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How we spent our Winter Vacation - or, Adventures in boat Repair

I knew that before crossing the Gulf we would need to repair the transmission. Two knots forward in neutral is the sign of a badly slipping clutch, and at full RPM there was a noticeable vibration in the boat. Furthermore, when running the boat hard the temperature just climbed up and up until I lost my nerve and backed down. Something wasn't right, there is too much resistance in the transmission - I've had the shaft/prop out so I know that it is good - and should not vibrate as the speed goes up.


Sea Moose has the original transmission from 1974 as far as I know. As we made our way down the river I searched for Paragon and called every phone number. It took two days to find a guy in Florida named Mike, who seemed very knowledgeable, and owned a company with Marine Transmission in the name. This gave me the confidence that he could rebuild the transmission and do it right. He quoted $2,000 for the rebuild, and indicated it would take "about a week". Awesome!


Using the AGLCA website forum, I found thirty degree north Yacht Service in Orange Beach. After the bad experience with the yard in Chicago, I gave Connor, the owner, a good interview and was satisfied he really knew his stuff. As long as the transmission was going to come out, I elected to replace all the oil lines, intercoolers, and the damper plate between the engine and the transmission. Another $600 to the fine folks at American Diesel. But given that we have a single, and are looking at a 110 mile open water crossing, cheap insurance, right?


The morning of the haul out Connor came down and we had a nice chat. I acquainted him with the boat systems and discussed the work. Gave him a deposit of $1,000. Headed home, feeling confident.


Once home we did all the "Michigan Things" - going out and picking a Christmas/New Years tree and cutting it down ourselves, putting up lights at the house, playing in the heated shop out in the barn, and dealing with winter. We got the Mustang out for a couple of weeks, and put it back on blocks so it wouldn't get salt on it's belly.


30 degree North pulled the transmission, strapped it on a pallet, and shipped it off to Mike the second week we were home. It took about four days to get there. I patiently waited a week, and called for a status update. "As soon as I finish with this job I'm on yours is next!" he happily replied. A week went by. I called again. "As soon as I finish with this job I'm on, yours is next!" he replied. I explained that we were spending a thousand dollars a month to sit on the hard in Orange Beach, and that was what we spent for a year of slip on Lake Erie, and we really needed to get back on the water. He seemed sympathetic. It was almost Christmas when he claimed he would start the job "This week". So much for being on the boat in early January.


The next week he called to inform me that the ring gear in the aft housing was missing a tooth. As the ring gear is welded to the housing, he explained, I would need to find a new housing and gear assembly. I'm thinking.... you don't know where to buy parts? He explained that I could pay him to call all over the country but it would increase the cost of the rebuild. Okay, so maybe that's the vibration at high rpm, so it's progress.


I spent an entire day making calls again. Finally, I found Sam, at Basic Power Industries who thought he might have one. He started asking me all kinds of technical questions I couldn't answer, so I put Sam and Mike on the phone together. Several calls and a few hours later and yes, Sam had the part I needed for around six hundred dollars. At this point I'm thinking, what's another half a boat unit.


The next day I called Sam and said "Let's make this happen" and to my surprise he said "Look, advice is cheap and I'm going to give it to you for free, but I gotta tell you I really don't want to sell you this housing and gear." I was flabbergasted. Why not? Sam explained that Mike had no idea what he was doing. "Did you know that your transmission is full of metal bits, and that there is a lot more wrong with it than a broken tooth on the ring gear?" No, I said, how do you know this? He indicated that Mike had told him there was a lot of sludge in the transmission. Sam had asked him if it was metallic. Mike did not know. Sam said "go get a magnet and test it". Well, that explains a lot...


He said "Look, Mike called me after the three of us talked and asked me how to take the transmission apart. He doesn't know how to take your transmission apart." At this point I have a major sinking feeling. "I've got a rebuilt one here, that is guaranteed for a year, all we do is rebuild transmissions and engines, my advice is to go with a rebuild, as you could spend thousands and thousands of dollars more trying to fix yours and end up worse than what you have. You do what ever you want here, but my advice is to get a guaranteed transmission."


I really didn't have a choice. Two thousand six hundred and seventy nine dollars later, and a rebuilt transmission was on it's way to 30 degree True North. I settled with Mike for $1200, which included re-assembly and freight to send the old transmission to North Carolina so I could get a core refund, as I was certain I wouldn't be getting any of my deposit back anyway. Being a gentlemen I did not tell Mike what Sam said, why bother?


By now we had celebrated Christmas and New Years, with New Years being the big holiday in our house.


The transmission finally made its way to Orange Beach, and Connor's team got it installed. It was at that point that we discovered that the output shaft on the original transmission was a different size than a stock paragon. The coupling - that connects the transmission to the prop shaft - would not mate up. To make matters worse, the coupling was all but welded to the shaft after 50 years of dissimilar metals being tightly assembled.


Another long parts hunt ensued. At the end of the search, there was one company on earth that made the proper coupling/adapter, and they did not serve little customers, they only handled large orders. And they didn't have one. Sam came to the rescue again. I am not sure what strings he pulled but they agreed to manufacture one coupling for the princely sum of $600. Weeks and weeks and weeks went by while we waited for it to be manufactured.


Sam would call them, and they would say "You want to cancel the order?" knowing full well they were the only company on earth who could make it.


I got my implant. Darina had a crown put on. Yorksie got a bath every other week.


Valentines day came, and went. I found these really cute stuffed personalized bunnies on Amazon.

We put in long work hours to build up the cruising kitty. On the weekends we made big breakfasts and went to antique auctions or walked around the many South East Michigan Malls. We went out to dinner more often than usual. We experimented with waffle recipes.


Finally the coupling arrived. Getting the old coupling off, and the new coupling on took Connor's skilled technicians over two days, working in very tight conditions. Almost seven thousand dollars later - quite reasonable given the work that was done - and Lady Moose is back together again.


And then, as luck would have it, I got sick and needed outpatient surgery, which took yet another month as it had to be scheduled, and I needed to recover. We are now planning to be back at the boat April 7. This means we will need to hurry our way along, during spring storm season (Yikes!) to be north of Jacksonville, FL by June 1 when hurricane season starts.


What you can learn from all of this

I estimated the cost of the loop at around fifty five thousand dollars. It may sound like an enormous sum of money, but given that you're going on a year long boating vacation it is very reasonable. If you are on a forty foot plus sized boat, hopping from marina to marina, and dining out every night you could easily spend three times this amount. Some of the people we met on the loop probably spent five times this amount.


Just over half way through the journey and we have forty thousand in repair costs, including the bottom job over-run before the journey started, the charging system saga, the battery saga, and now the transmission saga which including storage on the hard will come close to twenty thousand. The actual cost of doing the loop, however, is right in line with what I expected.


The only expense that I was way off on was the cost to rent a car one way home and back. Because of the damage caused to the rental car business by Covid that ran a thousand dollars each way plus hotel, food, and gas.


The lessons here are:


  • Take the smallest boat you can be comfortable on, and budget double what you planned

  • Abandon all hope of a schedule, and be flexible


When we finish the loop we'll do an entire episode on what it cost and where our money went.


We're excited that we will finish the loop with a capable cruising boat that has every major system repaired, replaced, and tested in real world conditions. We are discussing cruising plans for 2024 in Northern Michigan in the summer, and who knows, we might make it to the Bahamas in the winter. We're going to predict six months to get home again. A bold prediction to be sure, given that it has taken us eight months to do a third of the loop...


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