Those Old-Time Engine Room Woes – Or, Keeping Water Where It Belongs

Why does it seem that all of us “sailors” spend more time working on engines than working on the sailing gear? Between the diesels on the boats and the outboards on the dinghies it seems that most cruising sailors spend a great deal of time working on engines. Maybe we should really be mechanics who sail from time to time rather than being sailors who attempt to be mechanics on occasion. Maybe the Pardeys had it right?

First up was the port engine (having two engines just doubles the pleasure).  Going into Tahanea the port engine wouldn’t start. Pushing the “start” button resulted in the control panel quitting, rather than the engine starting. That pointed to an electrical problem more than a mechanical one, but still engine related.

Once we got into Tahanea I spent the better part of a couple of days taking apart and cleaning all of the connections in the electrical harness. And lo-and-behold the engine started right up. Chalk one up for the home team. Of course, it started two or three times, then refused to start again. Back to the beginning. It was definitely an electrical issue, and I’d been through the whole wiring harness. The only item remaining is the big, beefy main switch between the battery and the starter. Couldn’t be that – those things are indestructible. Not so much. I bypassed the switch and everything worked just fine. Left it bypassed for a week, no problems. Fortunately the PO had left a complete spare switch on the boat, so we were able to swap out the switch and make things right.

Took apart the problem switch and can’t see any problem – no burned contacts, no loose parts, no issues of any kind. The switch uses a spring to hold the contacts in place, the only thing I can figure is that the spring has grown weaker over time (we tend to leave that switch ‘on’ all the time, and in the ‘on’ state the spring is compressed). Fingers crossed that the replacement keeps on ticking.

While all of that was going on the starboard engine room bilge pump started to run pretty regularly. We have dry shaft seals, so shouldn’t ever get water in the engine room. An investigation showed that the shaft seal was leaking. Normally this would be where the seal goes around the shaft and would be an indication that the seal needs to be replaced (or at least have some grease added – Volvo rubber o-ring shaft seals). But, in this case the leak was at the fixed end where the shaft seal connects to the boat.

As a first pass just tightening up the clamps seemed to resolve the problem, but within a couple of weeks it was back (and why didn’t any of this happen while we were in NZ with easy access to parts and workshops?). So, one day I dove to the very bottom of the engine room and took apart the shaft seal, only to discover that the engine/shaft were not properly aligned. Either a) the engine was installed wrong from the start or b) the flexible engine mounts have slowly deformed, lowering the engine from its installed alignment. I suspect ‘b’ more than ‘a’, but in either case the end result was that the propeller shaft was rubbing on the bottom of the fiberglass stern tube that allows the shaft to exit the boat.

By the time we discovered the problem the shaft had worn a “U” shaped groove in the stern tube to the point that the end of “U” was now behind the rubber collar for the shaft seal, and hence a leak was born. No amount of tightening was going to solve this problem. Just the investigation was fun, I had to remove the shaft seal to investigate and water was pouring into the boat while the whole diagnosis was carried out blindly by feel under the engine.

For repairs we found ourselves a nice quiet anchorage here at the south end of Fakarava. I took some old hatch seal material, dove under the boat, and stuffed it into the annulus between the shaft and the stern tube. Then I packed plumber’s putty on top of that to completely seal the shaft from outside.

Back in the engine room I was then able to remove the shaft seal and work in the dry. First I adjusted the engine mounts to bring the engine back to the correct elevation with the shaft centered in the stern tube (that sounds easy, but engine mount materials being what they are everything was nicely corroded and frozen). Then, using a very small diameter hose and a syringe I sucked all of the water out of the stern tube, then turned to the epoxy and fiberglass. First a filler of underwater epoxy putty (because it would stick well to the wet stern tube) to bring the “U” back to nominal dimensions. Then a poultice of fiberglass cloth and epoxy to bring back to round and to reinforce the area and the filler putty. Finally, a heat pack taped to the whole thing to get the curing process done as quickly as possible. Then sanding to get everything nice and smooth so the rubber shaft seal would sit well and actually seal.  Of course all of this was done by feel under the engine while laying down on top of the engine. At least this time I thought of getting a foam cushion to put on top of the engine early in the process, the first time I worked on this I had an imprint of the top of the engine on my chest for a couple of days.

The final step was just jumping back in the water to remove my temporary “dam” and then testing everything. Only time will tell, but so far so good and it looks like we may have succeeded in avoiding a haulout in Raiatea.

So, once again, I have to wonder if maybe the Pardeys got it right? (For those of you less up on your old-timey cruisers, the Pardeys are/were famous for spending decades cruising around the world on a sailboat with no engine of any kind). Ain’t cruising grand?

3 thoughts on “Those Old-Time Engine Room Woes – Or, Keeping Water Where It Belongs

  1. Love the real-to-life cruising stories. Whether diving for a lost propeller in Crete or fixing shaft seals in the Tuamotus, you know that cruising is all about working on your boat in the exotic and distant harbors of the world! Love you guys!

  2. Living by the FORD principle (fix or repair daily) is what has Don soured on continuing cruising. Can’t say I blame him. RC2 is now 32 years old and “it’s never nothing” for us. Of course, it helps being in exotic locales ( and lesser ones 😉
    Keep up the good work!

  3. As I remember, the Pardeys frequently had people with engines on their boats tow them into or out of harbors. Kind of like my friends who never learned to drive (!how could that be in California? but it is!) but always need a ride somewhere.

    And never forget that “cruising is the most expensive way to travel third class.” See you soon. I do windows, but not engines or heads.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *