Unscheduled Return

I’d much rather write about the adventures of a new voyage, first impressions from a new port or about new people we’ve just met… Unfortunately I have to admit that we are still in Kudat and it seems that we will have to stay here at least for another two to three weeks. The reason is simple. Have a look at the following picture and guess for yourself…

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Those of you, who recognized, that the neatly wrapped pile on the pontoon is actually our faithful, yet slightly problematic engine, were right. Ironically, there’s nothing wrong with the engine itself, the problems are the same as they were four years ago – the installation of the engine inside the boat.

Some five years ago, when we were trying to buy our boat and were negotiating price with the previous owner, one of his main arguments (apart from the famous pedigree of our boat) was the fact, that though the boat itself was 40 years old, it had a brand new engine. There were only some 70 engine hours on the cockpit dial. A quick internet search revealed that a new Volvo Penta D1-30 including installation would cost us somewhere between ten to fifteen thousand US dollars. What a bargain! And so we negotiated some more and finally Janna was ours. Not only did we get a boat with excellent reputation but also with an almost unused engine. At that time we were still new to boats and busy devouring all the information available about sailing, repairing and boat maintenance. We sure were glad that we could put diesel engine repairs off for some time. At least that’s what we hoped for.

Yet to be one hundred percent sure, before we left Singapore to Langkawi, we invited “experts” from Volvo Penta to check our engine and see if everything was shipshape. After what today in retrospect seems like quite a scamp, they declared the engine perfectly sound. Unfortunately not long after we cast off, it turned out, that it was not that sound after all. The engine was not properly aligned with the propeller shaft, which of course caused nasty vibrations. Soon the nuts started to loosen and fell down to the engine bed, sometimes together with the bolts. We traced the missing bolts, put everything back only to find a snapped bolt an hour later. And then we noticed that the shaft was held in place by only two out of the original four bolts, not to mention that one of them was snapped inside. Today we would probably go back to Singapore right after we found the first nuts and bolts, probably wouldn’t even leave with such obvious vibrations in the first place, but back then we were quit ignorant and could only guess what was causing all the problems. To make the matters even worse, on the third day one of the engine mounts broke!

We had to make an emergency stop in the nearest port, which was either Lumut of Port Klang. Port Klang is a big commercial port with lots of traffic – not a place to mess in with a broken engine. We read about Lumut in Serrafyn’s Oriental Advantures by Lin Pardey. She spoke very nicely about the place and so that’s where we went. Luckily it was in this small port, that we found allegedly the best diesel mechanic in whole Malaysia, a Chinese guy called Mike. Apart from the broken engine mount, a more thorough inspection revealed that the disc at the end of the gear box, which also connects the gearbox to the rest of the engine, is also cracked. Mike and his boss got us new engine mounts and had a new disc machined and welded to the gearbox. Then the engine was put back into the engine room, aligned with the shaft and new holes were drilled for the new mounts. The sea trials that followed were also successful, but Mike warned us that this current installation – the engine was directly screwed to the fiberglass bed (usually there is a piece of steel glassed inside the bed with threads to which the engine is bolted) – is wrong and sooner or later we would have to face the dirty work of rebuilding the engine bed.

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Since then we nevertheless didn’t have any problems with engine mounts or vibrations. The mounts rusted a bit, but a regular spraying with WD-40 followed by a good scrub with the wire brush kept them in acceptable condition. From time to time we would tighten the engine mount screws and that was it. However, during our voyage from Puerto Princesa we noticed that every few seconds the engine shakes slightly. It was nothing major, but while we were waiting for favorable weather before departing Kudat, we decided to check the engine-shaft alignment just to be sure everything is fine. It did seem a bit out of place, so we corrected the error and retighten the mounts. Unfortunately at least two of the screws couldn’t be properly tightened anymore. Still we hoped the current installation would last some more, at least until we get to Langkawi, where we plan to haul-out. We started the engine, put it into gear several times and watched for any irregular vibrations. Everything seemed ok. Hurray! Now it was all about the suitable weather.

According to grib files it looked like we might be able to leave Kudat on Monday. But on Monday the weather was not good and so our departure was postponed for a day. On Tuesday we were woken up by the sounds of rain drops battering against the coach roof and wind whistling in the rigging of neighboring boats. Finally on Wednesday the weather conditions were ideal. The alarm clock was set for 5 am and after quick breakfast of fresh bread with peanut butter and jam, we quietly sneaked out of the Kudat marina – if something like quiet departure is possible while you have the engine running…

There was only little wind and so we only hoisted the mainsail and kept motoring. Of course once underway we immediately checked the alignment and the shaft for any suspicious vibrations. Everything looked just fine. We passed a few fishermen, sailed through a flock of swallows, that were feverishly clapping their beaks – must have been trying to catch some tiny insects – and enjoyed the pleasant rocking as Janna swayed on a gentle swell. We were making nice 5 knots and expected to cross the Tip of Borneo within two hours. We were curious what conditions await us there, “round the corner” so to speak. Right now we were still protected by the shade of Borneo, but once you cross over the Tip, you and your boat are at the mercy of the monsoon winds and associated currents.

After approximately one hour Petr looked again into the engine room. I was out in the cockpit.

“Shit!” The tone of his voice wasn’t a good sign.

“What’s going on? Give me only the good news!”

“It’s completely off again and the shaft wobbles like crazy. Here, take a look. We can’t go anywhere like this!”

Before we left Kudat, we were prepared for lost of alternatives (maybe we would have to return because of the powerful currents or strong winds) but not for this. For the last two weeks we desperately waited for a suitable weather window to cross the Tip of Borneo and now after only one hour, we had to turn back… Needless to say, both of us were more than dissapointed. We quickly switched off the engine and hoisted the sails. Luckily there was some wind after all, so at least we had a beautiful sail back arriving to the marina just in time for lunch. Our friends greeted us with confused expressions on their faces: such nice weather, why are they back?

“We forgot to return the toilet keys!” We tried to joke about the whole situation, but in truth we felt a bit down.

We spent the next two days dismantling the engine. First we disconnected all the hoses and wires. After plentiful spraying with WD-40 and several trips to the hardware store to buy yet some more socket wrenches, that we still lacked, we finally managed to unscrew the old mounts. The last step was to lift the engine out of the boat.

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We modified the mainsheet into a tackle and using the boom and one of the cockpit winches first lifted the engine into the cockpit. There is a protruding oil pan at the bottom of the engine and we didn’t want the engine to sit on it. So we hopped on our bikes and cycled to the boatyard to ask for two suitable pieces of timber. Back aboard we lifted the engine on the boom again and swung it onto the pontoon. Janna heeled a bit as we carefully lowered the engine onto the timber from the boatyard. Finally we adjusted the height of the engine mounts, so that the engine wouldn’t fall into the water. That would be the last thing we needed!

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Actually the whole process of lifting the engine out of the boat turned out to be much easier than we originally expected. Thanks to the tackle and the ingenious laws of physics, hoisting the 130 kilos our engine weighs was truly a child’s play. While I lifted the engine, Petr controlled its movements using another rope and tried to prevent the engine from swinging too violently on the boom. Before we moved the engine from the cockpit onto the pontoon, we asked our friend Dave to assist us just in case, but we could have easily managed only by ourselves…

Though we were really disappointed, that we had to return back to Kudat, in the end it turned out that it was all for good. In order to get the engine out of the boat more easily, we had to also disconnect the gearbox and when we did, we found small pieces of some black rubber around one of the bolts. First we thought maybe the mechanics in Lumut somehow forgot some rubber inside the engine but that seemed odd, so out went the Volvo Penta Parts Catalog. A preliminary search revealed that the rubber could come from a part called damping plate between the gearbox and the flywheel. After consulting Tony, who admittedly worked his whole life as an auditor, but is extremely knowledgeable and is one of the technical gurus in the marina, Petr took the screwdriver and soon the damping plate of out. Unfortunately our diagnosis proved to be right. The rubber in the center of the plate was all deformed an out of place. We shook our heads at the sight of it, wondering how that might have happened, when it suddenly dawned on us. It must be yet another remnant of the incident that happened four years ago, when one of the mounts broke and the vibrations also caused the disc on the gearbox to snap. The rubber might easily have deformed back then or disintegrated way faster because of it. We dreaded the cost of a new damping plate, but on the other hand were glad that we found the problem before something far more serious happened. Once again it turned out that there’s always a silver lining behind every cloud. Sigh.

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Currently we are shopping for new mounts and some stainless steel to modify the engine bed. Maybe we will have to put the engine more forward towards the center of the boat, in which case we would have to also get a new shaft… And so it’s another two or three weeks for us in Kudat. At least… Luckily the marina is for free and nobody minds that we have the engine temporarily stored right on the pontoon next to our boat. I guess in a posh marina, they wouldn’t be so understanding. Plus when we finally leave here, it will probably be the north-east monsoon blowing already and so for once we will actually sail with the wind and not against it!

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