I know, it’s a loaded question. And, I’m asking over 100 boaters, so I’m likely to get 200+ opinions, right? While we all carry plenty of fuel filters, zincs, gaskets, and the like, do you carry any spare parts that bolt onto the engine block? A spare alternator, perhaps? Or a starter? Well, this part was one we really could have used and did not have. Considering how small it is, and what a game-changer it can be, Phillip and I will definitely carry one in the future.
After we had made the decision to take the “I-65” route from the Bahamas down to the BVIs and found our weather window, Phillip and I fully stocked the boat, stowed the dinghy, ran the jacklines, and prepared to shove off. Knowing, from our fantastic WRI weather routing, we would likely have to motor for a couple of days after our expected south-clocking-west winds turned light and on the nose, Phillip and I decided to do something a bit different for this offshore passage.
We bought three extra jerry cans of fuel and strapped them on our whisker pole on starboard (giving us 6 5-gallon jugs of diesel total) to ensure we would have plenty of fuel to motor as much as we needed during our expected 8-9 day passage.
Because, you know packing extra diesel is like paying homage to the Wind Gods, daring them to make you not need it. Well, it turned out we did not need it, but not for the reason we’d hoped. The first day and a half of our passage was phenomenal! Beautiful south winds on the beam, then quartering on our starboard stern, then clocking around behind from the west. We were flying, making consistent 5-6 knots heading due east, which is the exact direction we needed to go. It was too good to be true!
Phillip and I had high hopes that we would continue making great time and make our first passage over five days an enjoyable and successful one. Everything was trending in that direction. When the winds laid down a bit and turned more north, north-east (too light to sail easterly in them), we cranked up the engine and began to motor, just as we had expected to per our weather routing. Westie (our 27A Westerbeke engine) purred along perfectly throughout the afternoon. Late into the evening, when I was at the helm, the engine ripped out this squealing sound. I immediately throttled back more out of instinct than anything (like stepping on the brakes) and that stopped the sound. Phillip came up to investigate. We throttled back up gingerly and everything seemed fine. No sound. Westie then ran all night long, no problem.
The following day (our third of the voyage), November 25th, we were motoring along around noon when that same piercing wail rang out from the engine. Wrrrreeeeeeee! Phillip throttled back and the sound stopped. The temp and oil pressure all looked good. It was a mystery. Now a twice-occurring one so we decided this time to investigate. Phillip stayed up in the cockpit while I went below and started to empty our aft berth of its contents so I could access the engine. Just about the time I had got the berth emptied, I heard Phillip scramble around topside and suddenly the engine died. I popped my head up in the companionway to see it had not died, Phillip had cut it.
“It was overheating,” he said worried. Thankfully, he had been carefully watching it because no high-temp alarm rang out. Add that to our list of things to inspect.
When I opened the little door that allows us to access the engine from our starboard aft berth, a nice waft of smoke poofed out and smelled of burnt oil. I looked at the back of the engine and could visibly see antifreeze pouring out from under the fresh water pump on the back of our engine.
Not a good sign. We then pulled the floorboards up to see how much had drained into the bilge. It was disheartening. The entire bilge was Ghostbuster green. But, for the moment, Phillip and I were not deterred. We had all of the tools necessary to remove the pump, and we were hopeful it was just a seal inside that we could replace. We have plenty of spare seals. We also had plenty of antifreeze to refill it. I spent a hot, greasy hour crammed up behind the engine (only Annie fits here).
With some serious cheater bar action and hammering on the end of our biggest deep socket wrench, I was finally able to remove the pump.
While Phillip and I are certainly no diesel engine experts, we could tell even from our untrained fresh water pump eyes, that the thing was shot. I could see there were several ball bearings missing and the shaft had a wonky movement to it. But, we have bearings aboard. Phillip and I still thought we could turn things around.
We texted out to a few friends who are knowledgeable about boats and engines (Brandon with Perdido Sailor, always being one), letting them know what had happened and welcoming their thoughts/advice. Then, Phillip and I both spent another hotter, greasier hour, tapping and banging on the pump trying to get it to come apart so we could see if it was fixable aboard. We were still banging and cursing when our Delorme chirped out. It was Brandon.
“You can’t rebuild those,” he said. “It will have to be replaced.”
I can still remember that moment. Phillip and I just kind of sat there, our greased-up hands on the table, staring at our forlorn pump. The whole scene makes me think of Eeyore.
As we were not carrying a fresh water pump spare, Phillip and I had to face the sad reality that, for this passage at least, our engine was completely useless. So much for all that extra diesel we brought …
But, our next moves were some of the hardest. Phillip and I had a very BIG decision to make. And, although we did not know it at the time, we had our hardest sail to date ahead of us. This includes both of our Atlantic Ocean crossings, and still wins out. Plaintiff’s Rest’s crew was a day and a half out into the Atlantic Ocean on our first 8-9 passage, trying for our first time to sail to the BVIs. I will have to admit the sheer excitement of that goal and the desire to achieve it weighed heavily on us. We still had sails! We were expecting wind in the next day or so. People have been sailing the world for centuries without an engine. They’ve been shipwrecking too …
Next up, I will share the difficult, but well-reasoned decision we had to make on whether to slump our shoulders and turn around to sail back to Spanish Wells or carry on toward our destination without a working engine and what an awful adventure it embarked us on. Stay tuned!