Sunday, March 20, 2011

Perky's Eulogy

It is with heavy heart that I report Perky’s passing.  I didn’t go down like I had envisioned – just a puff of smoke at the start, the slow rumble and gentle mechanical tapping of an easy 1800 RPM fading off into the setting sun.  The real ending couldn’t have been further from the dream.

Diesel engines of this vintage are built wickedly heavy and like the rest of El Tiburon – solid as a brick shit house.  Properly maintained, they will give decades of reliable service, and only require three basic necessities – clean air, clean fuel and clean oil.  And even these simple demands are sometime negotiable for short periods of time - rarely causing permanent damage. 

So which part of the bargain did we fail to meet?  Oil.

And when I say oil, I’m not talking about dirty oil, low oil, old oil, or generic, no-name oil.  I’m talking about NO oil.

I know many of you are cringing while you read this, knowing the inevitable outcome.  But it’s true.  We ran her out of oil – totally bone dry.  She tried her best to keep turning over, but in the end, she couldn’t overcome her own internal friction, and ground to a definitive halt.

How it happened is pretty straightforward, and will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to future boaters – or anyone else who happens to drive a car, run a lawn mower or any other device that’s powered by internal combustion.  We had just finished transiting the Panama Canal (with Vince and Marge!), arriving on the Atlantic side for the first time in the life of El Tiburon.  Getting ready to leave Panama for Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula would be a pretty routine operation.  Just another run to the supermercado for groceries, a topping of the tanks with diesel fuel and lastly, a routine oil change.  During oil changes, it’s standard practice to swap a new oil filter for the old one.  This is a very easy thing to do and takes just a few minutes.   Simply unscrew the old one from the engine block, and screw on a new one.  The oil filter makes a seal with the engine on a smoothed metal surface with a rubber gasket in between.  Each oil filter comes out of the box with a new gasket standing at the ready.  Unfortunately, when the old filter was removed and thrown away, the old gasket hung in place on the engine block like a stowaway.  Doesn’t sound too sinister, does it?

When the new filter was installed and screwed home, we now had not one, but TWO gaskets between the engine and the filter.  By now, most of you have figured out the rest of the story – it was leak city.   The oil pressure generated by the running engine pushed all the oil between those 2 gaskets, and right into the bilge.  Should this have happened to a car, the problem would gave been quite obvious, spilling oil all over the ground.  All mechanics know that the last thing you do after an oil change is to run the engine and look for any signs of leaks.  Engines do not like to lose their oil.
In Perky’s case, she lives under the cabin sole and does most of her work in the darkness of the bilge.  Unless someone takes the effort to lift the floorboards and aim a flashlight underneath the engine and peer into the dark confines of the bilge, a leak will go completely unnoticed.  Furthermore, it’s especially difficult to spot “new” oil in the black bilge of a chronic oil leaker like Perky.  As it turns out, it’s not just our Perky that leaks oil, but nearly every one of the thousands of vintage Perkins diesel engines running today.

Where Perky actually died, you already know from April's post.  I will tell you it was a hair raising experience.

Options regarding what to do with Perky, and El Tiburon ran the gamut from – replace the engine with a new one shipped from the States, find a locally rebuilt engine, or rebuild Perky here, in Panama.  The first two options seemed very expensive, and rebuilding Perky locally seemed out of the question once we started inquiring with our sailing neighbors in the marina.  It seemed that reliable, quality diesel boat mechanics in Panama were rare to mythological.  Of course, finding a good mechanic in Panama would not be too difficult, but finding one to leave the shop and come to your boat is another story altogether.  

After mulling over the choices, it occurred to us that we had yet another option for getting back to the States - sail El Tiburon back to the Florida without any engine at all!  How romantic we thought.  Sailing as they had done for centuries, without the use of internal combustion.  Just the stars above, a gentle breeze pushing us along and the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean.  After a check of the weather and some discussions with other sailors in the marina - our romantic vision imploded.  The reality would be more like 20-30+ knot winds, 12 foot waves coming from every direction and reefy lee shores trying their best to suck us to a watery grave.  Basically, it would be a suicide mission.  Or, as April’s father put it – “the next episode of ‘Jack Ass’!”

Just when we were about to give up hope for a local, reliable, timely and not prohibitively expensive solution, we stumbled onto Kenny Breazeale, and expat from Mississippi and self-proclaimed red neck who grew up building hot rod cars in the south.  Yes, we’re talking NASCAR country.  The land where parents are thoughtful enough to bless boys with two first names, or at the very least, put a ‘y’ at the end.  Kenny has rebuilt several marine diesel engines in Panama and knows the one machine shop in the country that would be up to the task.  And best of all, he doesn’t mind having us do all the work while he periodically checks in to see how we’re progressing.  This is the way Team Tiburon likes to roll with big projects – just the right amount of supervision to keep us on track and away from pitfalls.

Perky will live again!  Step #1 – get Perky off the boat and deliver her to the machine shop in Panama City.  Question #1 - how to move a 450 pound engine from the depths of the bilge, into the cabin, out the companionway, over the rail and onto the dock?

Since pictures say it much better, I’m going to send you now to a slideshow presentation.

All the best to you and stay tuned.  Team Tiburon will ride again!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Perky Strikes Back

We spent two days in Shelter Bay marina during which we prepared for our passage to Grand Cayman by provisioning the boat, analyzing weather patterns, and discussing our defense strategy should we be approached by pirates (of the Caribbean). The general consensus at the marina is that it is better to not have any firearms onboard, and to just give the intruders anything they ask for – with a smile on your face, if possible. Apparently it is not uncommon for men to approach your vessel in fishing pangas when miles and miles off shore, simply to ask for water or food. It would certainly be a tragedy to overreact with a weapon in such a case.

Armed with food, water, and a flare gun, we began our first endeavor into Caribbean waters with a stop at the fuel dock. The wind was blowing a nice 10 knots in the marina, so we knew the conditions were good for sailing, if less than ideal for pulling out of our slip. El Tiburon had been parked in the innermost slip, right next to the concrete wall of the marina’s male├žon. Extracting her from her slip meant backing up into the wind far enough so that her bow would clear the stern of our neighbor’s boat when we made a forward left turn, but not so far as to ram El Tiburon’s stern into the concrete wall behind us.

It was dicey, but with the help of many pairs of hands pushing off various parts of the boat, we managed to get her out without any serious damage. Over at the fuel dock, the adrenaline level sank back to normal while we filled our tanks and changed the fuel filter. We like to take good care of Perky (our Perkins 4.108) because she takes care of us, and because we blamed her for our power problem for so long when it was really the prop’s fault the whole time.

With everyone calm and ready to go, El Tiburon headed out into the channel and into the mouth of the Panama Canal. The wind picked up to 15-20 knots as we left Shelter Bay and we could see waves lapping at the hulls of the anchored tankers waiting to transit. We were pulling our fenders in when from the helm Luke called, “Guys, we have a problem.” Perky was losing power - fast. There was something seriously wrong.

Luke turned the engine off while Andrew and John ran to the bow to throw out the anchor. We weren’t out of the channel yet and with the wind still blowing as it was, our major concern was running aground. A palm tree lined white sand beach lay about a hundred yards to our starboard side, but a reef protruded about sixty yards out into the water in front of it.

The bottom of the channel is mud, so our anchor dragged a bit before it finally took hold – about thirty yards away from the reef. Once the anchor was secured the guys began to investigate our loss of power. The bilge was full of oil and the problem was not hard to figure out. There’d been an oil leak and the engine had at least partially seized. An engine does not recover from a seizure without professional help and a trip to the hospital.

The source of the leak was quickly determined. The fuel filter is shaped like a coffee can, with a gasket on the bottom end where it fits into the engine. When the old filter was removed, the gasket came off and stuck to the engine and then a new filter was attached on top of the old one. The two gaskets together didn’t form a seal, and all the oil went out into the bilge instead of into the engine. With no oil to lubricate the engine’s moving parts, friction increased and power decreased – quickly and dramatically.

If we were to continue with our trip as planned, our only hope was that the engine had only seized partially, and that by replacing the oil we might be able get it moving again. The engine was too hot to work on so we snacked on cheese and crackers in the cockpit and discussed the possibilities while we waited for it to cool down. A military boat came by to tell us we couldn’t anchor in the channel (duh!) but didn’t offer to help us move when we told them of our problem. We were just outside of the buoys, which meant we weren’t right out in the center of traffic, but close enough to get pounded by the wakes of the big boats that were passing through.

About an hour later the engine was cool enough to work on and we threw all our extra oil at it. We turned the starter and it made a terrible screeching noise, but the engine at least had some life left. The guys added some more oil to the air intake and turned the main house bank breaker over to the engine to give the starter some more cranking power. We tried the starter again. It still sounded like it was going to hack up a lung. Perky was in bad shape. We radioed the marina to call for a tow, but were told the tow guys were busy and we’d have to wait for help.

Just as the floorboards were about to go back down, Andrew ran up to the cockpit and said, “I’m just going to give it one last try.” Peering down the companionway, Andrew turned the key while John and Luke watched the engine from the galley. It chugged and heaved (“I think I can, I think I can!”) and sounded like it might break free. Our eyes flew open and locked with each other in a wide-eyed gaze of surprise and anticipation. Finally, the engine caught and Perky was humming again. Andrew let go of the key and threw his fists up in a triumphant V. Victory!

We let her run for a while to make sure she wasn’t going to die on us before we hauled the anchor. Perky sounded great and seemed to have made a full recovery. All our extra oil had been used in bringing her back to life and we knew we might need more during our passage, so we decided to go back to the marina to pick some up. Motoring back to the dock posed no problem and we were relieved that we’d be able to continue the trip as planned.

Twenty minutes later we were motoring back out into the channel when we lost power again, and in the exact same place. Again we threw out our anchor but this time it took longer to hold. We dragged closer and closer to the reef, while I pumped furiously at our inflatable dinghy and the guys got the outboard motor out of the lazarette. We radioed for help. There was no time for talking as we all rushed to take the necessary steps to ensure our boat didn’t get smashed on the reef.

El Tiburon stopped drifting about a boat length away from the waves breaking on the reef – much too close for comfort. Rick and Marsha from She Wolf heard our call for help on the radio and arrived in their dinghy just as we were getting ours into the water. With a bow line and a stern line, we tied the dinghies to either side of El Tiburon at midships. Instructions were yelled back and forth for immediacy and also in order to be heard over the wind. When both dinghies were secured, they revved their engines at the same time. Relief washed over us as the distance between El Tiburon and the reef increased. Slowly we moved back to the marina and to safety, and eased into the closest available slip under dinghy power alone.

Later inspection of the engine would prove that the damage was terminal. Holding a stethoscope against the oil pan revealed a loud rattling noise that indicated the bearings were toast, and the oil filter was full of sparkly little metal flakes (pieces that had been scraped off the engine parts during that terrible screeching noise). Perky would have to be rebuilt or replaced. We wouldn’t be going to Grand Cayman anytime soon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Transiting the Panama Canal

At 5AM on February 14th, everyone aboard El Tiburon was awake and excited. John’s parents, Vince and Margie, arrived with their luggage in tow, planning to get in a cab and make a flight home just as soon as we tied up on the Caribbean side of Panama. Our line-handler, Ricardo, arrived with his shoulders laden with yards and yards of rope for us to use during our transit. It was still dark out as we motored out of marina Flamenco and over to buoy #3 outside the entrance to the canal. We watched the sunrise and drank Pete’s coffee as we waited for our canal advisor to arrive. Soon a tugboat with a black rubber rim approached us and nuzzled up to our stern. Our canal advisor, Julio, hopped aboard and we headed over towards the Bridge of the Americas, which marks the entrance to the canal.

Vince at the helm passing under the Bridge of the Americas

Transiting the Panama Canal is serious business. One must follow all the requisite procedures and be punctual for all appointments in order to pass through, and no guarantees can be made about whether it will take you one day or two to get to the Caribbean. Big ships transiting the canal pay from $100,000 to $400,000 or more to transit, whereas it only costs a few thousand for a sailing yacht. As a result, getting sailboats through the canal is not top priority for the Canal Authority – tankers come first. As far as I know sailboats never go through the locks alone. They will usually go through with a big ship that is not quite as long as the length of each lock, so there is room for a sailboat to fit in there with it. Before we went through Miraflores locks we had to wait for our buddy ship to arrive and pass us, then we ducked into line behind it.

We had to wait here for our buddy ship

Slowly the tanker in front of us pulled into the narrow lock while a tugboat pushed on its stern to help it get in straight. It moved very slowly and nudged up close to the forward gate of the lock.


Once the tanker was secured with lines, the tugboat tied up to the side of the lock behind the tanker and waited for us.



We motored up to the tugboat and threw them our lines: a bow line, a stern line, and one amidships. Our port and starboard beams were heavy with big white fenders to protect our hull from damage. Once we were secured alongside the tugboat, an alarm sounded and the powerful steel gates behind us began to close.

Slowly the water level began to rise. In ten minutes the concrete walls had disappeared and we were level with the ground.



When the front gate opened, the tanker started its engine and began to move forward into the next lock.

This was the scariest part of transiting the canal. We were in a narrow concrete channel and caught in the prop wash of a huge ship. The tugboat threw back our lines and moved ahead, resuming the same position behind the tanker in the next lock. Somehow John managed to keep control of El Tiburon and we reached the tugboat safely. We repeated the process, this time in front of the observation building we had visited just a few days earlier.


We watched a ship pass through the canal from this observatory just a few days earlier


After the first few locks we motored through a narrow channel on our way towards Gatun Lake. Margie and I made lunch for the crew: pan-seared Dorado (we’d caught it on our way into Panama Bay), rice and steamed broccoli. We were trying to make good time while we motored, because we had to make our appointment to transit the Gatun locks on the other side of the lake. Our transit time had been calculated based on a speed of 5 1/2 knots so we were watching our knot meter and aiming for 6kts. But disappointingly, Julio got a call from the canal authority during lunch and they told us there was too much traffic coming from the Caribbean so they were going to close Gatun locks to northbound traffic until morning. We would have to spend the night in the lake. I went down below and made some chocolate chip cookies that I hoped would cheer everyone up.

Untouched jungle covered the islands and the shore surrounding us in Gatun lake, and a nice stiff wind rippled over the water. Another call from the canal authority was cause for some hope. If we could make it to Gatun locks by the time the last ship was ready to leave, then we could go through with them. We hoisted our sails flew across the water at 7 ½ - 8 knots, close to record speed for us. How nice it was to sail on a lake! There was no swell or chop to distract us from our objective, and our enthusiasm had been rekindled.

John at the helm sailing on Gatun lake

Ricardo and Julio monitoring our speed

As we approached the locks we were required to turn into the wind and our forward progress was seriously impeded. From a distance we watched our buddy ship approach the lock as we labored at four knots to catch up. We were encouraged to remember that it takes a long time to position such a large tanker in the narrow lock. Very slowly the ship moved forward into the necessary position and we got closer and closer. At about ten minutes away we were sure we would make it and were already rejoicing at the accomplishment of completing the canal in one day. But then Julio got another call. The lines on the tanker were secured and the gates were ready to close. We would not be able to go through with the tanker, even though we were only a few minutes away. The Panama Canal waits for no man.

This is how close we came to making it through the canal in one day

We made a 90 degree turn and headed for some mooring balls near the shore. A canal boat came to pick up Julio, but the rest of us weren’t allowed to leave the boat, except to jump into the water for a swim. However, even that was discouraged due to the presence of a large male crocodile known to hang out in those waters. John jumped in for a dip anyway.

We had roasted chicken with coleslaw and rice for dinner, then settled into our beds and went to sleep. A new advisor was delivered to us in the morning and we made it through Gatun lock without a hitch.

Going through Gatun locks and our first glimpse of the Caribbean

After exiting the canal we motored into Shelter Bay Marina, on the other side of the canal from Colon, to fill up our water tanks and rest for a few days before we would set sail for Grand Cayman.