Cruisers’ Rule #42: Find that Flange! (And Other Engine Tips)

They’re more like guidelines, really, but we cruisers do have them: good rules of thumb to keep you and your boat going. “Find that flange!” is an important one, as it can mean the difference between carrying on with a happy, humming engine, or sitting stuck in a rut with an engine who can’t keep his cool.  No bueno.

After Phillip and I received the fantastic news that Plaintiff’s Rest had gallantly weathered Hurricane Dorian and was floating happy and safe and awaiting for our return in Great Harbour Cay, we eagerly started planning our cruising this season.  While it’s fun to think about all of the interesting places we will go and things we will see or eat when we get there, to ensure we can actually get there (in theory anyway), our cruise-planning often begins with the following important questions: 

  1. What work needs to be done on the boat before we leave the dock?  
  2. What boat parts/supplies do we need to bring to the boat to do that work, versus what we can acquire once we arrive? 
  3. What gear or spares do we need to replenish before we shove off and where can we get those?

She’s a boat, right?  If you want to go cruising, you’ve got to keep her safe and seaworthy, which requires a great deal of forethought and work. Cruising is every bit of what they say about “working on your boat in exotic places.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s Cruisers’ Rule #1, or in the top ten, at least. 

When Phillip and I asked ourselves these questions as we were preparing to return to the boat after Dorian, one of the first tasks that came to mind was the need to change the oil in the engine and inspect/replace the impeller before we set off to cruise further down into the Bahamas.  Knowing we had plenty of oil on the boat and the kit to do this, as well as plenty of spare impellers, we were fully stocked to take on this one with everything we already had on the boat. All, she needed was us! So, we hopped on a plane in November and happily made our way back to our beautiful floating home!

I cannot tell you how grateful we both were to finally get back to our boat in the wake of Dorian and seeing in person that she survived. Surviving hurricane season can be a very scary thing for a boat, and its owners.

Once we got settled aboard, and were able to get the main canvas out of the saloon and back up on the deck (re-installing the bimini and dodger, mainsail and stack pack, getting Wendy (our head sail back on), etc., Phillip and I were ready to dig into the necessary engine work.

We have a Westerbeke 27A on our boat, and we strive to change the oil every 50-75 hours, closer to 50 than 75 when we can help it.  I’ve written about the type of pump/oil container we use on our boat to extract the used oil out of the engine and contain it until we can walk it to a proper oil-dispensing location.  

How We Change the Oil On Our Boat

Phillip and I had quite the adventure in St. Petersburg a few years back tracking down this handy little pump from a Back-Door Marine Supply Guy!

I’ve also published an article and video previously showing how we change the oil in our engine on the boat if you are interested here: Maintenance in Marsh Harbour – How We Change the Oil On the Boat.  That also includes one way, in particular, on how NOT to do it, when we suffered quite the nasty oil spill on Plaintiff’s Rest.  Good times.  The takeaway: do NOT tip that pump more than 90-degrees horizontal or it will squirt oil out the handle the next time you pump.  That’s Cruisers’ Rule #149, I believe.  

Our Raw and Fresh Water Cooling Systems

After we got the oil changed, we next set our sights on the impeller.  For those of you somewhat new to engine maintenance (which I myself was just a few short years ago), this is how I wish someone would have explained it to me … in Annie Speak, so to speak.  Most diesels have primarily two cooling systems: the raw water system and the “fresh” water system (which in our boat we fill with antifreeze, aka coolant (that Ghostbuster green stuff)).  The raw water system uses a rubber wheel (the impeller) that spins to create suction pulling raw (sea) water into the heat exchanger.  

This is the impeller inside the raw water pump (unattached at the moment) in our engine.
Here I’m replacing a gasket for the raw water pump (when we had to remove and rebuild it). Right behind the gasket is a red tube running athwartship – that is the heat exchanger.

The coolant in the fresh water system is completely contained (well, when you don’t have any minor coolant leaks – very common, particularly around the thermostat on our boat), and is moved through heat exchanger (where—just as the name implies—warmer coolant from the engine is cooled by the raw water running swiftly on the other side of it in the exchanger) and then recirculated through the engine via a pump that is spun by the alternator belt on the back of the engine. 

That is the fresh water pump with the belt around it at the top (the alternator is to the right).

I am explaining all of this here for the benefit of newbie cruisers (which I, in many ways, still consider myself), and for future reference as you will learn soon about an issue we had with this cooling system in future travels.  

We’ll Have Some Fresh Water Cooling System Lessons to Share Soon – Stay Tuned!

Clever foreshadowing will have to be forfeited here for the loftier goal of sharing and educating as it was mine and Phillip’s replacement of the impeller on the raw water pump before we left Great Harbour Cay that reminded me of this important little nugget undoubtedly worth sharing (or, technically, I should say reiterating as I have mentioned it here before).  I urge you cruisers: when swapping out your impellers, if you notice some of the flanges on your old impeller have broken off (common), there is one critical thing you must do: 


It can be tempting to ignore them.  I completely understand.  They’re broken off.  They’re gone. You’re putting in an entirely new impeller, so who gives a …  You should give a.  That’s who. I’ve documented several instances where Phillip and I ourselves or we have seen other boaters suffer some serious consequences from a thrown flange that was not tracked down and later lodged itself in critical locations that impeded water flow and prevented the raw water system from working properly.  

A fellow cruiser’s Tartan 37 – you can see the flange piece lodged in the hose barb that was causing his engine to overheat.

At the very least, a wayward flange can easily cause your engine to overheat.  Bad enough. But, in one rather severe case (Yannick’s!) it melted his muffler!  Zoiks!

The missing flange on Yannick’s boat.
There you see it lodged in the hose barb on his raw water pump impeding flow and causing his engine to overheat as well.
But that guy fixed his melted muffler with a blow-torch and a piece of PVC. Love that guy. Check it out if you haven’t already in our Atlantic-crossing movie!!

I don’t want a melted muffler, do you?  But, Phillip and I learned another small lesson during this impeller exchange when we noticed two flanges thrown and had to go track them down through the raw water system.  That is: 

Look In the Easy Places First

Sound silly?  Perhaps it is, but our gut instinct was to start at the point closest to the pump and work our way toward the heat exchanger. And, with this thinking in mind, we almost (alllmmooosst! but thankfully we didn’t) disconnect the hose from the pump to the exchanger first.  This would have been a several-hour rigorous chore trying to get that thing off and back on again.  And, would have been completely unnecessary in hindsight.  What I learned during this impeller maintenance session was that the heat exchange end caps are far easier to remove than hoses (many of which have been forged onto the barb after years of pressure).  The end caps are just simple bolts.  Very easy to remove (and replace the gaskets once you’re in there).  

Here I am looking for a missing flange years prior after removing the port-side end cap of the heat exchanger.

The Heat Exchanger Acts a Bit Like a Pea Trap

Also, the ends of the heat exchanger (on ours anyway and I’m sure it’s similar on others) act a bit like little pea-traps under the sink.  It’s the most likely place something that “goes down the drain” (or in this case, goes down the hose from the pump to the exchanger) is going to swirl around and get caught.  

Thankfully, after loosening the hose clamp on the hose from the pump the exchanger and giving it several hard tugs, my eyes traveled over to the much-easier-to-remove bolt on the starboard cap of the heat exchanger, and I suggested to Phillip: “Maybe let’s check the easy place first.”   

Now, did I suggest this out of wisdom?  No, it was pure “I don’t want to wrestle this anaconda-hose anymore” laziness.  But, it still turned out to be the right thing to do!  After we clamped the hose back up and popped the end of the heat exchanger off, our two missing flanges were sitting nice and accessible right there for us.  Whew! Got ‘em!  

The chase is not always that easy, and rarely what we would exactly call “fun,” but finding those missing flanges can mean the difference between continued cruising and camping out at the dock with an angry engine.  That’s why it’s a Cruiser’s Rule!

Following little rules like this can mean you spend more time like this, less time in engine grease! : )

Now that we were back aboard and had our beautiful boat up and running again, it was time for Phillip and I to focus on the way-more-fun side of cruise-planning: Where to?  Next up, we’ll share our thoughts and planning on how best to make our way from the Bahamas to the BVIs.  Let the thorny debate begin!  

The Whole World … and Only Carrabelle’s Got It

May 7, 2014:

If we were trying to avoid an aerial bomb strike, you would think coming in under nightfall, might be a good idea.  But, I’ve said it several time before and don’t mind repeating it — we do not like to come into a pass at night, and we try to avoid it on every occasion.  Unfortunately, with the absolute lack of wind and continued motoring throughout the night, we were slated to make it to the East Pass into Apalachicola Bay a little earlier than we had intended – around 4:00 a.m.

East Pass

Not yet daylight.  So, we bobbed around in the Gulf for about an hour to allow the sun to rise, so we could safely see all of the markers and make it into the Bay.

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There she comes!  And, see??  With the sun, we can SEE the markers!

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We could see land, too!  We had left Venice around 10:00 a.m. two days prior and had made it safely once again across the Gulf of Mexico.  No small feat.


It was unfortunate that we’d had to motor most of the way.  36 out of the approximate 43 hours were spent with our engine churning away under the cabin.  Ironically, that’s about the exact same way we made the Gulf crossing the last time from Clearwater to Carrabelle.  An approximate 36-hour engine run, and the heroic hacking-off of the dinghy mid-Gulf.  Like I said — crossing the Gulf without issue — no small feat.  But, this time we were determined not to the let the 36-hour motor-crossing get the best of our old Westerbeke.  If you recall, the year prior, the daunting motor across the Gulf of Mexico had unexpectedly drained our engine of her last drop of transmission fluid and she locked up the next day as we were trying to motor out of the Carrabelle River … the tight, narrow, obstacle-lined river.  Fine time to lose engine power.  We vowed this time once we got her docked safe and secure in Carrabelle, the first part of that boat that was going to get some good ole TLC was the engine!  That is, of course, after the crew got some sleep.

We made it into the river just fine this time during the day.  It was nostalgic for me to come back in and see it now, as a somewhat experienced sailor, and remember how I had viewed it then during that first Gulf Crossing and my very first passage on a sailboat, period.  I realized how oblivious I had been the year before to everything that was going on.  Markers, depth, wind, current.  Not that I was sitting around painting my nails or anything, I had spent a good part of that trip taking care of our overtly sea-sick Second Mate, helping Phillip to the best of my ability and cooking and cleaning, but I didn’t really have much involvement in the actual sailing.  Well, this time I did.  It was Phillip and I.  That was it.  And, we were coming in to dock once again at the Moorings Marina.

Dog Island

I knew this time, as well, from our first entry into the Carrabelle River, that you have to stay to the right of the river.  And, by right, I mean waaaayy over to the right, almost hugging the docks on the starboard side.  Last time, we had come in under nightfall and run aground just after the bend in the river.  Right … about … here:


I know.  The Carrabelle River had not been good to us last time.  We were hoping for some better River karma this time around.  

And, thankfully, the River welcomed us with open arms.

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We made it in around 9:00 a.m. stayed to the RIGHT of the river and clear of the bottom, fueled up, docked up and went immediately to sleep.  We’d been two days at sea, on two-hour night shifts two nights in a row, had survived multiple encounters with creepy Gulf alien vessels and an aerial bomb strike.  Needless to say, we were tired!

But, the minute we woke, our first order of business was the engine.  That run across the Gulf had certainly burned up a good bit of her precious black gold.  Our faithful Westerbeke got a complete oil drain and change that day, which, thanks to the nifty hand-pump canister we picked up from the Back Door Marine Supply Guy in St. Pete, we were able to do easily and cleanly on the boat.

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Our previous owner, Jack, also converted the old horizontal oil filter mount to a vertical one to avoid the messy oil dump into the bilge when the filter is removed.

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Now ours spins in vertically and sits upright, making the entire process easier and cleaner.


Thanks Jack!

We also checked and topped off all of the other fluids, the transmission fluid – of course! – we check that now before every crank, and the coolant.  It felt good to give the Westerbeke some love after she’d carried us all the way to Carrabelle, yet again.  We also gave the boat a good scrub-down from bow to stern.  While we had motored most of the way across the Gulf, the half-a-day we’d spent trying to get out in the Gulf initially in 4-6 foot, head-on waves had laid a pretty thick coat of salt on the boat.  You could see and feel salt everywhere – on the deck, the lifelines, the stanchions.  It was like Plaintiff’s Rest, on the rocks.  We scrubbed every inch and polished her up, head to toe.

After tending to the boat, we then turned our attention to the crew.  It was time for a feeding.  We showered up and hit the town.  Yes, the hustling, bustling big city of Carrabelle!  We knew, from the multiple weekend trips we had made to Carrabelle last year when our boat spent six weeks in the River having a new transmission put in, that the happening spot in Carrabelle was Fathom’s.


Or, we were at least partial to it.  Our mechanic, Eric’s, family owned the bar/restaurant and we had stopped there for some incredible fresh oysters and beer before heading out last time to make the trip from Carrabelle home to Pensacola.

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Can’t believe I said “I’m not really an oyster person” in that post …  The Keys have changed me!

Fathom’s has a great custom-built boat-bar and the perfect outdoor deck seating right on the waterfront.

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Last time we were there, we could see our boat right across the way!

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Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?  No, you haven’t.

And, we had occasionally heard some great live music streaming across the River from Fathom’s when we were there, working on the boat.  We knew the next time we made it back to Carrabelle on our boat, we wanted to spend at least one evening eating our fill of fresh oysters and catching the live band at Fathom’s.  We figured it would play out very much like a scene at Pirate’s Cove – a lot of local riff raff providing some high quality, free entertainment.


The Riff Raff cast from the Cove – November, 2013.

Since Fathom’s was on the agenda for the evening, we popped into the first restaurant we came across on our Carrabelle outing – The Fisherman’s Wife – for lunch.  A fitting name for your typical quaint country restaurant.  It reminded me of the little diner my grandma (Big Mom) used to take us to on Sundays – Doris’s Diner.  The kind of place that keeps heaping condiment baskets on the table, complete with a sticky syrup dispenser, because they always seem to serve pancakes, and the waitresses can pull pens out of their poofy Peg Bundy hair like magic to take your order on a flip pad.  I felt right at home!  And, the Fisherman’s Wife did not disappoint.  They served us up some incredible onion rings, a heaping salad and sandwich combo for lunch.

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We walked lunch off down the main strip and found some pretty interesting highlights along the way.  Like this little gem – the Carrabelle Junction!


An old fifties-style ice cream shop chock full of antique toys, trinkets and signage.

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I love stuff like that.  You’re always bound to see an old toy you used to play with sitting on the shelf and the memories flood you.

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This one reminded me of the old Gumby & Pokey figurines I used to play with.  You know, back when toys didn’t need any bells or whistles or lithium batteries.


Hours of entertainment … 

Which is exactly what we found poking (and gumbing!) our way along the downtown Carrabelle strip.  It doesn’t take much for us, though.  We seem to find just about the same level of entertainment in tiny little rustic towns like Carrabelle and Apalachicola as we do New York City.  It’s all in your level of expectation and your openness to truly explore new places – the quaint or the common.  As fate would have it, we found something in Carrabelle that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.  The world!?  Yes, the world.  Without Googling, do any of you faithful followers know what it is?

May 24, 2013 – The Crossing Finale – A Trail of Tears

We woke Thursday morning to the sound of gerbils.  Angry, evil, little warbley gerbils.  (Yes, that’s a word.  If it in any way conveyed the throat-rattling, turkey gobbler-like sound they made, it did it’s job.  It’s a word).  You might think gerbils are these cute, cuddly little creatures, all soft and innocent, but I’m here to tell you they’re not.

Evil Gerbils

They’re loud, mangy, annoying little boogers that woke us up at 5:15 on Thursday morning.  Or, whatever it was sure sounded like gerbils, at least how I would imagine they would sound, if four of them were stuffed in a sock together, all wrestling and rabid.  For your benefit, I tried to capture the lovely sound that morning so you could truly understand.  Listen very closely:

And I would apologize for the language, but it was early and they were annoying and we are sailors, so …   I make no excuses. 

Okay, so you have probably figured out by now that they weren’t gerbils.  They were birds.  Angry birds.

Angry Birds

I’ve since learned this particularly noisy breed tends to inhabit lots of marinas and they like to wake you up at four in the friggin’ morning with their warbley, sock-wrestling mating calls.  Effin gerbils!

And, just as an interesting aside (so you get the benefit of all my hard blogging work), every time I Googled for images of gerbils, Richard Gere kept popping up.  Yes.  The actor.  Richard Gere.  I mean, every time!  There were even pictures of him with gerbils. 


I know … creepy, right?  Which is why I decided to look into it.  And, you gotta love Google because I found this little gem.  Enjoy:


Richard … you old dog, you!  And, to add icing on this glorious cake (and this will be my last mention of ole’ Richard, I swear), Phillip got a big kick out of the fact that I had never heard this “gerbil rumor” before and had to conduct an independent investigation.  I guess my age is showing.  As several of you reminded me after my last post, I am, in fact, younger than MTV (

So, the angry birds did deny us a nice, leisurely rousing that morning, but it wasn’t too much of a sacrifice as, if you recall, we had planned to wake up early and get under way before sunrise.  Gerbils, or birds or angry roosters, we were ready to jump out of the v-berth regardless and get our beautiful boat a-goin’.

We checked the fluids: gas, oil, coolant and transmission fluid (of course!).  Like I said, we will never again, until our little sailing hearts stop beating, NOT check the transmission fluid before we crank the engine.  Whether it’s been a half hour or four days, we want to see that dipstick coated in sweet, pink nectar before we’ll even thinking about turning the engine over.  So, with the fluids in check, we readied the sails and tossed the lines and headed out into the Carabelle River.  We puttered along (knowing full well this time which side of the river to stay on and made it out into the Gulf right at sunrise.  And it was like she rose just for us:


Or it seems that is how sailing can make you feel sometimes.  Like the world is spinning just for you.



And, this time it was just Phillip and I.  Me and the captain, off on our first couples cruise.  I was feeling like one incredibly lucky gal.  I mean, could life really get any better?


Perhaps just a little, with a warm mug of heavenly hazelnut coffee I suppose, but just a little.

We brewed up some coffee and enjoyed the sunrise, and the sail, and the feeling of finally having her back out there in blue waters, headed home.  There wasn’t much wind, so we were motoring most of the morning, but I could have spent all day in that cockpit, holding the helm, or curled up with a book (or my laptop!) just watching the water float by.  I was perfectly content.  But, that’s why I’m only the first mate and Phillip is the captain.  Thankfully, he had the wherewithal to think to check on the engine.  I mean, she had been sitting for a month, she just had a new transmission put in, and we had been running her for about an hour and a half.

Phillip gave me the helm and went down below to see how things were looking under the “hood,” which in our boat, is akin to looking under the sink.  In order to access the engine on the Niagara, this “L-shaped” piece that houses the sink pulls back to give access to the engine, like a-so:

Sinker (2)

In place:


Pulled back:


And, the cool part is the sink hoses are all long enough and run in a manner that doesn’t require any unhooking, etc. to pull the sink back.  You just pull it back, lean it gently against the table (we put a pillow in between to cushion it), do your business under the “hood,” then tilt her back down gently in place, and the sink is none the wiser.  It’s really quite handy and, unlike many other boats which require removal of covers, plates, hatches, screws, etc. to get to the engine, this little “flip-top” contraption makes for very easy access when you’re underway.  I tell you all of this because it was a feature we were about to become incredibly familiar with and incredibly thankful for.

As I held the wheel, I could hear Phillip down below pull the sink back, set it against the table and click on a flashlight to take a look at the engine.  I saw his light moving in and around the engine and I could hear him wiggling some things and tinkering around.  I wouldn’t have thought much of it had his silence not continued for just a little too long.  Minutes passed and he he didn’t pop his head up and give me a thumbs up, or say “Everything looks great,” or “Good to go,” or anything like that.  He was just quiet.  Too quiet.  I wanted to ask him how everything was going, but I knew he’d tell me when it was time, and a part of me didn’t want to know.  I was perfectly content to sit up there at the wheel, watching the water dance by, pretending we didn’t even have an engine, or fluids, or any of that.

Engine?  What engine?  I’m just sailing along up here.  Doop-de-doo:


But, Phillip finally raised his head in the companionway and gave me the exact look I was fearing.  Something was wrong.  He told me to put on the auto-pilot and summoned me down.  I came down the stairs, and he handed me the flashlight without saying a word, which worried me even more.  Although after the initial leg of The Crossing, I was certainly far more familiar with the engine than I was before, I was no diesel mechanic.  If the problem was obvious enough for me to SEE with my naked eye, it was probably bad.  And … it was.  Underneath the engine and slithering on down to the bilge was a bright, pink trail of fluid.


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Phillip and I were hoping it was just some of that famous Westerbeke Red paint Mechan-Eric had sprayed on the transmission to make it match the rest of the engine.


No, big deal.  Just some paint.  Surely that’s it.  But, as it always seems, life can never be that simple.  Having run the old transmission slap out of fluid the last time, we were all too familiar with that pink viscous liquid to be pretty darn sure what was trickling out of our engine was more likely than not transmission fluid.  Phillip showed me what he had found during his wiggling and tinkering,


The leak:


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Little red drops kept forming, one after the other, under the shifter arm, and falling to a grey grave below in the bilge.  There was no denying it.  Our brand new, bright red, painfully expensive transmission was leaking.  We were two hours from Carrabelle, twelve hours from our next stop, with little wind and only a half quart of transmission fluid to get us anywhere.  I felt like I could have cried too, a little red trail of tears right down to the bilge.