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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fred and the tank

Fred has a lived in face, like a Christmas walnut, a knowing half smile and a quiet and measured American drawl. He’s a thick set man who moves slowly through the world in old T shirts and well-worn shorts with the residue of an engineers’ work that seldom sees a washing machine. He’s a convivial character, a quiet man, but engage him on any mechanical or seafaring issue and you could be there all day. He may have an appointment but now he’s in conversation it’s going to have to wait, there’s a story to tell, and it just may take a while.
Although Fred looks like he hasn’t got two pennies to rub together he flies a small plane, has a forty foot yacht, and houses here in Puerto Rico and another in the nearby island of St Thomas. He tells stories about being at sea on rescue tug boats, and of trouble shooting large oil installations all over the world, Fred is an uber engineer, who has a way to fix anything that’s mechanical. If Fred gives you some pearl of wisdom regarding anything mechanical, you need to listen, and listen good, his advice is probably spot on. We paid a visit to his boat yesterday which was strewn with tools as he  tackled some job or other. On the stereo an aria from some obscure opera played in the background, Fred is cultured.
Before we set off on our adventure to St Thomas Fred had warned us about our fuel tank, and how we needed to make sure it was clean. “You need to cut a hole in it” he had said, which seemed a bit drastic at the time, but after all the problems we had on that trip to St Thomas we’re now taking his advice.
There’s about thirty odd gallons of diesel in our tank, it’s about three quarters full, and lies under the floor in the middle of the boat. The plan is to empty the tank, cut a new access hole in the top of the tank, which is aluminium, and make a new hatch cover to cover the hole. This will enable us to get to the rear of the tank which at the moment is inaccessible as there’s a baffle running across the middle,  it’s there to stop the fuel sloshing about too much when the boats sailing.
Fred has given us a small sheet of aluminium and I borrowed a jig saw, from Freds’ friend Bob, to cut a new hatch cover. I spent yesterday cutting and drilling the new hatch cover, now I have to set about cutting the hole in the tank. So the next task will be to empty the tank and to do this I’ve borrowed, from Fred, a pump. It’s not a fancy pump, just an electric motor with a switch taped onto the side of it, and some plastic hose. Fred reckons it can pump about twenty gallons a minute, but here’s where it could get messy as we are going to use five gallon jerry cans to collect the diesel. It could all go horribly wrong as our jerry cans could be full in seconds spilling fuel all over the boat. But if it all goes to plan we’ll have an empty tank that we’ll be able to scrub out, and a new access hole.
Well it turned out to be more than messy, we hooked up the plastic tubes, poked one in a jerry can, and the other I held under the surface of the diesel and flicked the switch. There was a gurgling sound and a bit of foaming in the pipes but no diesel came out of the end Jackie was holding in the jerry can. Fred had said “you’ll need to prime the pump, it’s centrafugal” as if I would understand. I sort of knew what he meant so prior to starting we had poured some diesel into the pipes and filled the pump, but I obviously had missed something. We tried filling the pipes a bit more which entailed decanting, very messily, via a small funnel, a bit more diesel. Jackie holding one end up in the air, me with my finger over the other end. We plunge my end into the tank, losing some on the way and switch on, but still only a gurgle, not twenty gallons a minute, not even a trickle.
After a few repeated attempts we finally got it going, the trick was to have my end of the tube completely full of liquid and held under the surface of the smelly stuff in the tank. At last the jerry cans started to fill up and after about an hour we had sucked all the diesel out, except for a half inch that we had to use a hand pump, before mopping out the last of it with one of those towel mats you find on pub bars. Safe to say it hadn’t been the best start to a day, and we both reeked of eau de diesel, now it was time to cut the hatch, but first a fag-break out on deck where the fresh morning breeze cooled our sweaty selves.
Cutting through the aluminium tank was easy and we soon had a 9 X 7 inch hole which revealed a mess of black congealed gunge on the bottom of the rear of the tank. We set too with scrapers and metal scrubbing pads, Jackie took the rear of the tank, brave girl, I did the front half. We scrabbled about, getting into weird positions to reach all four corners, like playing some demented game of twister. It took all day but finally we had two, if not shiny, but almost pristine halves, which we decide to let air till tomorrow when we’ll put the fuel back. We go ashore for a cold beer where we meet Fred at the bar, who’s impressed that we’ve managed to get the job done, we’re just pleased it’s all over.
“You put the diesel back in the tanks yet?” says Fred, “because you know what I would do. Whilst it’s empty you should check the bottom of the tank. You just need to disconnect those four hoses and lift it out and take a look.” Well what could we say, we knew he was right, but we also knew that the tank was sitting on a rubber mat in a rank bilge that was going to mean another horrible job, but if Fred was advising us to do it, do it we must. So the next day out came the tank, which was fairly easy but it revealed a gunge ridden mess beneath it. I paddled about bare foot scooping up sludge into a bucket, mopping with rolls of kitchen towel, whilst Jackie hauled the disgusting heavy rubber mat on deck where she scrubbed it with sea water and Dr Mechanico. “This is a much worse job than yesterday” she said, and she was right.
The bottom of the tank turned out to be still in good nick, just a bit of old flaking paint, and some pitting but not badly. So with a nice clean bed for it to sit on we put the mat back down, reconnected the tank, fitted the new hatch cover, along with the old one and filled it up using the Baja filter. We went ashore for a well deserved cold beer, and bumped into Fred.
 “Shame you put it back, I could have ultra-sounded it for you” but I show him some photos and he reckons it’ll be OK. “Show Richie those pictures” Richie is sat on the bar stool he seems to occupy most of the day, another quiet man, who always says Hi, but little else. If Fred defers an opinion to Richie, I’m impressed, must be another master engineer, maybe, or just a tank expert, I don’t know. “Hell, I’ve seen worse pits on my face” says Richie. They agree that the tank should be good for a few more years. “Just make sure you keep that bilge dry” says Fred and he ambles off into the night.

So that’s the tank job, done and dusted, a major headache out of the way, and one less thing to worry about, now we just need to sort out that broken bolt on the stuffing box, replace the morse cable and we’ll be good to go, that is unless we uncover something else. As Freds’ boating friend Bob says though, “If it ain’t broke, take it apart and find out why”.