Sailboat Diesel Secrets - Three Steps to Add Life to Your Small Cruising Sailboat Engine

Do you go through a step-by-step inspection of your sailboat diesel before you hit the "start" button? Make sure you use these three easy steps to add years of life to your boat's diesel workhorse.

Most small boat diesel engine mechanics will tell you that sailboat engines get abused more than any other type of engine. We sailors often don't run our auxiliary machinery long enough or hard enough!

Diesel engines like to be run hard. But many sailing skippers use their auxiliaries just to enter, dock, un-dock, or exit a marina==all at idle speeds.

After several years of light use, your diesel will build up harmful deposits that can clog injectors or gum up cylinders. Add life to your diesel engine with these three simple steps:

1. Set up a PM schedule

No one knows your small diesel engine like the folks that put it together. Follow the manufacturer's recommended preventative maintenance schedule to the letter. Look in your owner's manual to find how often you should change oil, filters, impeller, and other diesel engine components.

2. Hire a sailboat diesel wizard

Once a year, hire the best small diesel mechanic you can find for two hours. Ask him or her to go over your engine with a fine tooth comb. Ask questions while they are aboard. Learn all you can. This will be one of the best investments you'll ever make for under $200!

3. Stick to this seven-point inspection

Make this fast, easy, seven point inspection each time before you get underway from a dock, mooring, or anchorage. It doesn't matter whether you just made the checks the night before. Something new could have come up since then. Catch small problems now before they become big ones later on.

* Oil

Use this double-dip technique. Pull the dip-stick out and wipe it off. Push it back in all the way so that it gets to the bottom of the oil sump. Pull it out and look at the oil color. It should be black (brown or streaked indicates water in the oil). Smear the oil on your fingers and shine a light onto it. Granules signal internal metal fatigue. Address any problems right away.

* Transmission fluid.

Yes, it's a pain to check transmission fluid, but repairs are costly if you don't. Make sure to use the double-dip method described above for accuracy. Most transmission dip-sticks screw into the fill cap, so screw it all the way down when you sound the tank. Remove it, check the level, and smell the fluid. If it has a burned odor, your transmission needs to be looked at right away.

* Coolant cap and fluid level.

Remove the header tank cap, turn it over, and check the gasket. Worn cap gaskets are unable to provide a tight seal. Replace the entire cap. Otherwise, you will lose coolant. This could cause the engine to overheat and result in internal damage. Stick your finger into the header tank (cold tank only!). Keep the fluid level close to the top of the fill.

* Belts and hoses

Depress the drive belts. Adjust or replace any belt that has more than 1/2 inch of play. Feel hoses (cold only) for softness. Look for cracks or abrasion. Replace defective belts and hoses right away. Carry spares aboard as part of your spare parts kit.

* Stuffing box (packing gland)

Look for excessive leaks at the shaft packing. More than one boat has sunk on a mooring or at anchor from a leaking stuffing box. Three or four drips a minute provide lubrication, but more than that tells you the nuts are too loose or the packing material has worn. You will need two over-sized wrenches to tighten the nuts. If it still leaks, replace the packing material.

* Raw water seacock and exhaust

Make sure the raw-water seacock handle lines up with the raw water hose. This opens the valve to allow cooling water to the engine. After you start the engine, check the stern exhaust tube for a steady flow of water. Blockage often points to a clogged raw water filter or an object trapped against the outside raw water intake.

* Test battery cables

Cables loosen when the boat pitches, rolls, or vibrates at sea. Check the connection at each battery terminal and on the side of the engine.


Add years of life and save $$$ in repair costs with these three easy steps. Your sailboat diesel will reward you with smooth, reliable, starts-every-time service for many sailing seasons to come.

Captain John Jamieson shows small boat cruising skippers how to reach their sailing dreams today! Get his popular free report "How to Avoid Costly Sailboat Mast Repairs" at

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Capt. John Jamieson
Boat Engines / Mechanical
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