Our first breakdown while underway
What is it they say? There’s a first time for everything? This is one thing we could have done without!
We finally left Solomon’s after being there a week due to Hurricane Ian. We were so tired of sitting at the dock that we left in still some unsettled conditions. It was still raining this morning, but the winds were dying down. Winds should be about 20 – 25 knots today on the Chesapeake but they will be mostly behind us, so it should be a great sail down the bay. It was still cold, rainy and miserable when we left the dock and I wasn’t too sure I really wanted to venture out today. Here is a photo shortly after leaving the dock.
After made our way out into the big part of the bay, we found the winds were not too bad and the seas were not as bad as we expected them to be. It was still a grey day, but we had our coffee and we were nice and toasty warm in our cockpit enclosure, life was good.
Not but a few moments after having this thought, the engine rpm’s started to lower and the engine started to not sound so good before it died completely. NOW WHAT! This hasn’t ever happened before, what should we do? At first our thoughts were, did we run over a crab pot and have a line wrapped around our prop? There doesn’t seem to be any additional noise coming from the prop. We tried to start the motor again and it would run for a short period of time before it repeated the process of dropping rpm’s and eventually dying altogether.
Next step, check our racors. A racor is a fuel filter that is inline with the fuel system that will filter the diesel before it makes it way to the engine. Our fuel system has 2 racors inline plus the main fuel filter on the motor. With a quick visual inspection, both our racors look fine. There doesn’t appear to be any water in the diesel or floating particles or debris. Now diesel marine fuel systems are sometimes known to have issues with bacterial growth in the tank and can sometimes have growth gunk break loose in heavier seas and clog your fuel system. In order to combat this from happening boaters tend to do several things. 1) try to get clean diesel from a place your refuel. This is best accomplished by a marina that has a high volume of diesel sales and uses a large volume of diesel on a regular basis so that it is not sitting in their underground tanks for a long period of time. 2) add biocide to your diesel tank everytime you fill your tank. We do this everytime we fill. 3) Have good clean fuel filters that can filter out any contaminants. Typically boats only have 1 racor inline, we have 2 as an additional safeguard. But, when is the last time we changed the fuel filter in the racor?
As we were mentally working out what the problem might be, we were still sailing down the Chesapeake Bay with just our head sail in about 20 knots of wind, making 6 – 7 knots through the water with the waves coming from behind us.
We got closer to crossing the mouth of the Potomac River as it comes into the Chesapeake and as we did so, the Potomac added some additional waves that were now coming on the side of the boat in addition to the waves from behind us. This had the effect of some very unsettled seas and we felt like we were in a washing machine. We surfed down waves going about 9 knots while taking additional waves on the side. The water up ahead had large holes in the surface of the water that we would occasionally disappear into.
It was about this time that Mark determined that he would need to change the fuel filter in the racor to see if we could fix our motor problem. However, he had to wait at least a couple of hours until we finished crossing the opening of the Potomac River before he was able to complete this task. The combination of sea conditions, the smell of diesel and working in a confined space was too much for Mark in the sea sickness department and that task would have to wait until the seas settled down a bit.
Unfortunately, this also gave us time to worry about the unknown and what to do and how we were going to fix the problem and get to a dock safely.
Eventually, the seas settled down enough for Mark to go below and change the fuel filter. He was able to do it fairly quickly and then we had to bleed the fuel system of air to ensure we had diesel running to the engine. Once he did all this, we tried to start the motor again and it would start and run, but not for long. The fuel would empty out of the racor and the engine would sputter and die once again. Clearly at this point, we know it is not getting fuel but we don’t know why. It seems like something is preventing the fuel from getting from the tank to the racor.
As we are troubleshooting all the things that could be going on, we were fortunate to be traveling in the company of our friends Ed and Evelyn aboard Dutch Wind. So, we consulted Ed about what he thought and what we might try. We were also in contact with another Island Packet owner aboard Vagari Mari who was sailing down the bay near us as well. I also contacted another Island Packet friend Ty, who has his boat in Deltaville where we are headed to ask about mechanics in the area in case we need some help when we get to Deltaville. Ty was able to ask a few of his friends in Deltaville and soon we had 3 – 4 additional people added to our group chat that we had never met offering advice and assistance. The community of boaters is amazing! We felt extremely supported and never felt like we were alone in our struggles.
After trying all we could, we determined that the engine would only run for a very short period of time before being fuel starved and dying on us. It was not long enough for us to maneuver under our own power to get to a dock. So, at this point we called Tow Boat US to meet us at the entrance to Deltaville and have them tow us in. At least there was wind and we could sail all the way up to the entrance to Deltaville without our motor.
Luckily the Tow Boat US guy was waiting right there when we arrived, so we were able to drop our sail and have him hook up his boat along side us and tow us in. Now in the boating community, when a boat gets towed into a marina, this is noticed by everyone and anyone who is remotely near by. Yes, we are a spectacle. But, this is also extremely helpful since we had about 8 people on the dock to catch us as we came in with no engine. The tow boat guy brought us into the slip as far as he could and untied his lines from us as we drifted the rest of the way into the slip. That where 8 of our newest friends caught our lines and helped stop our boats forward momentum coming in.
We were extremely grateful for eveyone’s help and now I need a glass of wine to calm my nerves.
Mark and Ed got to work right away to look at the fuel system to see if they could figure out the problem. They pulled the pick up tube from the fuel tank to get a look at the condition of the fuel inside the tank. It appears the fuel in the tank looks good and there doesn’t appear to be growth in the tank that is clogging our lines. They shined a flashlight through the pick up tube and that seems clear as well. So, they started looking at the fuel line connections starting at the tank and working their way to the engine. In the fuel line, there is a fitting at a 90 degree turn shortly after leaving the tank. They took apart this line and fitting and found a chunk of goo the size of a dime. It can only be described as a chunk of silly puddy in consistency. That should not be there! Not sure where that came from?
Once they removed this chunk of goo from the line, they put everything back together and bled the lines. Let’s start the motor and see how it does. It came to life right away and stayed running for longer than it had out on the open water. We let it run for several minutes. We increased the rpm and put some load on the engine to see how it did. With every test, it stayed running and appeared to sound normal and was doing what it should be doing. We think we fixed it!!! Still not sure where or why to chunk of goo was in there, but the engine seems to be much better without it.
We didn’t need to call a mechanic, we didn’t need to spend any additional days stuck in Deltaville waiting for a repair and we had the huge satisfaction of knowing that we fixed it ourselves.
Let’s not do that again! Tomorrow on to Norfolk!
We did top off our evening with a beautiful sunset that lit up the trees!
Great post. You handled it well.