Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tanks But No Thanks

I don’t know what the deal is with tankage on Traveler but we’ve had problems with every tank larger than a breadbox.   A tank is only a box with a couple of holes in it.  Why are they so canTANKerous?

Warning:  The contents of this blog entry might prove a little long-winded. You might want to just close this window and go check your Facebook account. 

We are presently anchored in Bahia Chamela just off the little town of Perula

Traveler has… hmmm, let’s count, five big tanks: two fancy 75 gallon stainless steel water tanks under the floor in the salon, two beefy 65 gallon steel diesel fuel tanks under the aft cockpit floor, and one mean-spirited plastic 40 gallon waste holding tank forward.  The big tanks are all located on the center line of the boat, down low, and are connected to their mate with a crossover hose so that changes in fuel or water levels don’t affect the balance of the boat.  The mean-spirited holding tank is way up on the port side in the head (bathroom).  Just like the port side wine storage area, when its full, the boat is in balance.  As we drink up the wine or we empty the holding tank, the boat begins to list a little to the starboard side. There a low tech indicator that tells us when the boat is listing to starboard.  When I’m on my hands and knees trying to find that little tupperware stashed in the back of the refrigerator the refrigerator door will bonk me in the head if we are listing to starboard and I think to myself, “Gotta go buy more vino tinto.”  When we have lots of vino tinto the refrigerator door slams into the oven.  And when we are in a rolling anchorage the refrigerator door slams into the oven then slams into my head over and over until I find that little tupperware or just give up in exasperation and yell, “Connieee!”  I yell this in the same tone as Connie’s son Ezrah used as a child when he’d holler out “Mommmm!”

When the boat is out of balance we don’t ever think, “Gotta fill up the holding tank.”  In fact we rue the day that the damn thing gets full because that means we have to up anchor and take Traveler out to deep water to feed the fishies.  And hence the problem, sometimes those fishies don’t get fed right away.  But we’ll save that tankage story for last.

We found slow internet for 50 pesos at Playa Dorada
First, what about those sexy 75 gallon water tanks?  We noticed two possibly connected events (or symptoms) last spring.  The bilge pump was running occasionally and our water tank levels were losing water slowly, ever so slowly.  One day in the haulout yard I pulled up the floorboards and asked our knower-of-all-things marine guru Bob to take a look at the water tanks.  He thought they were sexy but like most things too sexy there might be trouble brewing within.  Evidently with stainless steel tanks, little bitty pin-hole leaks can develop over time.  Being stainless, this did not mean rust, just tiny little holes… one or two perhaps.  It happens all the time.  The solution was to have the “boys” cut more inspection ports into the tops of the tanks, clean out the tanks, and spray the insides with a resin mix that would find and seal the pin-hole leaks.  “Make it so!” the Admiral says.  Now our water tanks actually hold water.  More on that story can be found here.

Second, those beefy old diesel tanks had me at sixes and sevens.  Not soon after I bought the boat we had the tanks cleaned out and inspected.  Then I filled them with 120 gallons of diesel.  Little did we know that the crossover hose had a hole in it.  Hours later with the bilge pump cycling every 15 minutes pumping fresh diesel into the pristine marine environment off San Diego bay we began a fire drill that ended up with an emergency haul out into the yard and a night of fuel transferring into two 50 gallon barrels on a pallet on the ground below the now land based Traveler.  More on that story can be found here.

Note:  Jump to January 2015 and I tell the story of replacing those black steel diesel tanks.

And third, the saga of the holding tank.  It laid in wait for us to become comfortable with her performance.  Over time, urine combined with salt water to produce calcium deposits in the waste lines and tank.  Connie and I rebuilt the head once and cleaned out the calcium.  Then later when the head smell got worse we had all the waste hoses replaced in the yard and she smelled sweet again.  Little did we know that there was evil lurking inside the holding tank itself. Terror struck as we made our way down from Mazatlan to La Cruz.   When on the dock, we use the facilities ashore just so we don’t have to deal with pumping out the holding tank every week.  Off the dock finally, and heading south, we started using the head. Our first stop was at the beautiful bay at Mantenchen.  Anchored in the bay in 20 feet of water we switched the Y valves in the head to direct the poop into the holding tank. 
Our internet spot at Playa Dorada.  Notice the coconuts around the bottom of the palm sprouting new trees.
When out at sea we discharge directly overboard, but when at anchor we use the holding tank so that our little floating guys don’t surf their way onto the beach or bump into folks swimming in the water.   The next day, after leaving Mantenchen, we opened up the valve to drain the holding tank.  Our next overnight stop was at Chacala where we again closed the valve.  It was interesting that in Chacala a woman swam out to our boat aghast because she was swimming and reached out to touch something she found in the water and it turned out to be a turd.  She swam to all six boats anchored in the bay to make sure everyone was using their holding tanks.

Between Chacala and La Cruz we again opened the valve to feed the fishies once in deep water.  We were feeding BIG fish out there and I caught one and another took the lure!  We anchored in the bay at La Cruz happy to be back.  On the third day at anchorage the holding tank blew up.  The pressure inside made it difficult to pump the toilet handle and a bad smell ran through the boat.  Connie went up on deck and opened the pump-out cap to look inside.  When she pulled off the cap, brown water streamed out and down the gunnel.  She made some choice sounds that were quite entertaining to the captain.   How could the holding tank be so full?  We’d been dumping it every other day!

Moments before the waterfall of stink cascaded down
Thus began a saga that was to last two weeks.  I spent hours looking at valves and removing the wall in the shower to reveal the holding tank in all its glory (gory).  We tried going out to deeper water to empty the tank but it wouldn’t cooperate.  So we motored into the marina and paid 100 pesos for a pump-out.  In doing so we found that not only was the exit elbow at the bottom stopped up but the air vent on top was also plugged.  My theory was that the calcium deposits had gotten into the tank and were rattling around in there for some time before they finally clogged the exit.  Then the head filled with our wonderfully sweet smelling effuse.  When the level reached the top, some solids clogged the air vent and then we had a pressurized 40 gallon $hi# bomb ready to bust out. 

Getting to the air vent was fairly straightforward.  After poking at it with several different wires and failing to clear the vent I figured I’d stop messing around and just drill it out.  Using a long skinny drill bit the job was done in no time and I heard a whoosh of air entering the tank.  But still it did not drain.  We tried vinegar. We tried chemicals.  With every addition the tank filled.  I knew that eventually I’d have to empty that tank again if kept this up.  I put out a call for help on the VHF.  My friends suddenly got plans elsewhere, saying, “Good luck with that.”  Finally I got a call from the sailboat Elegant Sea.  Chip had a plumbing snake I could use.  So I sat myself down in the head with feet and hands under the sink and disassembled the Y valve that connects to the elbow at the bottom of the holding tank.  I used a heat gun to warm the stiff outlet hose so I could worm it off the connection. Then I took the snake and shoved it up the hose, turning it around and around to grind through whatever was clogging up the works. 
Dan has a big flask of rum!

With a cry of “Get the bucket, Connie!”, I announced my success as brown liquid steamed down the pipe and into my lap.  The smell was overwhelming but my pleasure was extreme.  We filled the bucket and Connie took it topside to dump as I put my palm over the pipe to stem the flow.  After a few of these iterations we had an empty tank.  The good thing about a boat is that any large amount of liquid you spill inside the boat makes its way into the bilge.  After I reassembled everything we set about cleaning up the boat and cleaning up a stinky me.  Pulling up the floor boards we found that the “spillover” had indeed found the forward bilge.  However the bilge pump there had stopped working.  I scooped it all up with a cup and bucket and we scrubbed everything with water and bleach.  Connie fixed the bilge pump by replacing a 4 amp fuse.  But the boat stank and we had company coming for dinner.
Wall back in place, glue setting.

We ate in the cockpit that night and burned incense down below in the cabin.

A week later, thinking we had this thing licked, we motored out into deep water and brought the boat to a halt.  I peered over the side as Connie opened the valve to drain the holding tank.   Nothing!

So we went into the marina rented a slip for two nights.  Docked there, Connie tried using a plunger on the hole outside the boat and under the water.  Upside down with her feet wedged in the dinghy, arms and face in the water.  If it worked then she’d get a dose of the brown magic in her face. It didn’t work.  Then we decided to apply pressure from the top.  I stuffed a water hose into the deck fitting and Connie turned on the dock water spigot full power.  The water pressure at the La Cruz marina is extreme.  The tank filled to the top and brown liquid started pissing out the air vent.  I put my finger over the vent and held the hose in place.  Suddenly the pressure broke through the damn and a plume of brown effluent spewed into the water between our docked boats.  “$hi#!”, I yelled and ran below to close the valve.

A ring around the full moon on our overnight passage from La Cruz to Chamela
Back topsides I could see the brown plume spreading through the blue water and smell the results of my handy work.  I started up the engine, put her in gear and engaged the propeller to create a current.  Then I got in the dinghy and tied it alongside using its engine to encourage the brown plume to make its way into the fairway between the docks.  A young Mexican removing varnish on the boat next to us held his nose.  We stared at the sky, whistling and trying to look innocent.  Soon the visible evidence was gone. The blue water in the marina had a slight haze about it.  The smell lingered for the rest of the day.

The next day, back in the anchorage, we used the holding tank again.  And again it clogged.  But we were able to take her out into deeper water and use the salt water wash down pump and an old garden hose to push the effluent out.  Our hope now is that after cycling enough water through the tanks and lines we will eventually get all the calcium and other solids out of the tank.  Meanwhile, our policy is to avoid mixing urine with saltwater in our holding tank.  In other words, we pee in an old yogurt container and toss it over the rail.  Personally, I find it much more rewarding to do my peeing standing in the cockpit looking at the boats at anchor than doing my business inside the confines of the head. Connie likes it too.  I bought a plumbing snake the other day to have on hand in case the salt water pump cannot clear the blockage.  Having bought it, I probably won’t have to use it. My fingers are crossed.

Sorry to belabor you with this long winded account but you know you could have just stopped reading when I first warned you.  Try as I might, I can’t find any more tanks on this boat.  If I did, then surely it would clog or leak.  That’s just the way it is with a boat. Everything will eventually break.  All systems eventually fail.  Why do we put up with such nonsense?  Here is why.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Lure of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
I'll be dogged if it ain't been almost four weeks since we sailed into this bay, all the while anchored off the magical little town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle.  We are a bus ride from the city of Puerto Vallarta and all the services and provisioning you could ask for in a large Mexican town.  We dropped the hook just off the beach and a couple of hundred yards from a nice resort that forgot to secure its WiFi, thus I've got internet on the boat.. at anchor.  The anchorage is just off the marina breakwater and a short dinghy trip to the dock.  At last count there were 41 boats anchored here, mostly sailboats.  Why so many boats?  I'm not sure about them but for us, there is just too much fun going on to allow our departure. 

The little town has numerous restaurants and music venues, without a cover charge, and all have a laid back atmosphere.  The cobblestone streets teem with little mom and pop taco places and small grocery stores.  The butcher is next to the tortilla shop is next to the veggie market is next to the beer store.  For those of us who won't shop at Wallmart and shy away from large chain stores it is a delight to provision here.  You feel like the peso you give to the cashier goes straight into the community.  This is a place where when you are in a little restaurant and they run out of something, the waiter jogs down the street and and is back in minutes with whatever the cook needs.  Kids play on the streets till late at night and music fills the air at all hours. 

The longer you stay here, the more people you meet and the more dinner invitations you get.  We've met a passel of people here having ingratiated ourselves into the cruising community by dent of my wit and charm and Connie's musical talents and dashing beauty. 
Connie and Jerome
Last night Connie sat in with some local musicians at El Jardin del Pulpo (Octopus Gardens) and tonight we'll have dinner aboard Lungta, a friend's boat here in the anchorage.  The marinas are in full swing in January with workshops and presentations of interest to the boating community such as electronics, navigation, solar charging systems, and weather.  

Sewing a new awning for the front deck
But still, four weeks is just too long to stay in one place, especially with the most serious boat project being a clogged holding tank!  Time to get on down the coast.  But since we stayed out too late last night we should stay another day to rest up.  Then there is the fact that the port captain won't be open tomorrow for our check out so we must wait til Monday.  And Monday will be a busy day there so perhaps we'll wait til Tuesday.  But there is an event I want to go to on Wednesday so..... See how it goes?  Insidious, the siren song town of La Cruz.

Next up (down) the coast is the wonderful Costalegre "Coast of Joy", the area of small anchorages between Bandaras Bay and the coastal town of Manzanillo.  There we will pick up our good friends Keith and Lisa Dekker and shuttle them around the cruising waters of Barra de Navidad and Bahia Tenacatita.  Later in February we are hosting our friends Scott and Karen from Seattle for a week.  In March we plan to be in Zihuatanejo for Guitar Fest.
This is NOT Traveler, I wish it was.  This is the sailing vessel Dazzler. Dan just finished painting the top sides.