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.

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”.

Battery Woes Resolved… Yay!

Before leaving San Jose Del Cabo, I was able to finally identify the root cause of my battery problem (https://mvmissmiranda.com/2019/11/11/battery-woes/), and it was not a bad battery. That was a good thing because a replacement battery would have had to have been shipped to San Diego to a freight forwarder for delivery to Mexico, and the manufacturer would have likely wanted the old battery back. No fun.

So, what happened? In order to find the problem battery, I disconnected the cabling from all 5 batteries in the port bank and then measured voltage across each of them individually. Well, each one measured 12.9 Volts… exactly what a healthy battery should. This didn’t make sense to me, since when I tried to power the whole boat from that back alone, by switching it “on” and the other one off, I saw a rapid voltage drop and an indicator of dead batteries up at the pilot house monitoring panels.

CUBAR Fleet Captain and fellow Nordhavn owner Bill Roush came over to help me troubleshoot further. I was looking at voltage at a monitoring panel, and we wanted to see if the readings at the batteries were the same as the readings at the panel. It turned out that they were not. The batteries read a constant 12.9 volts no matter what we did, as if they were completely disconnected, even though the switch was on. Bill says “maybe the switch is bad”. I say, “no, can’t be, just replaced this year”. Bill, being somewhat more lithe than me, was able to reach way over to where the switch is mounted in the lazarette, and surprise, surprise, one of the cables was WAY loose. He was able to tighten the connection, and upon retest, the battery voltage was agreeing with the system measured voltage.

The culprit!

I was wrong in my suspicion of a dead battery, and Brother in Law Sean (who had gone back to Boston by now) was right in suspecting a bad connection. What turned out to be a complication was the input of the solar panels, which was creating a voltage that masked the fact that the battery switch wasn’t working. However, they did not provide enough amperage to power the systems as the only source. When we thought we were selecting the port battery bank, we were, in fact, powering the boat only off the solar panels. What I now realize is that for some unknown period of time, the port battery bank was disconnected due to the loose connection. When I saw a low battery voltage in Turtle Bay, I thought the batteries were 40% discharged. Because the port bank really was offline at the time, the batteries were, in fact 80% discharged, so the low voltage was perfectly consistent with that state of charge.

I am very glad to have found this, as a loose connection, particularly in a very high amperage DC circuit, is a serious fire hazard. So, happy ending to this one, and we are now off to Bahia los Muertos and the last leg of the CUBAR Rally.

Of course, the list never gets shorter… it’s just the items that change. It seems that our second Nav computer was a victim of the low battery voltage that occurred during the testing. It refuses to boot up, and the recovery procedure for booting from an external BIOS requires a wired keyboard. We probably have 5 keyboards on the boat… all wireless. So, we’ll be hunting for a USB keyboard in La Paz, or may even try to order one from Amazon MX and have it shipped to the marina. On to the next problem!

Battery Woes

The suspect is in here somewhere….

We have been in Bahia Los Tortugas (Turtle Bay) for the last couple of days after a 35 hour run down from Ensenada. We have a great story in an upcoming blog post with lots of pictures, but it will have to wait until we get someplace with better data connectivty. We had great Telcel phone signal, but no data here.

This is the first time we have anchored overnight in a month (since we were in Neah Bay). Unfortunately, when I got up the first morning to make coffee, I discovered that the battery voltage was unusually low. I realize that before I continue the story, I need to do a little aside explaining our electrical system and why low battery voltage is not a good thing…

Our boat has an electrical system based on large 12V DC batteries. These batteries power the electronics, lighting, water pumps, heads, etc, that all run on 12V DC, and in combination with an Inverter, also power 120V equipment such as the refrigerator, freezer, etc. The batteries (in what we call the “house bank”) are charged by chargers which run from shore power when we are at a dock or from a generator when we are at anchor. They are also charged by the solar panels that we installed recently. The bottom line is that the house battery bank is a critical system on the boat, and we carefully monitor the “state of charge” to make sure that everything keeps working as it should. One important detail here is that the battery voltage is a (rough) indicator of how fully charged the batteries are, and a fully charged 12V battery should read not 12, but 12.8 volts. If the reading is below 12V, as it was on this morning, that means that the batteries are either deeply discharged, or a warning sign that something is amiss.

Back to the story… we ran the generator to recharge the batteries and decided to monitor and record the state of charge data over the next 24 hrs to see if we could identify the problem. During the day, our new solar panels are working well, producing enough energy to keep up with the house loads (usage by the refrigerator, freezer, etc) all day. When the sun goes down, we start drawing on the house banks, and the battery voltage got pretty low by bedtime that night. The next morning, we were down to 11.5V. Clearly something was wrong.

Because our batteries are split up into two banks (they are in two bix boxes in the lazarette), I was able to isolate the problem by turning each bank off and observing the results. When I switched off the port bank nothing happened. So I turned it back on and switched off the starboard bank… and everything on the boat shut down. Clearly there is a bad battery in the port bank – so bad that the boat can’t even run on it. My suspicion is that the bad battery is creating a load within the battery banks, therefore drawing down all the other batteries. So, I disabled the port battery bank and started the generator to charge up the starboard bank. That bank charged back up, with voltage and other parameters as expected, so we think that set of batteries is still good. Therefor we are good to go, except with half our our battery capacity. We will need to conserve electricity usage and monitor the batteries carefully, but will have no problem continuing on down the coast to San Jose Del Cabo. Once we get there, our task will be to determine which battery (or batteries) is dead and figure out how to get a warranty replacement from the manufacturer.

Today (Wednesday, Nov 5th) we are underway from Turtle Bay to Bahia Santa Maria. It is a 30 hour run, and we have the same great weather (and fishing… also the subject of another post) that we had for the ride down to Turtle Bay. We expect to arrive tomorrow (Wednesday, 11/6) around 2 PM. We have heard that there is decent cellular data there, so we will be able to do some updates on the great time we have been having so far on the CUBAR Rally, Fishing, and enjoying Mexico.

Boat Repairs in San Diego

We arrived in San Diego a couple of days earlier than planned in order to get some repairs done for the issues I described recently. Boomer and his crew of two helpers showed up after receiving the necessary parts and went to work on fixing the leak on the new autopilot steering pump, installing a replacement for old, leaking steering pump, and replacing the coupling for the bow thruster. It was actually a bit scary to see Boomer disappear deep in the forward bilge to get at the thuster coupling. There is no way I would have been able to get in there, much less get out. After a long, hot day’s worth of work, we had a working bow thruster and two brand new autopilot steering pumps. The next day we did a sea trial around the harbor to make sure that all was well. Everything was good, so we were ready to go.

The new autopilot steering pumps mounted in the Lazarette.

We also had an issue with the stabilizers, which I THOUGHT we had fixed on the way down to San Diego. Briefly, the stabilizers on our boat are a pair of fins mounted on the hull of our boat. They are moved through a complex electical and hydraulic control system to counteract the rolling motion induced by waves. The stabilizer circuit breaker mysteriously started tripping, shutting off the control circuitry, and therefore, the use of the stabilizers. We actually discovered this on our run from Marina Del Rey to Alamitos Bay and spent a couple of hours underway without the stabilizers working. Even though the conditions were mild, we realized that we’d really rather have them working. After consultation with fellow owners on the Nordhavn Owners Group and Ernie Romeo, it appeared that the circuit breaker was undersized for the new power supply that was installed this summer. So, I changed the breaker, and everything worked just fine on the remaining legs down to San Diego. Of course, there was the nagging question of why the breaker had not tripped before….

As Gwen mentioned, we prepared to depart San Diego for Ensenada this morning, only to find that the breaker started tripping AGAIN. We turned around after getting less than 100 yards from the dock and tried to figure out what was wrong. It was clear that the circuit was not overloaded – the 20 Amp breaker was tripping with a measured 8.5 Amps of load. Now thoroughly confused, I decided to call Boomer – actually expecting to leave him a message. I just happened to catch him on the way in to work, and he came right over to the boat. He started troubleshooting and I was helping him recreate the problem, when suddenly, the stabilizers were not working at all – there was no hydraulic pressure. Boomer discovered the culprit, which was a failed main relay for the hydraulic system. This relay allows the hydraulic system to become pressurized and move the stabilizer fins. In a stroke of good luck, Boomer happened to have a spare relay at the shop. Replacing that and a fuse that blew when the relay failed finally fixed the stabilizer problem once and for all (I hope).

The failed relay at left and the fuse at right.

So, one more night in San Diego and we hope to rejoin the CUBAR group down in Ensenada tomorrow (October 31).

More Mechanical Issues

We are in Marina Del Rey, California enjoying the hospitality of the California Yacht Club, where we are on the guest dock. It is an end tie, which is a good thing for us because yesterday our bow thruster died. We were pulling out of Ventura Yacht Club yesterday morning, backing down the fairway and using the bow thruster to keep us straight in the narrow channel. Suddenly we started hearing a loud grinding noise as we engaged the thruster. Not good. We were out of the fairway, so were able to move on with normal steering control. On our approach to Marina Del Rey, Gwen spotted several mylar balloons and we decided to pick them up… good maneuvering practice. In swinging the boat around, I tried to use the thruster and more noise, no thrust, and soon, it seemed to lock up. Not good… not good at all. We proceeded into Marina Del Rey and had no problems getting on to the CYC end tie.

Coming into Marina Del Rey on a beautiful afternoon. Big Marina, BIG Yachts…

Soon after arriving I had a call from Ernie Romeo at ABT TRAC. I had been texting with California expat Devin Zwick of Nordhavn Northwest to see if he knew of any thruster experts in the area… he called TRAC as we were bringing the boat in (thanks, Devin!). Ernie suggested that we get a diver to see if there are any obstructions of the props and reckoned based on my description of the symptoms that the coupling from the motor to the props would be the likely failure point. I was pleasantly astonished to learn that the three parts to be replaced totaled less then $300, downright cheap as boat stuff goes. Ernie also suggested a service guy in Marina Del Rey, who we could not get in touch with, and one in San Diego, with whom we spoke and arranged a service visit next week. We have a diver recommended by CYC coming to look at the props today… maybe something got stuck in the thruster tunnel.

The ABT TRAC bow thruster, deep in the bilge. This does not look like fun.

It turns out that the very same technician will also work on our autopilot pumps. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we installed a back up autopilot system… which we needed, because the steering pump for the primary autopilot developed a leak which drained nearly half the steering fluid over the run from Neah Bay to Brookings. From Brookings, we switched over to the backup autopilot, and all was good…. except that the new steering pump also had a leak, though minor. After much wrangling by Ian, our project manager at Philbrooks, with Kobelt, the pump manufacturer, they agreed to send a technician out to fix the leak with the new pump under warranty when we arrive in San Diego. We also decided to replace the old, leaking pump. However, the Kobelt dealer does not install pumps. They recommended a local technician in San Diego that was the very same guy recommended by ABT TRAC to service our bow thruster. Very convenient.

So the new plan is to make our way down to San Diego for a Monday arrival. We will stop in Long Beach and Oceanside along the way and will visit the Southwestern Yacht Club in San Diego on Monday before arriving at the Police Dock on Wednesday. We will connect with the technician on Tuesday to begin the repairs. An oft-quoted saying is “Cruising is repairing the boat in exotic places”. I am not sure Southern California qualifies as exotic, but there surely are worse places to be…

Brookings, OR

Miss Miranda at the Transient dock in Brookings.

We arrived in Brookings on Monday, October 7th, after a very easy ride down from Port Orford. We knew that we would be here for a few days, as the forecast was for gale conditions along the Northern CA and Southern Oregon coast. Our friends and Anacortes neighbors Stuart and Judy have a place down here, and as it happened, Judy was in town while we were here. She took good care of us during our brief shore leave.

Crossing the Bar

All of the ports along the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon are at the mouths of rivers, and all have a “bar” to cross, which is a shallow zone where the river outflow meets the ocean. It can be quite hazarous to cross a bar when conditions are poor, and it is always recommended to cross as the tide is rising (towards the end of the flood). We timed our arrival for the beginning of the flood and approached Brookings with some apprehension… this was our first bar crossing. We did not have time to take any photos on the way in, but got this one looking back out when we arrived.

The bar at Brookings just after we arrived.

As you can see, the only hazard was all of the fishing boats trolling in the entrance channel as we were trying to come in. We went straight down the middle, and fortunately, the boats moved (barely) out of the way.

Maintenance and Mechanical Issues

When we arrived it was time to change the oil on the main engine. The oil change interval is every 250 hours, and the last time we changed was in Hoonah, AK this summer. This change should be good for the remainder of the run down to Mexico. We have a built in oil transfer pump, so it is a pretty easy job. The biggest issue is finding the used oil disposal facility, which is right over in the boatyard.

One of the nicer oil disposal facilities that we’ve seenn.

As we were doing a general mechanical inspection after the long run, we noticed that there was steering fluid leaking from one of the autopilot pumps. It is not obvious where the leak is coming from… the fittings and hoses are all completely dry.

The yellow color on the oil absorbent pad is steering fluid. Uh oh…

We cleaned up the area thoroughly and put down new pads. I cycled the pump a bunch of times to see if I could reproduce the leak, but no luck. I know the pump worked REALLY hard on the trip down, especially when we had big following seas. It turned out that it had leaked about a quart of steering fluid over the nearly 48 hours of continuous operation.

The astute reader will notice that there are two autopilot pumps in the photo above. We had a second, independent Autopilot system installed just in case of this type of problem. In consultation with the yard, we decided that on the next leg, we will run the primary autopilot until we can detect signs of leakage, and then switch to the backup autopilot. We also picked up another gallon of steering fluid in case more refills of the reservior were required.

Using the backup autopilot is fine… except that we have been experiencing problems with the new heading sensor (which tells the autopilot the direction the boat is moving in). We noticed that occassionally and unpredictably, the heading would be off by as much as 30 degrees. After more consultation with the yard, I discovered that the cause of this heading error was electrical interference from one of our DC circuits – the one that serves the lights in the master cabin. Turn that breaker off, and you can see the heading return to normal (in this case from 333 deg magnetic to 308 deg). Turn it back on, and the heading slowly increased back up to 333. Needless to say, this was not ideal placement of the heading sensor, but for now we will simply turn the breaker off while underway.

The Next Leg

It looks like a very good weather window is opening up starting on Friday. Our goal will be to move as far south as possible during that time. The major obstacles between here and sunny Southern California are the notorious Cape Mendocino, about 120 miles S of us, and then Point Conception, West of Santa Barbara. We are considering a straight shot from here to Santa Barbara, which is about 560 NM and about 3 days of 24/7 running. The other alternative would be to get to Monterey, which is about 375 NM and 2 days run. We will discuss with our weather router before we head out and then make an assessment along the way.