Engine woes in the Singapore Strait

Traffic from Malaysia to Singapore as we head out to cross the city

The engine failed our test run, but it at least had the grace to wait until we were beyond the worst of the shipping traffic. With a few miles left to our intended anchorage the needle began to steadily tick up again. This has been the pattern: it’s fine, right up  until it’s not, and then the overheating happens very, very quickly. We shut it down and drifted with the current, happy to be outside the shipping lanes. Jamie replaced 1 1/2 liters of coolant, much of which had spilled into the well.

It’s dashed our plans, if not our mood. After call to the mechanic, we settled in the cockpit to talk about plans. He thinks it’s the head gasket now, and that’s not a quick fix. What we do know: we can’t go to Borneo with an engine that overheats. Instead of heading into the South China Sea at sunrise, we’ll be backtracking across Singapore and returning to Puteri Harbour.

It’s a little more than a dent in plans, though, since there are fast friends who we won’t catch up with now- boats we don’t know when we’ll see again, as they continue from Borneo to the Pacific while we look to the west. As disappointing as it is, it has to be fixed first.

We had been so hopeful, if slightly nervous, heading out under the bridge in the morning. They never look tall enough, do they?



The land reclamation is tremendous.


Whole chunks of land exist where our relatively new charts show water.

Amid the traffic, there are still small fishing boats like this one.


This area has more piracy than any other spot in the world, and there are also a number of other boats that really don’t look like they’re fishing.

2014 incidents of piracy near Singapore. Source: IMB Piracy Reporting Centre
2014 incidents of piracy near Singapore. Source: IMB Piracy Reporting Centre


We watch hooded figures in an unmarked boat without fishing gear maneuvering around the stern for a while, before roaring off to another ship. Is this boat complicit?

Some boats have dummies stationed as some kind of pirate scarecrow. I’m not sure they’re fooling anyone. We liked teasing the megayacht guys back in Puteri about their stoic, camo-clad crew. Commercial ships in Singapore take it up a notch: zooming in, this mannequin has a (fake?) gun tucked in his belt in as well.


Perhaps to combat the piracy, and certainly to put on a big show, Singapore is by far the most militarized place we’ve been. We have to alter course to handle the wakes thrown by police boats that roar alongside monitoring shipping lanes. The last time we entered Singapore waters, loops were flown over the city by F-16s in formation. Totem was buzzed by a Chinook helicopter. It came back later with a flag, that that was more likely to be a practice run for Singapore’s upcoming national holiday.



20 Responses

  1. Big bummer! So sorry this changes your plans. Good luck getting it resolved soon. I found out our overhaul on one of our saildrives is preventing reverse from working right. It means another haulout and sail drive service. 🙁 so, I feel your pain.

  2. Behan, we have exactly the same problem with our engine dumping coolant after several hours due to what appears to be a pressure build up.
    I am sure you have turned your calorififier off first to see if it is that.
    I am trying a couple of other things first before we settle on the head gasket theory.
    Good luck but if you want to know what I have tried just e mail me.
    Waiting for an exhaust elbow at the moment.

    1. Hi Mark, is that what we call the heat exchanger? We did think it was the culprit, initially. It was removed, pressure tested (no problems!), and replaced. It likely had not been seated correctly when it was reinstalled after our 5,000 hour service recently and *was* connected to the issue. Now that it’s correctly placed, the coolant DOES pressurize, and flows into and through the hole in the top of the overflow tank vent. There’s no other visible sign of coolant leak anywhere. We’re pretty sure this points to the head gasket, and will see what the mechanics think later today. I didn’t realize you had similar problems. No fun eh? Here’s hoping we can both have them resolved and get back to letting weather and whim determine our plans, instead of access to mechanics!

  3. I don’t want to join the dockside mechanic brigade from half a globe away, but if all else fails it might be worth a shot to look very carefully for scale build up on the seawater side of the heat exchanger. It doesn’t take more than a thin layer to effect the heat transfer efficiency of the unit. Especially when you are continually in 85 degree water it could be enough to cause your symptoms.

    If you do pull the head gasket make sure the head is re-surfaced before bolting it back on. And mag the head, paying particular attention to the areas around the exhaust valve seats. I once bought a nearly new Westerbeake for $1,000 with similar symptoms to yours. Had two cracks between the exhaust valve seat castings and the coolant passages. Had it welded by Northwest Motor Welding — they heat the casting up to something like 500 degrees before welding it, then cool it down very slowly. Got years of service from it thereafter.

    Fair winds,

    1. Happy to have help from dockside mechanics, Richard! The heat exchanger was recently given a thorough clean and pressure test as part of a 5,000 hour service we had done on the engine. Looks like we will be dealing with the head gasket now so thanks for those tips. Well done with the Westerbeke!

  4. The current overflights you noticed (F15s, F16s, Chinook and Apache) this time of year are all most certainly due to RSAF rehearsals for the National Day Parade rather than any piracy concerns. From June to the actual parade in August these overflights tend to be twice weekly occurrences:

    The schedule:

    Some pictures from last weekend’s parade rehearsal:

    1. Hi Lucas- that is FASCINATING stuff in the schedule document- I love seeing the flight patterns! I am sure you are right that the Chinook with the flag and F16s in formation were part of a rehearsal for the national holiday (FWIW, that was June 10- the same gorgeous sunshiny day as the pics you linked on Flickr). I think those F16s gt out for more than parade prep, though. They flew in pairs on a regular basis when we came by Singapore late last year, and we see the same now. Not showy groups flying formation for an airshow, just a pair of them in succession doing laps around the country. Singapore’s way of showing they have some muscle to flex? It’s the machine gun fire and cannons we get to listen to on a regular basis that weird me out more, though. Puteri Harbour is right across the river from a S’pore military practice zone and some of the concussions are enough to make windows flex on the hotel behind the marina.

  5. Behan:
    When I was offshore years ago in Costa Rica I met a chemist who was cruising at the time., I was having overheating problems and he suggested that I use a 25 percent solution of muratic acid and circulate it through the salt water side of the system to solve the overheating problem.
    I used a 5 gallon bucket and emptied one gallon of muratic acid into it and filled it up with about four gallons of fresh water. I then turned off the sea water inlet ball valve and took the inlet hose off and extended it so I could put it into the bucket of acid solution, I then took off the hose from where the salt water exited the heat exchanger and extended it so I could put the end of that hose into the bucket. I started the engine and ran it for about 20 minutes and watched the water in the bucket get awfully dirty from the stuff that was removed from the system as it circulated through the system.
    After this was finished I returned the hoses back to their respective positions, turned on the ball valve and ran the engine to watch the temperature needle stay cool. Problem solved. This method was a simple inexpensive solution to my overheating problem and I didn’t have to remove the cylinder head or anything else. Good luck and fair winds. I’ve been following your blog for a long time and love your positive insight about cruising with kids. I have plans to sail with the PPJ crowd from San Diego to the south pacific in 2015.
    Fair winds, Captain Jim McCarthy, S/V Double Angel, 42 US YACHT, La Conner WA.

    1. Thanks for the input Capt Jim! That would remove calcification and nasty bits that form on the heat exchanger and engine block, but we don’t think these are problems we have right now. But hey, inexpensive solution for the win, when it does solve the problem. Thanks for the kind words, have fun heading south (and west) next year!

  6. Really sorry to hear the latest news. At least all are safe. Hope that you get your engine troubles sorted soon. Absolutely LOVE your new blog layout. Fabulous

    1. Hey thanks Lisa! yeah, we hope it’s sorted soon too… :-/ I’d rather be sailing!

  7. Our “two bobs worth”. My husband is/was a mechanic, and his comment was that a blown head gasket would not show symptoms of fine for some hours then suddenly overheat, and then fine again the next day. It would normally just get progressively worse. He was wondering if you had changed the hoses? If there was a flap inside one on the hoses, this would cause the water to block suddenly. It is very disappointing to not be able to go to Borneo, but I am sure you will be able to find some positive aspects to a longer stay in Malaysia.

    1. What seems to happen is that we slowly lose coolant, and it’s not until it passes some point of no return that we quickly overheat… because once it *does* start it happens pretty quickly. And, it’s related to pressurizing, so probably not just a flap inside a hose- there is progressive and not just sudden loss of coolant. And you’re right, while I’m sad we can’t go back to Borneo, there’s a lot to love here on the Malay peninsula! Life is good!

  8. Wow, what an experience! Real life excitement of a nomadic life on the sea. I know you’ll tame that wild engine. Love your new blog design. Cheers to your success and determination.

  9. Oh, feel so bad for you. I hate it when we can’t figure out WHY something is happening. Good luck on the troubleshooting . . . and getting safely back across the Singapore Straits with the engine.

    LOVE the redesign!!

  10. Hi Bethan

    My wife and I also love your blog. I’m not sure if you realise how inspiring it is to people like us who are desperately trying to leave the dock. We have a couple of young kids and a 43 foot steel Roberts that we are slowly getting ready while living aboard in Sydney.

    We also had a lot of trouble with overheating. The symptoms were that the water level would go down and then the engine would overheat. The water would also never keep that nice green colour but quickly get yucky and smelly. I removed the head and had it check for cracks and skimmed flat. Replaced it and it seemed better but the problem never went completely. Then we sucked a bag in the intake and the motor overheated again. It was really stuffed this time. I removed the head again. Had it checked again and this time they found a very small crack. Once this was repaired it finally worked correctly. I guess the point of all this is make absolutely sure that they check your head very carefully. And don’t give up until it all works completely normally. It turns out that it was actually lucky we sucked up that bag otherwise we would have never fixed it completely.

    Good luck!

    1. Hi Mark, no worries, with an unusual name I get all variations on spelling and pronounciation and don’t really notice! Thanks for the input. They’ve looked very closely at the head, and we replaced the gasket. Expected to skim, but it wasn’t needed. Fingers crossed this is the fix. That was lucky with the bag!

  11. Hi Behan, LIke your blog. I live in Singapore and also have a sailing boat. Kids 2.5 yrs old and 6 months old. So, looking for inspiration to plan to do what you guys are doing! Your engine problem. I had a car once with the same problem. Water enters the combustion chamber through worn head gasket or worn head cylinder. I would recommend, if this is the problem, is to take off the head and grind it flat in a motor machine shop in JB. That depends on how may times you have done that before on the head. I think about 3 grind, you must start thinking about getting a new head. My 2 cents worth if it is a head problem. Fair winds, Robert

    1. Hey thanks Robert! We did end up replacing the head gasket. There were ancillary problems but ultimately that fixed our overheating problem. We’ve since motored most of the way up the peninsula to Penang with zero coolant loss or overheating. Appreciate the thoughts on what to do- glad we did not need to grind the head. Spent one great weekend in Singapore recently, with friends in Keppel and a day out at Lazarus anchorage- what a gorgeous spot, how nice to have it in your backyard!

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