Tool of the Day …. Pump Diaphragm

After the rough passage from The Abacos to Eleuthera all three boats in our little flotilla were bruised and battered. On Sanitas, the propane sensor was alarming and cutting off propane to the stove. This first occurred after the ingredients for dinner were chopped but before they were actually cooked. Doh! And more importantly, the bilge pump failed. Yes, that bilge pump. The one that drove Mike to stay up late every night in Marathon to ensure it was installed and working before we left Florida.

After pumping a 5-gallon bucket of dirty water out of the bilge by hand using a tiny portable pump (and dousing me with bilge water in the process) Mike started trouble shooting.

  • Sea grass clogging the input strainer? Nope.
  • Intake hoses clogged? Nope.
  • Output hoses clogged? Nope.
  • Thumb over the pump intake. Any suction? No suction.

So we took the whole darn thing apart. I have a lot of photos from boat projects so far of Mike lying on the floor in this same place and in a similar measure of contortion.

I am so impressed that Mike was able to find the source of the problem and to fix it! The diaphragm that performs the physical pumping is supposed to be held in place by a small metal cap. That cap had failed. Essentially this cap had bent in such a way that it no longer did its job of holding the diaphragm in place. But it was miraculously still sitting next to the diaphragm, instead of being lost somewhere in the dark corners of the bilge.

We jury-rigged a solution that should work until we can replace this specialized part. Mike re-flared the pin that holds the cap in place, using a #2 phillips head screwdriver bit. He pounded down on the head on the pin using a hammer onto the screwdriver bit until it was shaped more or less correctly and resumed its job of holding the diaphragm in place.

So far, so good! Of course while executing this project, we discovered that our back-up manual bilge pump doesn’t work. But rebuilding that pump will be another whole project for a later date.

It was supposed to be a smooth passage …

On March 10th, we finally headed south from the Sea of Abaco. After 10 days in Marsh Harbour, hiding from nor’easters, we had staged ourselves off Lynard Key, watched the weather, and listened to the cruisers net every morning to hear the status of the cuts. The cuts are gaps between Bahamian islands that allow you to pass from the protected waters of a sea or bank (such as the Sea of Abaco) into the open ocean. They can be tricky; narrow with rocks and reefs on either side, and a strong current either pulling you forward or fighting your progress. You need to time a cut passage properly, preferably at slack tide, when the wind is not working again the current and building up strong, high waves. I have a goal for cut passages, and that goal is “No stories.” There are many salty sailors who take pride in their horror stories, “I was passing through Whale Cut in northerly winds of 35 to 40 knots! The waves were as tall as houses! Only my arcane skills as a sailor and my brave heart enabled me to make it through unscathed!” Well personally, I prefer the uneventful, safe passage. Oh, and I passed through Whale Cut a few days ago. It was fine. Nothing happened. That makes for a boring blog post, I know. Sorry!

Anyway …. We had listened to the cruisers net hosted out of Hope Town every morning. The net coordinator shares a weather report from Barometer Bob, and invites folks to describe the conditions they are observing in the cuts. We decided to head south when the Little Harbor Cut transitioned from a “bouncy 3 out of 5” to a “very passable 4 out of 5 and improving” We had mapped out a course of approximately 60 nautical miles to Spanish Wells at the northern tip of Eleuthera. The trip was supposed to be calm and uneventful. We might even need to motor if the winds were too light to sail. We departed the anchorage just at sunrise, giving us almost 12 hours of daylight to make the passage. I had a book ready.

And the weather man was wrong! Winds were as high as 25 knots. Seas were 6 feet in the wrong direction to the wind. On the positive side, we sure had enough wind to sail! We spent the day heeled over at 15 to 25 degrees and sailing at 5 to 6 knots (fast for Sanitas). The wind was on our bow, as it always seems to be, and the seas were on our beam, so it made for “uncomfortable” conditions. I claim that I don’t get seasick, but I put that claim to the test today! At one point, I built myself a little nest of pillows in a corner of the salon, and wedged myself into the small space to avoid being tossed around.

All three ships in our tiny flotilla were battered today. On SE of Disorder, a bail broke on their main, causing lots of noise, and tangling the main sheet in the rigging. On Sanitas, the bilge pump stopped working, and the propane sensor broke so that we couldn’t use our stove. But Orion had the worst luck of the passage. They had sailed all day, bearing west of our rhumb line because it provided a better angle to the wind for a close reach. We could just barely see them on the horizon when they started up the engine and planned to motor straight into the wind to reach our destination for the evening. Over the radio we heard “Orion is having a very bad day.” They were getting absolutely no thrust from their motor, and feared the prop was missing – the victim of a large patch of seaweed they’d sailed through ten hours earlier. Bob had to get in the water, in those high seas, out of sight of land to check on the prop. (There would have been a lot of tears shed if that happened on Sanitas) Bob diagnosed that the prop was there, but the prop key was missing, allowing the prop to spin freely. Essentially, Orion had no working motor, and could only proceed under sail. That meant they couldn’t make it to Royal Island which was directly into the wind, and couldn’t get to Egg Island Cut and the hopefully calmer waters on the other side. Instead, they sailed all night long in deep safe waters, until they saw the lights of Nassau, and headed back north to join us in daylight and under better wind conditions. Capt Mike and I felt terrible as we watched them sail further away from us, and we instead made our turn toward Royal Island. We knew they’d soon be out of radio range and on their own for the night. And I have never been happier to hear Bob’s voice than when he hailed us at 6:00 am the next morning, after making it safely through the night, and only about three miles from our anchorage!

We’ve nicknamed Disorder “Toolbox” because Stan, a retired fire fighter, has every tool and part and spare you could possibly need aboard. Between our three boats, we had everything Bob and Mike needed to replace the prop key with Orion in the water. Even a small dive tank to facilitate the underwater repairs. The trip that took 12 hours and 60 miles for Sanitas took 120 miles and 30 hours for Orion, but she was finally anchored, repaired, and safe. And her crew could get some much needed sleep.

Hope Town Lighthouse

From Marsh Harbour, we took Albury’s ferry over to Hope Town on a mission! We were tracking down a rumor of a used dinghy for sale at a great price. Orion’s dinghy was completely shot, and they desperately needed a new form of transportation to get them through this cruising season. It didn’t have to be pretty, and it certainly didn’t have to be new, but it had to hold air for more than 15 minutes. This mission took us to the lovely Hope Town Inn and Marina. It’s the sort of beautifully landscaped and maintained resort that, if you came to visit Sanitas there, would trick you into believing that we cruisers live a glamorous life. We ate blackened fish tacos and the special “Da Stagga” rum punch by the pool while Bob and Laura of Orion inspected the dinghy and practiced their negotiating skills. Ultimately, our mission was a failure, because this dinghy was is worse shape than their own, and not even worth the $200 asking price.


It gave us the opportunity to explore the picturesque Hope Town lighthouse. It’s the only kerosene-powered lighthouse left in the world. And it is gorgeous! Painted in bold red and white stripes like a giant candy cane, in contrast to the tropical vegetation surrounding it, the lighthouse grabs your eye from the harbor, and provides amazing views from the top of its 169-step spiral staircase.

The next time I sail through The Abacos, I’d like to spend more time in Hope Town. The harbor is small, but lovely, and I get the sense there is a very strong cruiser community. Each morning, listening to the cruisers net on VHF channel 68 we’d hear about yoga classes, art exhibits, fundraisers, and pickle ball tournaments. (Capt Mike is intrigued! He ready to invest in a good pickle ball racquet)

Excitement in the Anchorage….

By the end of our stay in Marsh Harbour, the anchorage grew very crowded. Many boats were hiding out from the winter north-easters, and waiting for the swells in the ocean outside of the Sea of Abaco to decrease before heading south. Exactly what we were doing! And with these winds coming from an unusual direction, the popular anchorages outside the harbors didn’t provide enough protection to be safe and comfortable. Mike and I took Sanitas out of the harbor after 8 day’s to attempt to head south to Little Harbor, but the winds were higher than predicted, the waves even inside the reef were high and choppy, and the glimpse of the cut that we could see was a whipped cream froth of white waves and foam. So we turned around, and went back to Marsh Harbour for another 2 nights.

As we selected our anchor spot, and dropped the hook, we noticed many captains sitting in their cockpits watching the world go by with suspicion. We soon learned that the suspicion was warranted. The wind continued to increase, and rain started, so Mike and I hid below decks to enjoy our lunch in peace.

We tend to keep the VHF radio tuned to 16 (the hail and distress channel) or 68 (the Cruiser Net and ship-to-ship channel) as long as we hare making enough solar power to do so. Good thing too! Because our lunch was interrupted by calls of “You’re dragging anchor!” on 16, and blasts of an air horn alerting the entire anchorage to danger. Now of course Sanitas wasn’t dragging. Don’t be ridiculous! But a huge catamaran with no one aboard was no longer hooked, and was drifting unattended through the crowded field of boats.

Bob from Orion hailed us directly to let us know it was drifting right at Sanitas. Bob and the skipper from Compass Rose jumped in their dinghies to see if they could board the cat. Mike and I stood by on Sanitas, ready to fend her off if she drifted too close. Luckily, her anchor caught again before she ran into anyone. But now we had a catamaran much too close to our full-keeled monohull, and to several small motor trawlers. Each of these types of boats swing differently on anchor, and need to have space to swing fully and safely as the wind changes direction.

Bob managed to reach the owner of the catamaran, Southern Passage, who was ashore on Great Abaco, and received permission to board her and power up her engine in order to move if necessary. So the excitement ended well. Bob and Mike got a tour of a gorgeous, 50 foot by 26 foot catamaran (we learned she charters for $15,000 a week!) and had beers with the captain after he arrived back at the boat and successfully moved her to a safer location and reset the anchor.

The winds died down completely at sunset, we we actually were able to put the adventure behind us and could go to sleep at night!