Operating (Maintenance) Manual

On our Projects page for the HR41 we wrote:

Once we were cruising we were just as busy as before we departed, except that instead of 95% of the time going to upgrades and 5% on maintenance, the split became 95% of the time on maintenance and 5% on upgrades.

Maybe the figures aren’t quite right, but they feel right.

Boats are harsh environments – especially salt water craft. Equipment is more likely to fail in a saltwater environment than most any other. While we were fitting out Maringret ashore we were continually moving from one project to the next, although some needed to wait until launched for commissioning, most could be commissioned ashore and closed off. If something didn’t work the first time then there were rarely strict deadlines for getting it operational. This all changes once you are afloat. A engine that won’t start when you are supposed to exit a lock has to be fixed then and there or you have to have a fallback plan. A dead battery must be sorted out before anything requiring electricity can be used.

Afloat everything changes as defective systems are simply absent, anything that depends on them is also unavailable. Combine this with the harsh operating environment which leads to more frequent failure and you have a recipe for increased maintenance activity.

One change over the years has been the availability of computer readable manuals – usually in PDF form. Most modern computers and phones can read PDF documents and some manufacturers have even made PDF versions of manuals for retired models available through their website. Any one familiar with the storing of printed manuals on boats will immediately appreciate not having to store them – no rusting paper clips, no rusting staples allowing papers to mix and mingle.

Maringret had been accumulating manuals as we saw them – they usually aren’t too big in terms of downloading. They were building up on our computer and occasionally we would read them. We found that when you are actually working on the defective piece of equipment though, a desktop computer is not much use as it is always somewhere else, while a laptop computer is better but still too bulky and fragile to have at hand where you are working. Enter the eBook reader.

We had already purchased Kindle eBook readers and decided to try out our PDF manuals on them. Obviously the screen is small but the device is portable and most manuals tend to be black and white so it worked OK. The biggest problem is when the diagram is slightly too big to fit on the Kindle screen. One limit we noticed on the Kindle is the inability to have variable zooming so you can zoom in until exactly what you need fills the screen. Having said that, most of the time the manuals were quite readable and it was easy to carry the manual (on the Kindle) to the repair location. Our page on Kindles is here.

That solved the first part of our need. For the second part we noticed that over the years we had been making notes on various pieces of papers about some specific information pertaining to the repair or maintenance. Things like “don’t forget to undo such and such bolt on the other side before starting.” As the boats get more complex and you only perform a procedure once a year (or even less frequently), you tend to forget some key piece of the set of steps, and of course once you get out of sequence then you get further confused. Part of our maintenance or repair usually started with “where is that scrap of paper with the steps?” So we decided to put all these scraps and a few diagrams into a few documents on the computer and load it onto the Kindle.

It turns out that the Kindle reads 3 type of files easily:

  • PDF files
  • text files
  • HTML websites

We were already using the  PDF files for the manuals. We then looked at the text files for putting our notes into but they were very limited in the ability to integrate graphics and diagrams. So we tried out the HTML. It turns out that the native file format for Kindle, which is “.AZW”, is a variant of HTML. So if you can write a website (like this one) then you can write an eBook for the Kindle.

We collected all our scraps of papers and useful diagrams off the internet and threw them together into an HTML manual which we call our operating manual – but it’s also our maintenance manual. We added things like lists of spares (with manufacturer part numbers) so if we’re out somewhere and see something for the boat we can tell right away if we need it and what part number it should have.

We did need a couple of tools to get the job done, we use:

Both tools are multi-platform, stable and free of charge. Blue Griffon allows us to author the documents and generate HTML files which calibre converts to the Kindle HTML format and downloads the manual. Note that if you have a different eBook reader than most likely calibre supports it.

  • as is usually the case, a little planning in advance pays off, after using our manual for awhile we decided to optomise the graphics for the screen size (600×800 in the case of the Kindle) and also to make note of what fonts and sizes are most legible on the screen
  • we integrated our To Do work  list and also our Maintenance List of work completed as appendices to the manual; a small utility script converts the data into HTML so we can include it in the manual. By having both the work outstanding and the work completed as part of the manual it amplifies the utility of the manual, especially  when away from the boat.
  • the audience and so the writing style for the internet site is very different from the operating manuals (which is effectively an intranet). They may both be in HTML and dealing with the same subject but there is probably less than 1/3 of the content in common.

  • Having one “manual” to take to a problem and knowing where it is “right away” have been some of the benefits.
  • Away from the boats knowing what part is needed, when it was last fixed (from the maintenance log) and therefor what frequency it tends to fail with, are great aids when trying to get parts to take back to the boat

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