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America America

Who knew? I mean, at the start of the project, I was under the impression that installing an autopilot would be a piece de gateau. You know, something akin to, say, toggling a new DSC VHF into an ancient GPS plotter. Or changing the vital fluids in the genset. Or maybe even convincing my wife BJ of the absolute unavoidability of piling yet another whopping boat-related charge atop our faltering AmEx.

But a snag arose almost immediately. Not that it had anything to do with the autopilot itself. Heavens no! Simrad's AP28 is arguably one of the most advanced, technically sophisticated gizmos of its kind. But advancement and sophistication can be troublesome, at least under some circumstances. The AP28, after all, is designed to interface with modern hydraulic steering systems, not oldy-goldy systems (like the one on my trawler Betty Jane) that rely on stainless steel cables, pulleys, chains, and giant 24-tooth sprockets.

It was this last item that was actually the source of my woes. To get the AP28 to work, I needed to add a sprocket to the steering shaft at Betty's upper helm station. But to add the sprocket, I needed to remove a big, bronze, cable-wound drum at the bitter end of the shaft. And no matter how persuasively I swung my ball-peen hammer or how ardently I blasphemed, the darn drum refused to make way for the sprocket.

Difficulties often lead to discoveries, of course. And soon the difficulty I was having with the drum morphed into a whole bunch of other difficulties, most of the sort that typically arose 20 years ago, when autopilots were installed with rotary electric motors that turned steering shafts by means of sprockets and chains. But all of this was good, believe it or not. It forced me to venture into the shadowy little world of independent marine-supply houses, ancient industrial-supply outlets, and rough-and-tumble guys who, to me at least, embody the very essence of what's always made America America.

My experiences began with a visit to Panama City Marine in Panama City Beach, Florida, a locally owned chandlery that, to my knowledge, has never been referred to as such by anybody but me. "What's up, guy?" asked the middle-ager behind the counter with a confident, authoritative air. I was looking for a long, three-quarter-inch bolt with a very fine thread, I told him, while handing over a small mechanical gear puller I was planning to apply to the drum to bolster the ball-peen's effect. The man examined the thread inside the puller. "Hmmmm," he said, looking up. "Come on back here." We pawed through a vast array of boxes of bolts. No luck.

Then the guy did something you don't often see these days, especially where big, sparsely staffed, corporate-owned stores predominate. He strode back to his spot at the counter and made a telephone call. "Yeah," he was saying when I caught up, "he needs a real fine thread. You got anything like that?" The answer was apparently in the affirmative, because before getting off the phone, the guy began drawing me a map on a smudged piece of yellow note paper. Once he'd explained how I was to make a couple of turns and then go over the railroad tracks, I shook his hand and set off in a rather bemused condition. The man's helpfulness had come unbidden, and he'd had a near instant grasp of my problem as well as its solution.

Things got more radical at Fastenal Industrial & Construction Supplies. As soon as I walked in, a geezer with purple Crocs on his feet and hands the size of platters grinned and announced, "Bet yer the guy lookin' fer the bolt!" When I confirmed this supposition, he proffered a finely threaded specimen that fit perfectly into my gear puller. "Excellent," I said. "How much do I owe you, sir?" The old boy dropped three more bolts into my hand, along with a handful of washers, and replied with a smile, "Not worth botherin' with, son. It's free. Have yourself a good day."

What happened next was the kicker, though. Back onboard the Betty Jane, I discovered the puller wouldn't move the drum, even with the new bolt working and loads of ball-peen action, some heat from a propane torch, and a couple of blasphemous tirades that bordered on pure poetry. "Shoot," I remarked, as the slanting rays of sunset began playing over our marina. I stood on Betty's flying bridge, lost in the listless gloom the French Existentialists made so popular some years back. How dark it is before the dawn!

"Good evenin'. Got that damn thing off yet?" shouted Dave Sorensen, coming down the dock. Officially the proprietor of a quirky little electronics outfit called All Points Marine, he's known around town as "Super Dave" and is talented on many fronts, including the care and feeding of esoteric motorcycles and automobiles. Super Dave jumped aboard, sporting his signature ornamentations, a ZZ Top beard and a large, gold fishhook earring. He'd just finished with a job on a nearby boat and was wondering, he said, whether all the noise emanating from the Betty Jane had produced any useful result.

You guessed it! We got the drum off in about half an hour. But what stands out for me was the slick creativity with which the task was accomplished. Super Dave simply and sagely removed the stainless steering shaft from its carrier bearings so he could deploy the ball-peen more accurately and forcefully on the drum, applied a nifty spray lubricant to a couple of strategic set-screw holes, and after several significant raps of the hammer with me pulling on the shaft...presto!

"I'da never thoughta the bearings," I said, hefting the drum.

"Good ol' American know-how," Super Dave replied, matter of factly. Works every time.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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