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What to Do When Your Engine Breaks Down

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Arcturus, my 35-foot yawl, wasn't two days out of Ft. Lauderdale when smoke poured out of the companionway accompanied by the awful smell of an electrical meltdown. The instrument panel was dead and gone, but the engine churned long enough to make the fuel dock at Titusville Marina, near Cape Canaveral.

With the engine shut down, my dad, Dennis, dove headfirst into the now emptied cockpit locker. The engine's wiring harness was completely fried, to the point that the wires were incoherently melted together into a rainbow of colors. How the thing didn't catch fire remains a mystery.

This latest mishap was the climax of a comedy of mechanical errors, beginning six months earlier on our way south. The first sign that our little engine was on the brink began not five hours out of Annapolis. On a windless fall day, we motored south. The engine shortly quit, a victim of bad fuel and a clogged filter. As the sun set, I set about replacing the filters, and promptly dropped the secondary filter housing into the bottomless bilge, without a spare. Sitting ducks, we waited until the wind sprang up and finally sailed through the night on the Chesapeake, right onto the dock where I immediately ordered a slew of spare parts.

Arcturus' stuffing box was leaking, and we discovered a cracked exhaust hose. The water intruding into the bilge forced us to hand-pump it out at 100 strokes every hour, for our electric pump had never worked since we bought the boat. We pushed on, reciting the refrain "We'll fix it in Florida."

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On a 300-mile offshore run from North Carolina to northern Florida, the engine refused to run during a 12-hour calm. We dropped the sails, lashed the helm and took showers in the ocean while we drifted in circles. When we finally made it to Lauderdale, we discovered a cracked motor-mount, realizing we'd been running on three legs. It was one thing after another.

When we finally made it into our slip in Ft. Lauderdale I dove into the repairs, literally. As with most small sailboats, access to our 30 HP diesel is limited, and a headfirst slither into the cockpit locker provides the only entry. After some diagnostic work, I discovered the leaky exhaust hose, found access to the stuffing box and made a general assessment of the situation.

A marine diesel is a remarkably simple device, and once I got familiar with the beast – through a combination of sleuthing in the bilge and studying the manual – solutions to our myriad of problems began to present themselves. And they can for you too.

Like many well-constructed boats, access to seemingly inaccessible bits of Arcturus is made simple by removing things, patiently and methodically, labeling each bit along the way. When Westerbeke told me the hose I needed was backordered, we found a similar-enough piece at the local Napa store, and it fit. (Note: auto parts stores are great for some boat things, but beware of others, namely electronics and wiring – see Peter Patterson's recent series of All at Sea articles, www.allatsea.net.)

Similarly, getting to the stuffing box was challenging yet doable, with research and patience. I bought a special stuffing box wrench from West Marine for 20 bucks, and by positioning myself in an awkward position between the fuel tank and the transmission, was able to reach the nut with one hand. A half turn tighter and the leak stopped abruptly. I plan on re-packing the shaft log when the boat is next hauled.

The nuts and bolts of a diesel engine are easy, but when it comes to electronics, it's time to call in the cavalry. In Titusville, fed up with engine repairs, we called a mechanic, showed him the way into the cockpit locker and watched in amazement as he pulled everything apart with grace and aplomb. Unfortunately, he also uncovered 44 years' worth of other people's half-hearted repair jobs, including remnants of the old gasoline engine originally installed on the boat. But the melted harness was out in no time, and a new one was quickly on the way after a few phone calls.

Arcturus is finally back in her slip in Annapolis, the engine in far better shape than when she set forth to the south last fall. We continue unearthing various bits and pieces that need attention, but we'll take them one step at a time. After all, owning an old boat is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride.

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer, based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season. He lives aboard his yawl Arcturus with his fiancée, Mia. andy.schell125@gmail.com

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Andy Schell
Andy Schellhttp://59-north.com
Andy Schell is a professional sailor, writer and the event manager of the ARC Caribbean 1500. You can find him online at 59-north.com.

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