S/V Hello World's Travel Log

black box

In software, we have this notion of a "black box". A black box is some chunk of code - either an entire system or a single component - that has understood inputs and understood outputs but no one knows of anyone else who has the slightest whiff of a clue how the damned thing works. "I push this button here and data comes out over there." Nobody likes to crack open black box code. The best thing that could happen is that it will break and never work again. Towards the worst end of the spectrum? Centipedes could crawl out.

When I started this whole boat thing two years ago, boats were these massive floating black boxes. Push that button, switch the lever, turn that key, honk the horn and the pointy end goes forward. Wave to the pretty girl on the dock and hand me a beer. Zincs? Impellers?! Galvanic fer-christsakes corrosion? It sounded like someone speaking pig-latin. In Mandarin.

I started reading about boats. Everything I could get my hands on - books, blog posts, sailing forums. I would devour people's stories and advice as gospel. I would Google words I didn't understand (as an aside, if you type 'define' in front of a word in a Google search, Google will try to define the word for you - cool, huh?) I once downloaded a service manual for a Yanmar diesel engine and read it cover to cover. Slow day at work, that one. Over time, a funny thing happened. The boat black box didn't disappear. Rather, it dissovled into smaller and more granular black boxes. The mystery was still there, all over the boat. But it kept retreating into smaller and smaller spaces.

What started out as our noise-makey-go-forward-rumblebox has evolved into the Yanmar 4JH2E marine diesel engine. It's a naturally aspirated engine, freshwater cooled with a raw-water heat exchanger. Better yet, I understand all of those words. Christy and I have been taking a Marine Diesel Maintenance class at Seattle Maritime Academy that's really lifted the veil off the diesel engine. While the instructor is a tadbit socially challenged (read: cranky-ass boat engineer), he's done a great job teaching us the components. We've yanked out injectors, pressure-tested them, put them in wrong. We've bled fuel lines, re-attached exhaust manifolds and all manner of disassembling and re-assembling pieces and parts. The engine started out as a noisy, smelly black box. Now, we see it as set of interconnected systems. Much of those systems are themselves black boxes. I still don't entirely understand how high pressure fuel pumps meter fuel. Which is fine with me, the inner workings of a high pressure fuel pump is an acceptable level of mystery. But the important stuff - lubrication, fuel systems, air, cooling - all make sense.

We've also been taking a Marine Electrics class at the same place if for no other reason than to find out why electricity has four different units of measurement. That's been bugging me for years. We've learned how to crimp wires, solder, design circuits, and diagram existing circuits. We've had cut wires dangling from our mast since we stepped it in September because the labels fell off telling us which wire belonged to which other wire. Now, we have a shiny multimeter and the knowledge of how to use it to test whether a circuit closes.

I know there's a few people out there that are intimidated by the amount on knowledge required to take on this life-on-a-boat thing. Because I was (am) one of them. Just know that if this is something you really want to do, you do have the capacity to learn this stuff. And until you do, when you talk about the white-flappy-wind-use-go-forward-ma-boppers, at least I'll know what you're talking about.


Lee Winters said...

Well said. I've still got a few black boxes. Like why my water maker won't make water. It literally is a black box I now get to open up. Get out here. You are going to love it.


Jason said...

Water maker is a black box for me, too, although less so after I pickled it last weekend. If yours happens to be a Village Marine, I pass by their store every day on the way home from work. If you need me to pick up parts for ya and ship 'em out I'd be glad to. Just gimme a shout.

Dude, I can't wait. Until then, I'm living vicariously through your blog. I'm super excited to see you out there and gettin' after it. May 14th is our stake in the sand to get outa here.