I was up on the flybridge at night when I first heard the engine rev a little too high. After days and weeks at sea, the sounds of the boat become the rhythm to which you move, and any change in sound is noticed straight away. Whether it’s a lull in the mainsail, an unexpected shudder or, in this case, an increase of about 150rpm of the single John Deer engine.
Our diving expedition on a 50 foot motorsailor had started in the Philippines the month before. The diving support vessel was much smaller than the yachts that I’d crewed on previously, but it was well kitted out for its size.
We were five in total; four volunteer crew along with the owner/captain, all of us hoping to escape normality and longing for adventure.
Which was lucky, really, as there was some excitement coming our way.
The vessel had bunkered fuel in China, where it had also been stocked up with spares. We felt well-prepared, but before departing on our maiden voyage from the Philippines we noticed slime in the Racor filters. After inspecting the five fuel tanks and finding that the slime was only in the supply tank, we manually removed all the fuel from that tank. However, due to time constraints, we didn’t clean the tank; a decision we would come to regret.
When I noticed the unusual sound from the flybridge that night, we were 500nm from the mainland, with the closest safe haven at Kapingmarangi Atoll 400nm away. By the following day, the high revving was becoming more frequent as the seas changed from calm to rough. We were rolling and pitching, and with each roll, our engine would race.
We checked the filters and were polishing fuel as we went but the problem persisted, so we set our course for the atoll where we could stop the engine and have a proper look. Once at anchor we replaced the filters and opened up the tanks, but we couldn’t see much with the tanks quite full and the boat rocking in the swell.
Underway again, our next stop was Kiribati. The first few nights we sailed under beautiful sunsets and on calm, moonlit seas. Slowly, as the seas started to change for the worse, so did the sound of our engine, and eventually our suction line was not getting any fuel from our supply tank.
Total fuel starvation, with 700nm to go and no wind to sail with. The captain and I struggled for hours trying to get the engine to start in the hot, tiny engine room in rolling seas. Eventually we changed the suction valves to supply from another tank and bled the engine. Thankfully, it started, but the return line fuel was slowly filling the blocked tank so we then set up a hand pump system to transfer fuel back into the functioning tank. We hoped our temporary solution would hold.
The engine died completely at 4am, with no fuel coming from any of the tanks. There was clearly a serious blockage in the lines, so we pulled off all the fuel lines and set up a dive cylinder and regulator with pipes to blow into the lines. Out came a plug of fiber into the polishing drum. Drenched in sweat, sick from being covered in diesel and rolling around in the dark, we were very happy when the engine started and we were off again.
As soon as we arrived in Kiribati, we opened up the tanks. We pumped all the fuel out into drums and finally found our problem; an old rag was hanging off the outlet pipe, and a piece was on the pipe opening, flapping in and out. Some fiber was found blocking lines to the polisher too, obviously it had all been left in there from the build and we hadn’t been able to see it as the tanks were full.
After stocking up on fresh supplies, fuel and water, we were underway again, heading down south to Fiji and feeling like our troubles were behind us.
Two nights later our engine again stopped dead; our injector pump governor had failed. We had one spare pump, but we had no gear puller to get the pump off, which made life interesting. After a few frustrating hours we managed to fit the spare pump, start the engine and continue our journey. By then our nerves were shot.
Six hours later, our engine died again, with the only spare injector pump failing. We just couldn’t believe it.
We were 300nm from Kiribati and 700nm away from Fiji with no wind and no engine. Slowly, we were drifting onto a reef. We had no choice; we had to turn the boat back towards Kiribati where we could order a new injector pump and spares.
There was trouble steering downwind as our rudder was very small and kept rounding up. The sails weren’t up to the task; they were designed to assist the motor rather than to do the heavy work, as this was not a sailing yacht. We adapted where we could, tying the prop shaft with rope to stop it spinning without oil pressure and damaging the gearbox.
Hand steering was a challenge and we would get excited when our boat speed went over two knots. Patience is a virtue they say, and it’s interesting how people handle being at the mercy of the still, stubborn skies. With limp sails we floated slowly through glassy seas, making little headway. It became depressing, and we hoped desperately for more wind.
We got our wish and more when we were suddenly hit by a furious squall, winds spiking to over 35 knots. With little steerage, we sat almost helpless as the wind ripped the genoa and one batten pocket on our main.
We crept towards land.
What a challenge it was to navigate through the reef into Kiribati, using our echo sounder and chart plotter with just a storm jib up. When we finally reached the channel we had to drop our anchor on the run and had trouble stopping the boat in 20knot winds. The anchor chain skipped three times from the gypsy and we almost lost the lot - but it miraculously held and we were finally safe.
It was time to assess the damage and start repairs. We discovered that the spare injector pump that we’d replaced at sea had become stuck on the drive shaft. We hadn’t known that the pump shaft should have been fitted on dry and we’d greased it before putting it on. We used a Spanish windlass system to get the pump off, but then had to wait two months for spare parts, as we were on a tiny Pacific island with only one flight in a week. Mind you, there are worse places to be stranded.
Looking back it was clear to see that we’d made such obvious mistakes.
The importance of clean fuel and tanks is a necessity on any yacht. If the tanks had been cleaned before leaving for the open ocean passage, our breakdowns could have been avoided.
The correct spare parts are vital, along with having a land-based coordinator ready to send spares out when needed.
With those lessons learnt and our boat repaired, we took to the South Seas again, ready for the next adventure. Which was lucky, really, as there was some excitement coming our way.