The Best Days Of Our Lives?

Will we get there on time?

Those of us with a few years under our belt have seen extraordinary changes in the world of sailing during our lifetimes, not just in terms of the sailing performance of the boats we sail, but also in their comfort and safety, which in turn generates the confidence for adventure. More people have set off in small craft to sail across oceans to the ice or the tropics in the last ten years, I’d guess, than in the previous thirty. What was once notable for its uniqueness now doesn’t make the papers, even amongst the sailing fraternity. And I’d argue that there may be one single item above all others that has contributed more to that rush to the sea during that time than any other.

The Diesel Engine

When I started sailing, there were still plenty of marine petrol engines around. Nightmarish devices like the Stuart Turner two strokes, ill-tempered little brutes that started only when they condescended to, and after much ritual and the incantation of soothing words. Or the engine aboard a yawl I sailed on, a home converted side valve from a Ford Popular car, buried in the bilges like some rusty battered ornament salvaged from the seabed. That monster had to be started by a rope wrapped around a pulley on the front of the engine – and only one person aboard had the muscle to start it. It bellowed so loudly when running that the night that the exhaust cracked, spewing carbon monoxide into the cabin, nobody noticed for a while, not least the off watch who nearly went into a sleep far too deep… No, they’re not missed.

Nowadays we can almost always rely on being able to turn the key and off we go. Diesels love to work, so we can happily abuse them, and simple ones require little more than regular servicing to keep them in fine working order. And when they reach the point that wear takes its toll, they can easily be re-built – the Perkins 4.108 (1992 vintage) in our old boat is now on its fourth rebuild and running just as strongly as ever after tens of thousands of hours. And even diesels that have been horribly neglected still amaze when they start – and run, and run.

In turn, dependable diesels have offered us the confidence to sail bigger and more complex boats, with even freezers and watermakers running straight off them, or via powerful alternators. If we’re late for the next headland and the tide is about to turn against us, we can start the engine and punch the tide to get round in time. As a result we can be more adventurous in the places we cruise and extend our range. Cruising appeals far more to a wider range of people as a result, and encourages them to adapt to the cruising way of life.

The Best ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card of Them All?

Having taught many people to do man overboard drills under sail, I can honestly say that in most cases where a crew is short handed, less able or simply inexperienced, I’d much rather see the foresail furled up and the engine started immediately than watch the struggles of a willing but frightened crew trying to sail back and being too late. In fact, I’ll bet that most of us have, at one time or another, got ourselves out of a truly tight spot with the help (and blessing) of our engine, where otherwise the boat, or worse yet, a life could have been lost. I know that I have, and I could recount a dozen stories from friends to bear that out – and all at the turn of a key.

Obviously there are risks, though, in simply relying on our engine to save us in all events – if we choose to roar into some narrow, rock strewn entrance, depending solely on an engine, no matter how reliable, we really should know better. Nor should we just forget all of the sailing expertise we have learned over the years, or just give up sail and buy a motorboat – far from it. Most of the time sail is by far the best and safest option, but nonetheless when the chips are down I’m only too glad to know in the back of my mind that I have a powerful, reliable diesel as a dependable last resort.

Was There a Zenith and Have We Passed It?

Which is why some of the most recent developments in diesel technology and fuel availability really worry me. One of the great beauties of the diesel is that it can be a simple mechanical device. Provide air and clean fuel in appropriate quantities, turn it over and it should go. If it won’t then the diagnostic skills required are appropriately basic – you don’t need to be an engineer, just a moderately skilled mechanic. With the earlier generation of diesels like our old 4.108 that was certainly possible. But now with the universal adoption of ECUs (Electronic Control Units) as engine management systems, you’ll likely need a technician with a laptop and the training to run the diagnostic processes required – try finding that on some remote coral atoll or up a frozen fjord.

Marine diesels traditionally were versions of industrial units, slow revving, tough units with most of the torque at the lower end of the rev range – ideal for yachts, as John has identified. But increasingly, smaller diesels are drawn more from the automotive world, and are nothing like as simple or tough as an engine designed just to plod along at a steady rpm. They won’t last anything like as long as a well-maintained ‘traditional’ unit, and are generally more complex, in any case.

Out at sea, simplicity and reliability are your friends, complexity and gadgetry your foes, so why are we letting this happen? Surely it’s not impossible to develop a simple mechanical diesel that could meet current emission laws and so do away with the need for ECUs?

And You Can’t Even Trust the Fuel Anymore

As I posted recently, we face the additional danger of FAME biodiesel, with its fatal attraction to the ‘bug’, finding its way into marine diesel fuel. As the ‘bug’ can stop your engine dead in an instant, surely this is one of the most negative and potentially dangerous developments of recent times. We have got used to taking the reliability of our engines for granted – is that trust now under threat?

What does the future hold? Will hybrids offer real advantages, especially in terms of reliability, or simply prove to be a blind alley? Or might we be looking at different fuels as the basis of electrical propulsion? Whatever happens, the next generation has a hard act to follow, to replace the biggest game-changer of our sailing lifetimes – the good old diesel engine.

Have you a positive or negative story to tell regarding diesel engines? What do you think the future will be? Let us know with a comment.



Like what you just read? Get lots more:

Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ron Sep 1, 2012, 9:57 am

    Your article resonated with my philosophy. My sailboat still has the 70’s 2 banger MD2B Volvo Penta Diesel engine. extremely simple to work on, zero electronics on the engine, I would and do trust it to take me anywhere. I have also let go of newer gasoline cars and the corresponding mechanics bills and replaced them with pr-eelectronic diesels. Sometimes using the word “advancements” to describe modern day gas and diesel engines is really a misnomer.

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:17 am

      Hi Ron

      Glad you agree. Those old MD2’s were simplicity itself, and very suitable for owner maintenance.

      As for ‘ advancements’, that’s another sadly abused term, rather like ‘ progress’ – it means whatever you want it to mean.

      Best wishes


  • Chris Sep 1, 2012, 10:23 am

    Colin, while you have framed the discussion beautifully as a matter of zenith and nadir, it seems to me we are back to the discussion of “quality” as framed in Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and Juran’s “Fitness for Use.”

    The engine transitions/evolutions you describe derive from the marine engine manufacturers laser-focused on weekend and commercial users — both communities having access to the guy with the laptop (after some pretty long tows). These markets deliver over 99% of their revenue.

    The community of practice you represent — adventure sailors — is the fringe of a fringe of a fringe. Were you to take your requirements to the industry, if they listened at all, they would suggest you rip a simple, under-used diesel from a derelict and use the web to find your parts from legacy inventory accumulators. (The summary of an actual discussion). Through a business economics telescope you and your needs are well below the horizon. You don’t even create a glow in the mist of business planning.

    The fuel dilemma as framed by policy makers and energy suppliers is a faulty one. Biodiesel exists because it can, not because it must. The same can be said for the engine systems destroying ethanol being added to marine petrol. This is not to say that one day biodiesel may not be necessary or even pivotal, but for now it’s both a political and science experiment (a distinction losing its meaning, I’m afraid).

    As to the “bug.” The best advice I received in the days of our Perkins 4.108 (actually a repurposed WWII generator engine). Was kill, kill, kill and filter, filter, filter. With wet, buggy fuel we went through biocide and 10 and 2 micron off-engine filters at an alarming, well at least costly, rate but we beat the bug. OBTW we connected the biocide bottle to a precise hand pump and delivered the necessary number of squirts rather than messing with the clever…and messy bottles. We were not interested in getting too close to that toxicity.

    I don’t believe the situation you describe is going to change or even lose momentum. It’s a bit like kayaking. You can chose the river. You can chose where to be on the river, but you can’t chose where the river goes.

    Great piece.

    Our first diesel was a Vire. It cause WWI vets to have flashbacks…

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:22 am

      Hi Chris

      I’m not sure I enjoyed your analysis here – simply because I fear it has the depressing ring of truth to it. I think you’re absolutely right.

      I spoke to a highly qualified engineer the other day about the move to ECU’s, and put the case to him that whilst I in no way opposed emissions legislation and the need for clean, economical diesel engines, that surely ti was possible to this mechanically? He replied that in his view it was entirely possible, but that (a) ECU’s were the cheap way to do ot, and (b) there was no additional ‘value’ in going down the precision engineering route – having an ECU and all of the extra gubbins meant that you would be wedded to the dealer forever.

      If I were in the position to be starting out again, I’d be following your advice, and hunting down an old engine to be completely re-built, ready to last another 6000 hours or more. Why? The only thing we’ve had to replace (servicing apart) on our Volvo so far is the ECU – at 50 hours…

      Thanks for making the point about the toxicity of anti-bug products. Some of them (at least) are highly toxic, and skin contact is definitely to be avoided.

      Best wishes

      Colin Speedie

      • Chris Sep 3, 2012, 9:09 am


        Thank you.

        “Wedded to the dealer forever” is a monster. At least two major marine electronics suppliers have it as item number one in their business strategy (ranking well above quality and user satisfaction). Three major electronic charting vendors are the same. “Vendor lock-in” as it’s called has been a major goal of the major software houses for decades.

        It’s also a primary strategy of the illicit drug vendor…create a dependency and exploit the h**l out of it.


      • Ross Jun 5, 2015, 1:56 am

        Another view on the Mech/ECU reliability aspect — While it is no doubt possible to build a fully mechanical Diesel engine that conforms to emmisions regulaitons, I would suggest that this engine would have a very complex, intricate fuel pump mechanism, with all sorts of parts to go wrong. Simply because to meet emissions standards, there are all sorts of variables that must be taken into account to determin the exact injection profile. Diesel fuel pumps can be fairly difficult to diagnose and repair as it is.

        A simpler, more reliable solution was found in some 90’s automotive diesels — a comparatively simple mechanical fuel pump that is adjusted by a simple ECU to improve emisisons. These can be set up such that if the ECU fails, the engine still runs — albeit less efficiently. This also allows easy, fast diagnosis — just plug a laptop in.

        • Colin Speedie Jun 7, 2015, 11:50 am

          Hi Ross

          I accept what you say about complexity of fuel pumps for a purely manual engine, and agree that the latter system you suggest would be an acceptable substitute.

          My main point remains that on safety ground alone marine diesels should not be fitted with ECU’s that can disable the engine entirely. It runs in the face of everything I know about the sea! There should be some form of emergency bypass to ‘get you home’.

          Now let’s persuade some of the engine manufacturers to do it!

          Best wishes


  • Patrick Sep 2, 2012, 12:49 am


    Great article. I have a Perkins 4-108 that has I’m guessing has close to 6,000 hours on it. The hour meter reads 4,600 at the moment but the paperwork that came with the boat suggests it had numerous hours before the meter was installed. I know a rebuild is in the future as it burns a bit of oil. I resolved all but a few minor oil leaks so it is burning, not leaking oil. The compression isn’t as good as it could be either. With four, 4-108 re-builds in your past what is the secret to getting a good one? As John noted in his post on “project boats” apparently good diesel rebuilds are hard to come by.

    We are currently in Tahiti and will be spending the cyclone season in New Zealand and that might be a good time to address this issue. Any hints would be appreciated.

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:28 am

      Hi Patrick

      Those old 4.108’s just keep going, but they do have a few weaknesses.

      1. They tend to blow head gaskets if overheated. Put some RadWeld into the header tank and keep the revs down will generally work in the short term (sometimes for a surprisingly long time!)
      2. They’re smoky – often it’s not just bore wear but also valve guides.
      3. Crankshaft oil seals don’t last like more modern ones.
      4. They suffer from oil leaks (particularly the timing case)
      5. The fresh water pump can fail. There’s a small hole below the pulley on the pump that acts as an early warning device of the internal seals failing. Check this regularly, otherwise catastrophic loss of cooland can result.

      I’d check all of the above were OK, and were included in any rebuild schedule.

      Wet liner engine sp liners can be repalced, but often only rings are necessary.

      There are still plenty of spares available, becuase there are still plenty of these engines out there. Golden Arrow in the UK ( were always very helpful to me, and almost certainly there will be a machine shop in NZ that specialize in these old workhorses – have a look at, for example.

      Best wishes


      • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 11:16 am

        Hi Patrick

        Please ignore my comment on liners for the engine, the 4.108 has dry liners!

        But in the two major rebuilds we did (one due to an overheated engine) on neither occasion did we have to do more than replace the rings – bore wear was well within acceptable tolerances.

        Best wishes


  • Foothill sailor Sep 2, 2012, 1:14 pm

    From my perspective, the ‘development’ that has most opened up long-distance sailing or cruising to the public has been the advent of GPS.
    Before its availability the cruiser was always beset with the uncertainty of his actual location despite his best efforts at dead reckoning , calculating set and drift etc.
    Knowing your lat & long from a GPS let any reasonably competent mariner plot his course with a high degree of confidence and, for example, would turn a coastal night cruise from one step below ever-heightening terror to an enjoyable stress free excursion.
    When GPS was twinned with chart plotters it opened cruising to anyone who approached it with a reasonable modicum of preparation and respect.
    So FWIIW my vote goes to the electonic revolution in position plotting not the improvements in the iron jenny down below.
    ( My wife on the other hand says it is the advent in improved communications (wifi, Skype, etc) that let her ‘take-off’ from the kids and family)
    As for this “being the best of times” — I think so, as I fear that the increase in boating popularity, the increased pressure on cruising grounds, increased government intrusion into all of our lives and the probable increasing disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ countries will result in this being later viewed as the ‘golden age of recreational cruising’.
    Always enjoy your web postings.
    Fair winds

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:31 am

      Hi there

      Good argument for the GPS, and it would be high on my list, too, but for me it would be the diesel first every time, simply because I could go back to traditional navigation methods with no second thought. Perhaps that’s because when I first went cruising, that was all we had?

      On a working charter boat, having a GPS or plotter is a huge advantage, largely because it takes one more job off your shoulders as skipper – at a glance, you can tell where you are (or perhaps where you are not – sometimes more important). But if I had to return to parallel rules, compass and dividers, it would simply mean more work – and it might even be argued by some, safer, as not having the precision of GPS means that a more conservative approach to navigation in difficult places tends to be taken.

      But go without a diesel engine? No thanks!

      Like you I am increasingly concerned by ill thought out legislation and the loom of unrest on the horizon, and the effects both will have on our pastime. The last half century has indeed been a golden age for cruising. How will things look in retrospective 50 years from now?

      And I think your wife makes a very good point – we certainly wouldn’t be able to live as wed do without modern communications, a definite plus.

      Best wishes


  • richard s. Sep 2, 2012, 1:17 pm

    other than no engine at all a la lin and larry pardey with their taleisin and serrafyn before, i know of no suitable substitute for diesel (fuel safety being the main consideration if no other) especially for a sailing vessel…gasoline reminds me of lightening and it too is being adversely affected by the addition of biofuels…all the more reason to just stick it out with diesel…richard in tampa bay (s/v lakota’s skipper)

    p.s. john, phyllis, and colin, i am celebrating my return to being back under sail this week having just completed exchanging my bayliner 246 discovery for my brand new dufour 433 lakota presently berthed in tortola…this is a minor miracle because as recently as this spring if anybody had told me i would be back under sail in a few more months i would have laughed at them a la sarah in genesis upon learning she was expecting…part of my celebration is today contributing financially modest as it may be for now to aac…my pleasure as i think aac had something to do with this positive turn of events 🙂

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:34 am

      Hi Richard

      Like you I wouldn’t ever want to go back to petrol engines. Electrics + salt + damp = silence on the engine front far too often. Plus, of course as you say, the added option of being blown to kingdom come…..

      Diesel is still king, to me, despite my concerns about recent developments like biodiesel and ECU’s – for now, at least.

      Great news on your new boat, and I (and I’m sure all here) wish you fair winds with her, and we’ll look forward to your contributions about your time afloat. Thanks, too, for the donation and the kind words. Welcome back to sail!

      Best wishes


    • RDE Sep 3, 2012, 12:07 pm

      Sailed a few beer can races with some Kiwi friends in Seattle years ago. I remember them telling about towing Lin & Larry in through a pass in the Tuamotus. Seems that they weren’t able to explore much of Polynesia beyond Papeete without an engine.

      No disrespect for some of the most exemplary small boat voyages of the modern era. 54 days from Japan to Port Townsend in the 24′ Serrafin—.

  • vince bossley Sep 2, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Couldn’t agree more! the way technology is going I wonder sometimes if ultimately, it is going to do us in?! Often as not, the vehicle parked on the side of the highway these days awaiting a tow is, not an ‘old banger’ as you would expect, but the latest model high end big brand car.
    Like you, I had an ancient Perkins 4108 (Spanish built) in my RH43 which had seen innumerable hours as a generator prior to being marinised. Parts were sometimes a problem but always a solution was found.
    Mid Atlantic she overheated and set off the powder extinguisher and shut down. With powder being sucked in, this supposedly is an engine killer! Twenty four hours later after checking her over, I gingerly turned the key and she fired – and providing the rpm’s were not run up over 1200, she served us all the way into St.Lucia.
    Mechanical checking there, showed no major problem and she served admirably ever since. I replaced the bearings (myself – very pleased) in Auckland and with over 6000hrs showing on the clock (since marinisation around 1987) today, she is still going strong.
    Sadly, I no longer own the boat but sail on her with the current owner and he has had only the normal maintenance requirements.
    Seduction is easily fallen for and this applies just as well to the power unit for your vessel being the latest and shiniest version on the market and subsequently in the marina. However, dependability is the key, so why not continue using a unit that one has complete confidence in, it rewarding that care and confidence by just keeping on going?

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:39 am

      Hi Vince

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      Those old engines needed more regular servicing, but it was simple stuff that anyone could do, and if they went wrong, well, they were simple (and satisfying) to fix.

      And there are many good sides to modern engines, they’re quieter, cleaner burning leak less and require less servicing – but I really don’t want the complexity. The best of the old and the new, not impossible in my view, and not much to ask, either.

      Best wishes


      • John Sep 3, 2012, 8:39 am

        Hi Colin,

        So far, with 1500 hours on it, our Perkins M92-B seems to be delivering the “the best of the old and the new”: Very clean burning, long service interval (500 hours), and no complex ECU.

        Of course the our engine at 87 hp is a bit big for many yachts, but I wonder if the Beta marine engines based on the Kubota industrial block might not deliver the same in smaller sizes?

        • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 11:20 am

          Hi John

          An ideal marine engine indeed, so no wonder you like it.

          Both Beta and Nanni use Kubota industrial engines as their base for their smaller size range, and if they are simple, mechanical and trouble free, then why not?

          Kubota have good name for reliability in other fields, so they could well be a good choice.

          Best wishes


  • Cap'n Jack Sep 3, 2012, 2:56 am

    There’s a ring of truth in everyone’s view. Having resurrected a Perkins P6 retired from a truck, o/h it and put it in our ferro yacht, that was 1973. Went round the world and much more. Reliability was empowering. Rebuilt the boat in the 90s and rebuilt the P6 too. A tad heavy, extra ballast we say, but lovely to hear her roar in dark black nights.

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:44 am

      Hi Cap’n Jack

      Great to know your engine inside out, too, isn’t it.

      And I had to laugh at your comment about the roar on a dark night – our old 4.108 wasn’t quiet, but boy, weren’t there times when we didn’t care!

      Best wishes


  • Nicolas Sep 3, 2012, 6:12 am

    The corollary to owning a sailboat with engine is to assume engine failure some day.

    Therefore sailors who spend much time at sea need to know how to run a sailboat without engine in all conditions.

    Even better – to be totally comfortable, at peace, with this.

    This means a fundamentally different approach to sailing. Takes thought & practice.

    If there is fear re being without an engine, better get started.

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 7:50 am

      Hi Nicolas

      true words, and I’ve often reflected on the old adage that ‘there re those who breathe a sigh of relief when the engine is turned on, and those who breathe sigh of relief when it’s turned off’- and I’d bet that most of us here would be in the latter camp.

      My first line of defence is always sail, and I think strategically that way. But I’m always glad to know that the engine is there, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

      Best wishes


  • John Sep 3, 2012, 8:51 am

    Hi Colin and All,

    While I hear you on the desirability of and satisfaction derived from rebuilding old engines, I tend not to recommend it myself, except to those who have a high level of mechanical skills themselves coupled with a long term relationship with a rebuild shop they trust.

    In the last few years I have just seen too many rebuilds turn into a long running nightmare of problems that end up costing more than a new engine would have. Even a rebuild that goes well will, with today’s parts and labour prices, cost from 2/3 to 3/4 of what a new engine will. And a new engine will typically come with a two year warranty instead of the 90 days typical for a rebuild.

    I suspect that this sad state of affairs is the result of the demise of proper mechanic’s apprenticeship schemes in most countries. Bottom line, often the person doing the rebuild simple does not have the training or experience to do it right.

    On the other hand, one big advantage of going the rebuild route is that the engine will go back into the boat with fewer changes required than with a new engine.

    • Colin Sep 3, 2012, 11:28 am

      Hi John

      I’d agree that it’s getting harder to find dependable engine or machine shops – a great pity. One way round this (certainly with older Perkins engines) can be to go to an agricultural engineer – masses of old 4.108s were in farm machinery, and only the marinising parts are different.

      We looked at the cost of a re-engine vs rebuilding the old the 2nd time, and after replacing the mounts, prop etc there was no comparison – it was more like 4 times the cost in our case. But, in fairness, that was nearly ten years ago, so with the steady disappearance of engine shops maybe that gap has closed significantly.

      Best wishes


      • John Sep 3, 2012, 11:49 am

        Hi Colin,

        You are absolutely right on the cost, when installation changes are taken into account. The total cost of our re-power to the Perkins was nearly three times the cost of the base engine and transmission. Having said that, we did significantly upgrade the installation with a CV joint and new water separation exhaust.

  • Alan Teale Sep 3, 2012, 3:43 pm

    Hi Colin, I share your concerns about trends in diesel engine development in a boating context, and I believe the push to more biodiesel in fuels is doing a great disservice to us all on many levels, whether sailors or not. When it comes to diesel engines for small boats, “they don’t make ’em like they used to” comes readily to mind. I believe however that for those who wish to stick with the good old workhorses, it is probably best to also stick with the good old mineral lubrication oils. A lot of great old engines are suffering with the modern synthetics. Thought also needs to be given to the effects of the new low sulphur fuels and how best to mitigate them.
    Of the new engines, I agree that the Kubota-based choices have a lot to commend them, while turbochargers have nothing to commend them in a sailboat. Alan

    • Colin Sep 4, 2012, 11:10 am

      Hi Alan

      I was always told that those older engines preferred mineral oils, so we stuck with that, albeit at the expense of far more frequent oil and filter changes (every two months when working). And at that time in the UK, dyed ‘red’ diesel (high sulphur) was just about the only diesel fuel available. Filthy stuff, but it suited those old engines well. But with changes to the tax regime and the demand for cleaner fuels, it’s getting harder to come by.

      Good to hear another nod for Kubota, and I agree that turbo’s are not the way to go for marine engines. They need huge mounts of air exchange for one thing, and don’t seem live long in marine use – normally aspirated is better, in my view, and most definitely in lower latitudes.

      Best wishes


  • Ron Sep 3, 2012, 3:51 pm

    In response to the challenge of lack of skills to rebuild an engine, I have two thoughts. One that I follow the philosophy that to be truly an independent cruiser, one must be intimately famaliar with every nut, bolt, wire, pipe etc on their boat. Each system onboard that the cruiser cannot fully repair is another weak link in their chain of independence. And the second thought that feeds into this independence “rant” is that the older engines are so simple. I purchased a take out complete spare engine that matched my boats engine both for parts and for troubleshooting and rebuiding expertise. I believe that anyone that puts enough importance on their “independence” can gain the skills thru that motivation to not only rebuild an older diesel in a dependable manner, but will cruise the oceans of the world with that much more less fear that dependence fosters. By the way, I thoroughly enjoy everyones post on this stream of thought, good stuff!!

  • John Sep 3, 2012, 6:43 pm

    Hi All,

    There is a lot of aspects to the rebuild or replace decision. We have, over the last 20 years, opted to go replacement not once but twice. I think we might have been wrong the first time, but I’m 100% sure we were right the second, even though we had access to one of the best marine engine rebuild shops anywhere. Here are the details.

  • Patri Sep 3, 2012, 11:02 pm

    With my old 4-108 it isn’t a lack of skills but rather trying to tackle what might be a complete rebuild with minimal tools and without a reasonable workspace. Shortly after getting the boat I pulled the engine out to gain access to a fuel tank that was leaking. While I had the tank out for repair I went over the engine and replaced front and rear seals, numerous gaskets, including the timing gear cover and pan/sump gaskets replaced all hoses and rebuilt the on-engine wiring harness. All of this was done with the engine sitting on a temporary work platform in the cockpit. Given all of that, replacing the main and crankshaft bearings would be pretty simple. However, if the cylinders needed a re-bore and that required over-sized pistons then things get a bit more complicated. In that case I suspect I would pursue what in the US is called a “short block” option where you buy a re-built block assembly with pistons, crank etc. already complete and assembled and build the engine around that. Colin’s comment that his rebuilds never required a re-bore, but only new rings, sheds a very positive light on the task.

    A replacement rather than a rebuilt in my boat just isn’t economically feasible since there is no “drop in and bolt in place” option. Re-engineering the engine mounts/beds, exhaust and all the rest is just out of the question. I can however, certainly understand why John did it the last time. Made perfect sense.

    I find all the tips and opinions valuable. Thanks to all.

    BTW, one of the best investments I’ve made on my 4-108, other than all those new gaskets/joints, was installing a Walker Airsep which has mitigated the positive crankcase pressure problem my old engine has. Cut the oil leaks to near zero and eliminated the oily smell in the boat from the oil mist escaping via the valve cover breather. Magical.

    • Colin Sep 4, 2012, 11:16 am

      Hi Patri

      Thanks for the comment and the heads-up on the Walker Airsep – looks like a good product that I would like to have tried on our old engine, especially if it cut down the oil leaks, that were a perennial problem.

      Best wishes


    • Michael Nov 7, 2012, 8:33 pm


      Nice to hear you are pleased with the AIRSEP. Thanks. The Universal AIRSEP kit for the Perkins 4108 is one of our most popular AIRSEP kits.

      Maybe can be listed on the “Stuff that Works” section.

      To help your fellow bloggers/sailors. Walker will be offering a free spare air filter element with any Universal (Genset) kit for the 4108 purchased and shipped in December 2012. Offer expires December 20th, 2012. Mention PROMO code: Morgan1212


  • richard s. Sep 4, 2012, 12:48 pm

    i just remembered i would occasionally use kerosene (#2 fuel oil i believe) in my yanmar three lunger with no problems…could this be a solution to augmented (messed up) diesel fuel ? seems like they were about the same price although kerosene as i remember was not easily located in the u.s. but maybe easier abroad ?

    richard s. in tampa bay area (s/v lakota’s skipper)

    • Ron Sep 4, 2012, 2:24 pm

      Now here in the USA that red dyed diesel is still available as heating oil, hi sulpher and it in my boat and home generator and tractors, never have a problem with filters etc and I like knowing that that slippery sulpher is keeping the engines from premature wear….wont always be available when on a cruise but anywhere near my home port I keep my tanks full with “red”.


  • Paul Mills Sep 5, 2012, 4:27 am

    What a great thread, here’s my ‘few pennies worth’

    • During my Brixham Trawler days we had a Gardner 6LX (same engine as the old London buses) – it was fantastically reliable, quiet and low revving, surprisingly economical and started easily every time. On the other hand when it did need surgery it was very complicated and expensive and needed real specialist knowledge. I can still hear it’s reassuring rhythm and feel the warmth coming up through the floor 20 years on…
    • My Dad and Uncl, spent, between them, 62 years on the shop floor at Perkins in Peterborough, and could tell stories of these long lived engines as long as you would be able to listen. My favourite is the village generator which was delivered with a hose for the cooling water missing; so they rigged a hose into a large baked bean type can with nail holes in the bottom to cool it instead ;– 30 years later the engine was still going strong, though they had needed to replace the can several times….
    • Beta Marine are based locally to me. I used to know one of their guys – old school and skilled are the words that come to mind.
    • My own engine, a Volvo Penta D2 55 has just needed a new forward clutch after a little over 700 hours, Volvo Penta are not interested. The box was rebuilt by a canal boat company in the midlands – at a third of the cost of a VP agent, and in 5 days door to door including DHL. Real professionals – that’s the canal boat company anyway…..

    Happy sailing


    • Colin Sep 5, 2012, 9:30 am

      Hi Paul

      Those old Gardners were a byword in the bigboat charter world when I started out, but if I remember correctly they were complicated by having things like individual cylinder heads.

      A friend who worked in farming in the US told me that he knew farmers over there who spoke reverently about Perkins engines, and dreamed of making the pilgrimage to Peterborough….

      Good to hear your comments on Beta, which echo those I’ve had related to me by others – sounds good.

      Odd that you’ve had such premature failure with your Hurth box, as they’re normally pretty trouble-free. One of the reasons the canal boat operators like them so much, and there are repair facilities for even really old boxes. Shows that it pays to do your homework, too, and not just run straight to the manufacturer!

      Best wishes


  • Matt Marsh Sep 5, 2012, 8:10 am

    Colin, you asked if it’s possible to build a fully mechanical diesel that still meets emission regs.

    Iveco Powertrain’s marine lineup includes some mechanically governed, non-electronic diesels that meet current emission control rules. Their 4041-M40 (1.37 L, 40 hp @ 3600 rpm) or 4241-M41 (2.0 L, 41 hp @ 3000 rpm) would be suitable equivalents to the Perkins 4-108.

    I have no first-hand experience with these engines (and I don’t believe they’re sold in North America) but the spec sheets and reports from the field appear favourable.

    • Colin Sep 5, 2012, 9:21 am

      Hi Matt

      Thanks for that – and good news, if you’d like an all mechanical engine. Good that they make smaller units, too. Anyone out there got one?

      Best wishes


  • RDE Sep 5, 2012, 4:48 pm

    A lot more fun than rebuilding an engine! Especially if you are in a climate that makes cockpit showers heaven rather than ice age!

  • RobertB Sep 9, 2012, 10:24 am

    I try not to use phrases like “they don’t make them like they used to” and “the good ol’ days.” Doesn’t every generation say this about whatever has changed in their lifetimes? Agreed it’s disappointing that the recreation marine industry is so small that it is difficult for technological innovation to thrive, or worse, to properly implement existing technology. I have 2 thoughts regarding this.

    When there is a real need or desire to go forward, or even backwards, in a technology, some smart entrepreneur will make it happen regardless of what the industry is doing or it’s popularity. The Adventure-40 is an example. Simple and back to the basics, despite bucking the industry trends. Even if it doesn’t work out, another will come along as long as there are people who want to cruise the oceans. The beautiful modern day achievement is the ability to pull a global project like this together from boat! The internet advances have provided a way for people to group together and solve problems. I could even see a grouping to create an open-source diesel engine design for cruising. Combine all the good ideas from the work horses of the past with the good ideas of today. Advances in low volume manufacturing make this possible. Just need to find the right people and motivation. As Colin would say, why not?

    The other thought has to do with the mindset I see about ECUs. Yes, there is a problem, but it isn’t in the ECUs, per se. Electronics are not inherently less reliable than mechanical systems and many would argue they are more reliable as well as providing many advantages. I am convinced the attitude I see regarding ECUs amongst experienced sailors is due to poor design and quality control from the manufacturer. Your ECU smoked due to a spike? Really? Problems like that are not only relatively easy to predict, but were also solved decades ago. I don’t see an excuse for it. A burnout should be a rarity….lightning comes to mind. As a manufacturer of high end electronic devices, I am amazed at how design is accomplished these days – hardware AND software. Everything is in ready to use packages (e.g. ICs…there’s one for about anything you want to do) – more like building a Lego project. The expertise these days is more about how well you can read a datasheet than a fundamental understanding of electrical engineering. However, the actual packaging into a usable system requires that fundamental understanding to keep these fragile Lego blocks from smoking (or interfering, etc). Effective fault tolerance is a good example. That goes for software, as well. Poor firmware and a random bit flip and your ECU becomes a brick. It may as well have smoked. Good news is that the manufacturers will figure this out and correct it….eventually.

    Maybe I just presented an argument for an old diesel workhorse. Maybe I’m just disappointed that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not like we don’t know HOW to build a robust ECU.


    • John Sep 9, 2012, 3:57 pm

      Hi Robert B,

      Thanks very much for the encouragement on the Adventure 40 project. You really clarified my rather more wooly thinking on the subject: Even if we don’t find a builder for the Adventure 40, the plan for the boat, together with all the great input from our readers will remain on this site and someone will build on that—makes the effort feel even more worth while.

      • RobertB Sep 9, 2012, 5:12 pm

        John – it’s not like you picked something small to do! But there is certainly a very good foundation for someone to run with the project, if that’s the way it goes. It also has tremendous education value to readers. I know that I have learned a lot just by following it.


  • Colin Sep 9, 2012, 3:23 pm

    Hi Robert

    Thanks for such well thought through comment, and especially your insight (as someone who understands these things) that it is possible to build a robust, dependable ECU.

    My take is simply that we should not fit things that can bring such a key item to a halt terminally. We depend on our engines far more than we let on (in my view) and it should not be that we have to wait for manufacturers to decide to correct it when it suits them. We all know how that ends – the engine quits when you least need it to – and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    Best wishes


    • RobertB Sep 9, 2012, 4:49 pm

      Colin – Yes, I concur. Anything that ends up as a single point of failure on a critical system like the diesel needs to be very carefully evaluated. Not to mention that whatever conditions fried an ECU might just fry the spare, if you had them. With an all mechanical design you would have a better chance of repairing at sea. I also agree with a previous poster about not having anything on a cruising vessel that you can’t strip down and repair yourself. So maybe I should put a reflow oven on the boat (kidding).


  • Svein Lamark Oct 31, 2012, 9:21 pm

    Hi Colin! I agree with you that the diesel engine is important in a sailboat and should run for many hours with out problems. I had a Perkins 4.108 in my sailboat. It lasted 12 000 hours. The problem was that the bearings on the mainshaft were too small and became warm. They produced soot and killed the Perkins. I did not repair the Perkins. I installed a 4 syl Yanmar. It has now made more then 8 000 hours, uses 40% less diesel then the Perkins, no lube oil and is more quiet and clean. Fishermen I know says it can take 22 000 hours until first main service. I hope so too.
    I love small expedition diesels. As Chris mentioned above, the marked for small expedition diesel engines are small. Almost all the manufactors of small expedition are gone and the few left overs might soon go away. I am happy to have a little Callesen 4-stroke expedition diesel in a ship. It has made more than 120 000 hours without problems. The producer says it could go 200 000 hours to first main service. Anglo Belgian Corporation still makes its 188 hk expedition engine. It can probably take much more than 100 000 hours says several owners. For small sailboats I believe there is only Bukh left, still making long lasting expedition engines. Some fishermen I know says they have sailed more than 50 000 to 60 000 hours with this small engines. If I should build a new expedition sail yacht again, I would choose a little Bukh.

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