The late, great comedian Spike Milligan once declared, ‘How can we lose when we haven’t got a plan?’ I know what he meant. But without any kind of plan or knowledge you’re entirely at the mercy of whoever has your ear at the time, and this can prove disastrous if the person concerned doesn’t have your best interests at heart, or if you’re ill prepared to deal with the results.
In ordinary life this need not have serious consequences, but where offshore yachts are concerned it certainly can. A badly serviced engine can let you down at just the wrong moment, or a cheap sail can blow out 1000 miles from land, whilst the current insistence on having everything including the kitchen sink on board means that you need to have as many arms as Buddha to keep it all running.
In the good old days…
Given that the more recent generations of sailors often don’t have the innate skills that their forebears did, you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. Most of us old timers grew up with ill-tempered, recalcitrant machinery that was basically sound if spoken to nicely and generally maintained. Simple and robust – good attributes at all times, especially where it matters.
We’d grown up in an era when you had to know how to fix things, either because you couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do so or because otherwise you weren’t going to reach your destination. It seemed like a pain in the neck at the time, but as a result most of us became adept at keeping old equipment going, and in doing so we served a very handy apprenticeship for future life, especially out on the water.
But in more recent times that hasn’t been as necessary, for a number of reasons. Greater affluence has meant that most youngsters are able to afford much newer boats/cars/motorcycles that, due to the wonders of technology, are inherently more reliable than the rattling junk we had. And as so much equipment today is ‘repair by replacement’ all that’s required if you have to fix something is simply change it out.
But one day you’re going to have to roll your sleeves up
Which is when so many owners begin to struggle. I don’t hold it against someone that they have never had to get covered in oil, as they can probably do many highly technical things that I can’t—such is modern life. But for anyone who plans to go long distance cruising, I’d suggest that it’s not a great idea to set off without any basic mechanical training. There are excellent diesel engine courses available that will teach you the general knowledge, including the simple diagnostics required for these basic but vital pieces of equipment. And get yourself one of Nigel Calder’s excellent books--an invaluable addition to the library of any yacht.
If your engine is out of warranty, then learn how to service it, and start to do future services yourself—it’s a great way to get to know your engine and its layout, plus it will help to build your confidence to tackle the inevitable bigger jobs. If your engine is in warranty, don’t touch it—leave it to the factory dealer, as the world abounds with stories of owners having warranty claims refused because some independent mechanic so much as stood near the engine.
Fine-tune your BS detector
My previous boat was equipped with a wonderful old Perkins 4.108, a noisy, leaky, reliable old lump that was easy to maintain and re-build—I once changed a headgasket in situ in a couple of hours, simply because I had to—a perfect engine for a boat that was worked as hard as ours was.
But one time it developed a leak from the timing case (common) and as I simply couldn’t attend to it due to other pressures, I asked the local engineer to send down one of his guys and fix it on our day off. When I returned the job hadn’t been done, and I went up to the office to ask why. The engineer appeared, and looking doleful said ‘it’s time for a new engine, mate’ or words to that effect. I’ll spare you the short, frank and colourful debate we had, but suffice to say his take was that it was only a matter of time before the engine self-destructed, so it would be better to replace rather than repair—just because of an oil leak! That was ten years ago, and that engine is still going strong.
And I’ve seen this again and again, where inexperienced (and often wealthy owners) have been taken for a ride by an unscrupulous business. Some of it astonishingly blatant too, such as the smoky but relatively new diesel I was asked to look at by a guy I met in a marina. He claimed that everything had been done that could be done, and showed me a sheaf of bills to back up his claim. I scanned through these and noticed not one but three invoices that referred to the injectors having been removed and tested, but when I looked at the engine the paint was unbroken on the injectors and their banjos – elementary, dear Watson, as Sherlock Holmes would have said.
Check the work
And don’t always assume that the work will be done as it should have been. I once picked up a yacht for delivery from the west coast of Scotland that had been out of the water for some time. I was assured that the engine was in good condition and had just been serviced, so with the usual tight schedule and a good forecast off we went.
We had a fresh breeze until nightfall, when it dropped light, so we started the engine. Not long afterwards, I noticed the smell of a hot engine, so I shut it down and opened the casing to be confronted with oil everywhere. The oil filter hadn’t been correctly tightened, and we’d been lucky to catch it before the oil ran out.
There followed one of those cheery nights of toil, letting it cool down enough to remove and re-seal the filter, searching for the non-existent spare oil, and then straining the old oil through two pairs of socks and separating it from the bilge water to let the engine be prepared for emergency use.
Ever since I’ve avoided servicing an engine out of the water unless there’s a really good supply of water to enable it to be run up for at least half an hour, to check for leaks and any persistent air locks in the fuel system. There are always plenty of engine failures as newly launched boats take to the water…
There are good guys out there
I know some truly excellent, dependable, honest tradesmen, and I’d use and recommend them without question. But I had to either find them myself, or through recommendation from people I know, trust and respect. If you’re new to an area, it can take quite a while to find out who’s who, and you may have to endure some unpleasant false starts along the way. You may be able to short circuit the quest by looking at recommendations on Noonsite or Active Captain, but I’d be very wary of any other source that uses unattributed accolades that might just have easily come from all too interested parties.
So even if you aren’t mechanically gifted, or are filled with nerves over the thought of tackling your engine, don’t worry—it ain’t rocket science and with some basic training and a good manual to hand you’ll soon be good to go.
Look at it as an investment in your long term cruising plans, as sooner or later you’re going to have to tackle a job in some far away place in any case, and the better prepared you are, the more likely the outcome will be a positive one. One day you’ll be amazed at what you can repair, and you’ll feel the warm glow of satisfaction at your achievement.
Out on the ocean you still need those old, often ignored skills—don’t leave them out of your planning.