Martin Fuller lightens his wallet before discovering the solutions to an avoidable problem that had been building for years - shredded water impeller bits

‘Years of shredded water impeller bits had clogged the pipe’ – a learning curve

Prior to 2014 I had not sailed offshore and my sailing experience was limited to messing around on Lasers and Lightnings; but I had a dream to sail around the world and completed a number of RYA sailing courses, from Competent Crew to Yachtmaster, between 2014 and 2016, plus some mile-building passages, writes Martin Fuller.

Then in May 2018 I retired to go sailing.

I bought my first and only boat, a Sadler Starlight 39, in January 2017 and have since sailed the Solent and Channel waters; around Ireland; cruised the Inner Islands to Orkney and back to Pwllheli (home port) via the Caledonian Canal and have recently completed a 12,000-mile circuit of the Northern Atlantic.

We (me the skipper, plus one) started in North Wales in April 2019, cruised south to Portugal and the Azores before sailing to the Cape Verdes to cross to Barbados in January 2020.

A yacht moored in the Isles of Scilly

Sandpiper in the Isles of Scilly early in the cruise. Credit: Martin Fuller

We cruised swiftly north from Grenada through the Caribbean up the USA East Coast and our passage continues to head north; hoping to make it to Greenland this year despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

We had a few minor boat issues en route – who wouldn’t?

But my latest little drama could, with hindsight, have been avoided.

Should it occur again, I can now resolve the problem without the expensive diversion to a marina and use of a professional engineer.

The problem revolves around impellers.

A Yanmar 40hp engine on a Sadler Starlight 39

Our Yanmar 40hp engine. Credit: Martin Fuller

How many times have you changed your water impeller?

We have done so several times and never given much of thought to where all the bits of missing rubber have gone.

Out of the exhaust… haven’t they?

Well, actually, no – as we found out to our cost when the last water impeller shredded itself! What happened?

Martin Fuller who found himself relieved of money for not dealing with his shredded water impeller

Martin Fuller is skipper of the 1994 Sadler Starlight 39, Sandpiper. Born in April 1954, Martin became a British Army officer in 1972, serving around the world before retiring as Major in 1996. Since then he has worked in security in the Middle East before retiring to go sailing. Credit: Martin Fuller

We were leaving Annapolis Landing Marina to continue up the eastern seaboard en route to the Delaware River and New York on our way north to hopefully reach Greenland as part of a two-to-three year, clockwise cruise around the north Atlantic.

We had already covered over 10,500 miles and were very comfortable living aboard and managing the inevitable problems.

Continues below…

As we negotiated the tight exit to the narrow channel out of Back Creek, against a Force 5 headwind, the engine alarm sounded and it needed a hastily raised headsail to steer clear of the breakwater (on a lee shore – what else would it be) and find safe water to anchor in to investigate the problem.

Naturally, one’s first instinct is to check the water impeller; spot on – very hot.

A quick fix from the spares’ box then, having changed the shredded water impeller, cleared the intake pipe and checked the second feeder piper from the water filter and made sure that the exhaust manifold was functioning… we still had a problem.

The  water impeller casing was still getting hot when the engine was started. It was time to call an expert.

A man helming a yacht

Martin leaving Porto for the Azores in August 2019. CreditL Martin Fuller

We were towed back into Back Creek to the Bert Jabin Marina, with its excellent lift-out and maintenance services on site, (they provided a tow in for us; we had already subscribed to the ‘TOWUS’ service but theirs was quick and efficient) where we were fortunately able to find a mechanic from Bay Shore Marine to look at the engine that evening.

The engineer went through the same checks I had done but then started removing other water system pipes that I had not considered.

It turned out that years of shredded water impeller bits had clogged the pipe from the impeller to the heat exchanger and we soon had a neat pile of rubber bits to blame for my problems.

Problem solved… not quite!

A yacht approaching New york

Approaching New York June 2020. Credit: Martin Fuller

Again, the impeller ran hot on start-up.

Time for more drastic intervention and we proceeded to open the intake to the heat exchanger itself.

It proved to be a bit of a struggle as the Allen key bolts had probably never been removed since installation and certainly not by me.

However, with a bit of muscle and a good strong Allen key they came out to reveal a mass of debris; the intake cap was almost totally blocked with rubber from earlier impeller failures.

Fortunately, none had blocked the actual heat exchange pipes themselves and after two hours’ work (at $140 an hour labour charge!) the engine was purring along nicely.

Despite the lighter wallet it was a relief to find a problem that had clearly been building up for years – probably since before I had bought the boat.

Lessons Learned

  1. I have now purchased a set of strong, individual metric and imperial Allen keys as my neat, folding sets were simply not up to the job.
  2. Ignorance is not bliss and I should have done a diesel engine maintenance course a long time ago. Even with plenty of problem-solving experience now behind me, I will certainly do one when back in the UK.
  3. The immediate and obvious solution is possibly not the root cause. Because my experience had shown me that changing a shredded impeller got my engine running again, I looked no further. There were other signs: engine running extremely hot; hot water almost boiling after a few miles of motoring; very hot exhaust gases with what I now know to be limited water from the exhaust; fuel consumption and indeed speed were not what I expected. All were potential signs that the engine was not working properly, and I should have looked further.
  4. Don’t always trust the expert! In my early days of sailing I had relied upon the expert engineer when my engine failed and no mention of ‘the missing bits’ entered the conversation when the impeller was changed. So, why should I look further? I know the answer now.

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