I’m a confirmed sail-boater, an avid stick-boater and an ardent blow-boater who, naturally, spends most of my life upside down in the bilge—working on my diesel engine. This is ironic. I’m not good at it. In fact, I’m terrible at it. On a scale of one to 10, I’m a minus-three. I’d claim I was completely incompetent—but that would be boasting…as I’m far worse. Engine mechanics reveal me for what I am: an idiot.
Of course, I’m a married man. I don’t have to suffer alone. During these “engine traumas,” we co-suffer. I swear up a blue streak, my wife Carolyn rolls her eyes. I throw a tool, she winces. I burst into tears, she daintily offers me a grease-smeared hankie. I ying, she yangs.
Here’s what happened: we arrived back in Malaysia (dead-broke) from two expensive months in the Good Ole USA and we were horrified to discover no oil in Wild Card’s diesel engine. Not a drop.
“Bastards,” I shrieked. “Those evil Somalia pirates must have broken into our boat and stole our lub oil… wow, that’s brazen… I mean, right outta the freak’n crank case!”
“Perhaps,” Carolyn said gently, “it wasn’t pirates, Fatty…. perhaps… your perfect macho-mano engine has a hole in it… and the oil leaked out ignobly?”
“Impossible!” I shouted. How dare she say such a nasty thing? But, eventually, reality began to rear its ugly head and, well, my eyes misted up. I felt betrayed. After all, my engine is almost brand new… wait, maybe that’s not quite accurate. Let’s see, I installed it in 1995… okay, my engine has run almost flawlessly for over 13 years… and I basically have ignored it all that time… still, I felt deeply betrayed.
I realize this isn’t fair. Nor logical. Nor just. But that’s how I felt. I felt… less of a man. As if, by losing command of my engine I’d somehow lost command of my… of my… well, castration images jumped into my addled, horsepower-deprived brain.
Now, the first thing that I do when I have a diesel engine problem anywhere in the world is to Skype (via the internet) Diesel Dan Durban at Parts & Power of Tortola, patiently wait until he comes onto my computer screen, and then burst into tears. I know, I know… admitting such sissy stuff in print does not speak well of my moral character (or lack thereof)… but that’s the truth, that’s what I do. I grovel. I beg. I plead. I promise crazy things like, in this case, my first-born son.
Now Diesel Dan knows me well enough to know that he doesn’t want to know me better—and thus is motivated to get rid of me as quickly as possible. “…wipe ‘er down, fill ‘er up and see where it drips out,” he growled.
Now that advice sounds pretty basic and simple AFTER you’ve heard it, doesn’t it? But it was like a breath of fresh air into my clueless head: suddenly I had a sense of purpose and a specific direction. Yippie!
So, instead of getting to work on the engine, I strutted around the expensive marina where we were now trapped, and said sagely, “Once I detect the dribble, dab the drop and latch onto the leak… it should be no problem to… well… to do what needs to be done!’
Carolyn and I quickly determined that there was a hole in the oil pan. “Great,” Diesel Dan warbled over Skype, “I’ll send you a new one. Just yank the engine, slap it on… and you’re all set!”
The problem with ‘yanking’ the engine is all the goofy stuff that’s attached to it: secret hoses, unidentified wires, strange cables, unlabeled pipes… lordy, lordy!
…but, with the help of wire cutters, bolt cutters, hacksaws, axes and a small jack hammer… the engine was soon ready to be lifted off its beds.
“…are we gonna hire a crane to lift it,” asked Carolyn with a worried tone in her I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-crap voice.
“Don’t be silly,” I scolded. “We’re sailboaters, ain’t we? We’ll use the traditional methods that Joshua Slocum pioneered—the main halyard! It will be easy… I’ll be down here watching and you’ll be up there on the halyard winch cranking…”
“…but since you’re strong and you go to the gym every day we’re in port,” she parried, “why don’t YOU crank while I watch?”
This is the type of marital situation you run into when you attempt to train a novice spouse into the fine art of marine diesel mechanics. Luckily, I was prepared for such nonsense.
“My dear,” I said gently, reassuringly, “first off, there’s a legal problem because—for liability reasons—I had to sign an insurance waiver at the gym… a legal waiver which forced me to promise to only use these muscles for recreational purposes… so, there’s that. And then there’s my heart problem… what if… while getting my own cup of coffee or something… I had a heart attack and died… wouldn’t you feel guilty? And we all know that, well… too many captains spoil the soup, eh? So why don’t we just relax and do it the logical way… my way?”
Engines are heavy things. Our half inch halyard was about three-eighths in diameter when the engine finally began to lift off its beds. “…you’re getting it,” I shouted up to a grunting Carolyn on the deck above me. (I could have glanced up at her, but did not—fearing I’d get eye-strain if I did.)
Soon the engine was swaying around our main cabin, at a height of four feet above the cabin sole, spewing oil, salt water, coolant, tranny fluid, etc., everywhere.
“…Shouldn’t we… at least remove the settee cushions or something?” Carolyn asked as she came below and saw the dripping beast in all of its ugly glory.
“Oh, there’s no need to ‘gild the lily,’” I laughed gaily. “We can clean the boat’s finery later—right now it’s work time, my dear. Why don’t you massage the engine with hundred dollar bills while I hit it hard with my rusty wrenches?”
Getting the old oil pan off was easy—though how much used oil splashed out of it was a Tsunami-like surprise. Soon we were both covered in grease and oil and sweat… soon all our knuckles were bleeding… soon we wore only snarls… soon nothing but obscenities were being ripped from our frothing, foaming lips… YES!
…removing the old gasket presented the only real problem. Diesel Dan had warned me about not touching/nicking the pristine parts and thus I was very careful with the sledge hammer I used to beat it off.
Occasionally, of course, a boat would go by. Its wake would jostle our 38 foot sloop and suddenly the engine would become a violent, demented pendulum swinging around the belowdeck, crashing into bulkheads, shattering picture frames, and knocking us over. “Hold it, hold it,” I’d scream frantically at Carolyn during the stressful moments, “If the rope breaks, just set it on your lap… I’ll have it re-attached in a jiffy!”
The oil pan had 36 bolts holding it on. These needed to be ‘torqued’ to a specific number which was stated in kilo-centimeters or grams per second or some such Euro-techno-bull. Besides, I didn’t have a torque wrench.
“Pickle jar,” I told Carolyn. “You know those big pickle jars which are difficult to open and you have to hit ‘em hard with the palm of your hand and then use a couple of grunts too? That’s exactly the amount of force I’ll apply to these bolts… simple, eh?”
“…how amazingly scientific,” she mused.
“Oh, it must be marvelous working with me,” I agreed, “and you’re so obviously learning a lot!”
I pretended not to notice her burying her weary head in her greasy, blood-flecked hands.
Once the engine was finally lowered back down onto its beds, we had to begin the job of hooking it back up. “Gimme some hose clamps, tie-wire, duct-tape, wire ties, paper clips, silly putty, STP stickers, flame-decals, chewing gum… that should do it,” I said.
We worked together for a while in silence, then I blurt. “Next is bleeding—”
“…but I’m already bleeding,” she said, holding up her hands and pointing at a sliced thigh and a smashed toe.
“…Now’s not the time to discuss the pink issues, dear, let’s stick strictly with the blue ones until this sucker runs… I was talking ‘bout the FUEL system, babe… we have to bleed the fuel system.”
Carolyn and I have done this a lot in the last 39 years we’ve cruised together as a loving couple. Here’s how, step-by-step, we do it. 1.) We both watch the engine closely. 2.) Carolyn pumps the hand-operated priming pump. 3.) I open a petcock. 4.) We get squirted in the face by diesel oil. 5.) When there are no more bubbles in the fuel squirting us in the face, I 6.) close the petcock while Carolyn 7.) stops pumping.
If we do this well, only about a gallon of fuel gets in our hair and/or ears.
“What about shaft alignment,” Carolyn asked.
I squinted wisely over a yard stick, said “kick it to port ‘bout ‘alf a foot,” and then, “…fine, that should be within five thousandths!”
Finally, it was time for the big test. We lined our drip pan with newspapers, cranked up the engine and ran it hard for half an hour. Then we waited for a couple of more hours and removed the newspaper. Not a drop!
“…my hero,” Carolyn cried out in jubilation, and gave me a big messy 10-40 multi-weight kiss on the lips. We were just getting into it when Diesel Dan chirped up from the computer on the nav station. “Ahoy Fat and Ms. Fatette,” he said, wearing his stylish blue Perkins shirt aboard his powerboat in Tortola, “…how’s it going in Southeast Asia?”
“Fine,” I told him, trying to be civil while Carolyn greedily attempted to tug me away, “but no time to chat now, Diesel Dan… er, maybe later, during our next major diesel emergency… right now, gotta run!”
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing,“Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.