Who Put Water in the Diesel Tank?! and how we bounced back…

We woke up Wednesday morning at 3:30 a.m. with a voyage to Mexico burning bright in our minds. Francisco turned on the engine and let Violeta run for about 30 minutes as I (Portia) cooked breakfast and Diego topped off our water tanks—we were all itching to get out there, but today would not be the day— without warning, the engine abruptly shut off. Francisco tried again and again to no avail to get her engine to turn over; so we all decided it was better to go back to bed and reconvene in the morning to figure out exactly what had gone wrong rather than keep trying and wear out the starter completely.

Francisco called our trusty marine mechanic Tim, a knowledgeable and all-around friendly guy who knows how to put a smile on your face, even in the most dire of situations. He showed up immediately. By the time I woke up around 8:30 a.m. Tim was already elbows deep in diesel, tinkering away in the engine room.

Ella yelled from the aft, “Someone put water in the gas tank!” I groggily moved from my comfy bottom v-berth bunk thinking Wtf? Who would do that? – I learned the answer several hours later and it came as an alarming surprise, it was me! The intake holes for the diesel and water tanks on deck are quite close to each other, so I guess it’s an easy (rookie) mistake to make—just not one I thought I would make; and that in no way removes the overwhelming guilt.

(Thankfully) Tim said he had managed to bleed the water from the second tank and she was up and running again by late morning; but to my horror, the consequences of my faux pas were far from over. With a new plan set to embark later that evening I left to do our remaining laundry. I came back to the dock just in time to watch Francisco, Diego, Tawnya and Ella aboard Violeta heading to the gas station to fill up the second tank (with DIESEL) to replace the amount of water we had emptied that morning!

I sat on the dock awaiting their return for a solid two hours, but instead of my boat family, I was greeted by a sheriff who jumped off of his boat and onto our dock slip. After a short conversation he informed me that his team was towing Violeta back to the slip. “Her engine is broken, it’s shot,” he said calmly.

Incite internal panic NOW. My guts literally sunk out of my soul. Oh my god, I’ve destroyed our engine, the journey we’ve been planning for months is caput and it’s all my fault! Okay, calm down, breathe, I can sell my truck quickly and that will pay for a new engine, it will be okay, it will be okay—I said to myself desperately trying to console the building panic.  In the video below they arrive back to dock in tow of coastguard vessel and getting hooked up to side of sheriff to be directed back in to our slip.

Violeta and crew came into view shortly after—Ella on the bowsprit smiling and waving— in fact, everyone is in good spirits, as I stand there thinking: Really, you guys aren’t ready to slit my throat? Apparently they had attempted to motor out past the breakwater after filling up the gas tank to test the engine and work out any left over water, but the engine had shut down and wouldn’t restart. They quickly raised the sails, as they were dangerously in between the breakwater rocks and a huge rigger boat, but the wind was not in their favor and they were still too close to land to have no engine quite yet. The currents proceeded to pull the boat dangerously close to the Venice Beach shore, until the coast guard and sheriff came to the rescue and towed her home. Well that’s it, there’s no way we are leaving today I thought to myself, but Tim came back that evening and bled more water from the second tank and Violeta was up and running once again. Whew, that was a close one.

I learned a lot from this mistake—and albeit mortifying, to the point of wanting to stick my head in the sand, put my tail between my legs and never admit this to anyone ever—my mistake might just be helpful for others who make this mistake so now I’m going to explain how you can recover from this perilous error. However, before you go too far to the point of your engine dying completely, you can prevent this by paying close attention to the racor, where you can see the diesel gas that’s about to get sucked into the engine—here you’ll see a line between the diesel and the water when water is about to be sucked into the engine, if it’s all pink in the racor, you are fine, but when you see that line between the two liquids you’ll know it’s time to unscrew the valve below the racor and let the water drain out before it gets sucked into the engine…


If you do not get to the engine in time and your engine dies this is what you do to recover (All measurements for the nuts and bolts are from our engine, which is a Marine Diesel Ford Lehman):

Unscrew the two white knobs (drain caps) at the bottom of the two fuel filters next to each other and the bleeding screws (9/16th nuts where my finger is pointing) on top of each one and let water drain out. Then tighten the bottom white knobs and leave the top nuts loose. Go to the control panel and turn on the fuel transfer button until clean fuel comes out the top of the screws—tighten the top screws and turn off the transfer fuel button.


Now loosen 1/2 inch washer below fuel injectors (picture below) and run pump until clean fuel comes out (only a little will come out) and tighten the washer again.

Washer below fuel injectors

Then loosen all 6 injector nuts (5/8ths) and have someone above board turn the engine over, about three times until they start spitting out fuel. Tighten the injectors, and now move over to the air filter and as someone is turning over the engine spray the air filter with starter fluid, this will take about three times but now you should be good to go.

six fuel injectors

Anyways, although I’m super embarrassed about it, I hope my error proves helpful to someone out there. And in the next post we actually make it out to sea, so stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Who Put Water in the Diesel Tank?! and how we bounced back…

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