This is the story of a plain ol’ rubbber O-ring, about 2 1/2″ in diameter, that probably cost about 4 cents to make, and how it just changed the lives (at least in the short term) of six people and three boats. If I told you the WHOLE story, it would read like “War and Peace”, so I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.
The story begins in the Riding Rock Marina on the Bahamian island of San Salvador. (It’s called that because Christopher Columbus made first landfall there on his quest to the New World, and he named it.) Fran, May, and I had been in the marina for a few days already, when a big sailcat (a sailing catamaran) named Au Soleil came in for fuel and an overnight stop. They were delivering the boat from major repairs in St. Augustine, FL back to its home in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. After fueling, they tied up behind Smartini and we exchanged names and pleasantries with Ryan and Leslie, and Adam and Emily (who would be running Au Soleil as a charter in the Virgin Islands), and they left the next morning, making a straight shot to St. Thomas with no stops. We didn’t expect to ever see or hear about them again.
We left San Salvador a day or two later, and after three days of travel, we pulled into our new home for the winter, the Turtle Cove Marina on Providenciales (aka Provo), Turks and Caicos. What boat do you think was there at the dock? No… not the Black Pearl, dummy… it was Au Soleil! A nagging fuel problem with one engine had gotten worse since San Sal, and they decided to pull in to try to resolve it. We made sure the crew knew we had lots of tools if they needed to borrow something, and the next day, Ryan came by with a peanut butter jar and a couple of brass fittings. He was trying to fashion a fuel filter to handle all the insect parts, fiberglass fibers, and other crap that had made it into one of the tanks during all the repair work in St. Augustine. (BTW, this is at least the fourth time we’ve heard of bad things happening at the big boat yard in St. Augustine – if you go there, beware of shoddy work!) He was going to simply run the fuel through the jar, hoping the crud would settle to the bottom and he could easily clean it out there, before it made it to the on-engine fuel filter and clog it up completely.
But no… that wouldn’t do! Within about 30 minutes, I had upgraded him to a bigger peanut butter jar (Peter Pan, of course!) with a hose running into a Racor 500 fuel filter that fit perfectly in the jar, and another hose to get the clean fuel out of the top of the jar. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of it.) MacGuyver would have been so proud! However… the suction from the fuel pump was too great for the screw-on plastic lid, and air was getting sucked into the makeshift filter, ultimately rendering it useless. Enter the 4 cent O-ring, right?!?!
No – that won’t enter the story until much later. Ryan and crew had decided it was time to skedaddle, and wouldn’t let me make a gasket for the Peter Pan filter. Dammit! I have at least four different ways to make gaskets! Gimme another 30 minutes! So close to saving the day. We bade them farewell, and I put my cape back in the closet.
A day or two later, a pretty 40′ Pearson sailboat named Dauntless motored into a slip near Smartini, and we (me and our new friend Kirk) walked over to help with lines. The captain of Dauntless, Robert, looked like he had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, so after he was finished with Customs and Immigration, Fran and I walked him to Sharkbite and got some food and Jack Daniels into him, and started to get his story out of him. It’s a looong story, starting in St. Thomas right after Hurricane Irma, detouring to Texas for about a year to buy and re-fit a boat (Dauntless) to replace the one that sank in St. Thomas during Hurricane Maria, and getting to Provo from Galveston via Key West (fuel problems), Nassau, Georgetown, and then a loooong run of mostly-sick-with-food-poisoning single-handed sailing to Turtle Cove Marina. With a two-day unplanned stop on the little island of Samana to get over the food poisoning. With a transmission, autopilot, and generator that were all in various stages of misbehavior. Yes… the man needed a drink! (But he didn’t have a problem with a 4 cent O-ring – keep your pants on!)
Over the next several days, we got a lot more of Robert’s story, and were able to help him get all of the things he needed to fix most of his issues, and get provisioned, and pretty much ready to go. We learned, for example, that he was supposed to meet Ryan, Leslie, Adam, and Emily on Au Soleil, here in Turtle Cove, but being sick along the way had delayed him past their departure date.
And we sat with him for about an hour a few days ago, looking at the weather forecast for the next several days, wondering just how the hell he was going to get the rest of the way to St. Thomas, by himself, with not much wind at all forecast for the direction he needed, any time soon. (He has a motor, but maybe not enough fuel capacity to motor all the way.) He had pretty much resigned himself to changing his Captain’s business card from “USVI” to “Provo, TCI”, and was walking to the marina office to tell them, when he noticed a boat that had recently arrived, tied up in the very spot that Au Soleil had vacated just days before. And they were flying a US Virgin Islands flag. And he didn’t know them directly, but they knew (you guessed it!) Ryan, Leslie, Adam, and Emily, and they had many other mutual acquaintances in St. Thomas.
They – the new kids on the block – are Steve, Caitie, and Kyle, who are delivering a big Fountaine Pajot sailcat from the big boat show in Annapolis, MD to St. Thomas, where Steve and Caitie will be running it for charters. They had left Marsh Harbour, in the Abacos (northermost group of islands in the Bahamas) several days ago, and were here in Provo to pick up a new raw water pump for one of their engines. Because somewhere along the way from Maryland, they started getting high coolant temps and had pretty much narrowed it down to an issue with the pump, and very prudently decided they better resolve the issue before taking off on a four day journey.
Shortly after their arrival, Steve came down the dock to Smartini and introduced himself, and told us that he heard we could whip up a pretty mean Peter Pan fuel filter – which he had heard from Ryan on Au Soleil, of course, after their safe arrival in St. Thomas. They all know each other from running boats in St. Thomas. Steve invited us to Kailani (their boat) for cocktails around 5:00, and after he twisted both our arms mercilessly for several nanoseconds, we accepted.
On Kailani, we met the rest of Steve’s crew: his girlfriend Caitie, and Kyle, the hired gun brought on for his ace sailoring skills, and to satisfy the insurance company’s requirement for a crew of three for the blue water portion of the trip. And we met another Kyle, and a Blaire and a Mac, the crew of a Falcon 7X jet that’s here in Provo for a few days. They gave Steve a ride somewhere in their rental car after taking pity on him, and he invited them to cocktail hour. Apparently, Steve and Caitie collect friends like Fran and I do!
Over cocktails, Caitie detailed their engine problems to me, and hearing nothing that seemed to be above my pay grade, I offered to come have a look in the morning. They had a $175-an-hour local mechanic lined up for the early afternoon, and I thought I might be able to solve their problem before he got there. They accepted (I think it was the legend of the Peter Pan fuel filter that won them over!), then they all sang “Happy Birthday” to me (it was my 60th birthday), and we said goodnight.
The next morning, Steve came by to see if I had a filter wrench so he could do an oil and filter change on both engines before taking off for St. Thomas. I gave him all three of mine, and grabbed a bunch of other tools I thought I might need, and headed down the dock.
Kailani is a catamaran-style sailboat, with an engine in the back of each hull. Caitie showed me what I needed to know to start troubleshooting, and I said “that looks like a pretty comfortable space to work in”. Wrong. Because everwhere I wanted to put a foot, something was in my way. Eventually, though, I figured out that if I simply laid myself on top of the engine, I could reach just about everything I needed. (When we went to bed that night, Fran asked why I had “RAMNAY” imprinted across my ribcage.)
I had Caitie and Kyle run through a detailed explanation of the symptoms they’d experienced, and the timing of everything, etc. It really didn’t make sense, but after ruling out a clog in the intake line, my next step was to look inside the offending pump. And there… inside the bronze cover of the pump… intended to seal the inside of the pump from the outside of the pump… smeared over with some gasket-making material… was the four cent O-ring, with about an inch of it missing. As long as the pump wasn’t trying to pump too hard, it was sucking only a little air in past the gap in the O-ring. But when they tried to throttle up, and the pump spun faster, it created more and more suction, and eventually, it sucked in enough air through the gap to make the pump lose its prime, and stop pumping water.
Their new pump arrived about that time, and of course it came with a new cover and O-ring, so I put it in place, and everything was fine. But there was nothing wrong with the old pump, other than that 4 cent O-ring. They’ll have it rebuilt in St. Thomas, because one of the inner seals had started to weep a little, but it’ll make a great spare for them.
That was yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, Fran and I stood on the dock and cast off the lines for Kailani and Dauntless, as they set sail together for St. Thomas. The weather forecast was good for them to motor East for the next few days, then sail all the way to St. Thomas. We can’t contact them during their trip, but they can keep in touch with each other, and they have enough fuel to motor almost all the way there if they have to, so we’re not really worried about them.
So how did this four cent O-ring change people’s lives? Well, Ryan, Leslie, Emily, and Adam don’t really have anything to do with the O-ring, so I guess it didn’t change their lives at all. I included them in this story mainly to talk about the Peter Pan fuel filter! But Robert now has a good chance of making it to St. Thomas alive, because Kailani needed to come into Provo because of the O-ring. I’m sure Steve, Caitie, and Kyle will be great friends with Robert once they all make it to St. Thomas – or they’ll never speak to each other again. You never know how those long road trips turn out. Steve’s psyche is forever scarred by the lecture I gave him about never leaving the dock without running through a detailed checklist.
And Fran, May, and me? When we arrived here in Provo 11 days ago, we really had no idea where we would go next. Down to the Domican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and keep going south? Or back through a little of the Bahamas, then to Cuba, and Mexico, and down to Central America? May had been pushing for Cuba, but based on all of the people we’ve met since San Salvador who live and work on St. Thomas, and the things they told us about the place in the time we spent with them due to the failure of a 4 cent O-ring – we’ve decided! St. Thomas, here we come! (In April or May – we still have to thoroughly explore Turks and Caicos.)