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The day the engine died

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

The adventures and misadventures of boat maintenance...

After a year of boat ownership, I had become more confident in handling my Raven 26 Fistful of Dollars except for one area where I was in denial: the engine. It ran on hope.

In case that didn’t work, I did a boat owner’s diesel course. At first the only girl in class barely spoke, then someone asked about the spark plugs and I realised he knew even less than I did.

I still feared a calamity with the engine and it was almost a relief when it happened: a blown head gasket. Even I knew that required a major rebuild. As usual, my Boatmaster friend Graham knew just the person to fix it. Me.

He recommended I remove the engine from the boat and work on it in his garage, but that was way too scary, so I went straight to his second piece of advice: “Keep taking bits off until you get to the head.” Fair enough. Heads sit on top of people. It must be the same for Yanmar YSE8 engines.

A big screwdriver and a hammer soon had the oil filter out of the way. A bit of grappling with rounded-off bolts got rid of the chain cover. Then I removed the head bolts, just like that.

I was pretty proud of myself, and even Graham was impressed until he inspected my work. “Beckie,” he said solemnly. “That’s not the head. That's the water gallery.”

Apparently, the head on my engine was where you’d expect to find a kneecap. What followed was what I’d dreaded: dismantling the quarter berth and struggling with sockets that had no might against the head bolts. I used Graham’s pipe to increase the leverage and make me as strong as a bloke. I broke the socket extension.

That was the night I got locked on the marina and had to swing like a monkey beneath the ramp to reach the shore. My feet dragged in the sea. I lost my car keys and had to swing back to the boat to sleep with sodden feet in a filthy cabin with no blankets.

Eventually, the engine’s head nuts came out, still clinging to their studs.

The other end of the engine, what I technically called the back door, was more cooperative. I removed the starter motor and alternator, making diagrams as I went. Sorry, kids, i-phones had not been invented.

The teeny weeny bolts on the back door came off sweetly and the con rod appeared shiny and magnificent: the centrepiece of the internal combustion engine. The head followed a few days later with the injector still fixed inside it. But the piston was stuck in the cylinder and even the car jack wouldn’t budge it. The remedy was what I should have done in the first place: remove the engine.

One Saturday I disconnected and labelled every wire and hose, and two male friends lifted the engine into my car. Graham, a piece of four by two and a hammer soon had the piston flying out of the cylinder and into his garage wall.

With every part of the engine accessible, I whizzed off the flakey bits and painted it with etch primer. I honed out the bore until it gleamed like a saucepan in the Sunlight ad. I waited three days for a gasket kit to arrive and discovered that gasket kits do not contain head gaskets. I started rebuilding my engine and painted it scarlet.

But curiosity got the better of me, and I pulled apart the governor. Like your Mama told you, don’t ever dismantle the governor. I took it to an engineer and stayed silent when he assumed that the idiot who had pulled it apart was a ‘he’.

Mostly, though, I got frustrated that marine suppliers assumed I was shopping for ‘him’.

“I should paint my engine bright pink with flowers on it,” I grumbled to Graham. “Then they’d know it was a girl’s engine.” The next day, my rocker cover had sprouted a folk-style flower.

But finally there came the click-click, click-click as the torque wrench tightened the head and rocker cover to the specified torque. My boom creaked as it lifted my scarlet engine back to its proper home.

I deciphered my cryptic notes and reconnected wires until there were none left over. Then I heard a starter motor turning a fly wheel and a crankshaft moving a con rod, the chugging of a piston at compression and water splashing out the exhaust.

And the best part was: I understood my engine, because I had looked inside its head.

Sorry, kids, that’s paraphrased from a Peter Sarstedt song.

Caption: Me, just after work with lipstick still in place. The painted flower is on the shiny face of the engine.

© Rebecca Hayter

See more of my blogs and writing at

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