This was the worst week since we came to Mexico over a year ago. From time to time, we truly wonder how much one can take. Our engine wouldn’t start on the day of departure. Therefore, we missed the weather window and had to dismantle our entire boat. Again.
Two days before our departure from Peñasco, our adventure almost came to an end. When we returned from an errand run, I noticed that Milagros was no longer moored in the same place. She must have moved somehow, because the water and electricity panel were right in front of where we boarded our boat, which they weren’t before. But we didn’t think about it any further. Then the boat neighbour told us that in our absence a steel fishing boat had crashed into the dock. All of a sudden, we realized the damage to the dock when our neighbour told us that he had seen the fishing boat graze Milagros. We immediately panicked: Had the metal colossus damaged our new paint job??? But we quickly realised that “only” the bowsprit and the anchor roller were bent, and the navigation light was damaged.
It could have ended badly
When our neighbour told us how the collision had happened, our hair stood on end. The fishing boat’s reverse gear had jammed, and the boat had therefore crashed backwards into the dock. Just a few feet to the right, it would have been our boat, not the dock. And Milagros might not have been there anymore. What a shock! Milagros has once again lived up to her name!
And we still think the name is great, despite a comment we recently overheard from a Sea Shepherd crew member about Milagros when they were in Peñasco with their boat “Sharpie” and moored behind us with their dinghy: “Yet another shitty boat name”. In their campaing called “Milagro”, Sea Sheperd is fighting illegal fishing with gill nets in the northern Sea of Cortez these days. Good thing they are here, but obviously they don’t have taste in boat names.
Costs, work and annoyance
The harbour master had already issued a no leave order for the culprit, so they could not leave the harbour until the damage had been paid for. Marga from Dogfish Boatworks made a damage report on the same day, which we submitted immediately. And the various party boat operators at the docks of Fonature Marine were pretty confident that we will receive compensation. The damage amounts to about 1,500 $ and means work and annoyance, of course. Fortunately, this damage didn’t stop us from leaving Peñasco. Instead, something else did.
It’s not happening
On Monday morning, the 24th of January 2022 at 8.00 am sharp, we wanted to untie the lines. It was high tide and there was a nice weather window to cover the 140 nautical miles to our first anchorage. Doug and Marga came over to wave goodbye and even the harbour master was there to bring us our papers. David started the engine and 5 seconds later it stopped again. We tried a few more times to start the engine, to no avail. That was the beginning of the end. It was not happening; we were not heading out! We then made coffee. What else was there to do? We quickly realised that it might take longer to solve the problem.
Diesel engines are frugal
In theory, diesel engines are not very demanding: they need air, diesel, compression and, of course, enough cranking amps to run. If the engine simply stops, it is often due to a lack of diesel supply. This can be caused by empty tanks, clogged lines, closed supply valves, non-functioning valves, air in the diesel system, insufficient venting of the tanks, a defective diesel pump, dirty filters, and algae, among other things.
Air in the system?
We had full tanks, a clean air filter and enough cranking power – we knew that for sure. Marga brought us the necessary tools for a pressure test of the system to find any air leaks. We spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for ourselves and finding the leak(s) in the system by testing different sections. In the process, we pressurized our diesel fuel lines and smeared soap foam on all the fittings. We found a leak at the diesel lift pump, appearing as soap bubbles rising from two small screws.
As we had suspected already that something was wrong with our fuel tank vents, we also opened the deck fills. We could hear air being sucked into both tanks. There was also a loud popping noise, which indicated a vacuum. So, the vent hoses had to be replaced. Our theory at this point was that we had created a vacuum in the diesel system during the last test run. The leaking diesel lift pump then caused the system to fill with air. This meant that the injectors were not getting enough fuel.
Larger hoses needed
So, our next task was to get larger diesel hoses for the vents. The previous diameter of 3/16” was far too small, and we wanted to upgrade to 5/8” hose. Our friend Lionel from the Caterpillar store recommended a small shop just around the corner where we immediately found what we were looking for. Unfortunately, they only had 12 ft in stock, and we needed 50 ft. But the shop owner was able to order the hose we needed for the next day. And since we had to disassemble the whole boat anyway, we also ordered a hose to improve the vent lines of the water tank, which was also inadequate.
An art project
In the meantime, we devoted ourselves to a long-delayed beautification project on Milagros. Some time ago, we had the French artist Marine Marcus make us a table inlay with animals from the Sea of Cortez. So, we unscrewed the top of our dining table, put it in the next best place sheltered from the wind (the marina shower) and doused the inlay with tabletop epoxy. It was nice to just take care of a nice, cosmetic project for ourselves during this frustrating time.
As if a bomb had hit
Once the new hoses had arrived, we began one of the most tedious jobs we’ve ever had to do on Milagros. Not only did we have to get behind the wall liner by clearing out cabinets, but we also had to take out the recently installed water tank again, as it is directly above one of the diesel tanks and its fittings. Inside Milagros it looked like a bomb had hit the boat. And since the new hoses were much bigger than the old ones, none of the fittings fit anymore, nor did they fit through the holes. At one point I even damaged a 110V power cable trying to make the passage bigger. It was a completely and utterly shitty day.
But in the end, everything was installed as we wanted. Nevertheless, our engine wouldn’t start even after sufficient bleeding. Somehow less diesel arrived at the injectors than we remembered. We had checked our Racor primary filters for clogging, only to find that the connected electric diesel pump was mounted on the wrong side of them. Instead of pulling diesel through the filters, the pump was pushing diesel into the filters. We fixed that immediately. We also replaced 2 valves that we didn’t know exactly how or if they were working.
More to be found
We also found out that our starter battery was dead, which was disguised by the way it was wired into the system. The fact that it was dead didn’t matter as we could also start the engine from our house bank, but a new battery was still needed. The next day we took our old battery to a battery shop where it was tested. Of the 900 units of cold cranking amps, there were 29 left. However, as befits Milagros, the new battery had slightly larger terminals, so we had to drill our cable connectors larger to be able to connect to the battery.
We were at our wit’s end
After all, we contacted Doug, a local diesel mechanic, because we were stuck and needed help. Together with him we found out that the diesel lift pump was stuck in priming mode and therefore not enough diesel was coming into the distribution. So, we set off again to get the parts we needed to bypass this pump. But after that, there was still not enough diesel coming out of the distributor. We also checked the secondary filter there, which looked OK. Therefore, we removed the whole distributor, cleaned it thoroughly and replaced the filter. Afterwards, when we bled the engine, the diesel did indeed squirt out of the bleed screws. But the engine still wouldn’t start.
Doug suspected from the small black particles and the yellowish colour of the diesel in our primary filters that we might have algae. These are micro-organisms that multiply in diesel tanks and clog everything up. They need water and air to do this. We had made the mistake of not filling our diesel tanks to the top (=air) before hauling out and in summer the humidity was quite high (=water), which could well explain an infestation. Since the construction of our diesel tanks is far from optimal and we have no inspection hatches, an infestation could be super annoying. However, we were able to rule out a diesel infestation by circulating the diesel from both tanks through the filters, and the contaminants did not multiply. Lucky us!
That same evening we were less fortunate. At 10pm there was a banging on our boat – it was the night guard. Something had happened to Betty, the boatyard car. Betty was parked on the road in front of the marina and no longer looked like herself. Betty had broken windows, a flat tyre, and a big dent. The security guard told us that a car came speeding along and hit poor Betty. Of course, he had committed a hit-and-run after wrecking the car an entire boatyard relied upon. What in the hell was going on this week?! The police took an accident report, but it was impossible for sure to find the car involved in the accident. Although the vehicle must have been quite damaged, it would not be noticed here as a lot cars are on the roads in such a condition here in Puerto Peñasco.
The last straw
5 days after our failed departure, our engine still wasn’t running. We also missed our next good weather window, which was additionally annoying. Nevertheless, we met up with Marga from SV Dogfish and Marc & Laura from SV Liquid for tacos and drinks. Marga suggested that we could play around with the engine before dinner, which we did. To eliminate sources of error, she suggested running the engine on a jerry can. So, we changed the diesel supply and bled the engine again.
On the first try, the engine wouldn’t start. But on the second try, it started. Cheers broke out on board Milagros. We had really earned our dinner! The next day we reconnected the engine to the diesel system and it started immediately. What exactly had made the difference, we don’t really know.
An instructive week
We had changed all the filters, had rebuilt and cleaned the diesel distribution system, relocated the electric diesel pump, bypassed the diesel lift pump, replaced two valves, enlarged the vent hoses and pressure tested the entire system. So, within a week, we had taken our entire diesel system apart and put it back together.
At this point we would like to thank Marga for her fantastic continous and patient support with her knowledge! Also the cruising community has been super supportive in word and deed and sympathised with us. Although this was probably the worst week since we started the refit here in Peñasco, we were glad that we were able to solve the problem here in the marina and not somewhere along the way or at an anchorage without internet access. We still can’t believe how much bad luck we had in just one week: the accident with the fishing boat, the engine damage, and the accident with Betty. Things can only get better from here.
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