1. June 2023

The finite story of the engine 2

After I was able to fix the acute problems of the engine in the BVIs, we set off for the Dominican Republic in good spirits. It is our longest and most beautiful passage so far. Once there, the engine reports back after a short time and screams for attention. I reach my limits and reluctantly agree to get a mechanic on board.

But from the beginning… After three relaxing days in the southwest bay of Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands, we take advantage of the weather window to sail past Puerto Rico and into Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic. The route plan says exactly 300 nautical miles, making a duration of about 55 hours at our average of 5.5 knots so far. As always, we round up a bit and assume 60 hours. We expect northeast winds with 15 – 18 knots. Ideal conditions you could say.

Peace and no technical problems in a bay off Peter Island

We lift anchor at 8 am, the engine purrs. Shortly after we set sail and jibe our way out of the BVIs. Already after the first jibe I notice that three slides of the mainsail have popped out of the track. Not good!

We drop the main and I take a look at the damage. The rail is brittle below the first spreader everywhere where the slides of the main are located at full sail. Even otherwise, the plastic material comes away with a bare fingernail. So now our main is no longer fully operational either, but that’s another story. Without further ado we set the main in the first reef, here the slides are in undamaged places on the rail. That should hold, at least until we arrive in the Dominican Republic.

The main is threaded again and from now on in the first reef

After the incident we sail through the channel between Tortola and St. John (USVI) without further problems and soon the wind turns in our favor and we sail along the coast of Puerto Rico. It is a very uneventful and thus pleasant and easy passage into Samana Bay. We do our usual four hour shifts at night and there are no problems at all. We sleep well and even cooking is a breeze with a wave of barely more than a meter.

Our destination is Puerto Bahia Marina, where we want to relax a bit after the battle of nerves with the engine, so we don’t have to go to the hotel, but we have the amenities of a marina. It is to be our first marina experience ever, and probably we could not have chosen a better one. However, when we enter in the late afternoon of the third day of the crossing, the wind freshens. The slip assigned to us is awkwardly located and the channel to it is narrow and the wind hits Mabul directly from the side.

After the first attempt to get in, I break off and we anchor just outside the marina. The next morning, slept in and no wind, we sail into the slip and moor Mabul. Aha, this is what marina feels like, strange somehow.

Mabul sniffs marina air for the first time

For a week we enjoy all the amenities, hot endless showers ashore, eating in restaurants, pools and a gym. Then it’s slowly time to leave again. We also have new guests on board, Tobi and Dagi, longtime friends of Karin and now mine. First we want to explore the Los Haitises National Park. This is where part of Jurassic Park was filmed, and it’s easy to see why. Endless mangrove forests and untouched nature. Unique! Only the water is correspondingly green and murky.

It is a stone’s throw under sail from the marina to the first anchorage. From there we sail the next days under engine to three other anchorages, each only 20 – 30 minutes away. Unfortunately it turns out that the miraculously solved overheating problems of the engine are not solved. Already after each 10 minutes the temperature rises to values, which let me throttle back the speed. On the second move, we see black water coming out of the exhaust again. Damn!

At least the outboard engine purrs reliably like a kitten

Further complicating matters is the fact that the maximum speed is getting lower and lower. 1200 revolutions are still in it, if I give more throttle, only more black water comes. That can’t be good. And somehow it must be related to the overheating.

I start again to google the problem, there is talk of unclean combustion caused by dirty air filter, clogged diesel filter, broken injection pump and more. So I check the air filter, looks good, even without air filter the problems persist. I replace the two diesel filters with new ones, that was due anyway (soon).

After this measure, the engine takes at least disengaged better throttle and revs up to 2500, the coolant remains clear. Still 500 too little, but I have never coaxed so much from him. The joy lasts only briefly, until we drive under load again. From 1300 rpm I see white smoke or steam and the temperature rises. From 1500 revolutions black water comes. So there is no noticeable improvement. So it was not the air and diesel filter either.

You can see from my face how badly the engine is working

We go back to the marina for one night, but stay at anchor. We need a despachio to Isla Saona, without it you are not allowed to move in the DR. On the approach to the anchorage Mabul barely manages more than 2.5 knots of speed under engine, slowly things become critical, if not dangerous.

To reach Isla Saona, we will cross the notorious Mona Passage. At least in the more favorable direction of north to south, but nevertheless a huge wave can build up here, as the seabed makes a jump from several 100 meters to a few 10 meters and there is a corresponding current. However, the weather window looks good and we dare to sail with the certainty that the engine is hardly usable.

We stay under sail, come what may

In the end we beat Mabul almost 36 hours against the wind, Tobi and Dagi are, since we sailed out of Samana Bay into the open sea, seasick and lying flat. Everything is not so nice. But the wave is good to us, even if an unfortunate moment is enough for a toilet to be torn out of its mounting when we use it. In the meantime, the wind leaves us a little, we bob along with 3 knots, but using the engine is out of the question for well-known reasons…

Then, thanks to rainfall, the wind freshens up again, even turns in our favor and we reach Isla Saona at midnight the next day. For anchoring the engine power is still enough, also the age-weak batteries we could keep alive. Oh yes, normally we use our diesel generator to charge the batteries at night passages, but it has 1000 problems at this time and is not functional. Again, another story…

Crystal clear water in the south of Isla Saona

We spend a wonderful three days at anchor in crystal clear water off a deserted white sand beach, our only neighbors are Kim and Victoria and their two daughters from SV Alexandria. We met them on the radio on the way here, they are also struggling with engine problems. Then we discover that the membrane of our watermaker did not survive the long standstill in the marina. But that’s another chapter in the book of many boat problems….

After two weeks we drop Tobi and Dagi off in La Romana and head for Boca Chica, there is the Marina Zarpar and a supposedly capable mechanic and there we also ordered a new Sailtrack, the broken track on which we pull up the sail on the mast, from the USA. I am at the end of my knowledge and in the meantime gladly hand over the engine problem to a professional.

We could still laugh then: The heat exchanger we had ordered to St. Maarten and thought we wouldn’t have to use it for a long time.

I still have one ace up my sleeve, and that is a brand new heat exchanger and wet exhaust elbow. The latter mixes the seawater coolant with the exhaust gases and is another classic spare part. Attentive listeners and readers know that we had imported both to St. Maarten. Unfortunately, the delicate and sensitive turbocharger is also attached to both parts, so I don’t dare to swap the parts on my own. Also, according to the previous owner, this has never been done with this engine, so I don’t even know if there is enough space in the engine compartment to change the heat exchanger without having to take the engine out of the boat.

After two short stops, we set course for Boca Chica, or rather Marina Zarpar. The mechanic is already booked for the next day, if you can say that. So we sail to the front of the channel, the marina is behind a reef and can only be reached through a narrow channel. When I start the engine and want to increase the idle speed a bit to warm up, I realize: 800 revolutions, that’s all I can do! We drop the sails, I give full throttle, so much until the maximum speed under load is reached: 1.8 knots. Yes ok, that’s not enough, with wind and current and maybe even less rpm on the way. I’m not going in there like that!

The second time Mabul is towed into a marina

So on the radio: “Zarpar, Zarpar, Zarpar, we need to get towed in, no engine!” Again, we get towed in. Only this time we know the drill, somehow you can enjoy it then. Hard to describe. Anyway, the local guys pull us up to the dock, and they have fun doing it!

At the latest now it becomes clear: The cause of all our engine problems has to be found and fixed! Mabul is now safely moored to the dock and soon after we hear on the radio: “Mabul, Mabul, Mabul this is Alexandra, we want to come into Zarpar, but our draft is 3 meters”. Yeah shit, according to the nautical chart the minimum depth to here is 2,5m, the tide is just rather low than high. But Kim and Viktoria try anyway, we are ready to help with the dinghy. Our depth sounder has completely failed in the channel for a long time, because there is so much sargassum and muck floating in the channel that the ultrasound doesn’t penetrate to the actual bottom. In the end they drag their keel a good bit through the mud, luckily they didn’t hit any rock or coral. They moor right in front of us and we have dinner together in the marina.

The next morning I’m brooding in bed about how we’re going to get the mechanic on Mabul as quickly as possible when there’s already a knock. Jose Luis, the mechanic, is there, together with his assistant. Super nice guy, but again only Spanish speaking. I feel like the last idiot again, but luckily Karin knows the language and translates my error diagnosis or what I can exclude. Now that we already have someone capable here, the new heat exchanger and wet exhaust elbow should also be mounted. Can only help, I think.

There comes the patient on deck, all without taking out the engine

He wants me to start the engine and give it full throttle. Okay, I grudgingly do. I don’t understand anything he says, and unfortunately Karin only understands half of it, since engine parts vocabulary is understandably not part of her repertoire. I hand him the brand new parts, and he doesn’t let anything burn, within two hours the old heat exchanger and the other thing is dismantled and with it the cause of all problems becomes obvious. The wet exhaust elbow is so corroded that the exhaust gases of the engine can hardly escape. From an original 5 cm diameter opening, there is virtually nothing left. Completely clogged with soot deposits and broken off, rusty chunks of something.

Mechanic Jose Luis with the wet exhaust elbow, which really doesn’t look good at all anymore.

I’m learning that the symptoms of “engine can’t get air” are identical to those of “engine can’t clear exhaust”. Makes sense. I leave the two men to work and they tackle it like there’s no tomorrow. After less than five hours, the two massive parts have been replaced, the turbocharger housing has been freed from rust and everything has been reassembled. Now there’s another coffee, then it’s time to “Start the engine!” Okay, I do. Jose Luis immediately gives full throttle, the engine revs up to 3000! Wow, unbelievable, but we are disengaged. I’ve had something like that before, albeit with a little less rpm.

It still shows, the one or other leak, many hoses were off and again mounted. After everything is tightened and dry, it’s “Start the engine!” again. Jose Luis gives full throttle again and is visibly satisfied, I don’t quite trust it yet. I want a load test.

No sooner said than done, Mabul is firmly tied to the dock. I engage the clutch and slowly increase the RPM to full throttle, 3000 RPM, with the propeller spinning. Of course we don’t move, but the amount of water flowing off Mabul’s stern leaves me breathless. I have never seen that before. We stay at full throttle for about ten minutes to observe the engine temperature. Constantly 80 degrees, as it should be. Also unbelievable how much water comes out of the exhaust, and it’s clear water!

Finally we have a coffee and a serenade for Mabul from mechanic Jose Luis

The throttle response is direct and immediate! The sound of the engine good, temperature too. Wow! Finally I understand what was the cause of the engine problems (apart from the defective alternator) from the beginning. The exhaust couldn’t escape properly, but now the engine is like new. Only 1500 hours on the clock, which is the youth of a diesel engine. The turbo kicks in as it should, all problems solved and that’s with the parts we’ve been driving around with us since St. Maarten…

Something else I learned from this experience, there are people everywhere who know how the hare runs! It would have taken me weeks or months to do what was easy for Jose Luis, who has so much experience. I am deeply grateful to him, and even now, weeks after this action, the engine is running as it should. Overheating and black water is history. And should it come back, I know what to do (or order)…

The new track, I don’t know yet how much sweat and cursing will be necessary

I have also successfully replaced the track of our mainsail here, all drives Mabuls work again at top level. So we motor and sail successfully and without problems to Cabo Rojo, to the westernmost point of the Dominican Republic, to dare from there the big jump to Cuba.

How it goes on there with the engine – and it doesn’t go well! -, you will find out in the next blog…


Distance covered: 824 sm
Time: 5 days 18 hours
Average speed: 5.2 kt
Engine hours: 29 hours

More photos from the Dominican Republic can be found here: Samana Bay und South Coast.

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