Posted by: powellpjc | May 29, 2009

The Engine Fails and we are Screwed


The weekend looked promising with a vast high pressure bringing blue skies and light winds to central Oregon. I felt due for a day off from the endless boat jobs and time to get to know my boat and motor better. We decided to go for a motor up the Columbia River to central Portland. My pal Ulic Longford was in town so I had help in docking and getting to understand the boat handling. We shoved off at 11 a.m. with a couple of fresh Subway sandwiches and appropriate soft drinks and beer.

Up the Multnomah Channel, into the Willamette river and thence downriver to the mighty Columbia. It was the Memorial Day long weekend in America but there weren’t too many boats out and about. This may be due to the current economic reality but it made for pleasant motoring.

In addition, there was no large ship traffic in the Columbia. This would prove fortuitous.

With Ulic steering I had time to walk the decks and admire my new boat in all its glory. I sat on the foredeck and plunged into a giant sub sandwich and cold beer. The motor was humming away and life was grand.

Ahead of us was one of the many railroad bridges spanning the river. We could have called on the radio for the span to be lifted (our mast is 60 feet + above the waterline)  but we were happy to turn around and not bother the bridgekeeper.

Going downstream now with the favorable current we were doing an easy 7 knots. Life still grand.

I am looking cool as hell. You know, then, that the engine is still running.

I am looking cool as hell. You know, then, that the engine is still running.

You guessed it. The motor started acting up. First a slowing of revolutions. ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked. Ulic certainly did. Then more slowing and racing of the engine. I didn’t ask again and dived into the engine compartment just as the beast breathed its last. In the frightening quiet I stared dumbly at the 4 cylinder Yanmar. ‘Has to be fuel or air,’ I stated in a burst of panicked obviousiness. I checked various things and tried to start the engine again. Nothing. I asked Ulic to get the anchor ready for the river mud. Oh, I didn’t mention that we had neither sails nor dingy. We were drifting down river in the middle of a major waterway frequented by ocean going vessels and we were dead in the water. No way to manouever. None. Christ.

‘How deep is the channel,’ I asked.

‘Sixty feet,’ answered Ulic.

We didn’t want to anchor in such depths because it is hard to recover that much chain and we were in the middle of the goddamned channel, if I didn’t already mention it. A big ship would run us down.

Still panicked, I tried a few other things with no luck. I concluded we had air in the fuel system and a diesel engine hates air. I started undoing things to bleed the air. Then I had a brief flash of sanity during the sea of panic and I remembered I had my cheap cell phone. I’d phone Fred Bates, a guy who knows all about most engines. Got his voice mail and I cursed all cell phones in a general way and my cheap one in a personal way.

I managed to disconnect a number of fuel lines and there was a hell of a lot of diesel fuel everywhere. We drifted.

Fred Bates called back. He was in the middle of a holiday weekend BBQ. I explained the predicament and his quick reply was to ‘raise a sail and get out of the channel’. He joined my dismay when he learned about no sails aboard. Then we got serious. He told me what to look for on my engine as the primary air bleed point and told me to call back. He had a BBQ after all and surely I was an idiot.

I struggled with wrenches and smelly diesel fuel until we gave it another shot at starting. Whoa! Almost went that time. Some more wrenching and bang, away that little Yanmar went! We got the hell out of the main ship channel and steered close to shore in case it quit again so we could drop the anchor in shallow water. I went into the corner and had a quiet heart attack.

We made it back to our berth with no further incident.

Ulic happy to be tied up again.

Ulic happy to be tied up again.

We haven’t found out yet where the air is getting into the fuel line but we will.

And I’m not going anywhere until then.



  1. Are you sure that wasnt chucky in that pic driving the boat?? Anyways nice play shakespeare!

  2. Pdro, Clearly the work of saboteurs or worse spies ,knowing your slightly odd habits (possibly Ulich as well) , they persons unknown did in your fuel line likely while you were buying your subway treats. Suggestions — send Ulich to loiter around the nearest pay phone booths hoping tp pick up random spy discourse while you should bealine for the nearest dumpster to save evidence ! Calm down , safehard your vessel with barbed wire & RELAXXXXXXXXX, Z PS between you & Ulich likely a lot of methane gas on board so they will in all probability leave you alone

  3. That better not be a Tilley Hat.

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