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The Simple Pleasures of Sailing — Maintenance

There are many pleasures in sailing, with the simplicity of working with your boat and sails to move in the appropriate direction under just the power of the wind being one of the most appealing. Another pleasure is lifelong learning. Learning may include where to set your jib leads, how quickly to turn in a tack, memorizing the constellations in the sky, or understanding the Coriolis effect.

Finistere Boat Maintenance
The locker where we hide the bodies and other mysteries.
© 2023 John

Then there’s the opportunity to look inward, not just into your soul, but into the guts of your boat. When we upgraded from our 1974 Ranger 33 to a “new” 1989 Sabre 38 MkII we opened a whole new realm of learning. We moved from having our only instrument being yarns on shrouds to chartplotters and apparent-wind indicators and more. Our foot pump was upgraded to pressure water, including a water heater. Now we have so much more to learn.

Boat Maintenance
We found a small leak in what we guess is the original pressure water pump. Replacement is on the project list.
© 2023 John

While sailing is the ultimate reward, learning continues to fascinate us as we dig through the bowels of the boat. Despite being almost 24 years old and having done several Hawaii races, she’s in amazingly good shape thanks to her pedigree and the care and upgrades of previous owners. In fact, the Hawaii races have probably helped her be in good shape, since preparing to go offshore has the same effect as inviting people over to your house for dinner. You do a lot of work to clean it up, and, in the case of boats, make sure they’re safe.

We slowly knock off projects and then look for more trouble, so over time, we get to understand how things work just in case the inevitable happens. Some sailors exchange the words “just in case” with “when.”

Finistere Boat Maintenance
The site of more boat yoga — reaching into nearly inaccessible corners to find a stray leak.
© 2023 John

A couple of recent projects included removing the fixed backstay and replacing it with the Navtec hydraulic backstay, which appears to hold its pressure and be working just fine. There was the missing extra-large clevis pin that had to be found, but, once found, was relatively easy to attach and power up.

Finistere Boat Maintenance
Friday night race crew Randy Gridley has been indispensable on the water and at dockside.
© 2023 John

There was also the problem of the glitchy Simrad autopilot. We’ve sailed with many of them but have never had one on our own boat. It worked sporadically but often had to be recalibrated to get it running. Finally, pulling everything out of the locker and looking at all connections, our friend Randy discovered the easiest of fixes. There was a wire on the circuit board clearly labeled “Rudder” that was not secured tightly. It was just resting on the lead and didn’t have reliable contact. Presto! Once secured, she’s humming again. A lesson in troubleshooting as you sequentially chase down problems, while learning where the heck all the bits and pieces are.

Finistere Boat Maintenance
It’s nice when things are labeled. Here’s where the loose wire said “Rudder.” How nice is that?
© 2023 John

Lifelong learning is all about using your head, so we spent more time trying to understand the holding tank and related hoses. After crawling around the boat for a couple of years we have a pretty good feel for where most things are, but “lifelong learning” does take an entire lifetime. We’ve occasionally had unpleasant odors coming from the holding tank, and we’re told the secret is to flush with only freshwater. Flushing with salt water causes the growth of unwelcome forms of life that you’d rather not have on board.

So we spent more time tracing lines to see how it all works and discovered a convenient valve that lets you flush using water from the freshwater tanks. While looking at all the hoses, tanks, valves, thru-hulls, and all the rest, we were reminded why people like Barry Spanier put a composting toilet on his boat Rosie G. The space in the head of the Sabre looks a little daunting to fit a composting toilet, but it’s tempting to try to figure it out.

Finistere Boat Maintenance
What a waste! This is just some of the system and space required to handle waste.
© 2023 John

Because we’re slow learners, we figure we have at least two lifetimes of learning available in just this one boat. Knowing we’ll never know it all allows us to simply button it all up, leave a few mysteries behind, hoist the sails, and get out on the water to enjoy the simplicity of sailing. Though maybe we should move the jib leads forward one hole?


  1. Rich Brazil 6 months ago

    Hats off to you, John. It’s a bit numbing to have a boat for x amount of years and still not know what or where certain things are or, how they work. Join the crowd!

  2. William W Willcox 6 months ago

    Another alternative to the conventional head/holding tank conundrum is the humble Portapotti. Pros: 1) uses a self-contained fresh water supply, 2) no external hoses, 3) uses a self-contained holding tank, 4) simple to use, 5) most-inexpensive head system (less than $200 for a 5 gallon model). Cons: 1) must be manually dumped, 2) requires that the fresh-water tank be refilled, 3) can leak if the holding tank lid is not properly tightened.
    I have been shipmates with four of them for 50 years. When one wears out, I simply replace it with a new one.
    I have also been shipmates with a composting head, which was way fussier than the Portapotti.

    • greg clausen 6 months ago

      I had one and it was great just dont forget to empty it right away or you are in for the worst gagging smell ever.

  3. milly Biller 6 months ago

    Great stories John !
    As a long time Boat Yard worker, I saw some steep learning curves- like the boat owner who decided to clean his engine compartment while the engine was out of the boat for a rebuild. He had run a hose down in the bilge from our dock, but in the middle of the job, he got a phone call and accidentally left the hose running down below. A yard worker noticed that the boat was low in the water and turned off the hose before any real damage was done. At some point, we are all learners.

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