Dick Durham's January podcast: Fear and loathing of engines dominates my cruising existence, and the instruction manual is no comfort...

“The operating manual is smothered in oily fingerprints and smells of diesel”

What were two men doing zig-zag- ging across a theatre forecourt as light summer rain began to soak their blazers? They were yachting.
One of them was me, the other was fellow boat owner Martyn Mackrill. We were checking car registration plates to find the battered saloon of a third yachtsman Mark Hickman who, with hissailing wife Rosie, was attending a play on the Isle of Wight. He was the only man in Southern England on a Bank Holiday Monday who had a spare Morse cable. The Morse cable I had was broken and in Yarmouth. The Morse cable he had was not broken, but in Bembridge. However he would be sitting in the stalls by the time I got to his side of the island.
‘Tell you what, I’ll leave it in the car,’ he said, ‘and I’ll leave the car unlocked.’
Sure enough: there it was, coiled like a shiny snake on the passenger seat. Back at the boat Martyn successfully fitted it and as I pushed the cockpit locker door back into place his wife Bryony noticed a fire extinguisher, fitted on the inside of the locker door, nudge the cable out of line. Clearly this had caused the existing cable’s failure. Had she not been looking aft when I re- seated the locker, I would have, a few months down the line, been faced once again with a bro- ken Morse cable. Such is the way of Zen and the art of marine engine maintenance.
How I hate engines. When they are working you power along wondering when a diesel bug will break free from a filter like a blood clot to give the lump a heart attack. Or when the heat alarm will start sounding. Or when enough white smoke is produced to announce a new Pope.
When engines are not working, they squat, sphinx-like, full of mystery and you sit in front of them, trying to be nice to them, doing all the right things by the book. The book, of course, is in 12 different languages, and read conventionally for the first six, but turned upside down and read backwards for the remainder. My engine, a Vetus, is from Holland and the operating manual is in Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish and Italian, but the English language section is easy enough to find as it is smothered in oily fin- gerprints and smells of diesel. Its photographs show a man with well-manicured fingers, the right-sized spanners and a get-at-able engine. The reality is a little different.
Later last season, following the Morse cable fiasco, I was happily motoring up the River Orwell in Suffolk when the alarm sounded – no raw water from the exhaust. I stopped the engine, picked up a mooring, dug out the manual, and in the fading summer light, tried to find the How To Change The Impeller section. Under the relevant photograph I read: ‘De rubberen impeller van de buitenboordwaterpomp is niet bestand tegen droogdraaien.’ Yes, yes, where’s the English?
Aha, over the page. ‘Remove the cover of the pump by unscrewing the bolts out of the housing.’ The only trouble is that the oil filter is in front of said housing and you cannot remove the bolts without removing the oil filter. And before that you have to remove the oil. But to remove the oil you need to run the engine to warm it up…
The man behind the counter at the chandler’s where I bought a hand oil pump said: ‘Marine engines are good on emissions and noise, but they aren’t made for amateurs. The best boat engine is a Ford Escort lump with a mariniser pack.’
He was right and this amateur gave up and instead employed a marine engineer who spent the best part of the day with enough spanners to decommission a nuclear submarine.

Dick Durham