Hmmm, look at the picture above and try to figure out what it is and why we have it as the lead picture in this story? That’s a picture of our completely clogged exhaust elbow in 2021…full of soot, salt and salt rocks. Ummm, what a great way to start this story about failure and success and hard decisions about sailboat exhaust systems.
Let’s go back to August of 2021….as we were trying to figure out why Tulum was having problems moving…as in NO VA (no go). We had been on and off the dock for two months at Puerto Escondido, Baja Mexico working with the only mechanic in the area to try to figure out the problem, going through a multitude of “mechanical fixes”…none of which helped the problem as it continued to get worse. Nigel Calder’s book (Marine Diesel Engine: Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair) pegged the problem as did another mechanic we contacted in La Paz…but we could not get back to get his help, the boat basically couldn’t move more than 3-4 kts at time. In retrospect, of course we could attribute it all to the ultimate problem (BACKPRESSURE) but we were not smart enough then. Eventually, as a last ditch effort the mechanic ran a HUGE flexible tube outta the engine room, disconnected the exhaust and like magic….things ran. Then we started checking the old exhaust and found it nearly completely clogged…ie: the picture above. After looking at alternatives, we decided to have a new metal system made by a welder known to the mechanic in Ciudad Insurgentes, BCS Mexico. We were promised that the entire system would be made of 316L steel but we didn’t have sure way of knowing it was, we had to trust the mechanic and the welder. We were also charged for the price of 316L steel.
After another 5 weeks of waiting on welding (on the dock), our new system arrived and was installed in late October of 2021. It worked perfect and ran great….we were finally underway south.
Fast forward 12 months and we were on the dock once more, having more updating and repair work done on Tulum’s shaft. As part of the work, the engine came out and then went back in….and an inspection was done on the exhaust system while the engine was out of the compartment. I had started noticing small rust and heat marks on weld patterns I could see, so I asked the welders here in Panama to take a look. As soon as the system was out of the boat on the dock I knew the system needed repair. I didn’t know that meant complete replacement until I took a close look….the shiny metal from the photo above had turned to rusty, salty crap. None of the problems were visible when the system was installed in the boat because all the problems had developed on the welds…which were on the underside of the tubes and nearly invisible when the system was installed in the boat. To add salt to the wound, there was writing on the underside of one of the pieces (invisible when installed) that clearly said, 304. This means that the metal that we were promised to be 316L was indeed 304 steel, not meant to be in a marine environment and much cheaper to buy than 316L. We had paid a premium for the 316L steel but clearly had been screwed by the welder. This is as much our fault as anyone else’s…we had authorized the work and it’s our boat, we made big boy/big girl decisions.
So our exhaust system is hosed….now what?
On top of the fact we were getting our shaft bearings re-bedded and fixed and had an engine in the salon of our boat…now we needed another exhaust system and our current system was not able to be put back in the boat. At the time, this was a kick in the nuts.
We wanted to put in the best system we could find, a system that would last a very long time. After doing research on 316L available in Panama and the US, it became apparent getting the right steel and having it welded would take a very long time at a high price. Even after contacting our friend Seth at Meglamfg in National City, Ca, we knew that using metal for the exhaust again probably wasn’t right….we needed to leap into the “now” and find a better solution than using metal for a marine application. After looking at an exhaust system on another boat, we suggested to the yard that we try to find a different solution than metal, focusing on modern exhaust solutions. Eventually we settled on an exhaust system from Vetus Marine. The advantages of buying from Vetus were myriad, as the yard used their technical team to spec the system and shipped it from Miami, a much faster route for shipping. After having to pay for the entire system up front…it arrived and work began. There have been hiccups with the installation, but mostly those have been overcome (exactly perfect parts are harder to get down here). Tulum has her third exhaust system in 12 months and hopefully her last system for the next 20 years.
We’ve installed a new, fully modern exhaust system sourced through professional consultation and we’re looking forward to not having to worry about it for a very long time.
I wrote this article in case others may want to see how we handled our older exhaust systems….in all the gory detail or, may want to ask questions about it all. In hindsight, perhaps we should have kept our original, bronze system and just had it cleaned out and put back in, but we’re waaay past that and highsight is always perfect on a sailboat.
This post isn’t written to play the blame game for our second exhaust system since we’ve moved on and we’re very over it. I think the mechanic who worked on our system in Puerto Escondido did a pretty damn good job…for doing the work in the extreme Baja heat with fewer resources than other mechanics. But, the steel just wasn’t right for a marine environment, nuff said.
We write and publish these posts from a cruising sailboat currently in Panama, still updating, improving and modernizing our boat. We LOVE to travel and we love to travel with kids so we welcome any questions or comments you might have…..throw them at us.
Wanna read one of the stories about last summer in Baja, check these out: