January Dispatches: Swan 100 Keel, Engine Rebuild, and the Portable Dream Factory

With a new year comes new resolutions. In 2019, we’re reaching out more regularly to our friends and customers to keep you more involved in what makes our boatyard tick. Our new monthly Dispatches will give you an in-depth look at an assortment of projects we’re working on in both Thomaston and Camden.

In this issue:

Swan 100 Refit Log: Fixing a 33-Ton Keel

The Power of Clean: Rebuilding a Jetboat Engine

The Simple, Complex Business of Boats

Swan 100 Refit: Fixing a 33-Ton Keel with a Big Crescent Wrench

Swan 100 Keel ProjectIt’s just another day for Lance Buchanan. The project manager has a list of 247 things to do, including removing a 33-ton keel from a 100-foot Nautor Swan.

“Obviously, you don’t just grab a wrench and unbolt the thing,” quipped the Alaskan-born Lyman-Morse project manager, who has a biology degree from the University of Alaska, and got into boat building 20 years ago when he graduated from The Landing School in Arundel, Maine. “When you are dealing with a keel this big, each step is a complex operation.”

Swan 100 Keel ProjectBuchanan manages the keel removal, and the hundreds of other tasks in refitting this German Frers-designed Nautor racing and cruising sloop, from his corner office in Building 11. This shop is the largest Lyman-Morse boatshed, located near the public landing in Thomaston, Maine. And Buchanan’s office is on the second floor of this commercial space that is about half the size of an average Home Depot, only taller.

Buchanan spends his hectic days orchestrating the flow of problems and progress that float up from the shop floor below, with the emails, questions and phone calls that flow down from the Nautor Swan’s professional skipper. Both are neck-deep in repairs, refits, and upgrades that are part of a much-needed reboot of this classic 100-footer.

Just One More 33-Ton Thing To Do

Swan 100 Keel ProjectSince September, when the Swan 100 arrived in Thomaston, Buchanan and his team of carpenters, mechanics, electricians, and painters have been methodically beavering away at a work order packed with invasive procedures, like prepping for detaching the 33-ton keel for inspection. (Lyman-Morse is a Swan Certified Service Center. Part of that benefit is sending a guy each year to Finland for training.)

“On this boat, nothing is simple. Everything is a story,” said Buchanan.

So let’s take you through how Buchanan and his team removed a keel — about the size and weight of a loaded cement truck — from a boat that’s essentially a floating three-bedroom condominium.

A Big Job with a Big Keel

Swan 100 Keel ProjectGetting a keel off of a Swan 100 for servicing is not something you do every day. Modern fin keels are not built into hulls; they are bolted on. So, the removal process starts by accessing these bolts. And that means Buchanan’s crew must spend about two weeks pulling out the engine, generator, battery banks, and most of the cabin sole in the main salon to access the twenty two, 52-millimeter diameter keel-attachment bolts.

These roughly 2-inch, threaded fittings extend about 6 inches out of the top of the keel, right where it attaches to the boat’s hull. These half foot-long keel bolts are engineered to just pass through the bottom of the hull and be long enough so the massive 4-inch wide nuts, about the diameter of a compact disk and as thick as a fired brick, can thread on from inside the boat.

But in order to access those vertical keel bolts safely, Buchanan’s crew must first engineer and then fabricate a metal cradle that will support the keel fin and ballast bulb to keep it oriented exactly vertically when the hull is lifted away. 

Rock the Boat

Swan 100 Keel ProjectLet us explain: Just like changing a tire, but off a giant earth mover, Buchanan sends a mechanic armed with a powerful torque-multiplying wrench that allows a human to exert the 1600 foot pounds of torque necessary to break each nut free.

Once all the nuts have been removed and the keel cradle’s protective scaffolding is ready around the outside of the Swan 100’s keel, the vessel is straddled by the Travelift to essentially “shake the keel loose”.

But merely removing those bulky fittings is not enough to free the keel. For that, Buchanan’s team must carefully impart a back-and-forth motion on the boat. You got it: They rock the boat. With the Travelift, the team starts slowly lifting the bow of the vessel just a few inches. The idea is to get a sliver of daylight to peek in from between the bottom of the keel and the support cradle. That tiny space is all that gravity needs to pull down the front of the keel, and gently stress the attachment points between it and the hull. Once that full force on the keel fittings is felt by the vessel, the bow is gently lowered, and the front portion of the keel is reset back into the cradle.

Swan 100 Keel ProjectThen, it’s the stern’s turn to be raised a few inches to loosen that glue joint. Once again, when the full force of gravity is exerted, the stern is lowered, the keel is reset in its cradle, and then the bow is re-raised for yet more keel attachment stressing.

This up-and-down stressing cycle is then repeated slowly, over the course of about two hours. The goal is to gently rock the Swan 100, in a teeter-totter motion, to sever the component seals that bond the keel to the hull.

“We’re looking for small puffs of smoke from the glue joints cracking,” said Buchanan. “That means the keel is starting to move.”

Inch by inch the hull is lifted off of the keel bolts until the keel sits perfectly vertical in its support cradle. The keel bolts are then cleaned and inspected using penetrant dyes. (That critical process is its own story, that we will dig into down the road.)

When asked how he juggles all these details and still finds time for other work — and maybe even a day off — Buchanan responded, “I enjoy this kind of refit work. These kinds of details really force me to compartmentalize.”

Engine Rebuild: When Elbow Grease is Not Enough

Engine RebuildWhy throw away a perfectly good boat motor, when you can clean it up, good as new, for about one third the cost of a brand-new engine? That’s Billy Kinney’s argument. And Kinney should know. The marine mechanic has spent 35-plus years repairing and rebuilding boat engines.

“When a motor shows up, I have to think about the customer. How do I spend their money the most efficient way?” said Kinney. “I’m here trying to get their boat back in the water as quickly and efficiently as I can.”

Engine RebuildKinney plys his trade out of a warren of bright machine shops located on the ground floor of Lyman-Morse at Wayfarer near Sea Street, in Camden, Maine. There, Kinney works among cleanly-staged tools that hang off the walls or stand on the floor. His current project is restoring a very un-new Chevy 454 Big Block gas motor, first installed in 1997 in a 24-foot Lyman-Morse-built wooden runabout called Badger.

Kinney’s story of how he broke down, repaired, and restored this aged engine is an example of the economics of cleaning the old to avoid the costs of the new.

Buy New or Rebuild?

Badger faced the ultimate marine humiliation: It got swamped while sitting at its mooring during a bad Nor’easter several years back. And the boat’s rusted, beaten-up motor wound up in Kinney’s hands as part of a rebuild. It’s the kind of engine reboot that Kinney figures he has done hundreds of times, though the vast majority have been diesel motors, unlike the gas-powered engine that drives Badger.

Diesel or not, Kinney has learned a powerful secret from repairing all those marine motors: A new engine is just a third of the work, and thus the cost, required to fully re-power a vessel.

Here’s the deal: Boats last so much longer than cars that installing a new marine motor is common. But fitting that new engine into an older vessel almost always requires additional work like reconfiguring engine beds and adding parts to install the new motor to the older boat. Once mounted, that new engine will probably need yet more complex and bulky exhaust systems to meet today’s stringent air-emission rules. Both, in turn, usually require additional interior engineering to find the space and structure to support the new fittings, pipes and plumbing. All this time and parts adds up. Kinney feels that restoring an older engine can be a better option.

The trick then, said Kinney, starts with carefully inspecting an older motor for damage and then being crafty about rebuilding and remounting that motor.

Looking Around for the Answer

“Obviously I can’t see through the engine. I don’t have x-ray vision,” joked Kinney. So, the mechanic began his investigation of Badger’s motor by examining the coolants and oil that were still floating around inside the motor.

Engine RebuildRight away, Kinney noticed seawater had seeped into the engine fluids, indicating there was serious corrosion lurking inside. Not the end of the world for an engine, but to be sure about the level of rust, Kinney had to remove and inspect the rest of the major engine components.

In this case, that meant the old-school Rochester four-barrel carburetor that mixes the air with gasoline, the Chevy cast-iron intake manifolds, that guide mixed air and fuel into the combustion cylinders, and the generic exhaust manifolds that carry the combusted emissions out of the engine and into exhaust system.

Kinney also pulled off the motor’s cylinder heads to inspect the pistons that move up and down inside the motor. Then, he flipped over the engine to remove the oil pan and open up the inner crankshaft and camshafts. These fittings redirect the up-and-down motion of the Big Block pistons to the circular motion of a drive shaft. And all that pushing and pulling makes these cranks and cams utterly intolerant to dirt, grime or rust.

“It was clear that I would pull a lot of rust out of that motor,” says Kinney. “We would need lots and lots of hours of cleaning to get it back working.”

Hours of service time that Kinney knew was beyond Badger’s budget.

The Secret Power of Clean

To get Badger’s Big Block done within the project’s means, Kinney pulled out a couple of cagey mechanic’s tricks. First off, about a year ago, Kinney convinced his managers to purchase a $16,000 front-loading industrial parts washer from an interesting German firm called Karcher. Kinney argued that Karcher’s intelligent washer, that features a 5 hp motor that can drive up to 110 gallons per minute of heated cleaning fluids to clean dirty engine parts is the just the ticket to get motors seriously clean.

Engine RebuildKarcher was founded back in the 1920’s by Alfred Karcher, a contemporary of Robert Bosch, Gottlieb Daimler and Graf Zeppelin. And it has since grown to become a world leader in industrial cleaning technology.

Kinney estimates he would save about 20 hours using the Karcher washer, versus scrubbing Badger’s motor parts by hand. All he had to do was load the camshafts, crankshaft, timing covers, and various parts into the washer and press a button, and the washer restored the parts to as-new condition.

With these clean parts in hand, Kinney then ordered a so-called “long block” engine assembly that features pre-installed central piston components.

And such long blocks can dramatically alter the economics of rebuilding an engine.

Saving Two Thirds of the Cost of a Rebuild

Here’s the back-of-the-envelope savings: Kinney estimates by carefully spec’ing the 454 long block from a clever Madison Heights, Michigan-based marine parts seller called Michigan Motorz, he avoided about $9,000 for an as-new motor. Then by attaching the just-washed parts back on that long block, he saved another 15 percent over the total cost of a new power plant. And since he was working with Badger’s existing motor, he avoided the cost of new engine beds, exhausts and cabinetry. In Badger’s case, there were costs unique to this boat, having mostly to do with the vessel’s older jet-drive propulsion system, that only yielded a 50 percent in savings over installing a new power plant and exhaust system from scratch.

But Kinney estimates that on average, most vessels will find that a repowering bill will be roughly a third of the cost of upgrading to a fully-new, fully-installed engine.

And that’s a pretty darn reasonable savings for just knowing how and having the tools to clean up an old engine.

The Simple, Complex Business of Boats

Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in Thomaston, MaineOn its surface, nothing could be simpler than building and servicing boats. Essentially, we bill for our workers’ time, and the materials they use, to make and fix things that float. In fact, unlike most manufacturers, we are utterly transparent about our hourly rates. In our two major facilities, in Thomaston, Maine and on the Inner Harbor in Camden, anybody with a smartphone can know exactly what we charge to store a 12’-foot dinghy for the winter: About $25 a month for the September through May season. That’s about half the cost of your average cell phone data plan. If you need a mechanic to fix the motor on that dinghy, that’s $80 hour or about the cost of a quality plumber.

Moonwave, Gunboat 60 at Lyman-MorseIf you care to, you can walk around both yards armed with our rate data, count the boats, guess at the work needed to get done on those boats, and do a pretty good job figuring out the money we make, our operating margins, and our overall bottom-line prospects. For the record, if anybody out there wants such a “Bottom Line Boatyard Tour,” by all means call. We have learned over the past 40 years that there are no secrets in the boat business. We are happy to explain exactly why things cost what they cost.

What we think you’ll find, though, while wandering around our yards, is that mere number-crunching misses the deeper story of what the 125-plus people who work here do. Because even a basic list of what gets done here invokes a kind of dizziness.

Here’s a seriously shortened rundown of recently completed Lyman-Morse projects:

  • A newly finished all-custom modern-classic 65-foot sloop, Anna.
  • The all-simple, all-fun e33 daysailer, Zenyatta.
  • A 42-foot, Coast Guard approved commercial commuter, Stony Isle
  • An entire new level added to a 90-foot classically styled motor yacht, Rhapsody.
  • A ground-up, return to as-new systems upgrade for a 100-foot Swan sloop.
  • An affordable rescue of a cute 24-foot jetboat called Badger.
  • The newly opened Rhumb Line restaurant, on the dock in Camden, Maine.

That’s leaving out our popular Camden Classics Cup regatta that featured something like 70 entrants. And how we recently finished construction of a five-story boutique hotel in Rockland, Maine, called 250 Main. And the dozens of other projects that we are hired to do for the aerospace industry, the Department of Defense, and others.

That’s just some of what goes on around here. A full list runs several pages.

The Portable Dream Factory

Lyman-Morse FabricationBut what truly makes boatyards hard to understand is as a maker of products, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. There are no conveyor belts or automated robotics like in the Ford F-150 plant to inspect. Boatyards are closer to society’s other dream factories, like the 21st-Century Fox backlot in Hollywood or the Shubert Theater on Broadway. We all meld design, technology, and craftsmanship to make unique dreams real.

Boats are only boats because they carry the powerful potential to literally and figuratively transport you. And boatyards are the spaces where brilliant craftspeople do that hard work.

Rigging work on Angel at Lyman-Morse at WayfarerNobody is claiming that boatyards are easy businesses. Profit margins are thin. There are mistakes and blown budgets. Boat crews fight for tight resources during yard service periods. And we can never work hard enough to explain the challenges we face in solving the unique issues in a boat.

But there’s something deeply optimistic about a boatyard, particularly nowadays.

We look forward to 40 more years of exploring what a boatyard is. All the best to you and yours in the New Year.

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