Saturday, September 26, 2009


I woke up screaming. I was yelling "Shut it off" before my groggy brain realized why. Bianca was also yelling the same thing, and then Jannelle chimed in our off tune chorus. Our engine was making the worst possible noise. Everyone else only heard it as ten hideous malfunctions mashing against each other. My ears heard valves smashing into pistons, most likely from jumped timing. It was two AM. Of course. We had been motoring in completely calm wind, but the ocean was still angry from the three days of sustained gale force winds so there was a large swell rolling through. Without the steadying force of wind and no motor we started bobbing around with all the grace of an old discarded Styrofoam bait tray. Jannelle and I prepared for engine surgery. I first pulled the belt off the alternator in a wishful attempt hoping that the cracked case finally had failed. The alternator, an easy fix, was just fine. I pulled the valve cover. The number two cylinder exhaust valve spring was in three pieces and the valve had dropped down, hitting the piston. On almost all engines the valves are at an angle to the piston, so usually the valve edge acts as a knife that destroys the piston. This engine is descended from some ancient Norwegian tractor and the valves move straight up and down with the pistons. I turned the engine over by hand and the valve moved up and down with the piston. It wasn't bent. I just happen to have a spare valve spring and keepers so I removed the rocker arms and turned myself into an improvised valve spring compressor. Getting a new valve spring on can be tricky standing in repair shop that happens to be anchored to an immovable 80 ton piece of concrete. Getting a new valve spring on with the angry Chuchki sea throwing you around while working in a cramped space wearing only your underwear is not the definition of ideal working conditions. After having a discussion with the engine about its ancestors, and all valve springs ancestors in general, I was able to work up enough anger to simultaneously push down a valve spring with my bare hands while balancing and dropping two valve keepers in their exact required positions. After reassembly, Deb pushed the big red start button and the engine throbbed to life and Precipice resumed on course as if nothing had happened. Being now completely awake, I took my watch. During my watch I patted myself on the back for having the spare parts needed, and knowing how to use them. I was in a fine mood even though I missed being able to sleep for more than 45 minutes on my last off watch. I was pretty happy with myself until three hours later Bianca was at my face yelling "shut it off". By this time a gentle breeze was blowing, so we already had some sail up and things were stable. Removing the valve cover, we discovered the intake spring on the same cylinder was broken in three pieces. I have replaced many valve springs on engines, but never two on the same engine. I didn't have a second spare. But, I now had two large broken pieces of valve spring. So, after about an hour of experimenting with the two pieces I found I could create one valve spring doubled up in the center using stainless steel rigging wire. I repeated the aforementioned ancestral discussion, and installed my second valve spring for the night. Pushing the big red button gave us the reassuring throbbing diesel sound. After about ten minutes we shut it off as we didn't need the iron sail since the big white billowy ones were working all on their own. How long will the repair last? My guess is about ten minutes. Fortunately, we have had perfect wind since then (last night) and are making good on our destination - Nome.

I wonder what the chances of finding a valve spring for a 1978 Sabb 2h diesel in Nome Alaska are?

Everyone is good, all is well.

Rolland for the Trowbridges.


Phil said...

I'm not sure where you are but I assume you are past Kotzebue, going south? In any case if you have online access and a friend who could find one, I'm sure you could "overnight" one to Nome, General Delivery. Otherwise you can check with the auto mechanics around town for a valve spring. Though I haven't seen too many Saab's floating around town. Very cool to see another sailing vessel come through.

Jim said...

Ayeiiaye- beautiful weather in Nome presently but I see you have a gale warning northwest of here.. and looking at the weather maps we are about to be hit on Monday. Take care.

Joy Baker is harbor master here at 907-443-6619 or, when here, cell phone 907-304-1905. She can put the word out to the marine community here to see about parts.. but like misadventuring Phil says, overnight something up from Anchorage.