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Diesel Dunce

Updated on January 7, 2010

Underway & Under Prepared


There’s nothing like the comforting sound of a diesel engine on a boat; that reassuring “click-clack-click-clack” as I motor into an anchorage or marina tells me that I can go where I wish, stop when I have to, and that I’ll have plenty of DC power when I do. 


 Built to provide thousands of hours of reliable operation in almost any weather conditions, its only potential downfalls are dirty oil and, most often, dirty fuel. And when your fuel is dirty it won’t be long, as I recently discovered, before the engine takes an unplanned and potentially dangerous hiatus. Like many sailors I learned my engine maintenance skills at the University of Trial & Error, followed by graduate training at Murphy’s Law School. You see, when I bought our used Catalina 34, it came to us like children come into the world: without an owners manual. Dozens of trips to marine stores yielded scant information on Universal engine maintenance. I would have to glean the requisite info from general how to books and hope that the engine would be forgiving of my shortcomings.


My first several oil changes were effective, if messy affairs. I ran the engine to heat the oil for a few minutes, used an electric pump to suck out the old stuff, and spun on a new oil filter—no problem. Maintenance items like replacing impellers, adjusting belt tension, and refilling batteries also went well, and my confidence grew. There were, however, these inscrutable fuel filters. Fuel filter maintenance occupied a whole chapter of Nigel Calder’s diesel engine book and, despite three slow readings, just would not sink into my cranium. At that point of boat ownership I didn’t even get why you had to change these stupid things (I never had to change them on my car). The arcane project was shelved for the time being and the sailing season wore on. I motored, blissfully ignorant of what would happen if we were caught in some bumpy water.


My wife Kanako and I had bought our Catalina near Tampa and had been sailing through most of the southern states when, alas, the time came to swallow the hook and rejoin the workers of America. We took jobs in Washington and searched the Chesapeake west shore for a nice marina. We found a great place in Rockhold Creek and promptly headed down the Potomac.


Welcome to the Sailing Life


The day of reckoning came on our fourth day out as we approached the creek. As with most mechanical breakdowns, we were given a warning shot over the bow: just as we passed the first marker the engine conked out. I took a look but refused to acknowledge what was right before my eyes. I blindly prognosticated that the engine had overheated and needed a moment to cool off—even though the temp gauge never went into the red zone. I re-started and proceeded to the marina.


Which, of course, we never made it to. At the absolutely, positively worst possible moment, with boats behind and boats ahead in a narrow channel and a strong running wind—the engine stopped. My stomach dropped and everything started to move in slow motion. I didn’t even try to re-start it; nothing to do but drop the anchor and call for help. As I dialed the towboat operator’s number, boaters glared as they maneuvered their way around us, and one prescient sailor smiled and yelled “fuel filters?” My hubris mocked me as we pitched just inches off the bottom, my wife visibly upset and unaware that the whole lousy scenario was completely the captain’s fault. An eternity elapsed before the towboat arrived to pull us the remaining distance. The culprits of course were dirty fuel filters which, over time, built up enough gunk to prevent fuel from passing through to the engine. The coup de grace had been the bumpy ride we took on the Bay that day which churned up enough to finish them off.


Poorer (by $150) but wiser, I took the time to change both fuel filters, and do so now every 100 hours of engine operation. And since then we’ve had many a rough day on the Bay, but the Iron Genny has never let us down.


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