Zen and the art of watermaker repair

We never knew how good we had it. In those first days the beast beneath the forward berth was asleep, not bothering anyone. I believe the previous owner (PO) used the term “pickled”. We had a precious few hours of yacht orientation with him before he wheeled in a whirl of dust and with a hi-yo-silver he was gone. Who was that masked man? Tonto had no idea, but with so many maintainence warnings to worry about I asked Marce if she got that bit about the watermaker. She smiled wearily and said the watermaker was hers. I was relieved because I had never seen so many valves, high pressure hoses, gauges of all descriptions, cans of chemicals, and to top it off, very important looking instructions stenciled onto the seriously flaking painted sides of a two foot aluminum box filled with the business of desalinating saltwater. It was a “do this if you want to do that” kind of deal. It was leaking. Not badly but that can’t be good right? 

Our east coast adventure came in fits and starts but by the time we were anchored off Portsmouth, Virginia, waiting for still another attempt at autopilot ram repair, I despaired over lugging several five gallon jugs of water every day, you know, sneaking into the marina to fill the jugs, loading them into the dink, transferring them onto Escape Velocity, pouring the jugs into a funnel (siphoning hadn’t occurred to me yet). It was time to test our retention powers vis-a-vis watermaker orientation. 

First we had to de-pickle the thing, but even more painted instructions had flaked off the aluminum box in the interim. This is advanced stuff but we seemed to pull it off. Next the instructions said to test the high pressure cut off and we found the cut off point when the thick plastic filter housing blew up with a terrifically loud bang. The PO left us a spare housing which should have been a sign, but to this day we’re still leary of any elevated pressure readings. Things seemed to briefly settle down except for the daily, “honey, the watermaker is leaking” or “the filters need changing.” But we made good water.

First, at this point, a few numbers might help. We have a pen-like water tester, called a water tester, which measures, I’m guessing, salt in the water. Zero-500 parts per million (PPM) you are golden, 500 to about 700 ppm and your wife will say, “honey, the water tastes salty” but the rest of the world says drink it anyway, 700-1000 ppm and you ask yourself how thirsty are you?

In the early days our readings were in the 200-300 ppm range but we more concerned with high pressure, low output, and those instructions flaking off the box. Before leaving the USA we found ourselves in Fort Lauderdale, home of a well known Spectra watermaker guru. There are more self-described watermaker gurus in the world than you might think. Of course he can’t come right now, what guru could, but it sounds like a clogged membrane. A membrane is a long tube where I’m told the magic happens, ocean under high pressure goes in one end, pure drinking water out the other, with any luck at all. The new membrane changed nothing but our bank account. Our water quality continued to be good but the leak increased and output was in a steady decline requiring a new theory or culprit to painfully, laboriously take out and stare at. 

This was the script we followed traveling throughout the world until after motoring back to Central America to re-rig we realized that it was time for a major rebuild of our 15-year-old Spectra Gulfstream 400 watermaker, and our new guru in California had just the thing: a kit that replaced all the leaky bits with new simple bits. I bought so many hose barbs that friends started calling me “Hose Barb Jack.” I kind of liked that. The new plumbing fixed the leak but didn’t affect our output. Still, we were making good drinkable water until about halfway to the Marquesas when the quality started to yoyo from day to day. One day we made 400 ppm, the next might be 1200. It was hit and miss and sometimes even getting water as bad as 1,900 ppm, then sometimes 300. Our troubleshooting guide suggested worn out feed pump heads. 

A new watermaker guru in Tahiti had a new pump head for just three times what it’s worth, but as he pointed out, worth being relative to need, it’s a good price. Little change except to our bank account. By the time we found ourselves moored in Bora Bora I was back to lugging five gallon jugs of water back to EV while tending to Marce’s back at the same time. The new operating theory was that air was getting into the system, causing erratic quality, etc., etc.

Going back to Tahiti for a diagnostic CAT scan for M meant that the watermaker guru in Tahiti could actually have a laying on of hands and maybe fix this effing thing once and for all. Yes, I understand that Zen and the Art of Watermaker Repair states that there is no “once and for all” but let’s agree to leave it at “for the foreseeable future.” 

The Tahiti guru however is on vacation and if I’m lucky he might find a few minutes to stop by and take a quick peek before he sails his own sailboat over to the Marquesas. It was quick all right, but he didn’t see anything obvious. Why don’t you change that membrane? (Am I losing my mind? Have we recycled back to the beginning?) If that doesn’t work, replace the Clark pump. If that doesn’t work, replace the feed pumps, cause that number two pump is pretty sick. Maybe take it all apart, clean and inspect the brushes, and blow out all the carbon that accumulates inside the motor. OK, I’ll do that first. Wait, why is my wife laughing?    


So cleaning the pump didn’t do anything but at least I provided some comic relief. 


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3 Responses to Zen and the art of watermaker repair

  1. Doug from VT

    Thought you might find this posting helpful, by someone who installed a Spectra and notes some of the problems. too much info to cut and paste.


  2. Jenny Liedkie

    HAH ! you have just described exactly what we are dealing with at work with our steam generator for our very-essential-autoclaves…..and we are still at the why-are-we-still-replacing-heating-elements-and-blowing-breakers stage…

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