With few mechanical skills beyond a deluge of WD-40 and a deftly wielded hammer, engine trouble is never far away, as Dick Durham finds out

A tiny screw nestling in a part of my engine has defeated all my passage plans. By now I should be bowling northwards with the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song etcetera, etcetera. Instead of which, I have taken a crash course, via Halfords, in engineering. As the owner of a sailing boat I’m feeling pretty fraudulent having spent a week negotiating with that tiny screw and her sisters. I’ve bought socket sets, ring spanners and mole grips to no avail. That’s the damnable thing about having an auxiliary: it’s often said that an engine that doesn’t work is worse than no engine at all; you can’t rely on it but you do, because it’s there. If it weren’t…

My dilemma is more complex, however, because I do have an engine that works, it’s just the bits that go with it, in this case the boat. Wendy May’s 26ft of pitch pine were designed with seaworthiness, offshore passage-making, and eye-candiness in mind. Her sheer, powerful turn of bilge and sweet swooping lines were not drawn up as an engine box.

Vetus, too, designed a reliable power station within which the equivalent of 16 horses have been tethered to canter my 5.7-tonne little ship along over any tide. But they did not design it to fit into a round hole.

Take the impeller plate. Six little brass screw- heads hold it on and I can get at five of them. To remove the last one I had to call upon the services of a mechanic.

That was after I finally gave up trying to retrieve the rogue myself. ‘You wanna get hex heads,’ he said as I weighed out the cash.

But someone at the yard told me of a patent impeller plate designed just for such events. It uses large screws that can be left just finger- tight and has slots in it so you can slide it into position. Brilliant, problem solved, I thought.

I hung upside down, like a fruit bat, dribbling in concentration

Two days later, having fitted my new patent impeller plate, I was empowered once more. I awaited, in trepidation for the tide to lift Wendy May in her mud berth, then opened the raw water inlet and fired her up. Nothing but a chug of smoke came through the exhaust. I shut the engine down. The patent seal couldn’t be sweated up tight enough.

So now the hunt was on for ‘hex heads’. Vetus doesn’t stock them, nor did three fastening companies I tried, or rather two didn’t, the last one did stock, but only in plain steel.

Eventually I stumbled upon a small engineering firm tucked away in an industrial estate – may the good Lord bless Sutherland Turned Parts Ltd and all who work for her – whose director, Peter Byne, said: ‘Six hex heads in stainless… say £20? Can’t do ‘em till this afternoon, though.’
With the old impeller plate now fitted and water surging through the engine I cast off, feeling like Hector waving his sword over his head. Was there nothing that could defeat me? I warped her clear and lobbed the bowlines ashore, the sound of plashing water gurgling over the side like a mountain burn to my ears.

Then I pushed the throttle lever ahead and she went astern. I pushed it astern and she, not unsurprisingly went astern, too.

‘She won’t go ahead,’ I said plaintively to a fellow berth-holder as I sheathed my sword.

‘Don’t worry, it happens to all of us,’ he said as he threw me a line and pulled Wendy May back into her berth as the ebb came away.

It was the morse cable, which I’d replaced only recently. That time the throttle lever end had snapped. This time the other end had snapped. My temper was about to do likewise.

Cockpit floorboards scattered on deck, WD- 40 fired off like a gunslinger, I hung upside down like a fruit bat, dribbling in concentration, wondering why mole grips keep changing their aperture after only a quarter of a turn and wishing that Stuart Turner, Mr Volvo Penta and the chief executive of Vetus had been taken out and shot at dawn.


Dick Durham