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Messing About with Boats... or Back to School Yet Again

Don Chandler

Saracen
Martin 32
September 25th, 2017

This story is a recount of our adventures as we set sail to attend the BCA May rendezvous:

Wednesday 17 May:  We tucked Saracen away last fall with all systems working; clean inside and out, fresh oil, etc. with only weekly checks through the winter, a few deck washings, and one space heater replacement job.  Not bad for a winter without boat fixing projects.  A few days before the Bluewater Cruising Association May Rendezvous, I headed down to give it another clean up, water the batteries, brush the bottom, and put the sails on.  After a day of messing around in the boat, the sails weren’t on yet, but all else was ready to go.  It was a fine day; shopping for distilled water, paper towels and a few odds and ends, stopping by the Tesla store to window shop en route.  Fun!

Thursday 18 May: Next day we went down to put the sails on, load the boat with final provisions, and start the engine.  Our 35-year-old Volvo MD7A had been starting well last fall, so we expected no problems.  However, she did not appreciate the 7 months of apparent neglect  and took to schooling us again.  After a few unsuccessful tries, we found the fuel shut-off cable was slightly bent and the shut-off valve was not completely open – so no fuel!  A quick manual override worked and she fired up, purring away as usual.  “Let’s run over to the gas dock and top up”, I said, thinking we could just keep going.  Easy enough and with fuel and water tanks full, we looked out into English Bay and headed west.  About ten minutes out, as we revved our trusty engine up to a nice fast (for us) cruising speed, a loud squeal filled the air as an engine alarm went off.  “…not water separator…not oil pressure…it’s the engine high temp alarm”, confirmed Leslie.  A quick check revealed the engine temperature alarm was indeed calling our attention back to school.

We reduced speed, and the alarm stopped as we headed back to the dock to scratch our heads and mess around with the engine some more.  We made a few calls and drew up a list of things to check.  First and most obvious was the thermostat,  so out it came for a visual check and test.  It was a little dirty, but testing showed it worked perfectly.  Cleaning up the housing, replacing a few gaskets, clearing some gunky passages a bit should help, I thought.  As I worked in the comfort of the companionway access, Leslie (who has incredible contortionist skills) crawled through the lazarette with a new water pump impeller in hand (second item on our list).  The current one was only a year old and in fine shape, but she replaced it anyway, just to be sure.  Then, while hand tightening the brass screws on the pump cover plate, one of the screw heads sheared off in her hand.   (Aaaaaarrgggghhh!!)

I dashed off to Stem to Stern (our regular Volvo parts dealer) with broken parts in hand, through rush hour traffic just before closing time.  Fortune was with us and I got out of the store for under $50, some extras in hand.  In short order, the water pump was back together, the thermostat was re-seated and we were ready to head off again.

We left the car keys with my nephew Matt, as we headed off about 1500h for Active Pass, thinking we could make it to Montague Harbour by dark.  Ten minutes out into English Bay, as I revved the engine up, we were once again sent back to school, as the alarm started wailing again.  I felt I was in for a failing grade. This old Volvo is a tough schoolmaster.  Off back home for another night’s sleep and tackle it again in the morning.

Friday 19 May: Next morning, we decided to flush the exhaust riser elbow – this engine part has a history of corroding and causing cooling problems.  We pulled some hoses off, plugged some open ends, attached a dock hose and flushed fresh water out through the exhaust until it flowed freely, with much higher volume than needed.  This confirmed the exhaust mixer elbow was free flowing, eliminating that as source of constriction or back pressure.  A bit more re-arranging of hoses and we back flushed the salt water intake as well.  The MD7A is salt-water-cooled, so a good flush is a recommended part of maintenance.  Normally, we just ‘T’ off the salt water intake to pull from a bucket of fresh water – this time we ‘pressure’ flushed it.

All good to go, we tidied up, and with great anticipation, turned the key switch to start the engine.  A loud metallic “Ka-Chunk”! reverberated through the air, and Saracen shuddered.  I grimaced.  Leslie turned the key again, and again “Ka-Chunk”! followed by the quiet sound of no-engine-running.  “Hmmmm…that doesn’t sound good,” mused Leslie.  Thinking back through “what has changed?”, we realized that in pressure flushing the cooling system, we had likely managed to fill the exhaust water trap.  This would cause water to back up through the exhaust system into the cylinders, creating a hydro lock, which we, of course, discovered when attempting to start again.

Having experienced a hydro lock some years ago in a VW Rabbit after driving through a puddle, I had instantly recognized it (well, almost instantly – a few deep breaths did help).  If a hydro lock occurs when an engine is running (as it did with the late lamented VW Rabbit) the result can be catastrophic and lead to bent connecting rods and very expensive repairs.  Not to worry though, we hadn’t caused any damage because there was no fire in the cylinders – we just needed to get rid of the few drops of water somehow.  Website tech advice will say to pull injectors etc. to do this, but our lovely old MD7A has a decompression lever, which will hold the exhaust valves open.  Leslie crawled in behind the engine yet again to release the drain plug and empty the water trap,  then we pull the decompression lever, a couple of turns of the starter, and the few drops of salt water were quickly flushed out of the cylinders.  Reapply compression, and the engine started up fine.

Only 1300h and with lots of time to make it to the Gulf Islands, we headed off again.  Forty-five minutes later, we discovered we still hadn’t found or fixed the real problem when the high temp alarm rang out yet again.  Back to the school house!

A quick text to my nephew Matt to return with car keys and we headed back to the dock.  The Stem to Stern mechanic called back as we entered the marina.  After reviewing our progress, I concluded that we had checked, cleared or replaced everything that could cause a cooling problem.  As we approached our slip, I was checking the temperature on various parts of the engine and exhaust with an infrared  thermometer in hand.  All seemed within range.

So, a bad sensor was our next possibility!  (note to self:  add this as item #2 on the troubleshooting list)  Of course, the battery in the volt ohm meter was dead (arrrgh! – lose one more exam point) and the Volvo parts counter was only open for another hour on this Friday afternoon of a long week-end.  I ran back to the marina office after docking.  My nephew had not left the keys there, but did pick up the phone – he was still close by and ran back to meet me.  We headed off into rush hour traffic again.  At the parts desk, Lindsey assured us he had the correct sensor in hand, so we paid up and headed back into traffic.  The new part installed easily and we started up the engine for a quick test.  Our schoolmaster was quick to respond this time and screamed at us instantly.

OK, all boat repairs must be done 3 times before they work, right?  I get it, but this is a bit much.  Guess we can’t make it across Georgia Strait by dark today.  I’m tired, and as I drag myself up the dock, trying to put one foot in front of the other, disappointment is standing in the school window staring at me.  I fend it off as we head out for a fine Mexican dinner.  Over dinner, iPad in hand, Leslie finds the correct part numbers online and confirms we have installed the correct sensor for an engine temperature gauge – unfortunately our engine has an idiot light on a switched sensor.  One works as a variable resistance, the other as a switch.  Oh well, I’ve always wanted a gauge as well.  However, as we were entering our home port marina earlier in the day, talking to our favourite expert on the phone, I had measured the temperature right at the sensor, (the temperature at the thermostat housing, exhaust hose, and cylinder head temperatures vary widely).  We determined that the sensor was triggering the alarm about 20 degrees below what it was rated at (95C).  Problem found! This confirmed it was a sensor issue, not a more serious engine issue! (The new sensor had 120C stamped on it. I presume this was the maximum the sensor would report to a gauge, not the correct operating temperature.)

It was now late Friday night and no parts would be available until next week.  I was feeling confident in our trusty little Volvo and we decided to pull the wire off the sensor and go, with infrared thermometer in hand and regular checks.

Saturday 20 May:  Early next morning we headed back to the boat.  With no pressure from weather or tides today, we had a sunny leisurely morning for departure.  Sharing a cup of excellent coffee, we gave the deck a final pressure wash, along with cleaning up the cockpit floor mats after recent foot traffic.  The boat shone, the pesky alarm was quietened permanently, and the engine started and purred.  Despite having dropped my coffee cup on the way down the dock and spilling it all, life was good.  We headed out again.

As we departed, we felt our luck was better than this guy’s…

As we passed Third Beach on English Bay, we saw that our luck was better than the power boat that had ended up on the beach at high tide last night.

It was good that school was out for us, and we cleared English Bay by 1000h.  The tide was ebbing and we were making good way.  The sun shone.

Leslie was driving, the sails were out and we were motor-sailing in a lovely 12 knot breeze.  I had gone down for a quick summer’s nap.  I woke as I heard the engine slow, then stop.  That schoolmaster screamed at us again.  Final exam time.  A quick look at engine indicator lights and we saw the oil light on.  Visual inspection revealed the brand new bilge buddies under the engine were still pure white and oil level was good.  Ah, yes, turn the key off – the noise stops.

Scratch our head again and go back to problem solving basics.  “This seems like a fuel issue.” Leslie says, and asks about the fuel shut-off cable status, thinking back to our engine’s known idiosyncrasies.  A quick check found that, ah yes, the cable had vibrated out just enough to cut off fuel flow to the engine.  A new manual override, (borrow a twist tie from the cilantro to temporarily hold the cutoff valve open) and our faithful Volvo fired up again.  ETA 1630h at Poets Cove on Pender Island.  We surfed through Active Pass with the ebb and I went back down to my nap.  Leslie took us into the marina just in time to join Happy Hour.

All is truly well when we are in time for Happy Hour with great friends and a working boat.  It’s the first day of summer and school’s out!  Nothing is quite so fine as just messing about with boats.

Yellow twist tie used to temporarily pull open the fuel shut-off lever

Heading to the August Rendezvous

We kept busy the next few weeks with city projects, aka life.  Then just as we were getting set to head out again, I was clearing up some debris in the yard, and in a hurry, used the wrong tool for a job (despite my inner voice screaming at me not to), and ended up with a jagged cut across the back of my hand.  Six weeks later, with splint off, the physio asked me if I really felt I could hold onto a heaving boat and not damage the hand further.  I assured her I could and we geared up for the August Rendezvous on Newcastle Island.  A quick test of the engine revealed we had some remedial schooling yet to do.  The engine would not start again.  Must be fuel!  Another adjustment of the fuel shut off cable (which is inaccessible and just turning 3 screws takes 3 hours) and the engine roars to life.

We loaded up again and left two days early in a standard Voyageur start at 1700h.   Too late to get across the Strait so we stopped at Bowen Island for dinner with friends.  Next morning, we head up to the Snug for coffee and get off the dock by 1030h.  The engine is lumbering into the 15 knot headwinds on our nose, despite the freshly scrubbed bottom.  The oven temperature gauge confirms the engine temperature is in range.  By 1500h we are still a couple of hours out and the engine slows and stalls.  I immediately check the temperature, then the fuel shut off lever and sure enough it has some slack.  I pull it open and the engine fires up again.  Three stalls later over the next 10 minutes, and I snap at the schoolmaster: I’ll fix it tomorrow!

Leslie lowers the outboard into the water, and despite not having started it for almost a year it snaps to life.  We purr into the Rendezvous doing almost 4 knots and make it in time for dinner at the Pub.  I failed to keep my promise to the schoolmaster and waited another day before tackling the diesel.  I awoke in the morning to see the battery voltage at 10.3, despite having used only 20 Amp Hours overnight.  A brief start of the outboard kicked the battery to life and it was charging 5 Amps off the outboard and quickly rose to 13. 5 Volts. Guess the fire smoke was a challenge for the solar panel.

Back to the fuel shut off and found the bent wire end was jamming against the engine, flexing the cable and creating a spring like effect, which with some vibration, pushed the shut off lever closed.  Another adjustment, bending the wire straight and the engine roared to life again.  Running a few minutes on the dock charged the battery and it also came back to normal.  Weird.

Sailing is like being a permanent student.  Always one more thing to learn again and fix, now four times.  It was another great Rendezvous and we are making plans for the next one on Cortes.  Hope to see some of you there… and stay tuned for more news on the engine saga this Fall.

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  1. Yvonne Harwood says:

    Loved your writing….loved your story.
    Yvonne,
    s.v. Ostara