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1965 built, US flagged steamship Pacific Tracker lays at the ready in Portland Oregon, picture by Martin Leduc

River Story: An Engine Crisis

Authored by Tom Winkle
November 2020

Chief Engineer Tom Winkle spent a 40 year career on the great rivers of the United States, working on massive tugs moving rafts of barges. Retired since 2015, Tom shares stories of life onboard these vessels and their unique trade. He is a skilled photographer, sharing some stunning marine pictures of life on the river in the SeafarerMedia area, and previously contributing anecdotes and stories - look for the "Bilge Rat" attribution. You can reach him at bilgerat4 at Gmail.


So, I'm the chief engineer on Valley Line's M/V Valley Voyager. We're running hot, straight and normal, northbound to St. Louis with thirty empty barges, not too far north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It's around eight in the evening, I made my rounds a little while ago checking on everything (Nothing out of the ordinary), and I'm not expecting any problems with my two twenty cylinder charges, as they have had a recent overhaul and they've only been run for about five hundred hours so far.

Wandering forward to the lounge, I snagged a slice of blueberry pie and a mug of coffee, and carried it back to the engineer's booth, planning on snacking on my find while I cranked out a few parts requisitions. Arriving in the booth, I took a quick scan of the engine gauges (habit; do it all the time without thinking about it.) and came to a halt on the oil pressure gauge for the port main engine. Damn! It's down five pounds! Checking the piston cooling oil pressure, it's down about eight pounds from where it had been when I made my last rounds. What the hell?

Slamming down the stairs, I yanked the dipstick on the port engine. Last time it was checked, it was running right on the full mark, now it's way over the full mark! A quick sniff of the oil on the dipstick confirms it, we have fuel leaking into the oil!

This is bad news. How bad it is depends on the size of the leak. A small leak usually shows up on the monthly oil analysis. It may be hard to find, but you can usually find it by pressurizing the fuel system with the engine shut down and looking over the top end of the engine with a black light. The fuel leak shows up gray under the black light.

A big leak, like what we have here can be catastrophic if not caught in time. If you get enough fuel in the oil, it thins the oil out to the point where the oil will no longer keep the crankshaft bearing surfaces from touching the bearings. When this goes far enough, you destroy the crankshaft and almost certainly do damage to the pistons and cylinder walls. When the engine is shut down, these gushers are easy to find, all you need is a flashlight and one functioning eye.

Running back up the stairs, I grab the phone in the booth and ring the wheelhouse. Not the usual, one press of the button “Ding”, I keep slamming the button till he answers. “I need that port engine NOW! We have a huge fuel leak into the lube oil!” He goes, “Aw, shit! I can't! We're in a tight spot, we'll be going backward on just one engine!” I ask, “How long till you're in a spot where you can push it into the bank and hold it on one engine?” “Fifteen minutes tops! You'll know we're there when the starboard engine throttles back. Can you keep the port one going till then?” “I'll do my damnedest!”, was my reply.

Running back below, I had a plan in mind. It was going to be expensive, but nowhere as costly as an engine with a ruined bottom end, and a likely crash.

Arriving in the lower engine room, I reached in near the center inboard side of the port engine, and spun the oil drain valve open, mentally praying that the low oil level alarm was working as it should. After all, we're dropping the oil out of an engine operating at full speed... When the oil level had dropped to well below the full mark, I lined the valves up and started the pump that would send clean oil into the engine. Not much later, the hooter went off, and I had the low oil light for the port engine. Spinning the drain valve closed, the makeup pump kept running till we were at the full mark again. OK, shut the makeup pump down, and do this one more time.

After the low oil alarm had gone off for the second time, I figured I had time enough to look at the lower engine room gauge panel. Hooray! We're back up to 80 psi on the oil pressure! Keep filling that engine with clean oil! We're getting ahead of the dilution!

About then, I felt and heard both engines come off of full chat. We made it! The port engine dropped to idle, and I shut it down. I wasn't going to even bother talking to the captain yet, more important things to take care of first. Throwing open all four valve covers, I started looking at the top end. Down the outboard side (cylinders 11 through 20), and nothing. No leaks. Started looking at the inboard side, and at #8, AHA! The fuel line going from the fuel manifold to the injector of #8 was cleanly fractured, and fuel was pouring out of it! Easy Peasy...

I called the captain, letting him know that we'd made it with no damage and that the problem had been found and that it would be an easy fix. We could be moving again in about an hour; it would take about that long to change the broken fuel jumper and to drain the oil one more time, and refill the engine with clean oil.

After it was over and we were running again, I checked the level in the clean lube oil tank against the current total on the log. Dropping the oil twice while running and then a complete change had used up about 900 gallons of lube oil at about $2.50 per gallon, so saving the crankshaft had come in at a cost of about 2,250 dollars worth of oil, plus the cost of one EMD fuel jumper. All in all, the cheaper of the two possible outcomes.

The coffee was cold, but the pie was still good... :-) Another day in the life, finished.

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