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  • Holly

Engine Problems Before Bay of Biscay Passage to Gibraltar

We were getting ready to finally leave the boatyard at La Rochelle. It was time. Not only had we spent way too much money in that town - equally on boaty things as pastries and sorbet - the weather window dictated it and the entire boatyard was in a mad dash to get shut down for the holiday. We were packed, provisioned and all set to head out and while we were doing all our pre-sail checklist, we noticed the oil in the saildrives was milky white. The weird thing was it was in both engines, which is either a tragic coincidence or good luck depending on how you look at it. This of course is a sign that water is getting into the oil which you definitely don’t want to have happen, particularly when you are headed across the Bay of Biscay.

AWEN on the ramp at low tide in La Rochelle

As it turns out, that was also the moment we realized that while we had 95 different kinds of dried beans on the boat, we forgot to get spare oil (I know). Because it was so odd to have it happen to both engines, we didn’t want to leave until we got it properly checked out by Volvo, but like I said, they were slammed busy trying to get everything done before the boatyard shut down in two days.

By the way, in an earlier post I talk about the unique and charming pace in France which all red-blooded American’s struggle with. I can say this because I’m married to a Frenchman but if you want to pick up the pace in La Rochelle you either say you are leaving in two days or observe what happens the week before a holiday shut-down in August. Mind you, they had JUST been shut down for three months due to COVID March through late June. I want that life!

So rather than taking off that night we called Volvo early the next morning and they wanted us to beach the boat on the ramp so they could look at the saildrives when the tide went out (a major perk in LR which means we didn’t have to pay for a haul out). Everyone figured it was some kind of fishing line issue even though we had line cutters. That was the moment I was kicking myself for not calling the insurance company and getting a lower deductible; a lesson we learned when we realized this might be a thing when we got hit by another boat trying to raft against us at the Marina. But I was also crossing my fingers it was a warranty issue.

The previous night we had done the boat christening and on the first try the bottle of champagne had bounced right off the cleat when Stephane gave it a whack. I’m not normally superstitious but I’m quickly accumulating sailor blood cells so it’s worth mentioning.

So we beached the boat, right next to a monohull who did the same thing to clean his hull parked directly under a sign that says ‘do not clean boats here’ as we pondered the mayonnaise situation in our saildrives and waited for Volvo to figure it out. There was a sign that water was coming in because the level inside was high and upon the first visual inspection there wasn’t any rope or line which baffled everyone working on it including our broker, Uchimata, Volvo and Loic form YTI. So everybody was basically trying to find an explanation as to what could possibly happen to both sides at once.

Everyone checking out the saildrive situation

The initial conversation was ‘you have line cutters’ therefore Volvo wouldn’t want to touch it as the warranty wouldn’t apply. one ever told us if Uchimata put line cutters on that it would void the saildrive warranty (since they literally do this three times a day). They were sort of saying that if you don’t put line cutters on the prop and saildrives are covered, but then if you hit lines and cause damage that’s an insurance issue. No further comment.

So the first step was for Uchimata to remove the propeller and the line cutters, then the Volvo guys came and opened up the sail drive. They decided to take the axle to the shop and see if it needed to be replaced. So they did that and then when they came back and were putting it all together, they started to wonder if it set much deeper inside than it had when they took it off. Everyone compared pictures (take a lot of pictures when things like this happen), and that was actually the case.

So they think that in the Volvo assembly line or whatever, the seals just didn't get pushed deep enough into the casing, which is why it affected both engines. So if the seal isn’t completely set in, it would allow water to get sucked in over time. Since the time this happened to us, we later heard of at least three other new FP boats in the Med who were experiencing this problem.

However, we were really relieved we finally had an answer because it’s unsettling to have issues with your engine and not knowing what it is…right before you start a 6-7 day passage heading across the Bay of Biscay. In our weather window we had expected some wind but the first part through the bay would be mostly motoring. If we didn’t see the problem unfold then, the next sketchy place we would need to get past would have been Cape Fear, I mean, Cape Finisterre in Spain where it can get rough, and then of course the wind funnel of the Gibraltar Strait. So you can imagine we were all very relieved.

At this point, our engines were at 27 hours and it’s recommended by Volvo to have the first service at 50 hours. The purpose of this service is to be sure everything is working properly so what they told us was that this problem triggered that first service so that’s good news.


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