February 18, 2010

The Toyota Syndrome

(Stop by here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

WHILE TOYOTA RECALLS millions of cars to fix a problem with engines racing out of control, the makers of diesel engines for boats are purposefully keeping very mum and looking the other way.

You might be interested to know what’s going through their minds. It’s the fact that it’s possible for most of your engines to develop the Toyota Syndrome, too. And there’s little more frightening than a runaway diesel on a boat.

As is the case with Toyota cars, the problem is comparatively rare. Well, all right, extremely rare. But if it can happen at all, a good skipper like you ought to be aware of the possibility and what to do about it.

The first thing to understand is that a runaway diesel is running on oil, not diesel fuel, so you can wiggle the throttle and pull the stop button all you like and it won’t make any difference. The oil comes from an overfilled sump pan, or a seal that’s no longer doing its job, or oil somehow getting into the air intake.

Your first clue comes when the engine runs faster and faster until it is a bomb ready to explode. It roars and vibrates and tries to blow a piston through the cylinder head with the force of a landmine. None of the usual controls will stop it.

Now, before this happens to you, think about the three basic things a diesel engine needs to operate. It needs fuel. It needs air. And it needs compression, lots of compression. If you can deprive it of any one of these three things, it will cease to run.

Well, there’s not much you can do about the fuel since it’s stealing its own from the engine’s lubrication system, not the fuel tank. As for compression, some engines have little levers that release the compression in the cylinders, but if you release the compression at runaway speeds you’re likely to do serious damage to the engine, and possibly to yourself. Some engines have glow-plugs, and if you unscrew each glow plug you may be able to decompress the engine completely, but at the cost of the plugs being shot out at lightning speed with lethal force.

So we come down to air. Now some engine manufacturers, knowing full well the possibility that their engines might some day suffer the Toyota Syndrome, even before Toyota thought of it, provide metal plates, flaps, or sliding gates that can be moved to cover the air intake and starve the engine of the oxygen it needs to run. Most manufacturers do not.

Nevertheless, you can achieve the same result by blocking your engine’s air intake with a piece of plywood, or plastic, a big towel, or a small cat. (This is, after all, an extreme emergency.)

This could be much more difficult than it sounds. A roaring engine is a very frightening thing to be in close contact with. But there is an easier way to calm the roaring beast. What you need is a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher. Aim it at the air intake and keep firing until the runaway engine gasps and dies. Which it will, fairly rapidly.

So now all you have to do is: 1. Buy a carbon-dioxide extinguisher, and 2. Find out where to squirt it. It’s probable that your air intake, like mine, is on the aft end of the engine hidden from view, squeezed under the cockpit, and almost inaccessible to a normal-sized human being, certainly one paralyzed with fear.

So get out the manual or make the calls, and be sure you know where your engine sucks in air. Then you can sigh with relief as the Toyota Syndrome becomes just one more item you can scratch off your list of possible boating disasters. Now you have the time to worry about the rest.

Today’s Thought
The misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never come.
— J. R. Lowell, Democracy: Address

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #16
Bilge pumps. No matter how many electrical or mechanical bilge pumps are installed, you still need at least two manual pumps. One must be accessible from the helm and both must be fitted with easily reached strum boxes perforated with small holes.

The treasurer of the British Royal Academy at one time was a very polite architect named Sir Edward Maufe.

One evening he arrived late for a dinner. He quietly took his vacant seat, turned to his neighbor, and introduced himself, saying “I’m Maufe.”

The neighbor was astonished. “But you’ve only just arrived,” he said.

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