So now that we’re back and you know the trip was great, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “What? No boat work in the exotic wilds of British Columbia? No problems with Galapagos? Surely there were moments filled with tension, drama, and huge outlays of cash?”. Well, maybe not, but we did get to do a grand tour of O’Reilly Auto Parts because : refrigeration. Our little Cool Blue unit isn’t tweaked juuusssttt right yet. So here’s how that went down.
In Mike’s post on Reefer Madness he explains our decision-making process when it came to refurbishing the fridge box we already had on Galapagos. By the time we left the dock in July, the fridge was icy cold, the freezer temp was in the low teens, and we were ready to provision for the trip. You know, it is common wisdom that a full fridge is more efficient than an empty one so I filled both sides up to the brim with pre-chilled foods. We had fresh food, produce, milk products, and frozen meat to last us at least 3 weeks. We left the dock and made way to Liberty Bay to hopefully meet up with some cruising club folks for the fireworks display on July 3 (they do it a day early).
By the next day it was clear that the fridge was not cutting the old proverbial mustard. My note in my cruising journal says “Fridge is struggling to keep up with keeping food cold and Mike is struggling to figure out why.” The freezer was measuring at 19F but that must have been only in the very coldest spot as the food was not frozen, only cold, except in the very bottom. The fridge was measuring at 47F; not cold enough to keep bacteria from growing. With three weeks of food in there, we had to do something in order to avoid spoilage because Mike is still learning how to fish up here. The only thing we could figure is that the system was somehow losing freon, although we didn’t know how this could be true. Still, it was a hypothesis to be tested.
One of the reasons we chose the Cool Blue system is that allegedly it is easy to work on in remote locations with easily obtainable supplies you can buy at any auto parts store. Since we were still in a town, I fired up the Safari Browser on the smart phone and located the closest O’Reilly, betting that some poor sod would be keeping the consumer fires burning even on a national holiday that celebrates our freedom. We had definitely not planned on spending July 4 at Liberty Bay with literally hundreds of other boats, but the fridge duty called. Freedom isn’t free, you know.
We rowed to shore, crept surreptitiously up someone’s private stairs to the road from the beach, and hiked the 2 miles to the O’Reilly Auto Parts. It was open. And the freon was on sale. Oh happy day! We bought the refill kit, the exact stuff Cool Blue has in our instructions. Sigh of relief. On the way back we stopped at Starbucks for a celebratory coffee and mini-scone and a delightful conversation with a 5 year old girl and her baby brother. Ah, the early childhood days. How precious and fleeting they are. We hiked back to the boat.
Filled with the trust of the innocent, or at least denial, Mike prepared the Cool Blue for infusion with the life-giving fluid. The drama begins here. Because it’s just NEVER that simple, is it? Mike carefully attached the little hose to the can of freon, then went to attach the business end to the nozzle on the Cool Blue. The attachment on the nozzle was the wrong size. It didn’t fit.
The little kit we bought, which matched the photo on the instruction sheet exactly, had the wrong sized valve for our lovely little Cool Blue. For some reason known only to men in outdated suits eating donuts in some board room somewhere, the manufacturers changed the size of the valve. I hate them a little bit for doing that. Mike’s face crumpled. He valiantly tried over and over to get freon into that system. But there was no way to tell for certain if anything was actually doing its job. Was the freon, in fact, entering the tiny tube? Or were we breathing it into our lungs? Only time would tell, so we pulled anchor and hightailed it out of there while the current was in our favor to get under the Agate Passage bridge.
After observing the temperature for a couple of hours it was clear that we had failed. The fridge temperature remained the same. Our destination became Port Townsend, one of the places we usually stop in preparation for crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There would be an O’Reilly Auto Parts store there.
This part of the passage, from south to north, is almost always an upwind passage and over the years we should have learned not to try to sail on this leg. But you know, every time we sail to Port Townsend, we are still newly into whatever trip we are taking and we are like children at a birthday party who cannot wait to open their presents. We want to put the sails up and turn that dratted engine off. (Sorry, Hiram. ) We put them up. We tack. We make no progress. We sigh. Mike plays ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ with the wind, but what is behind door number two is more frustration as he tries to eeek out nautical miles against both wind, and by this time, current. Finally, Hiram is fired up to do his job and we motor the rhumbline to Port Townsend and drop the hook close to the public dock among our own kind. We love Port Townsend as a place to visit. Too bad it seems like we’re always either on a mission, or just passing through.
After an excellent sleep and morning coffee in the cockpit we parked the dink at the public dock and walked the mile or so to see our friend, O’Reilly. There we ‘splained to the nice lady behind the counter what we were looking for and were met with the kind of blank stare we have come to both expect and fear. Mike and I exchanged a look; the look that says ‘We’re screwed.’ . As one we went to observe the offerings on display in the air conditioning section. Then we went to some other section and hung around some more, coming to terms with the inevitable. I kind of felt bad for the O’Reilly lady. She seemed genuinely that sorry she couldn’t help us. As we silently lumped back to the counter, she noticed a retrofit kit hanging on the vertical display by the coolant. This kit was specifically designed to
make the manufacturers more money allow you to bridge from the old size valve to the new. Saved! We were in business.
As is our custom, we celebrated the successful outcome of our emotional roller coaster with food. After a walk through our favorite Port Townsend boatyard, we had a big breakfast at the always-delightful and delicious Blue Moose Cafe. Cash or check only, and bring your appetite. This is a popular place and the food gods smiled on us as we were granted the last possible place to sit outside on a strangely hot day. By the time we were seated, there was a line of people waiting for seats.
Back at Galapagos, all systems were ‘go’. The elixir of life was eased into the copper vein of the Cool Blue system. Our new fitting worked perfectly and Mike kept the little gauge in the green zone as he filled the system. It was all guesswork, though, because we really didn’t know how much freon was still left in system. One is supposed to be able to look into a tiny viewing window and see bubbles of some kind forming to assess the freon-flow situation, but frankly this is a viewing window for ants. We could never see a thing.
The only way to be sure would be to drain the entire system and then add exactly two cans of the freon. Simply put, we didn’t want to go that route. We had two extra cans if Plan A didn’t work. Draining the system would require that we take everything out of the fridge, let the fridge get to room temperature, which was about 90F, and then start over.
By this time it was 2:00 in the afternoon and we were anxious to get going, which was kind of dumb because we totally would have enjoyed more time in Port Townsend. Another day, perhaps. We were so ready to go that we forgot to check the current/tide charts. Whoopsie! Rounding Pt. Wilson we quickly realized our mistake as we lost speed against the current. Whatever. In for a penny, as the saying goes. We hoisted the sails and tried with minimum success to tack across the current. About this time Alex and Christina Marie Kimball on their beautiful Nonsuch 30 S/V Gypsy Wind, spotted us and hailed us on the radio to say hello. They, of course, were skidding into Port Townsend with the current behind them. It’s kind of hard to explain over the radio why people who should know better are trying to sail against the current around Pt. Wilson. So we didn’t even try. We got about 10 minutes of decent sailing in, then fired up Hiram as usual. And off we went toward Dungeness Spit.
The refrigerator performed very well the rest of the time we were out. The missing freon continues to be a mystery. We are still considering tweaking the system a little bit as Mike has split the box into part freezer, part fridge and we are not sure this is really working as well as theory would suggest. Still, we had cold food and most of the food in the freezer stayed frozen except for the stuff at the very top. And we did notice that the less food we had in there, the better the unit worked. Hmmmm. That is not what we are looking for. So Mike is going to contact the Cool Blue folks, who do offer really good customer service, and have another chat.
The only true failure was our idea of using that bottom compartment as a crisper. It just doesn’t stay cool enough. If we had a small hole in the bottom of the cold box, cool air would filter down and keep that area cooler. But that’s a decision we’ll make after other tweaks are done.
Update on August 8: Mike got a lengthy email from Rich from Cool Blue (really, this guy is uber-responsive to any and all questions and very helpful). Turns out, the reason the valve on the Cool Blue is not the right one is because the laws regarding refrigeration are variable based on the state you live in. You know, that figures. He agreed with reader Steve Yoder that if the fridge was too packed it wouldn’t cool efficiently. He also sent more detailed information about what to look for in that little viewing chamber if we every go ahead and empty the system and refill it with exactly two cans of freon. Mike and I want to be sure that people know that we do like this unit and that the issues are issues with us, not with the Cool Blue unit. We’ve retrofit a large capacity box and then attached this unit to it. Probably it would have been easier in some ways to just rip out the old and put a prefab unit in place, but that would have required a level of galley destroying we were not ready to undertake. He’ll do another Reefer Madness post as we get the final tweaks done.