Fuel filters, tanks and pumps, oh my

in Bahamas / Life at Sea / Sailing the World
dirty fuel in racor primary filter

When we first started cruising, Ryan and I noticed some distinct differences between Hideaway and the boats of experienced cruisers:

  1. Most boats had much larger anchors and much more chain than we did.
  2. 9 out of 10 boats had a Honda eu2000i generator on board. Yet we didn’t.
  3. Jerrycans on deck were a tell-tale sign of a cruising boat. But we didn’t have those, either.

We’d done our research before refitting Hideaway with the essentials for our long trip south, but it seems you can’t always anticipate every single need. Some things required a little “time on the water,” as they say, and rubbing elbows with other cruisers to figure out.

By the time we left Annapolis, we’d replaced our Danforth anchor and 20 feet of chain with a 44 lb. Rocna and 100 feet of chain. And we slept much better for it afterwards.

By the time we left Vero Beach, we realized our solar panel would never cover our power needs and we couldn’t rely on motoring every day to top up our batteries. We needed an efficient and reliable way to charge our batteries without exhausting our engine. So, after asking a dozen cruisers their opinion, we bought a Honda eu2000i generator in December and called it our Christmas present to ourselves.

The jerrycans, however, kept us wondering all the way to George Town, Bahamas. I suggested to Ryan a few times that we just strap a few jerrycans to our deck and figure out later why everyone has them. But he isn’t one to follow an example without questioning it. “Why would we need so much spare fuel when we’re never more than 24 hours away from a fuel dock?” he asked. Plus, we had three 5-gallon jerrycans in our lazarette, which seemed like plenty. Maybe all the other cruisers were preparing to do much longer ocean passages than we were?

When we pulled into George Town with no engine power, though, and we narrowed the possible problems down to a bad batch of fuel or a dirty tank, we finally realized what the jerrycans were for. Cruisers filled them up so they could filter their fuel before putting it in the tank. We hadn’t even considered this, since we were so used to clean fuel in the U.S. Whoops.

Luckily, though, with 300 boats anchored around us and an active cruisers net on the VHF every day at 8 o’clock, we got plenty of advice on how to deal with a dirty fuel tank.

First Ryan and I got down to changing our fuel filters – we have a primary Racor filter, which we could see had collected black crud, so this was a likely culprit for our loss of engine power. It was just unfortunate that changing our Racor required four hands and a great deal of cursing.

The next thing we did was drain the fuel out of our tank and filter it into jerrycans (Aha! So that’s what these things are for!). We weren’t exactly sure how to do this with the tools we had on board, so we were grateful when our friends on Moonshadow lent us their electric pump, a Baja filter and some advice on how to go about the process of cleaning the tank.

It was a learning experience, like every repair we’ve done so far. It’s just that the problem with “learning” while at anchor is that it requires pulling everything out of the innards of the boat and stacking it up in our living space until the project is finished. For about two days, our boat looked like it had vomited its guts into our lounge and cockpit, making me cranky and frustrated that there was nowhere to sit. Boat work has a way of making me see Hideaway as a tiny, claustrophobic life raft, rather than a compact but comfortable home.

The other problem with learning as you go is sometimes you’re nowhere near a West Marine when you realize you have a large and infinitely growing shopping list for parts and tools. And then the question is always (other than “Where will I find this stuff?”), “Where will we put it all?”

By the time we finished the fuel cleaning job, our scrawled wish list looked like this:

And that was just the beginning. Once we decided we needed parts for our fuel system, the shopping list began to extend to things we needed for our continuing trip south, like:

And the list continued to grow while we wondered how we’d get all this into the Bahamas without paying a fortune in shipping and taxes.

Then Ryan had an idea. We could use our air miles to fly one of us back to Fort Lauderdale, fill up a shopping cart at West Marine, and use our cruising permit to exempt us from paying the 40% import tax on our already expensive shopping list.

And with the boat looking like it had been tipped upside down, shaken, then turned right side up again, I barely hesitated before blurting out, “I’ll go!”

Problem solved. Fort Lauderdale, here I cooooome!

racor fuel filter

Ryan with our dismantled Racor filter.

dirt in racor primary fuel filter

The black stuff that came out of our fuel filter.

hideaway sailing blog catalina 34

The disaster that results from working on Hideaway.

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  • Mike Guay March 11, 2013, 8:48 pm

    I wanted to say something about the fuel in Staniel Cay earlier but had decided against it only because it’s hard to prove that they sell a lower grade fuel. We the crew on Tabago a chartered boat experienced a similar episode – oh no dead engine!. However this being said I was better prepared for a possible engine shut down, with already having experienced a shut down on Lake Ontario with FatCat Anna. The engine was changing rpms for no apparent reason then – silence… uhhhgg. Ryan my heart goes out to you for sticking your head down below to look at the filter while trying to get to Georgetown.
    We have a Dahl filter as well on our Catalina 30, the great thing about them is the bowl it’s big so any crud can be seen immediately. Oh btw if Hideaway was being tossed about big time for the first time with the engine on, the fuel pump and engine have a funny way of dragging all of the muck from the bottom of your fuel tank and delivering it to your engine.
    It sounds as if you have great help from the cruisers net down in the Bahamas. How did you fair bringing all of that gear back? Duffle bags or not there was a lot of merchandise for one person to be lugging onto an aircraft.
    Keep the adventure alive it is always a pleasure reading what you are up to.

    • Tasha March 12, 2013, 12:27 pm

      Yeah, it’s still hard to say whether it was the fuel from Staniel Cay per se. We removed all the fuel, filtered it and put it back in the tank and tried to suck up as much stuff from the bottom and sides of the tank as we could. I can’t say for sure whether the fuel was bad or whether junk got into the tank another way, or whether the junk was already there and got dislodged in the bumpy journey. So no definitely conclusions there, but we’ve hopefully solved the problem and found a way to safeguard against this problem in the future! Always a learning experience…sigh.

  • Greg In Toronto March 12, 2013, 12:19 pm

    It’s not just dirty fuel inside the tank. On Labour Day weekend I was sailing by Toronto’s islands on a friends Cal27-7. Where we wanted to go was dead ahead and we were tacking back and forth into strong winds and waves so we decided to fire up the 1 cylinder known as “Thumper”. As we tried to round the islands the engine died. New fuel filter installed while we bobbed about. No Luck. As sunset was approaching we gave up and headed into Toronto’s Outer Harbour marina under sail. Sail 100 yards and then tack. Sail 100 yards and then tack.and so on. Finally we got a tow and we left the boat there until the following week. My friend called in a mechanic who discovered that a piece of caulking, from inside the fuel tank, had been sucked up and was blocking the fuel line. No amount of tinkering on our part would have found that problem.
    He replaced the fuel tank the next spring.

    • Tasha March 12, 2013, 12:24 pm

      Wow. That must have been a hair-raising experience. Luckily for us, after changing the filters and cleaning the tank, we took the boat for a 5-hour shakedown and the problem didn’t reappear. Hopefully, all’s good! Someone else told me a story about removing the pickup tube from the tank and finding that a sticker that had fallen into the tank had stuck itself perfectly over the bottom of the pickup, blocking all suction. Anything is possible in these situations, so I’m always relieved when you make a few troubleshooting moves and it works!

      Thanks for reading… and commenting.


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