Put 2 or more cruisers in a locked room and within 20 minutes the conversation will invariably switch to marine diesel motors. Really, with just 2 cruisers in a room, the odds that at least 1 of them is having some sort of an issue is going to be %100. Most of the time its not a serious issue, just some strange quirk that they have probably spent months just living with. However, we are always bringing it up in hopes that someone will have a suggestion that might cure it.
Although I have been quiet about it lately, long time followers may remember me mentioning a hard start condition with one of our motors. I have not mentioned it, mostly because our anchor somehow cemented itself in Prickly Bay. However, even with a stuck anchor we still start our motors on a schedule as part of our maintenance regime. On our first start in Prickly Bay, the hard start issue reappeared.
So first, lets start with some background. Last season while in Martinique is when this issue first showed up. One day I went to fire up the starboard engine and it spun fine, but just wouldn’t kick. I eventually went down below and pumped the primer lever a bunch of times, then tried it again… Rattle, rattle cough, vroom.. “Cool”, I thought. “It must have lost its prime”, yet my gut had a different idea. Over the next 2 weeks, my gut forced me to try starting that motor a bunch of times. It quickly became apparent that the issue was really random. Sometimes the motor would fire right up. Sometimes I needed to prime it. Sometimes priming didn’t work and it still needed like 60 seconds of spinning. Strange AF.
Eventually I realized I was in over my head and decided to reach out to some “Grey Beards”. Of course Teddy (my Dad) was first on my speed dial. He had worked as a heavy mechanic and had friends that were still in the industry. Questions were asked, suggestions were made, more questions were asked, more suggestions tested… Eventually more “Grey Beards” were consulted and 2 suggestions were put forth. (believe me, we covered all the standard stuff).
1. Possibly a dirty (or failed) injector. Get some good cleaner, add it to an small external tank (heavy dose) and run the motor for at least an hour on that.
2. A pinhole somewhere in the fuel delivery system. Replace any rubber lines and remove the feed to the old diesel heater as it T-eed off the motor (it could be the source of the leak).
Now here is where my frustration kicked my ass. Instead of trying those items one at a time, I decided to do them both at the same time. Seriously, if I was tearing apart the feed lines, why not run it the inlet into a jerry can while I finished the rest of the job. It just seemed efficient, but it broke the most basic rules of troubleshooting (CHANGE ONE THING AT A TIME). Of course, one of those things solved the problem, but due to my laziness I wasn’t able to isolate which change fixed it. After everything was reassembled the motor consistently fired up every time with 3 seconds of spinning. *HANDS DUSTED*, job done!
So imagine my frustration and dismay when I tried Bert (yes motors have names) in Prickly and it would not fire. Just like the old days I would spin it over, yelling explanatives, and eventually it would cough to life after some random time. SONOFABITCH. I checked all the fuel lines closely for leaks but could not find any. Another fuel treatment run was my next step, however I struggled to find diesel injector cleaner in Grenada. In the mean time Darin had arrived from the USA to help crew with Kendra on Sea Frog. Of course that meant my motor issue was forgotten as we had some beer drinking and bullshit to catch up on.
However, one day it dawned on me to run my issue by him. You see, Darin is an active diesel mechanic and was literally working on motors up until he left. So as we were drinking beer as some bar, I ran my issue past him. He asked a bunch of questions the other “Grey Beards” had asked, but then hit on one no one asked.
Darin – “What did the exhaust smoke look like when the motor finally started?”
Me – “It looks exactly like normal. Barely a puff of smoke then it runs completely normal.”
Darin – “No black smoke at all?”
Me – “No, when it does fire, it looks just like normal”
Darin – “Its a fuel starvation issue. Most likely your fuel shutoff valve. Check your cables and make sure the valve is not stuck closed”
Me – “No we checked that a few times and I can clearly see its completely open. I’m sure thats not it. ”
Darin – “If there is no black smoke then the motor is not getting fuel”.
Me – “Hhhmm you do have a point. I will go and check again!”
Of course once I got back to the boat I immediately checked the fuel shutoff valve. Just as I was sure of, the valve was clearly open all the way and not sticking. Just to be totally certain, I manually operated the lever with my hand a few times. It was definitely opening all the way. However, just to make sure I went topside and attempted a motor start. Imagine my surprise when it fired right up after just a few seconds. Of course, I shut the motor down and attempted a restart. Nope, she just spun with no fire. Out of curiosity I punched the motor kill button a few times top operate the fuel kill lever electrically, then tried again. VROOM, it fired right up.
In the weeks since that day, the issue has again disappeared and the motor fires right up every time, even without operating the kill lever. My theory is that the variable quality of fuel we are able to get down here is a contributing factor. I’m not sure why, but when we sit for a while it seems like the fuel may cause that shutoff valve to become sticky internally. After running a bunch of fuel through the motor the stickiness goes away and it operates just fine. I’m also guessing that the cleaning run I did on the motor in Martinique was responsible for solving the problem back then. The solvent removed whatever was causing the stickiness and cured the symptom.
Having both Bert and Ernie running without any issues makes Part of Five happy. Its just in time too, since we can’t seem to get any decent wind angles.
So what is the point of this post? Sometimes you best tool is a cold beer (maybe access to a diesel mechanic with 1000s of hours of experience helps as well).