We were motoring along in the Hawk Channel at 7 knots, just passing Key West. We’d left Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas that morning, and were bound for the Boca Chica marina at Key West Naval Air Station. We were trying to cross the main shipping channel in time to miss a large Coast Guard cutter that was getting underway. And then the engine, which had been purring along at 2,800 RPM all day, suddenly sputtered and dropped to idle. A few moments later, it died completely.
Rhonda and I looked at each other with our best shocked faces. Shifting into neutral and turning the key, the engine restarted, but we couldn’t bring it back up to cruise RPM. It would hold at about 1,500 RPM though, enough for us to make just a bit under 5 knots. “OK, we can work with this,” I said to Rhonda, as we limped toward the marina, fingers crossed. Fortunately, 5 knots was enough to get us clear of the shipping channel before the cutter needed to occupy the space we were using.
I was pretty sure I knew what had happened. We’d seen this before on our previous boat. It had all the hallmarks of a clogged fuel filter. Not surprising, really. After all, we’d been taking on fuel in Cuba, where you give the dock hands your empty jugs and some money and they return the jugs full later in the day. And we’d filled up in Mexico as well. And then our fuel tank contents had gotten pretty well agitated during several of our rolly passages.
Our Hunter 376 came from the factory with a Racor 110 fuel filter. It’s a small metal unit with a spin off bowl that’s quite a PITA to service underway.
A big lesson from our shakedown cruise was that we needed to install a bigger filter. Preferably one with a clear bowl so that we could visually monitor fuel quality, and one that wouldn’t be so difficult to service in a seaway. Dual filters would have been ideal, so that we could just switch over to a second unit in the event of an inopportune filter clog. But there wasn’t room in our engine compartment for a dual filter setup. I’m fine with just a single filter, however, as long as you can change the element in just a couple of minutes.
Here’s our solution. It’s a Racor 500FG turbine, which you may know is the go-to filter for most cruisers. As you can see, it just barely fit.
But it hit all the checkmarks. We can see the fuel to visually check on the amount of water or crud in the unit, and changing the element doesn’t require removing a bowl and dumping a pint of diesel fuel all over the place. We sprang for the optional vacuum gauge, so that we can monitor the filter’s condition over time. (FYI since we’re not a USCG inspected vessel, we weren’t required to use the model with the metal bowl shield. If none of the vinyl hoses or plastic cable covers on the engine are melting, then neither will our filter bowl).
The one remaining problem with our fuel system was that the fuel shutoff valve was located at the fuel tank. Reaching it requires emptying the starboard lazarette, removing a floor panel, and standing on your head. Not a lot of fun when you’re trying to do a quick filter change underway. To solve this issue, we added an inline valve just upstream of the new filter.
Now you can sit in one spot and shut the valve, remove the filter cover, pop out the old element and pop in a new one, and then crack the valve until the filter body is full of fuel. Screw the lid back down with the T handle, and you’re done!
Another lesson well learned from our shakedown cruise. Hopefully there will be no more fuel-related drama in our future!