Forever boat: bigger upkeep on an older sailboat

Two girls petting a dog in front of a marine travellift with a sailboat in the slings.


Jamie and Salvador talking about work to be done on Totem


Totem turned 36 this year. We treat her like our forever boat, and prioritize maintenance to ensure our sailboat / home remains a sound vessel with a long future ahead. Lately that means turning attention to a projects that accumulated into something more than “routine maintenance.” While organizing plans for the new bottom (we’ve made a decision on bottom paint, by the way, details coming soon – I am VERY excited about our plans, details coming!), a number of these kicked off.

Step one is simply getting supplies. Some things are easy to get in Mexico; others aren’t. Because Cabrales Boatyard is only an hour and a half south of Arizona, it’s not hard to source from north of the border. There’s even a West Marine in Phoenix! Several other cruisers in the yard are making trips back and forth; we’ve been able to tag along with road trips to get our supplies down, and our friend Michael (my co-author for Voyaging with Kids and Good Old Boat editor) has provided invaluable mailstop support from his home in Arizona, and Pam Wall helped secure good prices all the way from Fort Lauderdale. (Rhetorical question: is it still cruising when you can get an Amazon Prime order?)

While waiting on materials to get the bottom done, Jamie’s tackled power train work. The engine mounts are probably original to the engine; Totem was repowered in 2002.

Old and new, side by side: I think it’s time, what do you think?

Shiny new engine mount in front of a well worn older one

Propeller shaft woes: it’s original, but that’s not the problem. Unfortunately, it seems that it wasn’t sufficiently protected during blasting to remove all paint from the bottom in Grenada last year. The little bit of grit that got inside was enough to cause wear in the shaft in the subsequent miles: that’s gotta go! Jamie’s ordered a new shaft made from Aqualoy 22. I’d never heard of Aqualoy, but it’s an alloy specifically designed for marine environment applications: corrosion resistant and stronger than the comparable grade of steel that would be used for the shaft. That sounds like an excellent “forever boat” choice.

man holding cut-off propeller shaft
cut-off prop showing damage from the area inside the two bearings


cutting off the prop shaft
Honestly I’m happy I didn’t witness this (Siobhan’s photo)! Jamie: “The angle grinder paid for itself today.”

Remember that steerage failure off Colombia? We’re replacing the failed chain, but instead of a stainless cable we’ll use Dyneema. The fix Jamie put into place 4,000 miles ago has proven itself. Additional work on the steering system includes replacing sheave pins and bearings: bushing from Oilite (a bronze alloy) will replace the old bearings, providing lower friction. After 36 years, the stainless pins showed wear, so those will be replaced as well.

Jamie holding two steering cable sheaves in dirty, work-hardened hands
Some see the sheaves. I see hands of a very hard working boat dad.


Up at the bow, we’ve long wanted to repair the anchor rollers. They are TOASTED and have been for some time, but the right size rollers never seemed to be on the shelf when we passed through better-supplied chandleries. When Jamie saw the machine shop at the yard, he had an idea; improve on off-the-shelf rollers with a slight change in profile that makes it harder for anchor chain to skip over the top. He purchased cylinders of durable plastic stock ordered from McMaster-Carr (love this resource for boat bits at non-marine-markup prices) and is having the profile machined to order.

Salvador and Jamie squatting on the ground with materials and plans for anchor rollers
Jamie and Salvador making a plan for the anchor roller


Plastic stock for future anchor roller, plans sketched on paper, and beat up old roller.


Three men confer inside a well used machine shop
Salvador communicating direction for the machine shop crew

The bow pulpit needs attention too. Like many boats built in the 1980s in Taiwan, mixed quality stainless steel was used for everything from tankage to stanchions. Bit by bit we’ve addressed original stainless components; it’s the bow pulpit’s turn. The feet are cracked. It’s not imminently dangerous, but time to replace, and the skillset and resources are here to do the job at a reasonable rate.

Totem’s swim ladder is another piece of original stainless being improved by the welders at Cabrales Boatyard. The support legs which help our swim ladder stand off Totem’s transom when deployed make for pesky obstacles and chafe risk when raising our dinghy on the davits. It would be nice not to have to finesse that process every time we haul the dinghy and eliminate the risk so those blunt legs have been replaced with a gentle curve that will function much better, and be kinder to the dinghy.

The bare fiberglass bottom is also a great opportunity to clean up Totem’s through hull scene. We replaced most of the  36-year-old seacocks in Thailand five years ago, but a few of the originals  remained. Instead of replacing them, Jamie’s removed them. Each divot left by a former through hull is now filled with a large sandwich made up of layers fiberglass and epoxy.

How did we manage to eliminate so many through hulls? Well, one was unused. Two were sink drains which will now drain to a greywater system in the bilge. The fourth is a raw water intake for a toilet, which will use water from a greywater system instead of seawater.  We’re happy to minimize holes in the boat, and pleased to have just five for a boat of Totem’s size and layout.

One project that’s more of a luxury item than upkeep of a good old boat is our plan to expand solar charging capacity. Solar power keeps getting more affordable: quality panels are about $1/watt, and we had an opportunity to buy gently used solar panels at an irresistible bargain. A pair will soon come down from Arizona and we’ll increase our capacity from the current 270 to about 650… cost to us about $0.37/watt. SWEET! OK, so it will cost a little more because we’ll need another charge controller: still feeling very good about improving our green power generation.

Meanwhile, Totem looks like there was a small Stuff explosion inside. We had a lot of fine dust to clean out after the summer on the hard: bits that filtered in through solar vents and other crannies. 

Looking down into the main cabin where tools and gear spread on table, bench, settees, and cabin sole

The state of chaos is a sinusoidal wave between “messy” and “chaos” that won’t improve dramatically util projects are done and we’re on our way. That’s OK. The work getting done right now feels really, really good: important steps to ensure the long future life of our floating home.

Masts and rigging from boats in the shipyard are silhouetted by a vibrant sunset in Puerto Penasco

14 Responses

  1. When you patch those holes in the hull, do you grind and taper the hole just from the outside or from both outside and inside? I’ve seen it done both ways but honestly never understood the rationale for doing it from the inside too.

    1. Good question! Can be done both ways. I’m only tapering the outside to keep the inside mess down and because there is room enough there for the taper outside. I will add a layer of biaxial over the inside. Tapering both sides may be a solution if there is a feature on the outside in the way of the taper area. By doing both sides, depth is less, so radius of the taper is also reduced. Can also be because hull thickness is so much as to great a huge taper area – dividing it between the 2 sides reduces it.

      1. Ah, I hadn’t thought about the fact that you could reduce the diameter of the tapered section by doing both sides. That makes perfect sense.

        Thanks and fair winds (and hulls!) to you

  2. Thank you Behan for the fascinating notes regarding the renovating and rebirthing of Totem. The process is educational and for someone who will never take a sailing journey, at least i have some inkling on what goes into maintaining and upkeep of a mid-life sailboat. Nowadays with technologies the life of this family member could be extended. Keep documenting and maybe one day you will make a docu-travelog on your journeys. Journey Across the Seven Seas and Around the world with Totem…what a great movie in the making…Surely Poseidon & Neptune will smile n once in a while send headwind to get all of your safely to your destinations. Hope you dont mind the reference to greek mythological figures. It is just that even for an asian, i have read about those two mythological figures protecting and guiding sailors eons ago. Can’t wait till the family sets sail on another awesome adventure. Happy Thanksgiving

  3. I love your idea of using water from the grey water tank for the toilet. We are in the middle of a rebuild and would like to borrow this idea for our boat. My question is will the pump on the head be able to draw the water from the tank, or will you need an additional pump?
    Thanks for a great blog! Your posts are always interesting and informative.

    1. Hi Tracie – Depends on the type of toilet. We have a Lavac in 1 head (for now, thinking of changing it next year), that will directly from the grey water tank. Lavac toilet seat seals on the bowl, so when lid closed pumping contents out creates a vacuum that pulls rinse water in – from grey water tank in the new setup. In a more traditional manual pump toilet (without seat seals), the pump should also work to pull grey water in when pumping contents out. Electric pump toilets often get rinse water from the pressure water system – our 2nd toilet is a Vacuflush with this type of setup. In this case, I’ll have to setup a grey water pressure pump.

  4. For an original prop shaft that one held up well considering the hours on it. Aside from the mounts are you doing anything else on the engine? Also, you mentioned a while back having Spectra problems. Is that resolved? For the gray water and now combined head discharge will the holding tank capacity be sufficent? Greatly enjoy reading about your progress. The Energy Bunny has nothing on the Totem Crew. Cheers!

    1. Hey Jim! New mounts, new prop shaft, new dripless seal, new cutlass and log bearings, engine alignment, and then normal maintenance. The watermaker is pickled now, back online after we launch in a couple weeks. It was running OK, in the context of, I’m not happy with Spectra. We coexist. Holding tank capacity (33 gallons) not affected by change to grey water system. I need to install a grey water tank -5 to 10 gallons should do. Working on a few tricks with this system, but won’t have it online for a few months. Must get out of the boatyard first!!

      1. Thanks for the update…there are a lot of us watching carefully over your shoulder! Can appreciate your pushing for the launch when dear Totom comes alive again.

        Best to all & cheers!

  5. Interesting idea to replace steering cables with dyneema. Is this standard practice in the USA? Whatdo you consider to be the pros of this? Less Creep? We are doing about the same refit projects as you guys on our Hr 42e this winter, but over in Sweden so a bit colder work enviroment 🙂

    Looking forward to your post on chocice of epoxy Barrier and bottom paint! We are currently leening against copper coat bit first must complete remove old paint. Never ending 🙂

    Fair winds,

    1. Hi Jacob. Dyneema steering cables are NOT standard in USA. I’ve seen them on some cats and they are common enough on racing boats. The advantages are easy to inspect (stainless steel is not) and I have more Dyneema to replace whenever needed. Stainless steel cables often require a swagged fitting that you cannot do yourself. This is a problem when you go remote, which we plan for more of. Let me stress though, doing Dyneema steering cables has considerations and tricks to do well. We’ll report later on a how-to and how they worked out.

  6. Hi Jaime! I’m getting ready to put a new dripless shaft seal and and am mulling installing new engine mounts. I see those same mounts on West Marine for $500 but am having a terrible time telling if they’ll work for my Volvo Penta. How did you go about ensuring you ordered the right mounts? Thanks!!!

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