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Boat Times - Engine Extrication

Once upon a time, I nearly sank a boat.

Note: This entry is recovered from my journal, a stream of consciousness deposited whilst cracked out and exhausted immediately after an engine removal adventure back in August, 2014 – backposted for your amusement.

So, on a weary yet excited Friday afternoon, I escape with haste from my New York office and make way towards the boat (which I’m increasingly convinced should be christened the S.S. Hubris) in order to spend a quality weekend pulling its engine out.

This ancient Atomic 4 has been known to be a most resilient gasoline contraption. As the immediate successor to the churning beasts used in World War II, the Universal Atomic 4 powers thousands of Catalina 30s and other mid-sized sailboats even today. There are rumors of a cult-shaped entity or two devoted to this mythical mini-powerplant, in which nonpraise of the most vaunted 4-cylinder creature would truly be shocking and blasphemous. Yet despite all the vouching, I had less than a fully impressive experience with this particular engine.

Every now and then it would rise from the dead, happily purring and chugging away… until dying again all of a sudden, usually at the most excitingly “opportune” times. For instance, betwixt vigorous currents and sharp rocks.

Only by some miracle did the initial delivery from Glen Cove succeed. While traversing Hell’s Gate, the engine would sputter and stall nondeterministically, requiring the backup sail always ready, ignition in hand, fingers crossed, and ears primed for potential changes in the A4’s temperament. And again, a similar adventure on the journey from 79th Street Boat Basin to Chelsea Piers. We have upon our hands a truly flaky contraption.

But enough about that. Let’s discuss why this foul engine must be removed. First, due to this A4, the bilge evolved into a special leaky concoction of sea, oil, and grime, millions-year-old biowaste compressed with heat and death, converging upon a hellish stench. Mold crusted into the miniature landscape of the bumpy fiberglass, shades of toxicity smeared into permanence. How could any mere mortal restore such a compartment? Such witchery, plus the full set of time-sinking engine components requiring excessive regular attention and maintenance was beyond my willingness. I procured a boat to live upon and to sail gleaming waters, not weekends of tinkering with fossilized engines and grease. (How naive.)

Solution I deemed correct was to exchange the Atomic 4 for a full electric motor and solar setup. Clean, quiet, and far more delicious would an electric motor be, breathing and metabolizing the energy of sol and zephyr directly into propulsion. To take on the elements using the elements, rather than liquid death – what’s not to like?

After much research and planning, I sought measurements to fabricate the electric motor mount and custom propeller shaft. Alas, within the foul, packed engine compartment lodged for decades was this very same A4, remaining precisely in the way of the measuring tape.

Which brings us to why I trudge myself to the boat on a Friday night, intent on the eviction of the 330 lb mechanical tenant of doom, as opposed to say, curling up with a book whilst nurtured by calm Hudson waters. Or, adventuring about the city, socializing and inebriating with NYC folks.

Little did she know, that the endeavors of engine extraction and inebriation were not to be mutually exclusive.

Out comes the engine compartment cover, and a ghastly but familiar sight of puke orange, with splotches of darkness come in view. How lovely. Out comes the toolbag and socket collection. On goes the multihour mix containing auditory experiences such as Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos, perfect for the realm of masochistic extrication of groddy ancient combustion devices.

Where to start? Gazing at the cylinders, I begin popping off the spark plug connector. Off with some screws. Oh dear, what’s this? A really heavy alternator lodged between rusty armature, of course! Some nuts don’t turn despite my greatest effort. Wrong tools for the job most certainly. Liberal application of WD-40 does help a bit. I continue at this for quite a while, most of Friday evening, grinning at minor victories as stubborn components fall off, reducing the final weight to be winched.

And off with the wires dangling from everything - the starter - the muffler - the water pump, the fuel pump, what fun. Now what about that foul muffler attached to the exhaust with the bulky and stubborn heat-insulated pipe which does not budge at all? The solution is of course: hours of struggling and twisting and yanking the entire rusted object. At last when wrenched out of the compartment, it drips unspeakable slimes. But out it goes. Tired. It’s now too dark, and only by the light of my rectangle can I work. But, the rectangle also indicates how others beckon me to venture into the city. Time for something else.

Suddenly, it’s Saturday noon, and I wake up between two of my favorite people. We get brunch. Good thing I’ve woken up early enough to continue the project. I return to the boat alone, ready to apply physics and meet fate.

The engine mounting bracket is beyond my strength. These last four before engine freedom happen to be the largest and most stubborn of all. To the hardware store, for larger sockets and a pipe. Back to boat. Well, that seemed to have worked. Leverage is great! Tired. Shower. Stretches. Book. Sleep. A quiet night.

Sunday morning rises, and I rise with it, before noon this time. I congratulate myself on the more responsible sleep schedule, and commit to pulling the engine out by the end of the day.

I separate the propeller shaft. Now the Atomic 4 rests peacefully in its compartment, free from all attachment.

Now to figure out a pulley system. I prepare the boom. Off with the sail cover. The block and tackle is connected to the traveler. I disconnect and reappropriate it. Oh right, I should ensure the halyard can support the end of the boom, lest the engine break the boom.

I tie up the toolbag as a test, raising it using a line from the winch to the boom pully down to the engine compartment. It works! That means it should probably work with an object an order of magnitude more heavy, right!?

So I proceed to tie the engine to the pulley using sail-ties in a haphazard probably inadvisable sequence of knots. I winch an inch, lever the engine with the pipe and stick a block of wood under that corner, then winch again to cut the slack. Seems to work! Rinse and repeat, and the engine is now 5 inches raised.

Of course, suddenly a sailtie snaps, emmitting a tiny cloud of dust particulates and a peculiar clunk. Well that’s really special. Good thing the engine was low. Now better informed, I re-enforce the knots along with more ropes and backup ropes. I rebalance the engine via pipe jiggering and return to rhythmic winching. This is now much more secure, and the engine proceeds upwards smoothly until raised halfway out the engine compartment.

Of course, then the Hudson delivers a violent wake, large waves crashing through this marina with no water barrier. Rocky boats rock. With a juicy crunch, the giant pendulum of engine tied to boom gleefully slams through a seacock, knocking the rusty plumbing apparatus ajar from its fiberglass screw fitting.

Seawater gushes forth furiously.

Now that’s truly exciting! It does appear that I’m on a sinking boat.

I reach for the bilge pump switch.

What’s this? The bilge pump doesn’t work? Oh, right. The engine was ground for all circuits, except it’s now in the air. How sensible!

Now, for the immediately frothy issue rapidly frothing in the engine compartment. Wiggling the broken seacock back into its previous location appears to not solve the problem. I shove a finger in the hole in an attempt to un-froth. The froth does mitigate, but somehow this seems suboptimal. The swaying engine looms just above. First, I should keep the engine away from right above the hole, because if another sailtie snaps and it drops, this time it will result in a much large engine-shaped hole, and the boat will sink (faster) and I lose a hand. I need my hands.

So I jam one of the pipes on a residual engine mounting block lug screw to act sort of like a barrier against further engine aerial antics, and re-wiggle the seacock temporarily reducing the invasive Hudson to a trickle.

One hand pressing against the loose seacock, the other backtracking a bunch of deprecated wires, I find it! Thick red to gross and sticky smaller red with orange. Thick black to small weird pink loopy wire. A tangle of other wires which used to interact with the starter, alternater, water pump, and fuel pump, hang in neglect. Those will be dealt with later. The bilge pump turns on. Sigh of relief.

Suddenly, a better idea. I think I have a wood stopper somewhere, and it might even be the right size. I dig back into the back of the battery compartment in another part of the boat and find some unused seacocks with wooden plugs tied to them. I reappropriate them by jamming the most suitable plug into the gaping seacock hole. That stemmed nicely. Now it seems the boat will be less likely to sink immediately.

I continue to winch.

Engine is now a meter above. Much acrobatics are now required – good thing I’m a long-limbed and fairly coordinated lady. Perched atop the companionway hatch, I stretch a leg out, stepping on a pipe to lever the Atomic 4 out of conflict with the rim of the engine compartment, while stretching my opposite arm far behind to rotate the self-tailing winch with great effort – a nice workout involving unlikely muscle groups.

Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this alone, a thought crosses my mind. But, then again I’m on the S.S. Hubris.

Oh right! The area on the stringers where the engine used to be mounted is now at liberty for measurements. I apply the tape measure and snap some photos and send them off to the E-7 manufacturer. What a relief.

Okay, now for the rest of this adventure. I behold the horrific task of pushing the engine far out into the cockpit and ultimately over the edge and onto land. This time it’s beyond me. I call for another pair of hands from the marina. They arrive.

After further hours of concerted wrangling and cursing, we deposit the engine off the side of the boat using the boom, lower it into a trolly, and the dockmaster takes it away.

Goodbye, foul combustion engine! I’ll miss you not at all. The task of hauling it up the marina ramp, across the West Side Highway, and into my storage unit can wait until another day.

Now to fix my hull.

San Francisco, Mar 2017


Here is the electric motor mounted in the empty, cleaned engine compartment.

The plan to convert to a fully solar sailboat never came to be, as I travelled too much, was unable to use my arms for a month, and weather conducive to boat-work only occurs a fraction of the year in NYC (Before I knew it, winter was coming.)

Eventually, it was time to move to the left coast, so I sold the boat and the Atomic 4. But, I’ll always have the stories :)

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Last Update: 2017-05-22 00:00 UTC