A Not so Happy Christmas

A Christmas tale for the engineering fraternity.

Port of Longyearbyen
Port of Longyearbyen

In the Autumn of 1988, I was sailing as chief engineer on a bulk carrier which was British owned, registered in Gibraltar and managed from an office in London. I had been attached to her on and off since February 1987 and had sailed previously on two others of the same class, so you could say that I knew my way around. She was one of a group originally built for Jebsens about 1972 of 22000 tons and propelled by 18PC2V Pielstick diesels. This particular vessel had been sold and chartered back to Jebsens and was carrying Jebsen cargoes at the time.

In December we loaded coal at Longyearben (Svalbard) which was very late in the season to do so, lots of ice about and very cold to say the least. We discharged at the steel works in Caen, a run we did quite often. I found out later that some of the coal was stuck to the ship side plates within the holds as it was still frozen even after the run down from the Arctic and to free it the ship sides were thumped with mechanical shovels. This practice had dire consequences within a short period which shall be revealed as this story unfolds.

On completion of discharge we sailed from Caen bound for Aughinish on the Shannon in Ireland, there to load Alumina for Norway. The trip went smoothly and all holds were cleaned prior to arrival alongside at the Aughinish aluminium plant on would you believe it – Christmas Eve. What an uncivilised lot they turned out to be because twenty four hours later we departed and headed North for Norway via Cape Wrath. I’m afraid that after twenty five years I can’t remember for which port but it was some place that had a plant for manufacturing aluminium ingots from alumina. It was blowing SW force eight, so I suppose we were heading in the best direction and things went well until we reached Cape Wrath. It was 8 am and I had just entered the engine control room for my routine check round the estate when the phone rang, it was the ‘Old Man’ on the bridge – ‘Have you seen the funnel chief you’d think we were a coal burner’. As it happens I had not seen the funnel but was about to check the main engine exhaust temperatures and sure enough one of the eighteen cylinders was way down. I suppose it is appropriate at this point to mention that apart from the captain and myself the rest of the officers and crew weren’t the best, so potential problem spotting was definitely not up to standard.

My first thought was fuel pump spring so just a simple case of lift the pump and continue on seventeen legs. I know you are supposed to be able to do that with the engine running but it was a lot easier and safer when stopped, so I arranged to do just that. I told the old man it would only take a minute and we would be on our way once again – no problem. It was twenty seven hours later when we managed to get the engine started and we continued at reduced speed like a ruptured duck and still smoking like a coal burner. The captain arranged for tugs on arrival at the pilot, we just slowed to a stop and that was it as we were unable to manoeuvre.

Now for the nasty part of the story. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock to the system when the engine would not start, it turned on air but would not pick up on fuel. Naturally with the intention to be stopped for just a minute the engine was still on heavy fuel so I quickly changed over to diesel and drained fuel from the fuel rails to no avail. Once the cause of the problem was found it showed that changing over was entirely the wrong thing to do. Fortunately the cause was fairly quickly located but the remedy took much longer to rectify. At this point I contacted the captain and explained we were in the soup and would be stopped for some hours. He was a very experienced man and was as cool as a cucumber, we were also very good friends which helped a lot. He said not to worry because we were actually round the cape and drifting away from the land, also we were drifting over a shallow patch so he walked the anchor out and there we lay for the next twenty seven hours..

Speaking with the watch keeping engineers I found out that they had been experiencing problems with the heavy oil purifier for a number of hours continuously losing its seal, at the time we were using fuel from the port and starboard double bottom tanks just forward of the engine room bulkhead. I had the purifier bowl opened for inspection and it was found choked with solids. I took a sample and rubbed it through my fingers and the reality hit me, there was the problem – ALUMINA. As engineers will know a purifier is designed to remove a small amount of impurities from a large quantity of liquid and not vice versa. Consequently the machine could not cope and alumina was passing through to the service tanks and eventually to the main engine fuel pumps, the particles so fine as to pass through all filters on its way. In effect it was like dosing the engine continuously with copious amounts of grinding paste.

The reason the engine would not start was because the fuel pump plungers had worn due to the abrasion of the alumina and when the racks were in the starting position the pumps were unable to deliver at injection pressure and the situation only made worse by changing over to diesel. We fitted a complete set of spare fuel injectors and the two spare fuel pumps and still no joy, then as a last resort decided to try the following procedure. I disconnected the engine governor and pushed the fuel racks over by hand way past the starting position and success – after twenty seven hours of play!. Once we got underway the governor was reconnected and we proceeded to our destination at reduced speed and trailing smoke. Once underway the possible extent of the damage caused became clearer, there were signs of oil leakage from the crankcase door pressure relief devices, indicating blow past from the pistons.

During the course of the stoppage we had of course been in constant contact with the London office and arrangements were already being put in hand as regards repairs. On arrival at the berth for discharge of the alumina we were met by two technicians from the UK bearing gifts in the shape of eighteen new fuel pump barrels and plungers. They immediately set to removing pumps from the engine and I with the assistance of one of the engine room hands did the cleaning and renewals. At the same time the fuel oil service tanks were drained, thoroughly cleaned and replenished from a different source. On completion of discharge it was ascertained that the source of contamination was via holed air vent pipes from both port and starboard double bottom tanks, which ran up the ship side through the wing ballast tanks to the deck – and yes I did have trouble with water in the fuel tanks on a different occasion. The air pipes must have been in very poor condition after sixteen years or so and the percussion from the mechanical shovels used to dislodge the frozen coal from the ship side in Caen caused the pipes to literally fall to pieces in places.

With the complete set of new pumps we were at least able to manoeuvre normally and were ordered to proceed to the Tyne for repairs. This we did at reduced speed due to the increased crank case pressure and eventually arrived at a lay-by berth on the North side of the river. Here the work really began, all eighteen units opened up, liners and pistons renewed as required, plus a full set of piston rings. This work was carried out by a squad from Lincoln I believe, who worked round the clock in twelve hour shifts and they certainly knew their Pielsticks. Meanwhile the fuel from the two contaminated tanks was pumped ashore into road tankers and after the necessary safety checks had been carried out the tanks were entered for inspection prior to cleaning. What a revelation, increasing amounts of what was in effect grinding paste as you moved out into the wings of the tanks and where the tank top above sloped up forming the hopper sides of the hold and you could stand fully erect, there were mounds of the stuff. It took a number of days to clean the tanks thoroughly and a good number of air pipes had to be replaced.

Notwithstanding the nightmare of the above experience she was a good ship and I enjoyed my time aboard with an excellent captain who was also a good friend. I eventually left her at the end of October 1989.

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