Nadir in New Jersey
(or, “Delaware Bay Bête Noire”)

In the age of Teslas (and in the wake of the VW emissions test defeat-device scandal), diesel engines are beginning to seem like an anachronistic means of propulsion, but until marine hybrid-electric drives become mainstream, it’s what we’re stuck with. I want to make sure that this blog isn’t just a highlights reel and the past week was definitely one of the low points of the trip this far, a roller-coaster-like drop exacerbated by the fact that it came on the heels of a spectacular week in NYC and a cold, but otherwise great overnight passage down the coast of New Jersey.

After about 21 hours running down the coast, we pulled into Cape May, NJ, at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore. Based on favorable weather, we planned to stay for just one night, resting up for a sail up Delaware Bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and into Chesapeake Bay. EXIT’s 63-foot mast is too tall to fit under the Cape May Canal fixed bridge, which has a vertical clearance of 55 feet, so we need to go around Cape May and its series of shoals on the Atlantic Ocean side. (These have some great names: Eph Shoal, Prissy Wicks Shoal, Over Falls Shoal, etc.) Aiming to catch the current as it changed to a northwest flood up the bay, we left our anchorage in front of the Coast Guard Training Center (the “sole accession point for the entire enlisted workforce”) at 06:29 a.m., about 45 minutes before sunrise. Things didn’t go as anticpated. Here’s an email that I sent to my family explaining what happened:

From: Drew Williams <drew@svexit.com>
Subject: Re: New Jersey
Date: October 20, 2015 at 09:00:51 EDT
False start departing Cape May today. 25+ knot winds on the nose and confused 2-4' seas were making rough going. We had 45-60 minutes before making the turn up into Delaware Bay and the engine started acting funny: slowing, oil pressure alarm. Engine died after I switched fuel filters. We turned back to Cape May and unfurled the genoa a bit. Was able to start the engine again coming into the channel. Think that I will get to spend the day looking at the fuel system and hope to try again tomorrow. An exciting morning in a different way than planned.

My first assumption was that the extremely rough weather had stirred up gunk (to use a technical term) in our fuel tanks and that we’d clogged a fuel filter. I hadn’t changed filters since the beginning of the trip and was highly predisposed to don a hairshirt for failing to maintain the engine properly. Once back at the anchorage, I changed the primary filter, bled the air from the fuel lines — a procedure that involves opening a vent on the top of secondary fuel filter and pumping the fuel lift pump with one’s thumb until the mixture of air and diesel coming out of the top of filter (like a suppurating wound) is just spurting diesel. Then the high-pressure fuel lines leading to the injectors are loosened until just diesel comes out. The whole process seems a bit barbaric, dripping diesel onto “oilsorb” pads down in the bilge. I was unable to change the secondary filter because we didn’t have a filter wrench aboard, but got the engine running again and let it idle for about an hour to ensure that everything was okay. Turns out that wasn’t sufficient. Here’s an account of our second attempt to round the cape:

From: Drew Williams <drew@svexit.com>
Subject: Re: New Jersey
Date: October 21, 2015 at 19:07:14 EDT

Thought that we had the engine issue fixed yesterday after I changed the primary filter, bled air from the engine and was able to run it for about an hour to cool the fridge. Unfortunately, on our second attempt at Delaware Bay, about the same amount of time out, the engine died again. Linda did a great job of sailing back and forth while I attempted to fix the engine. I was able to get it to start and even idle for a long period of time but it would slow, sputter, and die when put into gear and loaded up.

Unlike yesterday, we weren’t able to get it started entering the channel (and all of the mechanics we talked with said they’d only help if we were at a dock), so we ended up getting a TowboatUS tow into the Canyon Club marina. We’re vastly outnumbered by sport-fishing boats here.

Expect to have someone look at our engine tomorrow (still think that it’s fuel/filter related, but have reached the end of my diagnostic/fixing abilities). If fixed, will attempt to enter Delaware Bay (for the third time) on Friday.

The weather was calmer than before and we saw porpoises off of the port quarter at sunrise, which I hoped was an auspicious omen. Unfortunately, about the same 90-minute interval after our departure, the engine revs slowed and it shuddered to a halt. Captain Benny, from TowboatUS was amazing a maneuvering us into the dock, spinning EXIT 180° at the last moment before gently putting us onto the end of the “B” dock. (I only wish that EXIT could back-and-fill like that under her own power.)

A mechanic from the Canyon Club service yard came by and, though he seemed reluctant to engage, thought that changing the secondary filter would do it. We were able to walk to a West Marine just up the road to get a filter wrench, and we had a spare secondary filter aboard.

From: Drew Williams <drew@svexit.com>
Subject: Re: New Jersey
Date: October 23, 2015 at 11:07:34 EDT

Update: Changed the secondary filter yesterday and got the engine running smoothly. Unfortunately, when it rains, it pours, and we’re experienced a couple of new engine issues: The clamp securing the throttle cable to the fuel injector disappeared. (The engine was shuddering pretty hard when it would die and it may have vibrated the clamp right off.) Luckily, the parts folks here at the yard had a $2 replacement that seems to work great.

Once restarted, we’re no longer able to stop the engine via the button on the control panel. Possible diagnosis: diesel in the wiring as a result of bleeding the lines. Have tried some dispersant/cleaner in the wiring and can stop the engine manually using the lever at the fuel injector. Think that we’re going to have someone look at that in Annapolis.

Lastly, as a test at the dock, we switched over to the backup Racor filter land the engine stalled, just as it had on Tuesday. I decided to change the backup filter as well and discovered that it was only 10 micron. Replaced with a 30 micron and bled the lines and am able to switch back and forth without issue. Also loaded it up in gear to 1500-2000 RPMs and was able to run it for 30 minutes loaded.

Weather not favorable today but looks good for a departure tomorrow a.m. (though the current change is happening later and later each morning). We’re going to try and “sea trial” the engine today while in the harbor.

Hoping to get to Annapolis beginning of next week.

Didn’t work:

From: Drew Williams <drew@svexit.com>
Subject: Re: New Jersey
Date: October 25, 2015 at 13:04:26 EDT

Third time not a charm.

Approximately 90 minutes after our departure Saturday morning, the engine sputtered and died again. Linda sailed us up the bay under just the genoa while I tried (again) to fix the engine. We’re starting to suspect a slow air leak in the fuel lines somewhere. Called L-M and tried their recommendations: tightening fittings and hose clamps along the line. I put in a new length of hose to bypass the aft Racor which had a suspect valve. This new hose is transparent, which allowed us to see air bubbles moving toward the engine. Upon their reaching the engine it would sputter and die. I was able to repeatedly bleed the lines and get it restarted, but it would only run for about 10 minutes before the air would move through to the engine and kill it. I removed the hose from the tank vent to see if it was blocked. All of this was to no avail, so we raised the main and sailed back down the bay, against the current, to the harbor entrance, arriving at around 21:30 to take another tow from our (now good buddy) Captain Benny of Towboat US.

Back in the same slip that we were in two days ago. Everything closed today, but will attempt to source professional help again tomorrow.

Just finished The Martian this morning. Good book to have read while this was all happening.

I think that it’s safe to speak for Linda by saying that we were both despondent after being forced to turn around this third time. This bit from The Martian really resonated with me:

“Have you ever taken the wrong freeway entrance? You just need to drive to the next exit to turn around, but you hate every inch of travel because you’re going away from your goal. I felt like that all day. I’m now back where I started yesterday morning. Yuk.”

– Andy Weir, The Martian

At this point, I felt like I had reached the end of my ability to successfully diagnose and fix the issue(s) that we were experiencing and I was having trouble locating professional help. Everyone was overbooked with winter decommissioning work, or didn’t want to deal with our type of engine (Perkins Prima). My inability to see a clear path to resolution was very anxiety-provoking, and all four of us were staring to go a bit stir-crazy at the marina, set in a relatively pedestrian-hostile section of town, at a cold time of year when most of Cape May was closing for the season. It was a terrible place to be experiencing engine issues as boats are not allowed to sail down the C&D Canal and, in order to make the timing for the current changes, one needs to be prepared to motor up Delaware Bay.

“One of the most aggravating problems on many traditional four-cycle diesels can be persistent air in the fuel system.”

– Nigel Calder, Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrial Manual

First thing Monday morning, not feeling like it was going to happen with the Canyon Club yard, I started calling around looking for alternatives. Utsch’s Marina, across the channel, said that they no longer did service, but recommended Mid-Coast Marine. Mark Schrenk, Chief Engineer Unlimited, Master 500 Tons, and owner/principal of Mid-Coast was able to fit us in late afternoon. He arrived and immediately dove in with me to begin troubleshooting. Mark’s demeanor was entirely different than the mechanic from the yard, with clear, forcefully expressed opinions (e.g., 2-micron Racors are the way to go) and a can-do attitude. We placed a new priming bulb (like on an outboard) just downstream of the tank valve. This allows the line to be primed much more quickly and completely (including topping off the Racor housings) and when we loaded up the line with a bit of pressure, the suspect three-way valve started leaking fuel. I redid my hose “hack” to bypass it, and when we primed again, didn’t see any fuel leaks (yay!) and were able to start then engine, run it at load, and even push the throttle wide-open without issue. We also installed a vacuum gauge on the forward Racor (now the primary primary) allowing us to monitor whether it’s having difficulty drawing fuel, which will trigger a filter change. Both seem like a great improvement. Mark actually called me from his drive home to Atlantic City, to recommend that I put a couple more hose clamps on my workaround line. Very thoughtful.

The weather looked good for a Tuesday departure (and better than subsequent days), but in the intervening week, the current change had moved later and later. Instead of a 6:30 a.m. departure, we were now looking to depart at 1:30 p.m., and instead of having the current change at the top of the C&D Canal at 3:30 p.m., it was scheduled to change at 11:26 p.m. meaning we’d go overnight to get through. Nevertheless, we were motivated to depart Cape May and make it to Annapolis (and Washington D.C.) and decided to go. We took on 75 gallons of diesel (felt like a full tank would be prudent), left the marina just after high tide around 10:30 a.m., and anchored out at our (now favorite) spot in front of the Coast Guard base. I still saw a small air-bubble in the line, but it didn’t seem to be getting worse. At 1:35 p.m. we departed Cape May to try (once again) to get up Delaware Bay.

The seas seemed even taller and more confused than the previous Tuesday and we decided to motor for the first portion to test the engine (thinking that if it was going to break, we’d still want it to break near Cape May rather than at the top of the Bay, which doesn’t have much in the way of resources). We both held our breath at the ninety-minute mark, but the engine sounded good. We made it past two hours. I kept checking the fuel line and, not only did the air bubble not seem to be getting worse, I wasn’t seeing any air in the line at all. We were seeing the tachometer needle starting to bounce, which previously had been a sign that our alternator belt needed tightening. We decided to ignore the issue for the time being since we’d just spent several days on shore power and both battery banks were fully charged. The bouncing got worse until finally both tachometers flatlined. After more than four hours of washing-machine conditions, the seas settled down enough to make raising the main (double-reefed) seem doable. When we turned off the engine after raising the sails, I thought to myself “hey, I should try to start this again. You know, in case it doesn’t work, we’ll still have time to diagnose and fix while we go up the bay.”

Of course it didn’t start. Nothing at the panel even though the batteries were showing good voltage. One more call to Scott Esancy at Lyman-Morse to describe our symptoms and he recommended looking at the wiring harness. In a clear violation of the Hippocratic Oath, my efforts to fix the fuel/air issue had caused harm: Changing the secondary filter and/or bleeding the lines had loosened/damaged the connections for not only the stop solenoid, but the entire engine panel. Linda, ably, as always, sailed us up the bay, while I opened the engine compartment to begin tracing, jiggling, cleaning, and retightening wires. With the key in the on position, I’ve never been happier to hear the squeal of the low-oil-pressure alarm that precedes the engine starting. Even though we were sailing along at 6+ knots, we decided to just keep the engine on so that we’d be sure to have it at the top of the Canal.

The sail up the bay kept getting better as the water smoothed out, the push from the current increased, and the full moon broke through the clouds. It was also much warmer than our passage down from New York. We entered the canal at 11:30 p.m., just 4 minutes after our target arrival, which I ascribed to luck rather than expert pilotage. The Canal itself was surreal at night. The lights along the north side of the breakwater looked like runway approach lights, flashing sequentially, and alongside each side of the canal were yellow sodium-vapor streetlights, which one blog post on the canal characterized as “being lit up like a shopping mall parking lot”. The remaining 2.5 hour trip was peaceful and easy and we dropped anchor in the basin at Chesapeake City at 1:42 a.m. Wednesday morning. We slept well that night, free of our engine and Delaware Bay anxiety, and happy to no longer be in New Jersey.

Special thanks to Mark Schrenk from Mid-Coast Marine, who along with John Reilly (of our turbocharger oil line fix), continues the line of excellent diesel mechanics we’ve been lucky enough to encounter on this trip, and to Scott Esancy, from Lyman-Morse, who was on the receiving end of numerous phone calls from me and was always very patient and gracious in giving me advice and guidance.

Just to keep things in perspective, friend-of-EXIT Charlie Calhoun, who is currently between boats but was nevertheless extremely helpful in offering troubleshooting and repair advice on this particular problem, closed one of his emails with “Wish I had boat problems.” There’s an old joke about cruising, that it’s just fixing your boat in exotic places. I understand that problems like this are an occupational hazard of our current lifestyle and look forward to doing fixes in a locale more exotic than New Jersey.

Me, looking sweet in my engine-troubleshooting gear.

Me, looking sweet in my engine-troubleshooting gear.

Staring into the abyss (actually, just looking at the fuel tank pick-ups)

Staring into the abyss (actually, just looking at the fuel tank pick-ups)

New primer bulb

New primer bulb

Razor fuel filter compartment (before I put in a clean oilsorb pad).

Razor fuel filter compartment (before I put in a clean oilsorb pad).

3 Comments

  1. Drew:

    I have been watching your “progress” on the DeLorme tab and it was clear that you entered and exited Cape May at least twice and stuck your nose into the Bay but three times (or was it four) seems excessive. Engine problems aside, it sounds as though the bay was its usual short/steep self as I described sitting in front of the fire at Halseys. I have done the C&D at night and if you are not exhausted from the leg up the Bay it is a pleasant motor trip.

    We decommissioned our boat for hauling a few days after you left and following family visit stops in Massachusetts, northern New Jersey and Virginia, we now have both cars at home in North Carolina.

    I will monitor your progress and communicate again when you are approaching our area. Let me know if you need anything for the boat or crew as you proceed south.

    Best regards,

    Gary Ross (garyhross@yahoo.com)

  2. Drew and all you dearies, Well, it wasn’t “the doldrums” but certainly required tenacity, initiative, lots of problem solving and improvisation, exchanging of roles and duties, et. al. Hope all goes well now and you have some smooth sailing as well as a fabulous visit to DC. BTW, I’m relieved to learn that most all boat owners/sailors do spend much of their time digging into the engine and other systems in the cavern underneath the galley. Dave’s and my Dad did a lot of that on our little boating trips. He was good at fixing or tweaking those matters. Our hero. Congratulations, Drew and crew. Love, Mindy

  3. Tenacious D! Wow. That was a humdinger! I’m now going to go study up on my Yanmar diesel engine manual. Ich habe keinen Engine repairen Skillen…

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