18 August 2012

Learning as We Go

It's not often that I get to report on a success with anything related to our engines, so far it's not ever.  But I am pleased to finally be able to say that all the time (and money) I've spent watching diesel mechanics work on them has actually paid off.

To recap: our generator broke down, was fixed and broke down again in Marathon, FL--all within a week.  The starboard engine started overheating somewhere in the Bahamas, we don't recall where or when exactly.  So it was only a matter of time before our port engine demised in one of the eleven thousand four hundred and seventy-nine ways a diesel engine can. It did warn us, I must admit. It lost the use of its ignition stop button a couple of weeks after the starboard engine lost the use of its button. So it came as a shock to neither of us when I turned the ignition key this morning in order to power up the batteries in order to start the inverter in order to boil water for coffee and it only went "click, click, click."

As this was an emergency of the greatest conceivable magnitude, I immediately commenced my ritual of due diligence: I got out my Peter Compton (Troubleshooting Marine Diesel Engines) and flipped to the "starts, but doesn't turn over" section.  According to the good book, the possibilities of what could be wrong were thankfully quite limited.  It could be that the battery voltage was too low. It wasn't, it had plenty of charge, 13 volts.  Otherwise, it could only be that some connection was loose or corroded. That was good news, because I understand now that "connection" is almost always synonymous with "wire". So I just had to find a wire that was loose and/or corroded, or rather of the loose and/or corroded wires festooning the engine, I just had to find the one that was responsible for getting it to turn over.

I slipped down into the engine compartment and started looking at wires. I immediately found one that was unconnected, one that I didn't recall being unconnected before. It was harnessed together with another wire of the same gauge but of a different color. This latter wire was attached to a plastic part on the back of the alternator.  There seemed to be unoccupied port into which the unconnected wire might fit so I pushed it in and asked Jane to start the engine.

Click, click, click.

I looked at some other wires that were bundled with my wire and noted their size and color and traced them to several different places toward the back of the engine where there disappeared under a large overhang.  Due diligence done.  Time to call a mechanic.

...On a Saturday, in a non English-speaking country.

...Without having had our coffee.

Great, merciful God...really?

We dinghied over to the Santa Marta Marina where Diana, the second and John the dockmaster, helped us communicate with a repair shop.  They were too busy to come out, but they knew a few boat captains in the marina so they contacted one to meet us at JOY to look at the port engine.

The captain and his helper brought with them a battery, a set of jumper cables, and a couple of wrenches but nothing else. They seemed to have assumed that our battery just needed a jump.  When that didn't work, the captain went down into the engine compartment and had a look around. This, I knew, would inevitably lead to requests for tools and supplies and without a common language, it promised to be difficult...or so I thought. Fortunately, JOY's engines broke down continually last year when we were on the ICW. If they hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten the experience that now proved so useful. As it was, fetching tools and things for the captain and his assistant was no hay problema. No need to understand a word they were saying; I had become fluent in hand gestures. Lest you doubt the veracity of my claim, know that our port engine works better than it has in 8 months, thanks to my languageless tool-fetching skills.

This is a huge load off my mind. This means I can fetch whatever anyone who works on our engines anywhere in the world needs, with or without words.

I can't even describe what a sense of relief this newfound competence has given me.

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