Those dratted engine problems…….

Hi everyone. It’s good to be back posting a blog. Most of you already know that we were forced to stay in Shelter Bay Marina much longer than we anticipated, ended up going onto the hard and not sailing, as planned, to Bocas del Toro.

However, what many of you do not know is exactly what went wrong.  I did promise to give you a blow by blow account some time ago – and I know some folk out there are interested. So, here we go…..

It all started when we made our first attempt to sail to Bocas. We left the marina after refuelling and provisioning during a two night stay. We deliberately left around midday, having calculated the best leaving time to arrive in Bocas in daylight. For the first ten hours everything went more or less according to plan. Well, the counter current which runs West to East along the coast [directly against anyone trying to sail to Bocas from Portobelo/Colon] was rather stronger than we had been led to believe so we were only averaging about 3 – 3.5 knots with the engine on, but apart from that it was a pleasant sunny day and all was well with the world.

Mike stood first watch and just after we had changed over [at around 11pm] the engine warning light and alarm activated – so, we topped up the fresh water and all seemed well again. It did seem a bit strange that we needed fresh water after only ten hours but we had been running the motor quite hard to try to combat the current so we just carried on. Three hours later it went again! This time Mike decided we would try to sail, allow the engine to cool down properly and daylight to arrive so that he could take a better look.

At 5am, after topping it up again he couldn’t see any water coming out so we started the engine once more – but this time it only lasted 15 minutes. So, we knew by now that we had a real problem. Cups of tea and coffee and various debates about what we should do ensued. To go to Bocas or not?

We decided that, even though we still couldn’t see water escaping anywhere, it might well be something to do with the heat exchanger – so we agreed that Mike would take off the two elbows and check that there were no leaks/cracks in the hoses etc and that to the best of his ability he would see if the fresh water might be getting into the salt water system and being expelled through the exhaust.

So, for the next four hours Mike did battle in the engine room whilst I tried to keep us moving towards Bocas under sail. My task turned into a bit of a nightmare because within an hour we were battered by a really bad thunderstorm which went on and on and on. By 10am I was cold and wet and tired and fed up of fighting to keep us from heading south towards a lee shore without an engine. OK – we were at least fifteen miles off the coast but I wanted us to stay well out – who wouldn’t?

Having taken both elbows off and replaced one with a new one – just because we had a new one and one of them looked a little worn – Mike reported that as far as he could tell, the joints/hoses were not the source of the problem. More tea/coffee/debate and we agreed that the only sensible thing to do was to return to Shelter Bay. Aside from anything else with the current strength and direction we were practically going backwards – in four hours I had made 1.5 miles West.

Our problem now was that we were about 60 miles from the marina which, at our normal sail speed plus the now “favourable current” speed and the wind direction, would mean we would get to the breakwater after dark. So, we set a north easterly course and plotted a looping route which would bring us back to Colon about 18 hours later. We both managed to get a bit of sleep but spent most of the time awake keeping each other company. We made it safely through the breakwater at 6.35am.

I have to say that the last sentence was a lot easier to write than was the navigation and boat handling we had to do to get back. The last four hours were the most frightening [to me at least]. In the dark all lights look a bit odd and there are several lighthouses and beacons along the coast. Because Siga Siga was crabbing due to the effects of the wind and current the bow of the boat was always pointing towards the lights and, increasingly as the breakwater approached, it seemed as if we were going to sail straight into it. The chart plotter told me all was well but sitting on deck it was a very strange sensation and trying to make myself believe something contrary to what my eyes were telling me wasn’t easy!

Of course, we also had to sail through the large ships anchorage to get to the breakwater and we were constantly on the lookout for one or more of them to start moving. After all at least half of them were there waiting to pass through the breakwater themselves to enter the canal. And… what about any which might be coming out!

But, as I said above, we managed to sail safely through and after spending a couple of hours anchored outside the marina [until the staff arrived] we were able to motor back into our berth. We had worked out that if we filled the fresh water system and all the water jugs and bottles on board and I just kept pouring we should hopefully last for the ten minute trip in. Yes OK, pouring cold water into an engine isn’t best but since it was starting from cold we decided to take the risk. Maybe because I was watching fairly intently what I was doing and leaning into the engine room to do it I thought I could hear a slight pouring noise other than me putting water in and, when we had tied up safely back in the berth, I went to investigate the source by pouring yet more water in. It was difficult to find but there was certainly a stream of water coming from the front of the engine – which indicated that we had a fresh water pump problem. Long time readers might recall that we had to change the freshwater pump in Portugal so we couldn’t understand why it would need replacing again just three years later. I guess this gave us a bit of hope that the current problem might only be a hose slipped or something minor. But, even so to fully understand the problem we had to access the pump which means all the engine pulleys have to be removed to get the cam belt cover off to see it.

The same long term readers I mentioned above might also recall that to do that in Portugal the mechanic told us we had to [and then did] unbolt and move the whole engine back about 12 inches! Having been the “assistant” on that occasion Mike believed that moving the engine had been unnecessary and we decided to try to do the job with the engine in place.

Our engine room only has a 9” gap between the bulkhead and the front of the engine so this was never going to be an easy task and one which had to be done much more by feel than by sight.














It took us two and a half days to get to the pump [it also involved the replacement of two ratchets which we broke in the process and the purchase of a 24mm socket which we didn’t have. Fortunately the shopping mall had all that we needed – which was another reason why Shelter Bay/Colon came out on top in the “should we carry on to Bocas or turn round” debate].

The bad news was that the pump was really badly corroded. The good news was that Shelter Bay thought they could get us one from Panama City. The next bad news was that they couldn’t and so we lost a couple of days waiting before ordering it from the US. We ordered it on 3rd July and even accounting for weekends – including the 4th July long weekend-] we were concerned not to have received even a tracking number by 14th July. E.mail exchange with the Maine Company revealed that even though they stated on the internet site that they had the parts in stock and did not indicate any differently when we placed the order they had to get one of the ordered parts shipped into them before they could send it to us. Very naughty but what can you do?

The part finally arrived and was fitted on 23rd July. The photo below of the two pumps shows just how badly corroded the old one was.

???????????????????????????????So what caused that? OK all you clever people who are yelling “You weren’t using Antifreeze” ….you are right. It was just one of those things which we didn’t know – that antifreeze is just as important in the tropics as in the UK because of the anti-corrosive properties in it. We just hadn’t thought about it – well, unless something went really wrong with the world weather very quickly – we certainly didn’t need to worry about our freshwater freezing! So, we now have antifreeze in the system and a supply “in stock” for top ups.

Although when we took the pump off there was no apparent damage to the hoses, on putting it back on we saw a hairline crack in one hose – so replaced both. They are, as you might expect, different sizes but Mike found his new favourite shop in Colon which sells hoses of most sizes – which has come in very handy since. [More on that subject later!].

It took us the following day to get all the pulleys etc back on and all the relevant bits lined up exactly as we had taken them off [yup – those all important markings]….BUT the engine wouldn’t start. Bleeding the injectors didn’t help so we concluded that somehow the timing was now out. The following day we re-aligned all the pulleys yet again. I don’t need to remind you how difficult this is in the space available particularly when three things have to be done at once but only one pair of hands fit in the hole and one of those hands has to bend backwards! So, contortionism is one of our newly acquired skills which allowed me to reach in and pull/hold the fuel pump pulley with a spanner whilst Mike secured the cam shaft and idling pulleys in a way which meant the tensioning pulley actually lined up and fit better than it ever did before – certainly better than before we started the job and therefore better than during the last three years! Excellent job – she started and purred like a kitten [OK – that’s a bit of an exaggeration for a 20 year old Volvo diesel – but you know what I mean….].

We were ready to go….or so we thought! Mike’s final job before we were due to leave the following day was to put a new drip mat into the clean [or as clean as it ever gets] engine compartment – only to find that in the space of a few hours it wasn’t “clean” anymore. It wasn’t dirty but it was wet. Oh no! We searched and searched and finally Mike saw what he thought was one of my hairs lying across a copper pipe. On trying to remove it he found it was actually a spiders web thread sized jet of water from a minute hole in the copper piping between the impeller and the gear box. Fortunately – we had a spare one of those and fitting it was a relatively quick job … so we were ready after all.

So, 8am on 29th July and off we go. Things were looking even better this time. An hour out and we were able to sail and no signs of any thunderstorms. The current didn’t seem as strong and we were making quite good ground. Then the wind died so we put the engine on to motor sail and just over an hour later – horror of horrors – the engine overheating system activated again. We stared at each other for about 30 seconds in disbelief and then just readied the boat for an about turn back once more to Shelter Bay. This time we were only 24 miles out but it was after 2pm so we knew it would be a close call to get back in daylight as it goes dark somewhere around 7 – 7.30pm in July. We decided to go for it. We had three tracks to follow, knew that 7-8pm was the “turnaround” in the canal meaning that no large ships should be going through the breakwater and the weather was on our side. We made it through the breakwater at 7.40pm and anchored having decided it was too late to attempt what is not the best lit or easiest marina to enter

Obviously during the journey back we worried about what the problem might be as again we had lost all the coolant from the freshwater system. Maybe we hadn’t fitted the new pump properly – though we had run the engine for a while post fitting and not seen any leaks. However, there was no coolant in the engine compartment either – so it didn’t point to the freshwater pump leaking but, clearly, it had all gone somewhere?  You will remember that Mike had replaced the heat exchanger elbows and found nothing amiss during the previous aborted journey and, whilst working on the freshwater system we had “tested” whether salt water was seeping through and concluded there was no ingress/egress to worry about either way – so, if our diagnosis then had been correct and it wasn’t the heat exchanger what might it be?. Maybe the cylinder head gasket?

However, rather than continue to stumble along from one possibility to another we decided to bring in an expert – Greg, the “engine whisperer” of Shelter Bay.

???????????????????????????????He brought with him a very handy tool which puts the whole system under pressure and found a leak from the heat exchanger. It seems that what had happened was that when Mike replaced the elbows, whilst at sea, one of the inner joints had slipped and was now causing a leak. It had not come to light with the engine running at low revs but showed under pressure. Quite a simple thing to sort out. Not wanting to be complacent, however, we used Greg’s expertise to help us to remove the heat exchanger, flush it with muriatic acid, vinegar and fresh water which took about 6 hours in total. Greg said that it was in good condition – which was a relief and when we went to bed on 31st July we hoped that our problems were over and that August would be a better month.

This was not to be. The very next day Mike found more salt water in the engine compartment but, maybe his diligence has prevented us from sinking – as yet another search uncovered a split hose on the flexible stuffing box. The hose lies in another difficult to access and “invisible” place. No signs of leakage from the ends or around the jubilee clips. The line of the split was in the middle of the hose, completely hidden by the bulkhead.

???????????????????????????????So, whilst in many ways we were glad to have found it we were rather less than happy that it meant a haul out to enable us to pull the prop shaft in order to replace the hose – and yes, this is where our friendly shop in Colon (“The Diesel Shop”, close to the bus terminal, where you can also get all you need to customise your chicken bus!) came up trumps again with the correct size in stock. The other positive in all of this is that Mike was very quickly able to ascertain that the prop would be easy to pull and that there was no problem with the Cutless bearing.

???????????????????????????????The chickens were also very pleased with our haul out! They love it when barnacles are scraped off the hull……..

???????????????????????????????….and, having had to haul the boat it seemed silly not to renew the antifoul so although this was another job and another unexpected expense we were able to source some paint fairly easily from Panama City and do it – including new basecoat.

Replacing the anodes was another small task and we had a visit from a couple of aliens in the process…..

???????????????????????????????…….Maybe these are the little gremlins who have been causing all our problems! They have now been binned – so let’s hope they took all problems with them.

So, our summer was not at all as we had planned. But, the work is now done – at least for the time being! As you know we also had two experiences of line-handling, got the opportunity to visit friends in beautiful Boquete, made new friends here in the marina and spent time getting to know some of the wildlife around the marina….












So, whilst life may not always be what we expect there are always new things to experience and new things to learn – so all you yachty friends who like us were ignorant – go out and buy your coolant now [OK – maybe it was only us]……



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    • Andrea on October 21, 2014 at 9:01 am
    • Reply

    What are those round things – they look like skulls!!

  1. Sorry to hear your plans got waylaid but hope all goes well this season. Thanks for the reminder about coolant – I just asked Rob if we had some in the engine and apparently we do. Wouldn’t have thought it necessary in the tropics as you said but glad Rob did!

    We are back in the water after a few weeks in the yard and heading north from Trinidad soon. Will keep an eye on your blog and see where you get to next. Hopefully we will see you again one day. x

    • ed and tif on March 10, 2015 at 12:51 pm
    • Reply

    finally getting caught up on your blog. i really enjoy your writing, you had me smiling throughout! somehow those little gremlins jumped out of the trash and lodged somewhere in antigone…! 🙂

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