The Great Engine Mystery

The Great Engine Mystery

For the first hour of our trip we motored because there was no wind. Then suddenly the engine coughed and died.

We pulled out the genoa sail lickety-split and, with perfect timing, the wind kicked up and we were sailing along at six knots.

We were getting a bit tossed by the sea, with waves hitting us on the beam or on the starboard bow (if I was paying attention and steering well). Greg went below to investigate.”It’s the fuel filter,” he said calmly, adding that he anticipated this would happen. In his words:

“All fuel tanks have vents and sometimes condensation gets inside the tank causing water to sink to the bottom. Water can also get in from the filler neck and you can even pick up dirty fuel from the filling station. There’s a bug that lives in the area between the water and the diesel that creates a thick, viscous slime. Diesel injectors are sensitive to any contamination, so we have two filters, a primary heavy-duty Racor filter/water separator and a smaller secondary filter that’s mounted onto the side of the engine. Before we departed our Racor filter had slime in it, and because it didn’t when we bought the boat in December, I figured we were going to have problems.”

But, typical Greg, he wanted “practice changing the filter at sea.”

We smiled, almost pleased that something had gone wrong – something handle-able. After all, wasn’t this why we were doing a shakedown cruise? Wasn’t this the point?

Sailing along with our dinghy, "Sugar" trailing behind.

Sailing along with our dinghy, “Sugar” trailing behind.

In the 1940s when crazy Ben Carlin decided to drive an amphibious jeep around the world, he made at least five shakedown trips. During the first he almost died when carbon monoxide filled the cabin. It caused him to lose feeling in his hands, preventing him from steering. He jumped up on deck to get air when he realized what was happening, then watched helplessly as his vehicle rammed a piling that put a foot-long hole in the side.

In A Voyage for Madmen, Peter Nichols chronicles the experiences of the sailors who competed in the first non-stop solo circumnavigation race (now called the Vendee Globe, which is currently underway). At the end of his shakedown cruise, Nigel Tetley damaged one of his hulls while trying to berth his boat in windy conditions – rather unluckily for him, the only person he could find to do the repairs was a coffin maker. When the ill-fated Donald Crowhurst finally got his trimaran, he, too, managed to put holes into it by crashing into some pilings.

In the scheme of things, a fuel filter was peanuts. And of course we were prepared with several spares. Greg has so many spare parts onboard he could run a small marine supply shop for Endeavors. “A responsible boat owner always has spares on board for the most common maintenance items,” he says.

The new filter in place, Greg started her up and she sounded fine. But… we were sailing! So we turned off the engine and sailed another five hours north to the Fort Pierce Inlet, spotting a flock of flying fish and a dolphin along the way.

I had a bit of work to do so I was anxious to get to our anchorage, which was near an island just inside the inlet. So, with the inlet in sight, Greg started the engine.  It ran for a few minutes, then coughed, choked, seemed to be gasping for fuel and then shuddered to a halt. The engine sounded like it was being starved for fuel.

We were pretty sure it wasn’t the filter, but Greg checked to make sure there was fuel in the bowl. Though I grew up in a family that were machinists for several generations back, with a father who was always working on at least one engine, I know almost nothing about them.  So I’m-a-let-Greg jump in again: “A number of things could have been wrong. We might have blown the rings and had no compression (unlikely) or we might have had a complete air blockage (equally unlikely).”

After a series of diagnostics, which included blowing into fuel lines with this mouth to make sure there was no obstruction, he was pretty sure he knew where the problem was. But at this point he was feeling nauseous down below from the diesel smell and the tossing seas. (Remember, he probably even had the taste of diesel in his mouth.) It was time to call for a tow. At least if they could bring us into the Intracoastal, Greg could work on the engine without getting sick.

An hour later the tow boat arrived and, as the sun set, towed us at what felt like snail speed out of the ocean and into the dead-quiet waters of the Intracoastal.

All this time Greg continued to perform diagnostics. About an hour into the tow, he confirmed his suspicion. This is where it gets a technical again (at least if you ask Greg… which I did).

“A diesel engine has two fuel pumps, a lift pump and a high-pressure injector pump. The lift pump is a little mechanical pump that provides fuel to the high-pressure pump, and the high-pressure pump compresses the fuel and pushes it to the injectors, which atomize the fuel for combustion. So I disconnected the fuel line from the primary filter, put the end in a six gallon jug of new fuel and manually actuated the lift pump. The engine would start up and then die. And when I pulled the fuel line that exits the lift pump and hit the primer, no fuel squirted out.”

“The lift pump,” Greg says, “is basically just a stupid pump.” But it’s an expensive stupid pump. “And when a lift pump fails, it does so gradually then dies suddenly.” Ours was dead.

Halfway between Fort Pierce and Stuart, Greg’s colleague Hoff showed up and took us the rest of the way home. It was a five-hour tow. With one month left on our annual Tow Boat U.S. membership, you could stay we got every penny’s worth.

“This is the second time you’ve had to rescue us,” I said to Hoff as he pushed Lemonade into the slip on Thursday around midnight. I handed him a beer. “Let’s hope it’s the last.”

If changing a lift pump is something you want to get in on, stay tuned: we’re going to get it on film.