Six repowering mistakes to avoid

If you sail long enough, particularly if it’s aboard a 34-year-old boat, you are going to have to fix something major. When we were gainfully employed weekend sailors we rebuilt the Westerbeke 4-107 diesel engine, replaced running and standing rigging, and applied a barrier coat to Kotchka, our 1969 Hinckley 38. Prior to moving aboard we installed a new dodger, new sleeping cushions and tackled the 101 “little” projects that all cruisers seem to undertake. We hoped the rebuild project on the normally rugged 4-107 would last another 30+ years with little more than regular maintenance. This was not to be the case. The following tale of woe details our experience and mistakes in the hope that other voyagers can benefit.

While visiting Annapolis, Md., in the fall of 2002, the Westerbeke started to fling oil out the seals due to “blow-by.” Blow-by was identified by removing the oil fill cap while the engine was running. We had air pulsing out along with drops of oil. The problem could have been caused by faulty rings, pistons, valves or any combination of these. After consulting with several diesel mechanics we decided not to investigate further. We felt the old engine was not worth rebuilding again, and the cost of further analysis would yield little useable information. After absorbing this initial shock, we began the task of sorting through our options.

Our first choice was to install a new diesel from one of the major suppliers: Yanmar, Westerbeke, Universal, etc. However, the mounting location for Kotchka’s engine, under the floorboards in the main saloon, is extremely small. The floorboards rest virtually on top of the air intake, and the oil pan sits less than an inch above the bilge/keel bolts. After spending hours reviewing engine specs, measuring and remeasuring the mounting space, plus a final consultation with Hinckley, we realized a new engine was simply not an option. The advice from Hinckley was to stick to the same engine, as nothing else would fit the space.

Since we had ruled out rebuilding the Westerbeke, we were left with a straightforward choice: Install a rebuilt Perkins 4-108 or a Westerbeke. While researching the various suppliers for rebuilt engines, a fellow sailor told us about a used Perkins 4-108 for sale privately. The engine was in a garage in New Jersey, and reported to be in good shape, with low hours and ready to go. We borrowed a truck, drove to Jersey and decided this would be a good solution for us. I did not listen to the engine run. It simply seemed too difficult to accomplish this, and the seller was a friend of a friend and a fellow voyager. We felt confident in the purchase.

Although disappointed not to be selling us a new engine, the mechanic in Annapolis agreed to handle the installation. The plan was to bring the Perkins to his shop, where he would replace some seals, check the engine over thoroughly, swap some parts from the Westerbeke to the Perkins and install the engine in the boat. He also handled the removal of the Westerbeke. Right off the bat things went awry, however. On the ride back from New Jersey, I called the repair shop to make sure someone would be there with a forklift to remove the Perkins. No answer. I called the mechanic’s cell phone. Offsite on a job, his response was, “Why are you bothering me?” Since I was only doing what we had mutually decided on, I was somewhat taken aback by his attitude. Fortunately, when we arrived at the shop, another mechanic was in fact there to help us offload the engine. The removal of the old Westerbeke was also cause for concern. Nothing was labeled when the wiring, fuel lines, etc., were disconnected. This would come back to haunt us.

A couple of days later, things took a turn for the worse. The repair shop called with the words, “You need to come down and look at the Perkins.” What we saw was an engine that had clearly been under water. A waterline was visible across the inside of the front timing gear cover, the oil in the pan had emulsified, the valve rocker arms were covered with rust, and the air intake was full of dirt and rust. We could have bolted it all back together and tried to run it in the shop, but given the condition, we felt this was a waste of time. There was absolutely no way that I’d put this engine in the boat as is.

After more deliberation we decided to have our just-purchased engine rebuilt. This project, which was estimated to take a week, took more than three weeks to complete. We were then well into November, the leaves were off the trees, and the U.S. East Coast was experiencing one of the coldest autumns in memory. Finally, the shop reported the engine had been bench-tested and was ready to be installed. The engine was lowered into place, and the mechanics then took three working days to get the Perkins to fire. Our problems, however, had just begun. The reported bench-testing was, in fact, a myth. We had a tremendous amount of smoke coming out the exhaust, plus — of even greater concern — we had a significant amount of unburned diesel fuel coming out. The mechanic’s response was that the engine needed to be broken in. The engine was also hard to start, requiring a lot of preheating. Again, we were told this is normal during break-in. Although very skeptical, we decided to leave Annapolis, and if we were faced with problems, the repair shop would come to us as we moved down the Chesapeake. The next day we left, bound for Solomons, 40 miles distant. We did not even make it to Thomas Point Light, a mere 12 miles south of Annapolis, before the engine quit. We sailed the boat to the Herrington Harbor entrance and arranged for a tow to the service dock. With the assistance of a mechanic from Herrington Harbor, we discovered the culprit, contaminated fuel and sludge in the lines.

Two days later we had cleaned the tank, purged the lines and were ready to go. Unfortunately, the weather had taken a downturn. Faced with the prospect of a miserable trip south, shattered emotions and a still suspect engine, we hit upon a solution from way out in left field. We headed back to Annapolis and arranged to have the boat trucked to Jacksonville, Fla. From the time we came up with this idea to seeing Kotchka floating in Jacksonville was less than six days.

Kotchka arrived in Jacksonville the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and was launched immediately. We finished putting Kotchka into sailing condition the next day and headed south down the Intracoastal Waterway on Saturday.

We intended to put 50 hours on the engine while motoring down The Ditch, then change the oil, retorque the heads and adjust the valves per the instructions from Perkins. We made arrangements for this to happen in Vero Beach. We told our tale of woe to the mechanic, describing the symptoms that we continued to experience. He quickly suggested that we remove the injectors and have them bench-tested.

The head bolts were retightened to spec, and the valve clearances all checked out fine. The injectors were another story. The tips were corroded, the spray pattern was not even close to spec, and the serial numbers did not match. When questioned, the repair shop back in Annapolis informed us they did not rebuild the injectors on site but had them sent to an injector shop. They agreed to compensate us to have the injectors rebuilt again. We decided to use these funds to offset the cost of new injectors.

The improvement was significant: less smoke, no fuel coming out the exhaust and a bit easier to start. The engine, however, was still not 100 percent right.

We left Vero Beach, still not confident of our new engine, but we pressed on to Miami. A new problem arose, however: We were leaking oil at a prodigious rate. After unsuccessful days looking for the source using mirrors and flashlights, I was ready to scuttle the boat and move ashore. Finally we discovered something stuck between the oil pan and the bilge. Using a sail batten, I tapped it free and was shocked to discover it was the remains of a magnet used to remove tools when dropped into inaccessible places. Upon further investigation we also found a Phillips-head screwdriver, dropped by the mechanic back in Annapolis, resting in the deepest part of the bilge. Over time, due to normal engine vibration, the magnet wore a hole in the bottom of the pan. Unbelievable!

The only solution was to remove the engine, have the pan welded, and reinstall the engine. With the Christmas holidays upon us, finding a yard in south Florida was very challenging. Finally, we arranged for a yard in Marathon to do the repairs just after Jan. 1. While waiting in Marathon over the holidays, I noticed something amiss with the fuel-injector pump. The timing marks on the pump and engine block that are supposed to be aligned were not. Could this be the cause of the engine’s starting troubles?

The yard in Marathon turned out to be a winner. Friendly, professional and, best of all, prompt. Working with the mechanic, we removed the engine in a few hours, labeling every wire, fuel line and hose. The oil pan was sent out to a local aluminum welder. Once we had the engine out and had better access to the injector pump, we discovered the pump was not, in fact, timed properly. Not trusting anything at this point, we removed the front cover to check the timing marks on the gears. Although all were on spec, this double check was well worth the effort. We then internally timed the injector pump according to the manufacturer instructions and remount it aligned with the timing works. Once we had the oil pan back and the engine back together, the yard mechanic and I had the engine reinstalled and running in an afternoon. No smoke, no fuel out the exhaust, and the Perkins started easily.

Once we finally had the engine running well and Kotchka back in sailing trim, we had a uneventful winter season sailing the Bahamas, at least as far as mechanical issues go. I would like to think the law of averages is now squarely in our favor and that we’ll have a nice long respite from major repairs.

J and Marci Kolb live aboard their Hinckley 38 Kotchka and are currently in Annapolis.

By Ocean Navigator