Pirate Machinists, Part 1: The eff'ing diesel!

I anchored in the midst of the Mega Yachts in Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten at 0215 ... exhausted, mostly due to my anguish over the emergency mechanical repairs I made to Solstice since the last expedition ending two-and-a-half weeks ago … including 18 hours of solo sailing from Tortola to meet my client for embarkation on another expedition.

Aside from dealing with a chafed halyard at night … I’d earned this easy crossing of the Som-brero Passage, close-reaching in 10 knots of breeze and flat seas ... rare but good conditions for December.

With less than 8 hours remaining between back-to-back expeditions that originated 85 nautical miles apart, I’d hoped all my efforts to get Solstice’s engine running again, and replace her failed shaft-seal, would give us a week of trouble-free operation.

I lay in my bunk anchored off the beach in Simpson Bay. Techno-music propagating heavy bass across the isthmus from some swanky Dutch-side club on a decadent Friday night. But I needed sleep to wake and meet my client at 10am … no wickedness on that night.

I was still reeling from the stress of sailing single-handed and engineless into the travel-lift bay for an emergency haul-out because of a failed bellows-style shaft seal … my ribs still bruised from laying atop the engine for hours holding a torch, 3 lb. hammer, and PB-Blaster trying to separate the coupling from the shaft in-order to replace the seal. Not to mention the only supplier I could find for the seal I wanted was in England. 

On top of restoring watertight integrity to Solstice, I had to get the diesel engine running again because it conked out during the previous expedition. She was running with one cylinder down, and was incredibly difficult to start-up. Because of my tight turn-around I was forced to do the majority of work myself, relying on a “professionally certified” Perkins mechanic to drop in all new injectors. While I was at it, my friend loaned me his fuel-polisher and I thoroughly cleaned the fuel tank, put in fresh fuel, and added enzymes to mitigate the formation of tank-sludge and remove water.

As I drifted off I reflected on the recent sea trial: engine runs; prop ok; bilge is totally dry. But there’s a fuel-leak somewhere because I could smell diesel. Also, the engine still had her trade-mark hard-start problem that’s been an on-again, off-again nuisance since her launch day, despite my researched solutions and throwing lots of money at the problem in hopes a professionally certified mechanic would just make the problem disappear.

Then the engine wouldn't start on DAY 1 with my client. Cranked and cranked to no avail … bled the injectors and finally it started. FUN TIMES -- HERE WE GO AGAIN!

On DAY 2, I broke the fuel-return pipe trying to alleviate the leak … the nut holding down this pipe-assembly wasn’t properly tightened by the BVI mechanic and I snapped the eff’er sailing between Anguilla and St. Martin ... fuel dribbled relentlessly out of the return-line … amazed the engine still ran.

Sailed into Simpson Bay to make repairs, and my client was cool … a 68-year-old adventure-seeker. He’s a good sailor with decades of experience sailin’ around Massachusetts; attended Marquette University in the mid-60s … a DB2 guru turned Management Consultant. My client wants an ocean sailing experience — an item on his "bucket list."

Set the alarm for 0600 the next morning and dinghied on an adventure across the Simpson Bay Lagoon with half the broken pipe in my hands, as I couldn't get the other half of the pipe off the engine without breaking more connections. Met a diesel mechanic from Michigan named Gordie who came to Sint Maarten 15 years ago … appears to be a methodical problem solver, more so than other highly-billable errand-boys who've bopped-in to dabble in this engine’s on-going cold start problem.

Gordie skillfully removes the other half of the fuel-return-pipe so the two halves can be brazed together. An experienced mechanic has “the touch.”

I surmise it’s entirely possible to repair the pipe-assembly, re-install it, and be on our way that evening (I remain optimistic) … Sint Maarten is home to a serious marine service industry. 

Client in tow we comb the mangroves of Simpson Bay Lagoon like an expedition in Venice, 'cept the love we're looking for is the love to reliably put to sea. Propelled by our 2.5hp Suzuki, riding our 10' inflatable dinghy, juxtaposed against a Mega Yacht Scene ballasted with redundant systems FOUR DEEP! Yea, you want air conditioning for $1 million PER week… yes, you need FOUR redundant systems.

Gordie enlightens us:

“120’ Mega Yachts carry a staff of engineers … who fix heads, and surf the Internet in search of solutions; BUT call a MECHANIC when the generator goes down. It feels ‘right’ to be working on your boat [Solstice, my Cape George 31].”

Thanks Gordie … glad to have ya ... sorry about the slow-boat-to-China across the lagoon on our dinghy. "No Biggie." Says Gordie. "Get to see the sights that way."

Reflecting, I silently prepare myself to take Solstice to sea using a stop-gap solution: 1) Since the pipe snapped clean-off at the injector fitting, I could drill and tap the fitting, and insert a machine screw with gasket adhesive to plug the leak; then, 2) plumb the overflow fuel line from the injec-tor pump to a T-fitting inserted in the return-line to the tank. I confer with Gordie: “YES. That’ll work.” Since I carry all the tools and parts aboard to make this happen, I could get the engine going again in a pinch.

Ashore, an open door reveals a full-service machine shop manned with Guyanese fellas and some British-looking pirates operating lathes, jig-tables, presses … intently welding intricate metal parts, etc., including a full-blown staff rigging some really nice yachts on the waterfront. These guys re-brazed the thin-walled steel pipe in FOUR hours! An amazing turn-around and service-operation. But Gordie has to deal with his girlfriend’s kid gone astray, so we make plans to meet in the morning.

The next day we learn the eff’ing pipe was jigged-up at the wrong angle. SURPRISED? I'm not! That's just the way this shit goes.

Since the brazed pipe-assembly won’t lay flush against the injectors AND the injection-pump, Gordie says "Shit, I'm going to break this pipe. You probably don't have a fuel hose to fit this pipe diameter?"

"Yes, in fact … I carry a spare fuel hose to fit that pipe diameter."

Gordie schemes: “To get you going as-soon-as-possible, I want to cut the pipe we just refur-bished and plumb a hose between the two pipe-stubs. This’ll allow all assemblies to lay flush with their respective parts and make a proper seal. If we don't, I'll certainly break the pipe again trying to force the fit.”

Having found an Internet cafe yesterday and Skyping with Perkins in the United States, I learn THE BROKEN PIPE-ASSEMBLY IS A DISCONTINUED PART! “You’re gonna have to call each Perkins part-distributor [around the world] to see who’s got one in stock. My database doesn’t tell me who has what…” There’s an annoying lack of empathy exuded by this parts spe-cialist. It became clear there was little chance of getting a new one flown in.

I understand the complexity of the situation, and tell Gordie ... "Go for it... cut the pipe, plumb it. I’ll deal with it out there [at sea].” I’m confident.

Now, with the valve cover off the engine, Gordie has adequate access to put the proper torque on the injector fittings, which hold our refurbished fuel-return-pipe, and we try to start the engine. GREAT, I finally have a "GOD" MECHANIC ... oops, Freud is correct, I meant to type "GOOD" MECHANIC.

And we crank. And we crank. And we crank that god-forsaken engine over. And over.

"Stop,” Gordie says. “Do you have a service manual?” Not only do I have the requested manual, and a rare copy of the engine's list of parts, but I know precisely where in the manual to find the info Gordie seeks. "What's the valve tolerance? THE VALVES ON THE 3RD CYLINDER ARE STUCK!”

I tell Gordie: “The manual says 0.008 inches..." and by the grace of Neptune himself, I have a mechanic on board who tunes all three valve sets in four minutes.

We crank again... and if the raw-water sea-cock wasn't already closed, it'd be closed by now, be-cause the engine still wouldn't fire-up.

So, Gordie bleeds the air from the injectors and the engine finally starts. 

Diesel engines are pretty simple actually, and they run forever once they get going. All that’s re-quired is: fuel, air, and heat. But the engineering practice of getting everything in balance is not to be taken for granted.

Take fuel for example: it must be pumped from the tank, cleaned, and supplied to the injector-pump for further pumping to the injectors in a manner that’s well-timed with piston cycles — finally to be atomized in the cylinder by the injector at the precise moment the compressed-air is hot enough to combust the atomized fuel.

But what if contaminants exist in the fuel like water or microbiological organisms (Hormoconis resinae), which are commonly prevalent? I wouldn’t take a vessel to sea without several spare water-separating fuel filters, or without knowing the fuel in the tank was treated with a biocide or enzyme, and then polished. I’d already taken these precautions before Solstice departed on this expedition, so I know we’ve got clean fuel.

Still, we must also consider fuel pumps… Yes, “s” for plural because fuel-pump #1 on this en-gine is a diaphragm-style (cam-shaft activated) that lifts fuel from the tank through filters to sup-ply fuel to injector-pump #2.

It’s possible this fuel-system is losing its prime by pulling air from a tiny hole in this diaphragm-style pump … but previous “certified mechanics” trying to solve this engine’s hard-start problem have steered me away from that possibility saying: “NO, we’d see traces of fuel in the oil, or you’d experience operation cut-outs because an air-bubble would get into the fuel-line and cause combustion failure.” In the same breath they'd point-out some other culprit like a weak injector-pump, which is actually the most expensive single part on the entire engine; plus, we’d have to remove the injector-pump and fly it to the states for testing on calibrated equipment. Hmmm…

What about AIR? Diesels need a lot of air. But vented from where: above or below-deck? In rough weather, topside vents let air in and hopefully keep water out; and interior vents will ooze diesel fumes into the cabin. Is Solstice vented properly; perhaps this engine is choking? Not like-ly, ‘cause we’re having problems right now and the engine doors are wide open! Air-filter is clean too.

Esoterically, an exhaust blockage or ill-specified exhaust-system may cause enough back-pressure to hinder air-INFLOW. Since I designed and built the exhaust aqua-lift for this engine myself, it's possible the exit-orifice is too fine; however, the engine is 100% reliable when it gets going, so the exhaust system appears efficient in practice.

Finally, let’s review HEAT as required for diesel combustion. We know that valves let fresh air in and combusted gas out of the cylinder and when they’re not properly tuned (or if they’re STUCK, which Gordie already fixed) insufficient compression curtails HEAT, meaning that at-omized fuel in the cylinder doesn’t burn completely, resulting in poor combustion and power.

But cylinder HEAT is a head-scratcher … Gordie just installed three new glow plugs, which did-n't make a difference. And short of warming the engine-oil over the galley stove before every gut-wrenching cranking session, engine temp is out of our control!

With this quagmire filling my mind we raise anchor for St. Barth’s … the engine starts immedi-ately upon ignition, BUT QUICKLY DIES. I nurse the thing to life; we depart.

We "do" St. Barth’s and it's nice ... the best part was sailing into Gustavia at night (AGAIN), and getting the entire dinner party aboard an elegantly-lit mega yacht to stand at the aft railing, and make a toast as Solstice sails past their stern under full cutter-rig glowing suavely in their ambi-ance: "HAPPY SAILING!” they cheer.

Night sailing in the French West Indies feels great, and my client grinned when the deck of mil-lionaires stepped away from their fully attended 5-course dining experience to cast cheer our way ... this is what the spirit of sailing brings ... what persistence and perseverance affords.

Solstice sails onto her anchor at Anse du Columbier … we sleep.

Ashore the next day we chill-ax in Gustavia … take dinner aboard; early to bed.

Departing at 3am is something I routinely do to challenge my clients with a bit of night-time pi-loting practice. We sail-out under moonlight with Pain du Sucre in plain view.

We immediately encounter a 10', long-period swell from the ENE... and light air... hmmm... I've seen this shit before. I make the decision to bail out of our passage through The Narrows between St. Kitts and Nevis as I carefully study the nautical charts and refer to guides by Don Street and Pavladis. I'm not enthused about putting us in a spot where 10' ocean swells peak over the coral-littered and somewhat uncharted bathymetry of The Narrows. We sail around Nevis to starboard and onto anchor at Charlestown.

My client just wants to SAIL ... so in the morning we don't even bother clearing into Nevis; we raise anchor and head back to sea.


Look for Part 2 later this week...