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Breakdown in Paradise

With the transmission non-functional, the author turns his attention to his preferred form of propulsion, the sails.
The shifter went into reverse and the engine made an ungodly clunking sound—the first few notes of an emotionally consuming mechanical opera that would take nearly a month to conclude. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere aboard our 35-foot sloop Althea, having just threaded our way through a series of sand bores off Norman’s Cay in the Exumas, en route to tucking into a deserted anchorage. The apparent and unexpected death of our transmission sent morale into a tailspin. There was just one big question: Now what?

Despite how bad it may seem at the time, there are usually several options when you break down in the middle of the boonies. It’s a good time to thank the powers that be that you’re on a sailboat—you should still be able to get to where you are headed, albeit if it means a bit more time, attention to detail when navigating, choosing weather, and routing between destinations. For us it was either head to the hustle and bustle of Nassau and face the rumors of heavy duties levied by unsmiling custom agents on imported parts, or carry on to Georgetown for Regatta Week. With the nearly 400 boats expected there, we thought it likely that some kind of marine-related infrastructure would be in place to help us in our plight. We also thought we’d have more fun there, and certainly there would be a few transmission experts among our fellow cruising boats anchored there.

So we carried on, sailing on a slightly ebbing tide out a narrow cut and into Exuma Sound where we positioned ourselves before a blustery cold front and blasted our way south to where the dissection could begin. For us, paying someone else to work on our boat runs against the grain of our cruising philosophy—there’s no point in paying someone else to learn about your boat. Maintaining a cruising boat is a hands-on affair, even it you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing. When things break onboard, it’s a bummer, but it’s also an opportunity to learn what it is that’s broken and how the thing works. And that’s knowledge that can be useful in the future to both you and others. Once you’ve done it, you’re somewhat of an expert. Of course you’re sure to have an adventure and may even have some fun in the process.

Nonetheless, we thought it prudent to size-up the local marine repair talent in Georgetown. But after we arrived, a neighboring cruiser told us that he had waited for an hour-and-a-half at a nearby boatyard without being helped, so that sealed the deal for us. Now don’t misinterpret this to mean that opting to fix our transmission ourselves wasn’t a daunting project. When we mentioned this plan to fellow boaters, the responses ranged from the ‘You’re brave,’ to ‘You’re crazy.’ And who knew what was inside a transmission anyway? Judging from the sample of cruisers we came in touch with, not many. But we were more than willing to jump in and find out.

The experience reminded us of the first time we had to venture into the inner workings of mechanical apparati when the engine on our previous boat blew a head gasket off the coast of Mexico. At the time the event seemed like the end of the world. We made it into the port of Zihuatanejo for repairs. That’s where we encountered another cruiser who helped us get the right perspective on making these kinds of repairs. This fellow, from a South African boat, offered a piece of wisdom that we have since used time and again: "It’s only a Volvo MD2b," he said of our engine in his lilting South African accent, "not a nuclear submarine." Someone had once used a selection of metric wrenches to put the thing together, we figured we could use the same to take it apart.

Looking forward with the transmission removed, the damper plate is front and center, bolted to the flywheel. Note propeller shaft tied to the engine mounts. This was the author's strategic move to keep shaft from exiting the boat while under sail.

Expect Setbacks The ability to squeeze into a position that would make a yoga swami scream for mercy, and stay there is high on the list of requirements for working on your own diesel engine. Our first task was to disconnect the coupler from the shaft, which took about an hour. Next we had to get the transmission off the engine, and that took what seemed like an eternity. The heads of four of the six bolts holding the mounting flange to the engine block snapped off in the block despite a generous amount of PB Blaster and gingerly applied force. Sometimes that happens. At least I wasn’t paying someone else to break bolts I could break perfectly well myself. Still, with all the bolts off, the thing was more than a little reluctant to part from the engine. Several more hours passed in which we used a series of wooden wedges, screwdrivers, and chisels to open the seam between the transmission and the engine and separate them, trying not to damage anything else. After digging deep in the persistence department, the transmission finally came off.

Fortunately, we had a technical manual for the transmission, which helped stave off the what-the-heck-are-we-doing feeling that we couldn’t keep at bay. And thankfully, we could still run the engine to charge our batteries, since our transmission and engine are actually separate entities. Some older engines use the engine’s oil to lubricate the transmission. Our transmission, a Hurth 100, has an input shaft, which takes the power from something called a damper plate that is attached to the flywheel and brings this force into the transmission. When the shifter is engaged into either forward or reverse the output shaft spins via a series of clutch plates and provides power to the shaft and prop. I successfully rationalized that the whole arrangement was similar to something I knew pretty well, a two-speed winch, only this thing had a neutral gear.

The damage to the author's transmission is just visible on the shaft that extends out (to the right) from the casing.

Stay Calm     Should you ever find yourself in the similar role of taking something major apart—say an alternator, engine head, steering system or what have you—the first thing to do is to proceed in a calm and orderly fashion. Label bolts, washers, and other fine parts and keep them in plastic Ziploc bags. Be sure to take notes, and go slowly. If you have to store any of the parts for a prolonged period of time while you wait for replacement parts, take care that they won’t be damaged knocking around inside a lazerette.

In our case we were lucky when it came to diagnosing the problem. With the transmission casing apart, the machined grooves on the end of the input shaft were chewed up. Continuing research revealed that the damper plate on the flywheel would also have to be replaced. The two apparently had gotten into a bit of a brawl that left both destined for the dumpster. We were lucky that the damage seemed confined to the input shaft and the damper plate, the output shaft is a bit more complicated and we might have had to send that back to the manufacturer for repairs. Instead, we discovered that all we would have to do was have a bearing pressed on, then replace the input shaft, some gaskets, and some shims.

Diagnosis    But the question remained, why had it this happened? Closer inspection revealed a few clues. Exhibit A was the missing head of a single bolt holding the transmission on the engine that had been broken off by a previous owner. Exhibit B included a thick layer of scale in between the mounting flange. Our boat is a center cockpit design with engine access from the cockpit. The cockpit gets wet from time to time (imagine that) and a leak had dripped down precisely into the seam between the transmission and the engine. The situation is similar to water dripping into a crack in a rock. Eventually enough scale built up to pry the transmission slightly away from the engine, exerting an uneven pressure on the input shaft, until eventually something had to give. The theory we’ve developed is that a previous owner saw what was happening, tried to tighten the transmission onto the engine, broke a bolt, and said ‘forget about it,’ probably reciting the if-it-isn’t-broken-don’t-fix-it mantra. And short of taking the transmission off the engine, there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. If there’s a lesson in this, it’s never underestimate the power of leaks aboard a boat.

Based on where the damaged parts were, we decided the breakdown didn’t stem from a misaligned engine, or else the rear seal on the transmission would have gone and the damage would have been in the output shaft. The nuclear submarine engineer turned cruiser who was anchored next to us thought this theory was hogwash. His take was that the wrong sized damper plate had been installed and the engine managed just enough bite to hang on for 15 years before giving way. We’ll probably never know what actually caused our transmission to fail.

Final assembly of the transmission means getting every bolt, washer, shim, and gear as clean as possible. This was Laurie's job.
Reassembly    After a number of e-mails, faxes, a week wait, a trip to the airport to pick up our parts on a moped (in which much attention was paid to ensuring that I drove on the same side of the road as the rest of the locals), I handed over a seven percent duty on the parts we’d ordered, making sure that they were the same as the maligned parts. The customs officials wanted the old parts (to keep me from selling them to anyone). It was now time to start putting things back together again. The first thing on the list was to clean each bolt, washer, casing, and gear scrupulously with mineral spirits before rinsing each again in transmission fluid. Dirt, dust, kitty litter, and other foreign objects need to be kept out of precision engine parts. We had already made several dry fits putting the parts back together before using gasket sealant and reassembling the transmission for good. With everything back together and tightened, and no play evident, shifting the transmission by hand seemed to indicate that it would do what it was supposed to. But we would only know for sure once we hooked up to the engine again.

In the heat of the battle, it’s easy to over-tighten bolts to the breaking point. The experience of taking the transmission off the engine helped remind me that this was something we did not want to do, especially since the marine infrastructure we were hoping to find in Georgetown was not exactly what we pictured. Finding a 13-mm fine-thread bolt proved impossible, making each piece we had irreplaceable. When you’re reassembling a fine piece of machined hardware, think of how you tighten the lug nuts when you change a flat. Go slowly and evenly, and if you can borrow a torque wrench from a neighbor and have torque specifications, so much the better.

Every travail in the cruising life has its own special reward. In the case of the author and his crew, that came when they steamed into the Bahia Honda harbor at Culebra and later discovered scenic Culebrita in the background.
The Moment of Truth    With the transmission reassembled and reconnected to the engine, it was time for the moment of truth. (Or, as we say on board Althea, ‘the moment of doof.’) Which would it be? After knocking on wood, we started the engine and shifted it into gear. Never had a spinning output flange seemed such a miracle. We shifted from forward to neutral to reverse and back again for what seemed hours, marveling that we, mere mortals, had apparently been able to fix this mysterious and essential piece of equipment. The next day-and-a-half was spent aligning the engine, followed by another change of the transmission fluid. A week later we were anchored near a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico, much of the struggle a distant memory replaced by a feeling of ‘we did it.’ So who knows. If we can repair a broken transmission on our own, maybe you can fix one yourself too. Of course you won’t know until you try.

Frozen Fasteners

So you’re trying to get a bolt out of the engine and it won’t move. Now what? First, spray the bolt with a lubricant like WD-40, or PB Blaster and let it sit. Tap the head of the bolt lightly with a hammer to try and loosen it up. To turn it, I recommend using a socket instead of an an open wrench or a crescent wrench. Sometimes it may pay to track down a deep socket if you need one.

Getting a good grip on the head of the bolt is the main objective. This means lining up a straight shot, unencumbered by neighboring water pumps, wires, or fuel lines. You may need an extension, or several extensions connected together. And in some situations, a swivel in the socket drive can be worth its weight in gold.

I prefer a karate-chop type motion when it comes to freeing fasteners with a socket wrench. A succession of quick blows on the end of the socket with the palm of the hand usually does the trick. If it doesn’t, try using a socket wrench with a longer handle, or improvise a cheater bar, but be careful. Extra leverage can break the head right off in some cases—I know.

And with really stubborn bolts, it’s best to work the bolt by alternately trying to tighten and loosen it, back and forth. After that, if it still won’t budge, try more lubricant. Pick away any paint or corrosion with a dental pick type instrument.

Other strategies can include using an impact driver to get the fastener to come free. You may also consider heating the surrounding area with a torch, allow it to cool, reheat, and try again. In really stubborn cases, you may have to let the fastener sit overnight, repeatedly spraying it with lubricant. Eventually it should come out.

Patience and persistence are the keys. If the bolt snaps off despite your best efforts at avoiding such a fate, there are still options. The worse case scenario is that the end of the bolt has broken off flush with the surrounding area, if so, you’re probably in the market for a set of Ezy-Outs. If that doesn’t work, or you can’t find a store that sell these, you’re stuck with drilling the bolt out with a smaller sized drill bit and retapping the hole, which is usually a labor-intensive process, but it’s not brain surgery. Be careful not to mar the threads the bolt is screwing into. If there’s enough stud remaining to grab on to, however, your task may be easier. Try getting a pair of vise grips clamped on to the remaining stud. You can also take a hacksaw blade and cut a slot for a screwdriver.

If none of these strategies work, take a slightly smaller sized socket and a small sledgehammer and tap the socket onto the stud. Then use a socket wrench and have at it, trying to again alternately tighten and loosen the bolt out. Victory is just a turn of a screw away.

Suggested Reading:

Replacing the Diesel Engine by Sue & Larry

Surveying a Diesel Engine by Tom Wood

Diesel Maintenance by Mark Matthews

SailNet Store Section: Engine Maintenance Videos

Mark Matthews is offline  
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