Troubleshooting the Generator, Lady Style

23 Feb

When Erik went back to work, Papillon became My Boat.  By which I mean, Papillon became My Problem.  With my resident handyman thousands of miles away, anything that broke was going to be my responsibility.  And it was just a matter of time before something bad happened.  This is a boat, after all.  So when the generator died this week, I wasn’t surprised.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not very handy.  As Erik kindly puts it, I’m not a natural tool user.  No arguments here.  But, being the big boss that I am now, I thought I could show some maturity and give this a whirl.  I’ve watched Erik fix the genset before, usually in my role as Tool Monkey.  I may not be able to do it as quickly as he could, but surely I could start the troubleshooting process.  At worst, I would be setting a good example for my girls.

How to begin?  First, I fell back on my scientific training: I gathered data.  What did I know?  When I tried the system a second time, it died after five minutes, just like the first go-around.  No sputtering, just sudden death.  So probably not lack of fuel.  I checked the temperature.  Aha.  Too high.  Probably a cooling system issue, then.

But it was barely seven o’clock: time to get the kids off to school.  I met our carpool moms in the parking lot, and mentioned my issue.  Immediately, they both offered up their husbands to help me.
“Oh no,” I said, “I’m okay for now, but I’ll let you know if I need some help.”  What a nice gesture, I thought.  People are so kind.

Because I had my own resources.  Manuals.  My native intelligence.  Um, my own husband.  No need to go picking up extras yet.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked my port-side neighbor as I climbed back aboard.  “Later on, I can come take a look.”
“I’m okay for now,” I told him.  “But thanks – I’ll let you know if I get stuck.”

I had an email waiting from my not-currently-resident expert.  He gave me a cascade of likely culprits, and, full of optimism, I got ready to knock through them.

First: were we getting cooling water into the system?  When I turned the genny on, yes, water exited the hull.  Okay, good.  Something was flowing.  But it looked less-than-usual to me, and sounded more sputtery than normal.  Maybe we had some marine growth down there.  Sure enough, when I felt around the throughhull, it was full of the tiny tubeworms that seem so prevalent here.  So I cleared it out.  As I examined my torn-up fingers, I made a mental note to use a tool next time.  But that was the easy one – the inlet throughhull is well below the waterline.  I mentally prepared myself to slide into the yucky marina water to clear out the inlet side.

But before I could dip a toe in the water, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an extra husband!  A neighbor from down the dock approached with a glum expression and a scuba mask, explaining he had been sent by his wife to help me.  I tried to dissuade him, but he shook his head.  “When I was away, someone helped her.  Now I must help you.”

I pondered this nugget of Man Logic as he dove into the water.  These husband-offering gestures were comical around husband #3, but started to depress me a little by #6.  As the days wore on, no one ever asked me if I needed help – they just assumed I required assistance.  Male assistance.  Not a single woman put herself forward.  The fact that I did, in fact, need Erik’s advice at every stage only made me feel worse.  How were all of us raised to expect the men in our lives to repair everything?

Extra Husband hauled himself back onto the dock.  “It’s clear,” he said as he hosed himself down.  “Nothing is growing in the throughhull.”

Rats.  My easiest option was off the table.  Pushing past me to the engine room, Extra Husband offered to look at the generator himself.  While he was poking around, Stylish and her teacher came home from their French lesson.

“My husband is waiting in the car,” said the French teacher as Stylish skipped off.  “Do you need me to have him take a look?”  She noticed Extra Husband down below.  “You let me know how this one does,” she whispered.

Extra Husband poked around for a while, but didn’t have any good answers.  “You should call a mechanic,” he said.

But I wasn’t defeated yet.  Call a mechanic – so much for this plethora of husbands.  Surely there was still some low-hanging fruit to pick before giving up.

My first port of call when I don’t know something is a book.  Out came the operator’s manual.  I squinted at the schematics: tiny, badly-photocopied pictures clearly drawn for someone of Smurf-like stature.  The section on the cooling system didn’t do much more than refer me to the service manual.  So, out came the service manual.  At least this was a pdf; I zoomed in and found what I wanted.  I was ready to do battle.

As I sat in the engine room, tracing hoses with the flashlight and fighting a stress headache, my confidence started to wobble.  After three years, I hardly know this room at all.  I couldn’t even find the fridge reset last week until Erik explained where it was.  How did I expect to figure out this stupid generator?

But I wasn’t beaten yet.  More emails.  More questions.  More tracing.  More husbands.  I tackled the raw water filter – clear.  The feed hose to the raw water pump – flowing nicely.  Time to try the impeller.

By now, I had gained a small and fragile confidence in my abilities.  Sure, Erik could have knocked out this job in about fifteen minutes, whereas I was on Day 3, but there is a good reason for that.  He has experience.  Fixing cars, fixing farm equipment, and fixing many, many boat parts.  Why, surely my brothers couldn’t do this either, being soft city-dwellers just like me.  Fix a motherboard, maybe.  But even Erik was a noob once in his life, even if it was just when he was six years old.  I could make up for the lost years.

Out came the Allen keys.  As I wedged my hands into the generator, I began to understand the reason for Smurf-sized pictures in my manual: only a person three apples tall could possibly work comfortably in those tight spaces.  I started to smile; in a way, it is funny that I’m always offered the husbands – how do their enormous hands ever fit anywhere in a boat?  Enough hilarity, Amy; back to work.  I closed the seacock (those of you playing the home game, don’t forget this step), prepped the vacuum and the “yuck bucket”, and slowly opened the cover plate.  I sucked up all of the extra water, put the screws and the plate into a tupperware bin (also critical – screws love to roll away and fall into inaccessible places), and gently pulled off the plate.  There was the impeller.  And it looked perfect.

Damn.  Well, still, I had to pull it out and check.  What did the service manual say?  Check for flat spots, cracks and broken vanes.  No problem.  Even I am no stranger to a broken impeller.

Okay, but wait.  How was I supposed to get the impeller out?  Back to ask Husband, the Original.  Oh, there’s a special tool.  What a relief, I thought, because I was really hoping to unpack another locker to hunt down another tool.  As I descended into the engine room for the nine hundredth time that day, tool in hand, I started to have a new appreciation for Erik and his constant requests for help.  It is annoying to have to keep stopping a job because you forgot the silicone grease, or you need a different ratchet, or the metric wrenches instead of the imperial.  Clearly we need to train the girls up for this role.

“Amy?” called a dock-side husband.  “Need some help down there?”
“I’m okay, thanks.  I’ll let you know.”
Impeller-extractor in hand, I was ready to do battle.  I turned to the genny and tried to ease the tool between the vanes.

And discovered that the fuel filter was in the way.

I wedged myself back against the fuel lines and stared at the offending filter for about half an hour.  Yes, I could probably figure out how to get it off.  I could.  But I was hard running up against the fact the issue here wasn’t a simple blockage.  Something was almost certainly broken in there – something requiring expertise to identify and fix.  Was I trying to fix this generator because it made sense for me to do the job, or was I just trying to prove something to myself?

I took a deep breath.  And I put down my tools.

I set my pride aside, closed up the generator, opened the seacock, and walked away.  Good sense dictated that I agree with the husbands: it was time to call the mechanic.

I respect the time Erik has put into understanding our systems.  And I can see that I’ve wasted a chance to learn that myself during our time aboard.  Oh, I’ve got excuses: I was teaching/cooking/writing/wrangling children/otherwise occupied.  But the truth is, I never thought that pumps and fuel and lines and the other necessary elements of a boat were very interesting… and I had someone to rescue me  But, when I tried it for myself, it was kind of fun to figure out where things were and how they fit together.  It was a puzzle: if this leads to this, then that must do that.

I still don’t think this is my life’s calling, but I do think I will watch a little more carefully next time.  I might even ask to try it myself once in a while.

Because surely there is a better way for me to solve small problems aboard than to borrow a husband or two.


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