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HSH Yacht Articles

What do you do when your engine dies?


Jeremy R. Hood

Over the years I've been in many situations where the engine on the boat I'm skippering dies, overheats or won't start when needed. Here are three of them. What would you have done in these circumstances?

Situation 1 (The Houston Ship Channel)

Returning from a weekend trip to Freeport we were motoring up the Houston Ship Channel. Though it was a Sunday, there were several freighters heading both inbound and outbound and the usual stream of barge traffic, so we were staying on the very right of the channel occasionally leaving a channel marker to port when there was more than one vessel in the channel at that point. And it was just at one of these times when the engine audible alarm began to shriek.

Situation 2 (Aboard Melos 30 miles offshore)

I had sailed my own boat Melos from England to the Caribbean and on to Florida and after a few months there I was at the beginning of my first passage across the Gulf of Mexico heading towards Texas. We had provisioned, stowed everything for sea and had headed out after a late breakfast, motoring out beyond the shoals off Tarpon Springs and heading due West in calm conditions. By mid-afternoon the wind had picked up sufficiently for us to begin sailing but our progress was not great and by midnight we were rolling around in the light left-over swells with the boom tacking across the boat and the sheet blocks snatching and banging. It was time to begin motoring again but the engine would not start despite a strong battery

Situation 3 (Waiting for a bridge opening in Fort Lauderdale)

After several days hard work on a classic 54' steel sail boat we were setting off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida with a destination of Clear lake, Texas. The boat was not really ready but we had checked out all the most essential systems and reconciled ourselves to a trip without the generator, Loran C or GPS. But we were ready to go and after heading down the river we had fueled up and were motoring around the bridge waiting for its next half-hour opening when I decided to tackle one last repair. With one of the crew at the helm heading up against the strong current away from the bridge I started to remove the engine temperature gauge in order to replace it with the new one. But just as I was crouched inside the cockpit locker removing the wires from the gauge the engine died and we found ourselves drifting sideways downstream toward the still closed and rapidly approaching bridge.

For some purist sailors an engine aboard a boat is an unnecessary encumbrance adding extra weight and taking up valuable space. But for most of us an engine is not a luxury but an essential part of the vessels equipment for without it we could never safely even leave or return to our finger pier slip in the marina. And so we come to depend on the rugged reliability of it to get us in and out of the slip and out of trouble when the winds get too strong or we tear a sail or whatever. So that when the engine dies or overheats or fails to start we often find ourselves ill prepared for the situation. The real solution to all of the situations outlined above is to be ready for such an eventuality and to have some plan already in mind to deal with it. Playing what if the engine fails right now, when you are using your motor will help you devise a course of action before it becomes necessary.

A ships engine often does more than merely propel the vessel forward. It is used to slow the vessel (as when entering a slip or approaching a fuel dock), it is used to generate power to charge the batteries which in turn enable us to use our navigation lights and equipment, and it may also run a compressor for the refrigeration. When the engine fails you stand to lose all of these systems at once unless you have backup methods which will enable you to use them.

Having a backup for any equipment you consider essential is good seamanship. And so, if you lose your engine, you need to consider what method you will use to slow the vessel down and how you will charge the batteries or otherwise use your navigation equipment. This is where you will benefit from some forward planning.

An anchor can be used to slow or stop the boat in most circumstances but if you are close to a danger area you will need to be able to release it quickly and be sure that the end of the anchor rode does not follow the anchor to the bottom. When motoring in situations where the loss of the engine could put you in danger it is always sensible to have the anchor ready to release, the rode coiled or stowed in a way that it will easily pay out over the bow and the bitter end firmly secured to the boat.

If you are anticipating a passage of longer than 24 hours and the engine is the primary means of charging the batteries then consider what alternative charging method you will have aboard. Depending on your plans these could range from a spare fully charged battery, a portable gasoline generator or a permanently installed wind generator and/or solar panels.

As for the refrigeration, at least make sure that you have sufficient dry goods or long-life provisions aboard so that you will not starve if all of your pre-prepared gourmet frozen meals have to be eaten at once or thrown overboard!

And so back to those situations that I outlined at the beginning. In the first of them it was a fairly simple situation to deal with. We knew there was sufficient water outside the channel on the starboard side (we had left the occasional mark to port) and so all we had to do was head out of the channel on that side, drop our anchor (which was ready) and then stop the engine. At the time I considered it best to leave the engine running despite the overheating until we were safely out of the channel. We were risking more damage to the engine this way but were minimizing the risk of being caught in the middle of the ship channel with barges and freighters bearing down upon us. In the event, the engine was not damaged and after replacing a failed pump impeller we were able to continue home under power.

The second situation brought up a different set of problems. When the engine failed to start we were some 30 miles offshore in open water and in no real danger from other shipping. At the time the engine failed it was no more than an inconvenience, but how would we manage if we were to continue across the Gulf? And so I gave some thought as to whether we should return to a port on the west coast of Florida and then fix the engine or if we should continue on toward Texas. In both cases it would mean an entry under sail to a port I was not familiar with and so it really came down to the question of whether we could manage without the engine to charge the batteries. This decision was made easier by the presence of my Rutland Wind Generator which I knew would provide us with sufficient charging to run our navigation equipment and lights. Because of this, we decided to press on towards Texas where we arrived some eight days later. At times we regretted the absence of the engine particularly in the calms after the cold front squalls passed and while traversing the safety fairways but otherwise we managed OK.

The third situation caused me the most anxiety as we had little time to do anything before we drifted down on the bridge but having the anchor and the rode flaked meant that we could quickly drop the anchor and when this was done we soon had the situation under control. However you may be interested to know that the cause of the engine failure in this case was mine. When I took the wires off the temperature gauge it caused, as a result of the weird wiring on this boat, the 12 volt supply to the injection pump switch to be disconnected and so, on this engine, causing the engine to stop.

If you feel at all dependent on your engine, make some contingency plans now for how you will cope when your engine fails just when you need it the most! And if your preparations include spare parts for your engine (such as hoses, belts, impellers etc), make sure that they really are the right part and that not only do you have the knowledge of how to fit them but that you have the necessary tools aboard to do so.

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