Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Of Boat Engines And Engineers

The engineer is coming today.  He's been helping me fix the boat's engine.  I've been here for nearly three and a half years and for most of that time I've been pinned to the bank - right here.  I was hoping to get about a bit more when I bought the boat.  Costing much of my late father's bequest and a matching contribution from P, who had just come into a little money from his late mother, it was expensive enough to have expected, quite reasonably I think, to have been able to pack up and taken off.  I've discovered that things don't quite work like that when a boat is involved.  The boat was made in 2002, or so embossed numbers under the front and rear decks claim.  By whom the boat was made I have no clue.  Boat makers seem to be a modest breed quite unlike car manufacturers who emblazon company logos, badges, brands, models, engine sizes and subtle sexism for all to see.  The majority of boats I've seen, admittedly I've not looked under the bonnets of many, don't even show which company built them.  Someone suggested to me that it must be "one of those Polish boats".  That may be so, but how would I know?  If I buy a new piece of music kit I know what I'm getting if I buy Lexicon, Neumann or Midas.  The chevrons fell off the front of my van a few weeks ago, but I still know what make it is.  Well into an age of corporate branding and with a selfie backlash in full swing even a discreet label might sometimes prove handy.  To whom do I go if I want answers to questions I can't even articulate?

That's where people like the engineer come in.  The engineer lives in a caravan on a farm in the next village.  I have lived in Norfolk and The Fens since the mid-eighties, but it is only since being here that I have discovered a surprising number of people who live in caravans on farms.  Even the farmer and his girlfriend live in a caravan.  The engineer has worked all over the world.  He has worked on two of the world's three largest supertankers.  He has also run a huge vehicle hire operation in South Africa and a pub in the village.  He recently bought a house in Bulgaria for £1,500.  The engineer's personal needs are modest, much like the farmer.  From what I can work out the engineer doesn't actually earn any kind of wage on the farm, but every so often his farmer will give him a cheque to tide him over for a year or two.  He fixes things; big farm machinery, little farm machinery, but mostly the personal vehicles of members of his farmer's extended family.  Every now and again he needs to get off the farm and away from the demands, so he comes here.  He likes to talk and his stories are always interesting and he knows what to do with the spanners and wrenches I have acquired since living on this boat.  I have also learned a lot about my BMC 1.5 engine from the engineer.  He likes older engines.  He can get at the bits and does not need to use outrageously expensive diagnostic devices where computers talk to computers and only let outsiders in on their discoveries on a need to know basis.

My BMC 1.5 Litre Diesel Engine
The problems I've experienced with my boat mostly involve the release of fluids into the engine bay.  Before I met the engineer I had fixed a lot of clamps, clips and new hoses to replace the perished and rusted ones already in place.  I found early on that fixing anything on a boat requires the skills of a contortionist and a willingness to work with one's head and arms below the rest of the body.  I discovered parts of the boat I didn't know were there until I'd pumped and mopped out the water, coolant, oil or diesel - often a mixture of everything.  I found out early on that attempting to take the boat on the shortest of trips involved emergency stops as the engine overheated and threatened to blow a gasket.  In fact, at some point it had blown a gasket.  We took bits (lots of bits as it happened) off the engine to get to the cylinder head gasket and replaced that after we saw small cracks in the old one.  We had already replaced the thermostat in an attempt to keep the temperature in the coolant down.  At least the thermostat operation was reasonably straightforward.  The engineer bought a sheet of "gasket paper" and made a gasket to fit, which I found enterprising and impressive.  "I haven't had to do that for a few years," he chortled with the satisfaction that only comes from proving that old knowledge is still in there somewhere.  There seem to be a lot of things he hasn't had to do for years when it comes to my engine.  After we'd sorted out the cooling system to a point where it was no longer the primary culprit for the accumulation of liquids in the bilges we found the fuel system needed looking at.  I had never heard of copper washers before, but I think I went through dozens of them as a I tightened loose nuts on every junction in the external system.  I had never heard of a spill rail before I had to order a replacement for the one on the engine with its tiny cracks in the joints.  Fuel was still leaking and it has been a job and a half finding the sources.  I seem to have developed a skill for tracing leaks, but I lack the confidence to know how to deal with them.  I started at the top of the engine with the bits that are most visible and have gradually worked my way down and further into the uncharted depths of inaccessible places.  One time I suspected that fuel was leaking from the fuel injection pump and the engineer confirmed that I was probably right.  Naturally it was in an inaccessible place.  For months we tried on and off to get hold of a timing gauge tool, because that was apparently what would be needed to put the fuel injection pump back on to with all the bits in the right position (see how technical knowledge now flows through me?).  I heard a rumour that Calcutts had one that they hired out, but they never answered my e-mails on the subject, although I have to give them credit for the speed with which they sent me a replacement spill rail.  The only spill rail available was for a 1.8 engine, but they enclosed the optional conversion kit to enable it to be fitted to my 1.5.  As it happened it didn't really matter since we ended up taking a tiny pipe cutter to it and chopping bits off.

One day the engineer phoned and said we are going to take off the fuel injection pump and have a look at it.  "But what about a timing gauge tool?" I asked.
"Don't worry, I have a plan; a cunning plan," he responded and in my imagination he was tapping the side of his nose.

Removal of the fuel injection pump was not straightforward, of course.  It required the removal of pipes and connectors, which themselves required the removal of other bits including the fuel filter and the rod that connects the cable from the throttle lever to the engine.  We hadn't got very far into the operation when the engineer confessed that repairing the fuel injection pump was no longer an option.  A spindle was wobbling where it shouldn't wobble and he diagnosed that it needed to be removed and taken to an holy place to be inspected, dissected, repaired, reassembled and extensively tested.  There was such an holy place about thirty miles away.  We went.  They greeted us with joy when we showed them our sacred artefact.  The engineer and another customer engaged in a conversation that made no sense to me at all.  I am pretty sure they were discussing my fuel injection pump, because another customer said, "I haven't see one of those for years," and I realised we were on familiar territory.  What followed though, was a discussion in an arcane language involving much swapping of numbers, brands, styles and processes and of which I understood not one word.

Three or four days later we returned to an holy place to retrieve the rejuvenated pump.  The engineer was worried that it might cost as much as £100, so I needed to be there with my credit card.  The engineer was wrong.  The full service and refurbishment cost £260 and, in a state of shock, we returned to the boat where the engineer could distract me from my silence once more with his amazing depth of knowledge and skill.  With no timing gauge tool (and I still have no comprehension of what one of these might look like or even do - I just knew we needed one) the engineer said that we were going to have to do this the old fashioned way.  In removing the pump he had left the rods in the rocker box in exact places with instructions to me not to touch anything until we got back with the pump.  Then consulting runic engravings we uncovered with the application of magic emery paper and muttering magic spells including the incantation, "22º before top dead centre," he manoeuvred and eased the crucial bits into place.  Once we'd refitted all the bits we'd had to remove it was time to crank the engine.  It turned, but wouldn't fire.  Damn!  It coughed into life on the second attempt.  We let the engine run for a while and then pulled the throttle back to tickover.  I know nothing about engines, but I am pretty sure I have never heard an engine run that slowly before and still manage to keep going.  It was a quasi-religious experience, a thing of beauty.  I had been blessed with a little insight into how some men get a bit excited about things like engines.

This seems an appropriate moment to take a pause.  This story is not over and I shall continue it because the engineer is coming any time now.

In other news, Jack was on his fourth vet by yesterday afternoon.  He may not have "concertina'd hisself" after all.  The latest suggestion seems to be

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