Have any of you ever wondered this? “How do they change their oil when they’re sailing around the world?” I’ll be honest, when we were first boat-shopping, I wasn’t even entirely aware the boat had an engine, much less one that had oil that needed changing, or that we (Phillip and I) would be the folks to do it. I was so clueless in the beginning! When I finally did start to ponder it, I thought we would just pull into one of those 10-minute oil change places, like you do with your car, and have it done. Yeah, ‘cause those exist on the water. It’s amazing Phillip has put up with me all these years. The blonde is real people.
After our beloved boat, primarily under the power of our engine, a Westerbeke 27A whom we lovingly call “Westie,” took us to fourteen stunning Abaco cays, it was time to change out his oil. A few years back, we found this nifty manual oil pump that allows us to do it ourselves right in the saloon. I put together a detailed, informative video for you all here from our “Maintenance in Marsh Harbour” and some photos below showing you how we change the oil on our boat, as well as the primary fuel filter and zinc. I also included one way, in particular, how NOT to do change the oil on a boat. You’re welcome! Watch and learn and we’ll hope an oil spill on board never happens to you. “Better get some towels,” the captain said. *gulp*
Ahoy followers! I hope you love boat maintenance as much as we do! While we’re not the best at it, we certainly strive to keep our beautiful baby ship-shape and in top Bristol fashion. Mainly, we feel very lucky to have purchased our boat from a previous owner who loved her just as much as we do and took exceptional care of her for twenty-eight years. WWJD: What Would Jack Do? is a running joke on our boat. We just try not to mess up what he started. One of the upgrades Jack made to our Niagara 35 was an ingenuous shift of the oil filter from a horizontal position (which forced the dirty oil to spill out of it during an oil change) to a vertical one, where it at least gives us a chance to catch the oil that will spill out when we swap the old with the new by placing a bag underneath. Thanks Jack!
We also found this great plastic oil pump kit (with a pump bin, hoses and fittings) a few years back in St. Pete (from a very interesting marine vendor, fun story for you here) that we stow on board in a big Rubbermaid bin that fits in our hanging locker. I’m not certain of our particular brand, but West Marine seems to have a comparable version of it here. We previously had a dirty old metal one, but the plastic one is much lighter and cleaner. Thank You Backdoor Marine Supply Guy!
We also feel very fortunate to have great engine access on our Niagara. The galley sink and cabinets simply pull back (we prop them on the table with a pillow) and we have instant access to all the major checkpoints on the engine. We can also remove the stairs for more access and I can crawl into the hatch in the aft berth and get behind the engine too, if need be. So, we can accomplish 360-degree access for major projects. Westie isn’t safe from our grimy hands anywhere! Ha!
Jack also installed a tube drain from the oil reservoir in the engine with a hose attachment that has a shut-off valve. The tube (currently capped and sealed off) is laying on the engine floor to the right of the transmission in this photo.
We connect this hose Jack put together for us (you will see the red shut-off valve) to that fitting by the transmission and then place the other end of the hose in the oil pump to literally suck the oil out of the engine and into our plastic oil pump.
Before we change the oil, we always crank the engine and let Westie run for about ten minutes to let the oil warm up and get viscous. Then we shut him down and rig up this pump and hose set-up. Once connected, we give the oil pump 15-or-so pumps to create the vacuum suction, then Phillip or I turn the red valve to the open position and you can literally see the black oil coming up through the hose into the oil pump. We can also hear it (a whooshing sound) and feel the heat of the oil going into the pump. We repeat this pump-and-release process about three times until there is barely any oil that comes through the hose upon release (meaning the oil reservoir in the engine is mostly empty).
In this photo, you can actually see the oil about halfway up the hose, about to come up over the bend and down into the pump near my hands. Phillip is watching that to make sure the oil is draining.
Once Westie is drained, we set to taking off the old filter (which Phillip is doing here with multiple Ziplock bags beneath), and I begin filling the new filter with oil. We put about a quart into the new filter and lube the gasket with it before putting it on the engine. We have also learned to wipe where the old filter was mounted and check to make sure the old gasket did not stick to the engine.
Once the new filter is on, we set to filling Westie back up with fresh, new oil. He loves that! We usually put about 2 – 2.5 quarts into the engine (plus the quart in the filter which equates to about 3- 3.5 quarts total. We have over-filled it before so we try not to do that. Our goal is to shoot a little low (plenty of oil for Westie to run and stay lubed, but definitely under the “full” mark on the dipstick) as we have found the new oil tends to expand a bit when we first run the engine after an oil change.
“While you’re down there,” I can just hear our buddy Mitch saying now. He was the friend who helped us deliver our Niagara when we first bought her back in 2013 from Punta Gorda up to her home port in Pensacola and all 6’3” of him didn’t seem to enjoy the process of climbing up and down our “little toy stairs,” which meant every time I went down to grab something, it would be immediately followed by a request from Mitch that started with “While you’re down there … ” So, while we were down there, with the engine all opened up and in our grease suits, we decided to also check on the sacrificial zinc in our heat exchanger and the primary fuel filter.
The zinc actually looked pretty good. We’ve pulled this guy out before to find just a little grey nub. We also try to occasionally (I’d say once a season) drain the heat exchanger and clean out all the little leftover zinc bits in there. It usually looks like a zinc graveyard, and those guys all tumbling around can restrict water flow. So, a little bit of maintenance in that regard can go a long way.
The fuel filter did not look near as good. All that black grime around the bottom means it’s time to change it out.
Thankfully, that’s a rather easy job on our boat, just pop the lid off of the globe, pull this piece out, dump the old filter, and put a new one on. The only tricky part is making sure the two (2) spaghetti size o-rings on the globe wiggle back into place before you tighten the lid down.
We are also lucky in that our engine is self-priming. When we turn the key, it starts to bleed the air in the system (that we allowed in by opening the globe). We wait about thirty seconds for it to do that (and you can see the globe filling while it does) before engaging the glow plugs then turning him over. He cranked like a champ. Way to go Westie!
Now … about this oil spill. I share here because I hope this never happens to one of you. While we are definitely pleased with our plastic oil pump, it does have one drawback. One we were not in any way aware of when we bought it. Apparently, when dumping the old oil out, if you tip the pump more than 90 degrees, oil will fill the pump chamber and it ruins the pump. Not only will it no longer be able to suck oil in, the awesome side effect of doing this causes the pump to actually shoot oil out of the handle when you engage it. You’ll see at the end of the video above this is what happened to us. Not knowing this “90 degree dump” issue, I had taken the pump to an Auto Zone for proper disposal of the oil and the guy behind the counter dumped it for me. I saw him, and he definitely tipped it completely upside down, I just didn’t know that would cause any kind of a problem. But, the next time we had to change the oil and we set the pump up, oil shot out of the handle on both sides when I pulled the handle up. Fantastic. “Get some towels,” Phillip said.
You can see now why we lay so many sheets and towels down when we change the oil on the boat. If any of you use one of these types of pumps to change your oil on the boat, I hope this tip helps an oil spill aboard from never happening to you!
Best of luck out there grease monkeys! Keep those diesels purring!