The Longest, Worst Boat Project Ever (with Blood)

10 Jan

I realize that interminable, frustrating boat projects are the low country of boating conversation, but bear with me.

My electric windlass stopped working four months ago. It would power down, but not up. Sure it was the windlass control box, I tore into the anchor locker, removed the control box, then tested the windlass directly by touching the live power cable to each of the leads on the windlass. Again, power down but no power up, and this showed it was something in the guts of the windlass.

If this were a job for a customer, I’d like to think I would have had the good sense to say, “Let me remove and disassemble the windlass, then we’ll talk about how much this is going to cost.” But I probably would have said, “This has gotta be something simple since the motor still works. It should just take a couple hours.”

It took a couple hours just to remove the windlass from the deck. One of the mounting bolt heads broke off, leaving a stud stuck in the deck. As I removed the windlass, one of the power leads fell out, along with one of the studs from the electric motor.
The motor would have to be removed from the windlass and repaired, meaning total disassembly of the windlass.

If anyone is thinking I should have just replaced the whole windlass, this is a Muir Cheetah, made in Tasmania, which currently retails for over $7000 in the US! Madness. Check out here or here. This place is advertising it for more than $10,000. This is like half the insured value of my whole boat! Must be some international wierdness with a strong Aussie dollar, tariffs, or extreme purchase price parity imbalance (EPPPI). I bought it as a leftover from a boat show in 2001 in Sydney, along with 300-feet of new 3/8-inch chain, for $1800. Feeling very good about my bargain hunting.

Anyway, at that price it was definitely worth repairing.

I went to remove the bottom cover from the windlass, but of course all the stainless screws were frozen into the aluminum case, and would need to be drilled out. It had already been a long day, and I didn’t have my Hand Truck of Justice with me (windlass is heavy and it’s about a quarter mile to the parking lot) and it was getting late.

I came back another day with a drill. The first step was to drill out all the screws and remove the bottom cover:
Then I had to remove the rope drum, gypsy, and associated parts, which were all, of course, horribly frozen with corroded pins and keyways.
I’d already decided that if I was going to go to all this trouble I’d repaint the aluminum case while I was at it, and make her shine like new.

Once the hardware was removed from the ends of the shaft, I’d have to slide the shaft out of the windlass to get the motor and drive unit out. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the shaft out:

I’d have to take her home, where I have a four pound sledgehammer, and various rods and pipes for tapping out recalcitrant shafts. Once at home, I picked up where I left off:

In the photo above you’ll see the shaft coming out the left side of the windlass, and the socket extension I was using for the task coming out the right side. In the foreground is my four pound sledgehammer. I was making slow and frustrating progress when I hit my thumb with the sledgehammer. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t scream, but my wife came out moments later and said I looked pale.

I quietly went into the house, opened a beer, and lay on the living room floor with a bag of frozen peas on my hand.

My thumb didn’t get better. It was especially fun changing our infant’s diaper during the following days. He’d kick as hard as he could, hitting my thumb end-on. When I grimaced in pain I got the biggest laughs I’ve ever got out of him. I always felt a little shortchanged that others, even strangers, could get these big laughs out of him, but dear old dad could never really make him crack up. But making me fall to my knees, wincing in pain, made him laugh like a maniac.

Four days later I went to the hospital. They x-rayed it and the second segment of my thumb was broken, right in half, with the two halves of the broken bone now crossing at a 45-degree angle. They’d have to reset the bone. The first step was injecting Lidocaine into the major nerves going up both sides of my thumb:
This was very painful at first, with the broken thumb cramping up, then very weird and inexplicable. I told my doctor wife later and she said, “Like freezing and burning at the same time?” “Yes! Exactly! Like burning and freezing at the same time.”

All due credit to the orthopedic profession, but this gets medieval. First they put my thumb and forefinger in “finger traps”:
As you can see, they’re like those Chinese finger handcuffs, only stainless steel. Apparently there needs to be equal tension on both the thumb and forefinger when they reset the bone.

The physician’s assistant called out, “Hey! Julio, can you give me a hand?” Julio was about a 200-pound, tattooed orderly, who was soon hanging from my elbow. The physician’s assistant kept saying “harder, harder” until I think I saw Julio’s feet lift off the ground. Meanwhile the physician’s assistant was resetting the bone – snap, crackle, crunch – and I was babbling about I don’t know what, feeling no pain with the anesthesia, but knowing that if I fixated on what they were doing to me I’d puke.

Without releasing the tension from my thumb, the physician’s assistant wrapped a piece of hot fiberglass around my arm, and let it dry while holding my thumb bent and in traction:
They took another x-ray of my thumb, and the orthopedist came in to have a look. He said, “Looks good, IF it stays in place. IF it stays in place,” and darted out of the room.

I was to come back the next week. If it didn’t stay in place, that meant surgeries, stainless steel pins, and a longer recovery.

As the anesthesia wore off, my thumb hurt very much, and now it was stuck in this extremely tight cast. Extremely tight.

Going back the next week, I hoped the bone stayed put, of course, but a more urgent matter was getting the extremely tight cast off my hand. There may be surgery, there may be pins, but at least that very tight, temporary cast was coming off.

I got there, they took an x-ray, and the bone had stayed put. The physician’s assistant said, “Great, now we don’t want to change a thing. We want to keep it exactly as it is, but wrap it a bit tighter.”

Still, no surgery and no pins. Also no use of my hand for another month or so, and no work, and the Clark Beek Marine Electrician Company did not have a worker’s compensation plan. It turns out a broken thumb is a serious injury, and the doctors take it seriously. A thumb is kind of like a shoulder, a complicated joint that moves in all kinds of ways, and a permanent disability is very limiting. At this point I was feeling pretty stupid about hitting my thumb with a sledgehammer.

On that subject, it wasn’t actually that stupid. The shaft I was hammering was a good foot from my left thumb. My left hand was just bracing the windlass case, but the windlass case has a cleat cast into the top of it. I think my thumb must have been laying on this cleat, forming a little bridge between the cleat and the case. The hammer didn’t have to hit that hard to break the bridge. Re-creation:

So now I had a lot of time on my hand. I of course went back to hammering on that windlass, with one hand, and eventually got the shaft out:
The electric motor had to come off the drive unit, and the rotor had to come out of the stator:
Replacing the stud was beyond my one-handed ability, so I took it to my favorite electric motor shop and had them do it for $85. I destroyed a phenolic bearing on disassembly, so had to buy one of those from Muir, also for $85. Then I needed the two-pack paint, which was another $60. Luckily I already had the chromate metal etch primer and the epoxy barrier coat, with the three paint products composing the recommended system for metal coating from Interlux, Petit, et al.

But first I had to strip the aluminum windlass case down to bare metal. Bead blasting would be the best way, but I was doing this on the cheap. I found these pads on a four-inch grinder worked great:
I went through one pad on the windlass case; another on a bike frame I was refinishing at the same time. Always combine painting projects, when possible. Aluminum begins to corrode in the air just minutes after stripping, so it’s important to get the etch primer painted on immediately.

I eventually had my windlass case repainted and looking good. I’d rounded up all my parts and fasteners and was ready for reassembly. Wait a minute, what’s this?:
That’s oil leaking out of the drive unit, around the outer oil seal. Don’t want to reassemble the whole thing and mount it if it’s leaking oil, so I took apart the drive unit, cleaned up the mating surfaces for the oil seal, replaced the oil with synthetic 90W gear oil, then put it all back together again.

I ended up needing a new windlass control box, because this time one of the plungers in one of the solenoids had actually broken:
Installing the new windlass on deck, with all new cables and the new control box, was fairly quick and straightforward. Notice how the windlass case is now off-white, to match the color of my deck? That’s no accident:
After three months, many painful stretching exercises, and a few physical therapy sessions, my left thumb will never be quite the same:
You can see that the left one no longer bends as much as the right one, not so much a disability as an inconvenience. The physical therapist finally pointed out that the bone actually healed in a bent-backwards angle of about fifteen degrees. This is about as good as anyone would hope for, as far as healing, but means the joint would actually have to articulate fifteen degrees more than the right thumb to bend to the same angle.

About halfway through this process I was feeling very sorry for myself and my club thumb, when I stopped by to check on my boat. I walked down the dock and came upon my neighbor’s boat:
Everything’s relative.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Karl Thoennes

    Great story. Doesn’t matter if boat projects are low country, misery always loves company. I’m replacing a bow pulpit now. How hard can that be? Remove the windlass (two hours, ten screws). Remove and replace four bronze bolts ($5 each). Remove four windlass housing bolts. Remove four windlass base plate bolts. Remove six bolts for the bow rail stanchions. Remove three bolts for the anchor chain roller. Glass over NINE extra holes in the bow. I could go on but you get the idea. Spilling some blood is just icing on the cake. Thanks for taking the time to post the story.

  2. Andrew Shemella

    All in all, in comparison to other boat projects, that went pretty well! Thanks for an amusing story – I guess I’m in your son’s camp re schadenfreude…

  3. Clark

    Thanks, Puddlesailor. It’s really bizarre. Comparable windlasses from Lewmar and Maxwell are around half as much, and they have to be shipped from the UK and New Zealand, so the shipping doesn’t explain it. We’ll just have to get comfortable with the notion that our windlasses are twice as good because they cost twice as much.

  4. Puddlesailor

    I hate to rave about what a great story when it clearly involves tremendous amounts of pain (and blood). But it is indeed a good read. It was especially fun when you identified our very own beloved cheetah. I am sure you have helped us face the day when we too will want to breath new life into our dear hardworking (and ridiculously expensive) windlass. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Clark Beek

    Thanks, Erik! Up until now I’ve been fond of saying every boat project will take five times as long and cost twice as much as you thought, but this has taken it to a new level of delays and personal injury. The cost was actually about twice what I expected.

  6. Erik

    Clark, I loved your post! A boat project without mystery, injury and irrationally escalating commitment would not be a proper boat project at all, now would it?

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