Thursday, April 19, 2018

Exciting times, when your engine quits at sea

Excitement on a cruising boat is rarely a good thing. Having the engine quit on us was pretty exciting, and not in a good way.

Arriving in Antigua we met up with some friends, always a fun thing to do. We had been looking forward to spending time with Jorge and Marianna on their boat Taima. They had gone around the island to Green Island for better winds for kite boarding. Green Island sounded very appealing to us, remote, beautiful, wildlife and friends, much more appealing than staying in a crowded harbor.

Early Tuesday morning we set out. The wind was gusting a bit and the waves were 1-2 meters (3-6 feet) making for a bit of a bumpy ride, but certainly not even coming close to taxing Rhapsody's capabilities, or my nerves. We left Falmouth Harbor and were just passing the entrance to English Harbor and the famous Pillars of Hercules.

I went down below to check on something and it sounded as if Bob was turning down the throttle on the engine. This was not a great surprise as the sails were out, however, the wind was on the nose and we were not expecting to sail much. The next thing I knew, the engine had stopped. I look up to question Bob and it became apparent that this was not what he had planned, the engine quit on its own, without any assistance.

Often when we are motor sailing, particularly near shore, Bob will turn to me and ask "What would you do now if the engine quit?". Usually I answer with a slight irritation in my head, not because it is not a good question and a good exercise to run through, but because I believed the chances of this happening were very small. The biggest danger comes if the boat is on a lee shore, meaning the wind is blowing towards the shore and without an engine there is the possibility of being blown ashore. Fortunately for us this was not the case, we were not headed in to the rocks, just getting blown out to sea.

Another issue becomes what do we do if we get back to the harbor? We have never anchored under sail, and it is currently a very crowded harbor so it would take some manoeuvering to get to a spot we could anchor.

All this is running through our heads as well as, what the heck happened to our engine? Are we out of fuel? We knew we were low on fuel, but not that low! We steer the boat away from land to try to figure it out. My adrenaline is flowing, but we both remained calm.

Thinking it might be the fuel we empty our reserve 5 gallon container into the tank. Bob tries to start the engine, but can't hear it because of the wind and the waves. I go below, "It's running!" I call. Great sighs of relief all around. Now what?

We head back into the harbor, not knowing what had been the cause, or if it would happen again. Green Island would have to wait for another day. We call the marina on the radio and they tell us that they cannot help us. There is currently another boat at the fuel dock, and this boat will be taking all of the fuel.

Fortunately this harbor has another marina, with a fuel dock. We call them and explain the situation. They also have a boat at the fuel dock, but they have a small section of dock that they can squeeze us into and pull the fuel hose across the dock to reach Rhapsody. She took some fuel, but it was obvious that the tank had not been empty, so what was the problem? It had been very rough out there, and in combination with low fuel, several things could have happened. There might have been some crud in the tank, or perhaps with the movement of the boat some air may have gone up the line and choked the engine.

We decided to have the fuel polished and change the filters in case that was the issue. Fuel polishing consists of pumping the fuel out of the tank, through some heavy duty filters and back to the tank. Now, when you have to work on something on a car or a truck you just lift the hood. Not quite so easy on a boat. The fuel tank is located in the aft cabin, our guest cabin. When we don't have guests aboard we use this space as our pantry. So, everything that is in the pantry has to be moved, as well as the cushions on the bed. While an inconvenience, it is not too bad, until we try to figure out where to put everything while still leaving room to move around and access the needed tools!

Everything moved, fuel polished, filters changed and adrenaline subsiding, engine running we head back to anchor. In talking to friends about the issue several of them mentioned that there is a screen on the bottom of the fuel line leaving the tank to the primary filter (the fuel sucker). Crud from the bottom of the tank can get caught on the screen and block the flow of fuel. When the engine cut out, the fuel sucker stopped sucking and the crud fell off the screen, which is why the engine started again when it did.

People learn the most when things go wrong. I am certainly learning more about engines and boat systems than I ever knew before. Bit by bit, experience by experience, we are learning the cruising life. We are fortunate that our learning situations have all been resolved safely, and each time something like this happens we become more confident in our ability to figure out what needs to be done. I appreciate having Bob as my cruising partner and I look forward to more learning in the future!

We love to hear your comments.

  1. Good news you are sorted. The old fuel polish deal ah yes. Rule number one always keep tanks as full as possible algae and other things love to grow in empty tanks...x

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    1. We try to keep the tanks full, and we will certainly be that much more diligent about it now!

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  2. Ditto to Sarah's comment. Keep the tank(s) full. This will also help eliminate water in the fuel forming form condensation in the tank. Like my pilot friend said to me, "never pass up an opportunity to fill the tank, you never know".

    Mark and Cindy
    sv Cream Puff

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    1. Even more important on a plane!

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