If the sails are the soul of a sailboat, the diesel engine is its beating heart. We check the oil level and the strainer basket daily, keep track of engine hours and change the filters, monitor the coolant, etc. But it is not enough! No, it turns out an engine needs company.
Back in July, before we left home, I noticed that our engine compartment was wet. We tracked down a broken scupper (aka drain hole) and fixed it. The compartment remained wet. Condensation, we thought. By late summer, we noticed that the coolant reservoir was always ready and willing for a top up.
By fall, the walls of the compartment seemed to have stains that weren’t there before. We also noticed that the bilge pump would come on after the engine was turned off. But what we didn’t see is a definitive leak from anywhere. There was no tell-tale drip line to follow. Instead, everything just seemed kinda wet. Travelling into warmer climates, who could know whether condensation wasn’t really what we were seeing throughout the engine bay?
About 4 hours into our 24 hour crossing from Florida to the Bahamas, we heard a very strange, metallic sound from the engine. Thom said, “That sounds like bearings”. We flung open the compartment to investigate, but found nothing remarkable. The engine hummed along as it normally did, and for several more hours, it ran at its normal temperature.
Six hours later, the engine overheated. Oil and fuel were fine and the engine was pumping sea water as it should. But the coolant was low, so we added more and started her up. She rain another hour, then gave up the ghost – with 14 hours still left to go in our crossing. We sailed through the night. At first, the winds were light and we slowed to under 3 knots. But the winds soon filled in and our speed returned. It was an enchanted, magic carpet ride. As we neared our destination, using only the jib, My Beloved got us through an extremely narrow cut into a harbour and onto anchor while we awaited an okay from the marina to proceed. Then we used two, one-minute bursts from our crippled engine and a lot of coasting to reach the dock. Phew!
There is a seat in the cockpit that opens upwards to reveal a locker (sailors call it a lazerette). After emptying the contents and removing two of its walls, I can go down that hatch and fit into the engine compartment – if I sit on my knees. There is also a bed (sailor talk: quarterberth) in the cabin that has a small window into the engine bay. It’s just large enough for Thom to put his right arm and shoulder through it (and he is a leftie!)
We spent three days contorted like this, with me curled inside the bay and Thom with one arm stuck through the quarterberth. It took an astounding amount of teamwork for us to use our three arms and various gymnastics to get the job done. But we actually had a great time!
The first day was diagnostics. I cleaned the back of the engine with a toothbrush. My previously red engine was now thick with black goo, and the paint was peeling off in chunks. I cleaned stains off the walls, and mopped the floors. That is when I found 8 or 9 ball bearings, using a magnet taped to a long screwdriver. Uh-oh. There was no doubt now: the problem was a water pump, and that meant that we were here in the marina for days, if not weeks. Some boats carry a spare water pump. We had carefully considered it, and opted to take the risk rather than spend the $500USD to carry a spare that may never be needed. It was a roll of the dice we clearly lost. Oh well.
As I sat there for hours, scraping and cleaning, I also noticed the raw water bowl was leaking. We now had more than one project to work on, and nothing but time.
Within an hour of diagnosis, My Resourceful Beloved had found and repaired a broken bicycle, rode it up to the cell tower, bought cell cards, ordered parts online and arranged for their delivery by plane to Great Harbour Cay, Berry Island. Best case, the parts would be here in three days time.
The next day, we took the alternator off and tightened an electrical connection at the back. Taking off the pump, we had to take a hack saw to one of the hoses. Of course, that hose was the one piece we hadn’t included in the parts order. We have lots of hoses on board, so surely we had a short length of half-inch, reinforced hose. Nope. We had a few days to think about that. In the meantime, we disassembled the water strainer bowl, and ran epoxy all around the top lip where cracks were evident.
Scrounging as an Art Form
After we unwound from our various contortions, My Beloved wandered the dock looking for somewhere or someone with 5” of half inch hose. We found a few sailors willing to part with some hoses that were close. The best option was a 3/8” hose which we found we could heat and squeeze on to our pump. So we thought we had that problem licked.
The next day, Thom scrounged a ride to the airport to get the parts. The new pump, it turned out, had a bigger “nipple” than the old one, so the hose he sourced the day before was too small. He bummed another ride to a junkyard, pulled a hacksaw out of his pack, and sawed a hose off an abandoned truck! Finally, he took another broken down bike to a local store to get some coolant, there being no such thing as antifreeze in the Bahamas.
Next, we installed the new pump, reinstalled the strainer basket, put on a new alternator belt, and added the new coolant which, for the record, is a completely different colour than the one we usually use. We did not have gasket sealer, so made do with gasket maker.
Testing, Testing – 1,2,3
We turned the key and waited, anxiously watching the heat gauge. It soared within 10 minutes, so we turned off the engine and went to investigate. Turns out the hose we scavenged had come off. We hadn’t tightened it enough. Now there was coolant splashed around the engine bay again! Cleaned it. Tightened the hose.
Turned the key again. Watched the gauge. The temperature went up, and up. Sigh! Deduced that the thermostat was shot. Luckily, My Resourceful Beloved had laid in a spare, and one of two new gaskets we needed. Reusing one of the old ones ( a delicate operation!), we installed the new thermostat.
Turned the key again. Monitored the heat gauge for half an hour. Success! The needle never went above 180. Double high fives all around. Giddy with hunger and exhaustion, our friends from s/v Seaven fed us supper and we slept well that night.
Well we’ve now put more than 10 hours on the engine since repairing, and all is well. So we have a new baseline and a new standard to maintain. It turns out our engine has been trying to tell us something for quite some time. It was hard to tell, given that we can only see the back of the engine when we do routine maintenance, and because the leaking coolant sprayed a fine mist, which appeared so much like condensation. The only antidote, it seems to me, is to take a coffee down the cockpit hatch and commune occasionally – touching things and cleaning them more often, and gaining a better sense of what normal looks like.
Doing boat repairs in exotic places can be a very frustrating thing that leads to anger and worry. We had the worry part, for sure. We were in a strange place, doing things we’ve never done. Our first four days in the Bahamas, and we spent all our time in the engine bay or a junkyard. But, we enjoy doing boat projects together. And this one required such incredible amounts of cooperation, just to get the right finger in the right spot with the right tool, over and over again. It was a great source of satisfaction for both of us to work together so closely. While it’s not something we look forward to repeating, I think it will be one of the best memories of our trip.