seemed to be no discernible reason or cause for it.
This time, being a bit more Lord Nelson-savvy, Phillip and I checked all of his bolts and nuts and wire connections. We un-connected his wires, cleaned them and re-connected. But, he had cut out in such freak moments—that we couldn’t seem to replicate—Phillip and I were unsure whether we’d solved anything or not, which was very unnerving with our planned departure date coming up. I can tell you one of the very first things we will not leave the dock, headed off on an extended offshore voyage, without is a reliable auto-pilot. He’s like a third crew member; easily the most skilled and capable one at holding the wheel. The thought of traveling with a potentially faulty auto-pilot is what Phillip readily admitted gave him the biggest scare of our trip. Having planned and prepared for months, with a good weather window ahead of us in the Gulf, Lord Nelson’s condition was almost a deal-breaker.
Thinking there was a possibility we were going to have to replace the drive unit before we could leave, Phillip and I were frantically searching the web and making calls trying to find a replacement drive, which proved to be a challenge as our unit is so old and unique and no longer manufactured. The only used ones available were overseas and would take weeks to arrive (although we thought about shipping them to Key West and hand-steering there—not a great idea, but one of our last-ditch ones). Newer, different drives all proved to be too big to fit and operate on the shelf we had built for Lord Nelson. When we did find a different newer drive (the Simrad T0) which would fit in our space, they were all unavailable or out of stock. Multiple calls to a guy at our local West Marine resulted in just one (only one unit in the entire U.S., I’m not kidding). It was in New York but, once located, it was deemed already sold. Unless our unit was repairable (in the next two days) our Bahamas trip looked like it was going to be postponed indefinitely.
With our focus now on fixing Lord Nelson, assuming it was possible and that we could do it quickly (two very big assumptions), Phillip did some research and discovered these mysterious motor brushes. A mystery to me, that is, as I still don’t have my head wrapped quite around what it is they do, exactly, or brush per se, if anything. I know they somehow make an electrical connection in the motor, but there’s still some magic going on there for me. I mean, here’s what they look like. Weird little buggers:
However, we were struggling to find what types of brushes had been installed in our unit so we could even buy new ones and hope that fixed it. Remember our unit was made years ago and is no longer manufactured, meaning the employees at Simrad weren’t quite sure what brushes had gone in there to begin with. Frustrated and irritated with our prospects, we got a little desperate.
Two days before our departure date, I stopped into a small motor maintenance shop in Pensacola hoping beyond hope, initially, just for answers: what brushes were in our motor and could the shop order and replace them? Like a punch to the gut, when I told the guy the specs of our unit, he immediately told me he was sure he would not have any brushes in stock that would fit our old Simrad unit. It was his belief, they would not be manufactured anymore and he would have to machine new ones using the old ones as a template. This could take 5-7 days, he told me, if it all went without issue. (When do boat projects ever go off “without issue,” am I right?). I had every intention of walking out of his shop and simply going home to tell Phillip our plight, when desperation and crazy hope overcame me. I drove straight to the boat, sweated my ass off in the lazarette, but I disconnected and disassembled Lord Nelson and removed him. It’s not a super fun job.
Thankfully, having been very involved in his install and our many times trouble-shooting and working on him, I was very familiar with his assembly, so I could do this on my own. Ladies, this is a testament to getting to know your boat just as much as your counterpart so you can be just as capable as he or she when it comes to troubleshooting and repairs (because it will often, time and time and time again, come time for troubleshooting and repairs. It’s a boat … )
A greasy, sweaty mess, I stunned the motor shop guy coming back in with my beast in hand. “This is Lord Nelson,” I told him, as I asked if he could please get inside him as soon as possible so we could get moving on our brush project (and get the heck on our way to the Bahamas!). Motor Man took Lord Nelson, wrote down my info, gave me a ticket, and said he would get on it as soon as he could (hopefully tomorrow).
It was all I could do. But, I would have never guessed my rash decision ended up saving our whole departure.
While I was merely hopeful this magic Motor Man would be able to get inside Lord Nelson, find the brushes, make new ones and have us up and running and heading off to the Bahamas—albeit perhaps a week or two after our originally planned departure date—I had no idea he would call the next day and tell me: “It’s fixed.”
Remember what I said about ridiculously-easy fixes usually being the source of the most ridiculously deal-breaker breakdowns? You want to know what was wrong with Lord Nelson that was preventing him from being able to steer our boat?
He was dirty.
That’s all. Just dirty. Motor Man—who is a great mechanic with an uncanny devotion to customer service and whose real name is Glen at Escambia Electric Motor Service here in Pensacola (and whom Phillip and I will be forever grateful to)—found, when he opened Lord Nelson’s motor up that it was all gunked up and gummy (likely from the hydraulic fluid that had been leaking). He was so greasy and dirty that his brushes (which were in great shape – yay!) simply weren’t able to make good contact. Glen said it was arching and sparking in there, struggling so hard to make a connection to run the motor that it was pulling 15 amps at times. That was the reason for the ACXX message and failure. Once Glen cleaned him all up, Lord Nelson was running beautifully, drawing only 2 amps. That’s it. What a pleasant surprise. He was just dirty.
And, it was our last day before we had planned to leave. All we had to do was pick up our buddy Nelson, re-install him on the boat, then we could pop out for a quick motor-about to make sure he was calibrated and working properly and *voila*! Our we-almost-didn’t-go, auto-turn-notto problem would be solved. That’s it. Boom. Done. You can go now.
It’s rather funny now looking back on it. And, as is so often the case with our boat—I swear she just knows how to break down with grace at the perfect time—this snafu happened at just the right time. Imagine if this ACXX message and an auto-pilot failure had started occurring two days into the Gulf, 100 nm from shore? Phillip and I would have had a very different, much more dangerous offshore experience. But, no, our boat had the wherewithal to show us this problem days before we were leaving in our own protected home waters. I mean, when you realize that, you just want to give her a massive fist bump. Right on, boat. *thunk*
And, please use this story as a reminder: when your boat seems to be giving you trouble and having issues, she may very well be simply trying to talk to you and tell you exactly what is going on with her. You just have to listen and look. Phillip and I are still not near as good as we should be, not quite 100% attune, but we’ve been through enough now to know, if she’s giving us “problems” it’s likely she’s trying to get our attention so we can fix something well before it blows up into something major. She’s usually doing us a serious solid.
So, there you have it: Phillip’s biggest scare of our trip. And, I’ve spared from this story the issues we had with our GPS during these last days as well. Turns out total lack of a GPS signal can be the result of needing to do a simple upgrade of the micro-chip in the B&G. I’ll tell you the thought of leaving without a reliable auto-pilot or GPS was another pretty big scare. But, again, this happened in just a way that we were able to address and fix it in the safety of home waters where we have unlimited wifi access. Thanks again, boat. *bump*
Now, you may be wondering what my biggest scare of the trip was? You’ll have to follow along! It wasn’t until we got near Andros. But, Phillip and I hope repair and equipment failure posts like this one help educate you all and give you some encouragement if you, too (as all boat owners do) often run into problems out there. Think of it as just your boat trying to show you something before it becomes a colossal, no-go-for-you issue and thank her!
Next up on the blog: our five-day sail across the Gulf of Mexico. Stay tuned!