Maintaining a classic wooden vessel requires non-stop routine maintenance. If i am not fixing, repairing or replacing something constantly I am actually going backwards and the ship is deteriorating. Sounds harsh! But true. There is always some wooden bit that needs to be replaced, some mechanical bit that needs oil, or overhaul or cleaning or adjusting. Really, endless opportunity for fun and boaty-bonding for me and the COLUMBIA III.
Then there is the next level of maintenance; the “once every decade or two” when something big needs attention. I call this the “musical chairs” maintenance. You know, the music plays and you skip around the chairs, never quite sure when the music is going to stop and then BAMM! Every boat owner faces these big dilemmas.
Can I own this boat for 10 years and not be the one stuck changing the main engine, or rewiring the wheel house or . . . (add long list here . . . ) ??
I consider my role as custodian of a heritage vessel requires me to take on a few of the bigger, “extra-curricular” maintenance projects on the COLUMBIA III.
End of preamble.
The main engine on the COLUMBIA III is a 66 year old British engine known for its reliability, but all machinery requires maintenance. In 2019 I pulled all the heads and rebuilt the “top-end” of the engine. All the metal bits were in good shape but the rubber “O” rings that seal the metal bits when reassembled were over 60 years old and very tired: cracked, inelastic and brittle. At the time we felt pretty happy that we’d caught the problem just in time as we replaced all the o-rings directing water and oil between the main engine block and the heads.
. . . . But that left me worrying about the condition of the o-rings deeper inside the engine. . .
Engine-nurd excessive detail warning . . . .
The Gardner has “wet sleeves”. Which means the engine has replaceable metal cylinders that the pistons run up and down in, and these “sleeves” are cooled by water, But to keep the water in the right place (around the sleeves) and not in the wrong place (in the oil in the base of the engine!!) there are (you guessed it! Gawd you’re good) 3 big o-rings. And as a fail-safe, if the water gets past the first o-ring it is caught by the next o-ring and a small channel cut in the metal directs the engine coolant out a tiny tell-tale hole in the side of the engine block. 8 pistons, 8 sleeves, 8 little tell-tale holes in the side of the block . . .
After seeing how deteriorated the condition of the o-rings in the heads were in 2019, I couldn’t help but wonder about the condition of the all important o-rings on the sleeves.
So I wasn’t surprised nor happy to see water starting to dribble out the tell-tale holes in 2021 and then increase the drips in 2022. By very early 2023 the water was sputtering out the tell-tales and I knew the musical chairs’ music had just stopped. I was tagged with the problem.
Over the years I have had some contact with the genuine Gardner Marine folks in England so I called them up. Yes, they were familiar with pulling sleeves and changing o-rings. In fact they flew somewhere in the world and performed the surgery on a Gardner engine about 4 times a year. So I booked a date in November of 2023 knowing I had to make it through my 2023 summer season.
The engine was leaking coolant during the summer but we watched it carefully and I even added a secondary low-level alarm to the system to ensure we kept the engine topped up with water all summer. And the folks at Gardner went into action too. To save air-freight, they pre-shipped a 500# pallet of tools and engine parts by sea to have on hand when they flew in.
So on November 5th I got the COLUMBIA III out of her shed and the next day I motored to Campbell River. I got the ship ready for action by emptying the engine room of everything moveable,adding extra work carpets to the salon, and cleared some bunks and covered them in cardboard for a place to store engine parts as they came off. And then on November 7th at 08:00 after 9 months of planning, two Gardner Marine mechanics, direct from England, stepped off the plane in Campbell River with a bunch more gear and tools . . .
Despite it only being two years since I last had the forward two heads off, there was continued signs of coolant leakage around these two cylinders. The mechanics were surprised (not in a good way) by this evidence. They were concerned that one of the heads might be cracked but Luke and I had removed the heads two years before and pressure tested them ourselves with 10 psi of air, and the pressure held for 12 hours. “Nope. I do not believe either head is cracked . . .”
Which only made the mechanics more concerned that there might be damage to the block . . .
Enter first existential threat.
The mechanics were worried that the coolant leak might be coming from a fault in the main block. But they had to pull out all the cylinder liners and inspect the blocks for corrosion before they could determine if the engine was damaged beyond repair but this could not be done until a lot more disassembly could occur. More later . . .
and more parts came off the left side of the engine. The rather massive fuel control assembly had to be removed to enable access to the left side of the crank shaft. I had to install a new lifting eye in the deck head to allow a chain come=along to hoist the fuel control free, Here it takes both mechanics to manhandle the fuel control and camshaft out of the way.
The finally the 8 cylinder liners (“wet sleeves”) were pulled out with a 30 ton hydraulic jack . . . Now the blocks could be inspected for possible damage that would explain the coolant leak that has vexed me and the engine since before I purchased the boat 20 years ago. Even Bill Mechnie had failed to find the source of the coolant leak in the area of the #1 or #2 heads Below are the old pistons and sleeves removed.
“Ross, we’ll give the block a thorough inspection tomorrow and by mid morning we should have an answer for you . . .”
Of course I slept like a baby that night!!!!!
But by mid-day following, the blocks were inspected and deemed to be in excellent condition. YAY!!! Dodged that bullet . . . but still no answer for the coolant leak symptom. But the relief was short lived . . . Michael came up from the engine room and cleared his throat a few times . .
“Ahh, Ross, we have a new problem . . .”
And here we bumped into the second existential threat. Very much to the surprise of the mechanics, they found two of the bearings had de-laminated damage to the bearing surface (called babbit). This was a potential show stopper. First they had to determine if the main crankshaft had been damaged. I raced to a nearby machine shop borrow a 4″ micrometer.
For one angst filled day I wasn’t sure if the crank-shaft was damaged beyond repair ( read replace main engine and use up my entire winter and life savings), or if we could even source replacement bearings or find someone in Canada that had the expertise to repair the current bearings and on what time frame. After about 9,000 phone calls, to England, Canadian industrial machinery companies, the folks at Gardner Marine in England sourced two new, original bearings in England and shipped them IMMEDIATELY. And the borrowed 4″ micrometer proved, after meticulous inspection, that the main crank shaft was undamaged.
Ok, we dodged that bullet but I was a nervous wreck. I think I watched two Harry Potter movies on my laptop that night to get my brain/heart settled down.
But the fun continued. . . The new bearings arrived in Canada within about 16 hours and then sat in the shipper’s warehouse for three and a half days because it was a Remembrance Day long weekend!!!!
But the guys continued to do everything they could to keep the project moving forward. I tried to help out with some parts cleaning but as I had repainted many of the parts in 2019 my primary job was hand wringing , , ,
and keeping the other machinery working . . . the office machinery, as Miray was away on an extended holiday in October and November. My email responses to guest inquires were slow and poorly articulated!
Once the old sleeves were removed, the bare blocks were examined and cleaned with special care to the areas where the new liners would need to seal perfectly: at the top flange and at the contact for the 3 o-rings on each liner that needed replacing and started this whole endeavor,
Then James carefully hand-honed the heads as these must fit perfectly with the top of the cylinders in a rare metal to metal fit. Most engines use some form of head-gasket that requires less precise tolerances,
and guess what!
Enter existential threat #3!!!!
Michael came to me again, (yes, again), and let me know we had another problem . . . James was cleaning, honing and prepping the heads for installing and he found a crack in the side of #1 head.
Well, finally we knew why the engine had a recurring coolant leak on the forward two cylinders. But what to do about it?
After another morning of brainstorming and phone calls, we decided:
a: we would patch the cracked head with silicone to get me home (a 3 hour run) as the head was still functioning fine.
b: we would not steal a head off the 6L3 Gardner I have at home as it would doom that engine forever as a pile of parts and not a functioning engine and it was of unknown quality.
c: I would order a reconditioned head from England (about $5000-$6000 with freight) and Luke and I would install it in when it arrived in January.
This plan allowed the mechanics to finish the current job and me to get the ship home and back in her shed in a timely manner.
Read: Dodge existential threat #3.
I did feel compelled to apologize to Michael and James and I was embarrassed. They had immediately suspected a cracked head as the source of the decades old problem and I had assured them we had leak-checked the heads . . . The guys were gracious enough to point out that perhaps the crack opened up when hot and a 10 psi leak-check on a cold head might not actually catch the problem. But the most important thing was that James’ professional eye had found the crack and now a long standing issue with the engine will be remedied before next season.
THANK YOU, JAMES!!! Good eye!
So with that dilemma sorted out, they went back to work . . . .
Here the new piston has the new rings installed and the new liners which clearly show the 3 new o-rings and the groove that connects to the tell-tale hole in the side of the block. Note Michael’s leg in the back ground, these things are massive!
Here Michael is installing one of the new big-end bearings. This ended up being a very time consuming project as they needed to be custom fitted (with a trip to a local machinist to get a stock of 1,2, and 3 thousand shim stock). The guys then spent 4 hours marking, hand rotating the engine and shaving high points off one of the new bearings. The mechanics were over-due for other customers in Miami and Scotland but they took their time and got the bearings seated correctly,
Once the two big-end bearings had arrived and were installed, Michael and James poured on the coal to get the last two pistons and heads and the port-side engine side covers installed. Then came the meticulous job of reassembling the fuel control complete with the timing gear alignment. (It’s pretty reassuring that James was reinstalling the fuel control. His main job back in England is performing complete overhauls on the same unit. Right guy for the job!!) The mechanics worked for 11 hours straight (minus a sandwich and a cup of tea) to get the engine back together.
Late on the final full day, it was time to start the engine up. Michael bled the fuel system of air, pumped the air out of the injector lines with the unique individual Gardner manual injector pumps and then pressed the starter. The engine rolled over a couple of times and then fired right up.
The Gardner was barely turning as he retarded the throttle . . . . after an approving thumbs-up from James Michael let the governor take over and the engine idled at about 270 rpm. I ran out on deck to see it the engine was smoking as the new rings set in but the engine ran beautifully cleanly , , ,
and the silicone seemed to be holding on the crack on #1 head . . .
Wow, wow, wow, wow! Gawd I was relieved!The last morning required a final run up with the engine in gear tied to the dock for a couple of hours as we fine-tuned the idle rpm, put valve covers back on and they packed up their tools.
In the end, the guys really had to get out of town as quickly as possible, because the job took longer to complete waiting for parts and they were well overdue for other customers, one in Miami and one in Scotland, And since the only non-stop flight a day left in the evenings from Vancouver, the quickest arrangement was for me to drive them 2 hours south to Nanaimo . . . and throw them on a 15 minute seaplane flight to Vancouver International airport . .
I got back to the COLUMBIA III late on the night of the 16th and fell asleep on the salon sofa.
The next morning, I paid my moorage bill and finally, with little ceremony, I returned to the COLUMBIA III, pressed the starter and the Gardner fired up perfectly.
Amazing! Phew! Thank-you Michael and James!
A final note on Gardner Marine Services: It might seem extravagant to fly two mechanics in from England, but really, there are no local mechanics familiar with this engine and I would have had to bring in someone from somewhere and provide them with meals, a vehicle and lodging. The only difference was the cost of the plane flights and that was pretty small given the rest of the budget. And I was 150% satisfied with Michael and James’ work. They knew the engine, they had seen many others and they knew the context of what was normal and what was not. They took their time on the crucial parts and they worked long, hard and steady on the dis-assembly and assembly. No other mechanics in the world could compare for work on an 8L3 Gardner . . . .
and it was nice to hear that they thought this engine was in exceptionally good condition, perhaps even one of the best maintained engines they had worked on . . . .
60 by 60 by 60 . . . by 60?
The Gardner is 66 years old,
and I estimate it has accumulated 60,000 running hours.
and it cost $60,000 for the 10 days work, all in.
That’s a dollar per hour run.
and good for the next 60 years I hope.
For me, the time spent and the money invested is all completely doable. It’s bumping up against the possible existential threats, and then finding solutions to back away from the edge of the financial/epic-engine-needs-to-be-changed-now” cliff that really takes its toll on me. I certainly got a few new grey hairs this month.
and . . .
Many thanks to all our guests that join us, and pay us. This allows the heritage vessel COLUMBIA III to be maintained well.