I spent some quality time in the engine room while we were at Puerto Escondido trying to diagnose the problem with air bubbles forming in the Racor filters.
I have been suspicious that there was a leak in the Racor filter manifold itself, despite it being brand new. Fellow N50 owner Ron Goldberg suggested that I test this by creating a vacuum in the filter housing and seeing if it holds. The method for creating the vacuum is to run the engine at idle and then shut off the fuel valve at the supply manifold. The engine continues trying to suck fuel in and will create a vacuum, shown on a gauge mounted on the filter manifold. When the vacuum level reaches the desired point, shut down the engine and monitor the vacuum level for a period of time. This sounds scary, but in practice was pretty easy – the vacuum rose pretty slowly after I shut off the fuel supply, and I could shut down the engine by closing the fuel solenoid. The fuel manifold lost very little vacuum over an hour, even after operating the filter selector valve a bunch of times. I concluded that there is no leak in the filter manifold.
I did the same test on the fuel supply manifold and had the same result. It too was able to maintain a vacuum, which means that none of the valves or their connection to the manifold itself were leaking. That leaves the lines back to the fuel tanks (including the fittings) or the “dip tubes” in the tanks themselves.
The next experiment was to select different tanks (Miss Miranda has 4 fuel tanks, port and starboard, forward and aft) as the supply to the filter manifold and look for changes in the amount of bubbling. To get an idea of what the bubbling looks like, take a look at this very shaky video. You can see towards the end of the video that there are few, if any bubbles. That is the result we are looking for. The bottom line was that I saw many fewer bubbles when drawing fuel from the aft tanks. These are much smaller tanks (115 vs 500+ gallons) and have shorter dip tubes, and seem to have less opportunity for air leaks. This is very good news. It seems that we should be able to run from the aft tanks with much less air leakage and much less concern about pockets forming in the Racor filter housing. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we have a fuel transfer system so that we can refill the aft tanks from the forward tanks.
The very last check was on the fittings to the forward fuel tanks. I have pretty easy access to the top of the port forward tank via a hatch in the galley floor. I disconnected the fuel supply line from that tank and inspected the adapter fitting. That fitting needs to have thread sealant on it to prevent leaks. The sealant on the fitting was 20 years old and most of it seemed to be gone. I cleaned up the fitting and applied new sealant. The tests for bubbling, unfortunately, were inconclusive. It seemed to be less than before, but still more than the aft tanks. It is possible that the source of the leak is the dip tube itself or the hose, or the fittings at either end.
I was a little bit disappointed after doing some more testing while underway. Under more load, there are still bubbles in the filter housings when drawing from the aft tanks, and after a short, two hour run, the fuel level in the filter housing was down, though less than previously. Racor does say that it is normal to have the fuel level down about halfway when you open the filter housing, so not sure if this indicates a problem. I did try drawing from the port tank while underway, and there seemed to be less bubbling than when drawing from the aft tanks, so maybe the thread sealant helped. I’ll continue running from the port tank and monitoring as we continue along the way.
I now have a very good idea of where the air leakage is coming from. I will probably wind up having to replace the supply lines and fittings to the tanks (and maybe even the dip tubes) before returning to the US, but can I can get that work done when we return to La Paz.
We are back on the grid after a week and a half cruising from La Paz up to Puerto Escondido. Lots of posts and lots of pictures coming, but first this maintenance update for those who love the smell of diesel in the morning…
Well, the new Racor manifold has not worked as well as hoped. Underway we are seeing some small bubbles on the output side of the manifold which we are not concerned with… the engine has no problems with these and has been running smoothly. However, there are bubbles apparent in the filter bowls themselves, which indicate that air is getting into the filter housings. This air is either coming in from the input line OR it is the result of a leak somewhere within the racor fuel manifold itself.
Why is this a problem? Well, the fuel filter sits in the housing, which is filled with fuel right up to the top of the filter. There is a cover that seals the housing closed, which has a gasket and a t-bolt to tighten it down. When bubbles form in the (bottom) of the filter housing, an air pocket forms at the top. When the air pocket forms, the fuel level goes down (and no longer covers the entire filter). If too much air gets in, the fuel level might get to the bottom of the filter, and air would get into the output line to the engine. If enough air gets in the line the engine shuts down.
The bubbling seems to be minimized by running both filters simultaneously, so that’s what we are doing. I have been monitoring the bubbles as we are underway, and the I measure and top up the fuel level at each stop. We’ve had no problem on runs as long as the 40 mile, 5 hour run from La Paz to Isla San Francisco, but the fuel level has gone down in the housing each time. That’s not a big deal when we are doing short runs, but will become a real problem when we need to make multi-day passages.
Refilling the housing has become part of the departure checklist, and now that we are here in Puerto Escondido, I plan to add a section of clear tube to the fuel line going in to the Racor manifold, just like I had last year. If the fuel going in is clear and without bubbles, I will know (again) that it is the manifold. If there are bubbles in the input line, that means that there is an air leak upstream of the manifold. More to come, I’m sure…
On Saturday January 30th we moved the few miles from Marina CostaBaja to Marina La Paz. The plan was to be here for a week for what we hope is the last set of boat projects with Cross Marine Works before we get underway for some real cruising. The main project is replacing the dry stack muffler, as mentioned in a previous post. The muffler arrived here in La Paz, delivered by a freight forwarder that specializes in bringing parts across the border. The shipping cost was 35% of the overall price, which covers the 16% tax plus another 19% for shipping and handling. There was an optional additional “special shipping charge” that got added on after it arrived in Mexico that we agreed to in order to get it here in a timely fashion. Otherwise we suspect it could still be in limbo.
Another issue to be attended to is a fuel delivery problem on the Tohatsu outboard for the big dinghy/tender. In spite of adding a gasoline stabilizer, it appears that the fuel got gummed up after sitting so long in the heat. Apparently this is a common problem down here. It is likely that there is a problem in the internal filter or the injector pump itself. Not too big a deal, or so we are told. While we are looking at the dinghy, we are hoping to get some canvas repair done on the seats. Apex did a terrible job on the bench seat for this model.. the fabric is not waterproof, the foam gets soaked and the seat stays wet. The edges of the seat covering have now come loose, exposing the foam. What’s worse, the seat back, which screws into a couple of supports that allow it to fold up and down, has some rot at the screws, and they are coming out. I suspect the back is plain plywood, covered by the aforementioned non-waterproof fabric. We will have some canvas guys take a look at repair or replacement.
A last, “while we are here” issue is addressing the one piece of teak on the exterior of the boat- the cockpit cap rail. We have not done anything with it since we’ve owned the boat, and it is in desparate need of refinishing.
Day 1: Very good progress, removing the stainless steel vent grates, removing the old exhaust insulation and removing the stainless steel bolts, all of which came out pretty easily. Late in the afternoon, they cut the access panel in the back of the stack. The muffler is now ready to come out.
Day 2: The muffler is out! They took it out while we were away for a walk, and used the davit crane to lower it to the dock. The rest of the day was devoted to making an access panel out of the piece of fiberglass that was removed from the back of the stack.
We also took the opportunity, while the stack was empty, to install a new VHF antenna on the port stack wing. That was a part I sent down to replace an improperly installed antenna for the back up radio. Apparently the installers twisted the cable resulting in a dead short… that means no transmit or receive on that radio. We knew that it was not working the whole way down to Mexico, but confirmed the short when we in La Cruz last year. It’s good to have the new antenna in place and a working backup radio again.
Day 3: Time to get the new muffler installed. We used the Davit to lift the new muffler up onto the boat deck.
Day 4: We lifted the new muffler into place, put in the new gaskets and re-used the original stainless steel bolts and nuts to secure it in place. Now the focus is on fabricating a flange for the cutout and fitting the fiberglass panel back into place.
Days 5/6: Getting very close! Today they installed the insulated jacket, reinstalled the aluminum housing for the the exhaust fans, and closed everything up. The only item that remains is installing and sealing the access cutout. They got this done on Day 6 (Saturday), and did a good boat wash to clean up.
The problem with the motor was as suspected; gummed up fuel in the high pressure pump. After Rob cleaned out the pump, the motor started right up. Also, we discovered that the steering ram had frozen up… a little shot of grease took care of that. A future project to go on the list will be installing a primary fuel filter before the on-engine filters. The seat came back from Hector the canvas guy, who repaired the seat back and re-glued the fabric covering on the seat bottom. Cost was 500 pesos!
Teak Cap Rail
We had Mauricio from Rob’s team working on the only piece of exterior teak on the boat for the entire week, stripping off the old varnish, sanding it down and gradually building up many coats of fresh varnish. Unfortunately, I neglected to take any “before” pictures, but trust me, it was in bad shape. We never touched it in the four years we’ve owned the boat. It now has 4 coats of varnish, and according to Rob, could use 4 more. We might come back in April to have that done. Oh, and the flagpole is also redone and looks beautiful.
Our thanks to Rob and Kim Cross and the rest of the crew at Cross Marine Works. They did a great job – high quality work with attention to detail. Recommended if you need any work done in La Paz.
Hot Water Valve. We recieved the fittings that we ordered to properly repair the hot water line mentioned here. The rescue-taped jury rig was holding up surprisingly well, with just a little bit of leakage. The new fitting was easy to get on and the whole job was done in less than 10 minutes.
Racor Fuel Filter Manifold Revisited. You may recall that we had some issues with our fuel delivery system last year, as outlined here and we wound up getting a replacement fuel filter manifold from Racor as decribed here. Well, this week I finally removed the old manifold, installed the new one and replumbed the fuel connections to reconnect the fuel transfer filter back to the tansfer pump. Easy job, but very messy. It seems that there is no way to do that without distributing diesel fuel all over myself and the engine room. But, it is finally done.
I left just a little bit of clear tubing in the output from the manifold to the engine so I can see if there is any air in the fuel line. We will test it out when we restart the main after the muffler install, and will have a good chance to watch it while we cruise up into the Sea of Cortez.
Generator Oil and Filter change. So easy it is hardly worth mentioning. The oil change interval on the generator is 200 hours, and it was due this week. With our reverso oil change pump, it is as simple as letting the generator warm up a bit, pumping the old oil into a waste bucket, replacing the filter and refilling. We should be good for most of the season now.
The weather over the next week or so looks outstanding… sunny and warm with light winds. Our goal is to get out of La Paz on Sunday (Feb 7) and start heading North towards Puerto Escondido, where we expect to arrive in late February. We think we won’t be back to La Paz until late April as we think about heading back to the USA.
Clean up after your Perro!
Nothing to do with the project, but we loved this sign at the marina.
Miss Miranda is equipped with a watermaker, which we found to be a “nice to have” up in the Pacific Northwest, but is a must have down here in Mexico. Our boat holds a little bit less than 300 gallons of water, and we tend to use 20-25 gallons a day, depending on how often we shower and do laundry. So we have at most a 10 day supply on board. Given the general scarcity of water in Mexico, where it is common that people have water delivered to their homes, it is important to be able to make our own. Anyway, when we left the boat in March of last year we “pickled” the watermaker for long term storage, which consists of adding a chemical preservative to the system… kind of like winterizing the domestic water system on a boat or RV.
We just got around to “unpickling” the watermaker in yesterday, in part because we were waiting for a new filter, as one of those we sent down with Red Rover was the wrong size. The unpickling process is pretty straightforward. It involves allowing the system to fill with fresh water to displace the preservative and then circulating fresh water for a half hour or so. Next, we put in new filters, and then we were ready to test the system by making some water. Everything seemed to work perfectly… except the “product” water was contaminated with a chemical taste. We have a TDS (total dissolved solids) tester that allows us to check the quality of the water, and it was reading well over 950 PPM, even after making about 15 gallons of water. As a reference, the TDS in our filtered drinking and tap water on the boat is 150-160 PPM, and any water over 500 PPM is not considered safe to drink. Seawater is about 35,000 PPM!
It was now time for some professional help, so we called Hector Marine, who is the local watermaker dealer. He had two techs over on the boat within an hour, and they found the same thing – the watermaker was working properly (meaning it was producing fresh water from salt water) but the quality was poor. They saw PPM readings as high as 4000, and not lower than 1500. From this they concluded that the membrane needed to be replaced. This was not terribly surprising, since it was last replaced by the previous owner in early 2015, and the average lifespan is about 5 years.
The membrane is the real guts of the watermaker, and it works via reverse osmosis. Put simply, salt water is pushed through the membrane at high pressure. The membrane prevents salt from passing, so what comes out is fresh water. About 10% of the water pumped into the membrane assembly comes out as fresh or “product” water, and the remaining “brine” is pumped overboard. Our watermaker can produce about 30 gallons an hour or a little more than a day’s usage.
It turns out that they have the membrane in stock here in La Paz, so they removed the assembly and took it to the shop to install a new membrane. The very next afternoon they were back to reinstall the assembly on the boat.
After about 30 minutes of installation and flushing with fresh water, we were ready to test the watermaker. After just a few minutes of run time, it was producing product water at 238 PPM, which is just fine.
I am super impressed with the quality and speed of the work done by Hector Marine. It is almost shocking to have a job like this, especially one that requires a replacement part, to be completed in just about 24 hours!
Boat projects can sometimes be fun and satisfying (OK, at least satisfying).
There are three conditions that must be met for this to be the case.
Having the right parts on hand
Having the right tools on hand
Having the project be in a (relatively) accessible location
In my experience, the confluence of these three factors, which I call the triple play, is very rare. Well, yesterday it happened.
The project at hand was replacement of the sea water pump for the stabilizer heat exchanger. The stabilizers are powered by a hydraulic pump running from the main engine, and the fluid moves the fins. This fluid is at high pressure and gets hot, so it needs to be cooled. On our boat this is by means of a heat exchanger that is cooled by seawater. A 120V pump circulates this water, and it runs all the time that the boat is underway. If the pump dies, no more water circulation, and soon, no more stabilizers, which will shut down when the fluid gets too hot. So it is a pretty important piece of equipment, and it is one of those single points of failure… there is no backup pump installed.
I have been suspicious of the pump for a while. It runs pretty hot, and in fact, part of underway engine room checklist is checking the temperature of that pump. For that reason, I bought a spare pump before we came down to Mexico. I did not install it, however, following my new “ain’t broke don’t fix” rule. Well, coming back to the boat I discovered that it now is broke, so its gotta be fixed.
Getting the old pump out was pretty easy. It was clear that the line from the pump to the heat exchanger needed to be changed, but as it happened, I had some spare hose of the proper size and almost exact length. One small complication was that the new pump has the motor control unit mounted on top of the motor instead of the side. In the picture you can see the unit on the old pump on the left side of the motor. That makes it easier to access the mounts, but interferes with the 90 deg elbow for the water output, seen in the middle of the picture.
Putting the new pump in was straightforward save for running the hose. I had to angle the elbow off the centerline in order to get the hose and clamps attached and then had to make sure it didn’t rub against the side of the compartment. Of course, the mounts were laid out differently from the old pump, so I had to drill new holes, and it was a bit of a tight fit getting the screws in. After it was mounted I just had to wire it up to AC power. Once installed, all I had to do was open the through hulls for the inlet and outlet and prime the pump – a simple matter of loosening the bolt to the left of the elbow until a little bit of water flowed out. A quick test confirmed that we had good water flow. Success!
I was surprised when finished to find that the job had taken most of the day – about 5 hours or so. Things just take a long time on a boat, due to a combination of tight spaces and rummaging for various tools and parts. When it all comes together, though, it sure is satisfying!
I had a little bit of apprehension this morning. The plan was to start the main engine… after sitting for 9 months. I primed the fuel system, Gwen pulled off the stack cover, and I turned the key… YES, it fired right up!!
Coming back to Washington with no boat left me wondering what I would do with myself this summer. As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to land a job as a Training Captain with Freedom Boat Club, which has seen a tremendous jump in membership during this “stay local” summer.
Being landlocked, I’ve rekindled my on and off love of cars and fast driving. It all started with my buddy John buying a Mercedes AMG sport utility (yes, there is such a thing) and signing up for the AMG driving school, which wound up being cancelled due to the pandemic. Talking with him reminded me of doing track days in Wisconsin with my 2005 BMW M3 with the local chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. They offered High Performance Driving Experience (HPDE) days during which you would receive driving instruction and drive your own car on a race track with an instructor (until you were “qualified” to drive solo). It was not racing, in that passing was strictly by consent, but it was a whole lot of fun! I did several events with them, eventually graduating to “solo intermediate” and drove at Blackhawk Farms in Illinois, and Road America in Wisconsin, reputedly one of the fastest tracks in the world.
I figured that we could find a local, non-brand specific driving school, and sure enough, we discovered Proformance Racing School at Pacific Raceways, a bit south of Seattle. They offer a range of programs from one day high performance driving school to lapping programs to a full two day racing school.
Next, I needed to find a car to use. We have a 2014 BMW 328i wagon, and believe it or not, these turn out to be pretty good on a track. Gwen was having NONE of it, however, as it is our only car. So the search for a cheap, trackable car was on. John realized that it might not be a great idea to turn his fancy, very pricey AMG into a track car, so agreed to partner with me on one. I remembered that my other buddy Ryan was a car guy with a shop and a bunch of cars. We pulled him into the search as an advisor and eventually wound up buying a 1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R from him for dirt cheap. The SE-R is no M3, but it is a lightweight, manual transmission coupe with a reliable, but low-powered engine. In other words, a car that is not likely to get you into trouble on the track.
Having secured the car and drawing up partnership papers, we went to work on preparing it for track days. This included the following parts and service:
New/upgraded brake pads, rotors, lines
New windshield, as the old one was cracked, new wipers
New rear hubs (bearings were shot)
New CV axles
New coolant system hoses
New fluids – oil, transmission, coolant and brakes
New sparkplugs and wires
New headlights and turn signals
New air intake
As you can see, money can be spent on a car nearly as quickly as it can on a boat. Fortunately, it seems to flow in slightly smaller increments, and we were able to use Ryan’s very well-equipped shop to do the work. It was actually fun to work on the car in a shop with a lift and all the right tools. Like working on a boat, except that everything is easy to get to. Soon, we had the car ready for our driving school day.
John, Ryan and I all did the Proformance Driving school together. John opted to drive his AMG, and Ryan drove his C5 corvette, leaving the SE-R in my capable(?) hands. The morning included a bit of classroom talk and a number of exercises such as braking, a slalom course, lane changes and deliberate skids to learn how the car reacts. I did quite well with the skid exercise… the car’s antilock brakes are not functional, so I had to brake the old-fashioned way.
The afternoon consisted of lapping the track with a coach in the passenger seat showing us the track and providing real-time instruction and feedback. We all had a great time, and agreed that we would come back for a lapping day, during which we would receive another hour of in-car instruction, and then be issued a “sport” license and a logbook to record our progress. This would allow us to drive solo on subsequent track days.
I realized during the driving school that the old suspension was shot, so we ordered a set of coilovers (which are an adjustable set of shocks and springs). While we were waiting for the coilovers to ship, John and Ryan both got out and earned their sport licenses, and I was signed up to earn mine the week after the parts were to be delivered. Ryan and I installed the coilovers, lowering the car 1.5″ in the front and 1″ in the back, and I then took the car in for a full alignment, which is necessary after replacing suspension components.
Finally, I was ready for my track day and the chance to earn my sport license. I had a good day, and the instructor was impressed with how our little car handled. His main suggestion was to replace the stock seat with a proper sport or racing seat and harnesses. Thus, another item was added to the upgrade list (that is turning into a bit of a long story best saved for another day). All was going well during my first solo session when I noticed that the car suddenly got a little noisier. I came back into the pits and had a look, but didn’t see anything amiss. I went back out onto the track for a few more laps, and it got louder again. Clearly there was a problem. It turns out that I had cracked the exhaust manifold (in several places, actually). We had been thinking about adding headers and a sport exhaust system anyway, so this was a handy excuse to pull the trigger on yet another upgrade. The problem is that all of us had signed up for another track day just a week later. A few frantic calls, a whopping shipping bill, and a hard-core overnighter by Ryan got the new headers in place in time for our track day this week.
John wasn’t able to make it, so it was me in the Nissan and Ryan in his Corvette for a sunny afternoon down at Pacific Raceways. The start of the session was delayed a bit due to the crash of a Mercedes AMG GTR coupe on the front straight in the morning session. We heard that it was caused by a rear tire blowout, which caused the car to go off the track and into the retaining wall. Fortunately, the driver was not injured, and equally fortunately, had track-day insurance to cover the damage sustained by the nearly $200,000 car.
We finally got out on the track and were having a great time. The car was handling well, and I was running a bit faster than my last time out as I started to get a feel for the track. I got a very cool timing device called Harry’s Lap Timer that uses the iPhone to capture data and video. Here is a clip showing my best lap in the Nissan:
If you look closely at the video, you will see that there are cones along both sides of the track. The orange cones indicate braking zones, the yellow cones indicate turn-in points, the green cones indicate the apex of the turn and the white cones indicate the track out points. Basically, you should come as close as possible to the green cones and the white cones coming through and out of the turn and you’d better be off the brakes by the time you are at the yellow cone.
After about 15 laps or so I heard the exhaust get louder… again! I pulled into the pits, opened the hood, and could see the gasket sticking out of the joint between the header and the exhaust pipe! Looking closer I could see that two out of the three bolts holding the pipes together were gone. Very disappointing! I was done for the day after less than an hour.
Or was I? Proformance has a fleet of Toyota FRS sport coupes that they use for the driving school. They will also rent them out during track days, I discovered, for the princely sum of $200 per half hour of track time.
I decided that I had spent too much time, money and effort getting here to sit around for the rest of the afternoon watching other people have fun, so I ponied up the $200 for a session. The FRS is a very nice car, featuring a 200 HP engine (compared to the 140 HP in the Nissan), a six speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive, a comfortable seating position, and all the expected modern goodies like anti-lock brakes (yay) and traction control (boo). It was definitely faster than the Nissan, and I liked the steering feel of the rear wheel drive. I managed to turn in a lap time 4 seconds faster than my best in the Nissan.
While I really enjoyed driving the FRS, it really made me appreciate how good the Nissan is. The FRS definitely had a softer suspension with more body roll, and I don’t think the tires were as good as the ones on the Nissan. The braking was similar, and I realized only after the session that the traction control on FRS was kicking in around some of the tighter corners (the funny chirping sound you might hear in the video as I go around Turn 3b). The power and top speed was certainly nice, and it is definitely a more refined car. However, at a purchase price (used) at about 10x what we paid for the Nissan, I think we have put together a little car with pretty good bang for the buck. I did love driving for several laps in front of a hot Mustang that blew past me when I was driving the Nissan, and could not get around me in the FRS… even with me giving “point bys” in the passing zones. Ryan said the Mustang driver was commenting in the pits that he couldn’t get around me because I was too good a driver.
To top the day off, I think Ryan felt a bit sorry for me, so he let me take a couple of laps in his Corvette. That is a much more serious car, powered by a 350 HP v8 with a 6 speed manual transmission that will get you going to “oh sh!%” speeds in a hurry. It was a blast to drive, definitely way faster and stronger than the other two cars, and noticeably heavier. But it was really very easy to drive smoothly around the track. Thinking about the difference between the cars, I was driving both the Nissan and the FRS pretty hard, but going easier yet faster in the Corvette. I felt like I could push both the Nissan and the FRS hard without getting into trouble, but not so with the Corvette – much like my old M3, it was a much better car than I was a driver.
All in all, a great day, and I realized that I really do like doing this. Next step is to get the Nissan repaired – in this regard it seems much like a boat – and get back out on the track for more fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!
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.