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Bad Fuel, No Engine, Big Mess

by Art on

Towing with our 20hp Honda Halfway to Fiji from New Zealand, in the middle of the South Pacific, we became becalmed for 2 days. For those not familiar with the term, it means 'stuck in one spot with no wind'. In days of old, this would be a common occurrence as no boat had an engine and when the winds stopped blowing, forward movement did too (unless you had lots of crew who could row!).

How could this happen to a modern sailboat? Just turn on the engine and proceed to an area where there was wind. Onboard we have a fantastic IVECO engine. It's always been reliable before and we just had it completely serviced in New Zealand by a factory authorized service technician.

The pleasures of being becalmed became threadbare; there is a limit to untutored star gazing. — Charles Landery

Unfortunately the cause was what we all hope will never happen, we picked up a load of water in our fuel. Most times this happens when you refuel at a marina and this was certainly our first suspicion. In our case, it happened while on passage and was caused by a maintenance mistake that I wanted to document here so others could learn from our error.

While on the hard in New Zealand having our hull sanded they guys closed all the valves for the through-the-hull fittings to prevent sand and dust from getting in. After launch they went back and opened the valves again. However one set of valves was not opened and subsequently the port side fuel breather was left closed.

Fuel system diagram on Feelin' Good

Now, imagine having the yacht on port tack with the starboard side in the water and the starboard fuel breather hole under water with the windward (port) fuel breather up in the air but closed off. When the fuel pump starts up it pulls fuel from the starboard tank to the day tank. Normally, air would come in from the windward fuel breather to displace the fuel being pumped out of the starboard tank. In this case, with no way to get air, salt water was sucked in from the breather that was underwater. So, when pumping 40 liters of fuel in comes 40 liters of saltwater instead of air.

Since we had a ripping sail from New Zealand for the first two days (5+m crossed seas and up to 42kts of wind) we only used fuel for our generator so the 150 liters already in the day tank didn’t need to be replenished from the mains until we got to the area of calm winds and started the engine. That’s why this problem didn’t surface until we were almost halfway to Fiji. We have several RACOR filters inline with alarms for water and they started going off giving us notice that things are not going well in the fuel system.

Modern diesel engines do not like water very much and the ones with electronic fuel injectors even less so. A little condensation in the fuel will cause the engine to blow white smoke and stumble badly even to the point of stopping the engine. Once you clean the fuel lines, filters, etc the engine generally comes back on line and all is well.

Left side is fuel with saltwater However, when you have 40 liters of saltwater lying in the bottom of your tanks you pull pure saltwater into the day tank. Feeding pure water to a diesel that is running will not just stop it but potentially blow up injectors or damage the fuel pump. In our case we heard very loud banging noises and so we shut it down. Trying to restart it later was impossible. Upon calling in our problem to the IVECO technician in Auckland he advised that we most likely had destroyed one or more injectors and we would not get the engine started until we got it repaired in Fiji. So, light wind sailing the last 600 nm and then a tow with our tender (go 20hp Honda!) for 15 nm to Vuda Marina where we could check in.

Note: to be really specific here, if you get saltwater in your fuel, do not use any of it. No matter that the water part has gone to the bottom of the fuel and you can syphon it off... the salt has been dissolved into the fuel and will not come out. If you feed 'salted fuel' through your fuel lines, filters, pumps and injectors you will ruin them. Maybe not at first however they will become corroded and a huge expensive repair eventually. Best bet is to offload all the fuel and do a really thorough cleaning.

We found a technician who had the IVECO diagnostic computer and plugged it into our dead engine hoping to find out exactly what we needed to do to fix it. Unfortunately, it told us nothing more than we already knew (low engine speed alert, duh… the engine wasn’t running). After a bunch of deliberations over the phone with the technician in Auckland we decided to go ‘Old School’. For this of you out there who remember the days of automobiles with carburetors instead of fancy electronic fuel injectors, you know what I’m going to say. Yep, we opened the air filter up and sprayed starting fluid into the the engine while we were cranking it over. Since we didn’t have real engine starting fluid onboard we used WD40 which we figured was explosive and would lubricate things on the way to the injection system.

After about an hour of trying this (hoping our starting batteries would last) we got some coughs and a badly stumbling engine. Continuing down this road finally got us to a point where the engine ran by itself, although very rough. Slowing increasing the RPM got the engine smoother and we let it run for a while hoping it would clear the remaining saltwater out of the fuel system.

Long story short… after a number of hours we got the engine running smoothly again and it has worked well ever since. Once we get to Australia we’ll have the injectors pulled out and serviced on the bench to make sure there is no corrosion and do a complete recalibration. However, it appears the IVECO has ‘come back from the dead’. Check back with us in a few months and we’ll know more about any long-term effects but we all feel we’re back to normal again.

Offloading our bad fuel Our next problem was how to get rid of 2400 liters of saltwater infused diesel fuel. There was no way to filter the salt out of it and just not worth taking a chance of running it through our newly learned fuel system (RACOR, fuel lines, engine, generator, etc). Luckily we found a guy with 12 barrels that we could offload the contaminated fuel into and he hauled it away (probably to resell it to someone not so picky about what they run through their engine!). Andrea then spent a day cleaning out each of the fuel tanks by hand (what a nasty job!). At Port Denarau Marina we had fuel bunkering right at our berth so we topped off (€0.50/liter) and now have a completely clean fuel system from top to bottom and hopefully will not have any further problems.

So, our passage from New Zealand was ‘interesting’ and the events remind us of our vulnerabilities when dependent on technology and, most important, we get to experience when you are far from land and you can only depend on the wind to get you where you want to go.

Be safe out there…

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Comments so far

  • comment from Alberto Alberto on June 30, 2016

    In the end , all safely in Fiji Islands, and this is the best thing I suppose, enjoy! "Problems are made to be resolved". I problemi sono fatti per essere risolti. E voi lo avete fatto egregiamente. And you did it extremely well! Ciao