Engine Problems in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

This might have been the first time I knew real fear. We were having engine problems in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 4 foot ocean rollers and no wind. Our engine power was dropping randomly, and at this point I had no clue why.

I’m not a person who frightens easily. Rock climbing, mountaineering, auto racing on a track, roller coasters – those things I would hardly even call scary. The only two things I’ve ever really found scary were skydiving and spelunking (caving, but in a random cave in PA where we crawled through tiny shoulder-width passages and the fear of getting trapped was very real).

But with our engine acting up in the Strait and no wind to sail, I began to realize how truly on our own we were. There was no easy rescue. If our engine completely failed we’d be stuck doing 360’s in ocean waves getting seasick for maybe hours before we could get Vessel Assist or a Coast Guard tow.

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If you’ve never been out the Strait of Juan de Fuca before, the first thing you need to know about it is that it’s much bigger and more remote than you probably realize. In the whole day we hadn’t seen any other sailboats until the last hour, and there aren’t many safe anchorages you can pull into if something goes wrong.

Our lives weren’t in any danger. This wasn’t a real crisis compared to the life or death situations some sailors have been through. Yet it was still scary.

With time to think, and a quick check of the engine troubleshooting table in the Don Casey book, it was pretty clear it was probably a clogged fuel filter. But, I couldn’t help worry about all the other things it could maybe be – what if this was some weird, hard to fix issue rather than the fuel filter? What if the engine was actually overheating and our temperature alarm was broken? What if the fuel lift pump was broken? An air leak in the fuel lines? Would we continue on to the outside of Vancouver Island only to find the engine failing again in an even more remote location?

Limping into Neah Bay

We shut down the engine and I did an inspection. With the lack of wind and the 4’ rollers, the boat quickly turned beam to the waves, which made below decks work fairly seasickness inducing.

I really didn’t want to try changing the fuel filter at sea. We restarted the engine, and were able to get it to run fine at a low cruising rpm (1800-1900). We slowly motored the last hour into Neah Bay.

Maybe it was our engine problems, or the gray chilly weather, but we found Neah Bay very glum and depressing

Maybe it was our engine problems, or the gray chilly weather, but we found Neah Bay very glum and depressing

As I motored towards a dilapidated-looking unattended fuel dock, the engine died. Bad timing. Restart engine, died again. Ugh! Okay, what now? We’re 100 feet from the fuel dock, in 15 knots of wind (blowing off dock/land fortunately), gray overcast skies with a gloomy early darkness approaching.

We quickly raise the main halfway, and decide to sail onto anchor. That works surprisingly well. The most stressful part was making sure we got the anchor well set on the first try, since I didn’t want to have to do it all over again. Plus we only had the wind to set / test the anchor, and I didn’t want us blowing onto the rock jetty across the harbor in the middle of the night.

Fixing The Problem

We had 15-20 knot winds in the anchorage all night, which coupled with worrying about the engine and the anchor holding, made for a restless night.

Fortunately the primary fuel filter (a Racor) was the problem, and replacing it with one of the two spares I had fixed the issue. But I was still paranoid maybe that wasn’t truly the cause, or maybe there was another secondary problem. I replaced the Yanmar fuel filter (on engine) too just in case.

In a way I felt stupid worrying so much about a fuel filter clog. Fuel filter clogs are mundane, routine stuff for people who cruise in Mexico and other areas with dirty fuel. But this was the first time Violet Hour had really let us down (in reality it was Yamagachi, the name we gave our engine, who let us down). And I had realized how truly dependent we were on engine power when in a strait with no wind.

The Lovely Smell of Diesel in the Morning

The fun wasn’t over yet though – the secondary filter (on the Yanmar) leaked fuel for the next four days. So I was mopping up diesel from the bilge and under floor panels every evening.

Yeah, this first week was pretty tough.

The Yanmar fuel filter has a metal collar with slightly raised nubs and screws on to attach the filter housing. Fuel was slowly leaking from here whenever the engine was on. I tried tightening it as much as possible by hand, and eventually with a ViseGrip wrench (that was the only thing I could get a decent grip on it with). That still didn’t fix it. Eventually I tried replacing the rubber gasket inside the housing, even though it looked fine, with a spare I had onboard (fortunately). That worked!

Marinating chicken in the cockpit since the swell in the Strait was too rolly to work below.

Marinating chicken in the cockpit since the swell in the Strait was too rolly to work below.

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3 thoughts on “Engine Problems in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

  1. Jack

    You can install a vacumn gauge between the Racor filter, and the Yanmar filter it will give you a heads up that the filter is picking up stuff. Just T the fitting in the fuel line, run a rubber vacumn line to a place you can easily see it, near the engine instruments…easypeezy..

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    1. Patrick Post author

      Indeed, a vacuum gauge is on my list now! I actually considered replacing the filter as routine maintenance in my pre-trip projects, but decided not to because it looked relatively new, we’d never had water in the bowl, and I thought our fuel was pretty clean.

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