Tanked: mixology woes aboard

Jerry cans lined up on the dock

The dull thud of your heart sinking at that horrifying moment when you realize what you just did and consequences will follow: we all dread it. It happens anyway. Cruising comes with higher highs, and lower lows… pouring the wrong stuff in your diesel tank is one of those lower points.

In mid-2012, Totem was being prepped to move after five months mostly at a dock and a year and a half in Australia. This was the first step to depart Australia: shifting from dockside liveaboard to river mooring before sailing north to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Wrapping up school (the kids’ first and only formal stretch of four-walls education as cruisers), untangling the threads that weave a life integrated to shoreside people and places, packing up for multiple months off the grid and away from stores… we were a little busy, a little distracted.

One of our last steps before kicking off the dock: top of the water tanks. From below deck I listened to liquid gurgling in from the deck fill, and then came the unfortunate cry: “ah, shit.” Jamie doesn’t swear lightly. It hit me even before he filled in the detail, as sound locations processed: the water hose had been in Totem’s diesel tank fill.

Whoops. We own it now!

Water in the diesel tank

I dashed up to the cockpit and we looked at each other, mouths agape. Jamie got that faraway look in his eyes, then headed up to tell the marina manager we’d be late departing…regrets to the boat they had waiting for our berth.

The entire contents of our diesel tank were decanted and filtered, and like bad wine on a tropical island, salvageable.

Jamie started by turning off the valve between the diesel tank and primary fuel filter and lining up jerry cans to decant. Our magical dock neighbors, a French/South African family on the Dean 44 Merlin, offered time and support to get it done. Petroleum and water don’t mix, but kids play always!

Two little girls in climbing harnesses play by swinging in sailboat rigging

Greg helps his daughter, Clea, and Siobhan swing from the rigging aboard Merlin – Brisbane, 2012.

Greg brought over a diesel transfer pump they kept on Merlin which made the job far easier. Contaminated fuel was removed to jerry cans. At first we hoped that putting fuel through a funnel filter would remove the water – NOPE! Only trace amounts of water came out.

man using diesel transfer pump below deck on sailboat

Borrowing Merlin’s transfer pump to return diesel to Totem’s primary tank

Enter our old friend, Gravity. Allowing the water to settle to the bottom (it’s heavier) of a jerry can, diesel on the top could be pumped into a clean jerry can. Rinse, repeat with a series of jerry cans until the entire contents were filtered. Ten gallons of water were ultimately removed.

Gas in the diesel tank

Jump ahead to yesterday around tea time. This was a call from Serendipity, but not about serendipity. Anchored off Antigua with guests arriving soon and plans to head for Barbuda, it was time to top up the diesel tank. With their permission, sharing the event in Kevin’s words as related in the closed Facebook group for coaching clients, Totem Raft-Up (self-named – the TRU Crew!).

TRU Crew comes through again! This post is at my pride’s expense, but I’m going to eat the proverbial crow and share. It’s long but there are some lessons here and recommended gear that saved my ass today and could save yours.

They say bad decisions happen when you are forced into a movement due to timelines like company coming. Looking back, I think it played a part in my stupidity today. We have guests arriving to Antigua tomorrow, and we want to take them up to Barbuda Wednesday. I spent some time the last few days getting the boat ready, and one last chore was to fuel up with diesel. We were happy in an anchorage, it was Callum’s birthday (our 8 year old), and Stephanie was busy making a cake and cleaning up for arriving guests. I had a few hours to kill so I decided instead of moving the boat to the marina I’d just bring 30 gal worth of diesel cans in and fill them, then transfer to that boat. It would save us some time in the morning from having to motor into the harbor to fuel up. No problems…

TRU crew in Barbuda: Steph & Kevin from Serendipity (Live the Voyage) at center, Dave & Marcie from Kairos5 at right.

Well, as this plan was finalized Steph had a good idea to bring extra gasoline to Barbuda. We carry 15 gallons on the rail, but there is no fuel in Barbuda, and with guests from home visiting for week, we plan to spend a lot of time in the dinghy (snorkeling, tubing, etc). So I grabbed an extra yellow jerry can, wrote “GAS” on it, and proceeded to shore….I’m sure you know where this is going.

When I got back I unloaded the fuel, and started to fuel pretty quickly. I was distracted as it was Cal’s bday and wanted to get going. I used a shaker siphon to fuel, which is handy on a boat. I started the siphon and quickly put 5 gallons of fuel into the boat. I started my second can, and then went to clean up the first can and when I grabbed it I saw “GAS” written on the back side of it. Holy shit, 5 gallons of gasoline into my diesel tank. I seriously looked like Jim Carey on Liar Liar kicking my own ass!

Lesson – if you use a yellow can to fill gasoline, mark the shit out of it! 

Here is how TRU saved my ass. Going back to the fall, I lost my engine due to debris that clogged the fuel line. I got it running, but after had my fuel polished. Jamie was awesome help with this, and even though I didn’t use his recommended “emergency” polisher, I took his advice and ordered some parts that you may not think to have on board. It takes two pieces of gear to polish your fuel in a pinch. First, a 12 volt transfer pump, and second, a funnel with a filter.

You could pull the fuel out of the tank and back in through the filter, removing debris. Well, I didn’t use the funnel today but damn did that fuel pump earn it’s keep.

I opened the tank through one of the access holes and removed 23 gallons of contaminated fuel. I then used this handy pump to get the rest. I was able to empty all but maybe a couple ounces out of the tank. I’m going to put a minimum of 40 gallons in the tank before I start the engine. That’s 5,120 ounces. Even if there is a quart of contaminated fuel, that’s only .6% and only a fraction of that is gasoline. I think I’ll be okay, but damn, what a dumb move!

I called Jamie during all of this and he talked me off the ledge. Thanks! So don’t be me and don’t let distractions mess you up!

Serendipity’s crew recovered quickly. It helps to know you’re far from the first, and other TRU chimed in with their (mis)adventures in fueling. I didn’t even get to bringing up the story about our own cruising mentors and the time they added diesel to the water tank… a step further in the levels of cruiser hell. Our highs are higher, but our lows can be lower!

Meanwhile, this is Serendipity’s recent view. The squall passed; it wasn’t such a bad day after all.

TRU Crew anchored off Barbuda: thanks to Stephanie at Live the Voyage for this pic!

In both our situation and Serendipity’s, there was waste product that needed proper disposal. The water that settled in our jerry cans was contaminated, and the gallons of diesel/gas mix Kevin pumped out had to be disposed also. We were both fine, but finding a facility to take the waste fluids isn’t always easy the further out you get as a cruiser.

Gear to consider

A few bits that clearly can be really useful… and for more than just these scenarios, where the wrong liquid ends up in a diesel tank.

Twelve-volt transfer pump.

This diesel transfer kit from Orion Motor Tech would serve both Totem and Serendipity’s uses to pump tainted fuel out the tank. We purchased ours (similar to the model linked) just a few weeks after the water-into-diesel debacle in Australia from a cruiser unloading gear prior to selling their boat.

Other everyday cruising uses: our 12v transfer pump (see photo near the top of the post of Jamie using it) is currently loaned to another boat in the anchorage that needed to polish their fuel to try and remove a diesel bug (a microbial contamination gunking up their fuel, common enough a problem). It’s bailed us out from similar situations when we had a persistent diesel bug in Southeast Asia, and most recently helped polish dirty fuel we boarded at an outer island in the Bahamas.

Fuel filter.

Mr Funnel filters come in a range of sizes depending on how much fuel you’re running through them. We keep a small one for gas going into the dinghy and generator. And a large one for diesel. We also have a Baja filter, which haven’t been made for over a decade. Note that funnel filters remove debris and trace amounts of water (but not more).

Fuel is almost always filtered before it goes in our tanks. The only time we don’t filter is at a high-volume dock or place with a solid reputation. If there’s concern about fuel quality, we put some in a glass jar and wait a few minutes to see if there’s separation.

Siphon hose.

Self-priming hoses mean you don’t get your mouth involved in the siphoning process (yuck!). There are no fuel docks in most of the miles we’ve cruised; siphoning from jerry cans is a fact of life, and it’s good to be prepared.

Sponsorship/advertising note: we have zero association with these brands listed above. These recommendations do use Amazon’s affiliate program, so if you click through a product link and purchase something (anything) on Amazon, that slides some coin in our cruising kitty (thanks!).  I point it out since a couple of people have asked if we had sponsorship from any of products mentioned in our new tools on Totem article recently. Nope! No affiliation with them at all, just like these; we’re just sharing some kit that’s working well on board. Do we have sponsors? Yes, we do. It’s a very few, deliberately kept to the select products/services that we love can be genuinely enthusiastic about, and in limited number to avoid ever being taken as shills. For more information, see our Values Statement.

Sailing mavericks, unapologetically motoring

Sailors, like fisherman, can be a little boastful. Fishermen are better at it – complete with battle reenactment, culminating in outstretched arms indicating size. Sailors’ stories aren’t much different – a battle against the elements and with photographs! Of course, photographed waves appear small, so you have to double or triple the size to be accurate. Everybody knows this, really… Sometimes a boast smarts: like those from sailing purists, so called because they sail everywhere. Mostly.

Our sailing purist friends in Seychelles didn’t intend the slight in their boast, “why didn’t you just sail her in. We sail into the anchorage all the time.” We had radioed for a dinghy tow into the anchorage ½ mile away after our oil filter burst, rendering us engineless. I pointed out that wind oscillating between 0 (zero!) and 30 knot blasts on the nose made a very long ½ mile! They shrugged. I could’ve added a counter boast about our passage to Seychelles from Chagos. Roughly 1,031.27 nautical miles that we did in 6-days with the aid of 1 pint of diesel. Their trip was near to three weeks because their route put them into 0 (zero!) wind; and motored so many hours that they had to flag down a passing ship for more.

dinghy tows sailboat

Happily taking a tow, er, barge assist in Seychelles

Another crew that inquired as to why Totem’s diesel appeared to be running when the wind dropped below 8 knots. In a light catamaran they remained unglued in ghosting air. We get sticky and usually find 3 knots of boatspeed isn’t enough. On another day when navigating through a coral strewn atoll, they radioed ahead asking incredulously, “is your engine on?” “Of course,” I said, “so we can maneuver around uncharted bommies.” A chuckling reply came back, “we’re sailing around them fine”. Easy when you’re following, I thought, but didn’t say.

Perhaps my favorite was the crew that boasted of cruising so long that they found a simple approach to cruising is most satisfying, “just like Lin and Larry” without all junk new cruisers have. In that moment, I really wanted to ask if their gas generator was running any better, but it was hot. They switched on navigation electronics, started the diesel engine, and engaged the transmission. Not exactly like Lin and Larry.

sailboat in tropical water

Motoring for close-in caution in Maldives

A boast at its core is an expression of prideful accomplishment. As such, I confess to boasting now and then too, being a sailor and all.

In Indonesia, it’s illegal for foreigners to purchase diesel fuel. The sole purpose is to be daunting, to weed out sailors with less fortitude! No, it isn’t really, but I recall hearing a sailor making this point in a silly boast. Mostly the quirky diesel law proved a minor inconvenience. Fishermen, with outstretched arms, were always happy to sell us diesel from their onboard supply. One exception was in small city of Jayapura on the north side of New Guinea. It’s a conflicted area with an ongoing, hidden ethnic war. Foreigners arrived there fall into one of the three Ms: mining, missionaries, or mercenaries.

We didn’t fit the script, which made clearing in a tedious and involving military interrogations. Once cleared a Navy vessel patrolled Totem at anchor. Fun as that was, we were keen to get diesel and move on. The first guy we approached said okay, okay, okay, come back in two hours. When we met the fellow again, he had a change of heart and told us to go away without making eye contact. We had showered, so didn’t understand the disconnect. This pattern followed with other suppliers over a few days. It turns out that secret police were following us and terminating any questionable business. There was one other cruising boat with us, and a little desperate, John and I dinghied around the harbor of wood and steel working vessels and found the only fiberglass recreational boat. After asking the crew about diesel, they got the boss to speak with us. He was an Indonesian businessman that understood our predicament. After boasting of his friendship with the son of the Minister of Energy, he assured us diesel would be waiting when we came back – just after dark. Without knowing if diesel would be there or if this was a sting, we found the fading twilight was just the veil needed to get diesel flowing. Oddly, gasoline was straightforward to acquire. Dinghy into the fisherman’s dock and wait in line with other fisherman, all smoking. When it’s you turn, saddle up to a 500 gallon open tank of fuel. Using a 5-liter scoop, an attendant plunges elbow deep into gasoline, then funnels it into jerry cans. Easy!

Officialdom may have been prickly, but we had a great time making friends with civilians in Jayapura

Brunei is a tiny country situated along the northwest coast of Borneo. Little about Brunei is inviting to cruisers – mucky water and a more restrictive interpretation of Islam than its neighbors. Dirt cheap diesel is what lures cruisers in. While there and interested new cultural experiences, we booked a tour of the capital city. Though a local guide seemed logical, Zahir, a jovial twenty-something from Qatar was very persuasive, boasting that he was better. “The local people are lazy,” he said.

At the end of a satisfying tour, we employed Zahir’s help in a diesel fuel run. Strictly speaking, it was illegal for foreign sailor types to buy diesel, but this was unenforced – until recently it turns out. Zahir and I set off to the station in borrowed van loaded with jerry cans enough for 125 gallons. Pulling in, station attendants recognized Zahir. The moment wasn’t like seeing a friend, more like spotting a pickpocket in the crowd. They began waving us away and cursing when we didn’t pass. A wee bit nervously I said to Zahir, “I don’t want to cause trouble.” He looked at me with a big smile saying, “No problem, don’t worry.”

With a bundle of Brunei dollars in hand, in a van of unknown origin prepared to carry a lot of flammable fuel, assisted by a jolly Muslim Qatari man was weird enough. Then Zahir dropped to his knees to beg for diesel on my behalf. The outcome was in play: would it be simple shove off was there to be police. Out came one attendant’s cell phone. Then unexpectedly, the employees turned away in disgust. Zahir yelled for me to open the back quickly as he grabbed the diesel pump. In perfect synchronicity, we filled, capped, and loaded 25 jerry cans in a time that would make an Indianapolis 500 pit-crew envious. The money exchange was awkward for me, but persuasive Zahir never stopped smiling.

jerry cans of fuel on a beach

Typical fueling up, cruiser style, on a beach in Brunei

Totem’s recent Panama Canal transit marked the homestretch to complete a circumnavigation. As much as we don’t like schedules, we had one. Our stop in Costa Rica was to wait for weather and… to take on a little diesel. The customs agent was a courteous, tedious i-dotter and t-crosser that couldn’t accept Behan as co-captain, being a woman and all.

Intending to be there for a day or two only, we cleared in and out at the same time to expedite the process. For fuel top-up, we intended to use the taxi-to-fuel station supply chain. More work than the one fuel dock in the area, but price per liter is considerably less. The taxi-diesel supply chain snagged on a technicality we’d not foreseen. Taxi driver asked for our papers and upon seeing our clearance he said the fuel station could not sell to us. Our supply onboard wasn’t too bad, but with average windspeed of approximately 0.00 (zero!), a little more diesel meant we might reach Chiapas, Mexico with more than vapors in the tank.

Our anchorage neighbors were stunned at this news and quickly surmised our predicament. “How much do you need?” they asked. Twenty-five gallons was all; they offered to sell us some of theirs. Out came the jerry cans once again. The next morning, we were northbound ready to sail, motor-sail, or just power along as conditions allowed. Thanks to the cruising community; specifically, the fine people on a boat named Liquid.

One final boast.  On April 7, 2018, the Gifford family, Jamie, Behan, Niall, Mairen, and Siobhan, motored Totem in 0 (zero!) knots of wind into the bay at Zihuatenejo, Mexico to complete a circumnavigation…mostly by sailing.

Jamie originally titled this article Liquid, in homage to the 50′ ketch Liquid and her crew and an irresistible pun with the liquid (diesel) they provided us; it ran in 48 North this spring. We look forward to seeing Marc & Laura again when they sail north to Mexico; below, anchored near Totem in Playas del Coco. The only true purists we know? Impressive navigators in Papua New Guinea, like the family from Brooker island in the picture at the top.

sailboat at sunset