Losing a diesel engine for safety

As will be clear from many of our posts such as Zero Fossil Fuel Sailing and Electric Motor now or later we are against Diesel engines from a Sustainable view. And yes they fail on all aspects of Sustainable:

  • Environmentally: surely obvious! Fossil Fuels are incredibly destructive and we have got to stop using them (and soon) if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change (as if what has happened in Australia recently isn’t catastrophic enough)
  • Financially. In our case we will have to spend a lot of time and money to get our 42 year old fuel system reliable and maintainable. Plus of course [diesel is only going to get more and more expensive and scarce.
  • Mentally: There is the yucky nature of diesel systems maintenance (the smell, the mess, the squeezing into tiny spaces) and also the stress of knowing you are contributing to the destruction of the very habitats you visit.
  • Physically: Diesel engines encourage inactivity (because they are so easy to use they encourage you to try to keep to a timetable and motor every time the wind is too light, too strong or from the wrong direction) so instead of the exercise of sailing you just sit all day which is really unhealthy.

However, our belief is that Diesel Engines are also a safety risk. Their “always available” reputation creates dependency and so when they fail some people don’t have the skills or equipment or plans to avoid danger. In 2018 the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the UK launched to go to boats with “Machinery failure” 1,322 times which made up 36% of all boat incidents (plus 75 incidents or 2% for “out of fuel and I assume a good proportion of the 25 or 0.7% “Fire/Explosion” incidents). Compared to this over 38% the next highest reason is “Stranding/Grounding” with 343 or 9.3%

This video shows some of the problems with diesel engines. Bear in mind that a) this is a very experienced couple [Paul and Sheryl Shard have been sailing around the world on multiple boats for decades] b) it is on a boat that is only one year old, that has been meticulously and skilfully maintained c) it is a boat from a builder with an incredibly good reputation.

When you look at the diesel installation on our 42 year old Rival (remembering that at the time they too had a superb reputation for quality) we see that:

  • Problems with “diesel bug” and other sludge are more likely due to the age of our tanks, their inaccessibility, the lack of any tank inspection hatches, the lack of a tank sump or means of draining & cleaning tanks.
  • If the fuel supply were to be blocked then the only option available is to switch between the fuel tanks. However, there are some pipes that are common to both .
  • Despite hours trying to work out the fuel routes, including 9 taps (2 pf which are seized and inaccessible) we are still uncertain what is going where.
  • Almost all our fuel pipes are metal (copper we assume), they are fixed into place with clips and much of their routes are inaccessible (behind fixed timber work, behind the exhaust system and more). It would be impossible to take this apart in the way that Paul does while at sea.

We could significantly improve the quality and number of fuel filters (2 at present, one of which is leaking; but no water trap). We could put additives in the fuel (but that fuel is at least 2 years old and we don’t know how much sludge there already is and we can’t get at the tanks to find out). We could siphon out the fuel but have no way of getting a hose to collect sludge from the fuel supply hose area as the fuel filler host is at the other end of the tank (which we assume has baffles to stop the fuel sloshing around).

So we can’t see how we could stop diesel bug or other contaminants getting from the tank into this long, convoluted, inaccessible and fixed collection of pipes.

That being the case anytime we motor into any kind of rough sea we would have to expect that the engine could fail at any moment.

To use this engine without completely replacing the tanks, filters, taps and pipes would, at least in our minds, put us at great risk of being another boat calling the RNLI because our engine has failed.

So it appears almost certain that we will be going ahead and replacing this diesel engine with an electric motor before we launch (and selfishly while a 5 year old Yanmar 39hp engine might still have some 2nd hand value).

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