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Living Aboard: That Damn Engine

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In previous posts I shared some problems with my fuel system and my temporary fix.  Somewhere around when that problem occurred, I noticed a loss of power and a lot of black smoke at higher RPMs…I tried diagnosing the many potential problems but couldn’t find it, so I kept the RPMs low until I could have someone take a look at it, preferably while they were cleaning my dirty fuel tank.

While in Black Sound my second time around waiting on a weather window to navigate Whale Passage, I had my engine running to top off my batteries.  Suddenly I heard the engine wind up and immediately knew it was a “runaway”.

green turtle cay

At least my boat is in better shape than this…

I quickly pulled out the fuel supply line and blocked the air intake and shut it down.  After some more tinkering and troubleshooting, I found that my fuel lift pump had a loose screw inside and allowed diesel to fill my crankcase, which then went through the breather tube and into my air intake, creating the runaway condition.

I fixed the pump, bled the system, cleaned out the crankcase, and now can’t get it to fire.  It’s not seized and it’s getting air and fuel.  Beyond that I don’t have the tools to diagnose anything further.

My weather window did arrive two days later, so I sailed off of the mooring ball and through the narrow channel with an extremely light breeze behind me, pushing me just past “drifting” and into “controllable”.  I picked up the wind outside of the sound and sailed through the passage, arriving at Great Guana Cay just prior to sundown.  The passage was rather enjoyable considering the conditions it had seen the previous few weeks.  You can see in the photo below why it might be called “Whale Cay”.

whale cay

Making the passage around Whale Cay

So do I really need an engine?

I’ve always been in the mindset that I have a sailboat with an auxiliary engine, and not a powerboat with auxiliary sails, to paraphrase the late Eric Hiscock.  The fighter pilot in me is always looking for “a way out” whenever I’m in a confined space using my engine, to determine what I’d do in the event of an engine failure.  Will I raise the sails and if so, which ones?  Or will I drop my stern anchor, lashed within arm’s reach of the helm, as an emergency brake?

This is why it drives me batshit crazy to see sailors motoring through confined areas with sails covered and a bow anchor as secure as Fort Knox.  All it takes is a piece of flotsam blocking their water intake or some air & dirt in the fuel to turn them into an uncontrollable drifting hull.

Sailing into the anchorages at Great Guana Cay and into Marsh Harbor were tricky with the various obstacles in both places and the direction & speed of the winds, but those watching complimented me on my anchoring without an engine.

Let’s look at what an engine gives me and how I would handle these situations without one:

  • Maneuverability to get into confined areas such as marinas and crowded anchorages or moorings.  Without an engine, I will have to select my stops more carefully.  I will avoid close quarters.  If I do need to sail into places like that out of necessity, I’ll always have my stern anchor ready to drop and pick out escape routes if that fails to stop me.  I’ll need to rely on my dinghy and/or kayak more for transportation to shore (and I now have a dinghy outboard so I’m not totally without an engine).
  • Insurance if my anchor starts dragging.  This can become a big problem with other boats or ground behind me.  This is the scenario I’m in now and with some brisk winds.  I have two anchors set off the bow and my staysail rigged and ready to hoist if I need to sail out of trouble on short notice.
  • Means to charge my batteries.  I’ll have to rely more on my solar panels, which are adequate, but I’ll have to budget my electricity better since I have no alternate means to charge the batteries right now.  I’m currently looking at getting a small wind generator to give me some extra power and carry me through continuous overcast days.
  • A faster way to make passages or fight currents.  I’ll just need to plan better, taking into consideration all winds, swells, currents, and tides prior to moving.  This could leave me hanging out in one area for quite a while awaiting the proper conditions.  I’m in no hurry, right?
  • High costs in diesel fuel, much storage space reserved for spare parts, continuous maintenance, and an overall pain-in-the-ass when not working right.  What would I do without these?

Overall I think not having an engine will greatly increase my seamanship.  I never did rely on the engine much just because I wanted to be a better sailor.  Lin & Larry Pardey are an excellent example of what can be done without an engine, and they’ve been a valuable source of information on the subject.  It will limit my movements but I’m fine with that.  We’ll see how the diagnosis is next week.  It would definitely be nice to have in a pinch but I’m not going to let it stop me.

In the movie “180 South“, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, stated “for me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts”.  I feel the same.  Thoughts?


Wednesday 30th of August 2017

Stop rationalizing. Fix your engine. If you can't, then you have to pay.

There is no advantage to having a non-working engine. Even Sailing Uma has a fork lift motor powering their propeller (for however long the batteries last)

John Peltier

Saturday 2nd of September 2017

I've managed to get the engine in pretty good working order on my own in the five years since I wrote this. Still, I only use it for a few minutes at a time for maneuvering in tight spaces. I still believe I could easily do without one.


Thursday 27th of December 2012

I think I'm gonna need to cut and paste some of these into my "future sailing" checklist. Good info Deuce.

Morning Waters

Tuesday 11th of December 2012

John, My husband and I used a "yuloh" a long curved single oar that we build for our 23 ft sailboat, to help us get around anchorages when there was not enough wind to give controlable speed; as we had no engine when we sailed the South Pacific. These single oars are used alot in the East where they can power boats of considerable size up and down rivers. A google search will give you lots of information. The trick it to have the yuloh fit the size of your vessel.

You will become a better sailor with no engine, but it is sure nice on those occasions when getting in to port and setting anchor is really needed. Remember, you can always avoid the "temptation" to turn it on if it really truly isn't needed...

I am enjoying reliving my sailing days now through you. Best to you. Morning Waters

John Peltier

Friday 14th of December 2012

Hi Morning – yes, I’ve considered strapping a yuloh to the lifelines and using that as my propulsion in the above situations. I’m going to continue to keep my eye out for one just in case, but I did get the engine fixed today. Turned out an old fuel line was delaminating and allowing air into the system. It’s funny how completely unrelated engine problems can make themselves known at exactly the same time, complicating troubleshooting. But you’re right, I’ll avoid the temptation to turn it on and will continue to sail in & out of anchorages as much as possible.

Stephen Phillips

Friday 7th of December 2012

No can paste reply.


Sunday 2nd of December 2012

Having contingencies allows you to navigate more obstacles that may show up in your path; however, relying on planning for the (winds, swells, currents, and tides prior to moving) will most certainly make you a better sailor. And as you said, no rush? Personally I'd pick the more adventurous route being that your end game is a location and not a date but I've never sailed so my opinion definitely is that of an observer.