Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The dirty details

WARNING: This is a story which goes on far too long, but which those of you with an interest in the temperaments of marine engines may gather round for. If I could, I'd tuck it away in another part of the  blog, but I haven't worked out how to do that yet. 

Enki has a 110 hp Volvo Penta D3100 engine which, when we bought the boat in July 2011, had close to 3200 hours on the clock and was six years old - i.e. out of guarantee, and over the five-year age limit which our insurer, Pantaneus, puts on engine claims. We didn't go looking for this kind of new generation diesel engine, one dependent on clever electronic gadgetry, but we accepted that if you want a boat as new as Enki that's what you end up with. It's the way the world has gone.

Enki's engine is quieter, more efficient, has lower emissions and has a better power to weight ratio than a traditional diesel engine and we appreciate that when it's running. But there have been times when we've longed for the comparative simplicity of a noisier, smellier, old-school diesel engine, like the Yanmar we had on Kukka. That said, before we left Port Napoleon on June 8,  we had no reason to think we would have problems with Enki's engine.  In fact, we had several reasons to be confident it would do what it's meant to do - give us no trouble at all.

They were 1) that just before we bought her, her previous owner motored from Majorca to meet us at Port Napoleon, a two-day run; 2) that he ran the engine for us at Port Napoleon, and Alex was on board when he motored from the pontoon to the travel lift; 3) that we had a comprehensive survey done before purchase which picked up no engine problems and 4) that the engine was serviced in Port Napoleon by a smart and meticulous mechanic.

Our confidence was misplaced, as it turns out, and because we still don't know for sure why we've had such a run of bad luck, I'm putting as many cards as I can retrieve from this game on the table. If you can make more sense out of this hand than we can, we'd love to know your thoughts.

After we bought her, we left Enki on a hardstand at Port Napoleon over an exceptionally cold winter. Temperatures inside the boat dropped below freezing point, but Enki was properly "winterized" with anti-freeze, and there was no problem starting her engine at any stage at Port Napoleon, both on the hard and when she was put back in the water.

Last November, Alex filled the tanks with fuel bought from a service station at Port Saint Louis, figuring that the fuel already in the tanks was less likely to become contaminated if the tanks were full.  He did not empty out the old fuel, nor did he consider it necessary to clean the tanks. Before winter, he not only put anti-freeze in the engine, but he also anticipated the growth of the dreaded "bug" in the fuel should there be condensation in the tanks. He mixed in a fuel additive called Starbrite BioDiesel, an American product he'd been using for about 10 years on our previous two boats, one with a older Volvo engine, the other with the Yanmar I spoke about. He was aware of no reason why he should not do this. Many people do the same to protect against fungus and bacteria in their fuel.

Enki's fuel tanks exposed

We motored out of Port Napoleon on June 8 and made our way along the Cote d'Azur, motoring more often than sailing. We were thrilled with the engine's performance. On June 14 we left Antibes bound for Corsica, a 32-hour passage during which we motored much more than we would have liked to, but again the engine performed faultlessly. We anchored at Porto Vecchio, in the south-east of Corsica,  for two nights. One the second night, Alex transferred fuel from the secondary fuel tank to the primary fuel tank, and the next morning we had our first experience of the engine failing to start.

Alex and Dave Gunn, a chemical engineer with extensive experience in building and managing power stations, started with the obvious causes - fuel and air. They checked the fuel for water, and found none. The filters, which had been changed in Port Napoleon, were a bit dirty, but not exceptionally so. The fuel, they concluded, was clean. They bled the fuel pump, and air came out. The engine started after vigorous priming of the pump, and we were away - problem solved.

We motored across to Sardinia, and stayed overnight at a marina in La Maddalena so we could clear into Italy. The next morning there was no wind at all, and we motored the entire 26 hours to Ponza island, about 20 nautical miles off the Italian mainland. We planned to stay one night, and then keep moving south. We were heading for Greece to meet Pops in Athens on July 5.

On June 20, at anchor around the corner from the Ponza town harbour, our engine failed to start. This time there was no air in the fuel pump. When Alex and Dave had exhausted all possible options, they took the dinghy into Ponza to find mechanical help. They found Gian Luca, a chief engineer on big ships, who was home for a holiday. He came to the boat the next morning, spent three hours in the engine bay, and concluded that we had an electronic problem. He telephoned Volvo Penta Italy on our behalf, and they directed us to sail to Base Nautica Gioia Flavia at Gaeta where there was a Volvo Penta service centre. The mechanics there had the diagnostic computer which all authorised Volvo agents are supplied with. With new-generation diesels, an electronic problem needs an electronic diagnosis.

We sailed to Gaeta on Friday and waited over the weekend for the Base Nautica mechanics to arrive with their computer on Monday. It's worth noting at this point that marinas in Italy are notoriously expensive. Marina charges are graded from 1 - 6 in the Mediterranean pilots written by Rod Heikell.  Gaeta is charge band 6. The Base Nautica mechanics came to the boat without a computer. They had failed to let the marina administration know that it was broken. There was much embarrassment, and later that day two other mechanics, Antonio and Claudio, were sub-contracted by Base Nautica to do the job. We were told that they were authorised Volvo mechanics, and believed they must have been because they brought with them a Volvo computer. However, because they were sub-contracted by Base Nautica, and spoke no English, we never found out the name of their business, nor could we contact them directly.

We spent a week in Gaeta. At first the mechanics told us we might need a new fuel pump, which could be couriered overnight from Rome. But then it appeared we didn't need a new pump. The pump was fine. All we needed was a new fuel delivery sensor.  On Wednesday, with minimal explanation - we had no common language - Claudio took away the fuel injectors and later that day we were told we needed new fuel injector nozzles because the old ones were blocked. There was no suggestion they could be cleaned. We accepted a quote for the work - 2200 euros. That included new pressure sensors and an overhaul of the fuel pump.  On Friday morning, Claudio fitted the new injectors, and started the engine with vigorous priming.

We left Gaeta mid-afternoon that Friday, June 29, having filled up at Base Nautica's fuel dock. We motored out of the harbour, and then cut the engine, and sailed south in a fresh breeze. When the wind died at sunset we turned on the engine, and motored through the night and all the next day, dropping anchor at Vulcano Island, in the Aelion group off the north coast of Sicily. Alex transferred fuel that night from the secondary tank to the main tank. Our plan was to make an early start to catch the south-going tide through the Strait of Messina.

The engine failed to start the next morning, a Sunday (of course). Again, Dave and Alex went through the usual trouble-shooting routine - fuel, air, filters. We suspected the fuel transfer - was it a coincidence that the engine had failed after each fuel transfer? But the fuel was free of water, and looked clean, and the filters were recently changed.

By late Sunday afternoon, having first tried to get a response from Gaeta, we were talking to Volvo Penta's crisis centre in Belgium, and we knew there was a Volvo Penta mechanic on the next island, Lipari, and that we would be towed there the next morning. By late Monday morning, July 2, we were in Lipari with another mechanic, Massimo Peluso, on board with his Volvo diagnostic program. He also brought with him his girlfriend Claudia, who spoke a little English - a little is much better than none in these circumstances. Massimo got the engine started with vigorous priming. He told us that the fuel injector nozzles we'd had replaced in Gaeta looked fine to him. He said the problem was mechanical, not electronic. He'd freed up a valve but had essentially done nothing but bring fuel up to the injectors by priming the pump and suggested that we use higher rpm from time to time during long periods of motoring.

Massimo came back the next morning, and the engine started immediately. By this stage however we were very twitchy about the engine's reliability, and I had contacted Pops and organised for her to fly to Palermo, not Athens. Our idea was that we would spend five days with her cruising around the Aeolian islands where we'd be able to contact Massimo if we had any further problems. But first we had to go to Milazzo, on the north coast of Sicily, to meet Pops.

On Wednesday, July 3 we motored down the west coast of Vulcano Island, anchored for a few hours of swimming, and then sailed towards Milazzo, coming into the Marina del Nettuno by early evening under motor. A short hop, in other words.

The next morning, Alex tried, and failed to start the engine. He called Massimo, spoke to Claudia and  within five minutes a mechanic called Roberto appeared on our boat. We didn't really know who Roberto was, but he said he would be back that afternoon with a diagnostic computer. When the Volvo Penta crisis centre called us about midday to check if everything was all right with the engine, we were able to tell him 1) no, it was not and 2) that a mechanic from Milnautica was on the boat. Thomas (the Volvo Penta liaison man) checked his data base and confirmed that Milnautica was one of their agents.

Roberto came back to us the next morning, Friday July 6,  with his computer, and by lunch-time (very important in Italy) he had told us we needed a new fuel pump but that it would not be in Milazzo until the following Wednesday.  (Marina del Nettuno in Milazzo is a charge band 6 marina, by the way). No point in arguing with Sicilians, or talking about overnight delivery. That doesn't wash. The new fuel pump arrived on Thursday morning which meant that Pops holidayed on the Milazzo marina with us. She left the day the fuel pump arrived to begin her long journey back to Sydney.

With the new fuel pump installed, the engine started, but we were even more nervous than ever so we decided to stay a couple more days in the marina and start the engine in variety of conditions over that time. Early on Saturday morning, July 14, we felt confident enough to leave for Greece with little wind predicted.

About two hours into the trip, the engine lost power, and the revs dropped to 1000 rpm with the throttle still in the same position. Alex engaged neutral and tried to increase the revs, but was still unable to go beyond 1000 rpm. He shut down the engine after checking for warning lights and that the water pump was working ok. He restarted the engine and for a short while couldn't get anything more than 1000 rpm. Then he opened the throttle which produced some rough running which he thought may have been something caught around the prop. The engine still wasn't performing so he shut it down again, and we raised the sails and headed for shore as we considered what to do next. Alex started the engine again, and a few minutes later, in neutral, after some initial rough running, the engine was able to rev out and engage in gear. We motored in reverse at low rpm  in the hope that if something had caught around the prop that might help to unwind it. Then he put the engine in forward and it got going. A few minutes later it was as if nothing had happened. We dropped the sails and motored on towards the Strait, telling ourselves that we'd check the prop when we got to Greece. If there had been something caught on it, it seemed to be gone now.

About two hours later, when we were through the narrowest part of the strait but still motoring because the wind, while fresh, was dead up our stern, the engine stopped. It couldn't be restarted at all.

We sailed back to Messina, against the wind and tide, and floated onto the pontoon at Marina del Nettuno (connected to the Milazzo marina). Roberto was there to meet us. His first diagnosis that afternoon was that the new fuel pump was broken, but by the time he left us he had shifted his attention to the fuel tanks. He said he'd be back on Monday morning with the head of Volvo for this part of Sicily, who had more diagnostic instruments.

On Monday, Roberto came alone to the boat - and we never found out why the head of Volvo couldn't or wouldn't come with him. He tested the pressure in the fuel pump, and said it was fine.  Not broken after all. He took off the injector nozzles, and went with Alex to a Bosch testing centre on the outskirts of Milazzo where the nozzles were subjected to extreme high pressure testing. They were blocked with a black sticky mess. Alex has written to Volvo today: "I am at a loss to know how the fuel can be dirty (?) after passing through 10 micron Racor filters and the Volvo filter on the engine."

Roberto came to the conclusion then that the only possible cause for our engine troubles was dirty fuel. The fuel looked clean, but it could not be clean. Something mysterious was dissolved in the fuel. It was passing through the filters, but was precipitated under high pressure and blocking the high pressure injector nozzles. Hence the engine wouldn't start. He suggested we empty the fuel tanks, clean them and fill up with clean fuel. We would need a new set of injector nozzles (about 1200 euros plus tax) - as in Gaeta, there was no suggestion that the nozzles could be cleaned though we know that is possible in other places.

If the fuel is dirty, what is contaminating it? Danilo, one of the marina's directors, and a good English speaker, made some phone calls about fuel analysis, but the closest such lab, he found out, is in Catania and the results would not come back within a week, he told us. With our backs to the wall, we made a decision not to wait for the results, and to accept a shockingly high quote (4400 euros) from Milnautica for emptying and cleaning the fuel tanks - the quote also included Roberto's labour on the fuel pump, and the new injector nozzles.

Grime wiped out of the tank with a rag and solvent

Roberto strips dirt off the pipework with solvent and a paintbrush

The story ends here for the moment. We don't know if we have dirty fuel, but what we saw in the bottom of the tank, and smeared all over the pipework appalled us. It was black and sticky, and nothing like any sludge Alex has ever seen before, like a monster which has lurked in the bottom of the tank for many many miles, then chosen to lunge. Of course, engines are mechanical and logical, and there has to be an explanation other than the monster one, but we're struggling.

We have a couple of theories. The first turns on the possibility of Christophe having collected something nasty in the tanks on his travels, possibly up a Brazilian river, which had dissolved in the fuel and thus did not give him any problems because we're fairly certain he didn't use fuel additive. It may have been precipitated by the fuel additive Alex put in. The second says we bought dirty fuel in Port Saint Louis. There are big holes in both scenarios. We've had a lot of miles of good motoring in between breakdowns. We will leave fuel and sludge specimes in Messina with Danilo who will send them to Catania and email us the results.
Fingers scooped up sludge for the specimen bottle
We know that these kinds of "nightmares" happen - you read about them in yachting magazines. We've tried to deal with the engine problem sanely, but it creates enormous stress. Forget Joshua Slocum and the vanity of seamanship. Having an engine is a modern safety requirement in a boat this size. If we have a complaint about this four week saga, it is that we think the mechanics in Gaeta, those sub-contracted by the marina, were sloppy in their diagnosis. They changed our fuel injector nozzles, but didn't investigate why the nozzles were blocked. It's cost us a lot of time and money to get to the dirty fuel diagnosis, and also pain of a familiar sort. Alex put his back out at Vulcano Island, priming the fuel pump early in the morning before he'd limbered up, and he's been a long time getting mobile again.

Cross fingers and toes, we'll have no more problems from now on. We're planning (again) to re-fuel tomorrow further up the strait, then to turn south again, and find our way across to Greece and then Turkey. Neither of us are particularly optimistic - we're contaminated by a lingering anxiety that this will go on and on. We dearly hope not. We have no more appetite for Italian mechanics, though we have been treated kindly, very kindly by the marina here at Messina.

You know as much as we do now, if you've stayed the distance.


  1. I ate up every word. That is some nasty-looking sludge, for real. And the idea that there is enough of it in solution that it can clog the injectors after passing through the filters seems possible... I guess.

    Anyway, here's hoping that you are soon onto a different intractable boat problem!

  2. Hope the fuel drama is well and truly done and dusted, but thought this article interesting...if you haven't already found it or something similar