The Head Gasket Saga

Most modern cruising sailboats have an engine, to enter and leave ports and to make progress in adverse winds or calm conditions.   Anyone who has experienced engine problems breathes a sigh of relief when the engine turns over and starts.  When engine failure occurs, the safety of the boat is jeopardized whether in the middle of an ocean passage or entering the home harbour.  This summer Pilgrim’s engine failed.  What follows is a description of how we detected, analyzed and repaired the problem.  We hope our story and photos will help other boaters avoid engine problems, and be able to respond to the problems with our without professional help. 


July 23-24   Occasional Harbour 

Bubbles in the coolant expansion bottle with a bit of black stuff on the surface did not seem to be too serious but worth a check. Out came the reference books for a quick read on possible failures that could cause the symptoms. While we were at anchor in Occasional Harbour we compared the reference books. One book mentioned that we could have an exhaust manifold crack … not too much of a problem as long as the coolant level stays high. Another book mentioned that we should use dishwasher detergent to clean out the coolant and any black scum that was present. A third reference mentioned checking the oil dipstick for oil level increase and discolouration. The oil level was checked with the dip stick and the colour and level were normal. Based on the references we decided to carry on and not worry about the bubbles.

 July 25- 27  St Lewis / Fox Harbour  

We continued to monitor the bubbles and black carbon during our motoring but there was no significant increase since we first noticed the issue. We carried on motoring and monitoring.

July 28-31  Battle Harbour 

No oil colour or volume change and no increase in venting gave us the confidence to continue motoring on to Newfoundland. We had not noticed any external problems with the engine up to this point.


August 1-3  Griquet

No oil colour or volume change and no increase in venting

August 4-7  St Anthony

No oil colour or volume change and no increase in venting

August 8  Conche

No oil colour or volume change and no increase in venting

August 9-11  Fourche Harbour, Williamsport

No oil colour or volume change. The oil pressure metre started to have an erratic reading but that had happened before and would eventually settle down.

August 12-13  Pacquet Harbour, Woodside

The coolant level had dropped and there was an increase in the carbon floating in the expansion tank. The engine operating temperature had started to climb from 160 to 180 degeers. While at anchor I added additional glycol and checked the oil level but there was no change in level or color. During our run to Little Bay Harbour things started to deteriorate rapidly. The engine temperature started to climb to the point where we had to shut down the engine. White smoke from the exhaust, bubbles in the coolant expansion tank and a slow but steady loss of coolant … Fortunately the wind materialized, and we were able to make 3 knots under main and Genoa hard on the wind. 

August 14-16  Little Bay Island

When we were 1 mile off this harbour, we furled the Genoa and managed to get the engine on long enough to come into the harbour and dock at the public wharf (coolant lasts 20 minutes before it needs a refill … means the motor needs to be cool enough to pop the rad cap to refill the coolant). 

We finally did an oil change and discovered a half a liter of water in the bottom of the oil pan.

Since we had a major problem with our diesel engine, we had to plan to sail the 50 miles from Little Bay Island to Lewisporte without the engine.  We waited for a forecast of moderate westerly winds, which would allow us to sail from Little Bay Island all the way to Lewisporte.  We arranged a tow out of Little Bay Harbour past Black Rock Sunker (such descriptive place names) and unfurled the Genoa and hoisted the staysail. 


The narrow channel out of Little Bay Island Harbour and the folks that towed us out

August  17  Lewisporte

After a difficult sail down the shipping channel we had a hard time getting a promised tow into Lewisporte. Once dockside the real saga began.


Our long awaited tow into Lewisporte

No advice, bad advice, no diesel mechanic willing to visit the boat … total lack of interest from anyone that could help set the stage for the most frustrating experience I have ever experienced. It seems that Newfoundlanders expect everyone to be able to do whatever is required to fix any problems one may encounter. Even doctors sew up their own thumbs that they have almost cut off. Back to the reference books and manuals … a 5 km walk to Canadian Tire to pick up tools that I never thought I would need like a ˝ inch torque wrench.


The Ford Lehman SP90 … better as a boat anchor than an engine

Several emails to “experts” asking some simple questions were not answered … but rather bad advice was easy to get. It simply came down to reading the service manual for the engine and totally ignoring the armchair experts.

The exhaust manifold was removed with help of a block and tackle hung from the top of the engine compartment … the manifold was taken to a diesel shop for pressure testing and it passed with flying colours.


Use an egg carton to keep stuff in order … the exhaust manifold

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Carbon buildup in the exhaust ports of the exhaust manifold … cleaning it out

The head was popped off after removing almost all of the components on the engine … fuel filters, valve covers, rocker arms, push rods. The block and tackle was put use to pop the head off the block … help from a local weight lifter helped lift the head off the block in the confined space of the engine room. The head was shipped off to St. John’s for a cleaning and rebuild.



The head removed and the gasket break is clearly visible 


A week later the head was picked up and reinstalled … several days later all of the various bits and pieces were reinstalled and valve clearances set. Severe trepidation preceded the turning of the key for the first restart … A lot of cranking to get the fuel flowing finally resulted in a running engine. The break-in schedule was followed before any load applied and we finally had a running engine.

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Clean and rebuilt head as delivered and installed


Have tools …. Will travel

Lessons learned

  1. Your are on your own outside of major cities
  2. Carry enough spares and tools to do everything within reason. Taking off the head is apparently within reason.
  3. Before heading off on a long multiyear voyage take the time to rebuild the engine yourself
  4. Carry at least 5 changes of oil and transmission fluid plus filters
  5. DO NOT rely on the oil dip stick to tell you anything … take an oil sample from the bottom of the oil pan.
  6. Know the weights of each engine part you may need to remove
  7. Install a way of lifting parts that are too heavy to lift by one person
  8. Carry the shop and parts manuals
  9. Carry a pressure tester for the coolant system … it can be used to test the injector excessive fuel line.
  10. Carry a spare injector and high pressure line set
  11. Carry at least 2 head and exhaust manifold gaskets
  12. Carry a full set of ˝ inch sockets and a 120 ft-lb torque wrench
  13. The “experts” will always appear and offer help and opinion after the job is done.
  14. Run a diesel at 80% rpm and adjust the prop pitch to prevent laboring the engine … prevents carbon buildup
  15. Glycol plus  oil creates a terrible gelatinous mess that is very hard to clean up, plugs oil passages, puts a glaze on bearings and screws up engines
  16. Water plus oil produces a mixture that resembles a chocolate milk shake … not good but can be fixed
  17. If you get glycol in oil … drain the coolant immediately and replace with drinking water if you can’t fix the problem immediately … remember to clean the gook out of the valve cover and anything else you can get at … you need at least 5 oil and filter changes to clear up the mess once you fix the problem. Always pull oil samples from the drain plug. Water is heavier than oil so will settle on the bottom of the oil pan and will be the first thing pulled out of the pan.
  18. Alternatives to oil for the cleaning out the engine include ATF and diesel fuel … run at idle without a load for a short time. Check your manual.