Oh, Yeah, We’re Half Way There

10 a.m. (2:00 a.m. UTC) Wednesday, March 10, 2010 6 23 N, 86 16 E, Indian Ocean 380 miles due east of Sri Lanka

So sang Bon Jovi, and it applies to us, in a couple of ways.

We’re well past the half way mark to Sri Lanka now, and have also resolved one of the two engine problems confronting us. The other one, hopefully, will fall today.

We’ve remounted the broken alternator bracket. The alternator has proved frustrating, as this is the third time it has given way, although this is the first time that the bracket went. It failed at other locations before. We think now, though, we’ve solved the problem. Way back in the Galapagos, we had a fellow on board helping us replace the fresh water pump on the engine. He noticed that the belts were all of different widths, though the pulleys were all consistent, and that they should all be matched by making the ones operating the alternator a wider width. “They are supposed to be riding on top of the pulleys, not in them, and having them so thin will cause them to overheat and fail faster. That may have been the problem that caused the fresh water pump to fail.” We did some research, found out that he was correct, and installed belts that matched our pulley sizes.

And so our problems with the alternator began. We noticed, after we installed the new belts, that the alternator had never been properly aligned, and the belts were not traveling in a flush circle. This seemed to be exacerbated with the newer, stiffer belts. To make a long story short, we’ve been playing with washers and newly designed brackets ever since. And once, probably because the belts were still not perfectly straight, they did chafe on the alternator pulley, causing it to heat up, which led the bearings inside to fail. That resulted in an $800 dollar repair in Australia, which included the cost of a new, thicker bracket.

But it turns out, we think, that the problem all along has been the newer belts that we installed, nearly two years ago. The fatter belts were stiffer and less forgiving. When Paul was trying to effectuate a repair yesterday, he was going through the previous owner’s spares, and found both a number of sheered off bolts, showing that this had happened on his watch too, and that he had tried the fatter belts, and returned to the skinner ones. (He had given us a manual that he had typed off over the years, but never made mention of this issue.)

So, we’re kicking ourselves a little bit. Maybe we should have come to this solution a long time ago. The repair now is only temporary, but should last for the duration of this trip, especially if we’re right about the narrower belts. We needed to replace three bolts that had broken off, but only had two replacements that were close to long enough, and the third hole needs to be tapped. The bracket at that spot is held by a c-clamp.

The other problem is just as challenging, if not more so. On the same night that the alternator fell off, about two hours later, we heard a loud grinding noise at the engine’s rear, and shut down. When we’ve tried to start again, the grinding has returned. The noise, which is loud and, actually, quite terrible, is coming from inside the rear of the engine, by the flywheel. It scares the bejeepers out of us, and seemed beyond our ability to fix. But we spent some time on the phone yesterday, and, as a first step, have probably figured out what it is. There is a part called a damper, about the size of a small dinner plate, that sits flush against the flywheel. We can’t see the original, but have a spare, and the part looks rather flimsy, with a bunch of springs floating on the plate. It is supposed to dampen noise and contact when gears are shifted. Some of the springs have given way on ours, and have fallen into the base of the bell housing where the flywheel spins. As the boat rocks in the ocean, these bits of spring are getting grabbed by the teeth of the flywheel, leading to the grinding crunching sound that we hear.

When we spoke to a technician, he said, “yeah, these things always fail. It’s pretty common.” How many times have we heard that about an engine repair!

Paul will try a repair now, by taking off the starter motor, and fishing a magnet or a part grabber down into the hole, and seeing if he can fish the broken bits out. The engine will operate just fine without the missing spring(s). If that doesn’t work, the other option is to pull off the transmission, which will be a lot more work. Let’s hope that doesn’t have to be done.

We got great help from sister Cathy in providing us with contact for technicians to call, and quick responses from Bob Hansen at Hansen Marine in Marblehead and David Lowes at Lowes Engineering in Opua New Zealand.

We had just been exulting, the other day, about how we’ve not had many major problems with the boat for a while. That’s true, and we seem to have gotten better at maintenance and early issue spotting. We do have to do repairs and replacements frequently, and this would probably be less if the engine were brand spanking new, but marine engines need to be constantly maintained and kept up. It’s as if you used your car engine for days at a time, which we sometimes do with the boat engine, and kept it rocking back and forth, with salt water circulating through it for coolant. And boat engines don’t seem to be made to space shuttle specifications, or even circumnavigaton specs. They instead appear to be built to meet the needs of the weekend sailor who will use his engine at the end of the day to motor into the a berth.” Mind you, in general, diesel engines are strong beasts. It sometimes is the parts added to “marinize” them, you see, that seem to be the weak links.

Through all this, we’re doing absolutely fine. The wind is just right, and we’re coasting along at six knots, and it is sunny and warm, without being too hot. We have good food to eat, and clean underwear, even though we need to limit our showers until we can get the engine working and then make water. The work gives us something to pass the time, and there is remarkable sense of achievement when we, a lawyer and a management consultant by trade, are actually able to bring diesel engines back to life.

And we have dolphins who now visit us daily to keep us company. Yesterday they came twice, and the night time visit was particularly spectacular. We were changing watch, at about 1 a.m., and Sima noticed them playing about the boat. To add to the show, the water was thick with phosphorescence. You know in movies like Hunt for Red Oktober, when they show torpedoes shooting out of the sides of submarines, and the water behind it is all churned up and white? Well, with the dolphins last night, as they swam underwater through the phosphorescence, they left trails of white, glow-in-the-dark water. Then, as they jumped, twirled, and dove back into the water, which they frequently did, the water would burst in a firework of white.

Worth the price of admission, or at least the challenge of an engine repair. Or two.

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