VOE: Underway Repairs and Rafting at Sea

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Illustation by Daniel Haskett

Illustation by Daniel Haskett

In November 2014, my wife, Kathy, and I joined the ARC Bahamas to sail off into our retirement aboard our new-to-us 2003 Fountaine Pajot Belize catamaran, Delphinus. At 43ft, she is a very comfortable seagoing sailboat and had lots of room for us and two crewmembers, our friends Ron Fox and Phil Barbalace. From the boat’s detailed maintenance records, it appeared she had crossed the Atlantic at least three times. We were very happy with her performance while outfitting in the Chesapeake Bay, and plan to cruise her for many years.

The ARC Bahamas and ARC Caribbean 1500 both left Portsmouth, Virginia, in early November 2014 after being delayed for a day to avoid a low-pressure system that brought strong northwest winds. Unfortunately, after moving quickly northeast it stalled off New England, and two days after the start of our passage to Marsh Harbour, Abacos, we encountered some large and confused seas. At the time we’d been sailing with southwest winds at 20 knots for about 12 hours, with 5ft to 6ft seas coming from the northeast. The mixture gave us a bit of a washtub night.

By the next evening the wind had eased to less than 10 knots, and we turned on our twin Yanmar 3GM30F diesels to make better time. The starboard engine started just fine, but the port engine wasn’t cooperating. We could hear the starter click, but the engine wasn’t turning over. We began running some diagnostics, thinking this was a battery connection problem—an issue we had dealt with a few days earlier—and after confirming that the connections were tight and the voltage at the battery was good, I decided to check the voltage at the starter. It was then, as I removed the air filter to access the starter and a trickle of water came out of the filter and the intake manifold, that we realized we had a bigger problem. However, we were not sure how serious it was, and decided to wait until the morning to investigate further.

During dinner we discussed how water could have gotten into the engine. The exhaust outlets on Delphinus are about 6in above the waterline and do not have flappers; the exhaust loop is about 3½ft above the waterline. We hoped we had not damaged the engine trying to start it.

The author gets to work with the help of a fellow cruiser

The author gets to work with the help of a fellow cruiser

The next morning brought no wind whatsoever. The ocean’s surface was like glass, except for a small swell coming from the northeast. During our check-in with our buddy boat, Symmetry III, skipper Rick Bell suggested we raft up so he could help us diagnose and hopefully fix the engine problem. Rick is a mechanical genius, so we quickly agreed. Additionally, Kathy (the admiral on Delphinus) and Helen (the admiral on Symmetry III), having discovered a common interest in quilting while in Portsmouth, decided it would be a good opportunity to get together and discuss the logistics of sewing onboard and other important matters over a cup of tea.

At this point we shut down our starboard engine and drifted. We still had our mainsail up, but there was no wind filling it. Symmetry III approached from astern at a very slow pace. We both had lots of fenders out and lines ready. After securing our rafting lines, we realized that the swell was grinding our hulls together a little. So after Rick came aboard our boat and Kathy crossed over to Symmetry III, we cast off the lines and the boats slowly drifted apart.

Out came the tools and down I went again through the hatch into the engine compartment as Rick coached me from above. First I removed any traces of water from the intake manifold and dried out the air filter with paper towels. Next I carefully removed the high-pressure fuel lines and injectors from the top of the engine. I then laid out the parts in sequence to make sure I would put everything back in its original place. Clearly there was water in the cylinders. Rick suggested I cover the top of the engine with rags as our crew cranked the engine to forcefully push the water out. Next we removed the exhaust hose from the back of the engine and drained it—there was a lot more water than I expected, and it seemed this might be a major clue to the source of the problem. Finally, I sprayed T9 in all of the cylinders to dry them out, after which we once again we over the engine.

That done, I reinstalled the exhaust hose, injectors and fuel lines in reverse order. On Rick’s advice I used a dab of wheel-bearing grease to hold the copper washers in place on the injectors, so they wouldn’t get dropped in the bilge. I didn’t have a torque wrench, so I guessed at how tight each injector should be. Then with the decompression levers open, we turned the engine over again, and I bled the fuel lines, starting with the forward cylinder, which was closest to the high-pressure fuel pump. Next I closed the decompression levers one at a time as the engine was turned over. The first cylinder took 2 to 3 seconds to start firing. Likewise with the second cylinder. The third cylinder started firing immediately after its decompression lever was closed, and the engine roared to life.

As the engine continued warming up we listened for any knocking or banging noises that might indicate a bent piston shaft, but heard none. I checked the dipstick and saw no signs of water or brown oil. Hurrahs were heard all around. What a great feeling to have the it running again!

The next task was to reverse the crew transfers. Rick decided he wanted to enjoy a swim, and stripped to his skivvies and swam the 200ft to Symmetry III. We soon had the boats together again and Kathy came back aboard at the stern. She and Helen had had a great two-hour visit, but we all were ready to get underway again. s
Pete Davenport is a lifelong sailor with over 10,000 miles of bluewater sailing experience, including several Caribbean 1500s.

What we did wrong:

We didn’t recognize the potential problem posed by the confused seas forcing water back into the engine. We should have run the engines, at idle or in gear, to keep seas from getting into the exhaust.

We didn’t recognize the problem after hearing the starter click the first time. We could have damaged the engine by continuing to try to start it.

We didn’t have a torque wrench in our tool kit.

What we did right:

We accepted assistance from a buddy boat to repair the engine

We followed an appropriate procedure for de-watering the cylinders and restoring the engine to operation.

We enjoyed a couple of hours break and made great friends.

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