CURRENT LOCATION: Anchored off Green Beach near Punta Arenas, Vieques, Puerto Rico
18 07.034' N, 065 34.699' W
Last night, as we watched the sun set from the cockpit of Prudence
, I turned to Sheryl and said, "Wouldn't it be great if conditions tomorrow allow us to actually sail
some of the way without the engine?" Well, I got my wish, although sooner than we had planned.
The morning started much like the day before had begun. We raised the anchor just before first light, and were motoring with main and staysail by the time the sun rose. We had planned to motorsail along the coast (as we have grown so accustomed to doing) for the first 8 nautical miles, then tack offshore in an effort to make it to the island of Vieques in the afternoon.
When we were about 2 nautical miles from our point of departure from the mainland when the pitch of the engine suddenly changed and we lost power. Thinking that we had snagged some debris in the prop (because we have been routinely spotting fishing pot floats and discarded nets in the water while transiting the south coast of Puerto Rico), I quickly put the engine in neutral and throttled down. The tone of the engine returned to normal, and I turned the boat away from the shore, sailing slowly on reefed main and staysail in the light morning winds.
Sheryl hopped below and took a quick look at the engine. Nothing was amiss. She then took the helm while I took a look at the drive shaft. It was spinning freely since the boat was moving and we were in neutral, suggesting that my original assumption was incorrect: we had not snagged any debris. We tried to re-engage the transmission, but the engine faltered again. Then, even in neutral, the engine began to run roughly. We decided to shut it down and resort to sailing.
Ever since we have been doing this close-coastal sailing, Sheryl and I both knew what the drill would be if we experienced a sudden loss of the engine. We would tack out under sail and get a safe distance from land. So, we did just that. We needed a full genoa to get some speed up since the day's brisk tradewinds had yet to assert themselves, but we soon found ourselves about 4-5 nautical miles offshore and moving along under the quiet power of the wind.
Unfortunately, there was little time to enjoy the sensation of sailing, because my mind was occupied with engine troubleshooting thoughts. The engine did not overheat, so there could be no issues with the cooling system. Diesel engines don't require much in the way of electricity once they are started, so the electrical system could be ruled out. When I checked the engine oil, all was normal (no encroachment of water or fuel). Finally, there were no leaking fluids captured in the pan beneath the engine.
That left the fuel system. In fact, the behavior of the engine could easily be explained by a shortage of fuel. Perhaps the primary (first) fuel filter had become clogged? But the vacuum gauge did not suggest any clogging of the primary filter. In fact, the gauge was reading a little low. Wait, maybe that meant that the secondary (engine mounted) fuel filter had become clogged. But, how could that happen? We had changed it just recently, and we run a 2-micron primary filter. It should not be compromised this soon (if ever). Then it occurred to me...the fuel lift pump. It is located between the primary and secondary fuel filters. If it had stopped functioning, that would explain all of the symptoms described above.
We decided to approach the diagnostic and repair process in three stages, with Sheryl at the helm (keeping us moving under sail) while I went below and gathered tools and supplies to affect said diagnosis and repair. First, we turned the ignition key (not the start button), which should engage the fuel lift pump. When I put my hand on the pump, I can usually feel it vibrate as it pumps (I can even tell if there is an air bubble caught in the pump). There was no vibration. Second, we tested the electrical connections to the fuel pump (O.K., so I was wrong before. The engine does
have an electrical requirement when running). My multimeter showed that the pump was getting a solid 12V supply of electricity when the ignition key was turned. Third, we replaced the fuel lift pump with the spare we carry aboard. This took a little bit of time and effort in the sloppy seas, but I eventually emerged from below, smelling slightly of diesel, to announce that the task was complete. As I enjoyed some fresh air in the cockpit, we were greeted by a pod of dolphin, two dozen at least. Since these creatures always portend good luck for us, I was hopeful that they knew what I was uncertain of, that our diagnosis and repair efforts were on target. I suppose that it was time to put that theory to the test. All that was left to do was to bleed the fuel system.
As you may recall from our earlier efforts at fuel system re-design (last summer), dear Reader, diesel engines have zero tolerance for air in the system. Fortunately, our Universal engine has a bypass valve which allows for an easy bleeding process. We simply open this valve, turn on the fuel lift pump, and the fuel gets recycled back to the fuel tank. When we started the bleeding process, I could feel the air in the pump, but the vibrations quickly smoothed and we were ready to start the engine. It ran well and continued to do so as I closed the bypass valve. Success!! Thank you, dolphins, for that healthy dose of good luck.
During our three hours under sail, we had covered a distance of 10 nautical miles. Unfortunately, tacking further off the wind than we are able to do with engine assistance and meeting some fairly steep waves in fairly moderate winds left us covering only 5 nautical miles towards our goal of Vieques. What is most interesting is that we generally get much higher winds offshore during this time of day, but this morning was an exception (just when we needed them most). We could have sailed the rest of the way to Vieques, but it would have taken an additional 10 hours. We were tired from the day's excitement and took the easy route of motorsailing the final 16 nautical miles to Vieques.
While the winds remained light (only 12-17 knots) we made great time along the rhum line (nearly 5 knots average speed), but eventually the day's trades finally kicked in. We motorsailed the final hour in 20-25 knots of wind with very short and choppy seas.
Upon arriving at Vieques in the early afternoon, we needed only to pick up a mooring ball to be secured off the beach (the Department of Natural Resources in Puerto Rico is fond of putting out FREE mooring balls in certain locations). What a wonderful use of our tax dollars.
We took a short swim followed by a short walk on the beach here at Green Beach. Such an idyllic spot with crystal-clear waters we have not seen since the Bahamas and Caicos islands. Now we have to decide whether to stay here for a while or push on toward Culebra tomorrow. Stay tuned, dear Reader, to find out which option we choose. Regardless, there is no wrong choice, we have returned to the land of small islands and few people. Paradise is right off our bow.