Back in 1960, when I was just 9 years old, my favorite TV show was James A. Michner’s Adventures in Paradise starring Gardner McKay as Adam Troy, skipper of the elegant schooner Tiki III. I can still remember the theme music as I watched Captain Troy in his weekly exploits as he plied the azure South Pacific waters, delivered cargo and passengers, helped the locals through various crises, and generally found romance with some exotic island girl. That was the life for me! It just took me sixty years to make it happen.
At 2100 hours on April 13, after an enjoyable but hardly relaxing day hiking on Ua Pua (see “Bataan Death March”), we stowed our dinghy and outboard, pulled the anchors, and headed for Fakarawa in the Tuomotu Islands, a mere 520 nautical mile (NM) jaunt. This island is reputed to offer the world’s best SCUBA sites, replete with large sharks, skates, and rays (few of whom are aggressive). We had booked 2 days of diving to start April 19.
After sailing 24 hours in a fresh breeze, we were running the engine to charge our batteries and power the water maker when suddenly, the engine died. Travis, who was at the helm, muttered an epithet, and I immediately switched off the watermaker to conserve battery capacity. This was not good. We were less than half way to our destination, our batteries were about 75% charged, we were low on water, and there are no yacht repair facilities whatsoever in the Tuomotus. Our detailed charts we needed to navigate were electronic, although we had backup Navionics software on my i-Pad, which was fully charged. Our rudder shaft seals, which we had just replaced last December, were leaking heavily, but the electric bilge pump was easily keeping up with the flow, but used power doing so. We switched off all unneeded electrical users, and decided to continue on our route, but deal with the engine once daylight arrived. Our autopilot, with no way of charging our batteries, was a convenience we couldn’t afford, so we hand-steered through the night. At least the wind was steady and we continued to make 7 to 8 knots until sunrise.
When a diesel is starved for fuel, this is normally due to clogged filters, so once dawn broke, in spite of the 20 knot winds, we decided to let the autopilot take over while the two of us changed 2 primary and one secondary fuel filter, bled the low pressure lines, which involves pushing a button on the fuel lift pump hundreds of times until the air is bled out and the fuel starts to flow, said a quick prayer to King Neptune, and hit the ignition. The diesel fired, ran for a minute, and quit. Now it was time to call the reinforcements. Out came the trusty satphone, and I got my friendly Marina Del Rey, CA diesel mechanic on the line, who told me to bleed the injectors as well, which the Volvo diesel manual said shouldn’t be necessary. This we did, with the same result as previously, but with a mess of diesel oil sprayed on us both. We did discover, however, that we could run at idle speed without having the engine die, which was enough to get a small output from our alternator and prevent our batteries from becoming completely depleted.
I next called my good friend and trusty electrical engineer/diesel mechanic/boat genius RK Hawkinson in Sandusky, Ohio, who suggested checking the air intake. We pulled this unit from the engine, found the screen through which the air must pass totally fouled, but after a thorough cleaning and reinstallation, our problem persisted. Meanwhile, the autopilot was sucking down our batteries, which now held 55% of their capacity. We needed to fix this, and fast.
RK also suggested we might be getting some air in the fuel lines, which would cause our engine to fail. Travis was able to stick his head far enough into the engine compartment to detect a string of tiny bubbles rising from the base of our primary filter. Since we have interchangeable filters connected to a common fuel line, we were able to switch to the second unit, and also saw bubbles. At last, this was the “smoking gun” we had hoped to find, knowing now that a loose connection existed between the filters and the fuel tank.
Meanwhile, “Nor’easter” was still ripping along close to 8 knots, but since we’d been working below for almost 5 hours at this point, we were closing in on Fakarawa. We decided to divert from the remote Tuomotus to Papeete, Tahiti, which was, as this point, still 250 NM distant, but offered the best yacht services in the South Pacific.
Energized by our latest discovery, we began inspecting and tightening all the connections that could possibly be leaking. A few actually moved a bit. Once again, probably for the sixth time that day, we hand-pumped the fuel from the tank to the secondary filter, hit the starter, and got the engine running, but this time, it was able to maintain almost 2000 rpm, a big improvement from the idle speed we could carry previously. We figured amateur hour was over, we’d done what we could, and had enough output from the alternator to get us docked in Papeete. Then the wind died, and we motor-sailed another full day, sometimes making less than 4 knots, arriving Tahiti around lunchtime on April 18.
We are currently docked at Papeete Marina downtown, which is great fun. The grocery stores have everything one could find in any large city, and we are meeting lots of fellow world cruisers. Yesterday we thoroughly washed and detailed “Nor’easter,” and she looks great. We are hauling out tomorrow to renew the rudder seals, and the diesel mechanic is scheduled for Thursday. My wife Jamie, whom I haven’t seen since our March 3 departure from San Diego, flies into town May 2. Life is good!
With ongoing mechanical issues, our time in the South Pacific often feels more like Gilliagan’s Island or even McHale’s Navy than Adventures in Paradise. Adam Troy never needed to fix Tiki III, but maybe it didn’t even have an engine. This trip with my son has nonetheless been a true adventure, with everything I’d imagined as a 9-year-old and then some, other than having to import my own exotic Island Girl.