Running out of fuel in the BVIs

May 24, 2017 0 comments

So, this is pretty embarrassing…

We ran out of fuel while making a passage. How the heck could that happen? We always top off our tanks before leaving and check our fuel gauge regularly while under way. Seems like only a dummy would run out of fuel, right?

Well, it was all MY fault (Alli). Yep, I was the one to blame for this one.

We were on our way to Saint Martin when in a semi-exhausted state at the end of my shift (in the middle of the night) Dave asked me to check the fuel level.  I kind of rolled my eyes a bit and grumbled, “Really? Right now?”  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I quickly opened the compartment beneath the floor, squinted my eyes and read the fuel gauge. “It’s between 3/4 and 1/2 full”,  I hollered up into the cockpit. “Can I go to sleep now?” I quickly crawled into my spot on the settee, wrapped myself up in a lee cloth and passed out.

Throughout the evening there was light wind, so we had been motor sailing. We were making good time and figured we’d be in the BVIs around 9am. Once we were there, we could drop the hook, rest until the afternoon and continue on to St. Martin.

Running out of fuel in the BVIs

Our first view of Virgin Gorda in the morning hours.

Early wake up call

About six hours later (and after another shift) I was sound asleep when I was abruptly awoken by the sound of the engine stopping. I thought I had slept through my shift and we had arrived early.  What was going on?  “Are we there?” I shouted up to Dave.  “No,” he said, “the engine just stopped. We ran out of fuel.”

“What?!  What do you mean the engine stopped?” I squawked, rolling out of bed. I sprang up and opened up the compartment to check the fuel gauge.  He was right.  The gauges needle was on “E”.  I looked a little closer and had a sudden moment of clarity.  “I read the fuel gauge upside down”, I said. “Last night, when I was half asleep, I read it wrong!”  What I thought was an “F”, was actually an “E”. Oops….

Running out of fuel in the BVIs

Crusty and confusing.

If looks could kill

I’d have been dead. Ohh, you can imagine the look Dave shot me.

When I had thought the tank was 3/4 – 1/2 full it was actually between 1/2 and 1/4 full.  In that moment, I didn’t really understand the seriousness of this problem I had created.  I figured we could just fill the tank up with diesel, restart the engine and we’d be back on our way.  Not quite.

After we filled the tank back up with diesel, we couldn’t restart the engine. Fuel wasn’t getting in the lines because there was air trapped inside.  In order to get air out of a fuel line, we had to “bleed” them.  Basically we had to pump a little, tiny, awkwardly placed lever up and down until all of the air was pushed out of the lines. Sounds like fun, huh?

Trying to bleed diesel fuel yanmar 3gm engine.

“Come on, you #$@%”

So, we took turns steering the boat and trying to bleed the lines. We had very light wind so we were just barely sailing on the outskirts of Virgin Gorda.  After an hour of fiddling with that stupid lever on the side of our hot engine, cramped in awkward positions, we’d had enough.

$100 Tip

Out of desperation Dave turned the data roaming on his phone to try and research other possibilities to solve the problem.  He checked a few websites and then found a video on YouTube that looked as though it would help us.  He watched it for about two minutes and shortly after, we heard a familiar chime come from the phone. “I just got charged $100 to watch that video!” Dave yelled.  Luckily, it wasn’t all in vain.  Dave found a valuable piece of advice on one of the websites and it seemed like it’d be our last hope.

Running out of fuel in the BVIs

A resolution

“Try using a primer ball to pump fuel through your engine lines.” That was the $100 tip Dave read from a website. FYI a primer ball is something we use frequently in our dinghy to get fuel to our motor.  You squeeze the ball with your hand and it forces fuel through the line so your engine will start.  Incredibly, we were given a spare fuel line and primer ball from cruising pals Brian and Lauren on SV Nightingale Tune, just before leaving San Juan.   Dave didn’t waste any time and hooked it up to the fuel line of the engine. About five minutes later we were able to start the motor and we were back in action! Hallelujah!

Running out of fuel in the BVIs

This puppy saved our lives!

After everything was said and done, this debacle took about four hours to recover from. We ended up heaving to, floating just outside of Necker Island and Eustacia where we made some lunch and relaxed for about an hour or two before continuing on. We didn’t get the nap we desperately hoped for, but we made a pot of coffee and faired just as well.

I will never live that moment down, but believe me, I will always remember to look a little closer at that fuel gauge!


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