The Dauntless Fuel System

After three days in Xtapa, I was getting ready to go again.

My Racor systems

The night before departure, I topped up all our fluids, both oil and coolant were down, since we had those repairs the days earlier. While they were topped up upon completion of those repairs, it takes running time for air to work out of the systems.

The rough seas and miserable pitching of the last few days seemed to really scour the fuel tank, so I ran the fuel polisher system (filtering fuel to take water and impurities out) on the starboard tank for 8 hours the day before. During the 8 hours, vacuum on the filter had increased from 4”, which is OK, but not great, to only 5”. Which is marginal. Since we were getting underway for another multiple day passage, I changed the fuel polisher filter, a Racor 900 filter system (Racor 2040 2-micron filters bought on Amazon for $12 each.

I usually don’t run the fuel polisher that often anymore.  Unless needing to really top up the tanks, like leaving the Canaries for the Caribbean, I only put new fuel in one tank. Thus, I can isolate any issues. I then run the fuel polisher on the new fuel to check it out. Usually an hour; If the vacuum doesn’t change significantly, I turn it off. Sometimes the vacuum will even go down, when the new batch of fuel is better than what was in the tank.

Underway, I also always set the return to the same tank it is feeding from. Once, in prehistoric times, I set the return to the other tank as a means to transfer fuel. Of course, I forgot and ran out of fuel while running. I didn’t do that again.

But I did. This second time, I had inadvertently left both feeds and returns open. For whatever reason, my system tends to return more fuel to the port tank and less to the starboard tank if both returns are open. Thus, I emptied one tank. But this time, the engine did notice because I had also left the sight tubes open on top and bottom. The result was that although the starboard tank was empty, enough fuel was being returned, keeping the sight tube full, which was then fed back to the engine.

Aux fuel pump

Had I closed the sight tube, the engine would suck air from the tank feed.

Lesson learned. Nowadays, besides feeding and returning to the same tank, I also keep the top of the sight tubes closed, so that fuel goes back to the tank. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of using cooler fuel from the tank.

I like the Racor setup very much. Twin primary filters, Racor 500, in parallel, and a Racor 900 for fuel polishing and transfer. For a long-distance cruiser like Dauntless, it’s a mission critical system. Meaning don’t leave home without it. When underway, I don’t go into the engine room often, maybe only twice a day, once in the evening before my shower and bed and in the morning, after my early morning watch. (I usually wait until crew is awake, so I don’t wake them by opening engine room hatch, unless the night before I thought I may have an issue, then I check again as soon as I wake).

Racor filters

The parallel Racors really give me peace of mind. In the early days, when changing filters was more of an adventure than it should be, if I suspected a problem, I’d immediately switch filters to the new one and then monitor the new one for issues (water or clogging). But I didn’t have to deal with the filter just then.  If in a benign environment, I may shut down the engine, but that is rare. Nowadays, I can change a filter in less than two minutes and that includes priming engine if need be. I installed an electric fuel pump just for that purpose. It makes doing any fuel related work so easy. I used to hate changing the engine mounted filters. I still have the scar on the back of my hand from spending days trying to prime engine (turned out to be a failed O ring had clogged fuel line to Injector pump). Nowadays, if I do switch filters while underway, I will change the old filter, so I always have a new one ready to go at an instant.

Fuel from Colon Panama
Strange coincidence that the only place I got significant water in fuel was the only place that gave me a bottle of fuel to prove it was good. Ummm

Nowadays, I almost never have an issue. But when I do, I need the fuel polisher now.

Like when we fueled up in Colon, Panama, waiting to transit the Panama Canal. It was a fuel barge, made even sketchier because they spent some time transferring fuel from a tug to the barge and then to my boat. Once I returned to our slip and ran the fuel polisher, it picked up a lot of water. Another reason to never run from both tanks at once. I knew I had a problem, but it was isolated in the port fuel tank. I also installed those plastic drains that can be opened by hand on all three Racor filters. So, in a situation like this, it made it particularly easy to run fuel polisher a while, when bowl is full of water, empty, run, repeat, until I decide to also change filter. I’ll usually do that at the end.  Then give it a good run again to make sure it’s good to go.

I’ve had a few occasions, in which I just let the fuel polisher run and the vacuum gets to 22” to 24” of mercury (Hg).  When that happens, I am ever more grateful that none of that crap got to engine or even primary filters.

Because the Racors are doing their job so well, I don’t change the engine mounted fuel filters very often. Maybe even on the order of 500 to 1000 hours. This interval has gotten longer and longer because even in the past when I did have some water in the primary filter, the secondary engine mounted filters had none.

I like Fram

You may think that that’s excessive. What’s the harm in changing the primary filters? In my first year or two, the primary filters were the cause of all sorts of issues from blocked fuel lines to air in the system. They are hard to reach, which introduces a greater possibility of error in replacement or even affecting some other nearby engine component.

The Ford Lehman SP135 engine and I have an agreement. I don’t mess with it and it does its’ thing, which is to never stop until so commanded. So, I am particularly careful working near the engine.

A couple of weeks later, this system would again save my bacon. I had carelessly kept running from the starboard tank, even after it went below the sight tube. I did have a reason, I wanted to see if I had really needed the expensive fuel I had added in some expensive place.

I’m in the pilot house and suddenly, I hear the pitch of the engine change. Remember, the Ford Lehman and I have an agreement. The engine pitch never changes. So, in seconds I had the hatch open and was down in front of the engine by the Racors. I instantly switched filters, then took the time to look around. The engine was starting to surge now (up and down in rpms). I looked at the feed tank and saw no fuel in the sight tube. Now the sight tube is still about 20 gallons above the feed line. I open the port tank feed and return and close the starboard feed and return.

Surge continues. I ask Larry to give it some throttle. No change. Throttle back to just above idle. I turn on the electric fuel pump used to prime filters. Add throttle. In about 5 seconds that seems like 5 minutes, the engine smooths out. I wait another minute and turn off electric fuel pump and carefully adjust valves that put electric fuel pump into main fuel line. (otherwise, when first installed, the fuel pump just pump fuel around in a circle, with out the need to go to the engine. Under normal setting this fuel pump is isolated in a parallel loop and the engine uses gravity feed and it’s lift pump).

From first change of engine pitch to running normally again took less than 60 seconds.

My Sp135 was good to go again.




Water & Fuel; Fuel & Water

But thankfully not together.

My next to last set of friends/crew left Friday for Tallinn, and I’m waiting in Helsinki for last set, my dear friends of 30 years, Leonie and Martin.  This weekend alone has given me the time to pretty much do nothing and on a boat nothing is always fun!

I’m writing this piece now, Monday morning, on the forlorn hope, that at some time in the next days, I will actually have Wi-Fi that is connected to something.  Virtually everyone says they have Wi-Fi, which really only guarantees you a router is you read the fine print.

I’m also doing a load of laundry having got the Splendid to work for the first time this year.  A few weeks ago, I was inspired enough to actually take the back off to see what the problem was, hoping it was something obvious and that I could fix.  An unplugged plug being my first choice.

Well, it did turn out to be obvious, but a little harder to remedy.  The belt had simply come off the motor and wheel for the drum.  I made a halfhearted attempt to get it back on, and then inadsplixity, I decided it was easier to collect all the screws for the back, put them in a baggie, tape the baggie to the back and then put the back panel in the compartment under the unit.

What was I waiting for? Godot?

In any case, in the time it took me to do all that, it took me less time to get the belt back on yesterday.

My only disappointment in the whole deal was that I discovered that it will still not run off the inverter, but only with the generator.  I seldom run the genny, but am now, as I must to a wash for the bed linens for my next guests.

Now back to our story: water and then fuel.

Yesterday, remember the day with nothing to do, I had washed my face in the sink in my head and as I always do I listen for the telltale sound the fresh water pump makes as it cycles off.  This usually happens a few seconds after the water is turned off.

I was listening intently because I knew the port side water tank was almost empty and I try not to let the pump such a lot of air.  Because when it does that, the faucets will spit at you and as they are at the level of one’s crouch.  Then a few hours later, when you innocently go to turn on the cold water, your crouch gets blasted by a plug of cold water.  If you’re dressed it’s downright embarrassing, but if naked, it just plain shocking.

So, listening closely as the pump droned on, I went to switch the water tank valves.  Turned off port, turned on starboard.

Now usually at this point, it may take many seconds or even a minute or two, for the pump to build sufficient pressure and turn off.

Sometime by turning on the kitchen tap, I can facilitate this process to get the air out, since the kitchen is the highest tap.

I do so and the water pressure is not very strong, much like it is running out. Strange I think.  I turn it off and the water pump continues to run and run.

Well, just a few months ago, the same thing had happened.  I spent an hour trying to diagnose the problem.  Then, it turned out the valve for the just emptied tank was NOT fully closed, maybe open only 1/8” but that was enough.

So this time, I think oh, I know this problem, I go check the valves, but the port tank was fully closed.

Being at a marina, I had turned off the Maretron system which tells me the level of the tanks.  I wanted to do this because my first thought was the tank I thought was full, was actually empty.  This had also happened to me somewhere in the past.

The Maretron sensors confirmed that I had one full tank, but it also said that I still had 20 gallons in the port tank, which I had thought was empty.  The Maretron tank sensor works well for low quantity, so now I was getting flummoxed.

I had already turned off the water pump just so it would keep running while I tried to find the problem.

I switched the tanks again, back to the not quite empty port tank; turned on the pump and ran the kitchen water again. No change, I tried the hot water, but there was not hot water!

Now, this was getting stranger still.  Even if the water tanks are empty, the hot water tank is always full since if the water pump cannot pump water from the tanks, it also cannot pump water out of the hot water tank.

Would you like to guess what the problem was?


So twenty minutes later, I finally decide to check all the faucets in the boat.

Sure enough, the faucet in my head was happily running just as I had left it 20 minutes earlier! I turned it off the water pump turned off within seconds.

Now, a little fuel issue, but at least I understood what happened immediately.  But I will give you time to guess for yourselves.

Coming back to Helsinki, we had motored for about 5 hours. No problems.

The next morning, I go to the engine room to check the fuel tank levels.  I do this my means of sight tubes. Sight tubes are connected to the top and bottom of each tank and indicate the level of the fuel inside the tank just based on the fact that fluid finds its own level.  The only thing you much check is that for the sight tubes to be accurate, the valves that connect them to the tank must be open, top and bottom, as well as the feed and return valves to that respective tank. Four valves all must be open.

I check the starboard tank that the motor had been feeding from, it indicated 3” of fuel, at this point about 35 gallons (yes, I need fuel).

The port tank was empty, empty.

I knew I was low on fuel, so I had used the fuel polisher to transfer all the fuel for port to starboard, just in case.  I did not want the engine to run out while underway.  I know the tank is empty when the fuel polisher is just sucking air.

I also checked the port tank, even though empty, sometimes the return valve is hard to fully close, so it can collect fuel sometimes.

I go to open the four valves and what do I see, they are already open!

Now that strange.  Stranger still is that the engine ran and had no problem running.  I had done this before last year.  I had both feed pipes on from each tank, but one tank was empty.  It took me an hour to figure out why the engine would not keep running.  Why? Because the fuel pump is sucking air from the empty tank and pumps always prefer air over liquid as it’s easier to suck.

So why did the engine have no problem running?



And the answer is, last year when the engine would not start, the feed pipe was open, but the sight tubes were closed.  Had the engine had fuel this is the normal running configuration.  By having the sight tubes closed normally, there is less chance of air getting into the system.

This time the 4 valves were open on the empty port tank, the 4 valves were also open on the tank the engine was supposed to be feeding from.  But again the engine ran for 5 hours with no hiccups at all, like the good Ford Lehman it is.

Why did it work?

The running engine returns to the tank much more fuel than it needs.  Because I had left the sight tubes open also, the engine never got a chance to suck air from the empty tank.  Instead after start up, as it returns fuel to both tanks, the fuel to the empty port tank is flowing right back down the sight tube and being feed back to the engine.  And it was just enough (since some was returning to the starboard tank also) so that the fuel lines never got any air ingested.

Had I gone down to the engine room while the engine was running, I would have seen a full sight tube.

The reason the previous time something similar happened, and the engine would not run, was because the sight tubes were closed.  Now the fuel being returned has to go into the tank, fall to the bottom of the tank, splash, and collect back at the lowest point near the feed pipe.

But that takes too much time and even the splashing fuel in an empty tank causes a lot of air.

SO this time, having the sight tubes open, kept the fuel for aerating itself and also minimized the time it took for it to be at the feed pipe.

All’s Well that Ends Well.

Now, let’s go find some f…ing internet.

Surviving Boca Chita – It’s Harder than You Think

We had been anchored at Marine Stadium, just east of downtown Miami.  A gorgeous site, with a clay bottom, so very good holding for the anchor.  We had been here two days, so I was getting hot to trot.

Cumulus Mammatus Not the last time I'd see them this weekend either
Cumulus Mammatus
Not the last time I’d see them this weekend either

The National Weather Service had been forecasting a frontal passage for that day, Thursday, so I decided it was better to be underway during a storm, then anchored.  With land and other boats so close by, being blown about by changing winds is far more stressful for me, then to be buttoned up in the pilot house, with wind and rain lashing the windows.

We stopped at Crandon Park Marina to fill up one of two water tanks.  A nice place, with reasonable priced fuel (for southern Florida) and a really helpful, friendly staff.  I could see the storm clouds building to our west as we started on the three hour, 15 nm trip south to Boca Chita.

And then it got strange.

My autopilot (ComNav) compass, a fluxgate compass (for those who care), is usually 10 degrees off of magnetic, but at least it is consistent.  Consistent that is until you flush a toilet.  It took me 6 months to figure out why when on autopilot the boat would make a sudden turn, as the compass heading jumped 30°.  Turns out the fluxgate is located within 6 feet of the Lectsan Sanitation Processing unit, so the current thru the processing unit, is producing a magnetic field.  Umm, maybe with the new generation of marine mechanics, their video games expertise has superseded the need for electro-magnetic theory.   Maxwell’s & Ampere’s Laws?  We don’t need no stinkin laws.

Yes, I’m looking forward to the next 30 years with unanticipated glee.  Please Mister Old Person, show me how to get my thing (any electro-mechanical 

device) working again.  Sure, sonny, just grab this and yank here. 

Sorry, I digress.


Back to the Present

But, now with the storm bearing down on us, my autopilot compass was 90 to 180 degrees off and not steady wither. Totally worthless, and then the strangeness happened.  My Raymarine GPS compass was also off by at least 40 to 80 degrees.  Now that never happened before.

My Polar Navy gps was working fine, as was the Raymarine course over ground (cog), but to steer a heading, I, or actually, my crewmate for this leg of the adventure, Richard, no not me, another Richard, was steering, using the good old magnetic compass to steer by.

First, I decided to try to recalibrate the Raymarine compass, as it has always been good till now.  It consists of making a number of circles.  While we were circling, I figured I may as well recalibrate the ComNav also, as it also needed to do circles.  After about 10 minutes and five circles, they each said they were calibrated.  We continued south, into strong winds, but only 2 foot waves.

Within, a minute or two, the ComNav settled to it normal state of being, about 10° off magnetic, but it was consistent.  In the meantime, the Raymarine went all wacky again.  So, it’s Tango Uniform.

I was a bit disappointed to get to Boca Chita before the storm.  I actually like storms at sea.  There is nothing to bang into and nobody to bang into you.  It’s freedom.

In this case, the winds had built to ferocious westerlies, 25 knots gusting to the low 40s.  Boca Chita is a small harbor, in the shape of an square with rounded corners, about 300 feet on a side.  The narrow entrance faces west, so as I entered, the wind was right behind me and I made a wide circle to the right, intending to anchor in the southwest corner.  As I straightened up the boat, near the south wall, the winds were up to 45 knots (50 mph, 80 kph).

The plan was to tie a midships port line and use that as a spring, to bring the boat to a halt as it pivots against the wall as I give it full right rudder.

A great plan; the problem was the “helpers” on the dock.  They are incapable of having the slightest clue about boat handling, vectors or anything remotely associated with physics (the whole universe.  Now, you can mitigate this incompetence, if you are lucky enough to get someone, who will at least follow directions.

We weren’t.

We got the braniac, who decided he could halt the 40,000 lb. boat by holding the line, pulling and putting his whole 150 lbs into the effort.  As the boat pulled him down the dock, he almost trips over the first cleat and is almost running as he passes the second cleat, while Dauntless is closing to within 10 feet of the corner wall, I yelled for the second time, this time even more forcibly and maybe even some expletive language, “put the fucking line on a cleat.”  Somehow it sinks in, he does, and as I crank over the wheel we come to prefect stop.

Later, I see the helper and thank him.  He does not invite me for a drink.

We would spend the next three days amazed that the number one maneuver to tie up was to come straight in, hit the dock with your bow with varying degrees of force, throw someone on shore a line and then have them pull the boat to the dock.  If I saw it once or twice, I wouldn’t have believed it.  But we saw it almost hourly.

I got to put my electric fuel pump to use one again.  This time, while running the generator I was also polishing my fuel and transferring it to one tank to get an accurate measurement of quantity.  All off a sudden, I hear the generator lowering rpms, as its output voltage drops from 120 to about 60.  I quickly, take it off line and jump into the engine room.  I realize almost immediately the problem is that it is sucking air from the empty tank.  I close that tank’s feed and reach for the little wireless relay remote that runs the electric fuel pump I installed with Richard’s help in Providence, RI.  I switch it on, but no change on the gen, but then recognize that I must close the gravity feed, otherwise the fuel pump just pumps the fuel back to the tank, since that is easier than thru the fuel filters.  As soon as I close that valve and open the valves putting the fuel pump in line, the generator goes back to its normal song.  I run the electric pump for another 30 seconds, then turn it off, it’s duty well done and the three days it took to find the right fitting and install, well paid back, yet again.

My aux electric fuel pump. The red handle is normal gravity feed to filters and then engine/generator
My aux electric fuel pump.
The red handle is normal gravity feed to filters and then engine/generator
My wireless relay for fuel pump. The green light below, is on, when the pump is on. (just in case a Chinese satellite activates the relay)
My wireless relay for fuel pump.
The green light below, is on, when the pump is on.
(just in case a Chinese satellite activates the relay)

Did I mention the first time I had to use it, I had just pulled away from the slip and in my pre start checklist, and I had turned off the fuel tank we were using?

Starving the main engine like that, as I ran the electric pump; I was happily bleeding air form the engine fuel filters, with a big grin on my face, as soon as the air was gone, I could switch the pump off immediately and the engine fired right up with nary a hiccup.

We are here in Boca Chita Key, part of the Biscayne National Park to get some work done on the boat on the cap and hand rails.  I like the dock, it makes easy work and the scenery can’t be beat.

Monday, we will be heading to the Miami River, where with the help of Parks, of Hopkins Carter Marine, he put me in touch with someone who should have an affordable slip for me.  Our paravanes are being fabricated as I write this and hopefully their installation will start Tuesday.

I’ll do a posting about the whole paravanes thing after the fact, so I do not have to eat any words.

Here are some pictures of Boca Chita, boats and the wild life.  Enjoy

A Beneteau in No Name Harbor
A Beneteau in No Name Harbor
New Friends
Some of the wildlife

All the pictures (well, most of them) can be found at:

A Contender
A Contender