Engine Failure

Right around sunset, our skipper made a ham and cheese sandwich, had a glass of box wine and went below to switch fuel tanks. We were preparing for our final night run across the Sea of Cortez. Richard came back up with a grim look. “Well I don’t want this to happen, but I think we’re gonna have an engine failure.”

Both engine filters were full of crud. We lifted up the hatch to the engine room in the salon of our 45 foot trawler. The hulking red Lehman Ford Diesel engine radiated an animal heat. Our other crewmember Mike — a beerbellied guy from San Diego — went below and started draining the filters. Richard took one look at containers of watery diarrhea and exclaimed, “I can’t believe that engine’s still running!”

Mike and Richard repeated themselves like a mantra. “Thank God for Raycor filters.”

Mike started working on the second filter. “You should see the solids in the bottom of this one. You got all the rust out of the tanks at El Cid!” The culprit, they believed, was the fuel from our last stop at El Cid Marina in Mazatlan. Mike saw the fuel truck fill up the fuel dock just before we topped up. He blamed this for stirring up the water and sediment in the tanks, emulsifying into our fuel.

The boat had turned broadside to the current. Even though the seas were flat and calm, the boat rocked side to side in the swell. After topping off a five gallon jug of crud, the guys were satisfied.

“I’m watching the fuel come into the filter bowl here and I’m seeing it foam up,” Mike reported.

“Well that’s good.” We stood clear of the machine. Richard turned the ignition. She fired up sounding like an 18-wheeler.

Two minutes later.

“You sonnufabitch.” The engine choked and quit. We started it a couple more times. She turned over, sputtered and died. The sun set behind a purple line of mountains.

“Well she wants to go.”

We turned off the cabin lights to conserve battery. The only light on was in the engine room, illuminated from below like light shining out of a crypt. Despite the swearing, I felt only a curious calm, bobbing on our becalmed boat in the purple twilight. Being of absolutely no assistance, I simply put trust in these two men and their twangy, brusque engine room talk. I thought about dinner but decided it improper to eat in the moment.

They bled off the engine and started her up again. We turned our heading back to the northeast.

Twenty minutes later the engine stopped dead. Richard came flying out the aft cabin. “That did not sound good!” he rumbled.

They went below again, this time with the manual. At last, a long, bubbling hiss of air released from the lines — the air gap that had suffocated our engine. This time, she turned over with a roar.

Mike washed the diesel off his hands. “Thank goodness for good weather, because my rates go up tremendously when it’s rough.”

Richard replied, “Mine too.” We steered the boat into the northerly swell and motored into the velvet night.

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