Thursday, October 1, 2015

Changing throttle and shift cables

Henry works on the binnacle of Oceanus to replace the shift cables.
Among all the projects aboard Oceanus, changing the shift and throttle cables was not even on my radar.

I've been reading sailing magazines since I was a kid and I can't remember a single article about changing them. Like most things on a boat, you only replace them if it's a problem, right? But Henry, my diesel mechanic and friend, insists they should be changed every seven years. More often if you don't use your boat much.

The thing about shift and throttle cables is the problems creep up slowly. The cables, which run from the helm to the transmission and fuel-injector pump on the diesel, gradually get stiffer and harder to move until they freeze up all together or break; possibly -- no probably -- at a critical moment. A broken or frozen cable would leave you unable to shift or control your throttle.

Henry was suspicious of  my cables from the get go. "When was the last time these were changed?" he asked, pinning me with his piercing blue eyes. Without waiting for an answer he said, "I bet it's been more than 20 years." My guess was that it was even longer than that, but I didn't say anything, I just shrugged.

Henry's diagnosis was confirmed when he drove the boat. "These are way too stiff," he said. "And the chain for your wheel needs oiling too."

I hoped this would be a simple job. Just take the old cables out and put the new ones in. What could go wrong?

Everything. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. All six of the bolts we needed to remove to take apart Oceanus's helm were frozen. Henry managed to remove three of them without breaking them off, but it was an hours-long struggle. The remaining three finally broke off and had to be drilled out.

An hour and a half job became a day and a half job. All because who ever put the six bolts in last never coated them with anything to prevent them from freezing in place. That person was not Henry, who coats every bolt he puts in a boat with Never Seize.

"Years from now when someone takes these apart they will thank me," he said. And be amazed something actually comes apart easily, I thought.

To get at things better, we removed the stainless steel tubing that supports the helm and took off the old teak piece that connected the two. The teak was already the worst-looking piece of wood on the boat and taking it off didn't help its looks any; a big chip broke lose as we were removing the U-shaped stainless tubing that serves as a handhold.
The old wood piece that helps tie everything together at the helm station was the worst-look piece of teak on the boat.
After Henry left that evening of the first day of screw removal, Virginia polished the stainless steel handhold and I went to my stash of teak pieces and found one to make a replacement for the connector piece. Using the old one as a pattern, it only took me a couple of hours with a jig saw, drill, hand plane and sander to make a replacement. When Henry returned the next morning he approved.

Henry spent the better part of the second day removing the old screws from the binnacle. He then ran a tap through all the holes to clean up the threads. Finally, he could replace the cables.

He helped me attach our teak cockpit table to the new teak replacement piece I made. Then we put the binnacle back together.

Before he left to head back to his home and business in Salem, he offered to take the throttle and shift levers home to spruce them up. They are original to the boat. Forty-five years of use, abuse, saltwater and neglect took a toll on the nickle plating; it was about half gone and both levers were corroded. Henry said he would glass bead the levers and polish up the bronze on his buffer. He also assigned me a list of tasks to complete before he returned, including oiling the chain and other moving parts of the steering system.

The next weekend Henry returned with the levers. Not only were they now beautifully polished bronze with all the nickle plating removed, but he painted the background on the cast lettering that says "Fuel" on one and "Shift" on the other. A very nice touch.Thanks Henry!
The polished bronze looks nice with the new teak.
The new cables make a huge difference in the feel and response when driving Oceanus. Best of all, I don't worry about them failing, at least for another seven years or so.