A stressful "puzzler"…

I remember the NPR radio show “Car Talk”, and how each week Tom and Ray would have a segment called “the puzzler” in which they tried to diagnose some weird car problem.  Well, I have a boat version of the puzzler. As I mentioned in a previous post, when preparing to depart from Tenacatita the engine suddenly shut down after idling along for a few minutes.  This was not good.  At all.  Diesel engines are simple and reliable… and almost all issues are related to fuel delivery.  We have been battling fuel delivery demons on and off since departing in October, and believe me, you do not want to have a fuel delivery issue when traveling offshore.

My immediate suspect was the Racor 900 duplex filter assembly.  This fancy setup has two fuel filters connected by a selector valve.  You can run the fuel through one filter or the other, or both.  The value of this setup is redundancy.  If, for some reason, your fuel filter gets clogged (say by some bad fuel), you can simply select the other filter, keep the engine running, and then change the clogged filter.  Sounds good right?  Yes, if it actually works.

You may recall that we actually bought a brand new filter assembly back in Sidney before we started on the journey down the coast.  This was part of solving the air bubbles in fuel line problem that was causing very disturbing RPM variation (post).  We determined that the old filter assembly was leaking air, and as a matter of expediency, we simply had Philbrooks install a new one.  We were dismayed to observe that the new filter assembly also leaked, so the guys tightened up the bolts on the fuel selector valve, and all (seemed) good.  In retrospect I believe that was a mistake.  Anyway, we took off, ran 2700 NM down the Pacific Coast of North America, and had no problems…. Until I changed the fuel filter.  I did what I always do in this situation – I turned the selector to the unused filter and replaced the used filter.  The next time we started the boat, the engine died.  It was clear that there was something wrong with the selector valve, at least in the position of the forward, or looking at the assembly, the left filter.  I also noted that the selector lever was extremely tight, and it was very difficult to feel the “detent” indicating the selection of that filter.  Long story short(er), we had the selector valve rebuilt, did a sea trial, tested all positions, seemingly successfully, and thought we were good to go. 

We left from La Cruz down to Bahia Chamela, and later to Bahia Tenacatita, a total of about 130 NM underway.  All good.  Until the morning in Tenacatita.  When the engine shut down, I checked the filter assembly.  The level of fuel in the active filter was quite low.  I refilled the filter with fresh fuel and then went through the process of priming the fuel system and bleeding the injectors.  It seemed obvious when working the manual priming pump that there was air getting into the fuel line regardless which filter was selected.  My experience has been that when you are working the manual pump, it becomes stiffer as the air is replaced with fuel when bleeding at the secondary, or engine, filter.  This was not happening.  I could not get the engine primed with fuel.  Also, I noticed that the selector valve was very tight, like before, even after it was rebuilt.

The Racor dual filter assembly drained of fuel and ready to be disassembled. The troublesome selector valve has a yellow handle. Below the fuel filter assembly is the fuel supply manifold, to it’s right is the return manifold. This allows me to select which tank to draw fuel from (we have four).

Because I was very suspicious of the selector valve, I decided to disassemble the manifold and plumb together a single filter module.  I got it done and went through the priming routine again, and this felt a bit better – the pump was offering some resistance.  But, bleeding the injectors was not successful.  I managed to get engine started, but it shut down again, and again, it seemed clear that there was air coming in somehow.  And again, the fuel level in the filter module was low, even though I refilled it completely when I reassembled it.  Listening carefully, I could actually hear the sound of some air leaks around the body of the filter module.  The supply line from the tank via the manifold had some old black electrical tape at the joint between the hose and fitting.  I wondered if it had been suspected as a leak previously, so I replaced the electrical tape with a good wrap of rescue tape.  That wasn’t it.  There was a black plastic nut beside the fuel input port, and I was able to tighten that a little bit.  Also, it seemed that there may have been a leak between the upper and lower parts of the filter assembly, so I tried tightening the four retaining bolts and was able to get a bit of a turn on three of them.  Repeating the priming process again, still no start. 

In desperation I made another call to my man Lance at Diesel Premier (he had been taking my calls and offering advice all day – even though it was Super Bowl Sunday).  His suspicion was the supply from the tank.  We had been drawing and returning to the starboard tank, but have regularly alternated between port and starboard.  It didn’t make much sense to me… but it was an easy thing to try.  I though there must be something else, so I put a wrench on all of the fittings on the Racor filter and on the engine side.  I was able to get a bit of a turn on each of them, including those to and from the fuel pump assembly on the engine.  After one last round of priming and injector bleeding, I was finally able to get the engine started and running.  We ran it up to 1700 RPM for a few minutes and left it to idle for at least 30 minutes.  No problems.  I put an old filter top vacuum gauge on and it was recording good, low, but non-zero vacuum.  After running, I checked the fuel level in the housing, and disturbingly, it was low.  I estimated that I needed to add about 24 oz of diesel to bring it back up to the top.  I did see a little bit of fuel between the bowl and housing when I checked the level, but it is hard to tell whether that is a real leak or the result of small drips when topping off with diesel.  I suspect a leak in the filter housing itself. 

I refilled it and we decided to take the chance the next day on the 12 NM run to Barra de Navidad where we could be at a marina to make repairs. We made it with the wing engine idling the whole time, just in case.  We were nervous the whole time, not confident that my single filter jury-rig was reliable. There weren’t any detectable RPM variations the whole time.

The simplified setup with a single Racor fuel filter. This seems to be working…

So, here we are in Barra trying to figure this thing out.  I have some clear hose and fittings on the way so that I should be able to see any obvious air bubbles or leaks in the system.  There have been many suggestions for potential causes including a bad fitting, a bad piece of hose, tiny holes in the tube that draws fuel out of the tank, etc.  In the meantime, I replaced the Racor filter housing that I suspected of leaking with the other one, that seems not to leak.  We actually ran the boat for a couple of hours on this setup without any problems.  While I will systematically address all the possible sources of leaks, I remain very suspicious of the filter and assembly.  I have spare parts on order to completely rebuild that.

So that’s our puzzler for this week.

Bahía Tenacatita

After 4 nights at Chamela, the weather looked good for our 30 NM run down to Bahía Tenacatita.  It was another nice, easy passage.  We talked to our friends from CUBAR on Mahalo, who were headed North from Tenacatita to Puerto Vallarta to watch the Super Bowl.  Apparently, there was a mass exodus from the anchorage to places with TVs to watch the big game.  Being Seahawks fans, we had no such need. 

Saw another turtle on the way. Love these guys!

Tenacatita is a much larger bay than Chamela, and has better protection from the Northwest swell.  The head of the bay is a long sand beach that extends to a resort in the NE corner and over to an estuary entrance at the NW corner. Of course, over the days that we were here, the swell was more from the SW.  This time we went deep into the anchorage, almost closest to the beach.  It was much less rolly than Chamela, but we still wound up putting out the second flopper stopper after the first night at anchor.   

We learned that there is a free-for all on this coast of Mexico as far as developers go. Apparently in the last 10 years, this stretch of beach on either side of Tenacatita has been hotly contested in a land dispute that seems to have been resolved, but did result in the razing of all the palapas that were on the beach below about 10 years ago. Only one has returned.

The other side of Tenacatita. Bigger swell.
Picking our way in the mini-tender through the mangroves.

One of the highlights of Tenacatita is a tour of the estuary, through mangroves that close into a bit of a natural tunnel in places, just wide enough for a dinghy to make it through.  It is also quite shallow in places, meaning that we needed to use the small dinghy again.  It was challenging to pick our way through the narrow estuary, but after about 2.5 NM, we eventually emerged into a lagoon that was behind the beach at the next bay to the west of the main anchorage. 

Here a group of us had arranged for a tour of a Racilla distillery just up the road from the beach.  We were picked up in a van, and had a very nice tasting and lunch, learning quite a bit about how this local, indigenous cooperative produces Mezcal.  Their showcase offering is a 17 year old “Anejo” Racilla, which is the smoothest liquor of this type that I have tasted to date.  It was outstanding.  

The entry to the Cooperative that supports the indigenous makers of raicilla.
Our wonderful host – he spoke such clear Spanish at an even pace that we could understand nearly everything he told us.

Across the bay from the anchorage is the little town of La Manzanilla. On one of our days we headed into the beach and to town via a long and windy taxi ride to hit the weekly farmers market for some fresh produce. We stopped for lunch at one of the local lunch places that our cruiser compatriots liked. Great food, but Gwen had the disturbing experience of finding a huge 2 inch dead beetle in the bottom of her limonada glass after all the ice had melted. Definitely put a damper on her warm and fuzzy feelings for the place. The manager did the right thing and our lunch was free, so not naming the place.

Surf landings and dinghy wheels

Most of the anchorages in this part of Mexico are bays with at least some exposure to the Pacific Ocean and thus the beautiful sandy beaches have some amount of surf.  That is why we bought the small dinghy, but up until now we had not actually attempted a surf landing. When we went into La Manzanilla we did our first surf landing, under the tutelage of some experienced cruisers that we were going into town with.  The idea is to wait for a lull in the waves and then gun it at the beach before the next wave catches you, gracefully jumping out of the dinghy, keeping it from getting sideways, turning off the engine, and dragging it up onto the beach.  That is the theory anyway.  I’ll say that our first landing was not completely dry, but we didn’t tip the dinghy over… as we saw many others do.  And on the way back we learned that the “surf takeoff” is the hard part.  You drag the dinghy down to the water’s edge, push it into the surf deep enough so that it floats and the outboard can be tilted down into place, keep it straight, keep the waves from tipping it over, start the engine, and take off.  Easy as that.  Sometimes. 

Gwen soaking wet after taking a big wave from the bow of the dingy. She often looks like this after micro dingy adventures. We also stopped wearing our inflatable life vests since they were bound to keep exploding.

We quickly realized that we needed to install the fold up wheels that we had purchased to make surf landings and takeoffs a safer and drier affair.  The wheels make it much easier both on landing and takeoff.  Coming in to the beach with the wheels folded down keeps the outboard prop from digging into the sand, and when the wheels make contact, it’s time to hop out.  They make it easy to guide the dinghy into the surf and start the motor before boarding.  We didn’t have room to install them on the boat, so we packed up the necessary equipment and headed over to the beach to do the installation.  Gwen got drenched and rolled in the sand again on arrival.

Thank goodness for portable power tools.

Installing the wheels was really easy to do, just a matter of mounting a couple of brackets on the transom.  We took some measurements so the wheels would not interfere with the outboard or inflatable tubes, drilled four holes through the transom, slathered the brackets with silicone sealant and bolted them on.  The wheels are on steel legs that attach to the brackets with removable pins, and they simply flip up or down and lock into place. It was one of those satisfying boat jobs that only took about twice as long as it should have.  After letting the silicone dry for a bit, we had a stress-free surf takeoff!

Wheels up.
Wheels down.

After being in Tenacatita for several days, we decided to head further South to explore Manzanillo before heading back to Barra de Navidad, where we are meeting friends at the end of the month.  As we started our departure preparations, we started the engine, as usual, only to have it stall out after running for a few minutes.  This was not good… not good at all.  I immediately suspected our fuel filter system which has given us trouble off and on for the entire journey, most recently in Puerto Vallarta.  Anyway, we wound up spending the day making repairs, which will be the subject of another blog post.

The next morning I woke up early and saw the anchor alarm had gone off. A squall had come through in the night and it was still fairly windy, but we were so exhausted from dealing with the fuel system issue we slept right through it. Also, unlike the northwest where you hear every minor movement of the anchor against the bottom, there is no sound of an anchor dragging on sand.   It was well before daylight, so I checked our position against other nearby boats.  Sure enough, we were closer, but still a safe distance away.  As soon as the sun came up we prepared to raise the anchor.  All went smoothly, and this time the engine kept running (thank goodness).  We started up the wing engine just in case.  As we raised the anchor, we saw that it was completely wrapped up in it’s own chain… no wonder we dragged! 

We carefully moved away from all the other boats in the anchorage and tried to figure out how we would get the anchor loose.  At 137 lbs, we were not just going to pick it up and unwrap the chain.  Eventually we managed to get a line through the bar across the back end of the anchor to take some strain off the chain.  We then got another line through the chain near the shank of the anchor and were eventually able to get it all free.  Thanks to Hugo from another Nordhavn for providing moral and physical support from his dingy!

Halfway through the detangling. At first there were 3 wraps of chain around the whole anchor.

What a couple of days!  We had decided to head to Barra de Navidad and a marina 12 miles away to further evaluate the fuel delivery problem. We made it without difficulty, but not without anxiety.

Authored by Larry with editing and colorful additions from Gwen.

Boat Stamp

One thing we’ve learned during our travels in Mexico is that officials love their paperwork. Entering the country, we needed to complete a Temporary Import Permit for the boat, obtain Tourist Visas for all crew and formally check in to the country. This was not too much of a problem, and one of the aspects of cruising to Mexico that the CUBAR Rally made easier.

Once in Mexico, you actually need to check into and out of each port with the Port Captain, reporting your boat information, crew list, where you are coming from and where you are going next. So you have two pieces of paper for every port you visit. Often the marina will complete the paperwork and you go over to the port to get your paperwork stamped.

Well, after going through this a couple of times we decided that we wanted our own stamp. If every port captain is gonna make us fill out paperwork and stamp it, then we are too!!

A picture of the boat stamp on a piece of paper

Here it is. We were able to make it online (of course) and the biggest issue was getting the line art for the boat. With a little bit of searching I was able to find a method for converting a photo to something resembling a drawing (https://smallbusiness.chron.com/convert-photographs-line-drawings-gimp-46192.html) . I outlined the shape of the boat to eliminate the background and using a combination of effects, filters and conversion to black and white, I was able to get the image you see above.

The original image.

If you ever come aboard Miss Miranda, make sure you have your paperwork, and we’ll be sure to stamp it!!

CUBAR Videos

We had a videographer along on the CUBAR Rally this year, and he put together three really nice videos covering the cruise. His name is Justin Edelman and he is a great photographer, videographer, video editor, and all-around great guy. It’s his photo of Miss Miranda at anchor that graces the banner of our blog.

During CUBAR, we (OK, I) gave him the Mexican name of “El Hombre de Augua” after a very exciting water landing of his drone. We were on the dinghy expedition to the mangrove estuary at Man O’ War Cove, and Justin was in the tour leader’s panga taking shots of all the dinghys going back and forth. It was pretty crazy fun. Justin decided to launch the drone off the back of the panga, and almost instantly, it took a nose dive into the water in the panga’s wake. Immediately, Justin dove into the water… with who knows how many dinghys bearing down on him… and after a short time, emerges, with drone in hand! Of course the drone was dead. Hence the name.

Anyway, on to the videos…

This is a recap of the 2019 Rally, titled San Diego Yacht Club’s 2019 CUBAR Odyssey: Six Ports in Baja California, Mexico. If you look carefully you might see us and/or our boat somewhere in the mix.

The next one is about the medical donations collected for the Bahia de Tortugas Bomberos. Gwen played an instrumental role in selecting and sourcing the supplies as well as working with the Bomberos in Turtle Bay. She is featured in this video titled San Diego Yacht Club’s CUBAR Odyssey Powerboat Rally Supports Bahia de Tortugas Ambulance Services. This was the highlight of our Mexican adventure so far.

Finally, this is a kind of CUBAR promotional video for the San Diego Yacht Club, who are the event organizers. It’s intended to give people an idea of what participating in CUBAR is all about, and uses footage from this year’s rally. You can find it at Organized Powerboat Cruising Rally to Mexico: CUBAR Odyssey from San Diego Yacht Club

You can check out all of Justin’s videos at his YouTube Channel Nobleman Sailing Media

And, if you are interested in engaging Justin to document your boating adventure, feel free to reach out to him at his Nobleman Sailing Media website.

Fixing the Boat in Exotic Locations…

I understand that cruising boats are complex.  And I know that with so many systems it is natural that there will be a significant amount of maintenance and repairs.  I do.  Really.

What is irritating me a bit today is the failure of a component that was newly replaced, according to the manufacturers recommended maintenance schedule.  Before  leaving we tried to be proactive with maintenance and part replacement, and much of the work we had done at Philbrooks was around maintenance of the boat’s critical systems. 

We have just experienced one of those failures.  We were re-assigned to a better slip here in Paradise Village and were getting ready to move the boat at high tide, since the slip we were in was in a relatively shallow part of the estuary.   Following our normal routine, I started the engine and then the stabilizer system (to make sure that the stabilizers are locked in the center position while we maneuver the boat).  There was an immediate alarm from the system indicating “dangerously low oil level”.  This was quite surprising, as we have just been sitting here for the last week or so and we had no issues on the way in to the marina.  I went down to check, and sure enough, the stabilizer hydraulic reservoir was empty,  meaning that some 4+ gallons of hydraulic fluid have leaked into the bilge.  So, move aborted, I started looking around for the source of the leak.  on opening the access panel to the starboard fin assembly, the leak was obvious – the bilge area below the stabilizer was very wet.  None of the hydraulic fittings were wet or leaking, which left the actuator cylinder (the part of the system that actually moves the stabilizer) as the likely suspect.  A call to ABT TRAC get me in touch with the authorized service center in Mexico, and, with a stroke of luck, they were able to send over a crew within an hour.  After brief inspection, it was obvious that there was a massive leak in the seal around the piston – manually activating the stabilizer produced a noticeable amount of fluid right at the seal.  

Yes, that is a nearly brand new stabilizer actuator cylinder.

Fortunately, I had spare, rebuilt cylinders on board.  Why?  Because we had just replaced the cylinders (which were working just fine) based on the TRAC maintenance interval, which is six years (the system is 19 years old).  So, a brand new part that has a service life of 6 years failed after about six months of use.  Now, I can’t say anything bad at all about TRAC’s service and warranty.  They will replace the part and will ship it wherever it is needed.  But that is little consolation and doesn’t take into account the expense incurred in replacing the part.  

Bad seal… enough to leak 4 gallons of hydraulic fluid into the bilge….

I think there is a lesson lurking in all of this for me.  I think it was a mistake to replace the existing actuator cylinders just because they had exceeded the recommended service interval.  They were working fine and showed no signs of leakage.  I realize that in retrospect, I should have bought the replacement cylinders and put them into my spare parts inventory in case of a future failure.  I ignored the old maxim of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  I think from now on, we are going to follow this rule.

I’m also getting a little tired of writing about stuff that breaks… and suspect that you are getting tired of reading about it. Next post will be on “stuff that works”.

Stuck in a Maze of Fishing Nets!

If you had been following our inReach track today (https://us0-share.inreach.garmin.com/MVMissMiranda) you would have seen a funny course deviation and a doubling back, like this.

What the heck were they doing?

We left Chacala this morning to make the 45 NM run to Banderas Bay and Paradise Village Marina, our home for the next month. We wanted to have a look at the next bay South, Bahia Jaltemba, which is supposed to have a nice anchorage. We also wanted to have a look at the Gringo haven surf town Sayulita along the way, so we plotted a relatively near coastal route instead of heading well offshore.

It was a beautiful morning and we had some very large Bottle Nose dolphin riding along with us…. the biggest I’ve seen yet. There were a fair number of pangas out, and we suddenly noticed that we were approaching some net floats (which are often just empty translucent soda bottles, not fancy obvious floats like we see in the US) along our port side. We saw a flag marking the end a ways off, so we adusted course to go around the net. Well, we got to the flag, and found that it was connected to floats on both sides. So, we altered course some more to head seaward. Now, however, we started seeing net floats on both sides, and when we got to the next flag, we could see that we were well and truly hemmed in. As you can see in the voyager recording from our chart plotter below, we turned around to backtrack… a long way, and we eventually saw pangas near one of the flags. We sounded the horn many times and were studiously ignored. We drove right up to the pangas, and were still studiously ignored. We asked for help/directions in Spanish and got a vague arm wave seaward. So we turned seaward again, only to find that we were hemmed in again.

Our escape from the fish net maze. North is up.

By this time we didn’t know what to do. If I was confident in my line cutters, I would have just driven through, but the thought of fouling the stabilizers as well as the prop shaft had me really concerned. Finally, we realized that the net fisherman must avoid the shrimpers working close to shore in 80 to 100 feet of water. We backtracked some more to the end of yet another net and came around the inshore side, and aimed directly at the next shrimper we saw. That turned out to do the trick. As you can see, we backtracked for more than 4 miles and spent a nerve wracking hour trying to escape from the maze.

The rest of the voyage passed without incident, and we arrived here at Paradise Village this afternoon. This time, we earned our arrival beer.

Spanish Names

As we have been taking Spanish lessons and trying to communicate effectively with our Mexican hosts, we have realized that our names present something of a challenge for Spanish speakers.  So, for instance, instead of using Larry, I use my full name, Lawrence, but change it to the more spanish-sounding Lorenzo.  I try to always introduce myself to whomever we meet – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, etc, and “Soy Lorenzo” seems to work well.  In Mazatlan, I met a father and son team of Marine Service guys, named, aptly, Ruiz and Ruiz.  When I introduced myself as Lorenzo, Ruiz the younger immediately said “Lencho”, the shortened name for Lorenzo.  I kind of liked it… though Gwen was not entirely pleased.  She insists that it must be some kind of inside joke.

Mi nombre es Lencho…

Gwen has a very difficult name for Spanish speakers.  In fact, people everywhere seem to creatively mangle her name.  Even in the US, we regularly show up at restaurants looking for a reservation under her name, and wind up seeing “Glen”, “Owen”, or other odd takes.  So, having my own Spanish name, I thought Gwen would be well served by having one of her own.  She refused the standard contractions of her name, e.g., “Wendy”, and we eventually settled on Gabriela.  However, when we next met some people and introduced ourselves, I boldly said “Lencho” and Gwen…. choked.  She said “Gwen”.  She just couldn’t pull off the Gabriela thing.  The other morning when we were on the La Tovara Estuary tour, we introduced ourselves to our guide, who spoke some English.  When he heard Gwen, he immediately said “Cuando”, which is, of course, Spanish for “When”.  We had a good chuckle about that, but then I thought that this might be a good Spanish name for her.  We used it a couple of times the other day, and Spanish speakers who know a bit of English do get a kick out of it.  Gwen, not so much. 

Ella nombre es… Cuando?

Perhaps our faithful readers can help Gwen… what should her Spanish name be?