We had sailed our mighty 26-foot Radiance from California to Panama and were on the final approach to the Canal. A mere 60 miles separated us from the last of the Pacific Ocean and a new sea. But life had changed since rounding the aptly named Punta Mala, now some 20 miles aft, and the remaining miles ahead looked to be hard-won. Heavy ship traffic for several miles loomed off the starboard side, signalled by the masthead lights of container ships, freighters, tugs, and tankers heading to and from the Canal.
To add to the fun, the autopilot had also recently given up the ghost, meaning we had to hand steer when running the engine. A few days earlier I’d noticed that the tiller pilot had gotten hot, so I unplugged it, and was somewhat surprised to hear small parts rattling around inside— never a good sign. Attempts at repairing it did not go well, despite the willingness of several enthusiastic Chinese-Panamanian stereo repairmen that we met in our attempts to get it repaired. The autopilot might as well have been a raygun from another planet, and although it started working intermittently, repairing it was clearly beyond our capacity. Now, with my better half standing watch, the windvane on duty, and the boat hove-to, I delved into one of my least favorite scenarios—hunched over a hot, uncooperative engine aboard a small boat in short, steep chop at 2:00 o’clock in the morning.
Armed with a flathead screwdriver and a 13-mm wrench, I began the arduous process of bleeding the engine. My first thoughts were that air had somehow gotten in the fuel line and created a vapor lock. I first loosened the bleed screw on the secondary filter and then reached forward to pump the manual fuel pump before closing the bleed screw and then working my way up to the injector nuts. By the time this was done, a slick film of diesel coated both the engine and myself, while a relentless wave of heat radiated off the 350-pounds of iron and steel below me. Bilge water sloshed. The boat pitched. Wrenches fell into hard to reach places and became slippery to hold. Knuckles met metal. But finally, the engine started again. It ran for a full and glorious 20 minutes before conking out once again. I found the screwdriver and wrench, assumed the position, and repeated the process. Take cockpit grate off. Take engine cover off. Scrunch into place. Place screwdriver, open, pump, close. Wrench, open, pump, close. Blisters formed on my thumb from the manual fuel pump and I remember thinking diesel fuel made a poor first-aid remedy.
By the third, or perhaps it was the fourth cycle, I began to wonder what was really going on and, having no other ideas, took the fuel line off the tank. Large black chunks of a gooey substance came out fostering an epiphany torn from the pages of Nigel Calder’s Boatowners’Electrical and Mechanical Manual.
Banging more of the gunk out, I realized that it had been awhile since we’d been in short steep chop like we were experiencing. Either we’d recently taken on some questionable fuel—unlikely since we filtered all of our fuel before we put it in the tank—or the sediment in the tank was there after years of mysterious maintenance by a previous, unknown owner and never shook up in quite this fashion. Whatever the case, enough sediment had made its way to the fuel line to stop it up. Around daybreak, with the fuel line clean, the engine started and chugged merrily away beyond the crucial 20-minute mark as though nothing had happened. The sun rose and we headed off on a beam reach—crossing the Canal traffic scheme during daylight hours—for an unscheduled stop at the Las Perlas Islands, some 30 miles to the east.
My story now flashes forward two days (days filled with considerably fewer aches and pains). We were then anchored with 10 other boats from Holland, France, Italy, and the US along the causeway just outside the Panama Canal—a free anchorage—opting against taking a mooring at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Not only had the Yacht Club recently burned down, but the mooring field presented a rocky ride as boats bobbed wildly in the huge wakes set off by the constant stream of ships, tugs, and pilot boats going by. Dinghy landings were not allowed there, and paying visitors were at the mercy of yacht club tenders whose service to and from your boat was directly related to how well you tipped the launch drivers.
"Thanks," I said. "That should be no problem, since this is my fuel tank," I glumly pointed out. But by then the pilot boat had rumbled over to a neighboring vessel to spread the news. Amid the oily rags, leftover gunk, solvents, grimy tools, and the tank itself, I realized that there was a lot of work to do were we to meet the Port Captain’s mandate.
For starters, the tank needed some work. Ideally, it should be replaced, but we had yet to find a machine shop and the chances of finding a taxi and a machine shop and having a new tank fabricated before noon were astronomical.
Morale sagged as the clocked ticked, and before long there were only two boats left in the anchorage. I poured a tonic water and we tried to brainstorm a plan. Right about then, the gods of jury rigging sent us a message. We could make a temporary tank big enough to get us across to the other anchorage.
First, I cut the bottom off the tonic bottle. This would serve as my "day tank," which actually had a capacity closer to 20 minutes before it had to be refilled. A stainless steel drink holder that we ordinarily clipped to the lifelines found temporary service in the engine room suspended on a wire tie. I inserted the day tank into this and attached the fuel line to the day tank with some fast drying gasket sealant, and voila, as soon as I had bled the tank just one more time, the engine started and we were underway.
Flash forward two more weeks and we've got a repaired fuel tank and a quiet berth at anchor near an isolated island in the San Blass chain. The preceding struggle seems a distant memory. So, what’s the point of the story? I suppose there are a couple. For starters, clean fuel is next to godliness when the weather turns rough. Even a professional tank cleaning can leave particles that have the capability to clog the fuel line, but only seem to do so when you need the engine the most: bashing into headwinds and seas.
Secondly, every voyager should have intimate familiarity with his or her boat’s systems, particularly when they're headed beyond the confines of the marina. There’s no such thing as Sea Tow out on the wild blue and when the lights start to flicker and dim or when the engine starts making a strange sound (or in our case, no sound at all), that's when your knowlege can be most helpful. The average cruiser relies on his or her boat’s powerplant more often then they like, and like to admit, whether it means punching through headwinds or dealing with light air.
Finally, it's important to think outside the box when it comes to making do with what you have on board. The art of the jury rig demands creativity and know how, and the right combination of each can keep your cruise going when the chips are down. The vast majority of jury rigs don’t make the headlines, but are undertaken by resilient sailors everywhere. The boat owner who bribes the skippers of two similarly sized boats to raft up next to him and uses their halyards to raise or lower his mast. The mariner who manages to time the tide and current and tow his boat via an oar-powered dinghy. The sailor who uses a blow torch to signal distress when there's nothing else at hand. All of these instances describe the beauty of the jury rig. It's that can-do aspect of seamanship that shines when the determined sailor blends ingenuity with the materials at hand to save the day.
Last edited by administrator; 06-18-2008 at 11:24 AM.
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