One of the so-called disadvantages of a trimaran (or catamaran) while cruising? It’s harder to “haul out” for repairs because they are uniquely wide. True enough! Here is how we dealt with our rudder repairs while in a small bay in Ecuador – while saving thousands of dollars.
Water in the bilge, I tell you, is the bane of a boater. For a year water sloshed around our aft bilge due to a mis-alignment in our brand new engine mounts, installed in California; one of the bolts had wiggled loosed after 2000 miles of vibration.
Arriving in Bahia Caraquez, we met our Ecuador mechanic, Wacho, who finally solved the problem after many attempts to unsuccessfully align the engine. I mopped up the bilges in a glorious but short-lived moment of dryness.
That’s when I discovered the leak coming from the rudder.
I followed stained dribbles of water upstream and saw the rudder mount was oozing water. It had to be removed and inspected before our passage across the Pacific. To do this, the boat had to be out of the water.
HAUL OUT OPTIONS
I called Puerto Lucia in Salinas, a yachting harbor to the south. Would they haul us out? Nope, their travel lift wasn’t wide enough for our multihull, but they could hire a giant crane each way. Plus laydays and cost of repairs, about $8,000. Hum…
I went to Guayaquil’s Astillero neighborhood — they had boat yards for huge Navy ships and some sketchy looking yards with large fishing vessels. They quoted me $9,000 to haul the boat, paint the bottom, and stay dry 2 weeks. Dang!
I could always sail the boat back to Panama, two weeks roundtrip. I imagined it would still cost at least $5000 there, but I’m not sure.
“Why don’t you just do it here on the beach?” suggested Ariosto. He works for Puerto Amistad, the facility in Bahia Caraquez that rents moorings to cruising boats (read about why we chose to moor here in the first place).
“Careening” — that is the term for putting a boat on the beach for repairs. You drive it ashore on a high tide, and wait for the tide to drop. Simple!
Historically, boats were designed to be able to careen easily, but no longer. Many yachts have “fin keels” which are higher performance but are more vulnerable to damage than “full keels” especially when the boat is resting at a 40-70 degree angle. Even catamarans, which should have no problem careening, are sometimes designed with their propellers and rudders lower than their keels (such as the Dolphin cat).
DESIGNING THE CAREEN
Unlike many trimarans with retractable centerboards, our sailboat Aldebaran has a fixed fin keel which is a full 3.5 feet lower than the amas (aka ‘pontoons’). The boat was built in 1968. Who knows if the keel would withstand serious angled pressure if we let her go dry? Probably she would… but I didn’t want to take the chance.
Consulting with our mechanic Wacho, and with friends stateside — my sailing mentor Matt, our boatyard foreman Tom, and do-it-all oceanographer Dave — we came up with a plan. We’d build two metal jack stands to support the weight of the amas, hence keeping the boat balanced. That way, the pressure on the keel would be vertical and safe.
Our jack stands had to support a few tons of weight, yet be foldable. Getting their height correct was difficult — I’d recommend taking those dimensions when you’re at a haul out facility, not in the murky river water as I did!
The jack stands were made of 3 inch galvanized steel and stainless components. They cost $300 for the pair, from the local welder “Socio”. Very well built, but their only downside: extremely heavy, ~45lbs each.
The other challenge: Sand on a slope. How would the boat settle into the soft sand? Would it sink slightly, lose its balance on the jack stands, and crash catastrophically? We decided to place thick wood blocks to spread out the load on the sand – under both the jack stands and the main keel. We cut these at a local sawmill and transported to the beach, at a cost of $40.
The best location for careening is at the end of the public swimming beach in Bahia Caraquez, though sanding & painting boats was no longer allowed there. I would get bogged down with the bureaucracy if I asked permission. Instead, Wacho waltzed into the Port Captain’s office and announced that we needed to do emergency rudder repairs. A verbal OK was granted. The city environmental administrator did make a small fuss later, and claimed we would get a $500 fine if we did it again.
Entrepreneurs, according Daniel Lupovitz, founder of Kind Snacks, need to be total skeptics until they decide to go ahead with the plan; then they must flip a switch and be total evangelists, with zero doubts or hesitations. And so it was — no hesitation allowed on this day. It was time to careen!
The tides were perfect on Wednesday the 18th: 7:50AM high tide, 8:20PM high tide. This timing allowed us to place the boat on the beach in the morning high, and float it again on the evening high. The 3/4 moon was not creating a big tide, but the 1.8 meters (6 feet) tidal swing was sufficient for us, since the boat only has a 4.5 foot draft.
There was so much barnacle growth on the propeller that I barely had any steerage or power with the engine, but I made it to the beach, just 1/2 mile from the mooring field at Puerto Amistad.
THE SPIDER WEB
At 7:30am I dropped an anchor about 200 feet off the beach, then motored into shallows. The depth sounder read 10 feet… 6 feet… 4 feet… the boat was aground gently. I jumped off the bow and led two lines to different street lamps on the beach.
The tide was still flooding for another 30 minutes, which I estimated would introduce another few inches of water; so we could stuff the logs under the keel. There was a back-eddy along the beach which was pulling the boat along the shore, in the opposite direction I expected. I jumped in the skiff and rowed out another anchor off our beam, to stabilize our position.
Wacho arrived with two helpers, along with the jack stands and wood blocks. We surveyed the situation and at the last minute decided to spin the boat around, so that the stern would face the beach. This would give us more time to work on the rudder. The tide was slack and we released the four lines and spun the boat around without much problem.
Putting the logs under the main keel was the hardest part. I put 3 dive belts with 25lbs of weight strapped to a log, but it made no difference to the log’s powerful buoyancy. The best approach was to jam one end of the log under the keel, and step onto the other end (remember it’s 4 feet deep). Then, we shimmied the log further so it was pinned under the keel.
Once 3 logs were in place, we walked out the jack stands. It turned out to be a little tall since the boat had already leaning over slightly. We didn’t manage to get the jack stand under the center of the port ama. This resulted in overloading the stand and bending it slightly (the welder said he’d make some modifications to improve it). The second jack stand went perfectly under the middle of the starboard ama.
Finally, we put a short vertical log under the main hull, forward of the fin keel. There were six points of contact underneath the boat, plus two anchors and two lines to the beach. The boat was stuck and apparently stable. Success!
Now it was time to do the repairs! As the water receded, our two helpers scraped feverishly at the barnacles, to remove them before they dried out in the sun. I disconnected the rudder to drop it. Because of the angle of the beach, there wasn’t enough space for the rudder to drop. We had to wait for the water to recede more, then dig a hole for the rudder to fall into.
Wacho finally removed the rudder mount about five hours after the high tide. Good news! The wood underneath the rudder mount looked perfect (no rot!). The mount itself had bent slightly concave (causing water to leak in), so he ran it to a machine shop to “re-flatten” the base. The clock was ticking…
The boat was high and dry, and the water started to come back up around 2pm. Nothing like the rising tide to motivate fast work!
I tackled the other repair: a new depth sounder. A year prior, our primary depth sounder stopped working, but we had a secondary unit (a Garmin Echomap 70s Fishfinder) to keep us going.
Now I installed a sounder with a real-time speedometer – basically a tiny spinning wheel under the hull – which would give us information about depth and currents when entering atoll passages in French Polynesia. It was a two hour installation job.
Wacho returned around 3pm with the smooth, beautifully machined rudder mount. We caulked it thoroughly with Sikaflex and mounted it with the 4 big lag screws. The rudder was pushed back into place. Both the rudder and the depth sounder – the two “holes” in the bottom of the boat – were sealed properly about four hours before the evening high tide. The repairs were done but the careening wasn’t over yet!
As the tide entered the bay, there was a lot more surge and water movement. There was a concern that, as the water was nearly floating the boat, it could jostle around the ama and damage them on the jack stands.
We remained vigilant, watching from the beach with beers in hand. Around 7pm we began removing logs and jack stands as soon as they freed themselves. The beach lines were untied and the boat floated on its anchor. Ahhhhh…. What a relief.
ONE DAY VS. MULTIPLE DAYS
Careening for one day worked for us. We got really lucky that everything went as well as we could have hoped. If we had to, we could to repeat the performance the following day. We even had big conical wood “plugs” to plug up the holes overnight if needed. But we didn’t use them.
What if you needed multiple days careened? No problem. After the extreme tide of the full moon (or new moon), each subsequent high tide has less water than the previous. Once the boat is stuck, it wouldn’t re-float until the tide reaches a high enough level again — 7 to 10 days later. This is a bigger commitment though!
- $350 Wacho (priceless)
- $300 jack stands (we’ll keep)
- $40 wood blocks
- $80 two helpers
- $10 lunch for 4
- $20 machining the rudder mount
- $15 Sikaflex tube
- 1 week of pure anxiety
= $815, not counting the new depth sounder (compared to $8000, the lowest quote for the same job, from Puerto Lucia in Salinas)
Depth Sounder Note: B744V for the Raymarine i70s . I picked this sounder because it was the only bronze unit that had speed and depth in one. Downside is that it has a HUGE “fairing block” that is a mandatory installation (essentially for angled hulls or fast power boats). Due to the added 2 inches of the fairing block, we barely had enough height on the sounder’s throat to properly tighten the required nuts on the inside – despite the fact that we have a very “thin” hull (1 inch, plus backing plate). I would advise anyone getting this unit to purchase the B744VL instead, which is longer.
This was my first time careening a boat. Some said it would be easy, others said it was really dangerous. I was stressed for the entire week in anticipation! I wouldn’t underestimate the risk and danger of this operation. I carefully evaluated the beach during low and high tide for days, and consulted with multiple people, to tend to the specific needs of my boat.
Biggest take away: you need lots of wood blocks and “shims” to stuff under the boat to ensure it’s well balanced on hard sand, ideally.
And huge thanks to Wacho for supervising the operation! Now that I have the experience, and the jack stands built for the boat, I could do it again with confidence… it’s like having your own portable boatyard wherever you go in the world!
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