After arriving in Baltimore late Friday night, we woke up at a decent hour Saturday morning, saw Nick off to the airport, and then settled in to dismantle most of the starboard motor. We had tickets to fly to Seattle on the following Saturday, so we had a full week to get the job done if it ended up taking that long, but we did need to get the head to a machine shop by then to have any prayer of continuing south in a reasonable timeframe.
The Yanmar service manual is astonishingly useless — the description to remove the head is only 3 pages long, most of which are instructions like “remove intake manifold”, without any nuances about the multiple water lines with seals attached to it, so the entire process was fulled with, uh, “creativity”. I’ve dismantled and fully rebuilt multiple types of smaller gasoline engines before, but this was my first large diesel. So while I can wing a lot of the process and feel comfortable about my ability to put it back together, I was not really duly prepared for hauling several awkward 150+ lb parts out of the engine bay. However, at the end of about 10 hours of work Saturday, the upstairs area was full of engine parts, and the head was actually fully out and ready to go to a machine shop.
I identified a few machine shops, narrowed it down to a recommendation from a local Yanmar service guy, and on Monday they ended up actually coming by the marina to pick up the head from us. Ahead of schedule! We had a pretty uneventful week in Baltimore from there — mostly cold and rainy, so we didn’t do a lot of leaving the boat. We even managed to see our friend Matt, who moved to Norway before the pandemic, and meet his wife for the first time, and hang out for an evening catching up.
We flew home to Seattle for a week of work events for my company, and had a great week catching up with family and friends each night, and my teams and running some holiday events during the days/evenings.
We even got a fair bit of snow in Seattle after going to a Kraken game!
Unfortunately, at the same time, bad news started coming in from the machine shop. The head was actually pretty messed up — it looked like there had been a small hydrolock event, likely due to the excessive cranking the mechanic had to do after he messed up installing the diesel lines making it unable to start, sucking water down the exhaust into the motor. All of the valves were slightly bent and many had munged-up tips from bouncing around the rockers, but at least the head itself had no damage. While that wasn’t great news, the worst news came later that week: new exhaust valves are completely unavailable. They list 100 business days out from Japan, which really means “absolutely no idea when”.
By the time we’d gotten to that conclusion, it was the end of the week, so I spent the weekend digging up any used heads I possibly could. Again, we get pretty screwed by this low-production-run engine — there’s just virtually no used parts around anywhere. I chased down two used heads in Florida. One guy looked really promising, but eventually when I wanted to send him money he switched to saying that he will only do local pickup. Then the other one when I got to the point of sending money, finally took detailed enough shots of the motor to see that there were only 5 cylinders’ valves in it, leaving me 2 exhaust valves short. I confirmed with the machine shop — really, all 12 valves are unusable? Yep. Back to the drawing board.
I found one more used head in England, but by the time I could exchange enough communication with them to agree to buy it, all of the shipping companies in the UK had closed up for the holidays. So, at this point, our best case scenario is likely picking up the head on Jan 4th or so, shipping it to the machine shop, which will take weeks, and then repair time. So, we’re hoping to be able to start putting the motor back together around the end of January or early February, best case scenario.
This, of course, leaves us in Baltimore through then. We are pretty stuck in limbo on deciding whether it’s worth bothering to take all the time, energy, and expense of going south at all, given that timeline, or just spend the winter on the Chesapeake (probably mostly or entirely in Baltimore). We’ll make that call when we get a more-firm timeline, but for now we’re thinking we should be laid in for a long winter in Baltimore. I’m also exploring repowering the boat to Cummins QSB6.7s — I’m exhausted with horrible parts prices and availability on these Yanmars, plus what has only been an utter recurring disaster of incompetent shops in the very limited service network for us.
Lots of time in limbo has been giving us plenty of time to consider what our future plans are. While we’ve been enjoying our time boating on the east coast, had a blast doing the Great Loop, and we had the best possible weather and experiences in Maine this past summer, we’ve come to the conclusion that the boating around the northwest, in the summer months, still beats anything the east coast has to offer. We largely came out to the east coast to be able to do boating adventures where there was safe internet — in the northwest, as soon as you go north or west from Vancouver, there’s basically no cell coverage anymore until Juneau. With Starlink now being a robust solution for us, we’re ready to do more extended cruising away from cell coverage in the northwest.
To that end, we have been, for a couple months now, exploring options to get back to the northwest. We could obviously buy a different boat over there and rebuild to our liking, but that sounds exhausting. We’ve been getting varying degrees of burned by every shop we’ve used to do work, and with how the industry is known to be at extreme levels of worker shortage and quality, I wouldn’t trust anyone other than myself to do that work. We’ve looked into transport costs, but between the price of diesel and pandemic limiting shipping options, prices for yacht transport are astronomical — I’ve been getting quotes of over 75k$ to ship our boat to the northwest from Florida, which is just shy of four times what we paid to send the (slightly smaller) boat that same route 2 years ago.
I started turning to the more interesting option — what if we did it ourselves? Just like there is the AGLCA, an organization for resources for everyone doing the great loop, there’s another group, the Panama Posse, for cruisers exploring everything between California and Florida. There’s forums, live chats, tons of marina discounts, cruising guides, and more. It’s definitely less well-organized than the AGLCA, but it gives one a lot of confidence. I joined the group a month ago, just to see what was available and what sort of communication was happening, and it is a very lively group. There’s usually over a hundred messages a day on the chats, with people all over the place providing advice, asking questions, and gorgeous pictures of sunsets. We couldn’t really consider this route with our original Meridian due to limited range, but this boat has well over 1000nm of range at passagemaking speed (~8kts), so going through the Panama canal is actually a completely viable option. By next winter, Starlink will be active through the entirety of Central America, so it’s actually a very interesting option for us to consider.
So, we want to get back to the PNW by summer 2024 — what do we do in the meantime? We’ve talked about looping again, but with my work schedule being what it has evolved to in the last year, another several months of being second class citizens through major lock systems is fairly infeasible. Also, we didn’t really enjoy almost anything between Chicago and Mobile. So we’ve thrown that option out. We could do Maine again, but we had such a perfect experience last year it will be hard to replicate. However, there’s one interesting option that was largely closed to us during the pandemic — the Triangle Loop.
This would involve another replay of going up the Hudson River (which was pretty), with far less schedule pressure this time, running the Erie/Oswego canals again, possibly with some stops in the finger lakes of upstate New York. Then, instead of heading into the Trent-Severn, you head east, and explore the 1000 Islands National Park for a while (cruisers say you can easily spend an entire summer there). From there, you can either go straight up the St Lawrence Seaway to Montreal or you can take the preferred scenic route of the ancient Rideau Waterway up to Ottawa and from there down the Ottawa River to Montreal. Then you take the Richelieu River down to Lake Champlain, and through another canal back down to the Hudson River. We can clear the max 17′ air draft for this route with over a foot to spare, and it sounds like it’s some of the most gorgeous boating the northeast has to offer, so it feels like a good capstone trip for our east coast boating. Also, Russ and Jax like the idea, so we’d have a buddy boat again, which is part of what made the Maine trip so much fun this year.
So we’ll see. But those are our tentative plans for now — Baltimore for the winter, head north when it’s warmer and do some combination of Long Island Sound and the Triangle Loop with no time restrictions, then head back south down the east coast to Florida in the fall. Then we would either transport the boat over the winter if prices come down, or spend the winter doing an amazing adventure through the Panama Canal back to the west coast. But who knows — plans do tend to change!
In the meantime, we’re enjoying taking some time off in Big Sky with friends and family before the January madness commences. I’ve been doing Advent of Code for the month, using it as an excuse to learn a new programming language (Rust) and really enjoying it. We also have an escape room advent calendar we’ve been working through that we had to leave on the boat to finish when we get back.
We had a scare a few days ago when the polar vortex hit Baltimore and our boat, which we’d partially winterized, but not prepped for multiple days around 10F, plunged well below freezing, despite multiple heaters on. We have temperature sensors all over the boat we can read remotely. We sent a desperate message to the amazing dockmaster at Anchorage Marina who went over to our boat and put some more heaters in, and we’re desperately hoping that that was just enough heat to keep expensive things like the watermaker from freezing and exploding, but we’ll see. We could have a large and potentially very expensive mess to clean up when we get back in a few days, which we’re trying not to think too hard about. I’ve also ordered several heaters to hard-mount in the engine bays and lazarettes, in preparation for harsher winters to come…
More updates as we get them, we’re pretty much in waiting mode for the moment.
Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to everyone!