Ping pong all over California

We’ve been bouncing all over the state of California kinda like a ping pong ball. Here’s the scoop:

Once we arrived in San Francisco Bay, we left Mahdee safe and sound in a slip at Brisbane Marina (one of the few marinas with BIG slips and reasonable pricing for visiting boaters). We picked up a rental car near the airport around noon Wednesday June 2nd , drove it down to Costa Mesa where we retrieved Buttercup from Bobby, a friend of a friend; visited with Pedro, a new friend who had just gotten back from a Hawaii sailing trip; dropped off the rental at the Irvine/OC/John Wayne Airport around 10 pm; drove Buttercup up to Las Vegas (sleeping in the car for a few hours at a rest stop) to arrive at the home of my brother, Brad, at 9 am Thursday June 3rd. We sat around and visited with my brother and his wife, Alina, for several hours, went out to dinner with them and then left about 8 pm for a long drive to San Francisco, CA. We were driving at night because Buttercup doesn’t have AC and getting to and from Las Vegas involves crossing deserts and high heat. We drove to Vegas because our topsides paint for Mahdee is no longer available in California and can’t be shipped here so we had it shipped to my brother there instead. We had to retreive it before the haulout. Plus, we then had a good excuse to visit my brother.

All was going well until we broke down literally in the middle of the state on a farm road near Bakersfield. 2:30 am. David knew what the problem was immediately because the same thing had happened about 20 years earlier on Pepe, our 1974 Saab 99LE. It was the drive shaft between the engine and transmission. The shaft that broke was the “input shaft” which has a matching splined gear. The thing goes thru the center of the clutch, linking the clutch to the geartrane. It is more or less a sacrificial part in that any misalignment in the engine/transmission setup gets taken out here. Thus, this is a part that will fail. Unfortunately, it is also a part that is not obtainable in the USA anymore. Buttercup is a 1976 car. When someone has a 4 speed transmission from one of these old cars go, they go off looking for this part at junkyards, pick-a-part type places. Often a person will purchase an entire (used) transmission just to get this part OR they’ll even buy an entire car. I’d be willing to bet that some enterprising soul in Sweden has an aftermarket version of this shaft and gear combo.

Well, anyway, David went to sleep and I went online on the notebook computer: I looked online at Craigslist ads and Ebay to find a 4 speed car or tranny. No go. So, about 6:00 am Pacific Time (9:00 am Eastern) Friday I called my USA East coast SAAB guru Chip Lamb (West of Sweden) who, unfortunately, was busy at a race track as support team and nowhere near his parts stash. So, he couldn’t help me out until his return home…several days later it seemed. He gave me the name of a fellow in the SF Bay area who might have the part. That guy didn’t.

I called my insurance company’s towing service group and asked how far they’d tow the car? They said as far as needed to get it fixed and up to the replacement value of Buttercup. Well, I discovered her replacement value is about $2500, btw. Not bad, she’s increasing in value. They said the nearest place that could work on the transmission of any car was 103 miles and the nearest place that could probably work on Buttercup’s was likely the SF Bay area…over 250 miles. I told the operator that David could fix the car if we could get the tools like getting the car into a hobby shop. The nearest military auto hobby shop that I could find (that he’d be eligble to use) was at Naval Air Station Lemoore, about 85 miles North of our location. So, the insurance company authorized the tow to NAS Lemoore and within the hour (it was about 8 am Pac time by then) we were off with a friendly fellow from “Joe’s Towing” heading for the Naval Air Station Lemoore. I arranged an Enterprise rental car on the phone and when the tow truck driver dropped me off to pick it up near the base, the rental car agent took one look at our bright yellow car which looks like a toy and said “If that’s your car, I’ve got just the rental for you” and gave me a free upgrade to a shiny new bright red VW beatle.

We had to sit around waiting for the base hobby shop to open at 2pm that day (Friday June 4th) in order to get the part out of the car. While waiting, I continued to call every SAAB dealer, parts guy, owner, junk yard, etc that I could think of who might have the part. Finally, I remembered a fellow, Paul, with a business called Absolute SAAB down in San Diego county. I’d heard through the grapevine that the wild fires of 2007 had taken him out of business but thought I had nothing to lose by calling. And, lucky me, I had his number in my cel phone and he was rebuilding his business and did have a couple of these splined shaft/gear sets (used) sitting around. He said once we had ours out and measured he could tell us if it was like one of the ones he had.

The auto hobby shop opened at 2 pm and David had the part out by 2:30. Paul went digging through his stuff and confirmed that he had a good set in our size. David took a few other parts off the car that we’d like to replace (heater core and radiator fan) and we took them all with us on an all evening 300 mile drive to Pauls’s place in San Diego county. We’d been warned by him that it takes 45 minutes to get from the highway turn off to his house/shop. All dirt roads. He said show up at 10:00 am Sat morning. So, we did. Got the part (ouch! $250 for a used shaft/gear set) as well as the other stuff David wanted. Drove on down to our storage unit in San Diego to pick up several cans of MTL transmission fluid so we could get the expected metal bits flushed out of Buttercup’s tranny. We ran a couple other errands, stopped by the public dock to visit with friends we knew from Newport Beach who were sailing to Mexico and had stopped in San Diego.

The reason we drove down to get the part rather than have it express mail/Fed Ex’d to us is that Paul is rather slow about doing such mailings as he lives in the middle of nowhere and we really couldn’t haul out Mahdee until we had Buttercup back up and running. The boatyard where we’ve arranged to haul out has us scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of this week (June 7, 8, 9 due to tide issues) so we’ve got to get back to the bay quickly with Buttercup. We need her (and her roofracks) to get the scaffold, ladders, and tent framing in place around Mahdee for her paint job (major touch up on the starboard topsides, new waterline, and a bootstripe).

So, running on empty, we bought a cooler and a bunch of munchies at the grocer and headed back up to NAS Lemoore to install the transmission part as well as the new heater core and radiator fan. Oh, did I mention we’d been wearing the same clothes since…tuesday…and it was now saturday? We drove back up interstate 5, feeling more than ever like a ping pong ball. Stopped at a little motel just north of Bakersfield and got back to NAS Lemoore and Buttercup this morning around 9 am. The hobby shop isn’t open on Sunday or Monday so on Friday we’d pushed the car into an adjacent parking lot where David would be able to install the parts upon our return. Did I mention that Lemoore is really hot? It is. On Sunday June 6th, David installed everything in about 3 hours. I took a couple pictures of David using a caulking mallet that we have in the car (to be mailed back to its owner in Florida) to tap/press in the primary gear bearing. A caulking mallet is used to pound cotten into a wood boat’s seams. It makes a particular ringing sound when things are just right. Turns out, when tapping the bearing in place, it would sing out with the same ring when it was time to move over and tap, tap, tap in the other side of the bearing. Back and forth, all around the bearing David tapped until it was set. If the hobby shop had been open, we likely could have gotten a proper ring to press in the bearing, but, this did work.

We managed to accidently lock the keys in the rental car (while the rental was running, go figure) and had to call for roadside assistance to get the durn door open. While the rental car sat there happily idling w/ac on, David and I sat under a tree wondering just how it was that we’d had so many screw ups on this driving trip. The long sailing trip up the coast (which many people dread ) was absolutely nothing compared to all the antics we’ve been going through to get Buttercup up to SF Bay so we can haul out Mahdee. The rental car company is closed until tomorrow morning (did I mention we’re in a very small town?) so we can’t return the car (no drop offs allowed) until then.

We just stopped by Walmart, picked up a cheap change of clothes for each of us, checked into the NAS Lemoore BOQ (an onbase hotel), took showers, and now we’re relaxing and planning on catching up on sleep.

Tomorrow is going to be a 100 deg F day here in Lemoore. Good thing we’re leaving at 8 am. With a new radiator cooling fan in place. Oh, and Buttercup isn’t air conditioned.

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