Old smokey

Braunston Church

Braunston Church

It has all been a bit quiet on this blog for  a bit. Not that  there hasn’t been things going on, just that I wasn’t sure where things were leading. “What things?” you may ask. “you get on the boat, point it one way or the other and off you go. After all canals basically go one of two directions, not exactly easy to get lost is it? And when there is a junction it is not like approaching a motorway slip road when you have about 30 seconds from seeing the junction to working out whether you have to turn off or not. More likely you have time to make a brew, and sit pondering the next turn whilst drinking tea and eating several custard creams.”

Anyway that’s not what I was getting at. As Lance Armstrong would not have said ”it is all about the boat”.

One of the narrow canals (Coventry)

One of the narrow canals (Coventry)

The last few days coming back from the potteries it got noticeably smoky. In fact the last day I had to vacate the boat whilst the exhaust fumes dispersed after starting it up. There was definitely something seriously wrong and the fumes were leaving me with an inflamed chest. Was this the end, for the boat not me, mind it wasn’t that great. Mike, my mechanic whizz son, suggested it could be air starvation and I should check the air filter. I was surprised to find that it was oiled up.


I’ll not bore you with my attempts to put it right: shopping around to find “Restore”; the correct fan belt being too tight; an air filter change; problems with oil filters; dismantling and overhauling the starter motor.

But I read two things about using Restore to reduce smoke from an engine. One said it worked great on their canal boat, another said don’t touch it with a barge pole because it nearly wrecked his truck engine. Except he didn’t say barge pole, that is something we boaters use, they don’t fit into truck cabs.

Anyway having done this work the engine sounded much worse, perhaps the truck driver was right.  So I called out a professional engineer for an opinion. The noise when started was really like a bag of spanners, he thought at first it was terminal.

We talked about the cost of a new engine, about £7000 installed. So we thought we would have another listen, he reckoned it was not the engine but the gear box, drive shaft or something else. The smoke was not so bad now probably due to the change of air filter.


“What filter is it?” he asked.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you do wish the expert had not asked you that question, the one you hoped he was not going to ask? There was a pause, he put his head on one side and raised his eyebrows, obviously encouraging me to answer.

“Well, err, it was one of those disposable mesh type ones, like you get in a vacuum cleaner or cooker hood. I err .. heard you could make a new one from cooker hood filter, err.. so that is what it is.”.

This time it was his turn to pause. I wondered if I had spoiled a boat for a ha’p’orth of filter.

“Oh , OK “ he said and that was that. Phew!

His conclusion was that there was nothing too badly wrong with the engine but something serious with the drive gear. He gave me a few hints on how to dismantle and his details should I need his help if I got stuck.

During the following couple of weeks I dismantled this and that, frequently considering if I would have to get the boat towed into dock, if I should chuck it all in and sell the boat. Even if I could sell it without getting it fixed.

So that is the reason for no blogging, all a bit depressing, going nowhere and through my mind the old saying was on constant replay.

How do you make a small fortune with a boat?  Start with a big fortune.


And what’s the outcome? Well I never did get the drive plate out, the gear box felt OK (who am I to know any different?), several bolts were missing or loose (I am still working on that) and one thing that had been niggling me. That starter motor. I had asked the guy if the noise could be made if I had put it back incorrectly, he didn’t think so. Neither did I , but… I took it out to check and sure enough it seemed fine, as expected, as reassembled and engaged. It started the engine fine and no longer made the groan that it used to. But I could not see that it could work properly the way it went together. Why? Doh! Because I put a spring in the wrong place. For those of you who are mechanics I had accidentally converted a pre-engaged starter into a permanently engaged starter. Guess what, properly assembled the noise seems to have gone away. The poor starter was trying to tell us that it hated spinning round at 60,000 rpm.

So here I am again with an ageing boat, that is a bit smoky, but not too bad at the moment and may improve due to Restore and a cooker hood filter.

Drat Missed him!

Drat Missed him!


Did I really say I had no leaks?

Perhaps I was a little too pleased that I had no diesel leaks after I serviced the boat. Perhaps I was a little too confident in my abilities to change a simple oil filter. Well the following tale illustrates how wrong I can be, and that a couple of compounding errors could have cost me a new engine.

The readers of this update will probably fall into one of three groups, those not interested in mechanical things and bored with such tales, those who already knew how to avoid this error and think me a fool, and the others who can take this as a warning of the little traps out there. When I say traps, what I mean is gremlins because I sometimes feel there is no such thing as an inanimate object, they are all out to get you!.

Well changing an oil filter cartridge is no big deal. Wait until the engine has cooled a bit, prepare to catch the oil spill, unbolt the hanging bowl that holds the cartridge, replace the cartridge, put in the new seal between the bowl and engine, and screw it up. Now I use the phrase “screw it up” advisedly and with power of hindsight.

Dip stick and filter is down there somewhere

Dip stick and filter is down there somewhere

You see the cartridge came with a seal which although the right diameter just seemed too fat to easily fit into the slot where it should go. Of course you could not see the fitted seal, unless the boat had a glass bottom and you laid on the canal bed. So by feel and with ebbing patience the seal was put in as best as could be ascertained. The housing replaced, oil topped up, leaks briefly, too briefly, checked for and off I went.

Yes off course I checked the dip stick now and then, no I can’t remember how often but I am sure I did. Yes there is always some oil and water in the bilges, how deep I don’t know, not too much though. Did you know that water or oil in the bilges deadens the engine noise. So it can’t be a bad thing can it?

Well on my way back down the Stort, when I was about to meet a couple at Royden I checked the oil. Or should I say checked for oil, it was below minimum! I did not understand this as there were no obvious leaks or puddles over and above the ones normally there, perhaps that’s a lesson itself.

So a quick bike ride to the chandlers at Stansted Abbots (half a day by boat, forty minutes there and back by push bike, over the hill) and I had topped up the oil. I took it right to maximum and felt satisfied.

Two days later and it was still part way between max and min, and the level does depend on how hard you push the old dip stick in. After the Little Venice Cavalcade I though I would check it again, about 23 hours running after the previous check. It took me about five minutes to check the dip stick. I twisted it, swivelled it, sneaked it in, jabbed it in, cleaned it repeatedly, laid it on paper in case the oil was too clean to see. I finally convinced myself that the oil lay on the dip stick just as the new clothes adorned the emperor, there was none! It had all leaked out again, adding to the quietening of the engine, and I was very fortunate that the engine had not been permanently silenced.

This time being near home I was determined to find the leak and fix it for good. Starting with what had last been done prior to the leak appearing I checked the oil filter housing and sure enough it was leaking. On taking it apart I found that the seal had been badly cut by the bowl, so off I went to get a new seal, it only comes with the filter. I was not looking forward to another fight to get an oversized seal into place.

Now this is where the real lesson comes, the new filter came with three seals of varying thickness. Bearing in mind that the previous one had only been bought 3 months ago one has to wonder why didn’t that one come with three seals?204

The lesson must surely be, if in doubt don’t just hope it is OK be certain. If a part does not seem right it probably isn’t, take it back and get it sorted.

So armed with the right seal, some new copper washers and gasket sealant to fix other minor leaks I shall return to reassemble the engine. I also think I ought to clean up the bilges once and for all.

Oh, and  a message to a previous owner or mechanic, I found the bolt that you tried to seal with plumber’s tape around the thread (that won’t work), and replaced the tape with the proper washer and sealant. But, bearing in mind what I nearly did to the engine, I should not try to take the mote out of another’s eye when I have been a plank myself! Oh hum, all’s well that ends well, I hope.