Engine Trauma

I have an engine yarn to share. It’s about our Perkins 4-108 diesel auxiliary engine on Anthea, whom we affectionately call Mr. Perkins.

Spoiler alert: it ends well, as demonstrated by the fact that we motored into an 18-20 knot head wind for two hours today and Mr. Perkins performed just fine. That’s the first good workout we’ve given him since the traumatic incident.

It all began last Monday, nine days ago. We were just motoring out of Ngaigai Creek – a protected anchorage where we had hidden out during a mild storm that came with rain and gusts to 30 knots. We were setting off for the north tip of Taveuni Island, about 12 miles away, from where Anson and Andrea would catch their island hopping flight to Nandi, and from there to California and Finland, respectively. As usual, I had checked Mr. Perkins’ fluid levels before weighing anchor – oil and coolant levels were normal.

After clearing the coral reefs on either side of the narrow bay entrance, we started a slow turn to starboard to make for Taveuni. Mr. Perkins had been running at a sedate 1,100 rpms. Suddenly, with no warning or any indication that anything was awry, the rpms skyrocketed. It was as if someone had pushed the throttle to beyond full open, yet pulling back on the throttle position made no difference to the engine’s madcap racing. I realized we had a runaway motor. Seeing clouds of smoke emanating from the corner of my eye I sprang down below to investigate. I flung aside the trash and recycling stored on the engine cover, raised the ladder that rests on the cover and removed the heavy, cumbersome cover. Now the noise really was deafening. Flecks of oil escaping from seals were increasingly visible around the engine. I saw that the throttle control on the high pressure fuel pump was in full open position, but try as I might, I could not manually move it. The only way to put a stop to this possessed machine was to suffocate it. Resisting the temptation to say I couldn’t deal with this, I grabbed a slot screwdriver from inside the chart table tool bag, bent over the roaring machine and loosed the hose clamp that secures the air cleaner. I then pulled the air cleaner off the intake manifold and covered the manifold with my gloved hand. Thankfully, the out of control beast went quiet almost immediately.

But no time to catch my breath. We were now drifting with light wind, nearby reefs and no engine. Fortunately, work on these issues was well underway by the time I came topsides. Anson and Devon were putting Hector, our inflatable dinghy, overboard and Kim and Andrea were readying the Nissan outboard to lower to Hector. In a matter of minutes Anson had converted Hector into a serviceable tugboat. We were able to sail under jib alone to the entrance to the anchorage and from there Hector was our tugboat.

Once anchored, I went below to investigate. Operator error being a common cause of problems aboard, I wondered if the throttle cable had somehow caught on the drive unit of the auto pilot, which I had re-installed while at anchor. A quick glance under the steering quadrant revealed no such entanglements. Kim, being a firm believer in the written word, suggested reading Nigel Calder on runaway engines. We have three of his tomes on board. I consulted the appropriate one and learned that one of the many causes of runaway engines is too much oil in the crankcase; this can allow the motor to run on its own oil until it runs out and seizes. What a horrifying thought. I checked the oil dipstick. To my amazement and almost disbelief, the oil level registered at least three inches above the full mark! How could that be when it read within normal limits less than two hours previously? I looked and smelled the fluid on the dipstick and concluded that somehow a significant amount of diesel fuel had got into the crankcase.

This was a serious problem. Questions flooded me. What was the cause? Did I have the knowledge and spare parts to repair the problem(s), if/when they were properly diagnosed? Was the engine irreparably damaged during the run-away incident? Would we have to sail without an engine to Vuda Pt. marina on Viti Levu (about two hundred reef-strewn miles away) where mechanic support was available? Was this the end of the summer’s cruise? Would we have to send to Suva for parts while waiting for weeks here? Suddenly, our quiet, protected anchorage, which we had to ourselves, felt very remote and isolated.

But first things first. We needed to arrange local transport for Anson and Andrea to Taveuni for their Tuesday morning flight. We called Apex, a kind local man with a small launch from a nearby bay, whom we had met while snorkeling. He agreed to ferry them across Somosomo Strait to Taveuni the next morning, where our Indo-Fijian friend Mani would meet them and take them to the airstrip. Devon and Kim were to also accompany then to purchase provisions. We had finished our last onion the day before and other fresh veggies had run out before that.

Right on time, Apex arrived at dawn Tuesday morning. As the loaded launch disappeared at the head of the bay, I cried. It had been so marvelous to have Anson with us for the last month. Now he was gone, on to other summer adventures, and I was already missing him intensely. And, while everyone was safe, there were grave uncertainties about what the future held for those of us who remained on Anthea.

To make an already long story less long, let me say that the rest of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I was in full mechanic mode. Let me also say that our friend, Diego – currently cruising in Vanuatu – was an invaluable source of mechanical guidance and support, with whom I texted so frequently on whatsapp that I’m now a pretty good one-fingered texter. I was also able to contact Bryan Lowe, of British Marine, in Oakland, CA who is a working encyclopedia about Perkins engines. He contributed his valuable perspective about the probable cause of the problem. There were several competing hypotheses about the problem. Apparently, there are limited pathways for diesel fuel to enter the crankcase, especially on a motor with external fuel lines, like a Perkins. Three potential pathways were most likely: the low pressure lift pump which provides fuel to the secondary fuel filter, the high pressure fuel pump, which is the heart of the fuel injection system, and thirdly, the fuel injectors themselves. The first and third options I could probably remedy, the second was well beyond my skill level. Bryan thought a fuel injector might have gone bad, dumping fuel into the cylinder. Diego thought that was unlikely and that the high pressure fuel pump was the culprit – based on all the symptoms I had described to him. I’m still uncertain about the exact cause of the runaway.

In summary, the order of operations went something like this. Much of Tuesday was spent draining and storing the crankcase oil and diesel mixture (two gallons of it!) – a task made more onerous as the oil extractor was left in a locker at Vuda Pt. to save space on board, changing the oil filter and adding fresh oil. I then removed the low pressure lift pump and inspected the diaphragm; no apparent holes or tears, so it checked out. The high pressure fuel pump, being off limits to an amateur like me, I left alone. So Wednesday was spent changing out all four fuel injectors. Fortunately, I had the spare parts I needed. Before we left on the cruise in January of 2017 I had discussed with Bryan what spares we might need and we purchased them, including four rebuilt injectors and a lift pump. The injector replacement job went fine. Two of them were coated in fresh diesel fuel – was this a smoking gun? But how could two injectors have gone bad at the same time? Diego thought that was quite unlikely, or else that I was very lucky. Wednesday evening I began bleeding the air out of the fuel system – precursor to trying to start the motor – but I could not get the hand operated lift pump lever arm to pump fuel. More communication with Diego. Thursday I again removed the lift pump, tested it against the new spare one, and confirmed that it was not working, even though the diaphragm was intact. Another smoking gun? The new lift pump went in fine and after properly bleeding the air out of the fuel system, we were ready to try starting Mr. Perkins. Would he run away again? We were on pins and needles, ready with contingency plans to address another run-away event, or worse yet, an engine fire.

To our amazement, Mr. Perkins fired right up. Thus began a series of tests on Thursday. Each one entailed running the engine while at anchor for longer period of time, then checking the oil level. Each time the dipstick read normal, we felt a little more hope that perhaps the problem had been resolved and we would get our summer back. Finally, Diego texted that we were ready to take a “tour of the fjord” and so we weighed anchor and motored around the anchorage. Again, no change in oil level and the engine ran fine. Was the problem fixed? I could hardly believe that it might be, yet it seemed that Mr. Perkins’ trauma had been resolved. My own trauma from this event lingered longer, but with each successful use of our engine, it is slowly dissipating. We have been given back our summer cruise.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Daliconi Village, Vanua Balavu

4 thoughts on “Engine Trauma

  1. Oh my goodness, Mark! And Kim and everybody! Thank you for the spoiler alert at the beginning of your account–phew! Thank heavens you are all ok, including Mr Perkins and Anthea. That took courage, ingenuity, skill, cooperation–and persistent optimism. Anson and Andrea must have had such mixed feelings about leaving while this was happening. May the rest of your summer be smooth sailing!
    We’re all fine. Amie is home from Abu Dhabi for a 3-week visit. Last Sunday she and a friend went surfing briefly and she says when she caught a wave she realized this is where she belongs. She is working at a surfing camp in Santa Cruz this week.
    Big hugs to those still aboard, with love, Irene


  2. A damm good story! I was on the edge of my chair as I read your account of the trials and tribulations of Mr. Perkins. Mark, I am so glad that your mechanical skills with the wonderful assistance from the crew and friends were able to diagnose and solve the mechanical issues with the spare parts that you so wisely brought along.
    Anson and Andrea will surely be missed but I imagine Devon might appreciate the extra cabin room.
    Much love from California, the figs and the apricots are ripe, it is high summer in our back-yard…
    Peter M.


  3. Whew! What a tale. And as always, I am so impressed by your preparedness, quick thinking, and skills in boat-related things and writing.
    Wishing you all (including Mr. P) dmooth sailing from here on.
    Deborah (Trupin)


  4. Wow — what drama and what amazing resourcefulness and teamwork all around. Thank you for sharing. May the rest of the summer be full of joy and adventure, but not of the mechanical kind.
    Sending love,


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