February 13, 2014

A different kind of engineer

The Disease Called Cruising

12. The Gearbox Genius

WHEN YOU’RE cruising far from home, it’s difficult to distinguish the real experts from the charlatans. Luckily, advice is free in the nearest bar where cruisers gather.

But sometimes that doesn’t work, either. When my gearbox failed in the South African port of Durban, and the marine experts couldn’t fix it, the advice I got in the yacht club bar was conflicting.

The whole bar said the only alternative was Mac the Gearbox Guru. But half the bar denounced him as useless and totally unreliable. The other half lauded him as an eccentric genius. They all agreed on one point: “Never leave your gearbox with him.”

I found Mac in his little wood-and-iron workshop at the fish jetty. Hulks of rusted engines, some with their pistons hanging out, were dumped all around outside. Inside, outboard motors hung from the walls in various stages of mechanical death. Deep benches were covered with bits of engines and gearboxes that had been left for repair. On the floor, engine blocks were piled on top of each other. Around them, and all under the benches, were the bits that had fallen off.

Mac was a middle-aged, balding, ex-patriate Scot. He wore greasy blue overalls. He usually worked — when the mood took him — on the engines of deep-sea fishing boats.

“You’ll have to get him interested first,” the barflies had warned me. “Otherwise he’ll ignore you.”

So I held out the bait. “The experts have been working on this gearbox for three weeks,” I said. “It’s cost me $360 so far and they can’t get it right. Now they’re saying we’ll have to send it back to Germany.”

Mac didn’t bite. “Leave it here,” he said. “I’ll have a look later.”  It was the kiss of death.

But I had done my homework. “I see you’ve got an Atomic 4 outside,” I said.  It had grown rust like a bear grows fur, but I knew it was an unusual engine to find in South Africa.  “Where did you get it from?”

“Fished it out of the bay,” said Mac, lighting a cigarette.

“Can you make it work?” I asked. “What about spares?”

“Hell, yes. Make my own.”

“What about the carburetor?”

“It’s brass. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

By such devious means I lured him on to the gearbox, first to the one on the Atomic 4 and then to mine.

Almost absent-mindedly he took it to his bench and cracked it open.

“Can you see anything wrong?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “Should work.” I was afraid he’d lost interest.

Then he put in two big thumbs. Slowly he began to knead and pummel.  “Hmmm,” he said. “Ah.” Something had gripped his attention.

Suddenly he began to disassemble it. To my horror, springs and shims and ball bearings flew out and started to disappear among the rusty debris.

Mac took no notice. He was like a concert pianist in full swing. His stubby, oil-grimed fingers were caressing the bands of steel. Obviously this man had magic hands. “Ah,” he said again.

I was on my hands and knees for about 10 minutes, gathering the fallen bits of my gearbox, but in the end I had it all.

Mac inserted a shim, reversed the positions of two gears, and put it all together again.

“How much?” I said.

“Och, how about $30?”

“Done,” I said.

That night, with the gearbox installed and working perfectly, I reported back to the bar.

“Charlatan? No,” I said. “Genius? Yes. Eccentric? Very. But thank god for crazy Scots engineers.” 

Today’s Thought

Genius is always impatient of its harness; its wild blood makes it hard to train.

— O. W. Holmes, The Professor at the Breakfast-Table


When his personal assistant kept making one mistake after another, the boss couldn’t stand it any longer.

“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded.  “Are you in love or something?”

“Of course not,” the assistant said indignantly. “I’m a married woman.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Curt Yoder said...

John! What are you trying to do to us? I told my wife that joke--on Valentine's Day!