An Alternative Engine Maintenance Plan

Not your usual tech tip

Not your usual tech tip. Illustration by Tom Payne

I was a mechanic in my previous life. Not a lab-coat wearing “technician,” but a two fisted, knuckle bustin’ mechanic with a hundred-dollar-a-week triple-chrome-plated Snap-On tool habit. For 40 years I worked on trucks, cars, school buses, motorcycles and farm tractors, one 1963 mahogany Chris-Craft, and anything else my customers brought to my shop in Eudora, Kansas. From oil changes to overhauls, I marveled every day at the complexities of the mechanical world, and wondered why I had been chosen to learn how to fix things when they broke. When Marlene and I bought Different Drummer, it all became perfectly clear.

Different Drummer is a 1992, 39ft Prout Escale catamaran with twin Yanmar three-cylinder diesel engines that are inconveniently located under berths in the aft hulls. For six years, Marlene and I have cruised from May until November, exploring the Chesapeake Bay, the East Coast and North Carolina in particular from our home port of River Dunes. We have logged over 6,000 miles in six years, and we average 1,200 hours a year on our twin engines, Sam and Dave. I am knocking on wood as I tell you that we have never had to call either TowBoatUS or Sea Tow for assistance. Nor have we had to hire a marine mechanic. Thankfully, we’re doing something right, although most cruisers think I’m nuts. Here’s why.

I firmly believe the single most beneficial thing you can do for your catamaran’s engines is simple and free. Give them names. That’s right, name them.

Dennis and Marlene cruise the East Coast during the summer months

Dennis and Marlene cruise the East Coast during the summer months

Study after study has proven the power of positive thinking. When identical lab rats were labeled “good” or “bad,” and then handled by humans, the “good” rats found their way through rat mazes almost twice as fast as the “bad” rats, who were handicapped only by the brain waves of the humans. Time after time. ping pong balls that were viewed by humans in a bin labeled “lucky” came out of a lottery-like hopper at twice the rate of the balls that had not been labelled. Really! Again and again. The day I named Sam and Dave—and this is the truth—we all started getting along a whole lot better. I grew up listening to Motown music, and the duo “Sam and Dave” were hot on the charts in the 1960s, so Sam is our port engine, and Dave is our starboard engine. Sam and Dave. Soul Men. We’re bros.

You would never think about sailing a boat without giving it a name. Boats become their names, and their personalities follow from that. I have no doubt that if we started calling Different Drummer “Garbage Girl” or “Multi-Whore” or something equally offensive, she would instantly start taking on water, her engines would stall, and all systems would fail. Most of the cruisers we’ve met agree: your boat’s name is sacred. It gives your boat its life, and since your engines are the heart of that life, they deserve a name, too.

I didn’t name Sam and Dave right away. I did it when we started having engine troubles, right after we started cruising in January 2009. Phrases like “The port engine has just died” and “The starboard engine is overheating” became commonplace and cumbersome when we first set out for St. Marys, Georgia, from Key Largo. To simplify things, the phrases became “Sam’s dead” or “Dave’s hot.” And with that things began to change.

“Dave, I know you’re in there somewhere”

“Dave, I know you’re in there somewhere”

It wasn’t magic or New Age or New Wave or whatever it is the new hippies are calling it these days (or maybe it was), but suddenly things got easier. When I did my morning checks of fluid levels, belt tensions, leaks, etc., I’d start by saying something like, “Yo Dave. Mornin’. Ready for the day?” or “Mornin’ Sam. Thanks for the big day yesterday. Need anything?” and even though they both sat there in cast-iron silence, seldom needing anything at all, things got easier–immediately. When the starboard engine high-temperature alarm went off at heart-attack level, my usual response of “You no-good #&%@ why are you %$#*&^@ doing this to me!” became, “Yo Dave, what’s wrong?” Sure enough, the impeller pump came apart for repair much more easily than the time before. Instead of life on board being me versus them, we now work together toward the common goal of getting us somewhere really cool and safe. Marlene even talks to Sam and Dave on occasion, sometimes adding encouragement when we are hammer-down trying to outrun a storm or sometimes saying thanks after a long 50-mile day. Of course, like disclaimers for fuel additives, oil conditioners and Viagra, I have to add: “Results may vary; this might not work for you.” Still, why not try it? Throw an engine-naming party. It’s free, and there aren’t any side-effects.


I made a fortune draining perfectly good oil out of engines and throwing it away. A lot of mechanics still do. We were told to do it every 2,000 to 3,000 miles by our fathers, our buddies, our bosses and the big oil companies, who were selling the oil. It was un-American and un-manly not to spend at least part of your weekend changing oil. We’re still being told to do it today. For over a hundred years, the big oil Companies have successfully brainwashed the American people into believing that if they don’t change the oil in their engines every 3,000 miles, or sooner, the engine’s rings will rot away, all of the bearings will disintegrate, smoke will start billowing from your exhaust and you will become the scourge of the neighborhood/anchorage. Any automotive garage or boatyard worth its salt will confirm this, but it’s simply not true.

“Every 100 hours,” is Yanmar’s recommended oil change interval for our three-cylinder diesels. “Read and follow factory recommendations,” the people who sell the oil and oil filters say. Of course they do. We live on board Different Drummer from May to November, usually anchoring as we explore the east coast, and on average “every 100 hours” rolls around every other week. Two oil changes a month for six months on two engines equals 24 gallons of disgusting black, cancer-causing waste oil and 24 nasty, oil-oozing oil filters that were doing their jobs just fine, thank you, before being prematurely discarded. If you have ever tried to dispose of 24 gallons of used diesel oil on the Intracoastal Waterway, you know it’s like trying to give away Ebola.

I dutifully followed Yanmar’s instructions and changed Sam and Dave’s oil and filters every 100 hours our first year. Used oil containers and oil filters in sealed baggies were everywhere. Used diesel oil, even if it has been run for only an hour, is like black paint, except black paint has the courtesy to dry out. Catamarans have an outrageous amount of storage space, but sooner or later, you have to draw the line when it comes to sailing around the Chesapeake Bay with gallons of waste oil in your lockers. I decided to leave our perfectly good oil where it belonged, in the engines, and started changing oil and oil filters once a year. That was six years ago, and Sam and Dave are just fine today.
After turning wrenches for 40-plus years, I can honestly say that I have never seen an engine go bad, gas or diesel, because the oil was not routinely changed. Not one. Engines go bad when parts break, when they are abused, over-revved, over-heated, contaminated and run out of oil, but not because the oil wasn’t changed.

Today’s oil (the synthetics are tremendous) does not go bad or lose its lubricating capabilities under normal operating conditions, but the big oil companies won’t tell you that. The big oil companies want you to believe the oil they advertise as the best in the universe, ever, gets so dirty it goes bad and needs to be changed and thrown away after only a hundred hours of use. This, of course, is so you will buy more oil, and their scam has worked for a hundred years. Think about it. If their product is as good as they advertise it to be (and it is), it won’t wear out after a hundred hours of normal use (and it doesn’t). Filters filter it.

“But the saltwater environment is so harsh.” Yes, it is. The triple-chrome-plating on my over-priced Snap-On tools didn’t last six months, and my ratchets froze-up almost overnight. Saltwater is corrosive and unforgiving. But your engines live in a well-protected box. Very little dirt gets in, and no salt water should (except for in the cooling system, and then it’s contained). The air your catamaran’s engines breathe is far cleaner than the air in any dust storm, construction site or bumper-to-bumper traffic in the other world we left behind. Inspect your air filters and replace them when they get dirty. Sam and Dave run cool, but I seldom run them over 1,800 rpm; I only do that when we need to.

Different Drummer is a familiar sight on the ICW

Different Drummer is a familiar sight on the ICW

Seven miles per hour is a great way to see the United States. Different Drummer weighs 20,000lb empty (Lord knows what she weighs loaded, but she’s a big girl), and we didn’t buy her to race, we bought her to enjoy the rest of our lives.
Am I advocating a moratorium on oil changes? No. I wouldn’t open up a can of worms like that for all the goodies in the Morehead City West Marine. I will not argue that oil doesn’t get dirty and need to be changed. It does. But on Different Drummer, we went from 24 oil changes a year to two, and have suffered no consequences over the last six years and more than 6,000 miles. Sam and Dave run like dolphins and use no oil, we’re saving about $700 a year, and we’re keeping 22 gallons of a known carcinogen (waste oil) and 22 oil-seeping filters out of our footprint on Mother Earth.

Disposing of your waste oil properly by taking it to a credible recycling center is the right thing to do, and it makes you feel good. But oil doesn’t just go away. Some gets recycled, but a large percentage, as much as 90 percent, gets burned in oceangoing cargo ships, and more carcinogens get belched out into the atmosphere. Please dispose of your used oil properly, and sparingly.


“Grease is cheaper than steel.” This helpful adage was drilled into me the first time I was handed a grease gun over a half-century ago, and it’s still true today. Memorize it. I check every fluid level I can, every day, first thing. Many more mechanical failures have been caused by lack of lubricants and coolants than by unchanged oil. While I’m checking the fluids—oil levels, anti-freeze, sail-drives, seawater strainers, etc.—I’m also checking for anything else that is out of place or different than it was yesterday. Are the belts still tight? If not, they get adjusted: it takes two minutes. Are there any leaks? Fix them. Now. Fuel lines? Through-hulls? Water heater? Coolant? Fix it. I added two lights in each engine compartment, which make all the difference in the world when searching for problems before they happen. If you plan on cruising, and if you don’t know your engine compartments like the back of your hand, start learning tomorrow. As you are doing so, remember these three things:

  • Work with what you have.
  • If you don’t have what you need, make something else work.
  • You can always try one more thing.

Every time I have to deal with an unpleasant challenge on Different Drummer, and they all have to be dealt with—mechanical, electrical, plumbing or rigging—I remind myself just how fortunate I am to have a catamaran to work on, and I laugh out loud. I know what works for Different Drummer. And Sam and Dave, too. Whatever works for you, I hope you enjoy doing it. Keep it safe. And get out there!

Stay tuned for Part II: Where I Think You Should Put All The Fuel Additives You Have Been Sold And Told You Can’t Sail Without.

Dennis Mullen and Marlene are exploring the East Coast on Different Drummer, a Prout 39 catamaran

Photos courtesy of Dennis Mullen

MHS Fall 2015



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