As Gwen wrote yesterday we were finally ready to head off on our journey down the Pacfic Coast, trying to catch an elusive and narrow late season weather window. We were a bit nervous prior to departure as the forecast were for gales and small craft warnings down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The worst of it was to be right at the Eastern end, so we made a pre dawn departure to, hopefully, avoid the worst.
When embarking on a trip like this, particularly with the possibility of encountering bad weather, you do not want to hear your trusty Lugger diesel engine begin to slow down spontaneously. We thought we had resolved the RPM variation issue by replacing the fuel flow sensors, as I described last week. Apparently not. It only took a couple of cycles of this to realize we weren’t going anywhere.
OK, now you know what happened. If you don’t want to read a bunch of geeky stuff about trying to fix fuel flow issues with diesel engines, this might be a good place to stop.
Because this is an ongoing issue, I pulled out my phone to capture some video of what was happening. I compiled a short compilation of those clips in hopes that it will be helpful in trying to diagnose and finally resolve this problem. I’ll include a link at the end of this post.
What we saw and heard
- While cruising at our normal 1800 RPM, a spontaneous drop of > 200 RPM, which was very obvious listening and watching the tachometer. The engine would slow down, stay at lower RPM for a moment, and then speed back up to the “right” RPM. Several instances of this are illustrated in the video. We also saw this when running at Wide Open Throttle (WOT).
- As this was happening, the Maretron display showed large fluctuations in fuel flow as recorded by the inline sensors. It looked like the decrease in RPM was associated with an increase in reported fuel consumption, but it is hard to be certain because the system averages readings over a 5 second window.
- There did not appear to be any fuel restrictions as would be measured by the fuel supply vacuum gauge, which is mounted on the fuel filter manifold. In fact, the reading we saw on the gauge was 0, surprisingly low, and meaning no fuel restriction.
Troubleshooting and attempted fixes
Diesel engines are pretty simple and very reliable. According to Wikipedia:
The diesel engine (also known as a compression-ignition or CI engine), named after Rudolf Diesel, is an internal combustion engine in which ignition of the fuel is caused by the elevated temperature of the air in the cylinder due to the mechanical compression (adiabatic compression). This contrasts with spark-ignition engines such as a petrol engine (gasoline engine) or gas engine (using a gaseous fuel as opposed to petrol), which use a spark plug to ignite an air-fuel mixture.Wikipedia
Diesel mechanics say that 90% percent of issues are due to fuel delivery, so we decided to work our way through the fuel system from supply to return in order to identify and eliminate potential causes. Here’s what we did:
- Inspected and replaced the Racor primary fuel filters. These are the first stage of filtration, making sure that the fuel to the engine is clean. If there is contamination in the fuel, these filters remove it. They eventually need to be replaced. The indicator is the vacuum gauge I mentioned earlier. There was no symptom of high vacuum, but the filter had not been replaced since we started our trip to Alaska, so we replaced it. By the way, the system actually has two filters, so if one gets clogged you can easily switch the the backup.
- Replaced the Lugger secondary fuel filter. This one is mounted on the engine and is the final stage of filtration. It was replaced this summer while we were in Alaska but had not been replaced since the tanks were inspected and the sensors installed, so we did this one as well.
- Inspected and cleaned the Algae-X filter, which is some odd contraption that a previous owner had added. It is essentially a housing with a magnet in it, through which the fuel passes on the way to the engine. I suppose it is yet another stage of filtration, but it is entirely unclear that it actually does anything. Nevertheless, we disassembled and inspected it. All clean.
- Having done all of this, and “bleeding” the fuel system to make sure no air remained in the system after changing filters, we started up the engine. We ran it up to 1800 RPM at the dock, and still saw the RPM (and fuel flow display) variation, even when the engine was running in neutral under no load. So, clearly none of these items were the cause of the problem.
- Next, on the advice of the knowledgeable mechanic that replaced our fuel flow sensors, we “bled” the high pressure side of the engine, which involves loosening the fuel injectors while the engine is running to ensure that no air is trapped in the system. This had no effect – same symptoms when running at 1800 RPM at the dock.
- Finally, we bypassed the Maretron fuel flow sensors using a couple of fittings to connect the fuel supply and return lines, respectively.
At this point we were out of ideas, so time for a sea trial. Unfortunately, the variation was still present… smaller and far less frequent, but noticeable both by the sound of the engine slowing down and watching the tachometer needle drop and rise back up. This time it seemed to be less noticeable at cruise RPM, but clearly evident at WOT (as shown at the end of the video). So, I think we can conclude that the Maretron sensors are not themselves the cause of the RPM variation. Now we need to turn to the fuel system on the engine itself, perhaps the fuel injector pump or even the injectors.
Bottom line… back to the yard. We plan to limp over to Philbrooks in the next day or so, which will be our new jumping off point for the trip South.
Here is the YouTube video that illustrates the issues: https://youtu.be/UFkKP2qk-AI
After some late night and early morning detailed weather reviews, we cast off the lines and headed out toward the Strait of Juan De Fuca and Neah Bay.
The weather was beautiful and calm and it looked like we would beat the northerly winds by heading west out the Strait.
Well, the gods, or maybe the furies, are not smiling on us today. Or maybe they are by having us face this engine issue before we are out at sea.
Only a mile outside of the marina the engine showed very significant RPM decreases. This only had to happen a couple of times for us to make the decision to turn around and head back and figure out what the heck is going on.
So we are back in our slip. Larry and Steve spent the day going through all the easy to fix and diagnose items like fuel filter clogs, taking the fuel flow monitors out of the circuit, etc. We thought we might have fixed it and took the boat back out to trial it, but the spontaneous RPM variations continued.
We will be making a trip to the yard for diesel work rather than down the coast over the next few days.
More to come as we figure out what the situation is.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Robert Burns
Looking at our cruising budget, a surprisingly big chunk of it is dedicated to communications. I wrote earlier this summer about internet connectivity in Alaska (https://mvmissmiranda.com/2019/07/30/cellular-data-and-connectivity/), and here I review our current inventory of communication tools (with a few comments from Gwen).
We have several Cellular data providers, described below:
- T-Mobile – OnePlus plan that when we started, claimed to provide unlimited data in the US, Canada and Mexico. Of course, since we signed up, they have placed constraints on the data, limiting the high speed data in Canada and Mexico, and we have heard, limited the amount of time that the service can be used in Mexico… likely not the 6-7 months we will be there. Reading the T-Mobile website, I see that they have revised their definition of “unlimited” data to be unlimited 2G data, rather than the unlimited High Speed data that was advertised when we signed up. And our cell phone carriers wonder why we hate them. Between our 3 lines and a couple of new phones, our bill is over $200/month.
- Verizon – Unlimited pre-paid JetPack plan. This has actually worked well for us at our home in Anacortes. For $65/month we get unlimited data at pretty good speed on our Verizon Mifi device. This is our only internet service. It does not work at all in Canada and Mexico, and we learned this summer that it works only in Ketchikan and Juneau Alaska.
- Google Project Fi- Probably the best plan for use internationally. Base rate is $20/month and then we get billed for data usage, topping out at an additional $60/month for up to 15 GB of high speed data. No problems in Canada, no problems (we’ve heard) in Mexico.
- Iridium GO! is essentially a wifi hotspot that connects to the Iridium satellites and transmits data at, wait for it, 2400 bps. I have to go WAY back to my early computer days to remember serial modems that were that slow. On the plus side, it was relatively inexpensive to buy, and allows for email, text messaging, calling via your existing phone, and weather data retrieval. We bought ours from PredictWind (described below) and have an unlimited data plan at cost of about $120/month. We did use it a lot in Alaska for texting with Miranda and some other cruiser friends. There were a few times in fjord areas with high stone walls where it didn’t work and also varied with the level of the tides in Alaska, but neither of those issues will exist in Mexico. Our phone number on the Iridium does start with 82, so if you get a mysterious call beginning with that it could be us, so answer it!
- Garmin inReach is a similar, less capable device that rides on the same Iridium satellite network. It costs less than the GO! and data usage charges are about half that of the GO!, but we find the capabilities to be extremely limited – position tracking, which we like, and text messaging, which is barely adequate. It does, however, have an SOS capability, which we hope is a good safety feature. (Gwen did find many interesting stories on the Garmin website of real rescues that occurred for mariners using the Garmin SOS feature, although all were in US waters). The only reason we have it is that it is a CUBAR requirement for fleet communications. Data cost is about $65/month.
- PredictWind Offshore is the tool we use in conjunction with the Iridium GO!. It allows us to plot our route and download weather data (GRIBs) that covers the route. We can see forecasted conditions, get routing recommendations, and look at different departure time options. It takes care of connecting with the GO! and retrieving the data. I find PredictWind to be an OK tool, but it is far from a comprehensive weather planning tool. It does a fine job of retrieving and displaying the GRIBs, but has almost no capabilities for retrieving the many NOAA forecast and analysis products that I use to supplement the binary data. In the next section, I will describe my solution for retrieving these products. This is costing us $250 annually.
- There are several ways to use email to retrieve the NOAA forecast products. NOAA has an ftp email server that you send a request to, and it sends back text or graphical data for the specific product requested. There is also a service called Saildocs that does something similar. The issue is sending and receiving email over a satellite connection. The Iridium GO! comes with a very rudimentary email solution that only works on IOS devices. We used it this summer in Alaska, and found it to be completely inadequate for any serious use. In looking for a better solution, I discovered that there is a niche industry that supports long range cruisers by providing email services customized for low bandwith connections, first using SSB radio, and more recently, using satellite data connections. One that I have started using is called UUPlus, which basically sets up an email server on your local computer, connects to the Iridium GO! and sends highly compressed messages that are decompressed and forwarded on their servers on the other side. It has a handy feature of being able to fetch multiple NOAA weather products at predetermined times so you don’t have to sit there and wait for the very slow satellite transfer. I really like it… but it is extremely pricey at around $30/month. We are giving it a 3 month trial on the way down to Mexico. The primary use underway will be for weather data, but it will also be useful for email communications when we are away from cellular and/or wifi service (which I assume will be fairly regularly). We can also use email to make blog posts, which otherwise require pretty high bandwidth connections.
I am afraid to add up the total costs here, but you can see that it is a pretty significant chunk of our cruising budget. Part of that is that we have all of the underway data sources as additions to our existing land-based services (e.g., T-Mobile, Verizon). We also have a fair amount of redundancy (e.g., both Iridium GO! and Garmin InReach, multiple cellular providers).
We will evaluate the services we actually use after we have some time in Mexico and likely eliminate some. For example, I could see eliminating the InReach services as soon as we finish CUBAR. I would also consider eliminating the PredictWind subscription, and using the email-based weather retrieval services in conjunction with one of several free GRIB viewers. I don’t think we will do anything about our multiple cellular plans.
Well, we now have had time to really work on storage perfection, sorting and labeling. The galley is stocked with everything I can imagine I want for cooking. I’ve been also cooking every day, so we have some meals stored up and now I am working on baked treats.
It looks like the weather will open up this weekend. We are planning to depart on Saturday morning at 6am to head to Neah Bay, which is about 90 miles from Anacortes all the way out the Straits of Juan de Fuca, just before turning into the Pacific Ocean. Which we will do on Sunday morning, and go as far as we can down the Washington and Oregon Coast, before another low pressure turns the weather ugly again. We should be able to make it to Newport, Oregon without a problem under current weather forecasts.
This is the snack box for the helm person while underway. We do anticipate it being rolly so easy to eat snacks are key. Our friend and experienced captain and cruiser of Mexico Steve is going with us as crew, so we will do rotating shifts between the 3 of us. Larry is very excited about this box. I will also have fruit and veggies but I may be the only one who eats them.
Tomorrow I will start my anti-seasickness regimen. This involves hydrating like crazy, and starting one of my two preferred medications before bedtime – either Gravol, which is from Canada, or Stugeron, which is available in Europe. I had Miranda buy a bunch last summer. Both are more effective than dramamine in my experience. The other very important parts of avoiding being seasick is no alcohol for one or more days before departing (and of course none while underway) no heavy breakfast, and keep the carbs and liquids going. Ginger also helps settle the stomach so I have ginger snaps and ginger hard candies too.
We will post pictures as we pull away from the dock!
We knew what we were going to hear when we spoke with our weather router yesterday, and he confirmed that we should NOT depart today. The weather for the next 5 to 6 days in the North Pacific is ugly.
The basic message for maps like this is that orange and red are bad. The lower right corner of the map also mentions that predicted wave heights to go along with the very strong winds would be over 3 meters (that’s over 9 feet for those who have forgotten the metric system). Yikes!
As much as we want to get going, we don’t want to risk our lives and our boat. Not to mention guaranteed seasickness. So, we are holding. The weather does look like it gets good toward the end of the week, so we will talk with our guy again on Wednesday. We also will continue to watch all the weather metrics ourselves.
We spent yesterday transporting most of the rest of our supplies and stuff to the boat and stowing it away. A few days ago during a very windy day we had a disaster that made this all a lot more challenging. Our wonderful wagon that has transported groceries and boat parts for long hikes in port was resting on the dock in between loads when it was caught by the wind and sailed right off the dock into the waters of the marina! Our dockmate tried to catch it but no luck. We fished for it where it went in, but the tide was high. We are currently in the moon cycle where the tides don’t change nearly as much and remain pretty high, so we have not spotted it at the bottom of the bay.
But – our friend Sarah came to our rescue at our goodbye dinner on Thursday! She very generously gave us her red wagon. So I have been putting that to good to use. I think I am even going to name it. If you have any suggestions don’t hesitate to tell me.
We are using all the hidey holes for storage we can find on the boat. This long and narrow one works for the Christmas tree parts. I still need to figure out where to put the ornaments. We will be in Puerto Vallarta for Christmas and Miranda is determined that we have a tree just like always!
I am writing this on Friday, September 20th, which was to be our departure date for heading down the Pacific Coast to California and then on to Mexico with the 2019 CUBAR Rally. Well, things have not gone quite according to plan, and it is kind of a long story, so go grab a beverage, sit back and relax (or go read something more interesting).
I am sure that many wise and experienced boat owners have said something along the lines of “Never have major boat work done just before a big trip”… I think we now know why. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we put Miss Miranda in the yard right after returning from Alaska with what somehow became a lengthy project list. The good news is that the vast majority of the work was executed flawlessly and we are very happy with the improvements. The bad news is that a couple of items were not quite right, and they are critical. I know those same wise boat owners also said “Make sure you do a sea trial with the yard before leaving to ensure that EVERYTHING was completed to your satisfaction”. Good advice. Why didn’t I think of that?
The biggest issue that we discovered was a problem with the newly installed fuel flow monitoring system. This is intended to display the engine’s fuel usage and economy while underway. On diesel engines, fuel passes through the engine and about 20% is actually burned. The system uses sensors that measure fuel flow to the engine and back from the engine and from that computes fuel usage. While on our way back to Anacortes, we noticed that the fuel burn readings were very erratic while we were running at a constant RPM, and that the engine RPM was varying slightly… but enough to be a concern, as it had never happened before. To make a long story short, the sensors installed were undersized for the engine.
We found another issue as we were fueling up for the trip. We let the fuel level on the boat get really low on the way back from Alaska so that we could have the tanks inspected. They were in great shape, and the fuel was polished and returned to the boat. We measured the remaining fuel to calculate how much we needed to take on using our “tank tender” system. All went well until we came to the starboard aft tank, which measured as empty. We started filling the tanks and almost immediately got fuel flowing back from the vents. That is obviously not what is supposed to happen. I crawled into the lazarette and discovered that the sender from that tank had been broken off. The empty reading was false, and the tank was actually full (or very close).
The yard’s response to these issues was great – they arranged to have a technician come to us in Anacortes to do the repairs. Fortunately, I was able to secure a pair of the proper fuel flow sensors locally, because they were on back order from the Maretron factory. So far, all good with our tech scheduled to arrive on Wednesday morning.
Then I made a very unpleasant discovery in the engince room. There was a line of red fluid across the floor which seemed to be coming from the wing engine. It turned out to be Automatic Transmission Fluid from the gearbox. Not good.
The mechanic arrived on Wednesday and took care of the fuel flow sensors and the tank tender, and then turned his attention to the fluid from the wing engine. The diagnosis was bad main seals (that go around the propeller shaft), and the bad news was that it was not possible to replace the seals or rebuild the transmission. We had to either buy a new transmission or put a drip tray under the transmission, keep a large supply of fluid on hand, and hope for the best. Lenny, our technician, had replaced these units before, and assured us that he could replace ours pretty quickly. It turned out that a shop down in Everett had one in stock, so off went Gwen for a little ride to pick it up. It was late in the day by the time she got back, so we planned for an early start the next morning.
Of course, nothing goes quite as planned… the old transmission did not want to come off, and in the struggle to remove it, Lenny cracked one of the mounting plates. Furthermore, I was told that Lenny needed to get back to his regular clients and would have to leave, finished or not, at the end of the day. Some discussion with the transmission shop led to a solution for removing the old transmission, but involved yet another trip to Everett for Gwen.
Lenny was finally able to remove the old transmission and got the new one painted while we waited for Gwen to return. Amazingly, he was able to install the new transmission, align the prop shaft, and test the wing (at the dock) and still make his 4 PM ferry back home. Lenny is an outstanding marine technician, and we greatly appreciate his mechanical wizardry.
As all of this was happening, we had a call with our weather router, who suggested that we delay our departure until (at least) Sunday to avoid a frontal system moving across the Washington offshore waters. We were not unhappy about this, as all of the unexpected repairs had put us behind schedule in loading up the boat.
We got out on the boat for another sea trial on Friday 9/20. It was all good news. The wing engine worked flawlessly, and the fuel monitoring was much more consistent, with no more RPM variation.
Now we are busy with the final preparations and waiting on the weather window. We have another call with our weather router today (9/21) to determine if we are still on for a Sunday departure.