Thursday, December 3, 2009

I learned about sailing from that: Fuel Valving

Years ago when I was a kid, I used to read Flying magazine. I particularly enjoyed a long-running series of articles entitled "I Learned About Flying From That." Each article was written by a pilot, who humbly admitted to having made a mistake, and then having lived, told about it in the hopes that others would not have to make the same mistake. I thought then that it was a good format, and I still think that now. This series of postings will be my attempt to recreate that article series with a new subject and new technology.

(If you would like to help others to learn from your mistakes, please send your article to: WindborneInPugetSound at gmail dot com)

It was November 1, 1997, our maiden voyage in Eolian.

We had been up late the night before celebrating our new ownership and our first night aboard. The day before had been a whirlwind, with papers to sign, financing to finalize, and a crash course in the systems aboard Eolian.

We had experimented with lighting the diesel-fired Dickenson cabin heater, and found it to be very capable of keeping the cabin toasty warm when the temp was in the 30's outside.

The plan was to take Eolian south from Bellingham to Seattle thru the Swinomish Passage, rather than to go all the way around Whidbey Island. This is a neat little cut, that goes from east of Anacortes down to LaConner in the south. The entrance at either end of the passage is dredged thru tidal mud flats, so it is critical to pay attention to the buoys/markers/lights, etc.

Just before entering the north end of the passage, the engine coughed a couple of times, and quit.


I tried that desperation move we all try when an engine quits unexpectedly: I cranked it over... rrrrrrrrrrr... nothing. I mean, if it died when it was running at throttle, what is low-speed cranking going to do?

I charged Jane with deciding when the anchor needed to go down to keep us off the mud, as we were drifting in that direction due to tidal current, and I went below. My first thought was that there wasn't really 100 gallons of fuel in each of the tanks as we had been told, so I switched from port to starboard tank. rrrrrrrrrrr... nothing.

Eolian has aboard 8 group 31 sized batteries, which had been on the charger until we pulled off the dock that morning. And the engine alternator had been charging them ever since... right? (Had I actually checked? And how good were those batteries anyway?) The batteries were arranged in two banks of 3 plus one more of 2, At least I had isolated one of the banks to use for engine cranking. I had one more bank that I could use up, and then I would have to use the last two to start the generator (I hadn't tried that either... would it start? Would it make electricity?) to charge the main banks thru the battery charger. But so far, so good. The engine was still cranking OK.

Next, a little tickle in the back of my head made me look at the operating notes that the owner had left. Sure enough, in getting the Dickenson heater working last night, I had left the valving in a configuration which forced all the diesel to go thru a small electric fuel pump *before* it went to the more than adequate filter bank ahead of the engine. See, there is this little tiny screen in the pump, and the smallest chunk of glop will plug it off... Aha! So some valving changes were made, and rrrrrrrrr... nothing.

Next part of the process: gotta bleed the air out of the fuel system. Talk about learning under pressure! I had brought my tools along (good thing... there wasn't even a screwdriver on board). I dug out the engine manuals, and gave myself a quick course in Perkins diesels, and I bled the injection pump... rrrrrrrrrrrr... nothing.

Last resort... crack the line feeding the highest injector... pssttssttsst a bunch of bubbles came out! rrrrrrr... rumblerumblerumble!

Its a good thing that we hadn't made it to the shallow water. Learning how to operate the anchor windlass under panic conditions would not have been pretty.


  • Know your boat's systems - before leaving the dock. No matter how excited you may be.
  • Always check the fuel valving before leaving the dock.
  • Never leave the dock without tools
  • Know how to bleed your engine fuel system
  • Simplify fuel valving to the greatest extent possible. Put up a valving diagram nearby.
  • Be ready to use the anchor if necessary. It may be all that stands between you and a grounding.
  • If you are alone and near shallow water, put the anchor and 75-100' of rode over the side. If you drift into the shallows while your attention is below, the anchor hanging there will probably save your boat. You can always retrieve it later, when you have things squared away down below.

Note: This material appeared earlier as a portion of a larger posting about our first voyage.



Erick said...

Great post! Reading things like this is very valuable to a novice like me. When my engine overheated on that first go out we had to learn the windlass in emergency conditions...not fun at all.

Hoping for more of these "I learned about sailing from that" articles!

bob said...

I have a few more ideas, but I am hoping that others will contribute too. How about you?


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