The Day The Engine Died

Not every day is sunshine and fair winds off your stern quarter.

The morning we left Pruth Bay on Calvert Island it started out just fine.  Systems were good. There had been some rain overnight, but the day looked like it was going to continue the May run of “I can’t believe how nice the weather has been.”

The plan for the day was to pick our way through a tight one mile channel north and around rocky Rattenbury island out into to Hakai Passage. Then we’d sail east into Fitzhugh Sound and head north.  We’d find an anchorage or if that didn’t work we could always motor to Bella Bella and Shearwater.

That was the plan.

We had just cleared Rattenbury and were about 1/4 mile out into Hakai Passage when we heard that engine sound that you never want to hear; a slow and steady drop in RPM down to….the engine just stops.

First move, of course, is try to restart. That wasn’t happening.

But we’re a sailboat….and there was a nice 8 knot breeze blowing up Hakai Passage so Karin and I calmly but quickly popped the headsail. The great thing about a masthead sloop is that the big genoa headsail is the primary engine…and with that sail alone we were under control and making headway….away from the rocks behind us and out into the passage.

(Now, as we read this back…Karin pointed out that it’s very smooth and really doesn’t capture the “Oh Shit” look in both of our eyes when we lost the engine. Trust me, we both had those looks.)

While Karin sailed us to safety, I popped down below to see if I could figure out what was wrong.  My first thought was clogged fuel filter or fuel line.  A diesel engine is really very simple….with power, clean fuel and air…it just runs and runs. Dying the way it did…just slowly dropping rpm to off…is classic fuel starvation.

I couldn’t see anything wrong in the system when I checked…but I quickly changed the fuel filter. We weren’t due for a change, but maybe going around Cape Caution had mixed things up in the tanks….and maybe we had some growth.  Shouldn’t have that.  The tank was cleaned and fuel polished 1.6 years ago. We are careful to use biocide. But who knows.

Well, that didn’t help….we still couldn’t get the engine to start. Clearly, I need more engine classes and training. I’m a marine carpenter. I can and have built boats, fixed them, painted them, varnished them, installed new electrical things, fixed plumbing, fixed heads. But I am not an engine mechanic. I always knew this was going to get me. Oh well, nothing was going to fix that today.  Help was 35 nautical miles away in Shearwater.

Back topside while Karin sailed the boat I went out on deck and fully rigged and hoisted the mainsail.  We were now sailing, and it was a pretty nice day to sail. We gybed a few times and then we were out in Fitzhugh Sound, and we turned the boat North toward Shearwater.

It was still early in the day, about 9am, but doing the math on sailing the 35 miles we knew that even if the wind held through all the channels and passes, we’d be out here for 12 to 15 hours.  That didn’t seem like a good idea. We might need a tow.  The challenge here is that it’s not like Puget Sound or the San Juan islands.  There is no TowBoatUS or CTow around. You have no cell phone coverage to call them.

First we tried to reach Shearwater on VHF, but I knew that was not likely since it was so far.  No one was able to relay for us, so finally the Canadian Coast Guard Prince Rupert station put out a call to mariner, looking for someone in the area who could help us.

You know what hurt the most?  When they put out the call they said “Marine Assistance Request, a 40 foot broken down sailboat needs assistant in Fitzhugh Sound.”  At that point we were sailing along north at about 5 knots on a sunny morning. It was beautiful…and great sailing. We were NOT a broken down sailboat. We were a broken down motor boat!

I know, pride before the fall and everything.  Back to the story.

The call for help reached Grant and Judy on a beautiful 43 foot Grand Banks trawler, Misty Fjords. They had been in the same anchorage last night, and in fact we had met them back in Port McNeil on Vancouver Island when they were opposite us on the dock. We had to say hello then as their boat was registered in Boise, Idaho. We use to live there.

Grant and Judy were 8 nautical miles north, almost a full hour away, but they turned around to come to get us.  Grant said later, and this is so true, “We’re all out here alone. There’s no one else. You got help when someone needs it because you will need it one day too.”

Let that sink in boaters.

So when they reached us mid-Fitzhugh Sound, Judy took the helm of Misty Fjords and kept the boat alongside, just ahead.  Grant tossed a line to us and I connected that to my 40 foot long anchor bridle. Grant then pulled the heavy three strand bridle back to his boat and tied it to his starboard stern cleat.  We were connected.

The great thing about the bridle is that it is long enough, heavy enough line, three strand so it gives, and it has a y-yoke at my end so I could tie those ends off to both bow cleats for a balanced pull. After Grant eased Misty Fjords into gear and got us all going….there was nothing to do.  Well, nothing but hand steer all 30 remaining miles, about 6 hours, looking at the back of Grants boat and trying to keep centered the whole time to make it easy for him to tow.

grant from behind

It actually worked incredibly well, and at 5:02pm we pulled up in front of Shearwater Marine Resort….which also has Shearwater Marine Services.  The only major boat help in the 273 nautical miles stretch from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert.

Christophe, the Dockmaster came out in his 15 foot launch, and hooked up to our Port Aft Quarter and Grant released our tow line back to us.  In minutes we were on the dock, and the mechanic was scheduled to take a look in the morning.  I complemented Christophe on his docking, and he just smiled and said….”I bring in broken down boats every day.”

That night, as you might guess, we took Grant and his wife Judy out to dinner at the resort.  He didn’t want gas money and seemed surprised when then waitress told him the bill had already been paid. He just said, pass is on out there on the water.  Which we will, gladly.  We have now “been there.”

The next day, Jay from Shearwater Marine stepped aboard to try to figure out why our engine had died. Our 43 horse diesel was built by Mercedes Benz, converted by Nanni marine for boat use. Not the most common. Jay and I were talking, and he smiled at me and said, “Yeah, I know the engine. I used to be head mechanic for Mercedes in North Van.”  I live a blessed life.

Jay agreed with me. This looked like fuel starvation. Then engine wasn’t getting fuel.

In the course of trouble shooting, Jay actually explained a number of things about my engine that had confused me. For example, with most diesels you “bleed” the lines to get air out. I was confused as to why I could not find bleed screws. Jay says, yep…this engine does it for you. No bleed screws. Nice.

Jay also worked his way back through the fuel line…the filter…the manifold that controls which tank you are getting fuel from.  That’s where Jay finally found what he was looking for….the reason the engine died.   We had simply miscalculated how much fuel we were using, and had run out of diesel in the port side tank.  Switching over to Starboard tank didn’t do any good, because by that time there was air in the lines and no pressure in the fuel line to bring fuel from our full right side tank.

That’s when Jay pointed out another feature of the Nanni/Mercedes that isn’t so great.  It only has one fuel pump.  Most modern diesels have a primary pump to draw fuel from the tanks and then a lift pump to get it up to high pressure to rune the engine.  If we had a primary pump, Jay says it would have drawn fuel from our Starboard tank once we opened the valve, and the engine would have self-bled and primed….and restarted for us.

Guess what we’re adding when we get back.

And Jay also said not to buy his lovely $175 marine lift pump. He says go to NAPA and buy a diesel pump for $30….and then buy a spare. It will say “not for marine use” on the box, but Jay says….It’s the same pump.  And it has a built in secondary filter too, all the better for keeping your diesel fuel clean.

So the moral of the story is, always help when someone needs it…you may be next. If you do have an issue on the Inside Passage….be near Shearwater and Jay.

2 thoughts on “The Day The Engine Died

  1. OMG! What a day!. You’re a easy-to-read writer, Dan. You had me on pins and needles. You are so right about helping out when you can; that you may need help yourself one day. You guys, and all our children, are very generous people. Thank you for being you.

  2. David Huntsman June 23, 2018 — 6:15 am

    I kept thinking you were always in control, just so many what ifs. That will be a day you will never forget, and because you recorded it neither will I. Hand steering for 6 hours; yikes – that is like driving.

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