Red alert on the high seas!

We really needed to head back to the USVI, we have had so much fun in the Spanish Virgin Islands that we haven’t wanted to leave. I kept putting it off but the time had come and we really needed to head back over to our “home base”.

The end of this great little adventure is near and I needed to make provisions to sell the boat and do a bit of final brightwork and things like that. I also had a small photography job lined up on St John.

We had to wait a few days to get a decent break in the weather, it had been stormy and a bit nasty for about a week. Monday the 5th looked like it was going to be the best for about another week and even though it wasn’t looking great, it would have to do.

Knowing that it was going to be a rough beat straight into the wind and that the waves were going to be of decent size I spent a day preparing. Firstly you can never get everything stowed down below well enough. Think about tipping your house about 40 degrees in every direction and imagine what your kitchen would look like to get an idea. I doubled checked all the rigging, replaced some cotter pins that were corroded, checked the fluid levels, and to extra care to ensure everything was ship shape. I even got the little foresail that we rarely use all ready, it’s fairly small and is self tending so I figured that it might be a good option in heavy weather. It was blowing pretty hard as I prepped the foresail so I didn’t actually hoist it for fear that it may tear us off the mooring.

Early Monday mooring we hoisted the motor off Dingy, waited for a few squalls to pass through and then headed out shortly after 10 am.

It was pretty darn rough, winds were forecasted to only be 15-20 knots but were more in the 20-25 knot range. Between the bashing of the waves head on and the wind we were not making much forward progress. After close to an hour we had made it a whopping 3 miles or so and it wasn’t getting any nicer.

St Thomas was straight into the wind and with squalls coming through pretty regularly I had elected not to put up any sail yet. I was hoping for the seas to calm down a bit and put in a few nice long tacks to our destination. As it got a little rougher the first mate inquired as to whether I was worried that we might airlock as we had in rough conditions off of St Croix. Nah, I replied, well over half a tank of fuel and conditions aren’t as bad. Not a minute later the motor sputtered. I quickly throttled back and put it in neutral. After a few seconds she cleaned up and I put it back in gear and throttled up. Almost immediately the sputtering resumed and I knew we needed to turn back. Luckily we were far enough out that we had a bit of breathing room from the reefs. Culebra has numerous reefs surrounding it and the channel to get in is a zig-zag of a couple miles. I throttled back again and waited for the motor to catch its breath, then made my turn to head back.  I handed off the helm to the first mate and went to put up the genoa. The genoa started to unfurl and then stopped, stuck hard with barely any sail out. Then the motor died completely and I heard a massive crash as a huge wave picked up Dingy and attempted to firmly place him in the cockpit.

Not good, without sails or motor we were helpless and had no way to pick our way back through the reef and into the harbor. Perfect time for that little foresail I thought and went forward to deploy it. It wouldn’t go up…

What in the world was going on? I suddenly realized that the sheet for the foresail had gotten wrapped around the roller furling for the genoa and now they were both stuck. Still one sail to go right? Not in this case, with winds blowing this hard there would be no way to hoist the main without being pointed into the wind. I knew I had to act fast as Dingy once again tried to come on deck and join the party.

I unhooked the foresail sheet from the foresail and snaked it around the roller furling, easy to do at anchor, not as much fun when you are dangling over the bow in heavy seas knowing that if you fall off a boat without any form of locomotion can not come back and get you. It would be about a 3 mile swim if I fell off and I wasn’t looking forward to that. I finally got the furling untangled and go the genoa up so that we had some steering. I then started working on getting the engine restarted.

I didn’t have much time, even with the genoa half furled we were headed back in at over 6 knots. Try as I might i couldn’t get the engine to re-fire, so we prepared for another anchoring in high winds, in a crowded harbor routine. Having done this once before I had learned from our mistakes and hoped to do better this time. I furled in the genoa to about a quarter and began our turn back into the wind. I had picked the biggest to hole in the crowded anchorage in case I wasn’t as precise as i wanted to be and it was a good thing I had. Just as I started the turn a big gust of wind hit us and the boat accelerated, I tried to get the sheet loose to let the sail luff but there was so much tension I couldn’t. Unfortunately I was out of rudder and headed for the shore at an increasing rate of speed. I yelled at the first mate to throw out the anchor as I finally got the sail released. We ended up a bit closer to the shore that I like, but we were fine, as was the boat.

After catching my breath for a few minutes I started tearing into the fuel system. With a simple diesel like this, there can only be one culprit. Fuel starvation or contamination. The weird thing was there was never much debris in my filter/water separator. I had to get to the bottom of what was happening, the only time I really needed the motor is when it seemed to conk out. I re-hooked up all the hoses and such that I had disconnected in my panicked attempts to get the motor started earlier, bled the system out and got the motor running again. This was great, but I knew that there was another issue. We had assumed that when we had prior issues the motor had airlocked because of very heavy seas and not enough fuel in the tank. I now doubted this was the case. There was something more going on, I had to inspect every bit of the fuel system and figure out what it was. The tank on the boat is the original, 30 years old. If you have ever been around diesel and warm climates you know that things can get pretty cruddy. Being that there was no inspection panel for the tank my best option was to try to look through the hole where the fuel gauge resides. Lets just say that none of this is easy or fun to get to.

I got my flashlight and peered in the hole, to my surprise there was a large octopus in the tank! Just kidding but that would have been pretty darn cool.

I could see the bottom of the tank through the small opening and could indeed see debris. Dark patches of grit and sediment are never good in a fuel tank, especially one that gets shaken vigorously about. I figured that the debris must get stirred up in rough conditions and obstruct the fuel pick-up or line in some way. My next step was to pull the fuel pickup. I knew that some had screens or strainers on them and they could get clogged. No luck, the tank was put in the boat before this top half of the boat was bonded in and there was not enough room to get it out. Or was there?

A few minutes later after some careful drilling and cutting a nice hole in my cockpit floor I had the fuel pick-up in my hand. It was a nice stainless piece, half inch in diameter with a 45 degree angle cut at the end. After some measuring I determined that the point of the pick-up was 1 inch from the tank floor. I was hoping for a smoking gun, but nothing was super obvious at this point. If it was debris getting stirred up the filter should be dirty, and it just wasn’t.

At this point I called my buddy Chuck. He’s old and wise, with the emphasis on old, a couple hundred years at this point. We talked it through and he gave me some input.

I had noticed 2 electric inline fuel pumps the last time I was digging around these parts and had figured they were left overs from the old engine that had been replaced. The new engine had an electric lift pump bolted to the case, so I figured these were superfluous. However, on closer inspection the wiring looked pretty fresh so I checked to see if they were functioning. They were not, hmmmm. I traced the wires back to the instrument panel and key only the find that they should be running when the key is switched on. Long story short, the ground was hooked up incorrectly and the pumps had never worked. I thought that maybe in rough seas the lift pump on the engine couldn’t suck the fuel in adequate quantities. I also noticed that the fittings were quite small that came off the fuel pick-up, in addition there were some 90 degree bends and other monkey business going on. In the end I thought that maybe large chunks were being sucked up the pick-up and getting stuck in the elbow reduction at the top. This would explain why I wasn’t seeing much debris in the filter but the engine would quit. After a little while the debris would fall back down the tube and the motor would run again.

I modified my homebuilt fuel polisher into a fuel tank vacuum and sucked as much crap out as I could. It was pretty bad and I know there was no way I got it all.

I ended up shortening the pick-up by one inch and cutting “gills” on the side by the bottom in case something big was completely covering the bottom of the pickup, like a piece of plastic or wood. I then re-did the entire fuel delivery system with no elbows and larger fittings. Since there are essentially no parts available in the area I recycled various bits of old systems and spares I had on the boat. The hope is that the debris will get sucked clear to the filter instead of plugging the line. I removed the inline pump on the positive side of the filter and rewired the other to run when the key is on.

I will now fill the fuel tank to the top in hopes that the less sloshing about there is, the better.

Finally I’m constructing a 5 gallon emergency tank that I can switch to in case all of the above doesn’t work.

It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t think about anything but the task at hand. I spent 3 days with basically no distraction sorting this issue out. Mind you the winds have been blowing a steady 20-30 knots the whole time and the boat is acting like an untamed stallion even in the harbor.

I know when I return to the real world I’m going to remember this and “unplug” myself from time to time, the results are worth it.

Modded pick-up, notice the half a hacksaw and stair/vice, only the finest in tools!

Just a small amount of what I sucked off the bottom.

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