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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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The mysteries of a boat engine

Dr. David Scott descends to the engine room in his boat.

After Dr. David Scott refueled his boat at the Dowry Creek Marina yesterday morning, the ignition buttons on the control panel would not light. Without them, the engines could not be started.

The moment was both puzzling and frustrating, for Traveller, his 40-foot power boat, had run smoothly for the 4-mile trip from Belhaven to Dowry Creek. But once docked at the remote marina on the Pungo River in coastal North Carolina, nothing happened when Scott tried to activate the ignition for the dual Volvo Penta diesel engines. No red indicator lights. Nothing.

“Uh, oh,” Scott said.

He pushed the keypad several times but nothing happened. Then, just as mysteriously, the buttons lit. He pushed them, and then pushed the starter buttons, and a wonderful rumble came from beneath the boat.  We had power and were on our way to Manteo, N.C.

We made the 77-mile run without other troubles, but the incident reminded Scott how frustrating a boat engine can be. Scott said he had no idea why the ignition switches would not work or why they finally did. Despite 60 years’ experience on the water, and countless hours spent operating boat engines, he is humbled by them. They are powerful and usually reliable, but, at times, also unknowable.

Riding with him is to be with a man who acts as if he is always one strange thud, one odd smell, away from disaster. He is a captain of considerable skill, yet when under way and seated at the helm, he’s been known to whip his head around at a noise coming from the rear of the boat. 

“What was that?” he’ll say.

Scott does everything he can to ensure that Traveller works properly. He’s not afraid to get hot and dirty in the engine room, running through a list of daily engine checks: the level and clarity of the transmission fluid, the level of the oil, the tightness of the belts and the appearance of the fuel filters. He sniffs and peers at everything, motivated by the time he found a near disaster on one such check: three of the four bolts on one of the idler pulleys had worked loose.

Yesterday in Manteo while doing his check, he found a battery cable that was not snug against its post. He grabbed an adjustable wrench and tightened it. Was that the cause of the ignition failure that morning?

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Could be.”

With a boat, you’re never sure.

(Yesterday’s post in this series on Scott and his voyage on America’s Great Loop, with links to earlier articles, can be found here.)

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