Tuesday, September 4, 2012

We Have an Engine!

Yes, it's true.  The Barra gods have finally smiled upon us and, as of Monday, our beloved Jean Marie is fully functional once again.

After months of pleading and prodding I finally got the call I've been waiting for.  Our mechanic managed to track down the correct pistons and rings from a Perkins dealer in the UK.  He then found someone willing to bring the package in to Mexico, so the third engine rebuild could proceed.

As you'll recall, rebuild number one started way back in March, when I met a young captain of a large motor yacht who flew parts in for me on the owner's private jet.  I remember thinking how fortunate we were to find a quick and inexpensive method of delivery, and this surely meant we would be on our way soon.  What a foolish dream.  Rebuild number one resulted in oil squirting past the pistons while the motor ran in the shop.  This is what happens when you install the wrong set of rings, I quickly learned.

So, rebuild number two began in early May, after receiving delivery of a new ring set specifically designed for the piston we had (which was slightly different than the original piston).  I remember thinking "shouldn't we have checked this important little detail before beginning rebuild number one?".  I know that these older Perkins diesels have gone through a lot of changes in parts and part numbers over the years and the workshop manual lists many different combinations of piston and rings depending on the model and year of the block -- reason enough, for any competent mechanic, to spend a little more time investigating and, perhaps, double-checking the parts order.  I was hoping that my mechanic had done the necessary research and ordered the correct parts this time.  Another foolish dream.  To our incredible disappointment, rebuild number two produced the same results as rebuild number one.

By this time summer was upon us.  Most of the cruising boats had sailed away or were tied securely in the marina as everyone departed Mexico before the hurricane season.  I had lost all faith in our mechanic and insisted that he not do any more work on the engine until he talks to a Perkins professional.  I wanted the advice of someone who actually knows the working details of these engines.  I wanted him to crosscheck the serial number of the block with updated part numbers for piston and ring sets and discuss this with a Perkins dealer before placing an order.  Then I wanted him to double-check the order.

We soon found that not only did we have the wrong rings but, apparently, we also had the wrong pistons.  According to our mechanic, the pistons in the box we received did not match the specifications in the parts list.  So, the parts dealer he had been using in the US -- a guy who, on numerous occasions, had given questionable and inaccurate advice -- had sent us the wrong pistons.  That's the story I was told.  At this point I wasn't sure what to believe, I just wanted it fixed.  

But, I knew it wasn't going to happen soon, and it was already June.  It was time to get out of Barra.  So, while I flew my family back to California to escape the encroaching summer heat of tropical Mexico, our mechanic began a long, drawn-out process of procuring the correct parts from a different Perkins dealer for rebuild number three. 

The process also involved somehow obtaining a refund from the original dealer for bogus pistons installed in rebuild number one.  After all, I wasn't paying for more parts.  From my point of view, it's the job of a professional mechanic to manage his parts suppliers.  I shouldn't have to cover the additional cost of a dealer's incompetence.  This proved to further delay the process, as they refused to refund any money.  Eventually, a Perkins dealer in the UK stepped up and agreed to ship the correct pistons at no charge and we all learned some very painful but valuable lessons on shipping engine parts to Mexico.

Which brings us to present day.  Two weeks ago I got the call that rebuild number three went well and the engine was running great.  I immediately booked a flight to Mexico, flying from Bend to San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta and then taking a five-hour bus down to Barra, only to be greeted by the sweltering, oppressive heat of Jean Marie's cabin.  Her little 12-volt fans are no match for the tropical humidity of Mexico in the summer.  The only relief is the shower as even the slightest physical activity results in pools of dripping sweat.  I knew I had a lot of work to do.  This was not going to be fun.

I arrived late Wednesday.  On Thursday I went to the mechanics shop to check the engine -- as reported, it was running great.  We spent most of Friday muscling it back in to place on Jean Marie and by Saturday afternoon the engine and transmission were ready to go.  I spent Sunday finishing some work on the exhaust system and then, on Monday, we bled the fuel system and fired her up for the first time.  It brought a great sense of relief to finally hear the old Perkins purring away again -- music to the ears.

I wish I could say this chapter is closed now and we're moving forward.  Unfortunately, a rebuilt engine, like a new engine, requires a break-in period.  The Perkins workshop manual specifies 25-50 hours of run time followed by another visit from the mechanic to re-torque headbolts and adjust valves.  That means getting offshore and working the engine for a few days.  I was hoping to get this done while I'm here, but the endless train of tropical storms spinning up the coast has caused me to rethink that plan.

So, we'll finish the job in late October or November -- whenever we get back down here.  At this point I'm just happy to have a working engine again.  Although, I am looking forward to finally closing this chapter of our cruising lives and putting all the months of frustration behind us.  It would be easy to look back with anger and assign blame to the perceived guilty.  It'd be convenient to point the finger at Mexican workers and relaxed work ethics except that our mechanic is a white guy from Missouri.  In the end I think there were mistakes made by a few people that resulted in some very real inconveniences for us.  However, I don't believe any of it was intentional -- incompetent, perhaps, unprofessional, definitely.  We simply had the misfortune of breaking down in a small town with one English-speaking mechanic.  We'll just have to file this one under simple bad luck and look forward to next season.  Let's hope our luck has changed.

And, with my work complete here my thoughts go back to my family.  As I write this Jean Marie is, once again, all buttoned up and secured for the remaining weeks of the hurricane season.  I'll catch the early bus to PV on Thursday for my flight back to Bend.  Another long day of travel, but one I'm looking forward to.  It will be nice to see cooler temps and familiar faces -- two, in particular, have been on my mind lately.

Questions or comments? We'd like to hear from you. Click the link below to respond.