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Sea Savvy - Mechanical meltdown on the ICW

He's prepared tp deal with just about any problem that can arise under way, but that doesn't mean our technical editor doesn't feel totally powerless from thime to time.

If I’d known I was going to get castrated at the end of the day I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed that morning. But I did.

My usual feelings of pride and satisfaction took over as I performed the morning rituals. I knelt beside my engine for the daily Perkins Prayer. I checked fittings and liquids, listened attentively as she fired off, and felt for the right temps at critical areas. I pulled up the anchor with the windlass and muscled it into place on the bow. Another day’s run southward had begun and, oh, how good it felt. The sun burned away the mist rising from the central Florida Intracoastal Waterway, its warmth beginning to fill the day with promise of another degree or so of latitude under the keel. It’s what we do. Mel, my wife, and I have been doing it for most of our lives. It not only gives us pleasure and joy, but also a sense of great freedom and control of our lives.

As you’ve perhaps read in past columns here, I check Chez Nous’ engine regularly throughout the course of the day when we’re running. I’ve always done this. I look into the engine room, listen, smell, touch and visually inspect different components. This day was no different, and we didn’t expect it to be.

But by midmorning I heard a tiny whine. It was almost imperceptible, but it was there. Off and on. I listened from several different places down below. It was coming from the engine room, but once I opened the door the noise of the Perkins would drown it out. I listened with a screwdriver to several components, including the turbo, and heard nothing more. Boats are like that. They say all sorts of things to you, many of them meaning nothing. I commented about it to Mel, and we both shrugged our shoulders. We were making good time and all was going well.

Where there’s smoke …

We’ve often thought it, and we’ve often said it. When Chez Nous is working well, everything doing what it’s supposed to do, she’s an awesome boat. This is the norm on Chez Nous, and it’s what she does best. This is what we were thinking that morning. You can’t help but think this when she’s romping along under sail, power or both. In the waterways she glides effortlessly, comfortably eating up miles. On the ocean she’s magnificent, pushing through seas like the powerful, graceful champion that she is.

Lunchtime came, as did nap time, and the day flowed on smoothly. But by early afternoon I noticed a very slight rise on the temperature gauge. It operates from a sensing unit in the engine block and is powered by the boat’s 12-volt system. It’s probably like yours. Sometimes if there’s a voltage change the gauge needle will change slightly. I saw no indication of a voltage variation, and there was no reason for one, so I went below, got my Raytek infrared temperature gun, and took a reading from the block at the sensor. It was normal.

“Let’s watch the temp very closely,” I said to Mel, “but I don’t think it’s anything.” However, both of us, in our own private thoughts, had a nagging little worry playing annoyingly inside our minds. Neither of us spoke our thoughts to the other; it wasn’t something you wanted to talk about.

The day wasn’t flowing as smoothly for the large Hatteras that had passed us around 1:30 p.m. She wasn’t running very fast, so she wasn’t very far ahead when an orange inflatable streaked out from the eastern side of the Indian River. It was a big inflatable, with a cabin and an automatic weapon mounted on the bow. The Coasties were on the job. The blue lights on the cabin began flashing, and the patrol boat veered around off the port quarter of the Hatteras. There was nothing to guess about: They were going to board. The Hatteras slowed to idle, and the boarding team leapt over onto the stern platform.

We groaned. They had a dog. We’ve been boarded before by a team with a dog and all the sniffing makes it take longer than usual, especially on an old boat like ours. And no matter how much I’m in favor of drug interdiction, it bothers me a bit when a dog I don’t know is walking around and snuffling in my bed and other places where the usual visiting dog just doesn’t go, thank you. We groaned because we figured we were next in line.

As expected, the Hatteras boarding took a long time. The Coasties allowed her to resume speed while they were aboard so that she wouldn’t lose much time. This meant they remained about a mile ahead of us during their ordeal, which lasted around an hour. Finally, the inspection ended, and the boarding party piled back into their boat. As we expected, they made a tight circle and headed our way. The blue light was still flashing. As they closed with us, I reduced speed to idle. We’ve been boarded so many times over our thousands of miles of passages that we’ve become familiar with the routine. We had our documents out and began to deploy fenders. But, to our surprise, the personnel in the boat turned off the blue lights, looked at us, smiled and waved us on. We waved back, glad to not have the intrusion and the delay.

I throttled forward to regain our cruising speed, looking at the high rise bridge just ahead. Mel, watching the patrol boat speed away astern, looked startled. Ididn’t want to hear what she then said. “Tom, there was a huge puff of white smoke at our stern when you sped up.”

I looked aft and saw nothing but a few lingering wisps.

“It was there,” she said, “and then it was gone, very quickly.”

I ran to the stern and looked over at the exhaust. It appeared perfectly normal. But I knew something wasn’t right because Mel is just as familiar as I am with what the exhaust is supposed to look like, and she saw what she said she saw. I rushed into the engine room and checked everything I could think of, including the temperature of various components and listening, feeling and looking. I found nothing amiss. I climbed back up to the cockpit, and we both sat uncomfortably for a while. Something wasn’t right, but we didn’t know what it was. All we could do was be intimately observant of every little nuance.

All in a day’s cruising

This isn’t the type of cruising anyone likes to do. We knew we could pull into a marina and start pulling the engine apart, but this could show nothing if whatever was wrong hadn’t advanced to an observable state yet. And there are possible causes for things like this — causes that are temporary and benign. For example, a temporary obstruction over the water intake just might cause what Mel had seen … might. Nevertheless, I planned to do what I could that evening to determine what was wrong, after we’d dropped anchor and after the motor cooled down. And there was another factor in play.

The other factor was that we’re used to situations like this. It comes from being at sea year after year, for thousands of miles. Things go wrong and you take care of them. If you can’t, you’ve got no business being out here. True, some things can’t be readily “taken care of,” but most things can, and you learn to handle what comes your way. Even if you are one of those fortunate people who have lots of money, you can’t buy help when it isn’t there. Handling what comes your way is part of seamanship. It’s part of the lifestyle.

We’ve handled many problems over the years, from extremely dangerous, to complex, to artful — but we’ve handled them. Once, the nut holding the pulley wheel on the shaft of the freshwater recirculating pump loosened. The wheel began wobbling, and it ate up the key holding it in place on the shaft. We were on a westerly passage at the time, crossing the Great Bahama Bank, hell bent for Gun Cay in the Bimini chain in strong and building southeasterly winds and very rough, choppy seas. We needed to get in before dark to situate ourselves so that we could ride out the weather that night. And we needed to get in with an engine, because Chez Nous doesn’t do well negotiating sandbars and reef under sail alone.

I had another pulley wheel, and I had a rebuilt freshwater pump. I didn’t, however, have another shaft key. The pump rebuilder had neglected to include one. It would have cost him less than a dollar, but he was safely back ashore hundreds or thousands of miles away with that dollar in his pocket. I found a piece of metal stock in my junk box and, clamping it with Vise-Grip pliers, fabricated another key with my Dremel tool. Leaning over a very hot engine in an engine room that was probably around 120 degrees and pitching like the inside of a bucking bronco, I removed the old pump, installed the rebuilt one, and in about three hours we were under power again.

Another time, while in the lower Exumas of the Bahamas, the rings in my old 7.5-kW generator started sticking. Blow-by was pressurizing the crankcase, pushing oil out of every place imaginable. It was more than a month before we planned to return to the States, and we certainly didn’t want to do a ring job in the islands — not to mention buy a generator. I first started “solving the problem” with liberal doses of Marvel Mystery Oil. This intermittently improved the situation for a short while. Then I found that if I put a heavy drift pin on a certain spot on the block and whaled it with a hammer, it would apparently loosen the ring for a while. This bought us additional time. Finally, the only way I could run the generator was to keep pouring oil in and mopping up the oil that was oozing out.

I then started dinghying around the harbor and asking people for their old motor oil that they’d changed. The other cruisers, after getting over the general opinion that I was crazy, were delighted to give me their old, gunky oil. Before long, tenders were coming by and dropping it off. I also got oil from some of the small villages that had generators as their only source of electricity. I found that I could get old oil from them that was almost thick enough to walk on. So we finished our stay in the Bahamas, pouring in the cruddiest old oil we could find. The worse it was, the slower it oozed out. For all you techies out there, I know that this breaks all the rules. But it worked for us, and it was about the only thing that would work for us and our budget until we got back to the States. We’d handled it.

On another occasion we were motorsailing from New Providence to Chub Cay across the Tongue of the Ocean. With the wrong kind of winds (just about any kind) this stretch of ocean can be rougher than a pine cone. We’d slide down into the valleys of water and the wind would be flat calm. We’d reach the tops of the peaks and it would slap us like a giant who was thoroughly ticked off with a mosquito on his face. One of those slaps ripped our foresail across the middle like someone had sneezed hard into a cheap, wet tissue. We rolled and slogged our way on under the mainsail and with the diesel until we got into some lee between Mama Rhoda Rock and Chub Point. We were bound for a run across the Great Bahama Bank and, if and when the weather was right, across the Gulf Stream. This wasn’t something we wanted to do without a foresail. So there, in a small gale, we hauled out the Sailrite sewing machine and lugged it up to the bow. Mel thoroughly and expertly patched and restitched the blown-out sail. It didn’t look brand new, but it sure worked. The next day we were ready to go.

This may sound like bragging, but it’s not. It’s just the way it is when you’re out cruising, especially in faraway areas and/or on a tight budget. And I can guarantee you that when these things were going down we weren’t feeling the least bit brave, smart, cocky or even good. We were just doing what it took. You don’t know for sure what it’s going to take, but you do know that you’re going to have to deal with it one way or another. And you do. And at the end of the day you have a feeling of pride, self confidence and being in control.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

So as the afternoon wore on we were feeling uneasy and upset, but we were also feeling that we would handle whatever problem was coming on. We were feeling these things even more acutely as evening approached and we began to notice the engine temperature rise a bit more.

I confirmed this with the Raytek. I also checked various components for symptoms. There were no more strange noises. The engine RPM was normal, and the boat’s speed for the RPM was normal. There were no sounds of bad bearings in the freshwater pump, no unusual smells such as exhaust or hot rubber or paint. We did smell antifreeze, but there was none in the bilge or around the engine. The raw water exhaust injection nipple felt OK, and the temperature at each end of the heat exchanger was OK. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that we knew something was wrong; we just couldn’t tell what it was … or how bad it was.

And then I saw something. It was a bunch of little things, little things that are normally quite innocent. Children play with them. Poets and song writers love them. But those little things, as I knelt down in the 100-plus degree heat of the engine room, chilled me to the bone. When I looked into the container that collects expanding water from the header tank, I saw bubbles coming from the tube. Just little bubbles, but bubbles. And any bubbles at that place can be a very big deal.

I tried to rationalize them away, denial trying to set in. “Well, there was just some air in the system, and it’s expanding and making some bubbles.” I knew that I’d checked the “system” that morning and that it was full of water, as it had been for day after day. I knew that any expansion would have gotten rid of any pockets of air early in the morning. “Well, it’s just coming from the turbulence in the heat exchanger as the thermostat opens and closes and the recirculating pump pushes all that water through.” But I knew that wouldn’t be causing what I was seeing. Inside my mind I heard my voice say, “Oh damn.” Inside my mind I knew what it had to be — at least, though maybe much worse. I told Mel what I’d seen. Her lips tightened.

We began to steer a course 45 degrees off the Intracoastal Waterway, heading for a place where we could anchor well out of the channel. As we approached our intended area, I went forward to the bow to get the anchoring gear ready. Mel reduced RPM to slow down as we approached the anchoring target. Almost immediately after the RPM reached idle, all hell broke loose. Chez Nous’ stern became engulfed in white “smoke.” The temperature gauge began to climb like it was out of control. Mel yelled at me to look as she shut down the engine.

All was suddenly very quiet. The white mist quickly drifted away. It was almost as if it hadn’t been there — we wished. Chez Nous drifted on as though not knowing she was suddenly without power. Sure she has sails, but that requires wind from the right direction, of which we’d had very little for two days. And a motorsailer her size needs a lot of room to sail unless the wind is just right. She needs a lot more room than the narrow ICW channel. I stood at the bow holding the windlass handle, and Mel stood behind the wheel. Maybe Chez Nous didn’t know she had a problem, but we were both totally stunned.

“Head ’er on to where we can anchor safely,” I said to Mel. “I’ll put the hook down while she still has a little way on so it’ll set.”

As the CQR found the bottom, I paid out chain on the wildcat, snubbing it gently with the clutch as more clanked out and finally stopping it with a piece of braided nylon rope and a chain hook. The anchor dug in deeply, and our bow smartly swung around. At least we were secure for the darkness, which was now upon us.

Denial, then a cold one

“I don’t know what it is, but I know it isn’t good,” I said to Mel. I didn’t need to say it. She knew.

We both headed for the engine room. We didn’t know what we were going to have to do to solve the problem; we didn’t even know for certain what the problem was, although I had some very compelling and disturbing theories. All we knew for sure was that we had a bad time and a lot of tough work ahead of us.

My first thought was to check the fresh-water coolant. But I wasn’t about to open the cap for a while; I reallydidn’t want to top the day off with a severe scalding. So I started checking less likely things first, just because I could do them. I still didn’t smell the smells of overheating, but I had the hope — even if not entirely supported by the evidence — that maybe the raw water pump impeller had suddenly disintegrated. It has before. Or maybe the raw water intake had become clogged. I pulled the hose and water poured in. Normally I want to see this, but tonight I didn’t. It would have been so easy to fix.

Next I pulled the faceplate off the raw water pump, hoping against hope that I’d see a thoroughly messed up impeller or pump. It looked great. I groaned. Never before had I wanted to see a torn impeller or a broken pump. This time I desperately wanted to see either one or both. It would have been so easy to fix.

I was lying on my side, my head lower than my feet, with hose clamps, sharp edges and engine mounts cutting into my body. It was one of those engine-fixing positions that take you at least a quarter-hour to get into, and you suffer every second you’re there. Mel was standing over me, ready to get other tools. I looked back and up.

“This is bad. This is really bad,” I said. “I think it’s a blown head gasket — at least. Maybe something a lot worse, like a cracked block or head.” Shedidn’t say anything. We were both thinking that we’d wake up and this would all go away. Since I had the cover off and was growing accustomed to the torture of the position, I changed the impeller. It was denial setting in.

By this time it was OK to remove the cap for the header tank. I covered the cap and the tank with a heavy beach towel, folded several times, to absorb any pressurized scalding water that might remain. Not to worry. I twisted the cap through the layers of towel, removed it, and looked in. Dry. Dry as a proverbial bone. Dry as a proverbial bone baked for decades in the midst of Death Valley.

There was no freshwater/antifreeze mixture in the bilge, or anywhere else to be found. “The key to the mystery, Mr. Watson, is where did the water go?” I was talking to myself.

It could have gone through a breach in the stacks inside the heat exchanger. All it takes is a pinhole or a bad gasket or O-ring. But in the past when we’ve had leaks there, the pressure of the fresh water from the raw water pump “made” water in the tank. I knew that various circumstances could cause the freshwater pressure to exceed that of the sea water and push the fresh water out, but not all of the fresh water. Not dry as a bone. And not that fast. “No way, José,” said the voice inside my numbing mind. It must be a head gasket, a cracked block or a cracked head, I said to Mel.

I had not one but two spare head gaskets. I had a torque wrench, the torque specifications, and most other parts you could imagine for that engine. If we’d been in the Bahamas or far out at sea, we would have probably started digging in. It wouldn’t have been a pretty sight, but we would have tried. I knew I could barely lift the parts involved, and I didn’t have an A-frame aboard nor the timber to construct one. And it probably wouldn’t have been the gasket, I thought, but one of the other problems. But that’s another story for another time.

The story of the hour was that we were, for all practical purposes, helpless. All of our spares, all the preparation for engine emergencies, all the tender loving care we’d given that hunk of metal, all the “right things” we’d done over the years were to no avail. We’d been plagued on this trip down the coast by two full gales, a full storm, and another major mechanical failure. Unlike many cruisers, we often must make certain destinations within certain time limits because of our writing obligations. We still try not to cruise on a schedule, but we were on a very tight schedule at that time because we had gotten so far behind. And now our schedule was a cruel joke.

We looked at each other. We’ve had gun-toting people trying to board us in the night in the open ocean; we’ve been through tornadoes, waterspouts, hurricanes and “storms of the century;” we’ve experienced groundings and sickness and fog and too many breakdowns to count. We’ve “handled it” so many times. And we knew that things could be so much worse. This could have happened far offshore. This could have happened in the midst of a bad storm. It could have happened in the middle of the Great Bahama Bank. But none of this changed the feeling of utter defeat as we stood, late at night and exhausted, over the dead engine.

There was nothing to do but have a couple cold beers, eat some supper and remember that tomorrow would be another day. I’ll tell you about that next day, and others to follow, in an upcoming issue. The story will hopefully be helpful to you when your mechanical meltdown leaves you on your boat feeling totally powerless.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulf-star 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at .