Engine Starter Woes or Click, Click, Nothing!

It is the middle of the night, and we’ve been sailboat racing offshore for 14 hours so the batteries are draining down. We decide to start the engine to charge them up—click, click, click, uh oh!  That dazed feeling that you might be in trouble begins to set in, and you try to figure out what is wrong.  It’s just two of us aboard in this year’s annual double-handed distance race out of Newport, Rhode Island—the Solo/Twin.  We are in the open Atlantic Ocean, miles east of Block Island.  Fortunately, this is a sailboat, so we aren’t marooned, but we do need batteries for all our navigational instruments and running lights, and we don’t have much juice left.

Small diesel engines like this Yanmar are often found in cramped quarters on sailboats, making access the biggest deterrent to maintenance or repair.

I stay on deck and continue to sail while my buddy Jeff pops below.  “Try it again,” he shouts—click, click, nothing.  We start shutting down all the non-essential electronics, just like Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, until only the masthead running light is left working off the backup battery.  We can hear the click and see the lights dim when I hit the starter button, so we’re thinking it’s either too low a battery, a bad solenoid, or maybe even a fried starter.

Out comes the battery jumper pack, nothing. We open the compression valves on the engine and spin it by hand, so we know the engine isn’t frozen, but still we can’t get it started.  I’m remembering all those horror stories of people breaking an arm trying to start a diesel by hand as the handle spins out of control, especially in our cramped sardine-can-sized engine compartment, and I’m thinking how much worse this might be if one of us were injured on top of our present dilemma. Jeff starts banging on the starter with a winch handle as I try the starter button again.

We finish the race about dawn, still with no engine, so we sail the boat right to the mooring and tie up.  Exhausted, we try to think through all the possibilities of the engine problem once again.  We had spark but were afraid of trying the age-old solution of touching a screw driver across the contacts of the solenoid, due to the confined space and having a hand in the engine compartment if it did decide to fire.  So we go ashore in search of a new starter and solenoid, sure that one is the answer.

After a shower and a short nap we return with a brand new starter/solenoid and install it, click, click nothing.  But we’ve also brought a jumper wire from Jeff’s basement that sparks enough for him to pull his hand out of the engine compartment super-quick.  The problem turns out to be the contact starter switch.  A $9 part at the local Auto Zone.  We re-install the old starter and return the unused new starter before picking up the contact switch.

Jeff has since admitted that he had been having problems with the switch for over a year; previously you had to push it just right to start the engine. It was making contact, just not enough to kick the starter over. Ah engine maintenance! Left alone, a simple $9 switch will wait to cause trouble only when it can create an adventure for you.