Gulf Stream Crossing: take 2

DSC_2170We wrapped up our last Ariose Note as we were bobbing in the Atlantic off the Florida coast about to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, with our usually reliable diesel engine sounding like it was taking its dying breath. As Tim and I trouble-shooted (troubleshot?) together, both of us had an ominous feeling in our gut as we thought back to fuelling up at the marina earlier that day.

When handed a blue-handled nozzle, we questioned it because all diesel pumps we have been served at have always been green. The dockhand showed us on the pump that the label did indicate it was indeed diesel. When clear liquid came out rather than the usual pink-colour of marine diesel, we stopped immediately, and expressed concern again that this wasn’t diesel. The dockhand did go check with management, and returned to explain that they had serviced the pumps that day, the Department of Agriculture had inspected and confirmed all was well, and that it was indeed diesel. We had also recently been told by a fellow cruiser that the colorant is put in to distinguish diesel for marine use for taxation purposes, and he has safely used uncoloured diesel in his boat. Nevertheless, it seemed strange. Tim’s usually sensitive sniffer couldn’t distinguish the difference, especially with the fuel intake open and fumes from the diesel already in the tank masking other odours. We have no idea when the colouring is added, so naively surmised that since we were first to draw from this recently serviced pump, the colorant had probably not yet mixed through. We proceeded. Where’s a bit of hindsight when you need it?

Night passage trouble-shooting efforts underway.

Later we learned that the signage on the pump had been removed in servicing. When replaced, the front & rear signs were mixed up, resulting in arrows pointing in the wrong direction. The “diesel” sign pointed to the gas, and vice versa. So our precious, previously completely reliable, 3GM30F Yanmar had 1/2 a tank of gasoline added to the existing 1/2 tank of diesel. It ran for approximately 8 hours on this mix, labouring for much of that time before stopping completely. A simple mistake with serious consequences. We’ll get to those in a moment.

Photos: [TOP] Green nozzle with correct “diesel to the left” signage & [BOTTOM] the inverted sign as it looked when we fuelled, erroneously showing diesel to the right. 🙁

We’re not beating ourselves up too much about accepting this fuel. Our lack of experience is certainly one factor. Needless to say, we now have more of that.  We were really excited about our upcoming Gulf Crossing, and eager to get going. Topping up our fuel was the last item on our departure check-list. We were at the fuel dock of a posh marina, serving multi-million dollar yachts, so had a measure of trust in them that we wouldn’t necessarily have had at another facility. Did I mention we were eager to get going?

So, back to me emerging from the cabin to find that our engine was dying. It was really, really hot, so we turned it off, and decided on next steps. Tim changed both filters, hoping that would help. We drifted north while he worked, then raised sail. We have nowhere near the skill level to be able to sail into the tight harbour of Lake Worth Inlet. Thankfully, we (i.e. Tim!) were able to get the engine going again, so limped back into the usually frenzied inlet – oddly quite at 2:30am – with the motor repeatedly failing then reluctantly starting, offering less and less power each time. We returned to the offending marina, with a high-stress under-powered docking narrowly avoiding collision with a rather large (i.e. expensive) yacht tied ahead of us. We secured Ariose and fell into a well-deserved sleep.

Early the next morning, we heard footsteps on our dock, and a voice urgently exclaiming “They’re here! They’re here!”. We emerged to find yesterday’s dockhand, his face a mix of extreme distress and relief, on the phone pacing back and forth. He showered us with heartfelt apologies. Within minutes, the Harbourmaster arrived and also owned up to the mistakes made, offering a sincere promise to do what was needed to make things right.

Feeling grounded at Lake Worth.

It took about 5 days for that to happen, allowing us lots of time to research. So, what about the consequences? If you’re familiar with diesel engines, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. In the last week, I have learned far more about diesels than I ever cared to know, although Tim’s in no danger of being bumped from his on-board mechanical expert role. Gas is really volatile, and in fact, in gas engines, the gas and air mix is ignited by sparks, and the resulting explosions in the cylinders provide the power. Diesel is hard to burn even if you try, which is why it’s a much safer option in boats. The air is compressed first to raise the temperature to then allow the fuel to ignite. Gas is a solvent, diesel is a lubricant, and that lubricant is critical to the engine’s functioning. Needless to say, with even small amounts of gas in a diesel engine, if it doesn’t cause a catastrophic explosion or fire (that possibility was a terrifying thought!), the lowered flash point will cause the fuel to prematurely ignite, and that’s not a good thing. Insufficient lubrication adds to the potential damage by scoring parts like cylinder walls causing bits of metal to wreak havoc. I may not fully grasp my new-found knowledge, but I fully understood that this may have completely messed up our engine.

Google, as usual, gave us conflicting information on whether the damage could be repaired (i.e. clean lines, replace fuel injectors, etc.) or if we needed a new engine. Obviously, we need to be able to rely on our engine Either way, we didn’t like the options. A repaired engine would leave us wondering about ‘down the road’ issues and a new engine could bring with it added complication with computer-controlled devices. Our old Yanmar was simple and described by the dealer  “as reliable as a Timex”. We like our oldie, simple engine that Tim is able to work on and are concerned if we go with a new engine, it will be beyond our layperson ability to service.  Thankfully, the gas didn’t cause an onboard fire, but our posting of this incident online to learn from others did ignite some explosive debate: “Your engine is toast – don’t settle for anything less than new”; “What the last poster said about knock in your engine is bunk”; “Get an honest-to-god lawyer working for you!”; “It’s not often you see the words ‘honest’ or ‘god’ referring to lawyers!”; detailed step-by-step instructions on diagnosing and repairing damage that provided good information (but we were waiting for a marina-funded, certified mechanic to tackle it); “Older Yanmars are hardy – just clean it out and it will probably be fine”; and on and on. We hoped that last poster was right!

You again?

With each “adventure” we experience along the way, I feel a shift in my core. Tim’s always been a roll-with-the-situation kind of guy when it comes to mechanical challenges or dealing with nature’s challenges (a little less resilient with other issues though!). I always try to see silver lining in the curves life throws us, knowing the importance of maintaining optimism, and framing situations in a positive light. What I’m finding is that acceptance and optimism seem to require less and less effort. It just seems obvious. Yes, we were once again “grounded”, but this time in relative comfort at a beautiful marina, just steps away from washroom/shower facilities. An island park was just a short row away, giving us a chance to enjoy some of our down-time at the beach. Fellow cruisers, Rose & Joe, from Hamilton Ontario were also at the marina, so we enjoyed get togethers with them. And a local juvenile pelican visited us several times a day as curious about us as we were about it. All was well, and one way or another, we would move on from this set-back.

Five days later, the tank was pumped and cleaned out, a Yanmar certified diesel mechanic gave it a good look over, bleeding the lines. A test run with the mechanic revealed no suspicious sounds. All seemed well and we had a Gulf Stream crossing weather window the very next day. Not without some reservations, we decided to go for it. We would motor down the coast for many hours to give our engine an opportunity to show any problems if they existed, then if all was well, we would say good-bye to the US. If all wasn’t well, we’d return. We had the marina’s assurance that they would pay for a return tow if necessary.

An apologetic 2nd bon voyage from our Dockhand.
Correct nozzle? Check. Correct fuel? Check. Ready to go.

At noon, we fuelled up on the marina’s dime. We laughed as the dockhand squirted some fuel out first to verify that it was in fact diesel. The signage on the pump has been secured so that it can’t be removed, and staff training has already been enhanced to mitigate the chance of this kind of error happening again.

Florida coastline receding, again!

A couple hours in, a strong smell revealed diesel in our bilge. Tim easily located and fixed the leak. An injector line hadn’t been properly tightened after bleeding out the gas the previous day. The engine also felt like it was overheating. We tracked down the mechanic by phone, and in consulting with him, confirmed what Tim had figured. The excessive heat from running on gas likely damaged the engine thermostat, so it wasn’t signalling for proper amounts of coolant. Tim did a great job in provisioning spare parts for this journey, and sure enough, we had another thermostat. He replaced it, and that seemed to do the trick. We motored uneventfully another few hours, restoring our confidence in the motor sufficiently so that at 8pm, we turned east, and out to the Gulf Stream. It was a long night, with the conditions not being as ideal as promised, but we survived the rolling seas, and as dawn broke, we saw the unmistakable outline of the Bahamas ahead, right where they should be. By 10am, we were there, with a posse of Canadians welcoming us with congratulatory hugs!

Success! West End, Grand Bahama.

So, what have we learned? We’ve learned to trust in ourselves but not always; to trust in others but not always; to trust in technology, well, most of the time anyways. One of my colleagues, Clark, would often coach our management team in “trusting but verifying”. Maybe that’s the lesson. If mistakes provide the most powerful learning opportunities, we are on our way to being really brilliant!

Now, we’re docked at a charming little resort-based marina at West End, Grand Bahama Island. In the next day or two, we will sail over to the Abaco islands. We intend to find an uninhabited bit of remote paradise where we will drop our hook and enjoy. We’ve bombarded Ariose Notes with posts over the last few days, but rest assured, we expect it will be a lovely long gap before you hear from us again. And that’s a good thing!

18 thoughts on “Gulf Stream Crossing: take 2”

  1. I’m speechless about the diesel pump mix-up, really happy for you that you’re in Bahamas. However then I also read that Shirley had to go back to Canada – that was scary – and infused with resilience and positivity. You guys are amazing. Love the photos and it’s really great what you’re writing and the thoughtful way you’re writing it and framing the adventures. You’re referred to as ‘kids’ by some others, that’s funny. And the implied possibility is you might enjoy this enough to do it for 20 years. If so, I will visit, probably by plane, and boat for the last mile 🙂 !

    I found your blog by Shirley commenting on Kevin’s And that’s another adventure.

    1. Wow, Tim Rudy!!! Haven’t heard from you in so long. Very nice! Yes, being kids is a double edged sword. Nice to be the ‘kids’ on the block but I’m kinda looking for another block, if you know what I mean! Kidding aside, a lot of the folks that we’ve met down here have been doing this for 20 plus years. As yet, I can’t imagine myself doing this nonstop until i’m 70 something, but, you never know. I think that I’m very interested about being on terra ferma. The phone call Shirley recieved re – the incident was heart stopping as you can imagine…..which vertebrae exactly and which organs?…..we were suddenly put on pin and needles, as it were, taking in every word. THings are going to be ok though, as you will see in a follow up post I’m sure. Anyway, Sheesh, I think we must catch up a little and if you don’t mind, I think that I’ll send a message to your email. Cheers, my friend!

  2. Wow Tim &Shirley…Indeed what a great adventure you are having!! Not sure how I would handle the scares you have had but do enjoy hearing how you made it through. 🙂
    I look out my window and see a lot of the white fluffy stuff – really quite a beautiful sight! However like you the heat, white sand and clear waters are so inviting!!
    Been to the Bahamas, never to Abacas – can’t wait to hear about it!
    We fly…Yes fly to Dominican on March 3rd for a week of R&R to celebrate Glen’s soon retirement!! We will be thinking about you also enjoying the warmth.
    Keep well and enjoy!!
    Lovingly Glen and Christine

    1. That’s great Chris! You guys must be so looking forward to that…… especially the retirement part! Hope You find some great ways to spend your leisure time. Last night we went out with 3 very like-minded couples spending most and, in some cases, all of their leisure time aboard their sailing vessels exploring the Bahamas and the world. I had no idea how common this phenomenon is…..and….these are not wealthy or young people, by any means. We were recently referred to as ‘kids’ by some fellow cruisers….kinda nice. Many have been cruising for 10-20 years and started when they were our age. Have a great time in the D.R!

  3. Well done Shirley and Tim, enjoy the fruits of your long labour. Just think of all the things you’ve learned for your return journey. Happy sailing.

    1. Thanks, Fred. Yes, it’s been quite a learning journey, and yes, the wisdom we’ve gained will likely make the return a smoother voyage, but I must admit that the thought of turning around and heading north again is not in the least bit appealing!! Although getting that promised captain’s hat does provide a bit of incentive.
      Are you a new grandpa again yet?

  4. Wow, what an adventure this has been! Glad to hear the engine is OK and that you have made it to the Bahamas for a well deserved break! Enjoy the sunshine, the white beaches, the aqua water and the peacefulness of the deserted island that you have all to yourself! Certainly all well deserved. Thank you for sharing your adventure! You are two brave souls! When I crack a bottle of wine this weekend, I will have a toast to both of you!

  5. Well congrats for accomplishing your goal, and not giving up when there were so many opportunities to do so…but then again…that’s not you! I always admired your courage and determination! Have fun and enjoy the sites 🙂
    (and the weather of course) xo

    1. Thanks, Deb. And thanks for phrasing that “courage & determination” and not “stubborn” or “obstinate” or any of the other adjectives that could also apply! There have been tough times, and will be more, I’m sure, but there have also been the sweet times to lure us forward, and the incredible sense of accomplishment we now have for getting to where we are.
      The down side right now is the awful guilt about the people we care about who are having to deal with mid-February -30degree temperatures…. just terrible! 😉

  6. It is very good to hear about all your experiences. we were told once from a experienced sailor never put any diesel fuel in the reservoir without using a West Marine filter funnel in case there would be water and dirt in the diesel.
    We are very happy for you and reading your posts eagerly.
    Fantastic experiences.
    Nicole and Jean Marc

    1. Bonjour!
      So lovely having you both along… you helped inspire our confidence in undertaking this adventure. And yes, we now check the fuel first (touch & smell test) to be sure it is diesel, and are using a water/dirt funnel. Sometimes the hardest lessons are those best learned!

  7. AMEN !
    So very thankful that the engine was OK, What a relief. Now kick back and enjoy the sun and the Sand that you have both earned. Enjoy !
    Look forward to hearing about your next adventure.


    1. Hi Kathy! Ditto to that.
      We missed hearing from you! we are enjoying the sun, sand, and, well, the swells?… as long as, as you said in your earlier message, they are occasional.
      (I think I noticed a green tinge overtake Tim’s face when he read that word!)

  8. I’m so proud of you, Tim, because I know this story of responding to challenges begins far away and long before Florida in February. I can’t easily tell you how much I admire endurance. But I can tell you I love you. I’ll raise a glass of red to you, and imagine you both doing the same in a sheltered, emerald cove. Enjoy!

    1. Thanks Kevin! That love is greatly accepted! We found one of those emerald cove jewels just the other day; a little island surrounded by translucent light green water, covered by pure white coral sand and not another boat or person in sight! We’ve been toasting ourselves (in many ways) daily; the bilges aren’t just for holding water , you know! Our stash of wine fits there nicely too. We’ll raise a glass to your off road adventures as well!

  9. Heh, you finally made it!! Congrats! Tim, in many ways, reminds me of my dad in that if something mechanical goes wrong he can figure out a way to fix it.

    1. Hey Kevan – yes, I didn’t know it at the time, but, fiddling around with old diesels, building the off-grid straw bale garage and living the way that I did for the last 10 years, prepared me for cruising on a sailboat! As for trusting instruments (your comment on our previous post), Shirleys brother was a claim staker in Northern Ontario and flew his own plane into many little lakes up there. He echos your story of how important it is to trust your instruments so that you can essentially fly without looking out the window and not let your instincts take you into a dive to the ground.He shared that with Shirley AFTER her “incident”.

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