In early December we crossed the Sea of Cortez from San Carlos/Guaymas to Bahia Concepción. Finally, we were away from the boatyard and all the tasks that come with getting a boat ready to launch.
After some initial uncomfortable beam seas, Melissa and I enjoyed a fairly pleasant crossing with light winds. We had the headsail out and the engine running, making perhaps six knots. Evening was fast approaching and we knew that we would be anchoring at night. No one likes to anchor in the dark but we had anchored in Bahia Santo Domingo a few times before and we had our GPS tracks to follow and permit safe entry into the bay.
A few miles out from Punta Concepción The engine slowed to an idle and then just died. I furrowed my brow. Melissa looked at me, waiting for an explanation or at least some calm assurance that this was perfectly normal behavior.
“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” I shouted, pulling at my hair. I may have wet myself a little.
No, I did not do that.
Melissa and I swung into action taking the roles we have perfected over years of sadly similar mishaps. I furrow my brow, concoct an uninformed theory on what just happened and then go below to figure things out. Meanwhile, Melissa works out a strategy to keep the boat safe or keep us moving in the direction we wanted to go. That is how we have handled all previous crises. Just check out Badda-Bing-Badda-Boom or How I Spent My Summer Vacation for more examples.
So, my ill informed theory on why the engine died was that the fuel filter was clogged with some algae that had blossomed in our fuel tank during the hot Mexican summer in the boat yard. Common wisdom has it that you should keep your diesel fuel tanks full when placing your boat in storage. This prevents water from condensing in the tanks as the hot, humid air cools in the evening. This moisture collects at the bottom of the tank and forms a warm and inviting location for a kind of algae that loves to munch on diesel fuel. Fuel systems that are heavily infected by “the bug” can quickly clog their filters, especially if that fuel is agitated by bouncy seas or heavy weather. I only had my tanks half full when we put Galapagos away back in June and I secretly worried that this might give me grief at some point.
Theory in hand, I went below and switched the primary filter from number two to number one. I looked at the bowls of both filters and did not see any water but I was troubled by a little sediment that had settled at the bottom of the bowls. Had we been infected by the dreaded bug?
I asked Melissa to try the engine and it started right up. Theory validated! I explained my concerns to Melissa. We would have to keep an eye on the filters but we could proceed to our anchorage safely.
After about ten minutes, my brow was slowly unfurrowing when the engine died a second time. My theory was starting to unravel; The second filter couldn’t be that clogged that quickly, could it? And something else was bothering me. Something was missing when I had been down in the engine room but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Some noise… a clicking sound.
With the boat quiet, I went below again. When I had installed the engine, I added an electric fuel pump to pull fuel up from the tanks. Diesel engines are fitted with small mechanical pumps but if the engine is too far above the fuel tank a small electric pump is used to provide additional pressure. This little pump runs whenever the ignition switch is turned on and its familiar little clicking noise was what I was missing.
In a few moments, I found the problem. A connector inside my little control box had worked its way loose. A minute after fixing this issue, we restarted the engine again and were on our way. As we lay at anchor later that evening, I reflected on the pleasure of knowing Galapagos so well that we can hear and feel when things are working well and when something is amiss. Having installed, replaced or at least touched every part of this boat, Melissa and I have a lot of confidence in our abilities to keep her running smoothly.
But visions of algae kept clogging my brain. The fuel filters weren’t dirty yet, but maybe I should have a look in my tank. How old were those filters anyway? Four, five years? They had about 500 hours of run time on them which meant they should be replaced. Pretty soon, I had worked my self into frenzy, certain that if we didn’t act soon, the engine could quit at any moment and maybe even be damaged because I was too lazy to check my fuel.
And so once we were settled in La Paz, Melissa and I began to explore the wonders of our diesel fuel tank. Since, as usual, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, we took an incremental approach. I used a small pump that attaches to our ever handy Ryobi cordless drill and pulled a sample of fuel from a hole located on our inspection port. Looking back, I think all this sampling and filtering was mostly an excuse to delay the inevitable. It certainly gave me time to accept my fate and think about how to pull 40 gallons of dirty diesel from the tanks with as little drama as possible.
With proof in our jar that there was stuff floating around in the fuel, we began to think of how to clean this fuel. At this point, we did not have enough containers to suck the fuel out and store it elsewhere so we could have good look at the bottom and walls of the tank. So we just used our hand drill pump and Baja filter and drained the freshly filtered fuel back into the tank. We did this for a couple of hours and the stuff we saw captured by our filter would curl your injectors.
After this initial effort of filtering fuel back into the tank, We were now solidly convinced that a more comprehensive cleaning would need to take place. That meant fuel storage and so our search for inexpensive fuel containers began. Just like the good ol’ U.S. of A, if you put the word “Marine” or “Boat” on a product in Mexico, it is magically much more valuable and therefore expensive. Fuel cans at the nearby chandleries were about 800 pesos (40 USD) each We needed six containers. You can guess that we took a pass on spending 240 dollars on this project, however nice these fuel cans might be.
Instead we went to the Home Depot in two trips and bought six 20 litre fuel cans for 71 pesos (3.50 USD) each. Now it is true that these cans are not as rugged as the nice containers at Lopez Marine. They are also not yellow and I really wanted yellow because everyone knows that yellow cans are for diesel. And we had to schlep These cans back on a collectivo while being warily eyed by concerned Mexican ladies. But at 71 pesos each, I am willing to flaunt social nicieties and use red instead of yellow. We sold half of these containers after this project.
As we filled container after container with diesel, we could begin to see the bottom of the tank. I used a scotch bright pad to scrub the bottom and sides while there was still some fuel in the tank to loosen any reachable grunge and then pump it out. While we were getting some solids during the whole process, we never saw the horrifying clumps of goo like we did at the beginning of this project. I should also add that I had added Star Tron Tank cleaner to the fuel and let it slosh around in there for a day or so to help loosen the crud from the the tank walls. I have been using the Star Tron Enzyme Fuel Treatemnet on Galapagos since we bought her.
Using a length of Pex tubing left over from re-plumbing the boat, I was able to reach most of the tank’s corners where debris likes to collect and suck it up.
After pulling 40 gallons of fuel out of the tank and cleaning it as best we could, we were ready to put the fuel back in the tank. Using our Baja filter again, we siphoned the fuel from our fuel cans back into the tank. We also used those same containers to buy more fuel from a nearby Pemex station and ferry it to the boat. Right now we have about 80 gallons of fuel aboard, enough to last us a few months. Being able to refuel the boat in this way gives us greater flexibiltiy and we can take our time and filter the fuel without feeling rushed at the fuel dock.
Along with our fuel polishing project, I changed the Racor primary fuel filters, and engine’s secondary filter. At this point I think we are protecting our precious Beta Marine engine better than most boats. We have never had the engine shut down because of a clogged filter and, Lord willing, we never will.