Skip to main content

A Dauntless Engine Room Adventure

We've all heard it said: the two happiest days in a boat owner's life are the day you buy the boat— and the day you sell it.

This boater has discovered the third happiest day. That would be the day we dropped Dauntless back into the Merrimac River after 37 days on the hard and cranked up those newly painted Volvos in preparation for a sea trial.

Dauntless is a 1984 Albin Sundeck Trawler, a good, solid old boat that I've called home for the past six-plus years. I found her up the Hudson River, hauled out at a yacht club, listed in a local boating paper by a nearby broker in Stony Point, New York. The asking price seemed typical for the brand and vintage, but a few days after chatting with the broker, he called and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I accepted, contingent on a survey and sea trial.

I rolled into Stony Point the next day with a mechanic buddy from Gloucester and met the local surveyor for a daylong session of crawling and poking, pulling and tapping, searching and freezing—did I mention it was December? As can be expected with a 20-year-old boat, the day yielded good news and bad.

The good news started with the fact that the Albin 43 was a very solid, well-built boat with enough space in the attractive teak interior to provide a comfortable liveaboard for me, and occasionally my kids (but that's another story). Another piece of good news: the boat had been owned and operated by a knowledgeable couple for all but the first two years of her life. The Volvo 250 TIs appeared to have been reasonably well maintained, as were most of the systems. An oil analysis on the main engines, transmissions, and generator all yielded good results. Navigation gear was old but functional, and since I initially planned to do more living aboard than cruising, it posed no issue.

We did discover a bit of a diesel odor and fuel tanks that were virtually impossible to inspect. Still, the volume of living space, the walk-around queen bed in the aft cabin, the galley layout, and the overall condition of the fiberglass and woodwork had me hooked. In my search, I had crawled around a lot of boats, looking for this combination of space, quality, and price.

The rest, as they say, is history. We made the deal, and thus, happiest day no. 1. Being December on the Hudson, the yacht club had already closed down its yard operation for the winter, but they agreed to let the boat sit there and even tossed in the launch in the spring. Done deal.

On the way back to Boston, my mechanic buddy, Steve, and I went over the boat again and again. I had a lot of questions, and he had nothing but positive things to say. When the discussion reached the somewhat mysterious condition of the fuel tanks and the question of the diesel smell, we agreed that whatever the problem was, it was surely something manageable, and we moved on.

Skip ahead six years. I had completed a lot of projects aboard Dauntless. She was looking better than ever and had proven to be a fantastic liveaboard vessel, comfortable even in the dead of winter. The Volvos had operated flawlessly, and I had pushed the lurking question of the fuel tanks to the bottom of the to-do list. Sure, they were old and there was a bit of a diesel odor, and some surface rust visible on the small area of the tanks that was accessible. There they were, buried behind those big Volvos—hiding behind walls of plywood and insulation, unreachable. Out of sight, but not out of mind.


Judgment day arrived midsummer 2009. I had been away for few days on assignment and had leftDauntless closed up. Happy to be home again, I opened the saloon door, stepped aboard, and was hit in the face by a serious diesel stench. Wow—what now? I traced the scent to a slight weeping of fuel along the bottom aft seam on the starboard tank that was hardly noticeable. There was no catastrophic breach, as I had initially feared, but it was still a major issue that had to be dealt with immediately. Only a minor amount of fuel had made it to the bilge. Some absorbent pads took care of that in short order, and I added more along the route from the tank to remove all standing fuel. So the problem was contained for the moment, but what to do next?

A few phone calls later, I had located Andrew Haley of Parker River Marine. Andrew had worked on several prior projects aboard Dauntless and agreed to come by and help brainstorm with me to find a solution. Sitting down in the engine room, we concluded that we could isolate the starboard tank by moving all remaining diesel fuel to the port tank, thus eliminating the risk of any further leakage. With this accomplished, the addition of some 1,200 lb. of stone ballast to the starboard bilge did the job of stabilizing the boat.

My son and I had planned to do some charter work in Boston Harbor for the summer and were getting all our ducks in a row, assembling the required documentation, safety gear, insurance, TWIC cards, and so forth. But with one old tank shot, logic dictated that the other tank wouldn't be far behind. After more deliberation of possible remedies, I made the decision: it was time to bite the bullet, haul out, and replace both tanks.

We made a plan to haul out at Bridge Marine, run by Alan Kesner in Salisbury, Massachusetts—opposite Newburyport on the Merrimac River. Andrew Haley blocked out what seemed like a reasonable amount of time in his schedule to complete the project, and I took the boat north, making the five-hour run from Boston.

We decided to go with custom-built, USCG-approved 1/4-inch aluminum tanks. My intention was to work alongside Andrew every day that I could manage to stay in town, and to do whatever I could to facilitate the project.

On day 1, we hauled out at Bridge Marine. Alan shuttled Dauntless to the back of the yard with his 50-ton Travelift and set her down easy on blocks and stands. Next, I took to moving everything out of the saloon and onto the aft deck.

The next day, the real work began. Andrew had devised a plan to construct an I-beam across the saloon over the engine room hatches and to haul up the Volvos one at a time on his ancient chain come-along. He would place each engine to the side of the saloon on a raft of two-by-tens to spread out the weight.

The starboard engine was up and out by noon, and soon the insulation and plywood had been removed. By 1 p.m. we sat there staring at the offending tank—all 7 feet 10 inches of it.

The bad news just kept rolling in. Not only was the tank too large to be hauled out in one piece, but it was apparent that these tanks had been built into the boat. The deck had been laid down on top of them so tightly that a number of decking screws had to be cut off just to achieve enough clearance on top of the tank to budge it. Once the empty tank had been worked free from its nest and dragged to the center of the engine room, the Sawzall did a fine job of making two big but manageable pieces out of one very large, nasty tank.

At this point, the tank gave up its secrets. It had been constructed from incredibly thin steel and contained only one baffle in its almost 8 feet of length. The source of the continuing diesel odor? Several thumb-size holes had rusted clean through the top to the tank. These were undoubtedly a result of deck leaks around the fuel-fill pipe. Water had been left to sit on the tanks in an area where no one could see it.

Andrew fixed vise grips to the cut ends of the tank halves to serve as handles, and it was all we could manage to heave those junk pieces up and out into his waiting truck. Well, they weren't quite junk yet. By the end of the day, we had the tank in two pieces sitting in his truck, ready to be delivered to the welder to be used as a pattern for the new tanks. Determined to avoid the problems of the past, we would make sure to design the new tanks a bit shorter and narrower so they would fit into the engine room and leave adequate space on top for inspection and cleaning.


The original sound insulation that had been installed on the engine room overhead and walls was long past its useful life. The cover layer had been torn and was peeling, exposing home-type yellow fiberglass insulation that had to be scraped clean before the new Soundown material could be applied.

Twenty-five years of dirt, grime, general bilge crud, and remnant soot from an old exhaust leak created quite a toxic worksite. Not to mention that all the original hoses had been installed with the plastic wrappers left on them, and these had been reduced to little bits of black, grimy bilge-pump killers.

Dressed from head to toe in Tyvek and wearing safety glasses, rubber gloves, and a respirator, it was time for me to get intimately acquainted with the term "bilge diving." There is something about the scooping up of ancient ooze of unknown origin from the bottom reaches of a bilge that has a humbling effect. This is a job no one wants to do, but it was the ultimate source of the bilge stink, and it had to be done once and for all. Along with the goop went the old tub/shower sump drain hose: a nasty, crud-clogged conduit that very slowly drained the aft bath forward, through 9 feet of resistance. We repositioned the sump directly below the tub.

Finally, things were clean enough to degrease. We used gallons of Purple Power cleaner/degreaser, then washed and rinsed the space until it was fit for Andrew to build the new tank beds, glass in new supports, and cut drain holes where none had existed. By the time that first layer of Interlux Bilgekote was rolled on, the place had been transformed. When the second coat was dry, it looked more like an operating room than the engine room I had come to know and dread.

One of the major hurdles in a project like this is the extreme discomfort that awaits anyone who has to crawl around such an inhospitable place. It became immediately evident that the human body is not designed to function efficiently in this M.C. Escher type of environment—no level surfaces to work on, everything at an angle, much of the space tapering into small areas, requiring constant reaching and stretching to accomplish the simplest of tasks. When you factor in all the frames, stringers, and engine bed components, there is significantly more surface area to be addressed than expected.

I took to using layers of heavy cardboard as a means of cushioning my knees. It also worked reasonably well to stretch out on my back while scraping the remnants of insulation from the engine room overhead, removing all the plumbing and wiring clamps, and installing the new Soundown insulation. Still, in that cramped space, the work progressed much more slowly than I had expected and with considerably more effort. Even with gloves on, my hands took a beating.

We figured I had about four days to complete the clean, prep, and paint task in the starboard bilge. It took six. The newly constructed starboard fuel tank showed up on day 8, just about the time the final layer of Bilgekote was dry.

With Alan's help, Andrew and I muscled the first of the new fuel tanks out of his truck, into the saloon, and down into the engine room. After positioning the tank into its new bed, Andrew set about framing it in, and I began to address the starboard engine that was sitting on the saloon floor, cleaning and inspecting everything I could manage. The starter had been acting up, so it was removed and sent out for inspection and repair. Degreasing with a toothbrush-size tool is slow going, especially on the outboard side of an engine that hasn't seen daylight in 25 years. Many of the oil-pan bolts needed tightening and hoses needed replacing, but there were no major issues. So, after the rebuilt starter was installed and fresh paint applied, the engine was ready to be dropped back in and covered.

And so it went. The same process was repeated on the port side.

Thirty-seven days after haulout, we were tied to Alan's fuel dock, filling the new tanks with diesel.Dauntless smelled like cleaning products and fresh paint, and I couldn't have been happier.

As we prepared for a sea trial, knowing every inch of what lay below the saloon floor afforded me a new sense of confidence in this good, old boat. And it was confidence I had earned, working on my hands and knees alongside a true professional. It was worth every bruised knuckle, and I know I'll eventually get all the grease out from under my fingernails.


  • Removed both engines and degreased, inspected, tightened, and painted them
  • Removed, painted, and relocated both engine mufflers
  • Removed plywood box surrounding fuel tanks
  • Disconnected all tank fittings
  • Removed framing for both fuel tanks
  • Cut fuel tanks in half
  • Removed fuel tanks from engine room in two parts
  • Replaced both fuel tanks with new USCG-approved aluminum tanks
  • Constructed and painted new fuel tank frames
  • Removed all insulation from engine room sides and overhead
  • Installed new Soundown insulation in engine room
  • Removed and replaced all hose and wire clamps from engine room sides and overhead
  • Removed holding tank; inspected, repaired, and re-plumbed as necessary
  • Removed and relocated battery charger
  • Removed, replaced, repositioned, and rewired three 8D batteries
  • Removed, repositioned, and rewired generator battery
  • Removed and relocated shower sump and all hoses
  • Removed and relocated all three Racor fuel filters
  • Replaced all fuel hose and fuel return hose
  • Removed, replaced, and rewired battery switches
  • Replaced main battery cables and starter cables
  • Degreased, cleaned, and painted bilge and engine room
  • Removed and re-bedded fuel-fill pipes in deck
  • Removed and replaced all fuel-fill hose
  • Removed and replaced all fuel vent hose
  • Removed, replaced, and rewired engine room lighting
  • Inspected and adjusted stuffing box packing (times two)
  • Removed and replaced port engine raw-water seacock
  • Removed and replaced two main engine raw-water strainers
  • Removed, repaired, and relocated generator raw-water strainer