What to do when your engine loses power? Panic.

in Bahamas / Life at Sea / Sailing the World
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george town bahamas anchor field lights

Let me tell you, nothing gets your adrenalin pumping like when your engine loses power in high winds while you’re sandwiched between two coral reefs.

We are in a hurry to get down to George Town before the bad weather arrives and the annual Cruising Regatta starts. Yet, we know from experience that being in a hurry pretty much guarantees something will go wrong.

We watch our ETA on our chart plotter very carefully throughout the day and compare it to the 6:04 pm sunset time, as we make the 50-nautical-mile jump from Black Point to George Town. With 20-knot winds on the nose, though, it is difficult to whittle our ETA down to a reasonable hour, even with full sails up and the engine running at 2200 rpms. I know, I know, sailing should be about the journey rather than the destination; but on this particularly bumpy, rolly day on the Exuma Sound, we are focused on the destination. So we spend a good 11 hours just staring at the time on our chart plotter as we race the clock towards Elizabeth Harbour.

And just as we manage to get our ETA down to 6:05 pm, and we think we might just make it in before dark, our engine drops to idle and, in an instant, we are going nowhere. We’re just 10 miles shy of George Town with no engine power and a virtual clock ticking in our ears.

The first thing Ryan does is ask (loudly) if I’ve somehow lowered the throttle from where I am down below (in the head). Meanwhile, I’ve just emerged from the head to ask why Ryan has suddenly stopped the boat. Once we establish there are, in fact, no engine controls in the head and Ryan hasn’t touched the throttle, we pull off the engine cover and stare blankly at our Universal M-25, then at each other, and back at the engine again while we wonder what exactly it is we are looking for. After all, I can’t see anything obviously wrong.

Now, this is when sails come in very handy. But even when we unfurl the sails and fall away from the wind, the boat speed only reaches about 3 knots. Which means, at this rate, we will never get to George Town before sunset. And arriving to an unfamiliar harbor in the dark, without an engine, is never a recommended navigational tactic.

So, as we float in the sound somewhere near Black Cay, I pull out our trusty Marine Diesel Engines by Nigel Calder and start running through the troubleshooting chart for what could possibly have caused the engine to lose power.

At first, I wonder if maybe we could have wrapped something around the propeller. But just as I asked the question, the power returns and we are off again. Feeling both relieved and confused, we continue on our course towards George Town while we cross our fingers that the problem won’t return.

When our engine loses power the second time, it seems our problem is no longer temporary. So, I pull out Nigel Calder once more and start throwing out diagnostic questions.

“Could we have wrapped something around the prop?”

“It’s possible,” Ryan says. “But why would our power suddenly return?”

“Good point. Okay. Well, it says here ‘air in fuel lines’ can cause loss of power.”

“Okay. But I don’t see where the air would come from all of a sudden,” Ryan replies.

“Okay. Hmm. Well, it also says “dirty fuel.” Could we have picked up some bad fuel?”

“Maybe?” Ryan says, thinking.

“It also says ‘plugged fuel filters.’ If we got bad fuel, would it show up in the filters?”

“Yes,” Ryan says. “Check the Racor in the head. It looks like a glass bowl under the sink.”

“Found it! Wait, was there black sludge in this thing the last time you looked?”

“What?!” Ryan asks, as he runs down the companionway to have a look. I take that as a “no.”

Now we aren’t sure if this is definitely the problem, but crap in our fuel filter seems like an indicator of some sort. Maybe we picked up a bad batch of fuel in Staniel Cay? Maybe some dirt in our tank got knocked loose and clogged up our filters? Either way, our filters are tricky as hell to change while under way, so we don’t have much choice but to carry on towards George Town praying that we don’t lose power just as we squeeze Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.

But then we lose power just as we squeeze Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.

F%$@! There is a lot of panicked shouting to unfurl the jib and fall away from the wind. We have no choice but to sail and tack our way out of the narrow cut. And as we make our way past the reefs in the dark and towards what looks like the world’s largest planetarium, with over 300 anchor lights shining like low-lying stars, Ryan and I exhale a tense, choppy breath of relief.

What seems certain upon our dramatic arrival to George Town is that we have a major problem. But, for now, we are safely anchored in the harbor and will be seeking some much-needed stress relief at Chat-n-Chill for a few days while we watch the Cruising Regatta kick off. After all, with 300 boats in the harbor, we are bound to meet someone who can help us figure out if clogged fuel filters are the only problem we are dealing with.

But we’ll deal with that later. For now, it’s time for a drink.

chat-n-chill george town bahamas

Chat-n-Chill, the cruisers’ hangout in George Town

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18 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Pat Taylor March 6, 2013, 3:42 am

    rely cool looking forward to reading more thank you

    • Captain Dan Professional Dock Bum March 20, 2013, 6:41 am

      tried to enter my email to follow, but it will not accept.
      Like the blog very much.

      • Tasha March 20, 2013, 8:46 am

        Hey Captain Dan, Professional Dock Bum,
        Thanks so much for reading! Stay in touch!
        Tasha

  • alchemy2010 March 6, 2013, 9:44 am

    Sorry you had issues on your run from Black Point to GT. It was blowing on the nose for us too on that trip last year. Sounds like you diagnosed the issue…glad you eeked by the reefs and made it safely. Well done. Enjoy Cruiser’s Regatta! So fun! What is the theme this year? Gotta enter the coconut run with your dink or someone elses….Take care and good luck changing out the filters…

    • Tasha March 6, 2013, 12:58 pm

      Thanks, Gretchen! I have no idea what the theme is this year, but we’ve done our share of playing volleyball, socializing and attending the local “rake and scrapes.” If we have any more fun I’m going to need a week to let my liver recover!

  • Mid-Life Cruising! March 6, 2013, 10:51 am

    Wow, how scary! These are just the things I hope we don’t have to deal with. Doesn’t it seem that things go wrong at the worst time … right when you’re going through those reefs?! Glad ya’ll made it through safely, and now you know ya’ll can handle it! Hope you find out the problem easily, and that the solution is easy too!

    Georgetown has always sounded like a blast to us … have fun!

    • Tasha March 6, 2013, 12:54 pm

      George Town is a blast so far! On the days we spend doing boat work, it’s less fun, but we all have to do our time getting our hands dirty, right?!

  • capt ron chee March 6, 2013, 11:03 am

    Anytime a diesel loses power the first thing to check is filters. While in Chicken Harbor find someone to give you basic engine lessons. If you rely on a device you don’t understand you’re gonna have a bad time!

    • Tasha March 6, 2013, 12:51 pm

      So we’ve changed the filters and motored for about 2 hours with no problems yet. We’re still concerned about what we saw in our primary fuel filter (black sludge) and so we’re now on the job of cleaning out our fuel tank to see if that’s the source of the problem. It’s all a learning experience…we all start somewhere, right?

  • Bob March 6, 2013, 3:40 pm

    Getting saltier all the time.

    I hate going through a cut at night… even when all is running correctly and I know it well.

    Really enjoying your writing as we just sit on the boat in Palm Beach. Well done.

    • Tasha March 7, 2013, 12:51 pm

      And THANK YOU for all the weather updates! Yeah, we try not to sail in the dark either! I wouldn’t even consider it without our Garmin chart plotter…that thing has been spot-on accurate this entire trip 🙂

  • Steve Bean March 7, 2013, 2:10 pm

    It is essential to get familiar with the fuel system of your diesel. You need to find out whether it’s possible to change filters underway. Learn to do it, so it[s not a mystery every time. Rough motion can stir up sludge from the bottom of the tanks. Get them cleaned and fuel polished. Don’ wait until you’re in a dangerous situation to check filters. Have plenty of spares handy. You might also install a second set of filters so you can just switch over and keep running while clogged filter is changed. It sounds like you took a big chance trying to enter with unreliable engine. Maybe better to stand off to wait for daylight or anchor on the banks rather than risk wrecking.

    • Tasha March 7, 2013, 3:29 pm

      Hi Steve,
      Good advice. We had recently changed our filters, so didn’t suspect a problem. Now we’re planning to filter all our fuel before it goes into the tank. Having now cleaned out our tank, the tank doesn’t seem dirty, however, and neither does the fuel. Wondering if there’s another problem we need to find?

  • Bob baker (visiting Normans Cay) where daughter lives) March 10, 2013, 4:35 pm

    We are now home in comfy and cold Pennsylvania after a month at our daughters home on Normans Cay. Great fishing and relaxation for the month of February. We will follow you guys and hope you have the trip you envisioned.

    • Tasha March 11, 2013, 11:03 am

      Hi Bob,
      I should’ve hit you up for some fishing lessons when you were down here!
      Tasha

  • Connie Campbell Rosenthal March 24, 2013, 11:11 am

    Not sure if I am late to the party, but here is what we did to remedy bad fuel. When we bought our boat she had been on the hard for two years and previous to that had barely left the dock in seven years. She had about 150 gallons of diesel in her. After several harrowing experiences like yours (and having to call SeaTow) we initially polished the fuel. Still didn’t touch the problem. Our ’76 Morgan has no hole in the tank other than the fill. We met a fellow cruiser who is also a welder and has the tools on board. He and my hubby removed all the fuel with a fuel pump and lots of 5 gallon containers and then Silvio (the welder/cruiser) cut a hole in the tank. All the unbelievable crud (sand, grit, cottage cheese, gelatinous stuff) was removed by hand, with rags, scrapers, and the like. The entire interior of the tank was cleaned with fresh diesel and the new plate welded on. The previously pumped out diesel was reinstalled (less about 20 gallons that was full of crud). And that is how we cleaned our fuel tank.

    • Tasha March 28, 2013, 7:04 pm

      Well done!!! Luckily, just cleaning our fuel did the trick this time!
      Xx
      Tasha

    • Tasha March 28, 2013, 7:34 pm

      Holy crap, what an ordeal! Our problem seems to be fixed with less trouble, thank goodness 🙂
      Tasha

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