Passage to the Balaerics

Heather’s parents Peter and Ruth, joined us in Barcelona and were looking forward to cruising the Balaeric islands. They have plenty of hard won sailing experience so were a valuable addition to the crew for our first crossing.

Routes to the Balearic islands from Barcelona usually go from Barcelona to Mallorca or Barcelona to Formentura via Valencia. The second option covers a longer distance but has a shorter crossing. We opted for the first option. The weather looked good on Sunday and Monday…we prepared our passage plan and the crossing should have taken 13 – 16 Hours. we hoped to be there by mid afternoon on Monday.

Well, that was the plan.

We left our berth at 11:30pm and went via the fuel bay and then out into the Balaeric sea and set our course – due south to Mallorca. There were lots of container ships going into Barcelona via the Traffic Separation Scheme so we were careful to keep an eye on them backed up with Radar for those we couldn’t see. We had to alter course a number of times to prevent getting too close to these massive vessels, its incredible how quick they can loom up on you.

It was a still night with a bit of a swell and the moon kept appearing from behind the overcast sky. All was going well and Peter and I had just handed over watch to Heather and Ruth when the engine wavered a bit. Not much at first, but I have developed a keen ear for engines. All was not well. At first it was a slight change in note – but you become super sensitive to these things. Slowly we lost RPM. First we couldn’t achieve 2300, then 2000…before long we had the throttle to the stops and were only getting 1200 RPM. Not good. Then she died. All was silent apart from the clanking of the boom as we were knocked about by the swell. There wasn’t a breath of wind. We were now in containership territory, at night with no engine. Great.

All the symptoms the engine had led me to believe that we had a fuel supply issue. All the temps and pressures were good. Compression I assumed was good (new engine) air supply ok. Diesels are quite simple – fuel, air and compression and they should go. Everything pointed to fuel. The fuel in our boat was an unknown quantity – we bought the boat with full tanks – 273L. In fuel tanks that have not been used much there can be a build of of bacteria and over time dirt and sediment gets into the system. Not to mention the diesel can loose its properties meaning it doesn’t combust as readily. I thought we had a blocked fuel hose or filter restricting fuel flow to the engine.

It took Heather, Peter and I 2 long hours to remove and clean the primary filter and water separator. We re-assembled things as the boat knocked us from side to side old diesel spilling on us. The water separator had lots of dirt in it a sure sign that my assessment was right. Once re -assembled peter and I bled the system. This is a process of removing all air from the fuel lines between the tank and the injectors. First time didn’t work. She wouldn’t start. I dug out the manual and realized that we had not bled the fuel injection pump correctly. We did this, turned the key and she roared to life and gave us full RPM. It’s a great feeling to have an engine stop, diagnose the problem, fix it and have her re-start.

I slumped in my bunk and drifted off, one ear tuned to the engine. After an hour and a half she wavered again, slowed and stopped.

We went through the same process again, but this time it took 30 mins not, 2 hours… She started and ran for 40 mins before stopping again. It was now getting light and there was a slight breeze so we sailed a little while we talked over the issue. We came to the conclusion that the secondary fuel filter on the engine must have been becoming more and more blocked. These filters are sealed units and can’t be cleaned and we didn’t have a spare.

We drifted and sailed at 2 knots – slow going when you have 75NM to go. By experimenting we found that with the blocked filter and restricted fuel flow we could run the engine at low RPM for a long time – this would give us about 3 Knots…after a while the engine would stop…but then we could restart her again. Slow progress.

By midday there was a lovely 11-14kt breeze, which allowed us to sail right on our 178 deg heading. We were creaming along and Vega was alive – we were reaching speeds of 7.5 kts on a regular basis – fantastic sailing. Everyone was asleep below after a busy night and with the autopilot taking the helm I enjoyed the ride.

Land Ho! Eventually the NW Coast of Mallorca came into view about 20 miles away, the wind had softened but we were still making 4 kts. With the wind dropping and not much of an engine we decided we would not make our intened port and found an alternative – Cala St Vncent. She was 10NM’s away. The wind dropped to nothing – we were drifting at less than a knot. So close and yet so far – our GPS told us it would take 8 hours to cover the 10NM. Miserable…we put the engine on and achieved 3 knots – only 3 hours to run…we all sat there listening to every beat of the engine…she slowed and stalled. We started her again….she ran, slowed and stalled. We let her be. Determined to keep what little energy the engine had to help us enter Cala st Vincent and anchor, as we were now resigned to entering an unknown anchorage at night – not something we wanted to do with an dodgy engine.

It was 8pm and we were 5 miles off our anchorage when suddenly the wind arrived. At firs 8 kts, then 10….before long we had 18 knots on the nose. We were extatic! We were going to make it and just before dark . At one point we hit a boat speed of 8.7 kts under head sail alone. Fantastic, Neptune was looking out for us!

We sailed in to the anchorage, started the engine at the last minute, and dropped anchor. We had arrived. Almost 22 hours after setting off and all very relieved. We drank, ate and slept very, very well.

Next morning Heather and I set about finding a new fuel filter. We ended up heading to Puerto Pollenca, but ultimately had to get a cab to Palma to get the filter. We were back on the boat with the filter fitted by 2pm. The Engine ran a treat.

Now all we need to do now is drain our fuel tank, clean it, filter the fuel and refill it….another problem to solve.

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