Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Bad Engine Blues

Our drive to Atlanta went well on October 23-25th, and the flight down to San Juan PR on the 26th went off without a hitch. Well, not quite - we bought a cheap ticket on SWA for Dawn since all the flights on my airline were oversold. I was on a jumpseat pass on the same flight we had paid to have Piper shipped as cargo, and it turned out there were plenty of seats due to misconnects - we didn't have to pay for Dawn after all. Oh well. Piper did very well with being shipped, again.

Our four days in the boatyard were hot, dusty, and busy. The boat was a little dirtier and moldier than we realized, so Dawn had some work cut out to make it habitable. We steadily worked our way down the long project list and got everything done by our scheduled launch at 3:30pm on Oct 30th. In the week since I had last visited the boat, mechanic Gerry Martino had finished flushing water out of the crankcase, removing water from the top end, and lubricating the cylinders through the injector holes. He also installed a new raw water throughhull and seacock, the job whose estimation (my another mechanic) led to the initial discovery of the water in the bilge. Gerry very briefly ran the engine while the boat was on the hard; I was really worried about internal rusting and potential damage down the road. As it turns out, I was right to worry.

The launch went very smoothly. Once in the water, the engine started right up but smoked heavily, which I initially attributed to the extra oil Gerry had injected into the cylinders. It made decent power to get us to the dock, though, and we were quite happy to be off the hard and moving aboard (we had spent the previous nights in a rented apartment about 10 minutes north of the marina). Over the next few days we continued provisioning, rigging Windbird to cruise, I fixed the air conditioning and it promptly broke again, and we kept running the engine at various RPMs. Our initial goal had been to leave the marina on Friday, October 2nd, and we would have been ready to do so if our engine had been running right. It was still smoking quite a bit and running a little rough, and there was a pronounced top end clatter. Gerry came to adjust the valves on the morning of October 2nd and that cleared up the top end noise, but now the roughness of the engine was more evident. He isolated the problem using the old "crack the injector hold-down" trick: the #4 cylinder was dead. The next morning he came back to swap injectors (between #2 & #4), but the #4 cylinder stayed idle. The injector was clearly squirting out fuel. This left compression as the primary suspect, a very bad sign.

We hung out the rest of the weekend as it rained and poured, and on Monday morning Gerry and his assistant David came with their compression tester. Cylinders #1-3 all showed around 425 psi, while #4 registered just under 300. Exploratory surgery was necessary. Gerry and David tore out the head and took that back to their shop, where Gerry inspected it yesterday. He found all valves seating and sealing normally, and no leaks from the top end. This is the worst case scenario. It means a broken ring, possibly a scored cylinder wall (we can't see any evidence of that from the top of the cylinder, though). It means removal of the engine for overhaul, or else replacement. It means putting a ton of money into the boat, and being stuck here for the foreseeable future. It means our plans for this season are on hold for now.

Because the current engine has nearly 8500 hours on it, Dawn and I are strongly leaning towards replacing it with a new Yanmar 4JH5E, which is basically identical to our current 4JH4E. It would be about as painless of a repowering as is possible. We'd be able to use our brand new ZF 15 MIV transmission, which thankfully survived its own dunking without water ingress. We'd possibly even be able to leave the boat in the water, as Mark and Judy Handley did when they installed the current engine in 2005. We know the engine will fit through the companionway and down the aft cabin passageway to the engine room, which would have to be partly disassembled. We know it can be done with our main halyard, a few other ropes, and a 1-ton chain hoist. We have lots of photos and descriptions of the process from Judy's blog. It would allow us to do a few other projects to greatly improve our engine room and bilge. But it would doubtless take a while to be shipped down here. We're waiting on a quote from R&B Power in San Juan. In the meantime I'm starting the process of filing an insurance claim. That's going to be interesting, as our insurance has been a pain to deal with every time we've had contact. We would have switched if it didn't require a new survey.

In the meantime, though, we're flying over to the BVI for 10 days. Two of my brothers and eleven of their friends are flying in for a charter of a large Moorings catamaran on Nov 10-17th. Windbird was supposed to join them but obviously won't be making it, and besides their need of our sailing expertise there isn't enough room on the cat to sleep everyone. Fortunately some good friends of ours who are also Moorings owners gifted us the use of their points to charter an additional 38' monohull, which Dawn, my brother Jon, his girlfriend Heather and I will sleep on. Piper will be going to a "doggie resort" here on Puerto Rico. Though we're getting the extra boat for free, I honestly hate to leave Windbird here like this and run off to the BVI, but we're doing it because it's family and they've had this planned for a long time, have nonrefundable tickets, etc. My hope is to get the new Yanmar ordered and headed this way while we're gone, assuming we decide to go in that direction. We'll be trying to make a decision in the next three days.


  1. Dawn and Sam, Sorry to hear about the engine, but knew that this may be the result. I think it is wise to replace it with a similar engine given your limited room to navigate in the engine room. I think it will be good for you guys to take a break and go with the group and enjoy Jon and Heather. Hopefully, when you come back, the new engine will be ready to go and you'll be refreshed. Thinking of you and love you lots!

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