I'm Matt, a software engineer and boating enthusiast based in Washington State (but on the move). I started Hermit Cove Boats, offering cool skin and frame boat plans and kits. Check it out!
The engine just stopped. Well, first it hesitated, a little heart palpitation, and then failed all together. We weren’t in the shipping lanes, and all land all around us was at a safe distance. So we were safe. But why did it stop?
We had plenty of fuel, but the filters had been on my list to replace. Also, the engine kill swith had been acting up, becoming easier to pull, but harder to push. Maybe it had moved out and killed the engine?
Time to pull open the engine hatch (12 bolts) and poke around. I checked the pull switch, and it had broken off at the T-handle. Problem found! Well, no. I reached into the hot caverns of the engine to manually move the fuel cutoff switch. It wasn’t obvious to me which way it needed to be, but neither way worked.
Maybe it was the filters? I tried many things, and not methodically, so I forget when I found the smoking gun. I cracked open the bleed nut on the engine fuel filter and it hissed. Air rushed in to fill the vacuum the engine had created while sucking desperately on the fuel straw.
Not to worry! I had spare filters. My fuel system at this time consisted of the engine fuel filter (2 micron), then a vacuum gauge, then a Racor 12s with a 2 micron element, then a Racor 500 with a 10 micron element, and finally the fuel tank itself. The vacuum gauge is meant to give me advance notice of a clogged filter, but this time the engine stopped with only a second’s warning.
The Racor 500 element looked pretty clean, and was easily replaced. The Racor 12s element is impossible to inspect, and hard to change without making a mess. Thankfully I had oil absorbing pads close at hand.
My fuel tank is above the engine, and because fuel flows in to fill the new filters, I’ve never needed to bleed the entire fuel system. I just open the bleed screw on engine filter, pump it a few times til it spurts diesel, and then the marvelous engine roars to life. Not this time.
Maybe the kill switch is still in the wrong position? Nope. Time to learn how to bleed the whole fuel system. I finally was able to reach the high pressure pump bleed screw, doing it by feel while hugging the hot engine. We were both bleeding when I was finished.
But still no go. Maybe the kill switch is in the wrong position? Nope. Time to get out the Nigel Calder diesel book. I opened up the big nut that holds the fuel lines to the injectors, and cranked until they spurted diesel. One was doing it right away, but the others took some time, 5-10 seconds perhaps. I retightened the nuts and cranked the engine. It roared to life. Kristin professed her undying love. I pointed out that I had been meaning to change the filters before we left, but forgot.
If you are like me and you don’t need to bleed your whole system just to replace a fuel filter, then I think you should consider turning off your fuel tank, running the engine dry, and then running through the steps to get it started again. Just because you CAN learn this while bobbing around at sea doesn’t mean you should.
We continued to Sucia Island and had a lovely time.
And that should have been that. When I have replaced my filters in the past I’ve gone to the store, gotten new ones, and then used the old ones. This way I always have some in reserve. This time I didn’t purchase spare filters. The next week we went out again, this time to move to Port Townsend, south across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The filters clogged again. I had fixed the kill switch, so that didn’t confuse me this time. And this time the engine gave us some warning, making a slight hesitation sound that the vacuum gauge confirmed was a clogged filter. We shut off the engine before it could suck the lines dry, and raised sail. We were only a few miles from Patos and by pure luck it was near slack water. We sailed near the point with the lighthouse, and then the wind died. The currents were still active near slack, and the GPS said we’d be on the rocks in half an hour or so.
But because we had advance notice of the clogging this time, and didn’t run the engine dry, we were able to use the engine to move the last half mile around the lighthouse and into the safety of Active Cove. We picked up a mooring ball and decided to ignore out problem for a while.
The next day we called Boat US, the AAA service of the water, and asked them to bring us out some filters. They brought the wrong ones, and so we were towed into Friday Harbor. The shame! When we got there I removed the Racor 12s completely. It was just a pain, and too eager to clog. I got a lot of replacement 2 micron filters for the Racor 500, and once I have used enough fuel to make it feasible, I will clean out my tank.
What was I thinking not getting new filters? Before we left the marina I stared at the well stocked shelves and asked myself what I could possibly need. At the time, I remember this clearly, I was staring at the fuel filters. I didn’t get anything.
Way back when we left Portland I installed the Racor 500, the vacuum gauge, and put an inspection port in my fuel tank so I could clean it out. You couldn’t say I am cavalier about fuel quality. But, with reason to believe I had fuel quality issues, I set out on a trip across dangerous water in the early spring with no spares.
I explain it this way: sometimes I am stupid. I truly believe this, though it contradicts the very high opinion I have of myself. Hopefully you aren’t stupid, but consider the possibility. I am, and I keep forgetting it. I should probably get a tattoo to remind myself.