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Flooded engine in mid-Pacific

Jan 1, 2009

To the editor: After a successful cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands immediately to the west, Nancy and I re-fueled and re-provisioned Tamara, our heavily built 44-foot steel ketch, in Ushuaia, Argentina, as expeditiously as we could. We planned to sail to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. Little did we know while we were doing our preparations that we would face a nasty engine problem en route.

After Ushuaia, we made our way to Puerto Montt. Following three months secured in Puerto Montt, attending to all the usual maintenance demands of a yacht that had just completed the thousands of miles of high latitude cruising to Antarctica and Southern Chile, we sailed for the Marquesas. We had waited, sometimes not too patiently, for the usual shift of the southeastern Pacific high to the south from its winter center. As it approached the area of Easter Island, we departed with hopes that the southeasterly trades would begin to fill in.

Timing the departure to exit Canal Chacao for the open Pacific is critical. An exceptionally powerful reversing current flows into and out of the Golfo de Ancud through this channel, and the passage can, at times, be quite dangerous to ships as well as yachts.

As Tamara passed through the narrows, her over the ground speed hit 14 knots &mdash our all time speed record! As we made sail and set out for the open Pacific, we were greeted by a substantial sea. Beating hard to weather for the remainder of the night finally saw us clear of the effects of the channel, and we began to relax and settle into the routine that would attend us all the way to the Marquesas, 4,400 miles away.

Approaching Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe) Island several days later, we lost the wind altogether. It had been frustratingly light, but we had made fair progress, averaging about 100 miles per day. Rather than let the sails slat about, we reefed the main and mizzen right down, sheeting them hard and flat, permitting Tamara to make slow headway thanks to the Humboldt Current while dampening the roll.

A couple of days of this and it was decision time. Were we going to be able to put up with this for another 4,000 miles? Or should we change plans &mdash as we are often wont to do &mdash and make for the Galápagos, at that time about 2,500 miles to the north? Studying what she saw as a trend on the daily GRIB weather files, Nancy suggested that not only would the wind be a bit more favorable for the Galápagos, but that we'd likely go mad trying for the greater distance. Galápagos it would be. We'd always wanted to go there anyway, but there were so many destinations…

The same GRIB files offered the hope that if we could just get about 100 miles to the north, we'd find some wind. We had lots of fuel aboard, so it was time to motor and try to put the new plan into effect.

As I tried to start Tamara's 90-hp Volvo, it just went "clunk!" I tried to turn over the crankshaft by hand, and knew at once we had trouble. The engine was hydro-locked &mdash water had gotten into the cylinders, and water won't compress! There was only one thing to do: remove the fuel injectors, crank over the engine to expel the water, replace the injectors, and hope there would be no lasting damage.

Fortunately, a career as a fisherman in Alaska had honed most of my skills as a mariner, including the mechanical. As Tamara rolled around, out came the injectors. When the engine was cranked over, the water explosively ejected out the open injector holes. We used lots of fresh water and WD-40 sprayed all around to mitigate the effects of the salt water we'd just blown everywhere. After carefully cleaning the injector seats and squirting a bit of oil into each cylinder, the injectors were replaced with others previously reconditioned (I consider them essential spares). The injector seat seals, copper washers, and fuel line seals were all replaced with new ones as well.

I checked the oil level to try to determine if water had found its way into the crankcase. The dipstick looked normal, so we started the engine. Oil pressure was normal. After a two hour run I inspected the oil both at the dipstick and peered inside the filler cap on the valve cover. Big mistake not just changing the oil to begin with, had it possibly been cold, as there was now a thick coating of mousse inside the valve cover, and the oil on the dipstick looked more like mocha!

A complete oil change, new filter, removal of the valve cover to carefully clean the mousse that formed where it could condense on the inside of the cooler aluminum cover, and we set off again, this time leaving the filler cap off in order to inspect for mousse, as well as allow any residual water to be driven off by the temperature of the engine. No sign of any mousse, but four hours later the oil and filter were changed once again. Thirty operating hours later and the change was repeated yet again.

Experience has taught us that spare parts, in this case injectors, seals, and plenty of lubricating oil and filters are critical.

How did the water get in? Tamara has an industrial butterfly valve near the end of the exhaust system to prevent just this from happening when sailing with a following sea. That had been closed, as it indeed always is closed when under sail. There is also a ball valve and hose provided to drain the exhaust at its low point into a bilge sump. That had been opened at engine shut down to drain the exhaust, then duly closed.

We have sailed Tamara tens of thousands of miles without also closing the main water intake seacock, but never again. The water must have been forced up the intake by the pounding conditions we'd encountered as we made our way out to sea exiting Canal Chacao.

Now, as soon as the engine is shut down, the exhaust outlet valve is closed, the drain valve opened (and left open so that any water getting in goes into the sump instead of into the cylinders) and the main intake seacock is closed. To avoid a mistake in start-up procedure, the key is hung from the seacock handle. All valves must be in the correct position before starting. And just to be certain there is no confusion, an instruction placard now decorates the engine access panel.

Thirty-one days, and 2,900 miles out of Puerto Montt, we came to anchor at San Cristóbal, Galápagos Islands. &mdashMark Roye and Nancy Krill sail aboard their 44-foot Swedish-built steel ketch Tamara. They have made numeous passages to Labrador, and recently sailed to Antarctica.

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