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A Lesson in Availability of Stuff

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/03/2012

I’m still working on the boat. A whole bunch of parts are on order, but nothing has come in yet. In the meanwhile I’m learning how to compound, polish, wax, and buff fiberglass (well… gelcoat, actually.) This weekend I’ll start plugging holes with West Systems epoxy, and repairing all the dings in the gel coat below the deck seam. Fun weekend. I’ll be a zombie by Monday.

Getting the parts ordered has been something of an ordeal. The reason for this is that we’re isolated out here. It’s hard for people to really understand this until they move out here. (“Here” being the Island of Hawaii.) I’m used to running into this with stuff we use at work. Need a specialized engineering material? Hop on a web browser. Need metric fasteners? Web browser. Tooling? Web browser. Precision measurement tools? Browser. The local stores do carry some stuff, like hand drills. But try to find a 115 piece drill assortment with fractional, letter, and wire size drills? Not on your life.

But Hawaii is largely a maritime culture. People here surf. They wind surf. They fish. They use boats. They free dive. They live on the water. I thought it would be different with a boat. Oh boy, was I ever wrong.

Prior to this my sailing experience was largely confined to the lakes around Austin, Texas. This is where my friends and I owned a Prindle 16 catamaran. Great little boat. An utter blast to sail! And with the Sailboat Shop right there in town, we were able to get just about anything we needed same-day. Need line for a mainsheet? No problem. Need a new halyard? No problem. Rudder castings? Gudgeons? Hot sticks? No problem. If they didn’t have it, they’d get it. No problem.

So when I checked out the marine stores in Kona, I had high hopes. They didn’t stay high for long. Now don’t get me wrong. They had a lot of what I was looking for. West Systems epoxy? No problem. Gel coat? No problem. Steel pins and rings? No problem. But shackles? Errr… Cheek blocks? Ummm… Harken mainsheet hardware? Well… No.

I can understand, in a way. The boating culture here is largely based around fishing. People don’t tend to fish from sailboats. They fish from power boats. Real fishing boats. Need a diesel part? No problem. But a sail headboard? Not gonna happen.

Still, I was surprised by how far this difficulty extended. Here are two examples that bit me harder than I cared for, and certainly harder than I expected:

I drive a 1992 Jeep Wrangler. It’s an honest to goodness 4WD vehicle, and it gives me access to spots on this island I couldn’t otherwise reach. Should be a natural tow vehicle, right? Right. So getting a hitch should be a snap. Wrong! I found one shop on the island who would install a hitch for me. One. They were willing to do it for the low low price of $450. In the end I picked up a hitch from Complete with light wiring kit and over a hundred dollars in shipping, it still came out under $250. See something wrong here?

The traveler car on this boat is shot. It still rolls, and the bail for the main sheet blocks is in good shape. But there are two threaded holes for the 3:1 traveler sheeting system that were utterly wallowed out. It looks like the traveler car is made of cast aluminum, so this didn’t really surprise me. It’s a common problem on heavily side-loaded screws in aluminum, and the fix is really simple: Drill out the holes and install Helicoil inserts. These are stainless steel threaded inserts that screw into a newly threaded hole. Since this meant I’d replace aluminum threads with stainless ones, it should result in a more durable part overall. This is why we use them on our instruments at work. Many of our instruments are made out of aluminum. If you expect a screw to go in and out more than about five times, you use Helicoil inserts from the get-go. They work.

I checked at the local hardware store. No dice. The local auto parts store did carry them, but only for 3/8″ bolt holes or larger. The guy at the counter gave me a couple of other spots to check, but no one had the one I was after (#8-32 – a common enough size). When I got back from running around, I checked Amazon. Hey, perfect! One of their partner vendors sells them for about $20. But no free shipping. What’s shipping to Hawaii? $25?! $25 shipping for a $20 part. You gotta be kidding me.

I finally found a kit on Ebay for $25 with free shipping to Hawaii. Buy it now, baby.

But I have to ask myself how hard it would be to find this stuff in Austin. My guess is you could get it at the Sailboat Shop. If not, I’d be willing to bet he could tell you where to go to get it without having to drive all over town. And even if you did have to order it, chances are it wouldn’t cost more than the kit just to send it to your door.

Friends at work are pretty excited about the boat. I’m eager to take them out on rides, so the feeling is mutual. One question people keep asking is, “Hey, how long ’till the boat is done?” Some days I don’t even know what to tell them. I think I’m at a point now where with the exception of one last order to Sailrite, I think I can get everything else locally. But then again, that’s what I thought about the Helicoil kit. Time will tell.

– Tom


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