Keep on running
Boat breakdowns are on the rise, so what can you do to avoid becoming one of the increasing number of stranded boaters?
Surprisingly, there were 4,552 call-outs to River Canal Rescue in 2016, peaking at 144 per week – a total rise of 12.1 percent over 2015 when there were just over 4,000, peaking at an average of 140 per week. And if current trends are anything to go by, call-outs for 2017 are likely to be higher. Up to the end of this April RCR attended nearly 1,000 call-outs, and in April alone there were 100 more breakdowns than April 2016.
The main issues in 2016 were fuel (including injection pumps, liftpumps or injectors), electrical, not including batteries, cooling, batteries, cables (including Morse control issues), alternators, gearbox and driveplate failures, starter motors, alternator belt replacements and fouled propellers.
Here are the top five issues and how you can help prevent them
Contaminated fuel due to diesel bug and water contamination accounted for most fuel-related breakdowns. In its mildest form it appears as black dust or soot, at its worst, it’s a black slime or jelly. Once in the system it clogs the fuel system and stops the engine working.
The use of additives will prevent the bacteria from growing and kill anything
that might be forming in the tank, but more severe cases (or when the fuel system is blocked) will require a diesel bug shock treatment.
Blocked filters and fuel contamination due to dirt and debris in the tank making its way through the fuel system also caused a large number of breakdowns – that can be easily rectified through regular checking and servicing and a number of marinas now offer fuel polishing services which will clean fuel without having to treat or dispose of the contaminated fuel.
These issues were mainly caused by lack of attention to electrical connections. Wires coming away or corroding is a common fault, so visually check and look for loose connections or disconnected wires before you journey and use a water-resistant spray or petroleum jelly to stop damp getting into electrical components such as isolators and block connectors.
The most common cause is due to an air-lock in the system which is simple to resolve. To check whether this is the issue, feel the top and bottom of the swim tank; if everything is fine there should be a difference in temperature, if not then both top and bottom will be hot or cold. To remedy this, unscrew the bolt on top of the ‘swim’ tank which will release any air in the system. Overheating can also be caused by many issues from a coolant hose rupturing, (look for leaks) a water pump failing or an alternator belt shredding (which drives the water pump) or, in the worst case, a head gasket failing.
Caused by misunderstandings around what battery to use, electrical capacity and charging. For example, linking a leisure rather than a cranking battery to the starter system could leave you without power when you need it most.
The two different types of batteries are designed for different requirements. The cranking battery is the same as fitted to most vehicles and designed to deliver a fast, high, output. It discharges and charges back to full capacity quickly. Leisure batteries are designed to deliver a lower output continuously and will maintain capacity as long as they are charged regularly.
As a general rule, each battery in the battery bank requires two to three hours charging to get back to full performance once fully discharged, assuming it’s in good condition.
If the wrong battery is used, the sudden surge of power needed to start the engine can quickly drain a leisure battery which will eventually lead to its failure.
Some ‘leisure’ batteries sold in the marine market are modified starter batteries and their performance, while suitable occasional boaters, can be unreliable for more frequent users. For liveaboard and frequent users, it’s worthwhile investing in true leisure batteries.
Each battery cell can affect the whole bank, so if one cell’s water level drops to below 50 percent, it will affect the battery capacity and bring the bank capacity down to the same level, irrespective of how good the other batteries are. This is one of the best reasons never to mix and match batteries. Always replace the whole bank of old ones with new ones.
Similarly, battery terminals shouldn’t be forgotten – if they’re tight and greased they’ll deliver a good connection. One loose terminal will cause engine failure and usually the main earthing cable (connected to the engine bed) is the culprit.
5 CABLES AND LINKAGES
Cable issues are primarily due to exposure to the elements. They only have a certain lifespan which means that if they’re not used regularly, they’ll rust. So grease the ends of the cable if leaving the boat for long periods and always check the operation before setting off; if there’s any roughness or stiffness then it might be time to pick up a new one. When fitting, make sure that any bends are as minimal as possible as these will be the areas which suffer high stress and are likely to fail.
If you don’t understand the workings of your engine or fail to service and maintain your boat, then it’s likely at some stage, you’ll end up stranded. Lack of engine knowledge, gearbox/driveplate failures, alternator issues and faulty alternator
belts, starters, propellers and couplings appear to be responsible for their fair-share of call- outs. In the majority of cases, the ‘emergency’ could have been avoided with a little know-how, by giving the boat a ‘once-over’ or simply carrying spares.
Know your engine – most owners believe the only way to turn off a boat’s engine when the switch fails (invariably causing a panic) is to turn off the fuel. However, most vessels have a manual stop button or lever on the right-hand side of the engine, halfway down. Using this instead of the fuel shut off will allow you to restart and continue on your journey without having to bleed your fuel system.
With some engines failing to stop or being ‘completely dead’ and not starting is down to a connector. To resolve the issue, locate the wiring loom that runs across the top of the engine and look for a ‘bulge’. Peel back the rubber covering and you’ll find a block connector – simply pulling it apart and then putting it back together should rectify things.
If that doesn’t work on a ‘dead’ engine, it could be the isolation switches. If they’ve been left ‘idle’ for a while corrosion can build up, so simply try switching one way and then the other, or spray with WD40 before you set off.
Bilges: if they are full of oil and water it will be thrown over the engine – or into it which can be disastrous – as well as the starters and alternators. It also tends to affect driveplates if the oil/water mixture gets into the bell housing.
Gearbox/driveplates – If you hit an underwater object, the driveplate is usually the first casualty. The good news is that if you damage it, the gearbox is likely to be okay. But gearboxes do tend to receive a fair bit of abuse, so go easy and service them regularly.
Alternators: contributing factors to alternator failure range from poor battery conditions resulting in the alternator working harder to charge the batteries, to battery management systems that overwork the alternator to keep batteries continually charged. Ultimately, one of the biggest issues is that alternators operate in a damp, hot environment, which is not healthy for any electrical product.
Alternator belts: always carry a spare, and before setting off develop a routine which includes checking their condition. Simply twist the belt and if there are cracks or the edges are starting to look ragged it’s time for a new one. ‘Squealing’ from an old belt is usually an indication that a replacement is needed. If it’s from a new belt, it needs adjusting.
Couplings: regularly check that the bolts connecting the propeller shaft to the engine are tight; if they work loose any movement will either sheer them off or make the coupling bolt holes oblong, producing a ‘delayed’ drive. Eventually the coupling will need to be replaced, and you might even have to change the propshaft if the coupling has damaged it.
Driveplates take a battering
Check propshaft coupling bolts
Release this bolt to get air locks out of the system
Check engine connectors