A Series of Bad Decisions

In the early morning on July 1, we vectored out of Buzzards Bay and into the Cuttyhunk channel. A mega yacht sat at anchor in the outside harbor; its mast lit up with aviation avoidance lights was a stark contrast to the island behind it and the occasional loitering cow that waded into the surf. We eased the throttle forward to offset the 2 knots of current pushing against our bow and arched our course around a series of boulders.

A soft breeze blew over Cuttyhunk and presented us with a welcoming gift of a strong honeysuckle scent. Dozens of masts jutted out over a barrier beach that marked the inside passage to Cuttyhunk Pond. The outside harbor was quiet, filled with a few dozen sailboats at anchor or on moorings tugging against their chains in the channel current. After a 47 hour passage, we were giddy to park in front of a pristine white beach, topped with tall grasses waving in the gently flower perfumed wind. We made a few passes around to ping the bottom and wove our way between a series of Catamarans and dark classic yachts finding the perfect spot to claim. Just as I throttled back, the engine choked and died.

In moments our forward momentum stalled and the strong channel current began tugging us towards the moored vessels. We could have had the forward sail out instantly but the wind was dead calm, and we would have ended playing pinball with the half-million dollar catamaran a few boat lengths away. I could run forward and manually drop the anchor. That would involve releasing a two-inch nut on the side of the windlass and kick that anchor shank as hard as I could then jumping out of the way as the chain ripped through the windlass.

Instead, I elected to see if the engine would start. We had 30 seconds to make a decision, and that was enough time to try and start the diesel and if that failed, I planned to bolt forward (and try not to rip off a few toes in the anchor chain). I pensively reached towards the ignition key, rocked it back to the start position then twisted forward. The starter motor turned and whirled to life. A few seconds passed and the starter was still chugging, spinning, and working hard drawing huge amps from our battery reserves and heating up.

One used Racor 110A fuel filter

Then – boom! The diesel came back to life. I punched the throttle forward and moved us back into a position away from the sleek catamaran. “I didn’t think it was going to start,” I said to Alison. “Yeah. Me either,” she said and then glanced at the tachometer.

There are really two things that can stop a diesel engine from working. Air and fuel. In that brief moment, I realized that we dropped the RPM from2500 to 1000 and the engine sputtered then died. The fuel pressure from the lift pump fell below the threshold, and the engine was suddenly starved of fuel. The fuel filter was dirty.

Fuel, Sludge and Water

Again from 2500 RPM we slowly eased the throttle down to 1000, giving the boost pump time to compensate for the drop in pressure. We dropped the anchor, let out 130 feet of chain and shut the engine down. We were in Cuttyhunk. It was time to rest.

A few days later, I swapped the primary fuel filter. A messy affair but we had managed to work it out to an exact science making the entire ordeal a 20-minute matter. The fuel seemed clean, and the filter was in excellent shape. Not only did I just waste $24 but the fuel filter wasn’t the issue. Great. I decided not to tear into the fuel system at Cuttyhunk. Fuel and trash disposal was an issue. Getting parts was going to be a hassle. We would be in Onset in a few days where there were marinas, shops, easy trash disposal, and a protected anchorage to work in. It could wait, but it still was a gamble especially since we were threading the Cape Cod Canal. However, as long as we kept the throttle forward, there wouldn’t be an issue, and if things went really sideways, we could sail the canal.

A few days passed and we were leaving for Onset. The fog had cleared and the wind picked up. Along with the sailing vessel Satisfaction, we departed Cuttyhunk and entered Buzzards Bay. We unfurled the forward sail and set course for the canal. The wind and waves picked up, but Caprica put her shoulder into them, and we had a comfortable ride. A few short hours later, we were at the head of Buzzards Bay and at the entrance of the Canal facing almost 4.5 knots of current on the nose and huge slap happy standing waves. The wind was at our back, and we were in a good position if the engine failed. We revved the engine to 80% power and went for it.

Within a mile, the standing waves subsided, and we dodged a few absentminded fishermen loitering at the Onset Channel. I called on the VHF and tried to get their attention; worried that I wouldn’t be able to make my turn with the amount of current on our bow.

We had left Cuttyhunk late and ended up in the channel at this time because we were encased in dense fog. In Caprica, hours earlier when we weren’t sure about departure, we listened on the VHF to ships, sailors, and fisherman talking with each other about AIS targets and radar blips. The conditions were nasty and our window to catch the favored Canal current closed. We resigned to wait another day, then saw that a strong low-pressure system was entering the area with 30 plus knot winds. If we stayed in Cuttyhunk, we would have to move into the inner harbor. It was clear that not leaving for Onset would keep us in Cuttyhunk for several days. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but there was a pressure to move forward and get to Maine.

Then miraculously, in the afternoon, the fog lifted and we were quickly got underway. I thought about this as I called the fisherman blocking the channel on the VHF. “This is the inbound sailing vessel calling the fisherman at the Onset Channel.” I waited a minute and saw no one reaching for their VHF mics. “To the fisherman at the Onset Channel. This is sailing vessel Caprica. I’m making this turn.”

I throttled forward as we approached the fishing vessels. The channel markers strained against their mooring chains as water ripped passed them. I throttled forward to 90% and slid Caprica’s 43 feet a quarter of a boat length between a small center console and into the Onset Channel. I watched the markers ahead and behind, making sure we weren’t being pulled towards the rocks. Caprica quickly picked up speed, and we peeled out of the Cape Cod Channel and into the quiet bay ahead.

The harbor was crowded with cruising sailboats, each a nice blip on the radar. They were waiting out the predicted low-pressure system. We anticipated heavy wind so we dropped 150 feet of chain and our heavy anchor.

A day after we arrived in Onset, I diagnosed the engine issue. Hidden in the transmission compartment was a small fuel water separator and 10-micron pre-filter. I hate to admit this in such a public forum, but until recently it had escaped my attention. I didn’t know what model of filter it was, how it came apart, or what kind of replacement filter it needed.

After a lengthy google image search for fuel water separators, I determined that it was a Racor 110 A Gasoline/ Diesel low-pressure fuel-water separator assembly. I downloaded the instruction manual and thought, “easy.” Well … FALSE!

I called the local marina, and after a brief conversation with the person that answered the phone, it was clear that she was not interested in working or providing any level of customer service. “I need a fuel filter replacement cartridge for a Racor 110A,” I said.

She responded, “What does it look like?” After a brief description, she said, “We don’t use those part numbers.” I exhaled and explained that it was the manufacturer model. “You’ll have to bring it in,” she said.

“No. That’s a bad idea. You don’t want to meet me.” I thought but instead said “Thank you. Have a nice day.”

After a tour of the town and some basic hunting-gathering, I dropped the girls off at Caprica and drove the dink under a bridge to find a small marina hiding on the other side. I ripped a hard left, tied the dinghy off at the floating dock and ambled up the steep metal ramp to an outhouse style gas shack where a wiry white-haired, white-goateed man stood enjoying his lunch break sandwich. He took a look at me, swallowed his tuna and smiled. “Gas or diesel?” Then he took another bite, swallowed, and asked, “You’re on a sailboat aren’t you?” He peered out of the gas shack at the dinghy tied up at the corner of his dock.

I introduced myself, told him my story and began to explain what I was looking for specifically. He held up a wide hand dismissively. “Hold on,” then picked up the phone. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” He dialed a number and held the phone to his year, still chewing on his tuna. “Hey. It’s Bob. There’s a guy here that needs a part.” Bob held the phone towards me and smiled.

I held the phone to my ear. “Hi, my name is Sean Sayers. I appreciate your time.”

The voice on the other side boomed back. “No problem. What are you looking for?” I felt hope, explained the part and gave manufacturer numbers. A moment later the voice said, “We don’t use those part numbers.”

“Here we go again,” I thought.

“Have you tried the marina down there?” he asked.

“I called, but they weren’t interested in working today.”

“Right.” A moment passed. “Oh. We have two of these. I just Googled it.”

I laughed. Then he said that they were 3 miles away, then I sighed. “Okay. I’ll see you this afternoon,” and handed Bob the phone.

Bob finished chewing the last remains of his sandwich. “Let’s go. I’ll drive you.”

40 minutes later, I was back at Caprica with two fresh fuel filters, gaskets, and a better outlook on humanity.

The next day, I disassembled Maggie’s berth and found the Racor filter. It was mounted to a sheet of plywood just over where the shaft exits the hull. I vented the pressure, attached the strap wrench and began to pull. I pulled, braced and heard the thick mahogany plywood begin to crack. I continued to pull, bracing my foot against the wall. At one point in my life, I was able to lift 1,000 pounds with my calves. Granted that was a long time ago but I was burning muscle fibers and straining every muscle I had left. Just as I was about to lose the lower sphincter cohesion, I eased up.

After an hour perusing cruising forums, I asked Rick of S/V Satisfaction for a second opinion on the situation. Soon, we were both crouched in Maggie’s berth trying to work the filter housing off of the mount. A few choice words later, we saw that the vent nut was horribly corroded and realized that the casing had probably chemically bonded to the mount. I cleaned up, rebuilt Maggie’s berth and decided to deal with the issue in Rockland where I could get another Racor unit.

A few days later we were in Rockland walking around a marine supply store looking for parts. It was clear that I was going to have to order what we needed but have them sent to Belfast where I could install everything. It was a gamble to keep pushing north with a corroded fuel filter housing and an inaccessible nearly clogged fuel filter but we needed to try.

We arrived in Belfast and picked up our parts behind a pub from the back of a decked out Prius. It was a small box that contained brass hose barbs, fuel line, hose clamps, and a new Racor 110A fuel filter housing. In short, everything that I needed to extract the old fuel filter and add a new one.
This morning, the girls went to shore, and I dismantled Maggie’s berth again, carefully balling up her bedding into a pile. I removed a series of access panels, set out my tools, parts, and fuel absorbing pads. I opened the bottom of the old fuel filter and drained a quarter of a cup of water, sludge and debris from the housing. “Ugh!” I thought. Half an hour later and after applying a substantial amount of force with two large wrenches, the old housing was off and replaced. Then I had to crack the fuel injectors and bleed air out of the lines. It was messy, to say the least.

It was clear that this filter has not been changed for the life of the boat (13 years) and I’m amazed that the engine was able to run this long.

Hopefully, the problem is solved. I’ve been told that cruising is just working on your boat in other places.

So far Bob has been right.

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